Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Book of Memory

The Book of Memory, by Petina Gappah

Memory is in prison for murder.  She is the only woman on death row in the Harare prison, and her lawyer has asked her to write down everything, to be sent to an advocate in America, in hopes of getting an appeal.  So Memory writes for her life, starting with the day her parents sold her to a white man when she was nine years old -- the same man she is in prison for murdering.  But even Memory does not know the whole story of her life.

It's a really good novel, and Memory's account is full of fascination.  She jumps back and forth, talking about her childhood with her family, as an albino child in a slum, then to life in the Harare prison, then to her adolescence in Lloyd's care, where she was given an excellent education but had little explained to her.  She keeps coming back to the same questions: why did Lloyd buy her?  Why did her family give her away? and does not expect ever to know.

Good stuff.  I recommend it.

PS This book is, of course, for Zimbabwe in the Read All Around the World project, and it's also book #11 in my original list of 20 Books for Summer.  

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Go-Between

The Go-Between, by L. P. Hartley

The first line will be familiar to all: The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

Leo, now well into his 50s, opens up a box of memories and tells the story of the summer of 1900, when he turned 13.  It was first a sort of awakening, and then a life-changing trauma.  As Leo remembers his lost innocence, he also wonders whatever became of the people involved...

Leo goes to stay at a country house with a much wealthier school friend, and since Marcus' older sister is engaged to the local baronet, there is a constant social whirl around her.  She enlists Leo as a messenger in her secret romance, and it all ends in disaster.

This is a really famous novel, considered a classic of the 20th century, but it mostly did not enchant me.  Its exploration of the emotional and mental life of a young teen boy did not reel me in.  It was fine, but I did not love it, and I was ready to be done well before it was over.  My final opinion is meh.  Sorry, L. B. Hartley.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Marie Grubbe

Marie Grubbe, by Jens Peter Jacobsen

This post is about a 19th-century Danish novel you've almost certainly never heard of.  But stick around till the end for a real surprise...

J. P. Jacobsen is virtually unknown in the English-speaking world, but he was quite important in European literature.  I studied his more famous second novel, Niels Lyhne, in college, and re-read it a few years ago.  In that post, I gave a little background, and here it is again for your convenience:
 ...a major classic of the late 19th century -- for literary middle-Europeans interested in Romanticism and Naturalism.  Thomas Mann and Rainer Maria Rilke considered it to be among the greatest of novels.  Henrik Ibsen and Stefan Zweig cited Jacobsen as an influence.  Both Zweig and James Joyce even wanted to learn Danish so they could read this novel in the original!  But J. P. Jacobsen remained obscure in the English-speaking literary world, and Niels Lyhne was not translated into English until 1919, forty years after it was published in 1880.
Jacobsen's first novel was Marie Grubbe, published in 1876, and it too made something of a splash.  It's historical fiction about a real person; the actual Marie Grubbe was a 17th-century noblewoman (she lived 1643–1718).  Jacobsen begins his story with Marie as a young teenager, where she develops a huge crush on the old king's dashing son, Ulrik Christian Gyldenløve, but he dies and she is soon married off to the new king's dashing son, Ulrik Frederik Gyldenløve.  This works for about a year.  Ulrik Frederik becomes viceroy of Norway, but Marie is miserable.  After a divorce, her father marries her off to a neighboring landowner, Palle Dyre, and that is miserable too, but she meets Søren, a stablehand on the property, and falls in love with him, although at this point she is over forty and he is about half her age.  Marie and Søren marry and live in dire poverty.  She is finally happy, but this comes at the cost of her downfall; having started off a lovely, delicate lady of the court, she has been defeated, and has descended through degradation into a gross sensuality.

It's not all that easy to keep track of the characters -- there are two kings, each with illegitimate sons, and they mostly seem to be named Ulrik, a name I have always disliked -- and there's a handy foreword to help, explaining that illegitimate sons of Danish kings were always given the surname of Gyldenløve, which means 'golden lion.' 

I wasn't gripped by the novel; whatever Rilke and Joyce and Zweig saw in it, I did not.  It was fine, but I did not love it.  I would read Niels Lyhne again, but I doubt I will bother much with Marie in the future.  Clearly I'm a Philistine.

Now for the really wild part.  Marie Grubbe was translated into English in 1917, and although some few English literary types loved it, it remained pretty obscure and was practically unknown in America.  Except for one remarkable exception: a copy made the rounds among Harlem Renaissance writers, and Zora Neale Hurston read it.  Then she used the framework -- a woman marrying three times, only finding happiness with the third, seemingly inappropriate, husband and a life of poverty --  for her amazing novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (which I only read for the first time back in February).

That was pretty surprising to me, and I wanted to know more.  I tracked down an academic paper on it,* and read up a bit.  It seems Hurston didn't love Jacobsen's treatment of Marie, and wanted to write the story her own way, with 'Marie' undefeated.  And good for her, I say!  I liked that novel much more.

As far as blogging goes, just call me Ms. Procrastinator.  But hey, I finished a quilt top, got a kid's wisdom teeth taken out (and was driven nearly mad by the recovery) and painted a bedroom.  Now I'm very much not looking forward to the start of school.  I have to do this paperwork, and there's shopping stuff, and they have to pack lunches every day.  Homeschooling was easier.  But!  Before that, we're going to go see the solar eclipse.  Have you got eclipse plans?? 

* Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes were Watching God and the Influence of Jens Peter Jacobsen's Marie Grubbe
Author(s): Jon Woodson
Source: African American Review, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Winter, 1992), pp. 619-635

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, by Natasha Pulley

Jenny reviewed this book a while ago and I was intrigued enough to get it from the library, though I was not sure I would like it.  I'm still not sure whether I liked it!

In an alternate Victorian London, telegraph clerk Thaniel Steepleton* has a mysterious gold watch show up in his lodgings.  Six months later, the watch saves him from an Irish bomb.  The bombing is not very interesting, but the watch is; where did it come from?  Thaniel finds Keita Mori, a Japanese watchmaker with some fairly stunning inventions and something odd about him.  Much of the story is dedicated to figuring out just what Mori's mystery is, and what it means.

We also have Grace, who wants to be a physicist but is hemmed in by family demands that she marry.  I found her to be an awkward character; I don't love where she fits into the story, I don't know why she is at Oxford, despising classicists, when Cambridge is where the science is at and also they accepted women students first, and could she really get a chair in either location?  It's interesting that she's after proving the existence of aether, which may actually exist in this version of the universe, but otherwise she does bizarre things.  

It's almost steampunk, but the clockwork is too pretty.  I kind of liked this novel, and I was also frequently annoyed by it.  I am distinctly ambivalent about the whole thing, including the cover, which I want to love but which may just be too much.  And that might be how I feel about the story too.

If you've read this, let's argue about Grace in the comments!

*Thaniel?  Dude, really?  He even apologizes for it in the story, but that is not enough.

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Lark

The Lark, by E. Nesbit

I'd never heard of this novel by E. Nesbit until it started making the blog rounds several months ago.  It's not a children's story; it's more for adults or adolescents.  Perhaps it would have been a YA novel if such a category had existed 100 years ago.  Anyway, I've always been a big Nesbit fan, so I was excited to see this book, and it's so easy to get, $3 on Kindle.  Even I, cheap as I am, am willing to shell out $3 for a Nesbit book I've never read.

Cousins Jane and Lucilla have spent the entire Great War sequestered away in school, despite being quite grown up by the end.  Now, in 1919, their guardian has finally sent for them to leave school -- only for them to find that he has lost nearly all their money, and having scrammed out of the country, has left them with a cottage and 500 pounds to live on.  Jane firmly announces that this whole thing is going to be A Lark, and they set out to earn their living.  Next thing they know, they have their eye on a much larger house in the neighborhood, they've made friends with half the village, and they're getting into awkward scrapes with regularity.

This story has several standard Nesbit features; like the Bastables and the railway children, Jane and Lucilla are very ordinary girls with distinct personalities.  They meet and make friends with ease, frequently tromping in where anyone else would fear to tread.  They come up with oddball plans that mostly don't work, and they get into terrible pickles even when trying to do their best to do the right thing. 

The difference is that Jane and Lucilla are not children any more, though they almost are; having missed the war, they are fresh and naive, lacking the tragic experiences that every other character has had.  These are all adults, pretty much, and they have adult problems to deal with.  But they try to meet everything with a sense of adventure and fun, and that makes the book a lovely pleasure to read.

If you're a Nesbit fan, or an Anglophile, you should definitely get hold of The Lark.  It is just wonderful fun.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

The Long Earth

The Long Earth, by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

I've been meaning to read this series for so long, and somehow just never picked up a copy.  But then The Long Earth came to me -- somehow or other -- and I put it on my TBR shelf and finally got to it.  I love it!  It's great stuff!  I can't wait to start the next one, which I just checked out of the library.

Twenty minutes into the future, instructions appear online for a gadget that appears to have no purpose or meaning -- and its power source is a potato.  Kids promptly start building their own gadgets, and the startling result is that they are transported sideways, to another Earth in another dimension.  Pretty soon everyone has a 'stepper' and is experimenting with dimension-hopping; there appears to be an infinite number of pristine Earths, each ever so slightly different than the last, and all uninhabited by humans.  Suddenly resources are infinite, as long as you can get to them.

As groups of people start leaving the original Earth to settle elsewhere, we get to know certain people well.  Joshua is a natural stepper, used to having Earths to himself, until he's hired to explore as far as anyone can go.  Monica is a police officer and one of the first people to have to deal with the fallout, starting with inexplicably disappearing children and ending with a terrorist, a kid whose family left him behind when they stepped away to start new lives.

I'm really looking forward to the next book!  This is a great SF novel.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Foundation Pit

The Foundation Pit, by Andrei Platonov

I've had this novel floating around on the edges of my mental TBR list for years, and last year I acquired two different translations of it -- my brother had them.  I eventually chose to read the Mirra Ginsburg translation on the rationale that I have previously read her translation of Zamyatin's We, and I have a couple of her picture books; she has worked a lot with Jose Aruego, whose work I love.  So Ginsburg it was.

Platonov was a Russian writer of the 1920s and a disappointed Communist.  He wanted a world where people shared willingly with each other (as in the days of early Christianity) and he got oppression and violence.  When he wrote about his disillusionment, he was of course banned, and he then remained a pretty obscure writer for a long time.  Long after his death, he was 'rehabilitated' and eventually venerated.

Voshchev, fired from his factory job because of his overly-thoughful habits, walks down the road until he comes to a town where everyone is working on digging a foundation for a huge 'general' building, where everyone will live happily and in silence.  He joins the work crew, but every time they think they've gotten the pit large enough, the engineer decides it had better be larger yet.  Everyone is working hard, but all they ever get out of it is a hole.
Everything surrendered itself to unquestioning existence, Voshchev alone was apart and silent.  A dead, fallen leaf lay near his hand, brought by the wind from some distant tree; now this leaf was destined to find peace in the earth.  Voshchev picked up the dry leaf and hid it in a secret compartment of his sack where he collected all sorts of lost, unfortunate objects.  You did not know the meaning of your life, Voshchev thought with careful sympathy.  Lie here; I'll find out why you lived and died.  Since nobody needs you and you are lying uselessly in the middle of things,  I will keep and remember you.

A country clock hung on the wooden wall and ticked patiently, worked by its dead weights.  A pink flower was painted on its face to give cheer to everyone who looked at the time.  The workmen sat down in a row along the table.  The mower, who did woman's work in the barrack, sliced the bread and gave each mana piece, adding a chunk of last night's cold meat.  The workmen began to chew earnestly, ingesting the food as a duty, but not enjoying it.  Although they had knowledge of the meaning of life, which is equivalent to eternal happiness, their faces were gloomy and emaciated, and instead of peace they showed weariness.
We get to know several of the workers, and a little girl, Natasha, whose mother has died.  There are few children here and she is the hope of the future for all of the workers, but despite all their love and care, she dies, taking the dream of Communism with her.

It's a surrealist and tragic novel; strange things happen and it doesn't necessarily make sense, but then the Five-Year Plan was like that too.

Although it's short, it's not an easy novel to read.  I won't claim to have understood it very well, though I did like it very much.  It's one to work up to, and then to read several times over a lifetime.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Half A Crown

Half A Crown, by Jo Walton

This must be the longest, most put-off mystery trilogy in the history of my reading.  I really liked Farthing years ago -- pre-Howling Frog -- and then, a few years later, discovered the existence of Ha'penny and enjoyed it too.  I then got hold of a copy of Half a Crown, but I got maybe a third of the way in before stopping because it was getting so tense.  I kept meaning to pick it back up...and now, five years later, I've done it.

It's 1960, a good ten years after the events of Ha'penny.  Fascism is well entrenched in Britain and the Axis rules the world.  Carmichael is now commander of the Watch, which is really the British Gestapo.  He is good at his job and nicely blackmailable, but he's also secretly using Watch resources to help Jews escape to Ireland.  When his ward, Elvira, is accidentally caught up in a street riot and arrested on the eve of her debut in London's social elite, everything threatens to unravel.

All this is going on as a massive peace conference is about to take place; Hitler and Japanese officials, and the doubtfully loyal Duke of Windsor, are all descending upon London, and Carmichael finds himself trying to foil a possible coup -- thus defending the rule of his hated dictator....

Most of the story is told from Elvira's point of view, and she is both sympathetic and clueless.  Brought up to be a proper fascist debutante, she hasn't really got a clue.  Meanwhile, Carmichael is walking this tightrope where he tries to figure out how much he can get away with while simultaneously feeling himself erode away, one compromise at a time.  I understood why I put the book down the first time; the tension gets to be unbearable and I had to make myself keep going in the hope that the resolution would be worth it.

Happily for me, the resolution is worth the read and I'm glad I finished the trilogy, even if it did take me about a decade to do it.  The Small Change Trilogy is excellent.

This is my 7th book from my "20 books of summer" challenge list, and I have two more to write about.  Of course, I've read a few others that popped up and demanded to be read right away, so I suppose I'm up to 13 or 14 if you count those too.  I'm going to try to hit 20 off my original list but that seems a bit unlikely, since I'm not quite halfway through!  Getting sick really didn't help at all.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017


Rashomon, and 17 Other Stories, by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Akutagawa is one of the great modernists of Japan, so when I came upon this very neat Penguin edition of his stories, I snapped it up.  (I have a small pile of Japanese classics to get to...)  Isn't it fun looking?  The 18 stories are arranged by the chronology of their settings, so first there is a set of stories set in the Heian period (which ended in 1185), then several in the Tokugawa Shogunate (1600 - 1868), and finally a few set in Akutagawa's own early 20th century.  A final set of pieces are semi-autobiographical, fragmenty sort of things that often reflect Akutagawa's struggle with his mental health.

Since most of us have heard of Kurosawa's film Rashomon, the two stories that inspired it are first in the collection.  One story only contributed its title (the plot is illustrated on the book cover), and the second, "In a Bamboo Grove," is the actual source of the murder mystery shown in the film.  My daughter and I really liked Throne of Blood last year, and now our ambition is to watch Rashomon too, so I haven't seen it yet.  The other Heian-period story that I liked best was "Hell Screen," which is quite the shivery tale.

I liked all three of the Tokugawa-era stories, two of which were about the government's persecution of Japanese Christians.  The other was a tragic story of a young lord's insanity and his retainer's dilemma.

Two of the stories in modern settings were ghost stories, and I liked "The Story of a Head That Fell Off" best.  The autobiographical pieces were sad and somewhat confused.

I believed that I had committed every sin known to man, but they went on calling me "Sensei" whenever they had the chance, as if I were some sort of guru.  I couldn't help but feel in this the presence of something mocking me.  "The presence of something"?  But my materialism could only reject such mysticism.  Just a few months earlier, I had written in a small coterie magazine: "I have no conscience at all -- least of all an artistic conscience.  All I have is nerves."
I enjoyed reading most of these stories, and I'd like to get hold of the short novella "Kappa" someday; it is not included in this volume.  Most of these are not too hard to understand, so compared to many longer or more difficult works of Japanese literature, these are pretty good if you're looking for a good introduction.  Several of them are also standard classics that most students read in school.

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Durrells of Corfu

The Durrells of Corfu, by Michael Haag

Hey folks, I have missed blogging so much lately!  I had a tiny little finger surgery (the most minor ever) a couple of weeks ago, and I thought I would be able to write again after a couple of days off.  Ha ha.  This is the first time I've felt capable of typing properly; I've been able to write the odd comment here and there, but first it hurt too much, so I would type funny to accommodate, and then I could hit the keyboard, but the big ol' bandage meant that I always hit more keys than I meant to.  Either way it was a huge hassle and I just didn't try very hard.  I also got sick with a nasty bug, so I forgot about a lot of my more ambitious reading plans and just read straight through most of the Anne of Green Gables series.  Even so, I now have a pile of books to write about, and I thought about doing a large multi-book post, but with two or three countries represented, I just can't.  I want individual posts for the Reading All Around the World list, and thus I shall just take my time....

Well.  I have probably mentioned many a time that one of my all-time favorite books is Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals, and I've tried to collect as many of the rest of his books as I can.  The rest of the world has caught up with me, and there's now a TV series about the Durrell family adventures on Corfu; so far I've only seen a couple of episodes, but it's pretty fun.  And to top it off, Michael Haag wrote a book explaining the family's background, how they ended up on Corfu, and approximately what actually happened there.  An old buddy of mine actually moved to the island of Jersey a little over a year ago, and he told me about the existence of this book (since I kept bugging him about reading the Corfu books).  Thanks, dude!

Haag puts in a lot of great family background.  The Durrells were originally an Anglo-Indian couple; Louisa grew up in India and it was her home, and that was where the children were all born.  It was the tragic early death of Mr. Durrell that precipitated their departure and nearly wrecked Louisa; they moved to England and were miserable for a while before Larry suggested moving to Corfu as a cost- and sanity-saving measure.

My Family and Other Animals puts a comedic gloss on all this stuff, and renders the other siblings as caricatures more than as human beings, so I liked finding out more about who they really were.  Gerry messed around with events, people, and the entire timeline quite a lot; he never mentions, for example, that Larry was married at the time and mostly lived in a different house, and he erases Theodore's wife and daughter (one of his best friends) completely.  Some events actually happened to other people, and he just lifted them; it was a family habit anyway.   The nice thing about Haag is that he loves this family, too, and manages to tell us a more accurate version of history while refraining from ripping our dreams to pieces.

Haag also includes plenty of information on what happened to everybody afterwards (something I always want to know!).  Gerry ignores history and implies that the family moved to Corfu on a whim, and then left again the same way, but in fact it was the war that forced them to leave -- at various times.  Some of them only barely got out.  We get to learn about everybody's war experiences and what happened after that, and it's often great stuff.  Larry moves around a lot and starts writing in the big time (someday I have really got to read some of his work).  Margo has a lot of extremely exciting war adventures and hosts Gerry while he writes his book to fund a zoo.  And Leslie, well...poor Leslie has a bit of a difficult time.

For Durrell fans, this is a book worth reading.  It mostly won't ruin your dreams, and it's got plenty of interesting information that rounds out the people you know -- and they benefit from it.  If you have never read My Family and Other Animals, or at least seen the TV show, then you have no business reading it and have some other reading to do first.