Reading Challenges

June 27, 2011

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

It was only a few months ago that I first heard mention of the 19th century author Wilkie Collins, and in retrospect, I wonder how wonderful works like his The Woman in White have managed to escape my radar for so long. Charlaine Harris, author of my favorite fluff series, mentioned somewhere that Collins is one of her favorite authors and my curiosity was peeked. Since that discovery, it seems like everywhere I turn fellow bookworms are mentioning The Woman in White. I must have stumbled onto a new literary trend...or perhaps a Rennaissance of reading Wilkie Collins? Truth be told, The Woman in White has never been out of print since its publication in 1860 as a novel (it was previously released in serial format), so Wilkie Collins' rebirth in the 21st Century may not be the right way to put it.

June 20, 2011

Werner Herzog's Of Walking in Ice: Munich-Paris

I'm a huge fan of Werner Herzog's films, so when his retrospective was screened at Paris' Centre Pompidou (National Museum of Contemporary Art) last year, I was pleased to find Of Walking in Ice: Munich-Paris in the museum's excellent bookshop. The travelogue has been reprinted (this is true for French editions, I'm not sure about English language copies of the book), and reveals that the film director is not only gifted for capturing his observations on film, but on paper as well.

June 16, 2011

Earl Derr Biggers' The House Without a Key (Charlie Chan)

My first introduction to the well-loved detective Charlie Chan came as a young child via my grandfather. He initiated me into the vintage world of noir mystery with scratchy VHS copies of the black and white films of the 1930s courtesy of our local library. My memories of the stories are fuzzy, but I still recall their cozy ambiance, perfect for curling up in front of on a rainy day.

June 15, 2011

The Storyteller by Marios Vargas Llosa

Reading The Storyteller was my first experience with 2010 Nobel Laureate Marios Vargas Llosa, a Peruvian born writer now based in Spain. Known as one of the Latin American "Boom" writers, Vargas Llosa's first novel, The Time of the Hero, was released in 1963 shortly after he completed his doctoral thesis on Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Since that time, Vargas Llosa has developed an international reputation for his gift of invention in the realms of narrative techniques and perception, both quite palpable in The Storyteller.

June 12, 2011

Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder

This is another book that falls into the category of I've-been-meaning-to-read-it-for-years, so I'm delighted to have rediscovered it and relay the news that it was certainly worthwhile reading. Often advertised as juvenile literature, Gaarder asserts that he wrote Sophie's World as a philosophy companion for middle school/high school-aged students whom, the author laments, are not required to study philosophy at public school in his native Norway. Well, sadly, most young Anglophone students aren't either, so it turns out, Sophie's World is an international bestseller, perhaps filling in some of the blanks (gaping holes?) that our respective educational systems have left us with.  Madeleine L'Engle certainly thought so: she once said of Sophie's World "How I wish I'd had it during my college freshman survey of philosophy!".

June 11, 2011

Eternal Chalice: The Grail in Literature & Legend by Monica Brzezinski Potkay

Recently I've discovered a series of audio books entitled The Modern Scholar. Each title in the series is a  course that addresses a specialized topic in history, literature, science or cultural studies through lectures on CD, as well as a book that complements the information provided in the recorded material. Being the Arthurian junkie that I am, I leapt into the course Eternal Chalice: The Grail in Literature and Legend,  written and read by Monica Brzezinski Potkay, a professor of literature at the College of William and Mary.

Beginning with Chr├ętien de Troye's first reference to the Grail in the Medieval romance Perceval ou Le Conte du Graal, Professor Potkay covers the Grail's literary heritage in historic France, Britain and Germany, working up to the Pre-Raphelite's love affair with Arthurian lore in the 19th century, and ending in the present with pop-cultural favorites, such as the Disney film The Sword in the Stone and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, among others. The eight hour course in divided into fourteen lectures and is both a thorough and enjoyable exploration of the origins of the Grail, the evolution of its symbolism and why it is such a lasting topic that continues to generate interest today.

Recently the BBC published an online gallery called The Legend of the Holy Grail. You can view the images, many of which are referenced in this course, HERE.

The official course description of Eternal Chalice is as follows:

The goal of this course is to provide an overview of the many different ways writers of fiction and nonfiction have imagined, and reimagined, the object known as the Grail. We'll look at how the Grail was invented as a powerful literary symbol in the late 12th and early 13th centuries by a group of medieval romancers who celebrated the Grail as a symbol of perfection. At times, this perfection was social, and the Grail functioned as a symbol of the perfect knight or of the ideal chivalric society. Most often, however, the Grail's perfection was unmistakably religious, so that it was indeed the Holy Grail. After being ignored for centuries, the Grail was rediscovered in the 19th century by both poets and scholars, who radically reinvented what the Grail stood for. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, the Grail fascinates many...

If you're looking for more information on the course, you can visit the Modern Scholar Series page for Eternal Chalice HERE, but if you're looking to purchase a copy, you can find it for half the price on Amazon and even less if you're willing to buy it on audio cassette instead of CD. I don't normally post links to Amazon, but I will do so HERE, so you can easily visit the link if interested. You can also click HERE for the CD version (Amazon in partnership with

Finally, if you're interested in Arthurian lore and literature, I posted about The Mists of Avalon back in December, HERE.

To leave you on a lighter note...behold a group of gallant knights as they endure the archetypal trials and tribulations demanded of any respectable Grail quest: 

June 10, 2011

Dead in the Family (Sookie Stackhouse) by Charlaine Harris

Those of you who have been with me since the beginning know that one of my guiltiest pleasures is Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse series.  Last Spring, having finished all the other Sookie books,  Dead in the Family was released in hardback to much anticipation, but all my other Sookie books are uniform paperbacks, and to be honest, I really didn't feel like forking over twenty euros for a book that I'd finish in about an hour (albeit one very enjoyable hour). So, I took a deep breath, went into withdrawal and began the long wait for a paperback copy, discovering a few of Harris' other series during the interim (admittedly a new-found pleasure). This year I pre-ordered Dead in the Family and received a paperback version as soon as it became available in April.  

While I haven't lost any of my enthusiasm for Harris' well-loved series, it's really tough to read the Sookie books separately with long gaps between each novel. They flow extremely well as a series of stories and I had the feeling that I'd lost some of the momentum, simply because after a year, my memory wasn't as sharp on some of the details that really enrich the plot and make the books so irresistible. A word of advice: the series makes for such easy reading, if you've let some time pass from one book to the next, you may as well go back and read them all again. Its what I should've done to bring myself up to speed. In any case, due to being a bit "out of the loop", the first few chapters of Dead in the Family were enjoyable, but not like the page turners I remember. However, half-way through, I had fully rekindled my love for Harris' Southern vampire community and felt on track again. 

Dead in the Family continues the tale of a supernatural (sups) community in flux, with new characters entering and exiting at all times amid a host of our favorite characters still fully on board from the very first novel. The repercussions of the Fae War, the shifter's "coming out" and Sookie's new relationship with Eric develop further as well as a new conflict with a vampire king.... My only complaint is that now with Dead Reckoning out in hardback, Harris' latest release, I'll have to wait yet another year for a softcover...
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