Bookshelf Tour! - Vlog - Part 1

In this first episode, I'll be going through some books on my physical to-read (and to-reread!) shelf. There's all kinds of classics here, from Jane Eyre and The Count of Monte Cristo, to Emily Dickinson and William Faulkner. Also present are a few history books and fiction based on historical events. Enjoy, and let me know if you've read any of these!

P. S. Sorry for the shaky video and abrupt transitions (didn't know there was a fifteen minute was better before the final edit, alas). Next time methinks I'll get a tripod.

Bruch's Violin Concerto - A Classical Cousin

In the spring of 1866, Max Bruch's first violin concerto was debuted by celebrity violinist Joseph Joachim.  Its auspicious beginnings paved the way for its permanent success; the concerto is still popular (here it's played by my favorite violinist, Gil Shaham).  Bridging a gap wider than 150 years, Bruch's passionate melodies still have the ability to move us, bringing to heart a time period that can feel distant in pictures or even on paper.

For comparison's sake, I found a Goodreads book list called "Popular 1860s Books."  It's really astounding to see so many famous books there, at a glance.  High on the list is, of course, Little Women, whose recent Masterpiece Classic adaptation I've enjoyed watching on PBS (tomorrow is the conclusion!).

Clearly great classics of art and literature did not appear within a vacuum.  I'd love to think a writer somewhere in Bruch's audience was inspired by the story he tells with this piece.

A Fistful of Dollars - An Outsider's Review

Mild disclaimer...I'm what you would call a "casual" Western fan.  I've read very few Westerns, and my viewing experience has been largely of the vintage variety, ranging from John Wayne classics to more obscure TV series, like my all-time favorite, The Virginian.  I've mostly avoided heavier fare, a la The Revenant, and to be honest, the first Western I liked was a Gary Cooper comedy called Along Came Jones (1945).

Gary Cooper in Along Came Jones trailer
Gary Cooper's lovably dorky Melody Jones

The above makes me particularly ill-qualified to review Westerns as an overall genre.  But since watching A Fistful of Dollars (1964) with my parents last night, I thought I'd share some first impressions of an early Clint Eastwood film.  (Note: my "first" first impression of Eastwood was his film The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), which was too gritty for me to really enjoy.)

A Fistful of Dollars is the first of director Sergio Leone's famous "Dollars" trilogy, three "spaghetti Westerns" so-called due to being Italian films set in the American Old West.  Thirty-something Clint Eastwood stars as the American protagonist, the "Man with No Name" who shows up in the town of San Miguel with a gun, a horse, and his signature poncho.  He finds himself in the middle of a family feud between the fierce Rojo family and the less-fierce Baxter family, neither side particularly pleased to have a stranger intruding on the drama.  Meanwhile, a mysterious woman named Marisol and a traumatized little boy draw the Man further into the conflict and the darker side of the Rojos.

This is one of those "iconic" films which is all genre and no story.  Ok, there's a story... but it's told in tropes and archetypes.  Here you won't find the moral dilemmas of The Virginian, nor even the psychological depth of Wayne's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. We have Evil Guys, Good Guys, and a Small Town - oh, and of course, the Superman figure.

To be fair, what Eastwood creates here is his own archetype, one he became famous for.  Cool-headed, lanky, and with a dry sense of humor, he is an echo of Wayne, clearly from the same "family" but not a twin.  A sense of ambiguity and pragmatism surrounds the Man with No Name.  He makes no promises, and he has no expectations.  With minimalist dialogue, the Man makes his position clear nonetheless; he is on his own side, living and killing by a set of morals which are partly learned yet partly self-defined.

Rojo and his henchman, quintessential villains

What saves the film from being purely violence is Marisol's subplot.  Another layer of the Man's character unfolds as he witnesses her plight, and without saying too much, I felt it added some depth to an otherwise shallow tale.  It would hardly be a Western without a damsel in distress, but in the context of A Fistful of Dollars, the role of a "weak" female character is well understood by the grim setting, as well as balanced by her male counterparts, the innkeeper and the coffin maker.

Overall: 3.5 out of 5 stars.  Contains some violence, equivalent to modern PG-13.

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

Michael Llewelyn Davies as Peter Pan
Michael Llewelyn Davies as Peter Pan - Photo by J. M. Barrie

Peter Pan - immortal, magical, and forever lonely - has his origins in a novella called Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906).  This little story predates the more famous novel Peter and Wendy by some years (the latter I reviewed in my latest podcast episode "Getting Older with Peter Pan").  Like his fictional contemporary Sherlock Holmes, Peter Pan was both a real-life figure and a figment of imagination, a character who would haunt his author for decades.  There are glimpses of this bittersweet legacy in Kensington Gardens, itself an excerpt of a larger novel, The Little White Bird.  Through this iterative story development, one easily senses J. M. Barrie's personal connection to the Peter Pan mythos.

The tale begins with an anonymous father-figure and a boy named David who take walks in London's famous Kensington Gardens.  The narrative drifts from a conversational discussion of the Gardens (and how children like to play there) to the two "remembering" the time Peter Pan first came to live there.  Like all great oral traditions, "Peter Pan" starts as a story that David and the narrator make-believe, later becoming a fully fledged legend in the vein of Robin Hood - someone you are not quite sure is fictional. 

Kensington Gardens in the winter - Photo by Sandpiper

Apart from the day he left his mother for life as a bird-child, Peter Pan's most momentous day is when Maimie Mannering gets stuck in Kensington Gardens after "Lock-Out."  Both somewhere under six years old, Maimie is scarcely older than Peter, but she knows far more about the outside world than he does.  Maimie is the prototype for Wendy, and like Wendy she has a great fascination with fairies, who don't immediately return the courtesy.  Peter, in any case, loves Maimie and asks her to stay with him in the Gardens forever.
She had shut her eyes tight and glued them with passionate tears. When she opened them something very cold ran up her legs and up her arms and dropped into her heart. It was the stillness of the Gardens.
Kensington Gardens is a strange medley of themes.  On the one hand, the conversational tone takes on the air of folklore and the making of a classic fairytale.  On the other, there is all of the poignancy and ghostlike qualities of Peter and Wendy without nearly as much of the humor.  Plotwise, the two stories overlap, but they are essentially different, because one shows us Peter in his "prime" - leader of a gang of boys - and the other is Peter in his babyhood, quite literally a young child and therefore needy.

Peter Pan Put his strange case before old Solomon Caw
Peter Pan and the crow - Arthur Rackham

Of the two stories, I would start with Kensington Gardens if the Victorian Gothic appeals to you (the ending is bizarrely morbid) or if you like the deeper nuances which come with such stories as The Jungle Book.  For those who prefer a lighter read, Peter and Wendy balances pathos with a vivid, if somewhat dated, sense of humor and breathtaking adventure.

Dewey's 24 Hour Readathon - Hourly Updates, April 2018 edition

Hour 19
The good news - I finished The Castle!

The bad news...I wasn't expecting it to be such a struggle.  Can you believe, I was ready to give up on it, with just 10% or less left?  It was pretty terrible.

However, The Castle was on my to-finish backlog since freshman or sophomore year in college, so I am very excited to have read it all the way through, even if it was painful.

Anyways, after that, I found myself looking around for something "lighter" to read.  Only I could choose Eugene Onegin as "lighter" fare.  But I love this story - you might remember my Eugene Onegin Read-Along from a few years back.  Roger Clarke's translation is new to me, and it's already proving to be interesting.

This might be my last blog check-in for the night... I may post some more on Instagram later, though, depending how long I can keep my eyes open.  Thanks to all who've stopped by and offered encouragement - it's been fun!

Hour 13

After a scrumptious lunch (Teriyaki!), I took a short nap to offset the effects of getting up earlier and having to work today.  I also read some more of The Castle... as I mentioned on my Instagram, it's kind of a "meh" read.  I'll be happy to get to the end of it.  

I have about 17% left and fully intend to finish The Castle before the end of this Readathon, but I'm taking a break now and looking at picking up either The Island of Dr. Moreau (yes, unplanned) or CEO, China.

Hope it's going well for everyone else still - hang in there!  :)

Hour 10

Due to an emergency at work, I lost about 4 hours of reading time while working from home...

On the bright side, I had already done a decent bit of reading, with both The Kill and The Castle.
  • I am getting major creepy vibes from The Kill (so many creepers in this story), but also enjoying the history lesson as I learn about the Second Empire, of which I knew basically nothing before this book.
  • The Castle is also starting to get more interesting with the side-plot of Amalia standing up to Klamm (also a creeper). 
I'm going to back to The Castle now - I think I have a good chance of actually finishing it!

Hour 3

Joining in already 2 hours into the event... hey, that's better than last year.  :)

I'll be updating this post throughout the event, so stay tuned... Also, please check out for more updates!

Opening Meme
1) What fine part of the world are you reading from today?
At home in the PNW, listening to the rain fall lightly on the roof.  <3

2) Which book in your stack are you most looking forward to?
Pretty much all of them!  Ok, ok, that's not the answer you were looking for... if I had to pick one, then it's CEO, China, because I've missed reading it, while trying to finish The Castle.

3) Which snack are you most looking forward to?
I made some Peach Green Tea Lemonade yesterday, the first of the season!

4) Tell us a little something about yourself!
I wrote about the time I first got a library card - well, I still have that library card.  The plastic coating is starting to flake off and it looks incredibly sad, but I refuse to part with it.

5) If you participated in the last read-a-thon, what’s one thing you’ll do different today? If this is your first read-a-thon, what are you most looking forward to?
Today I'm going "all in" (or at least, my version of it)...I have the entire day set aside for reading, woke up 2 hours earlier, and intend to stay up later.  More importantly, I plan to switch books frequently if I'm not having fun.  :)

My Blog's Name in Books - TBR!

Saw this neat meme/tag on O's blog, On Bookes:

The rules:
1. Spell out your blog’s name.
2. Find a book from your TBR that begins with each letter. (Note you cannot ADD to your TBR to complete this challenge – the books must already be on your Goodread’s TBR)
3. Have fun! 

Nostromo by Joseph Conrad
On the Eve by Ivan Turgenev
Open Heart by Elie Wiesel
The Normal Christian Life by Watchman Nee
The Last Days of Pompeii by Edward Bulwer-Lytton
The Inheritors by William Golding
Getting to Green: Saving Nature: A Bipartisan Solution by Frederic C. Rich
Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds
Either/Or by Soren Kierkegaard
Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald
Death and the Dervish by Mesa Selimovic
Shackleton's Boat Journey by Frank Worsley

With 500+ TBR books, this was easier than perhaps it should be.  I tried to choose a mix of fiction and nonfiction, and ended up surprising myself with a few titles I'd forgotten about (whoops!).

And now the moment of truth... have any of you read any of these books?  Which would you recommend?!

Dewey's 24 Hour Readathon: TBR stack, April 2018

Carl Spitzweg 021
It's that happy time of year again, the biannual Dewey's 24 Hour Readathon!  I am somewhat of a casual participant, in that I don't get up at 5am and I do let myself take long breaks.  Even so, it's still great fun!

As ever, I'll be posting updates to Instagram and Goodreads.

The lineup:
Finish The Kill / Emile Zola
Finish The Castle / Franz Kafka - library ebook & can't renew!
CEO, China / Kerry Brown
Ben-Hur / Lew Wallace
The Undead / Dick Teresi

Stretch goals:
Something off my "short books" list
Little Women / Louisa May Alcott - reread
The Sickness Unto Death / Soren Kierkegaard
Philosophy 101 / Paul Kleinman
Various books for work

In other news, I am gearing up for Season 2 of Classics Considered.  April has been far, far too busy and short... I'd meant to release at least one episode this month but could not make it happen.  Anyways, from this list you can see a sneak peek of things to come.  I am finally going to be talking about Kafka and am way too excited about that...

A King, a Boy, and a Sailor's Wife - Three Films of WWII

The past couple of weeks, I've enjoyed three very interesting, yet vastly different, films which take place during or leading up to World War II.  I haven't shared a movie review in a while, so I thought I'd just mention these before I forgot about them.

First up is The King's Choice, a Norwegian film released in 2016.  This historical drama begins with the disturbing attack on Norway by the Nazis, who justify the invasion by claiming to offer "protection" against the British.  From there, the movie centers on the response of its government and, more especially, the role of the aging King Haakon VII in what became the resistance movement.

I can't speak for historical accuracy, since I came into this knowing nearly nothing about Norway during WWII.  As a drama, it kept my family and me glued to the screen for its whole 2+ hours, and that's with (somewhat poorly formatted) subtitles.  The acting (including the extras') is some of the very best I have seen in recent historical dramas.  The score is also incredible, and the emotive script takes you through the events with a sort of "real-time" effect.  This film cost a mere fraction of Spielberg's Lincoln, yet I felt the production values were stronger here.

The King's Choice is a well-made movie, but more than that, it's a good story.  Haakon's choice is easier for the viewer to "make" in hindsight; in spite of that, the movie avoids too much glorification of the king and instead focuses on his dilemma, which is far from straightforward.  We see the suffering of the Norwegians through the soldier Fredrik Seeberg, barely a man when the war begins.  On the other side, there is the diplomat Curt Bräuer, whose good intentions succumb to his Nazi loyalties as he pressures the king to work with Germany.  Should Haakon surrender Norway to the Germans, or should he refuse, knowing the alternative is the death of boys like Frederik?  There is really no good choice, and even by the end of the film, the viewer is left debating what s/he would do in the situation.

For history buffs, this is an enthralling epic, with a mature screenplay that avoids gratuitous violence or other unnecessary scenes.  I highly recommend The King's Choice to anyone looking for this kind of movie, and it is free right now on Amazon Prime.

Speaking of Steven Spielberg, I just watched his Empire of the Sun (1987) for the second time the other day.  At 2.5 hours, this is one of those meaty films you'll want to re-watch in order to digest it.

This film is based on a semi-autobiographical novel by James G. Ballard, who spent his early childhood as a British foreigner in Shanghai.  Young Christian Bale stars as the protagonist Jamie Graham, a privileged and somewhat spoiled child whose life is turned inside-out when the Japanese invade the city.  Separated from his parents, Jamie begins his new struggle for survival, from the miserable hazards of the Shanghai streets to the hunger and brutality of the internment camp.  Through it all, he never loses the one thing which he still keeps from his past: his fascination with flight.

This is the ultimate historical drama, simply because you can analyze it from many different angles.  On the surface, there is the coming-of-age story, where Jamie finds a more powerful version of himself through an endless string of heartaches and hardships.  Upon re-watch, however, I felt there were many nuances in the film which made it more ambiguous and disturbing the second time.

To be clear, there is little or nothing graphic in Empire of the Sun, beyond some brief violence.  But the script does not really force a conclusion upon you, and instead it leaves psychological layers in the plot which lend more grim reality to the circumstances, even when they seem surrealistic.  There are glimpses of Peter Pan and even Lord of the Flies here, among an assortment of cultural and social contrasts.  I found it, even the second time, to be really fascinating.

Lastly, if you are looking for an interesting documentary, PBS's recent American Experience episode, "The Island Murder," is worth checking out.  (It's actually a re-release of an older episode called "The Massie Affair," retitled for obvious reasons.)  This documentary covers events that happened in 1931–32, the interwar period where political and social conflicts were fraught with hints of the impending conflict.

"The Island Murder" is about a young Navy wife, Thalia Massie, who claimed she had been gang raped by some Honoluluan men.  It's not a spoiler to say this is basically "To Kill a Mockingbird with a bad ending," as that's only the beginning - things get worse from there. Massie's mother, Grace Fortescue, plots to take revenge on her daughter's behalf, and from that point on, the lives of the five accused men are at the mercy of Mrs. Fortescue and the due process which is supposed to bring them justice.

Despite having visited Honolulu and read pieces of its history in the museums, I had never heard of this case.  It offers a concrete glimpse at some of the injustices Hawaiians have suffered, in ways both direct and unintended.  As far as pertains to WWII, the film seemed to imply that some of the figures of the day might have tolerated such injustices for the sake of reducing Japanese influence.  It is sickening to think what crimes have been supposedly "justified" by wartime (or interwartime) decisions.

It is not an easy film to watch, but watch "The Island Murder" for some perspective and thought-provoking material.  There is also a book by one of the interviewees - Honor Killing: Race, Rape, and Clarence Darrow's Spectacular Last Case - which appears may provide the sources for much of the information.

Xi Jinping and the Addictive Quality of Biographies

Apologies for my two weeks' radio silence...  Work has been intense, so I haven't mustered up the energy to blog until this weekend.  Happily, I've been reading, and there is plenty to catch up on!

My current obsession reading focus is an unlikely one: CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping (2016) by Kerry Brown.  I picked this up last Saturday and just ordered my own hard copy - yes, it's that interesting.

Brown is a professor at King's College, as well as a contributor to The Diplomat.  This combination of academia and journalism means his writing carries the best of both worlds and is well annotated, particularly for a book geared towards the general public.  (One or two reviewers complained he is too challenging to read... from my perspective, Brown's prose is more digestible than Michael Korda's, no offense to Korda.)

To be sure, the well-written biography is my favorite way to consume history.  There's several reasons for this:
  1. Certain individuals influence history (obviously).  Therefore, we should know about them.
  2. An individual's life puts a human face on what can be dry historical information.
  3. A biography typically employs the natural narrative structure - birth, life, and death.  This means you have clear pacing in a history book which otherwise could (arguably) begin and end anywhere.
  4. For me, it is easier to retain information absorbed in the context of a personal timeline vs. an impersonal timeline.
My current gold standard of biographies is A Prince of Our Disorder by John E. Mack, which I reviewed in some detail a couple of years ago.  Mack's documentation and tone proved to be a harmonious combination for tackling one of the most enigmatic figures in recent history.

Another one worth mentioning is Evita: The Real Life of Eva Peron.  I gave it a low rating for the sparse sources and so-so writing; nevertheless, I still own the book because it offers chilling insights on the power of mass media in tandem with cult-like political personalities.  Of course, one could read about that in a number of history books, but through the lens of Eva's tumultuous life, I could remember much I might otherwise have forgotten.

CEO, China is perhaps the first biography I've read that is in present tense.  Brown's thesis is that Xi runs China like the CEO of a corporation, and part of the (somewhat unsettling) thrill of reading this book is the fact we are watching his career unfold in real-time.  Only time can tell the end result of all these happenings; in the meantime, I'm hoping to gain some background insight from biographies like this.

The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea

Statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il
by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, [CC BY-SA 3.0]

A man with a wife and family, Bandi risked all he had to publish this book. When his relative offered to help smuggle the manuscript out of the country, he chose to accept, ultimately trusting his and his family's lives to the success of the plan.  Handing the secret pages over to the liaison must have been agonizing, but his gamble paid off: the book survived the journey out.

Bandi, much like Jang Jin-Sung, held a position of literary eminence in North Korea.  Disillusioned by what he saw in the Kim Il-Sung regime, Bandi decided to start writing the truth in secret, placing himself in potentially fatal danger.  The Accusation is a collection of short stories penned in the early-to-mid 90s, in which Bandi exposed Communist abuses through fiction and the lives of characters who feel more real than imagined.  The book was first published in English hardcover edition in 2017, and the spare yet vivid writing suggests Bandi could have shared more, had he had the ability to do so.

After finishing The Accusation, I did not find there was really one story that stood out greatly above the others.  Instead, read together they make a cohesive volume, really a single tale told from seven perspectives.  Familial love, suffering, and terror are the common threads running throughout the book.  In this you find the reality faced by Bandi and many others - a reality horrible even in at its simplest moments. 

For example, he emphasizes that even people supposedly in good standing with the Communist Party can be found guilty of disloyalty.  "Crimes" sometimes originate in the most innocuous circumstances, such failure to succeed with Party-dictated farming methods:
Using greenhouses to raise rice seedlings was utterly alien to those who worked the land... And that was how my father came to make his terrible mistake, the mistake that was to see him branded an "anti-Party, antirevolutionary element," a black mark that appeared overnight but that would dog our family for generations.
The shame pronounced by the Party upon such a family is not just a label - it becomes a social stigma enforced by the community (perhaps out of fear for themselves).  In "Record of a Defection," the female narrator experiences this horror in several different forms, leading her to desperation.  The same fear colors the angry outburst from father to son in "On Stage," a story about how North Koreans are compelled to fake it and "act" in their everyday lives.

From the treachery of a neighbor to the destructive power of a hungry mob, these stories show the layer-by-layer presence of propaganda and terror throughout North Korean society.  There is nothing really explicit in this book, which is what makes it chilling.  You can see easily how a radical ideology transformed a nation, bestowing both monolithic fear and energetic evil.  Those two elements feed off of each other until someone takes a stand, choosing freedom of conviction over survival itself. 

Some of Bandi's poems, which were part of the manuscript, have yet to be published in English.  I hope that will happen soon; I was very moved by the two poems which bookend this collection.  Particularly haunting is this description of Marx in the first:
That old man of Europe with his bristling beard
Claimed that capitalism is a pitch-black realm
While communism is a world of light.
In 2004, Jang completed his escape from the DPRK.  "Bandi," however - whose real identity we may never know - is still living there, and, possibly, still writing stories and poetry of what he knows, not just of what he is told.  His book alone escaped and tragically remains as relevant in 2018 as it was when he wrote the stories over two decades ago.

Ben-Hur - 1: "The happiness of love is in action..."

Previously: Introduction

Lew Wallace age 21
The happiness of love is in action; its test is what one is willing to do for others.

Lawyer, soldier, governor, and diplomat, Lew Wallace seems the unlikely writer of one of the most successful Christian-themed novels of Western literature.  It may help to realize that Wallace did not consider himself religious at the time he began the book, though he was open to further learning and particularly fascinated by the story of the three wise men.  While the internet was nonexistent and foreign travel not as easily done in the 1870s, Wallace's education as a law student must have helped him in his extensive, careful research, just as it may have aided Jules Verne in crafting his stories of travel and adventure.

With this interesting mix of experience and self-admitted ignorance, Wallace begins Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ with what intrigued him from the beginning: the birth of Jesus.  Book I covers the meeting of the wise men, the coming of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, and the events of the first Christmas night, where Jesus as the Messiah is born and His arrival is revealed to the shepherds.

Three Wise Men 06286u original

Like many historical fiction writers, Wallace takes some liberties by providing a backstory for each wise man.  For instance, two out of three of them do not originate from the East, but rather a bit westward, Greece and Egypt.  To compensate, he has all three wise men meeting for the first time in the East, presumably Arabia, where the two are joined by Melchior, who is a former Hindu in this telling.  I found this to be an interesting approach, not because I believe it occurred in this way (it seems unlikely), but because Wallace uses the three cultures to make a point.  Each man relates his philosophical or religious beliefs to the others, then explains what his lacked and how he responded to God's calling.

In this way, we may be seeing a glimpse of Wallace himself at this point in his life.  Like him, the wise men are yet imperfect in their understanding - in one scene, Balthasar the Egyptian describes salvation to Herod as to be brought about by "the divine agencies - Faith, Love, and Good Works," not knowing, perhaps, of the Crucifixion to come.  As Balthasar is a recurring character, it remains to be seen whether he comes to that realization later on.

In any case, the wise men here are portrayed as real and down-to-earth characters, and this possible backstory is, if not probable, at least a thought-provoking one.  I have always wondered about the wise men myself, and it's inspiring to remember that they, in spite of their Gentile backgrounds, were among the first to know of Jesus' birth.

The remainder of Book I is focused on world-building, showing the reader Jerusalem under Roman occupation.  Though it was a bit slow at times, I found myself nonetheless amazed by the immensity of detail.

StJohnsAshfield StainedGlass GoodShepherd Portrait
Stained glass: Alfred Handel, d. 1946[2],
photo:Toby Hudson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

My very favorite description, I think, is that of the shepherds.  Here Wallace illustrates the "Good Shepherd," the imagery which is significant at Jesus's birth and throughout His life.

Such were the shepherds of Judea! In appearance, rough and savage as the gaunt dogs sitting with them around the blaze; in fact, simple-minded, tender-hearted; effects due, in part, to the primitive life they led, but chiefly to their constant care of things lovable and helpless.

They rested and talked, and their talk was all about their flocks, a dull theme to the world, yet a theme which was all the world to them. If in narrative they dwelt long upon affairs of trifling moment; if one of them omitted nothing of detail in recounting the loss of a lamb, the relation between him and the unfortunate should be remembered: at birth it became his charge, his to keep all its days, to help over the floods, to carry down the hollows, to name and train; it was to be his companion, his object of thought and interest, the subject of his will; it was to enliven and share his wanderings; in its defense he might be called on to face the lion or robber - to die.
Though perhaps unconventional in its scope, Book I establishes a strong foundation for the rest of Ben-Hur.

Ben-Hur - A Book Journal

Jerusalem Panorama Altotting
Panorama Jerusalem in Altotting by Gebhard Fugel
[GFDL or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0]

Oppressed by its own government, your native city is at the edge of a crisis.  The conquering war-spirit of Mars has found its next generation of followers, and the subjugated people feel it.

Till now, your family has always managed to be safe from the conflict.  Your father's prosperous work had earned the approval of the supreme leader and left you a fortune, as well as security.  Your future seems certain.

Then, one day, an accident scars you with a terrible accusation.  Everything changes suddenly, under the power of an angry mob and betrayal by your closest friend.

"Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives" by Frederick Edwin Church
Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives by Frederick Edwin Church

While going over the beginning of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, I was trying to think about the 19th-century reader and what their perspective might have been.  This is my second time reading the book, so personally I have a little bit of vague memory to go by, as well as the movie (ever ingrained in my consciousness) and the Focus on the Family radio drama (an excellent adaptation from what I recall).  Knowing what follows in the plot, I've realized that Ben-Hur is a story for all times, which is why our ancestors loved it - it was a bestseller for decades.  They were not accustomed to the cinematic format which has us spoiled today, and though I'm partial to the Charlton Heston film, I see the descriptions in the book would not be lost on the original readers. I am sure, however, they stayed for the story.

This story remains relevant, in spite of its now-lesser literary prestige than, say, Moby-Dick.  Case in point: I've been reading The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea, which is a collection of short stories written by a North Korean writer under the name "Bandi."  So far, the common theme is that even a family with strong (Communist) Party ties is not safe from the suspicions, or retaliation, of the government.  It's no perfect analogy, of course - the Hur family is not Roman or even politically aligned with them, and I am not sure if the Roman Empire was as brutal as some modern regimes.  Still, the themes of fear, paranoia, injustice, and familial love are as present today as they are in Ben-Hur; humans don't really change.

I've read the first two parts of Ben-Hur and found there was more to talk about than I can describe here succinctly.  So, consider this an introductory post, and I'll leave you with this quote.  This is from a scene where Judah's mother attempts to undo the verbal damage done by Messala, his former friend.
Youth is but the painted shell within which, continually growing, lives that wondrous thing the spirit of man, biding its moment of apparition, earlier in some than in others. She trembled under a perception that this might be the supreme moment come to him; that as children at birth reach out their untried hands grasping for shadows, and crying the while, so his spirit might, in temporary blindness, be struggling to take hold of its impalpable future. They to whom a boy comes asking, Who am I, and what am I to be? have need of ever so much care. Each word in answer may prove to the after-life what each finger-touch of the artist is to the clay he is modelling.

Please Look After Mom

A glance at my blog will tell you I rarely read fiction published recently.  "In my younger and more vulnerable years," I was unfortunate to read a lot of poorly written historical fiction and Sherlock Holmes pastiche.  I thirsted for greatness and found mediocrity.  Back then, I wasn't part of a blogging community, or maybe this wouldn't have happened.  Anyways, I developed a prejudice against modern authors, which, based on my limited reading, was not well founded.

I stumbled across this book on Goodreads; not sure how, exactly.  Like everyone else, I've been following the news on North Korea with uneasy interest, and at the same time, I've become increasingly fascinated with Korean culture, introduced to it by some of my favorite YouTubers, like Jen ChaePlease Look After Mom, by Kyung-sook Shin, sounded like a novel I could learn from.

The focus of the story is universal.  When Chi-hon's elderly mother goes missing in a busy part of Seoul, the Park family reacts in different ways.  True, they go through similar motions of looking for her - from putting up flyers to searching the city on foot - but inside, each family member begins to mourn "Mom" as someone deeply integrated in their lives and yet ultimately an enigma.  "Mom" was strong, vulnerable, spiritual, superstitious, gentle, and violent.  "Mom" was a strange juxtaposition of tradition and modernity.  At all times, "Mom" was self-sufficient.  Somehow she had been all of those things, and yet, if that had been real, how could she be missing?

The first half of the book was truly gripping, told from the perspectives of Chi-hon and her brother Hyong-chol.  Shin's prose, translated by Chi-young Kim, moves deftly from present to past, as we discover more about Chi-hon's mother - whose first name is So-nyo - and the sometimes tumultuous relationships between her, her children, and her husband.

What impressed me here was the contrast between Chi-hon's life and her mom's.  In just one generation, the woman of the family had gone from being an illiterate yet knowledgeable farmer - working hard to get food on the table for five children - to living as a published author whose ties with tradition and the farmland are less strong.  I enjoyed learning about the Korean traditions which So-nyo held to so steadfastly, while the portrait of Chi-hon fulfilling her mom's dream was quite moving.

The second half of the book covers the perspectives of So-nyo's husband and So-nyo herself.  Here I must admit I was having to suspend some disbelief.  It was hard for me to follow that the father, self-centered his entire life, became suddenly remorseful; it just seemed a bit convenient.  Meanwhile, there are things we learn about So-nyo which sound a bit incredible, considering her life and surroundings.  Maybe I'm too critical.  In any case, I felt these were small weaknesses in the plot, and overall they didn't detract from the core of the story.

One detail about So-nyo that stood out to me was her Catholicism.  While intermingled with her traditional beliefs, So-nyo's Christian faith is a recurring emblem in her life, with allusions to charity and love, as well as sin and repentance.  The symbolism of Madonna as an inspirational figure is brief, yet effective.  The Christian themes are all very subtle in this book, and I was pleasantly surprised they were both realistic and well written.

Despite being a novel about women, social change, and Korean history, Shin's story isn't overwhelmed by a historical or pro-feminist narrative, and this is its strength.  At times, it's a brutally raw story, heavy in tone and topic, but there is beauty in Please Look After Mom, and that is that we see the characters as individuals, rather than just types.  And as in Ishiguro's A Pale View of Hills, history is here more of a backdrop than a centerpiece, but this approach lends a humanity to the novel that makes it a worthy read for people of many backgrounds.  4.5 stars.

Ten Books for Spring - Classics and Beyond

It's only taken me several days, but I think I've come up with a good list for this week's Top Ten Tuesday:

1. The Kill, by Émile Zola
Making an exception in my "no more reading challenges" resolution - I plan to read The Kill for Fanda's Zoladdiction event next month.  It's one of Zola's shorter novels and, from what I hear, an interesting one!

2. Ben-Hur, by Lew Wallace (re-read)
I just started Book 2, so I have a ways to go yet.  :)

3. North Korea's Hidden Revolution: How the Information Underground Is Transforming a Closed Society, by Jieun Baek
How do people share information that's illegal, and what information would a person risk their life to access?  This topic appeals to me for both historical and universal reasons.

4. The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea, by Bandi
"Bandi" is an author in North Korea, whose short stories from the 80s and 90s were smuggled out and published recently.  Saw this while browsing my library's ebooks and thought it would be interesting.

5.  Picnic at Hanging Rock, by Joan Lindsay
Found out about this through O's review... has it been nearly a year ago?!  I like a good psychological mystery.

6.  The Castle, by Franz Kafka
Spring takes me back to college days, when I was stereotypically discovering Kafka instead of reading my textbooks.  The Castle is, I believe, the last work of fiction I haven't read by him.

7. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë (re-read)
Though I read this book two or three times, many years ago, I never properly understood or reviewed it.  Perhaps it will propel me to finish the Brontë sisters' novels as well (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and The Professor are still TBR).

8. The Island of Dr. Moreau, by H. G. Wells (re-read)
I was recently reminded how relevant this little sci-fi/horror classic is.  Need to read it again and review it in full.

9. George: A Novel of T. E. Lawrence, by E.B. Lomax
What if Lawrence's accident wasn't fatal?  From what I've seen, this is the best-rated historical fiction novel written about Ned, and the concept intrigues me.

10. (wildcard)
Lately I've stumbled across a variety of books that I want to read soon, some of them quite random.  Hopefully I'll get to at least one of them this spring!

What Should I Read Next? - April edition

April is rapidly approaching, and that means Camp Nanowrimo!  The bite-sized version of National Novel Writing Month, Camp Nanowrimo is my favorite of the two events, because you can define your own word count goal and work on any project(s) you have in mind.  I've been participating regularly since 2015, and next month I plan to continue working on my historical-fantasy saga and perhaps some fan fiction, too.

While I'll be taking a break from the podcast, I intend to continue reading through April.  Are there any books in particular you'd like to see me review, either here or on Classics Considered?  It could be a book from my lengthy TBR list, one that I've read before, or something completely new and different.  I have a few ideas in the queue, but I'd love to hear if anyone has a suggestion: fiction, nonfiction, anything goes!

If I get enough ideas, I'll see what's most easily available to help make a decision.  :)

Horror and History in A Pale View of Hills

Goto island - panoramio
Goto island by Masoud Akbari [CC BY-SA 3.0]

One day, Etsuko's quiet life is interrupted by a visit from her daughter Niki, who, though being independent and somewhat secretive, has taken time off from her London life to come visit her.  This visit prompts disturbing memories in Etsuko, from the recent suicide of her older daughter Keiko, whom she is still grieving, to her own life back in Nagasaki, Japan.

As a young, pregnant mother and married to her first husband, Jiro, Etsuko's earlier life had been a witness to sweeping changes in Japanese society, as well as to the physical and cultural presence of the Americans, post WWII.  Most troubling of all, however, is her recollection of her friendship with Sachiko, a confident, middle-aged woman who had moved in to a nearby cottage.  Sachiko had a little daughter named Mariko, who suffered trauma from the bombings of Tokyo and other scenes of the war.  No matter how much Etsuko tried to help Mariko, it seemed her mother had wished to brush it all aside.

Through her memories, Etsuko begins to have recurring dreams about the child, while attempting to find answers that will bring closure to her past acquaintance with her mysterious neighbors.

I was eager to read Kazuo Ishiguro's first novel, but I did not realize when I picked it up that it's a ghost story.  I'm fairly squeamish and tend to shy away from creepy books - the last one I read was Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper," and that was enough for a long while.  It's as well I didn't know, because, while A Pale View of Hills (1982) is absolutely terrifying, it is so excellently written and evocative that I'm glad I read it.

As historical fiction, the book succeeds largely in its portrayal of emotional scars, both in terms of personal life and historic events.  The theme of societal changes present in An Artist of the Floating World (1986) is debuted here: women's right to vote, legalization of the Japanese Communist Party, parent-child relationships, and American influence are some of the trends which, to the older generation, seemed radical.  The dark legacy of the atomic bomb is present, though in the background.  Overall, the historical elements serve to support the characters, rather than vice-versa.  With this subtle approach, Ishiguro sets up his novel to perhaps age better than other historical fiction, including his better-known novel, The Remains of the Day (1989), in which history may, at times, overwhelm the life of Stevens the butler.

In terms of personal impact, I feel this book is nearly up there with Till We Have Faces.  Ishiguro's fine balance of frank, polite prose and cryptic omissions make this a story where reading between the lines renders volumes of meaning, even though the book itself is scarcely novel length.  And even though I knew, from reading another review, that there was a big twist coming towards the end, the actual conclusion of the story caught me off-guard.

This is a strange, haunting tale which has the capacity to frighten you, but also to make you want to weep.  The touch of realism that permeates the plot makes it seem to be more than fiction: it's disturbing, but somehow believable.  I talked more about A Pale View of Hills in my latest podcast episode (spoiler free), as a potential contender for the next generation of classics.  I am sure I shall read it again.

Crusader Castles - A Young Lawrence of Arabia

Having resolved to read everything written by T. E. Lawrence, I inevitably picked up his college thesis, published posthumously under the title Crusader Castles.

It's a very rare book, but happily a New Year's discount made the Folio Society edition a good option, and I couldn't have been more pleased with the customer service, shipping, and, of course, the edition itself.  The FS release is a reprint of the original two-volume edition, and it includes an excellent introduction by biographer Mark Bostridge, whose interest in WWI history makes it a worthy addition.

Through the introduction, you learn that T. E. Lawrence completed his thesis just four years before the outbreak of WWI.  For his research, he had already traveled extensively in Britain and France, and even to Syria and Palestine - his first exposure to the Middle East and its climate, both in a geographical and political sense.

His topic?  In his own words, he set out to prove "The Influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture to the end of the Twelfth Century."  In what became his trademark style, Lawrence was not afraid to take on an opposing viewpoint, even if it meant going against Sir Charles Oman, the Oxfordian expert on the subject at the time, whose own stance was that East had influenced West, not vice-versa.  Lawrence, not without basis, was confident he could out-research Oman and convince his examiners that the Crusaders took their own architecture to the Holy Land.
Violently controversial points are usually settled by a plain assertion, for simplicity and peace.  If they are of importance in my argument they may be discussed.
It takes a geek to know one, and certainly, readers without prior knowledge of "Ned" will find this book too niche to appreciate.  For fans, Crusader Castles is a gold mine of insights on his young adulthood, both in terms of personal development and in his relationships to his mentors, his family, and the world at large.

T. E.'s taste for physical exertion and adventure is well known; what is more interesting here is his capacity for organization and process.  The book is filled with sketches and photographs of the castles he visits; touristy postcards were, as he points out, not capable of doing justice to the edifices.  Beyond what mere observation would reveal, his drawings of castles plans show an incredible attention to scale and detail, labelled carefully and referred to in his writing with the same exactness that a mathematician might use with a graph.  T. E. clearly put the science into "social science," and his commentary on crusader strategy not only points to his own extensive reading, but also to the systematic workings of his mind, which played not a small role in the Arab Revolt.

Lawrence (left) and his brothers,
around the time he finished Crusader Castles.

What I enjoyed most about Crusader Castles was the personal side.  Luckily for us, T. E. later added margin notes to his paper, a sort of "Older Ned Reacts to Younger Ned" commentary.  His notes are two-fold: they critique his youthful research and writing style, while adding insights he gained from further thought or experience.  More than that, they showcase his sense of humor, from schoolboyish remarks on "admirable latrines" to gleeful tut-tuts on his college-aged criticisms of other writers.  Even within the original paper, there are delightful references to his castle climbing and (irresistibly) an encounter with a nest of snakes.

That Ned heartily enjoyed himself is no secret.  The second half of the book contains a selection of letters he wrote to his family while he was abroad.  Each one is fairly technical for a personal letter, suggesting he relied on his mother's care of them to supplement his notes later.  A handful of these letters come from his time in the Middle East, and here we see the very first glimpse of the legendary Lawrence.  It was still an innocent time in his life, when being shot at by a local was a great adventure, and that joy of exploration could not have been a small reason he soon returned to Syria as an archeologist.

Of all the book, maybe my favorite part was his letter from Aigues-Mortes, a medieval castle-city in the south of France. It is the oddity in the volume, because it is an emotional letter, in which Ned's enthusiasm for his trip and his research cannot be subdued.  He quotes Blake and Shelley, letting his love of poetry show through, and in a glimpse, we see the same passion for landscape that colored his description of Wadi Rum in Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
You are all wrong, Mother dear, a mountain may be a great thing, a grand thing, but it is better to be peaceful, and quiet, and pure, omnia pacata posse mente tueri, if that is the best state, then a plain is the best country: the purifying influence is the paramount one in a plain, there one can sit down quietly and think of anything, or nothing which Wordsworth says is best, one feels the littleness of things, of details, and the great and unbroken level of peacefulness of the whole: no, give me a level plain, extending as far as the eye can reach, and there I have enough of beauty to satisfy me, and tranquility as well!

What I'm Reading: Alice, Castles, and a Book Journal...

Alice and kitten

If it's seemed quiet this past week, I've actually been reading (hee).  I always find this time of year to be trying, for whatever reason, and so I've been indulging myself with two re-reads and a new book that is becoming close to my heart...

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass - I've finally begun reading this sweet little hardcover that my parents got me for Christmas.  It includes both books and Tenniel's illustrations (my favorite).  This may be the topic for my next podcast episode.  I love Alice, and it's just occurred to me what a great protagonist she is, and why.  More on that to come...

Crusader Castles - After making it my unofficial mission to become a complete Lawrence nerd, I had to read his research paper about Crusader castle architecture.  It's really quite interesting, and even though I don't understand all of it, I can see the scientific side of him through his diagrams and careful eye for details.  Obviously that played into his ability to organize his campaigns so successfully.  His later margin notes, however, are the biggest gems - I keep laughing aloud in the middle of the night; it's a little embarrassing...

Ben-Hur - I am so excited to announce I am bringing back the book journal!  Basically, my "book journals" feature long books explored in a series of in-depth, cumulative reviews.  Previously, I journalled about Seven Pillars of Wisdom and The Brothers Karamazov.  I can't wait to start writing about Ben-Hur, so stay tuned for those posts coming up in the following weeks.

February Reviews - Lightning Round!

Tender Is the Night - F. Scott Fitzgerald - (no rating)
Biggest disappointment of the year so far; did not finish.

The Atlas of Beauty - Mihaela Noroc - 3 stars
An interesting library book.  Somewhat repetitive; would've 
preferred less social-political commentary.

Embers - Sándor Márai - 4 stars
Surprisingly great!  European history buffs will appreciate
 this ruminating novel.  Full review here.

Poetry of the First World War - ed. Marcus Clapham - 3 stars
Not an easy or pretty read, but a sobering one.  More thoughts here.

Moonflower - Jade Nicole Beals - 4 stars
 Poems of peace and introspection; this was a refreshing read.

Anthem - Ayn Rand - 2 stars
Great concept, so-so execution.  Full review here.

Breakfast at Tiffany's - Truman Capote - 1 star
Writing style on point, story not my cuppa.  More thoughts here.

This has not been the month for in-depth, written reviews, and I'm feeling a bit sheepish about that.  Work has been so busy; I've gone from one big project to the next, which is great but takes a toll on the reading energies.  Here's to hoping March will be a little easier!

Ice Skating to Classic Literature - Friday Thoughts

Medvedeva's Anna Karenina, from an earlier competition.

I don't usually watch a lot of TV, but that changes as soon as the Winter Olympics comes around.  It feels like the world is just a little (tiny) bit saner when the Olympics goes well, and, of course, I get a thrill out of watching skiing, snowboarding, and bobsledding, which are all pretty close to flying.

But figure skating has that extra special piece to it - the story.  This evening we watched the intense, final showdown between the top two skaters, both hailing from Russia and studying under the same coach.  Oh - and they both skated to music with a classic literature connection!  Alina Zagitova, who won gold, skated to the ballet based on Don Quixote, by composer Leon Minkus.  Evgenia Medvedeva came in a very close second place with her performance to the Anna Karenina soundtrack by Dario Marianelli.  [Marianelli is more famous for his Pride & Prejudice (2005) score.]  

There were other skaters with bookish programs, too - Cinderella and The Phantom of the Opera, to name a couple.  Needless to say, classic lit was well represented at the Olympics. :)

Though not from a classic book, this program was one I wanted to share.  It's Kaori Sakamoto, skating to music from the French movie Amélie.  I haven't watched it, but it's lovely to see the creative and whimsical story she's telling through her skating.  This is from an earlier competition (YouTube is pretty strict about Olympics clips):

Rom-Com Opera: Donizetti's L’Elisir d’Amore

Three years already since my last opera review?!  I feel bad about that and intend to start making it right, firstly with this review of L'Elisir d'Amore ("The Elixir of Love") by Gaetano Donizetti, of Lucia di Lammermoor fame.

Some backstory for newer readers: I've been enjoying operas at the local movie theater, streamed live from the Met, since 2012.  It's a wonderful weekend "excursion" - my cousin, also an opera fan, has joined me in the last couple of years, and I've succeeded in getting my sister and brother interested as well.  Tickets run around $30, but for a 2-4 hour show and the quality of the productions, you definitely get your money's worth.  (That said, I usually only go to 2-3 per season, for budgetary reasons.)

The story of L'Elisir d'Amore is a classic love triangle - a rich, carefree lady named Adina (sung by Pretty Yende) is being aggressively wooed by an arrogant but dashing sergeant, Belcore (baritone Davide Luciano).  Meanwhile, the young peasant Nemorino (Matthew Polenzani) is also pining after Adina and will do anything to get her attention.  A traveling salesman posing as a "Dr" Dulcamara (Ildebrando D'Arcangelo) sees an opportunity to sell Nemorino his special love potion, an elixir that is guaranteed to make all the ladies fall in love with him - including, of course, Adina.

Dramatic operas are more my cup of tea, so when L'Elisir d'Amore came up, I was drawn to it mainly because I loved Donizetti's music in Lucia. I was not disappointed - Donizetti's elegant bel canto melodies bring a level of class to a story that is otherwise pretty cheesy.  Most casual listeners will recognize Nemorino's aria, "Una Furtiva Lagrima," - in fact, I'd guess it's many opera fans' first favorite tenor aria.  Polenzani's rendition is not virtuosic, yet it's quite touching, in a way that fits the character very well.

In contrast, much of the humor of the story comes from Dulcamara, and D'Arcangelo stole the show at times with his suave fast-talking (er, singing).  Yende as the lead soprano did a fine job, though I was more impressed by her acting skills as the flirty yet affectionate Adina.  She is a natural for these Live in HD shows, where the close-up camera angles capture every emotion of the performer, something opera singers of the past did not need to think about.  (It used to be that over-exaggerated facial expressions were necessary to reach far into the auditorium - now, subtlety is imperative for televised or filmed productions.)

While not my favorite opera, L'Elisir d'Amore was pretty fun for a lighthearted story, and I would be open to going to more comedies in the future.

Wednesday Quote: Holmes

It's Valentine's Day, and what better time to feature a quote from the lovable Sherlock Holmes?  A self-described scientist who belittles sentiment, Holmes nonetheless often plays the role of knight-in-shining-armor, as in "The Speckled Band."  I love this clip from the TV episode starring Jeremy Brett as Holmes and David Burke as Watson.  The dialogue is almost word-for-word from the book! 

Also, if you're interested in more costume dramas from books, I talked about some of my favorites in this week's Classics Considered episode.  Always on the lookout for recommendations, too.  :)

As far as novels go, I've found an interesting read in Embers, by Hungarian author Sandor Marai.  "Interesting" may be an understatement; I can hardly put it down.  Look for that review in the upcoming week... 

Top Ten Classics Still TBR

This Top Ten Tuesday theme is about books that have been on the TBR list the longest.  It's been a busy week, but the topic appealed to me so much I didn't want to miss out, even if late. Here's what I have, according to Goodreads:

Alexander Hamilton portrait by John Trumbull 1806
1. The Federalist, by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay
At one point in high school, I had started this and even intended to write thoughts on each section.  I think I will read it someday, but now I'd like to start with Democracy in America or Common Sense (which are as equally embarrassing to have not read).

2. The Mark of Zorro, by Johnston McCulley
One of my favorite film scenes is the duel between Basil Rathbone and Tyrone Power.  I'm sure this is a book I'll enjoy, but somehow I keep forgetting to read it. 

3. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Brontë
With Charlotte's The Professor, this will be the last Brontë novel for me to read.  I've been remembering it lately, so hopefully in the next year or two it will get read! 

4. Hornblower and the Hotspur, by C. S. Forester
Third chronological book in the series.  I love the Hornblower TV series, but the first two books seemed boring by comparison.  (I really want to find a great Royal Navy book series at some point.)

5. War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
From what I've heard, this one warrants a serious investment of time and concentration.  Someday... 

6. Flatland, by Edwin A. Abbott
Social commentary in the form of math humor?  This sounds fun, but again, I sense it may take more brain work than I can spare at present. 

7. The Aeneid, by Virgil
I started this one once. 

8. Nostromo, by Joseph Conrad
I started this one several times.  Conrad is a bit hit-and-miss for me.  From the subject matter - turmoil in a fictitious South American country - it sounds exactly like a book I will like after I've read it.  It's just terribly hard to get into. 

9. Almayer's Folly, by Joseph Conrad
Been on my list since college.  As with The Mark of Zorro, I have high hopes for this one, and might need to move it to a different list as a reminder. 

10. Scaramouche, by Rafael Sabatini
Years ago, I followed a blogger who had the opening line at the top of their blog: "He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad."  I was intrigued.  I love a good swashbuckler so this is staying on the list.

This is a drop in the ocean of my entire TBR list... I wish I had the discipline to stop adding things to it.  At my current reading rate, I won't have the lifespan to read everything there.  It's weird knowing that some of these will never get read, but such is life.  :)