FOL Winter Book Sale Finds…


Just a quick post to show what little diamonds I found in the aisles and aisles of gorgeousness at the recent Winter FoL book sale. I tried to maintain a small scrap of control so only went one time (and then not for very long). But I had a laser-like focus in the English social history section for the most part:

  • Popular Culture in England 1500-1850 – Tim Harris (NF)
  • Calendar – David Ewing Duncan(NF)
  • The Lost Art of Mixing – Erica Bauermeister (F)
  • In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex – Nathaniel Philbrick (NF)
  • A Victorian Courtship: The Story of Beatrice Potter and Sidney Webb – Jeanne McKenna…(NF)
  • The Illustrated Pepys – Robert Latham (ed.) (NF)

<rubs hands with glee at future reading adventures with slight wondering of when I’m actually going to read all my books…>

Charlotte’s Web – E. B. White (1952)

book321Having heard endless references to Charlotte’s Web over the years (without actually having read it), I was looking forward to this book but also dreading it in some ways – some people had said it was tragically sad. So I knew it was going to be a sweet story written by the masterly E. B. White, but who would kick the bucket? Would it be Wilbur? Templeton? Fern? (Don’t worry. This is a spoiler-free review.)

E. B. White and his dog Minnie.

E. B. White and his dog Minnie.

This is the story of Wilbur the Pig who is scheduled to be killed for meat unless someone can come to his rescue – but who will do that? (No spoilers here, although you may well hear it from someone else!) Charlotte is the titular character in this children’s novel, and it is she who becomes Wilbur’s closest friend even when he doesn’t realize it at the time.

So, not only is the story great and real-life, but White, as its author, is superb (of course) and tells the tale in a dry and very grown-up way which I thought was impressive. (I think a lot of kids’ books sometimes don’t challenge the child readers enough in terms of vocabulary and expectations. White uses this volume as a springboard for kid readers (and their adults) to acquire new words and to learn about the world of Wilbur and Charlotte at the same time.)

For example, White really did base Charlotte (the spider of the web) on a real meeting of a barn spider which he originally called Charlotte Epeira (after Epeira sclopeteria, the Grey Cross spider that is now known as Aranea sericata). In the novel, when Charlotte first meets Wilbur, she gives her name as “Charlotte A. Cavatica” from the Latin name for the orb-weaver spider (Araneaus cavaticus). Later in the story, Charlotte is explaining some of her arachnid body in anatomical terms, which actually (according to Wiki) came from a couple of serious scientific books about spiders. And then Charlotte’s spider children end up with spider-y names such as Joy, Nellie and Aranea. (Huh. Who woulda thunk?)

Garth_williamsAnd I don’t want to talk about White’s charming story without mentioning the *perfect* illustrations done by Garth Williams, an American artist who lived from 1912-1996. He drew illustrations for both White’s Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, and also for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. (I bet you would recognize his drawings if you saw them.) Williams’ father was an illustrator for Punch and his mother was a landscape painter and the family moved from the East Coast to UK in 1922 where he received most of his education. When WWII broke out, Williams and his family moved back to the US where he worked for a while as a camouflage artist (seeing as it was wartime) and then serendipitously received his first commission from Harper’s in 1945, that of Stuart Little. (White had burned through eight other illustrators at this point, but I’m not sure why.) Williams went on to illustrate more than 95 children’s books in the future.

So a lovely read and not quite the carnage that I had expected from the narrative. White is a very good writer (as would be the case from one of the co-authors of The Elements of Style [1959], a writing guidebook for so many students in the U.S.)

Things on Cowboy’s Head – No. 62

Things on Cowboy's Head No. 62: Ball of twine.

Things on Cowboy’s Head No. 62: Ball of twine.

Background Note: Cowboy, as you know, is one of our cats. She is big and friendly and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She naps a lot. All of which helps with this ongoing project I have going on…

It’s called “Things on Cowboy’s Head” and I am just seeing what I can balance on the top of her head when she’s amenable to that. It’s been fun so far, and she seems quite happy to play along. (She just moves when she doesn’t want to participate.)

(Cowboy’s posts are all gathered in one spot on her own blog.)

The Year 1000 – Robert Lacey and Dan Danzinger (1999)


Subtitle: What Life was Like at the Turn of the First Millenium.

Have read other really enjoyable history books by Lacey here, here,  and here, I knew that I was going to be in for another good read. Lacey is extremely good at writing about serious topics such as history whilst infusing his books with a great dry sense of humor every now and then which I particularly enjoyed…  (More so in his other books than this one, but it still pops up every now and then. Lacey has also made it on my Ultimate Dinner Party List for 2014 although that date and the complete guest list is still TBD. Just FYI.)

As the book description reads, “The Year 1000 is a vivid and surprising portrait of life in England a thousand years ago – a world that already knew brain surgeons and property developers, and yes, even the occasional gossip columnist…”

(Above) - Robert Lacey.

(Above) – Robert Lacey.

I really enjoy learning about social history of times past, much more so than the political and military side of things, and so this book was right up my alley. I don’t have much any background in Medieval history (apart from early junior high years and the endless watching of Monty Python’s The Holy Grail during the college years), but I did have a general idea of it being cold, dark and muddy. In reading Lacey and Danzinger’s book, I realized that it was a lot more than that. (Isn’t that usually the way?)

As it was such a great packed with great info, I’ve done this in note form of some items that were of particular interest to me:

  • The history of the half-penny: Back in these times, coin-making was a lengthy multi-step hand-made process which usually resulted in a probably thin coin called a penny. If an item cost less than a penny, then people would literally just cut the coin into half and so it would be exactly – one half-penny. (This might only ring a bell to English people of a Certain Age, but there you go…)
  • England’s system of geographical divisions into counties and towns started in the 10th and 11th centuries. To collect taxes, kings needed to have administrative centers in the middle of their areas (called shires) and so most counties with that suffix (-shire) were formed at that time. (For example, the county where I am from is called Bedfordshire and the town Bedford so therefore, it was coined at that time.)
  • Any English city name which ends in a “-burgh” or “-borough” (like Peterborough and similar) came about during the reign of King Alfred the Great (who was a really cool king, btw). Most of England at that time was rural in small villages, and with the Vikings on the invasion from the North, Alfred organized the villages into larger units for better protection and called them “burgs”. Now you know…
  • Living in Texas (as I do now), there’s quite a bit of talk about the sheriff, the title of which actually originated back in the tenth and eleventh century with the development of shires in England. Taxes and other administrative duties needed to be centralized and the sort of CEO in charge of each shire was called the “shire reeve” which developed into “sheriff”.
  • Here’s a probable history of the word “carpenter”: Going back to Roman times, Romans were generally in admiration of the Celtic-designed two-wheel carts common in those times which the Romans called a “carpentum”. Those who had the skills to make such a cart were thus called carpenters…. Huh.
  • When Romans first invaded Britannia, there were smaller settlements called “civis” (from the root word civilization). People who did not live in these contained communities were literally “uncivilized”… (Those Romans were very fact-based…)
  • One of the common punishments for a thief caught red-handed during the year 1000 was to have to hold a red-hot poker in his/her hands and then walk forward for nine excruciating steps. His wound was then dressed and left alone for the period of one week. If, at the end of that time, the dressings were removed and the wound was healing and coming along nicely, then that suspect was an innocent. If, however, the burn was infected on his/her hands, then that signaled a guilty verdict and punishment was meted out accordingly. (Punishment was, at that time, sentenced to hang until you die.)

And just an interesting point: close to the town where I grew up in England, a village called Caxton used to have a historic reconstruction of an reputed old gibbet (where people would hang for crimes committed), and as it was on the same road that our family took to Grandma and Grandpa’s house, we would always look for it with ghoulish glee as it meant we were closer to tea-time. (This one was mostly used for highway robbery, I think, but still theft of one kind or another. This location was also reputedly used for the “cage variation” of the gibbet, whereby live victims were placed in a small cage hanging from the top log and the victim would stay there until they died from starvation, dehydration or exposure. Bodies were kept there after death as a warning to passersby.)

“Come on now, let’s have a cup of tea, dear…”


Things on Cowboy’s Head – No. 61

Things on Cowboy's Head No. 61: Empty Vaseline Jar.

Things on Cowboy’s Head No. 61: Empty Vaseline Jar.

Background Note: Cowboy, as you know, is one of our cats. She is big and friendly and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She naps a lot. All of which helps with this ongoing project I have going on…

It’s called “Things on Cowboy’s Head” and I am just seeing what I can balance on the top of her head when she’s amenable to that. It’s been fun so far, and she seems quite happy to play along. (She just moves when she doesn’t want to participate.)

(Cowboy’s posts are all gathered in one spot on her own blog.)

Books Buying Ban Project Over!

(Above) - Completed table of my No-Books-Buying pledge since September... Success (for the most part!)

(Above) – Completed table of my No-Books-Buying pledge since September… Success (for the most part!)

Over the past two and a bit months, I’ve been on a No-Book-Buying project with the goal of me not buying any more books. (I initiated this project just after the September FoL book sale from which I attained far too many lots of books. I wanted to turn my attention to some of the books which I already owned (the infamous TBR shelves) although a few library books may have slipped by the goalie in the process.

And it (mostly) worked on curbing my book acquisition habit. (Confession: I did buy two books on two separate occasions during this fast, but that’s it. Promise.)

How did it go? At first, I really missed getting those book-shaped packages from Amazon and elsewhere – I blame myself and the dreaded One-Click option which makes it far too easy to buy something. (However, getting people to buy things is the goal of on-line businesses after all so it obviously works for Amazon and co.)

But after a while, the ban was fine. I realized that I have some great titles at home. (I obviously bought them with a purpose and fondness or they wouldn’t be on the shelves to begin with.) I read and DNFd three titles that have been on my shelves far too long, and actually read (and mostly enjoyed) five more titles. So that’s EIGHT titles off the shelves to keep the balance between incoming and outgoing book titles.

I’m really trying to maintain the motto of “One in, One Out” with regard to book purchases, and it seems to be working. I am happy when I can clear a title that I’ve been carefully keeping on my shelves (for years in some cases), and then read it and find out whether it’s been worth taking up space on the TBR pile. (About 60/40 in terms of liking/DNF right now.)

Hooray for small pleasures!

So – anyway, last Sat (Dec 06), the Book Buying Ban was over and the FoL group just happened to have a Kris Kringle Book Sale and I’m sure that you can surmise what happened in the end. (Armful of books, of course.) I had fun, there were loads of books from which to choose, and I’ll do a post on that little bundle of fun in a bit. (I know how we all like to see book titles.)

This little challenge was pretty fun. I’ll probably do it again in the future, but for now, the hounds have been released. Watch out!

(NOTE: What is going on with the fonts and WordPress? Aaagh.)


The Ladies’ Paradise – Émile Zola (1883)


As we’ve been enjoying the PBS Masterpiece series on Sundays featuring “The Paradise,” I picked up Zola’s book upon which this series was based. (To be honest, when I first started reading the original version, it became pretty confusing as there are some significant differences between the book and the TV version [naturellement], but with the names kept the same… I got it sorted out after a bit, but at first, it was really perplexing.) In the end, I decided that the TV series based was based only slightly on the original – there were loads of differences from one to the other, but both are good in different ways.)

This book is a long multi-volume series that Zola wrote about a family (and its offshoots) as it goes through generations in France in the mid-nineteenth century. (However, this volume works well as a good stand-alone story as I hadn’t read any of the original set prior to this.) The plot revolves around a large department store in Paris, and was based on the real Bon Marche store, one of the first department stores in real life at that time. (Previously, most stores only specialized in one thing: umbrellas, bread, tailoring, milliner, butcher etc.) When the Industrial Revolution arrived, it led to factories mass-producing cheaper goods which also contributed to the downfall of these very small shops.

bon_marcheAs the book progresses, The Ladies’ Paradise as (the department store is named) is growing with Mouret, the young manager at its helm. Alongside him are his employees, his suppliers, and of course his customers, all of whom intersect and around whom the story evolves. Mouret is deeply ambitious and wants to grow his business as to be as big and successful as he possibly can, often putting business before other considerations (including his love life). In fact, business to Mouret is seen through a parallel lens as others viewed religion:

“His creation was producing a new religion; churches…were being deserted by those of wavering faith, were being replaced by his bazaar…”

Mouret often espouses his goal of using his business to reach the end result of “owning Woman” through his strategy of selling almost every product possible that “Woman” would want. This huge selection of wares attracts all classes of women from around Paris and afar, and via the old theory of Supply and Demand, Mouret takes their money whilst still leaving them wanting for more. Perhaps not the newest idea nowadays, but back then, it was legendary and new and this was the first time that the city had seen all these things available for sale under one roof.

Along with Mouret’s desire to be a very successful businessman, his other desire is for women and in particular, one specific woman – Denise Baudu. But can his money and business acumen convince her to love him back?….

zolaZola was a writer (and the self-proclaimed leader) of the Naturalist school of thought which was all about writing very clearly and realistically about social problems facing people who lived in the city: poverty, slums, filth, sickness… Zola really saw his writing as a focus to bring attention to problems that the typical reader would rather not look at – a verbal written documentary of a kind, you might say.

Despite this serious tone, the plot rattles along with the speed of the train and with the machinations of a soap opera and, if I’m honest, there are places which are terribly overwritten at times. Despite this, the writing seems to work as it could be argued to reflect the gilded extravagance of the shop and the idea of over-the-top luxury it sells as needs to its customers. The description of the store as it grows over time are gloriously detailed (reminded me of Dickens’ writing at times), and, when combined with the drama of the store stuff and that of the local neighborhood inhabitants, makes a very rich story indeed.

So, in case you haven’t picked this up so far, I really enjoyed this read. As mentioned before, this volume is part of a huge long series, but as I’m not a series kinda person for most of the time, that’s not for me. However, I would pick up another stand-alone volume by Zola at some point in the future.

One note: there was a character in this volume called Madame DesFarges which I found *slightly* confusing as the Mme. Desfarges that I kept seeing in my head was the rebellious she from Dicken’s Tale of Two Cities (1859). Zola’s was written in 1883 so he must have been aware of this character.

Some basic dates in case you’re not up on French history (like me!):

1789 – French Revolution with storming of the Bastille

1789 – Queen Marie Antoinette gets guillotine

1803 – France sold Louisiana to USA

1804 – Napoleon comes to power

1815 – Battle of Waterloo (marks the start of almost 50 years of peace throughout Europe as there had been loads of wars all over the place up until this point). (200th anniversary next year.)

1814 – Napoleon sent to exile; King Louis XVII comes to power.

1831 –    First clearly defined worker uprising of Industrial Revolution

1848 – French revolution against monarchy à Louis Napoleon Bonaparte starts as President of French Republic

1851 – Louis Napoleon Bonaparte becomes dictator

1863-56 – Crimean War (France and Britain against Russia)

1870 – Franco-Prussian War (start of ongoing war with Russia for ages). Paris captured by Prussian forces à Napoleon outed and goes into exile. Much general unrest due to Republicanism vs. Monarchism parties.

1871 – Riots in Paris streets over resentment against right-wing government à new President (Adolphe Tiers).

1883 – This was when The Ladies Paradise was published. Zola was politically liberal which led him to be against the tough right-wing government.