Saturday, 31 March 2012

My Big Fat Book Haul

Last weekend I went to a used book fair, an annual event in my small town. I'd never been before. But I'll certainly be going back! I found so many books that will be part of my 1001 Childrens Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up quest. I staggered out under the weight of the bulging shopping bag. My son was well bored, but that's a small price to pay. For months? Or years? of reading.

31 books for 1001! And I only had one of them already. Not bad.

And then another 10 random books, mainly books that I'd never heard of, but couldn't leave there. Somehow I've decided that I will like Paula Fox, before I've read any of her books. I read a review of her biography a few years ago. I have that sitting in the TBR, and one or two others of hers. And now three more....

Saturday Snapshot, is a wonderful weekly meme from at home with books

Friday, 30 March 2012

Lives and Legends of the Saints

I stumbled across this book whilst browsing the shelves of my local library, helping my son to research an assignment. Given my recent brush with St Roch I was immediately intrigued. I flicked through, noticed that Joan of Arc was there- and I was hooked. Naturally it came home with me. 

I'll be the first to admit that my religious knowledge is almost non-existant. So I learnt lots from this simple but beautiful book. 

20 saints are featured. Some big names of course. Joan, naturally. John the Baptist. Luke. Paul. Peter. Michael. George. But also many lesser known saints for me. Apollonia. Lucy. Eustace. Martin of Tours. All illustrated by a beautiful old paintings, some by very well known Masters- Giotto, on the cover with Saint Francis of Assisi, Hieronymous Bosch, Raphael and Caravaggio. 

Whilst I enjoyed all the saints featured, I found the women the most interesting, and somehow their paintings were the most appealing too. 

Saint Lucy was a wealthy Sicilian noblewoman in the 3rd century, who apparently tore out her own eyes to send to a suitor. He became a Christian inspired by her courage and devotion, and her eyes and sight were then restored. While I can suspend disbelief for a while, it would be fascinating to know the basis of this story. 

The painting of her by Francesco del Cossa, currently on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, has her holding a pair of eyes on a handle, and a palm leaf, the symbol of triumph over death. I love the beautiful golden background and think that this must be astonishing to see in real life. 

Catherine of Alexandria, sadly now most famous for her mode of torture (the Catherine Wheel), lived in Alexandria in the 4th century. She publicly protested the persecution of Christians, but it was her refusal to marry the emporer Maxentius that caused her to be tortured on the spiked wheel. Angels threw bolts of lightening so the wheel broke, and she was eventually beheaded, where milk flowed from her neck, rather than blood. The stories of the saints are so often gruesome, as is much of history I suppose, but none of that is conveyed in the rather serene portrait of her by Fernando Yanez de la Almedina.

She is standing astride the broken wheel that was used to torture her, and depicted with a book of philosophy (presumably because she had converted the 50 famous philosophers Maxentius sent to sway her from Christianity. I wonder if we would find 50 famous philosophers these days. Perhaps the ancient world had more philosophers than we do now), a crown symbolising her royalty and the palm leaf of martyrdom (a big motif in painting the saints genre).

The story of Apollonia is particularly extraordinary. She was an elderly deaconess living in Alexandria. In 249 AD the Roman emporer Decius was persecuting Christians. A mob formed, many Christians fled, but Apollonia stayed to comfort them. She was arrested by the authorities and ordered to "worship their stone idols". Apollonia refused, and made the sign of the Cross, which caused the statues to break. As her punishment all her teeth were pulled out one by one. She was then threatened with being thrown onto a bonfire unless she renounced her faith. She stalled by saying she needed time to think. She chose to jump on the fire rather than be thrown.

Apollonia is typically portrayed as a young girl despite having been an old woman at the time of her death. She is always shown wearing a necklace of teeth or holding a single tooth in a pair of pincers as in this portrait by Francisco de Zurbaran, a portrait that I shall have to seek out on my next visit to the Louvre. 

Saint Cecilia also lived in the 3rd century, in Rome. Cecilia was a Christian who converted her husband and brother in law to Christianity on her wedding day. The Governor of Rome killed the two men and ordered Cecilia to worship Rome's pagan gods. She was sentenced to death by suffocation for her refusal, but survived. She was then to be beheaded with a sword. Cecilia survived for three days, allowing her to give away all her money to the poor before she died. 

Cecilia was so close to heaven that she could hear the angels singing. She invented the organ, which came to represent harmony and praise for God. She became the patron saint of musicians, poets and singers in the 16th century. The painting of her by Pietro de Cortona shows Cecilia wearing a crown of fresh flowers to indicate her purity, and is of course holding the ever present palm leaf of martyrdom.

And Joan? I'd seen the portrait of her by Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres before. It's a famous image, again housed in the Louvre. I've probably even seen it. Her basic story is presented but I didn't learn anything new in the one page summary. Overall it's a fascinating book on many levels, and I'm keen to look at some other books the library has on the lives of saints. 

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Wondrous Words Wednesday 28/3/12

Wondrous Words Wednesday is a fabulous weekly meme hosted by Bermuda Onion, where we share new (to us) words that we’ve encountered in our weekly reading.  

Today I share even more words from The Wind in the Willows!

1. Murrain

"Watch and ward him with all thy skill; and mark thee well, greybeard, should aught untoward befall, thy old head shall answer for his- and a murrain on both of them!"

i) Any of various highly infectious diseases of cattle, as anthrax.
ii) Obsolete A pestilence or dire disease. The Free Dictionary. 

Picture credit

Oh how fabulous. It's like wishing a pox upon you! And I'm astonished by Gustave Dore's biblical images. I came across Dore about 18 months ago when I read a beautiful edition of Charles Perrault's Fairy Tales that was illustrated by him. He has a wonderful, detailed, dark style. It seems he did a lot of biblical illustrations too. I do love the journeys our Wondrous Words open up. 

2. Selvedge (Noun) (Selvage in the US)

The willow-wren was twittering his thin little song, hidden himself in the dark selvedge of the river bank.

i) The edge of a fabric that is woven so that it will not fray or ravel.
ii) An ornamental fringe at either end of an Oriental rug.
iii) The edge plate of a lock that has a slot for a bolt. The Free Dictionary. 

Clearly, our usage is not there. I knew it was a word my mother used, and it had something to do with sewing. 

Merriam Webster has some slightly different meanings about fabric, and then I think our meaning here

An outer or peripheral part: border, edge. 

3. Osiers (Noun)

'I hear nothing myself,' he said, 'but the wind playing in the reeds and rushes and osiers.'

i) Any of several willows having long rodlike twigs used in basketry, especially the Eurasian Salix viminalis and S. purpurea.
ii) A twig of one of these trees. The Free Dictionary. 

Picture credit
The title quote! Caught by chance....

4. Sward (Noun)

...saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in majestic ease on the sward;

i) Land covered with grassy turf.
ii) A lawn or meadow. The Free Dictionary. 

5. Immured (Verb)

When Toad found himself immured in a dank and noisome dungeon, and knew that all the grim darkness of a medieval fortress lay between him and the outer world of sunshine and well-metalled high roads where he had lately been so happy, disporting himself as if he had bought up every road in England, he flung himself at full length on the floor, and shed bitter tears, and abandoned himself to dark despair. 

i) To confine within or as if within walls; imprison.
ii) To build into a wall
iii) To entomb in a wall. The Free Dictionary. 

Ah that makes so much sense! And I have a chance of remembering it. From the latin for wall (murus), which is where of course mural comes from. 

6. Chaff (Noun, Verb)

The chaff and the humorous sallies to which he was subjected, and to which, of course, he had to provide prompt and effective reply, formed, indeed, his chief danger; for Toad was an animal with a strong sense of his own dignity, and the chaff was mostly (he thought) poor and clumsy, and the humour of the sallies entirely lacking. 

i) Finely cut straw or hay used as fodder. 
ii) Trivial or worthless matter. 
iii) To engage in playful teasing. Good-natured teasing. Banter. The Free Dictionary

I spent several years as a teenage girl mucking about with horses, so knew the first meaning. Here Grahame is using the third.

The chaff I knew
My Google Image search quickly showed me another meaning for chaff that I was unaware of. 
Chaff cartridges

7. Sallies (Noun, Verb)

i) To rush out or leap forth suddenly
ii) To issue suddenly from a defensive or beseiged position to attack an enemy.
iii) To set out on a trip or excursion: sallied forth to see the world.
i) A sudden rush forward; a leap.
ii) An assault form a defensive position; a sortie.
iii) A sudden emergence into action or expression; an outburst
iv) A sudden quick witticism; a quip
v) A venturing forth; a jaunt. 

Again a new usage for me, I knew the sallied forth usage, but not the quip as used here. 

8. Pettifogging (Verb)

It was hard he though, to be within sight of safety and almost home, and to be baulked by the want of a few wretched shillings and by the pettifogging mistrustfulness of paid officials. 

Petty, mean, quibbling. The Free Dictionary. 

I love this word, and hope to use it soon. 

Sunday, 25 March 2012

My Side of the Mountain

My Side of the Mountain was a Newbery Honor Book in 1960. It is still popular and in print in the US, although I suspect that it is much less known on this side of the Pacific. 

I can see why this tale of an independent, capable lad like Sam Gribley spending a year living alone in a tree in the Catskill Mountains is so popular with children. It's a great adventure tale. Sam runs away from his apparently loving family in New York, where he is one of 9 children, to eek out an existence, eating plants he finds in the forest and killing his own prey. He even befriends a young peregrine falcon, which he names Frightful (perhaps the best named pet ever?), and uses her to help with his hunting. 

There are quite lengthy and detailed instructive sections about how to survive in the wild. How to whittle your own fish hooks. Diagrams even of the plants he eats, and recipes for the meals he eats such as frog soup. I'm sure countless child readers have dreamed that they too would run away from their family and survive in the wilds, using their wits, muscles and skills. 

The writing style is quite simplistic, written as it is almost in diary form of a 12 year old boy. There are some special passages though.

Frightful would awaken, I would feed her, she would fall back to sleep, and I would watch the breath rock her body ever so slightly. I was breathing the same way, only not as fast. Her heart beat much faster than mine. She was designed to her bones for a swifter life. 

Nearby  another one arose and there was a pop. Little bubbles of air snapped as these voiceless animals of the earth came to the surface. That got me to smiling. I was glad to know this about earthworms. I don't know why, but this seemed like one of the nicest things I had learned in the woods- that earthworms, lowly, confined to the darkness of the earth, could make just a little stir in the world.  

Later in the book there are a number of reflections about loneliness. By this stage Sam has spent the better part of a year living on the mountain. So it is natural that he consider it. But Sam does not get lonely. He has the occasional visitor, both two and more legged. And he befriends Frightful and Baron Weasel.

The human being, even in the midst of people, spends nine-tenths of his time alone with the private voices of his own head. Living alone on a mountain is not much different, except that your speaking voice gets rusty. 

There are some rather literary references. A stranger Sam meets dubs him Thoreau, and later quotes Dickens. Sam himself is rather mindful of nutrition. He recognises that winter restricts his diet and puts him at risk of deficiency. A nose bleed in January makes him worry about his health. He learns that liver is a useful source of vitamin C, and uses that to stave off scurvy. Very interesting to note on Wiki, that most animals synthesise their own vitamin C. And that scurvy develops after just 3 months of severe or complete dietary vitamin C deficiency. Which makes sense for a water soluble vitamin.

I did find it slightly hard to suspend belief that his family left him alone, and the numerous adults that he told what he was doing let him be as well. I didn't really like the ending to the book, finding it much too implausible, but overall I did enjoy my time with My Side of the Mountain. It was also an interesting contrast to From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler which I read recently. There a young girl, Claudia, ran to New York, specifically the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here, a young man runs from New York. I love timing like that.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Sydney Harbour Bridge is 80!

An event so stupendous that Google devoted their banner to it on Monday March 19.

Happily I was in Sydney last weekend, gazing at her with wonder. It's always a special moment. I must have seen the bridge hundreds of times if not thousands- I lived in Sydney for 10 years, and have lived most of my life a mere few hours drive away. I still get a thrill every time I see that beautiful harbour. Whatever time of day, or night.

My view as I sat eating amazing oysters at Kenji (at the side of the Opera House). Topped with salmon roe and ponzu sauce. Absolutely delicious. 

And sipping some lovely Aussie bubbles of course.

Saturday Snapshot, is a wonderful weekly meme from at home with books

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Wondrous Words Wednesday 21/3/12

Wondrous Words Wednesday is a fabulous weekly meme hosted by Bermuda Onion, where we share new (to us) words that we’ve encountered in our weekly reading.  

This weeks words come from my recent readings about Marie Antoinette and Joan of Arc

From Marie Antoinette. 

1. Muguets (Noun)

Would you tint the muguets that spring from the earth after the last snows of winter?

Lily of the valley. 

A traditional gift on May 1

2. Venial (adjective)

But it was not a sin, mortal or venial.

i) Easily excused or forgiven; pardonable.
ii) Roman Catholic Church. Minor, therefore warranting only temporal punishment. 

3. Gavotte (Noun)

Master Noverre pranced up to me with his beaked eagle mask and whispered that the French delegation was enchanted with my gavotte.

i) A French peasant dance of Baroque origin in moderately quick duple meter.
ii) Music for this dance. The Free Dictionary. 

There are a number of gavotte videos on you tube, many don't look like those that would have been danced in a formal court, this one does, not sure if it's what Marie Antoinette would have danced. It looks frightfully complicated.

From Joan of Arc.

4. Bombards (Noun)

Now it was surrounded by English soldiers, battering it with their bombards. 

Illustration from Joan of Arc
A large calibre, muzzle-loading medieval cannon or mortar, used chiefly in sieges for throwing heavy stone balls. The name bombarde was first noted and sketched in a French historical text around 1380. Wiki

The more familiar word bombardment comes from bombard.

5. Pennon (Noun)

And as they jostled against her; a flaring torch caught the pennon of her standard, and set it alight. 

i) A long narrow banner or streamer borne upon a lance.
ii) A pennant, banner, or flag. 
iii) A pinion; a wing. The Free Dictionary. 

Friday, 16 March 2012

Joan of Arc

I became interested in Joan of Arc last year. Of course she's very famous and most everyone is aware of her to some extent. But I came across a rather fascinating section about her in Jim Leavesley's Mere Mortals. This is the second junior nonfiction book that I've read about her now. Both were very interesting.

Her basic story is fascinating of course. As a teenage girl Joan began hearing voices from Heaven. 

These voices told her that God had chosen her to save Orleans- a French city under siege by the English during the latter years of the Hundred Year War, and then to take the Dauphin to be crowned as King of France in Rheims (also held by the English). She sets off to see the Dauphin.

The Dauphin is aware that Joan is coming, and decides to test her, by dressing as one of his courtiers. Joan immediately walks straight up to the Dauphin. Joan arrives in Orleans by the back gate (surely it can't have been that easy?? Is it really a siege if you can just ride in the back gate?). But Joan did save Orleans. She was later captured by the English, stood trial, and famously burned at the stake in Rouen. 

So, what did I learn from this book specifically?

Joan was injured by an arrow during the battle for Orleans. The surgeon is said to have dressed her wound with olive oil and lard. 

That Joan was captured at Compiegne after the French Captain of Compiegne raised the drawbridge behind her forces, locking her out of the town. She was outnumbered, overpowered and taken prisoner.

I knew that after her capture and imprisonment Joan had jumped out of a tower window. Here, we are told that Joan was so injured after her jump that she wasn't able to eat or drink for two days. 

The judge at her trial in Rouen, which was the English capital in France at the time, Cauchon, the "wicked Bishop of Beauvais" was paid by the English to rig the trial, and find her guilty of heresy. 

Her life becomes more fascinating with each book. I was initially put off a bit by this book, just because the cover illustration seemed a bit grim and drab. Although I guess her life was grim and drab really. The other pictures within the book are brighter, and more appealing to me. I'm not sure that I would have put that particular one on the cover.

An Illustrated Year is hosted by An Abundance of Books.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Wondrous Words Wednesday 14/3/12

Wondrous Words Wednesday is a fabulous weekly meme hosted by Bermuda Onion, where we share new (to us) words that we’ve encountered in our weekly reading.  

Recently I read The Wind in the Willows for the first time. It was a treasure trove of new words. I've already made one Wondrous Words post from it.  This is the second. 

1. Corsair (Noun)

They gave us a capital one last year, about a field-mouse who was captured at sea by a Barbary corsair, and made to row in a galley; and when he escaped and got home again, his lady-love had gone into a convent.

i) A pirate, especially along the Barbary Coast
ii) A swift pirate ship, often operating with official sanction. The Free Dictionary. 

2. Wonted (adjective)

It was a bright morning in the early part of summer; the river had resumed its wonted banks and its accustomed pace, and a hot sun seemed to be pulling everything green and bushy and spiky up out of the earth towards him, as if by strings. 

Accustomed, usual. The Free Dictionary. 

3. Panoply (Noun)

A good deal of his blustering spirit seemed to have evaporated with the removal of his fine panoply. 

i) A splendid or striking array: a panoply of colourful flags.
ii) Ceremonial attire with all accesories: a portrait of the general in full panoply.
iii) Something that covers and protects: a porcupine's panoply of quills. 
iv) The complete arms and armor of a warrior. The Free Dictionary. 

The meaning here is a bit of all 4 I think. They have just removed Toad from his motor-clothes. 

4. Casquet (Noun)

...up time-worn stairs, past men-at-arms in casquet and corselet of steel, darting threatening looks through their vizards;

A light open casque (15-16th century term for any armour for the head; usually ornate without a visor), without a visor or beaver. 

Oh dear it just gets more confusing, beaver here refers to a piece of armour attached to a helmet or breastplate to protect the mouth and chin. Or indeed the visor. It's all rather circuitous. And seriously, how much would these kids have known about 16th century armour?

Picture credit
5. Corselet (Noun)

Body armour for the trunk, usually consists of a breastplate and back piece. 

Picture credit
6. Halberds (Noun)

past ancient warders, their halberds leant against the wall, dozing over a pasty and a flagon of brown ale:

A two-handed pole weapon that came to prominent use during the 14th and 15th centuries. Wiki. 

You can still buy these

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Patterns of the National Library

On our recent trip to Canberra, we visited the National Library of Australia, to see a wonderful exhibition, Handwritten, on loan from Germany.

Even though it's an amazing place to visit, I don't find our National Library the most photogenic building. It's a bit too 60s and blocky.

This seems to be the tourist brochure view.

But it has some wonderful 1960s stained glass windows in the foyer. The windows were designed by Leonard French and designed to represent Gustav Holst's The Planets.

These stained glass windows are actually very difficult to photograph. Mr Strong Belief (who is a photographer) says it's because my camera struggles with white balance, because of so much intense colour. I fiddled with the colours of the photos to try and get it to represent the glorious reds in particular, they came out too orangey in my snaps- I'm not sure the colours are exact still, but still you get the idea.

Saturday Snapshot, is a wonderful weekly meme from at home with books

Friday, 9 March 2012

Saint Roch

A few weeks ago we travelled to Canberra for a lovely overnight stay. We went to see the wonderful Handwritten exhibition at the National Library. And we went to the National Gallery of Australia to see the blockbuster Renaissance exhibition. This is a big thing for Australians. Usually we have to travel in a plane for 24 hours to Europe to see paintings like this. A big undertaking. So it's especially pleasant to be able to hop in the car for a couple of hours to see Renaissance masterpieces. You can listen to an interesting interview with the Director of the National Gallery about the exhibition, and how it was made possible during by the renovations of the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo, Italy.

I hadn't thought much about it before we went, but had seen the many ads in the weekend newspapers every week. I of course got the audio tour, and settled in to enjoy a vicarious European experience for an hour or so. I wandered in, and then realised, a little to my dismay, that many of the paintings are the ones that I skim over in the Italian section of the Louvre! Madonna and child. Crucifixion. Madonna and child. Oh dear. I was amused during that Radio National interview to hear Michael Cathcart express similar difficulty with looking at multiple depictions of Madonna and child over and over again.

Still, it was an interesting exhibition. And fabulous to see. I can't help it that I'm a heathen. The audio tour was very good, and very helpful for me, not being overly au fait with Renaissance art. I was actually quite taken with a number of the pictures. Generally the non-Madonna and non-Crucifixion paintings it must be said. It is astonishing that images made with egg yolk and pigment still look so magnificent after 500-600 years. The golds in particular are often so radiant.

At one stage I was drawn across the room to look at this particular painting.

It seemed most unusual. Why was this man flaunting his thigh? Why did it have a lump so prominently displayed? Yes an interesting lump will always attract my attention across a crowded room. Turns out that the owner of the lump is Saint Roch, in a painting by Marco d'Oggiono, a follower of Leonardo da Vinci. As I was reading the all too brief material next to the painting I had a lightbulb moment.

Saint Roch. Eglise Saint Roch! One of my favourite Parisian churches.

And I had never thought about who St Roch might have been.

From the fourteenth century the cult of Saint Roch (1295–1327) was widespread. He is said to have distributed his inheritance among the poor to become a mendicant pilgrim. He left his home in Montpellier, France, to walk into plague-stricken Italy where he cured the sick with the sign of the Cross. He succumbed to the pestilence himself, but recovered and returned to France where he died in prison, having been mistaken for a spy in his pilgrim’s clothes. 

No wonder he looks downcast and miserable. Saint Roch, Saint Rocco to the Italians, is still very popular it seems. His feast day is Aug 16. He is the patron saint of dogs (because he survived on bread brought to him by a dog, and is often pictured with a dog), plague and diseased cattle, and apparently surgeons and tile makers amongst other things.

You can read much more about this particular painting, and indeed see most if not all the paintings in the Renaissance exhibtion, really take a virtual tour, at the NGA site. It's impossible to link to specific pages, that link takes you to the introduction. Saint Roch is featured in the Late Renaissance tab.