October 26, 2012

Fountain Pen Day 2012

Oh, loyal readers, I'm so excited right now, I can barely remain conscious!  I just discovered that there is an annual celebration of my beloved favorite writing utensil--that's right, Fountain Pen Day approacheth!  It is apparently held on the first Friday of every November, which means that this year,

Fountain Pen Day is November 2, 2012!
My cup of joy really is overflowing at this point.  As long-time readers of this blog will remember, I dedicated an entire (lengthy) post once, just to rhapsodizing the only dignified way to communicate--the hand-written letter, crafted with a well-balanced, smoothly-flowing fountain pen.  (Feel free to take a moment and [re]-read that post now, Before All Things.  The title is a quote from the Qur'an: "Al-Qalam qabla kull shay" "The Pen was before all things.")

Photo by Michael de Silva

Still, one post hardly puts me in the same die-hard pen-blogger category as some of the people celebrating this event on their blogs.  The headquarters of this wonderful holiday, FountainPenDay.org, explains the event more fully, and has a list of those worthy pen bloggers who are taking part.  Be sure to pop over there and give them some love, too, especially if you're a true pen afficianado, as well.

October 25, 2012

Pathetic Fan Girl Dies Happy

And THIS is why I Tweet, people!  For all time, I now have documentary evidence that Richard Schiff, once "Toby Ziegler" of The West Wing, one of the members of my Crushes Hall of Fame, addressed me personally, even though he doesn't have a clue who I am and couldn't care less!  *gasp, scream, swoon, cue the closing credits*

2012 Reading Challenge Crunch Time

Friends, I don't know about you, but now that the weather is turning crisp and my daughter keeps telling me she wants a pumpkin costume for Hallowe'en, I'm suddenly lifting my head up as if I'd fallen asleep with my head on my desk at work, looking sleepily around me, and noticing that 2012 begins to grow old.  It's nearly November, for heaven's sake, and how far along have YOU gotten in all of your reading challenges?  Yes, it's a bewildering thought, isn't it?  For those 5 of you who have already finished and read 30 more books than you estimated on your Goodreads goal, Hermione would be proud.  For everyone else, you can cheer yourself up by checking out the following list of books that I'm supposed to finished between now and December 31st.  Even better, I have predictably left all the hardest ones until last.  Wish me luck, she said sardonically...

  • The Confessions of St. Augustine of Hippo
  • The Life of St. Columba by St. Adamnan of Iona
  • Ecclesiastical History of the English People by the Venerable Bede
  • History of the Franks by St. Gregory of Tours
  • Beowulf
  • History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth
  • Pastoral Care by Pope St. Gregory the Great
  • The Letters of Abelard and Heloise
  • Le Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory
  • The Alexiad of Anna Comnena
  • The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan

By Agatha Christie:
  • The Sittaford Mystery
  • The Golden Ball and Other Stories
  • Destination Unknown
  • Ordeal by Innocence

  • Arabella by Georgette Heyer
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
  • The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

By Debbie Macomber
  • 311 Pelican Court
  • 44 Cranberry Point
  • 50 Harbor Street
  • 6 Rainier Drive
  • 74 Seaside Avenue
  • 8 Sandpiper Way
  • 92 Pacific Boulevard
  • 1022 Evergreen Place
  • 1105 Yakima Street
  • 1225 Christmas Tree Lane

  • King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker
  • 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by H.G. Wells
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
  • The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
  • The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
  • The Odyssey by Homer
  • Angel Time by Anne Rice
  • The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett
  • The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly
  • Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
  • Princess Academy by Shannon Hale
  • The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart

So, that's all.  In two months.  Right.  It'll be the coldest day Hell's ever seen if I manage to finish it all in that amount of time.  But, I am still busily reading away on the list, believe it or not, and I mean to get through as much of it as I can.  Also, I've already bumped a couple of the items onto 2013's My Re-Education Challenge (they are written in purple in the list above).  I'll get them next year, if not this.  Of course, it was just the old story, wasn't it?  "The best laid plans"...  When I signed on to read all of this, I wasn't expecting to lose basically an entire year of my life to a mystery illness which we still have yet to diagnose.  The search goes on.  But I think I actually made a respectable showing, considering the actual percentage of 2012 I spent in hospital and emergency rooms!  On to 2013.

October 24, 2012

My Re-Education Reading Challenge

Faithful few readers, I'd like to tell you a little story, and ask you how you all think it should end.

Once upon a time, there was a girl who was raised as the daughter of a fundamentalist Southern Indiana Pentecostal preacher, who spent at least as much time in scary little fundamentalist schools as she did in public school--actually, a fair bit more, come to add it up.  She was assigned lots of readings describing an Earth that is only 6,000 years old, "proving" that dinosaurs and human beings once co-existed, and discussing how Noah's Ark is still stranded on a mountain in Turkey, but the mean Turkish government won't let a bunch of Americans climb around all over their mountain and prove it.  Curiously absent from the girl's reading were books written for children throughout the history of the English-speaking world, as well as classics not written for children that are usually assigned in school to teach students to stretch their minds and their critical thinking skills.  Not a single Shakespearean play, narry a mention of modern authors like Kafka or Virginia Woolf, none of the childhood favorites by Frances Hodgson Burnett managed to slip through the net of censorship cast around the girl's plastic young mind.

Some of these gaps were filled in when the young woman finally decided to attend a state-sponsored, liberal arts university.  By the time she finished her BA and three MAs, she'd read more Poe, more "Norton Anthologies," more about Yellow Wallpaper than she ever wanted to, really.  Nevertheless, the now 35-year-old book blogger is still finding books all the time about which her peers say, "Oh, yeah, I read that in high school!"  And in this season when a book blogger's fancy turns to thoughts of next year's reading challenges, this particular blogger is hoping to form a cooperative challenge with the help of her loyal readers.  Are you willing to help me in a "Re-Education Challenge"?

You guys are basically the bosses on this challenge, but I think we should set out a few basic ground rules, just to keep things running well and make sure I live up to the spirit of the thing.  So, here we go:

1.  You don't have to have a blog to challenge me; you just need to visit this blog and leave comments relating to my "Re-Education."

2.  Since this is supposed to be about exposing me to ideas that I should have encountered a long time ago, let's please restrict this to books that any well-educated American should have read before graduating high school.  In other words, if you cannot imagine HOW I've survived this long without reading 50 Shades of Grey, I'm sorry, but you still can't recommend it.  Any teacher who required his or her students to read a book about S&M would get quickly fired, and we all know it.  Still, I think this leaves you with a lot of leeway, anything from standard YA to Dickensian favorites.

3.  If by some miracle I already managed to read the book you suggest somewhere along the way, I won't be adding it to the challenge, because that would basically be me cheating, now wouldn't it?

4.  Limit 5 suggestions per contributor, please.  I'm setting the cut-off at 100 books, as I know I could never get through more than that in 2013.

5.  I reserve the right to reject anything that would simply give me too many nightmares, like Stephen King's It, which I have always known myself too well to ever try to read.  (Surely that wouldn't really fit the qualifications, anyway.)

So, come help out a poor, deprived, recovering fundamentalist and add your suggestions.  The suggestion box is open through December 31, 2012, after which I will gather the titles, weed through duplicates and ones I've already read, and announce the master list in a post.  You're welcome to read along, if you like, and leave us links to your own posts!  Meanwhile, I will update the list periodically, with reviews, as I plow my way through.

"The Coming of the Third Reich"

The next block of reviews from the backlog files represents a reading project that took up most of my spring this year, and captivated my brain the way few things have in quite a while.  It was certainly gruesome reading at times, and a warning from history par excellence, but as so many historians of sheer human lunacy have discovered, it has a terrifying, mezmerizing quality of its own, the account of a mass hysteria something like that which I imagine gripped the noose-wielding citizens of Salem, Massachusetts, who were victims as well, whether they realized it or not.

March 20, 2012

The Coming of the Third Reich
 by Richard J. Evans

This book possesses all the eerie, morbid fascination of a car crash that you can see coming from where you're sitting in your own car across the intersection, and since you know that there's nothing you can do to prevent it, you indulge your curiosity, telling yourself that you're doing so in order to give the police an accurate witness statement when they arrive.  Though you know full well what the outcome will be, you still experience the adrenaline rush and suspense of reading a thriller, or at least, I did.

Since my very first viewing of The Sound of Music at the age of about 10 (before which I'd been completely ignorant of Nazism), I have wondered where on earth this insane movement came from, and exactly what kind of occult powers it was able to exercise that allowed Hitler to surge into power, while the entire world stood by dumbfounded.  I was also curious to learn how Adolf Hitler cooked up his psychotic ideas about the Jews.  This is the book on the subject that I was waiting to read.

How disappointingly mundane the facts of the Nazi rise to power proved to be.  No magic--just Hitler and Goebbels discovering how to herd people's mental processes around like so many unruly cattle.  In early 20th-century Germany, and much of Europe generally, Hitler's antisemitism was unusual only in its level of vitriol.  Basically, the whole world just really was that gullible, and Hitler really was that bitter because no one had ever decided he was a genius and given him a glittering career as an artist.  How pathetic. 

Evans' account of the miserable tale, however, is masterfully written, and I can highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in this time period or just well-crafted histories.  Before you dive in, however, be aware (and the author points this out in the foreword) that this volume covers only the period up to Hitler's election as chancellor of Germany; this is a trilogy, each section of which can stand on its own, in my opinion, if you're only interested in reading about one specific period of Nazi history.  However, I recommend the whole experience, especially if you're fairly new to certain portions of it, as I was.  Chilling, but very eye-opening.

October 11, 2012

A Review of "At Home in Mitford"

Another review from the files for you today, and one that was particularly satisfying when I was finally able to bury it in my Victory Garden.  Why, you may ask, was I so especially thrilled with myself when I actually finished this book?  First of all, it was the first (and thus far only) book I'd read for Book Dragon's Lair's Getting Lost in a Comfortable Book challenge.  But more importantly, this was my FOURTH ATTEMPT to get into and all the way through this book.  I don't know what stopped me the first three times; I'm just pleased that I finally managed it.

March 8, 2012

At Home in Mitford
by Jan Karon

I really LOVED this book.  I sort of have to laugh at myself for loving it, considering that it's a little meandering, that one of the main characters is a little annoying, and that the whole "town that time forgot" theme is MORE than a little improbable.  But I loved it all the same.  It's just so comfy and cozy and wholesome.  Reading it is kind of like spending an evening soaking in a bubble-laden bath, snuggling up in flannels and hand-knitted socks before a lovely fire, and then slipping away to sleep between cool, clean sheets.  In other words, it doesn't get much snugglier than this book.

Fr. Timothy is an Episcopal priest, the rector of Lord's Chapel in the hills of Mitford, North Carolina.  The tiny southern town has its requisite share of odd and quirky "characters," beautiful gardens and small shops.  "Where everybody knows your name" kind of thing.  There's a bit more Evangelicalism in the book than I would prefer, but I still enjoyed the discussions of liturgical Episcopalianism.  Like so many other things in Mitford, a visit to Lord's Chapel is like using a time machine, with its portrait of the Madonna and Child and its regular application of incense.  Really, that's one of the nicest things about the whole experience.

On a personal note, I found Fr. Tim's struggles to adjust to his diagnosis of diabetes heartening, as I'm still battling with that same adjustment myself.  He gave me some hope to keep trying.

October 07, 2012

A Review of "The Casual Vacancy"

The Casual Vacancy
by J.K. Rowling

I finished this book in a mad dash at 4:00 a.m. this morning.  It is now nearly 10:00 p.m., and after giving myself the whole day to process it, I have to sit down and review it while it's still a fresh wound on my mind.  I don't use the word "wound" in an entirely perjorative sense; after all, when a surgeon recently repaired a hernea for me, I was very grateful to have him do so.  However, the large incision he made in the process was certainly a wound nonetheless.  And honestly, I'm still not sure how grateful I am to J.K. Rowling for the experience of The Casual Vacancy, but certainly not as grateful as I was to my surgeon.  Of that I have no doubt whatever.

All of us knew going in that there would be no magic or centaurs or floo powder in this book.  We wished we were wrong about that, but we knew that we weren't, and that all the publicity for this book had pointedly reminded us over and over that this is Rowling's first book solely for ADULTS.  Yet my overriding impression throughout most of the book was that this book was for Rowling what Equus was for Daniel Radcliffe--it was as if she wanted to shock, to prove that she does know stronger swear words than, "Bloody hell!", and is aware that teenagers actually have sex every day all over the world.

The language of this book is extremely crude.  I never met a swear word I didn't love, and I routinely ruffle people's feathers before I remember that not everyone employs the full force of the English language in ordinary, dispassionate conversation.  So, I really wasn't that bothered by the language, but I know many, many people who would never have survived past the first chapter or two.  They would have been desperate to bleach their brains.  The much greater challenge for me was the actual content of the book.  Nearly everything that took place from start to finish was on a scale of negativity ranging from unpleasant to totally horrific.  Until the very end, there's hardly a single character that you can actually like.  It is just an unrelenting onslaught of hateful human thought and behavior and depressing, tragic events.  If the book had been by almost ANY other author, I would've given up in disgust very early on.

Here's why I didn't.  There were several moments in the last three or four Harry Potter books at which I thought, "Oh, my gosh!  She's finally let the whole thing get away from her.  My favorite series is about to jump the frigging shark!!"  She always pulled it off in the end.  After the genuinely epic Harry Potter saga, I had learned to trust J.K. Rowling.  Implicitly.  So I barrelled on through this tale of woe, often thinking to myself, "I am used to your writing always ending with an absolutely life-affirming larger message.  How on EARTH are you going to manage that in these last 100 pages, Jo?!"

I'll be damned if she didn't manage it in the end.  I was absolutely gob-smacked that she pulled it out of the fire, but she did.  I kept thinking that in order to try and put a decent ending on this long, drawn-out tragedy, she'd have to make people change so much and behave so completely out of character that she'd just be blowing sunshine up our asses, and it would be completely unbelievable.  But let us never forget that when all is said and done, the woman can WRITE!  My God, she can write, and she managed it in the end.  I think the only question will be whether that ultimate payoff will be big enough for others who wade through all the misery to get to it.  For me, it was--barely.

October 05, 2012

Best Served Cold

This blog (and its blogger!) supports PBS and all our friends at Sesame Street, both morally and financially!

They helped me learn to read; they taught my daughter her whole alphabet and how to count to 20 by the time she turned 3 years old.  The legacy of Jim Henson, Frank Oz, and a host of other dedicated performers is a sacred trust, placed into the loving hands of delighted children for nearly 50 years now.  Even more importantly, PBS grows up with its youngest viewers, continuing to be the only trustworthy news source in this country today.  Mr. Romney, you drew the ire of the powerful Geek Community with your disrespect, and you MESSED WITH THE WRONG BIRD!

However, I appreciate the reminder that I needed to send in my payment for the pledge I made earlier this year, so thanks for that.  Meanwhile, fellow Geeks, book bloggers, concerned Americans, let us make the best response possible to this outrageous attack on our yellow-feathered friend--a MASSIVE donation to PBS!

October 02, 2012

With a Little Help From My Friends, or The Giraffe Thing

As I'm having a flare-up this week--complete with trip to ER last night--there seems no more appropriate time to introduce all of my faithful readers to a dear new friend of mine.  First, however, you'll need a bit of backstory. *special, fade-ish effects on the screen as we step back into my childhood*

When I was a baby, the first toy I ever received was a stuffed giraffe.  Considering that he was made in the 1970's, he was actually quite a realistic looking giraffe, and I loved him dearly.  He remained a good friend and companion long enough for me to name him when I began to speak--I called him Gerri-raffe.  Obviously, I was just trying to say the word "giraffe" and wasn't yet able to accomplish it at 2, but the name stuck, and to this day, I still have my Gerri-raffe.  (Unfortunately, he's in a box packed away right now, and I'm in no condition to fetch him out to take a picture for you, but you know the kind of thing--yellowish, long neck, brown spots, weird fuzzy protrusions on the top of the head.)

Photo by Hans Hillewaert

Flash forward to last week, and the SuperToddler and I were shopping in Barnes and Noble.  Well, I say shopping, but actually, she was busily playing with their model train display while I enjoyed the chance to sit down in a spot where I could keep a direct eye on her while playing Yatzee on my iPod.

All of a sudden, my eye fell upon the most adorable little giraffe I've ever seen (although to be fair, she looks far less like a REAL giraffe than my old friend Gerri-raffe does).  I had noticed the display of My Blue Nose Friends many times, and always thought they were very sweet, but on this day, it just struck me that I needed this little giraffe in my life.  I had a feeling that a flare-up was slowly building, and I thought to myself, "When I'm having to spend the day drugged and wallowed down into my recliner under my blanket, she will make a perfect little comfort animal for me."  And she does.

Don't you just LOVE her little patches?  And it's very fitting that she has one right on her tummy.  It was those patches that really made me decide I had to have a Blue Nose Friend, because they all have them, and naturally, when I discovered there was a giraffe, she was the one I picked.  Like me, she's not all brand-new-shiny-show-room-perfect; she's seen some hard knocks in her life, been patched and repaired (or at least, she was made to look like it), and I thought, "How fitting!  We may not be as young or as healthy as we once were, little giraffe, but we can hang in there together, can't we?"  Her tag says that her name is Twiggy, which I immediately tried to deny because it reminds me of the stick-figure modeling star of the 1960's who went by that name.  Too late!  As soon as I saw it on the tag, the name stuck in my brain as an adorable handle for a sweet little stuffed giraffe, and so she is Twiggy, and ever more shall be.  I periodically have to remind the SuperToddler that the "sweet little giraffe" belongs to Mommy, and may only be played with in very short, careful turns, but other than that, Twiggy has settled very quickly and comfortably into our home.  As I said, she didn't arrive any too soon.

October 01, 2012

Banned Books Week 2012

Faithful readers, it is once again the time of year when we announce proudly that we will make our OWN choices about what we read, thank you very much. One of the most popular and longest-running slogans for Banned Book Week has been simply, "I read banned books!" No doubt you've seen it on posters, t-shirts, pins and bumper stickers, and whether you know it or not, it's as true of you as it is of anyone who purposely walks around wearing it.  That fact was driven home to me very sharply when I consulted some of the websites available on Banned Books Week, and discovered that some of my favorites were considered indecent or dangerous by busybodies somewhere in this country.

If you've read much of this blog within the past year, you know that I experienced a profound connection with The Hunger Games on a number of levels.  Most important among them is the fact that my family ORIGINATED in District 12 (i.e. Appalachia), and I thought Suzanne Collins did an excellent job portraying how difficult life was--and too often still is--in one of the nation's most poverty-stricken regions. While I freely admit that the books are rather hard-core, I was still shocked to discover that The Hunger Games was among the top 10 most often banned books last year.  And of course, we all know how much I adore Harry Potter, and what a furor there was when those books first came out and offended, HORRIFIED, so many Fundamentalists (including me at the time, to my undying shame).  Suddenly I realize how easily those excellent books could have been taken away from me, how much I would've missed out on if people who support censorship had their way.  It's scary to think about, and makes me even more determined to fight for the universal right to read what we please.  Hopefully, it will be a truly UNIVERSAL right for everyone on Earth someday.
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