September 2008 Archives

Book of the Week

A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver, by E.L. Konigsburg


"During her lifetime, Eleanor of Aquitaine had not been a patient woman..."

E.L. Konigsburg wrote From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, one of my favorite kid's books of all time. I never thought to look for other stuff by her, but at the book sale I picked a few things up and one of them was A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver. (Miniver, if you are wondering, is white or light grey fur used on robes of state. The English language has, I swear, words for EVERYTHING.)

This is the story of Eleanor of Aquitaine, who is my favorite queen mostly because Katherine Hepburn plays her in A Lion in Winter, which is one of my desert island movies. (If you happen to pick that up, make sure you get the Hepburn version, not the non-canonical remake starring Glen Close.)

I am leery of history retold for children, because it tends to leave out all the interesting parts, but this book doesn't make that mistake. When Eleanor divorces the King of France to marry the future King of England (yeah, see? best queen ever), you can see it's for sex and power, and you understand the way that she mingles the two in her mind. And Konigsburg isn't shy about describing -- not in gory detail, but she gets her point across -- some of the atrocities the French king commits in his wars.

Eleanor was exciting, brave, powerful and heartless; probably an extremely uncomfortable person to be around, but great to read about now that she's safely dead.

She is also credited with the invention of romance, if you're looking for someone to blame for that.

This book is no Mixed-Up Files, but it's not bad. It'd be a good book to pick up at your school library when you've finished your homework before everyone else and you need something to do, and also you're in fourth grade. Most adults probably won't be interested.

Alien your way to Sexual Rapture



A new diet book has been released, you'll be glad to hear, which will improve your waistline AND your sex life.

The dynamically named Are You Gaining Weight and Are You Tired?, by Glenn Bogue (who changed his last name from Bogus in 1983*) examines the link between health, your sex life...and aliens.

You know what, Marketwatch can tell it better than I can. Here, from the article:

Bogue explains that 200,000 years ago, a female scientist was summoned to Earth by beings who had traveled here in search of gold. Using in vitro fertilization and genetic engineering, she took the ovum of a beast found in East Africa and fashioned the first human, the cells of whom were designed to be fed six cellular foods in a specific form in order to produce perfect health, dynamic weight and energy, and a sacred sexual rapture. Today's DNA research has confirmed this history, marking the first time biology, anthropology and theology converge into one truth.*
"People are gaining weight out of ignorance of this simple history," Bogue writes...

Maybe it's wrong to condemn a book out of hand without even reading it. But if rejecting an alien-based explanation of my fat cells is wrong, I don't wanna be thin.

*This is a lie.

Organization tips made of awesome

Don't you wish you could find stuff when you need it?

In this Brotherhood 2.0 video, award-winning YA author John Green shows us how to organize a home library...and all you have to do is buy another book.

Now I just have to work out how to find stuff on the internet, such as Brotherhood 2.0, when it's cool and everyone is talking about it, instead of a year later when pretty much everyone will roll their eyes if I bring it up.

Harry Potter turns ten

Today marks the ten-year anniversary of the American publication of the first Harry Potter book, but it's all a bit ho-hum. I think we can expect to see the true anniversary fervor and giant Potter parties on the eleventh anniversary, eleven being the age that wizarding students are first accepted at Hogwarts. Ten years isn't so exciting. For example, if Rowling wrote a prequel to the series, it might go something like this:

Harry woke up under the stairs to the smell of the Dursleys being fat and boring. He wondered whether anyone would even remember that it was his tenth birthday. They didn't, and later he was beaten with a broom.
The end.

Happy birthday, Harry. Sorry about the bristle marks.


Book of the week

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Beowulf, translated by Burton Raffel

You'd think Beowulf would be boring, or at least difficult to wade through. And if you just glance at the plot -- hero defeats some monsters and doesn't defeat a monster, blah blah blah -- it doesn't sound like the most exciting read.

But it IS. It is the most exciting read, and what's more, it's beautiful:

Ready for what came they wound through the currents,
The seas beating at the sand, and were borne
In the lap of their shining ship, lined
With gleaming armor, going safely
In that oak-hard boat to where their hearts took them.
The wind hurried them over the waves,
The ship foamed through the seas like a bird
Until, in the time they had known it would take,
Standing in the round-curled prow they could see
Sparkling hills, high and green,
Jutting up over the shore, and rejoicing
In those rock-steep cliffs they quietly ended
Their voyage.

And there follows a tale of the mightiest hero the world has ever known doing battle with giants and sea creatures and demons and dragons (one dragon), in a world thick with tradition and ritual and damn fine drinking songs. I really do not know what more you could want.

The only thing that might trouble you is if you happen to live with someone, as I do, who read Beowulf in the original. I always assumed this would be like reading The Canterbury Tales in the original. Yeah? No. Here is an excerpt:

Fyrst forð gewat. Flota wæs on yðum,
bat under beorge. Beornas gearwe
on stefn stigon; streamas wundon,
sund wið sande; secgas bæron
on bearm nacan beorhte frætwe,

guðsearo geatolic [...]

Listen, even the Swedish Chef is flinging up his hands in exasperation right now. So it's tough not to be intimidated by this guy I live with, but I persevere.

I read Burton Raffel's translation, and I'm glad I did, because otherwise I might never have known that somewhere out there was a parent strange enough to name her child Burton Raffel. And also Raffel's translation is rich, clear and thrilling. However, I'd be willing to try another as well, if anyone has a suggestion. I think the odds of receiving such a suggestion are low, but I thought I would put it out there.

The Big Book Sale

I dreamed of a book sale last night. It was being held in a warren of numberless rooms, and while I was only seeing the same boring Poul Andersons and Piers Anthonys, I knew that exciting things were waiting just around the corner.

Sure enough, I woke up to find that the San Francisco library's giant and most wonderful annual book sale is just a week away.

I cannot recommend this sale enough, even if you are not a sick book hound like me. If you read, and you don't exclusively get books at the library, this is the sale for you. Only buy best-sellers? No problem, they've got multiple tables of modern fiction. Sci-fi or bust? In addition to the Andersons and Anthonys, you'll find box after box of sci-fi/fantasy novels. Or maybe, like me, you can't afford those gorgeous photo-rich coffee table books you covet? At this sale you can! And if you have younger kids in your life, this is the best place to find tons of great kids' books for a quarter apiece (at least on Sunday), which normally go for $12 or more.

I know not everyone loves used books as I do. I love opening a book and finding a dedication someone wrote when they gave the book as a gift fifty years ago. I like seeing passages underlined in pencil and a few cryptic notes in the margins. It's oddly comforting to know that this book has had a history independent of the story it's telling.

But I know many people prefer shiny new covers and pristine pages, and you will also find those at the sale. There's a whole table of brand new books, plus a lot of the modern fiction is in as-new condition. The only really bad condition books I've ever found there was a boxed set of some really excellent classics, which Michele (thank goodness) made me put back after I carried it around for an hour, because the bindings were crumbling into adhesive red dust before our eyes.

The truth is, I wait for this sale all year, and not just because I am acquisitive and a cheap bastard. I love being in a warehouse full of books, and I love being around people who love them as much as I do. People who love them enough to snatch them out from under you. People who love them enough to body-block you with a cart when you reach for that copy of The Great Brain that they know they saw first. People who will shoot you over a mint-condition Oliver Twist, and then hide your body in the young adult section while they chase down #459 of The Babysitter's Club. Good people. Book people.

Join us.


The sale opens to the public on Thursday, September 24, and runs through Sunday, September 28. It's held at the Fort Mason Festival Pavilion. There are buses that runs to Fort Mason; I take one myself. Check MUNI's Trip Planner to find the bus for you.

Go on Thursday if you prefer to be there with fewer people, though after 5:00 it probably picks up. I like Thursday because most of the people there are even more scary-obsessed than me, and being among my own kind means none of us feel compelled to smile or make eye contact or be social at all unless we feel like it. That doesn't mean you never wind up discussing books with a total stranger -- you do. But you don't have to be giving the meaningless California smile all the time either. It's relaxing.

Go on Sunday if you prefer to get the real bargains. On Sunday everything is marked down to a dollar or less, and in years past there's always been a huge selection left to choose from.




As most people who are interested probably know by now, David Foster Wallace died on Friday. (And if I just broke the news to you on a blog, well...I feel pretty horrible about that.)

Wallace, who wrote Infinite Jest and several other wonderful things, committed suicide. I'm reading a lot about how it's not such a shock, given the dark, dysfunctional quality of his fiction, but I think anyone who's read "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" is going to mourn the sweet, ordinary guy who comes through in those pages, and isn't going to see anything inevitable about this.

Of course, he was also a genius parodist, and a quick Google news search on "David Foster Wallace" will reveal a memorial I think he would have found most fitting: a popcorn chain of headlines trying to out-ridiculous one another.

What Would David Foster Wallace Make of McCain 2008?
"One of the many reasons I am mourning David Foster Wallace’s death [...] is that we never found out what he thought of John McCain’s 2008 campaign."

Who Broke the News of David Foster Wallace's Death?
"This isn’t the most relevant detail to fuss over, I know [...] [b]ut who had the news of Wallace’s suicide first? "

Recalling Don Paskins, Anita Page and David Foster Wallace

And, my personal favorite: Infinitely Sad