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.

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Burning Point

The Burning Point: A Memoir of Addiction, Destruction, Love, Parenting, Survival, and Hope, by
Tracy McKay

First, I want to tell you that this is a truly well-written book.  Tracy McKay can write, people.  Even if you're not a parenting/tragedy memoir sort of person, take a look at Tracy's writing, because wow.  (I have a link to the first chapter at the end of the post.)  I am completely unable to tell you how really good this memoir is; it's not sensationalistic or angry, it's just honest and insightful and true.

The Burning Point starts with Tracy's moment of decision, when she knows it is time to get out.  Her husband, once a wonderful and caring man, has been spiraling down in the grip of his drug addiction  long enough, and she takes her three small children and leaves.  From then on, Tracy weaves together the story of how she survived the divorce, poverty, and attendant difficulties with flashback sections of her relationship with her husband.  A few particularly harrowing scenes are written in third person.  And, she also writes some wonderful stuff about her middle child, who has autism, and about his challenges.

Tracy writes with great (and hard-won) insight; anybody could learn some things from her.  The really amazing part, though, is how she writes about her former husband, with no bitterness at all.  Of course she was angry at the time, but she describes that and then how she figured out that she had to forgive if she was going to be the person and the mother she needed to be, not to mention for the sake of her children.  It's pretty stunning.

A few of these scenes were familiar to me from reading them on Tracy's blog back then, which I particularly remember because I had a real-life friend going through a nearly identical situation at the same time.  Just for that, it was nice for me to be able to read the whole story and see her come out the other side, which my friend also did.

I read the whole book in one day, on the Fourth of July, in between other stuff.  Once I started, I couldn't put it down unless I had to.  You can read the first chapter here.  I do advise you to do so, but I also warn you that you will promptly find it necessary to buy the book to find out what happens.  Kindle for choice, because then there's no wait.


In other news, it seems like my whole state is on fire this week.  We have a wildfire up here that has gotten some homes -- it's nowhere near me; in fact it's the very same area that was evacuated a few months ago when they were afraid the dam's spillway would fail.  They're calling 2017 the year of hell and high water now.  And a week ago, I was in my hometown, enjoying the cool coastal breezes, but now there's an absolutely huge wildfire up in the hills there.  My friend says they can see the flames from town now, and it's snowing ash.  Orchards and ranches are burning.  It's been pretty awful, and there are plenty more wildfires right now.  It's going to be a rough fire year.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Halfway Through 2017: Top Ten

Right about the time that I was packing up my car to hit the road, everybody posted lists of top ten books so far in 2017.  So I'm a little late to the party, but I really have had some great reads in the last few months and I'd like to share them...the trouble being, of course, that it's hard to choose just ten.  In fact, I'm not going to choose ten; I'm jolly well going to choose eleven.  But they're in chronological order, not in order of 'the best' or anything.

1. Eneas, an Old French romance.  Hard to find, but a must for anyone interested in medieval romances, because this is the first time anybody blended adventure with romantic love.  It's the story of Aeneas translated into the French chivalric mode, and it's crammed with wonders too. 
2. When Books Went to War, by Molly Guptill Manning.  I've been lucky to find some great non-fiction reading in the last several months!  This is about how the US got books to its soldiers, who needed them badly.  They loved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn best of all!

3. Stasiland, by Anna Funder.  Another great history read, Funder explores the vanished world of East Germany, where every citizen was surveilled.

4. Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston.  I can't believe I'd never read this jewel of American literature before.  Wow.

5. Bovo-Buch, by Elia Levita Bachur.  Another knightly romance...but this one is Yiddish.  And very fun to read.

6. Germania, by Simon Winder.  A 'wayward' exploration of German history, full of odd bits of treasure.

7. The Biggest Estate on Earth, by Bill Gammage.  An astounding account of how Aborigines managed the entire continent of Australia as a game park.  Plus, many many tree names.

8. The Heart of Midlothian, by Sir Walter Scott.  The story of Jeanie Deans, my new favorite heroine.  Slow start, great novel.

9. Last Things, by Marissa Moss.  A graphic novel of her husband's ALS.  Heartbreaking.

10. Mrs. Miniver, by Jan Struther.  A farewell to the sane world of pre-WWII England.  I did recently get to watch the movie, which is almost entirely different and takes place during the war, with Dunkirk and bombing and so on.

11.  The Accusation, by Bandi.  A collection of short stories smuggled out of North Korea.

There are a bunch of great things I didn't put in, though, like the entire Lord of the Rings cycle and Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy (I just realized that I meant to!) and Stolen Words, yet another history book about WWII and Jewish literature, and Connie Willis' Crosstalk.  But it's too late now, I have to stop somewhere!

Thursday, July 6, 2017


Alamut, by Vladimir Bartol

This book has so much backstory and explanation involved that I feel like I'm going to bore you stiff -- except that it's all so interesting!

In the 1930s, Vladimir Bartol wrote this novel, which was a pretty weird novel by the standards of his day and thoroughly annoyed his fellow writers.  Bartol was Slovenian, and the fashion was to write realistic portrayals of the struggles of Slovenians.  It certainly was not to write long, elaborate, highly-researched historical novels set in 11th-century Persia that were in fact kind of allegorical meditations on the rise of fascism across Europe.  But that is what Bartol did, and then he wanted to dedicate his book to Mussolini; but his publisher talked him out of doing such a dangerous thing.  Although nobody quite knew what to do with Alamut at the time, it became a beloved classic to Yugoslavians and then to the rest of Europe, but was only translated into English in 2004.  It even inspired the Assassin's Creed video game series (which I know virtually nothing about).

The historical root of the novel is taken from the life of Hassan-i Sabbah, who really did take over the fortress of Alamut in 1088 and was a famous leader in the Ismaili sect of Islam (a splinter group of Shia).  He trained elite soldiers called Hashshashin, or as you know them, assassins.

OK, now we can get to the actual plot of the novel, which has two main threads.  We have Halima, a young teenage girl sold into slavery and taken to a mysterious, beautiful garden, where she lives with other girls and is rigorously educated.  Then there is Ibn Tahir, a teenage boy whose father orders him to go become a soldier at Alamut; he is educated to be a fedayeen, an elite soldier who will fight for the Ismaili cause (that is, against the Seljuk dynasty in Persia and anybody else their leader Sayyiduna considers an enemy).  Eventually, Sayyiduna's plan becomes clear; he cultivates fanaticism in his soldiers, and feeds them on dreams of attaining Paradise upon death.  He 'proves' the reality of Paradise by allowing a select few achievers to actually visit, aided by careful drugging, where they meet enchanting houris living in a fantastic garden.  Thus the fedayeen become entirely willing to carry out dangerous political assassinations....

All on its own, it's a novel of adventure and pathos, rooted in Persian history.  But really, the reader needs to be thinking about Bartol's world and the rise of several flavors of totalitarianism, the nature of fanaticism in human nature, all sorts of things.   It's quite a novel, and would repay more than one reading.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Mount TBR Checkpoint #2

We're halfway through the year and it's time for another Mount TBR Checkpoint.  I must confess that my TBR pile has not been shrinking lately; I have slowed down and need to get myself together!  I've been focusing more lately on my giant library pile of books for the Reading All Around the World project, but that's no reason not to read some TBRs too!

Bev wants to know two things:

1. Tell us how many miles you've made it up your mountain (# of books read).  If you're really ambitious, you can do some intricate math and figure out how the number of books you've read correlates to actual miles up Pike's Peak, Mt. Ararat, etc. And feel free to tell us about any particularly exciting adventures you've had along the way.

I have made it more than halfway up!  I've read 15 out of my 24 titles, so I have 9 to go.  Considering the size of my pile, I ought to do better than that....
  1.  They Walked Like Men, by Clifford Simak
  2. Dirt, ed. Mindy
  3. The Best of Leigh Brackett
  4. Shakespeare's Planet, by Clifford D. Simak
  5. The Broken Citadel, by Joyce Bellou Gregorian
  6. Castledown, by Joyce Bellou Gregorian
  7. Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
  8. My Universities, by Maxim Gorky
  9. Germania, by Simon Winder
  10. The Heart of Mid-Lothian, by Sir Walter Scott
  11. Storm in the Village, by Miss Read
  12. Further Afield, by Miss Read 
  13. The Lottery, and Adventures of the Demon Lover, by Shirley Jackson 
  14. Steppenwolf, by Hermann Hesse
  15. The Histories, by Herodotus

2. Complete ONE (or more if you like) of the following:

 A. Choose two titles from the books you've read so far that have a common link. You decide what the link is--both have strong female lead characters? Each focuses on a diabolical plot to take over the world? Blue covers? About weddings? Find your link and tell us what it is.

Well, I've got two German titles: one about German history by Simon Winder, and one famous German literary work -- Steppenwolf.  

 B. Tell us about a book on the list that was new to you in some way--new author, about a place you've never been, a genre you don't usually read...etc. 

Their Eyes Were Watching God was a new author, and one of the best works of American literature I've ever read.  Definitely on my top ten so far this year!  Now I want to read more Hurston.

 C. Which book (read so far) has been on your TBR mountain the longest? Was it worth the wait? Or is it possible you should have tackled it back when you first put it on the pile? Or tossed it off the edge without reading it all?

My Universities, by Maxim Gorky, is the oldest book on this pile.  I bought the trilogy a good 20 years ago and then didn't get to it.  I'm glad I did, though I really have a hard time connecting this Gorky with the later one; I would like to read more about him in order to understand what his deal was.

Monday, July 3, 2017

I'm back!

I had a fun weekend, hanging out at the beach, attending a wedding reception, and trying (mostly uselessly) to help out with said reception, which was for my friend's daughter.  We also had some exciting moments, like when we were driving down I-5 and got a flat tire.  We managed to pull over okay, but we were at the top of an overpass, on a shoulder that was barely wide enough for the car, with an endless procession of giant semi trucks passing by -- inches away, shaking not only us but the overpass too.  We waited for about an hour before the tow truck came to rescue us.  Hooray for the CHP and AAA!

The view from our car, stranded on an overpass
We visited my home town, or at least, the town where I went to junior high and high school.  My family has long since moved away, but I still have some friends there and I like to go down once a year to see people and hit the beach.  This time, we visited the new branch library.  You should know that when I was a kid, my mom (also a librarian) sometimes worked at the teeny library branch near our house, and just a few years ago, it moved to a lovely new location which is much larger.  Well, I was browsing through the books, and in the YA section, I was amazed to see THESE:

These books (and more of the same series) were on the shelf of the old teeny branch when I was there, 25+ years ago.  They were old and ugly THEN, and effectively turned me off reading the Anne books (until the movie came out and I saw Jonathan Crombie and got my own new paperbacks).  I remember them because they were so awful.  Presumably, the generations of young readers who came after me also didn't want them, because here they are, 47 years old, and still holding together.

So, I hope you all had a lovely weekend and will enjoy your fireworks (where applicable), and I'll post again after the holiday.  Oh, and a bonus anniversary: my husband and I got -- unexpectedly -- engaged 22 years ago today, after an Oakland A's game and fireworks show.

Uncle Boris in the Yukon

Uncle Boris in the Yukon: and Other Shaggy Dog Stories, by Daniel Pinkwater

Anybody who has read my blog for more than a couple of minutes probably knows my love of Daniel Pinkwater.  Well, the other day, I was sorting donated books for the library sale (an exercise that will convince anybody that there are way too many books in the world -- unless you collect self-help books from the 80s and microwave cookbooks from the 70s), and this great little book came my way.

It's all about the dogs here; Pinkwater starts off with history, with Uncle Boris.  Boris and his brothers were Polish gangsters, but Boris got the call of the wild north, and off he went to the Yukon, where he had a favorite sled dog.  After that, we get a history of the Pinkwater family dogs, and of young Daniel's childhood too.  Most of the book, though, is dominated by his dogs in adulthood, mostly Malamutes and other tough Northern breeds.  He and his wife also ran a dog-training school and published a book (and their secret for house-training any dog quickly is included here).

I am not a dog person, but these stories are really fun to read and will convince anyone that dogs are great companions.  Also, it's really cheap on Kindle.  If you're prone to getting dogs, beware; you will want a Malamute before you hit page 100. 

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Bai Ganyo

Bai Ganyo: Incredible Tales of a Modern Bulgarian, by Aleko Konstantinov

Everybody's doing 2017 halfway posts!  And that sounds like a really fun thing to do, but I'm going out of town for a few days, and rushing around getting ready, so perhaps I'll manage one when I get back.  Meanwhile, imagine me on a beach, and enjoy the single post I'm able to write before I go.

Aleko Konstantinov was a Bulgarian political journalist, and he wrote this comic novel around 1895 (two years before he was assassinated).  As far as I can tell, Bai Ganyo became an instant popular classic and has been a favorite ever since.  It's a collection of stories about Ganyo Balkanski, a seller of rose-oil.

Bai Ganyo is everybody's embarrassing uncle.  He blusters and barges in where he isn't wanted.  He is a master at mooching off anyone and everyone.  He pinches respectable shopgirls and propositions honorable matrons.  He needs to bathe more often, and he's vocal about his suspicions of people who want to steal his rose-oil, but he's kind of lovable -- in an awful way -- anyhow.  The first half of the novel consists of people telling about their run-ins with Bai Ganyo in the capitals of Europe.

The second half, after Bai Ganyo returns home to Bulgaria, takes a darker turn as he gets involved in politics and journalism, rigging elections and bribing people with aplomb.  Konstantinov uses his creation to satirize the thoroughly corrupt Bulgarian political process (Bulgaria was still quite a young country at this time, having previously been part of the Ottoman Empire; Russia helped it gain independence.  So there's a lot about those two powers).

It's an interesting read, with lots about Bulgarians' ideas about themselves and their national character.  I can see how Bai Ganyo became such a popular 'scrappy little guy' character -- a bit like Svejk with the Czechs, I guess.  In fact, in 2003 Konstantinov was put on the 100-lev note, with his masterpiece on the opposite side.
Bai Ganyo has been translated into plenty of European languages, but apparently this is the first time it's appeared in English (to my surprise).  A team of four Slavic translators worked on it together. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Faerie Queene, Book VI, Part I

I'm almost there!  Almost finished!  I'd get finished a lot quicker if I was more on the spot with these posts.  They're so long I tend to put them off.

But now we're on Book VI, which is really pretty strange.  Book V consisted mostly of allegorical versions of recent events in Elizabeth's time, and Book VI kind of goes off the rails.  This is the Book of Courtesye, which Spenser partly defines as the art of appropriate speech (or, you might even say, rhetoric?).  The Knight of Courtesye is Sir Calidore, known by all the court as a naturally gentle knight, mild, gracious, comely, and muscular.  He always knows what to say and loves truth and honesty.  But he is sent off upon his quest without a clue of how to accomplish it.  He wanders aimlessly, confused and overwhelmed by his task...and in the end, his quest is actually undone.  All of the Faerie Queene project seems to unravel under Spenser's embittered pen.

Yeah, OK, it's been a year
Calidore's quest is an exciting one; he is to capture the Blatant Beast, a terrible monster.  Of course, the Blatant Beast is also scandalous, lying rumor -- backbiting, reputation-ruining, evil speaking.  In other words, it is language gone wrong, and Calidore's quest is to redeem language and make it clear, useful, and honest.  It is also an impossible quest, and it takes place in a world that is getting more unreasonable, frightening, and violent.

When we meet Calidore, he already has his quest, and he meets Artegall coming home.  Calidore confesses to Artegall how confused he is, but Artegall is able to comfort him by relating his recent meeting with the Beast.  He then meets a Squire tied to a tree, who tells him about an evil castle that demands a toll: ladies' heads are shaved and knights' beards are pulled off.  Briana (shrill) collects the hair to make a cloak for her lover Crudor.  Maleffort, the seneschal, chased the Squire and his damsel, tied up the Squire, and is now seen dragging the girl away.  Calidore gives chase and kills Maleffort right in his own castle gate.  Briana scolds him, and Calidore returns a speech about civility, which she doesn't buy at all.  (This brings up the perennial question: how can we defend civilization from brutality without becoming brutal ourselves?)  Crudor attacks, and Calidore wins through luck -- not skill.  He makes Crudor promise to marry Briana, which makes her happy, and all is well.

Calidore finds the tied-up Squire
Calidore is so charming that nobody notices how clueless he is.  He next meets a youth fighting with a knight, plus there is a lady in soiled clothing.  The youth kills the knight (!) -- he is a handsome youth in green, and explains that he met the knight riding and kicking the lady along the way.  When the youth upbraided the knight for his behavior, the knight attacked.  The lady then explains her story: she and the knight were riding along peacefully enough but, in a glade, met another knight and lady 'sporting' together.  Her knight became jealous, wanted a turn too (!), and attacked the other, unarmed knight. The lady hid, and when she could not be found, the knight became angry and took it out on his own lady by booting her along.  The youth is Tristan; Calidore makes him his squire, and Tristan takes the dead knight's armor and leads the lady away.  Calidore then goes and finds the other unlucky knight, who is only wounded, and they go to the knight's home castle to seek aid.

The castle belongs to Aldus (old knight), father of Aladine, the wounded guy.  The lady who hid from the rotten (and now dead) knight is Priscilla, a guest there; she loves Aladine but her father wants her to marry up, so she is worried that he will discover their tryst.  Priscilla nurses Aladine so well that he awakes, and they ask Calidore for help.  He covers for them by fetching the head and telling an edited version of the story.  Calidore then leaves....only to promptly interrupt two lovers in a glade.  He sits down with them to tell him all about his adventures, which is a little bit tactless.  Serena, the lady, wanders off to look at flowers, and is attacked by the Blatant Beast!  (Wandering around is never a good idea in the Faerie Queene; it implies carelessness.)  Calidore gives chase, whereupon the Beast drops the lady and runs off.  Calidore continues after the Beast...and at this point the story switches to the lover knight, Calepine.  He tends to her and seeks aid; they see a knight and a lady about to ford a river, and he begs for help, but gets only abuse.  Taking Serena (who is bleeding profusely) across alone, he then challenges the rude knight, who simply laughs at him.  They go to the nearest castle, but oh no -- it belongs to the rude knight, Turpine, who refuses them entry (!).  What to do?

As Turpine is chasing Calepine around, a wild man comes by and feels natural pity.  He takes care of Turpine and then takes the lovers to his forest home, where he heals them with herbs.  One day Calepine goes for a walk unarmed (oops) and meets a bear carrying a baby!  He chases, and when the bear rounds on him, he shoves a stone down its throat.  Thus he saves the baby, which is swaddled and unhurt.  Lost, he wanders aimlessly with the baby until he meets Matilda, who sorrows because she and her brave husband Sir Bruin have no child. (This seems suspiciously fairy-tale like to me.)  Calepine hands the baby off and wanders away, hoping to find Serena in the forest.

The wild man can't find Calepine, and Serena is so upset that she's killing herself with woe and bleeding.  (She bleeds a lot.)  She decides to leave on Calepine's horse, so the wild man tries to put on the armor and go with her -- although the sword is missing.  They meet Arthur and Timias (who is friends with Belphoebe again) and we get some news of what they've been up to.  Timias has three great enemies, brothers.  They sent the Beast after Timias, who was in big trouble until Arthur arrived to help and drove the Beast away.  Serena then tells her plight to them; she's getting infected, and Timias is wounded too, so when they all reach a hermit's chapel, they stay there.

Wounds inflicted by the Beast, being infamous accusations, hurt much more than regular wounds.  The hermit has to treat them carefully.  He must cure their infections by teaching them to behave properly, so as not to invite easy slander.  Cured, they leave together, and meet a maiden in a mess.  But now we switch to Arthur and the wild man, who are searching for Calepine.  Instead, they find Turpine's castle standing open.  In a massive fight with the castle folk, the wild man is so enraged that he kills a lot of them, while Arthur chases Turpine right into his lady's chamber, where he is humiliated and loses his knighthood for his awfulness.  The lady is Blandissa, and she gives a peace feast but is in fact all false courtesy.

So that's the story so far, and I'm interested to see where this goes!  What has become of poor lost Calidore?  Who is the messy maiden?  And Spenser is bringing up all sorts of questions and challenges to courtly thought.  The handsome youth is assumed to be noble because he's handsome and nice, but is he?  Does gentle blood really confer generosity and nobility?  The wild man is 'naturally' noble.  There are also questions about truth vs. social ease in Priscilla and Aladine's story; Calidore is courteous and honest, but he lies for them.  Is courtesy really the same thing as honesty?   Oh, so many questions!

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

To Destroy You Is No Loss

To Destroy You Is No Loss: The Odyssey of a Cambodian Family, by Teeda Butt Mam and Joan D. Criddle

I found the follow-up to this memoir, Bamboo and Butterflies, at my library, where it was being weeded because it's falling apart.   Once I figured out that it was a follow-up, I went looking for the first volume, and thus I have my #3 summer read.

Teeda Butt was 15 years old and part of a fairly well-to-do Phnom Penh family when the Khmer Rouge won its war against the Khmer Republic government (which had itself come into power through a coup only five years before).  Everyone was just happy for the war to be over; they figured that China seemed to be doing okay under Communism, so it wouldn't be too much worse than the last few governments.  The Khmer Rouge, however, was run by radicals who planned to remake society entirely.

Phnom Penh was emptied and the people told to leave for ancestral villages.  No supplies were given at all: no water, food, or anything.  Teeda's large family was determined to stay together, and they had stashed food pretty carefully, so they did make it to the village where her father had once been an official.  He was taken away for 're-education.'  The next four years would consist of utter poverty, slave labor, and constant fear, always subject to the Angka Loeu, the High Organization that issued all orders.  Angka was the wall that Pol Pot and his fellow despots hid behind; instead of a cult of personality, like so many Communist regimes have imposed, the Khmer Rouge leaders stayed anonymous, purposely giving an impression of remote mystery.

Teeda's story is spellbinding and terrible.  The whole time, I kept thinking of how the Khmer Rouge illustrated the dangers inherent in radicalism and group-think.  Here you had a group that allowed no disagreement or debate whatsoever, and certainly not any criticism.  In their self-inflicted echo chamber, they imagined a society to fit some very strange ideals, not to fit human beings.  They got away with as much as they did because they cut the whole country off from the outside and used classic tactics to keep their population off-balance, hungry, uncertain, and afraid.  In their madness, they were prepared to murder millions; in fact, they eventually planned to kill everyone who had been over the age of twelve at their victory.

The family story goes up to the invasion by Vietnam, which Cambodians saw as a liberation (albeit one not to be trusted very far) because it freed them from Angka.  Teeda's family walked to Thailand in hopes of crossing the border, which they did -- only to be transported back when the Thai refugee camps overflowed.  So they did it all again, determined to get to America.  Teeda finishes with an account of how all her family members did for the next several years, and it's a dizzying story of hard work and accomplishment.

Every time I read about Cambodia, I realize again how very much worse the Khmer Rouge was than I manage to remember.  (And I just read about Cambodia....).  The scale and nature of this murderous regime is just mind-boggling; in only four years, they managed to murder a good 25% of their own people, probably around two million, but it could be three.  Not wishing to waste bullets, they did it mostly by hand (or by starvation and lack of real medical care).  Everyone was enslaved.  And they destroyed most of the country's material cultural heritage too.  Their attitude was exemplified by the slogan that inspired the book's title: "To keep you is no benefit; to destroy you is no loss."

This is a really good memoir of a point in history that everyone ought to know about.  I'll be reading the follow-up soon, too, which is about their adjustment to American life.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Widow Killer

The Widow Killer, by Pavel Kohout

I've been reading this book forever, or at least that's what it feels like!  Despite being a quite exciting murder mystery/thriller set in Prague at the end of World War II, I had a hard time getting into the story and was very slow about reading it.  It was good, though.

We follow three men: Jan Morava, young Czech detective in occupied Prague, Erwin Buback, disillusioned Gestapo agent, and the murderer himself, who is a serial killer insanely obsessed with widows.  Over the months it takes for the case to unfold, the Russians move ever closer to the city and both Jan and Buback find love.  The killer just finds new victims and drives poor Jan mad with frustration.

It's a long, intricate story and I was glad I read it, slowly though I went.  I partly grabbed the book because of the author; Kohout was a Czech Communist who became a dissident -- a leader of the 1968 Prague Spring, expelled from the Party and the country, and one of the architects of Charta 77, along with  Václav Havel and others.  Kohout is still around today and has written poetry and plays as well as novels.  So I was intrigued by that and wanted to see what he had to say.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Bad News

Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship, by Anjan Sundaram

This one has been on my wishlist for some time, since Jenny at Reading the End talked about it (go read her version, it's more eloquent than mine).  Boy howdy, is it good -- if by 'good' we mean 'riveting, important, and depressing.'

Anjam Sundaram, living in Rwanda, is teaching journalism classes to train Rwandan journalists as part of a general grant.  Rwandan journalism is in deep trouble, as is speech in general, because the president of Rwanda is a dictator and getting more controlling all the time, rewriting reality and exchanging lies for truth.  Journalists are alternately threatened and bribed, or just plain jailed, and the few who do not break down and become fawning lackeys usually end up fleeing the country and going into hiding. 

The situation just gets more and more grim through the book.  The Rwandan government uses all the best DDR tricks to keep surveillance on every citizen all the time.  No one dares to speak out, and with the inability to speak or criticize comes, eventually, an inability to imagine anything different.   As Sundaram sees his closest friends and colleagues hounded into escape, paranoia, or jail, he wonders how the future of the whole country can be salvaged.

Riveting, as I said, and I recommend it.  This is also my #2 Book of Summer, but I'm not counting it for the Reading All Around the World project as it is not written by a Rwandan.  I'll have to find something else for that!

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Blue Sky

The Blue Sky, by Galsan Tschinag

Dshurukuwaa is a young Tuvan shepherd boy in Mongolia.  His nomadic family lives in the Altai mountains; there are a few relatives in their remote settlement, but the little boy's world mainly consists of his immediate family, his beloved dog Arsylang, and the flocks of sheep.  He is closest to his adopted grandmother, who cares for him, and he has a happy life deeply rooted in Tuvan ways.  Through the story he suffers loss after loss, as his older brother and sister are sent to a Soviet boarding school, his grandmother dies, and, most shattering of all, Arsylang is killed by poison meant for marauding wolves.

This is the first of an autobiographical trilogy of novels.  The next two are The Gray Earth (which I will be sure to pick up soon) and The White Mountain, which will only be published in English later this fall.  Tschinag, having lived the Tuvan life and then forcefully educated as a Soviet, spent years in East Germany and chose German as the language he would use to write about his Mongolian homeland.  He is a prolific writer, but few of his books have been available to English-speaking audiences.  Tschinag is now a writer and shaman who travels between Mongolia and Europe, working to preserve his Tuvan culture, which was ravaged by Soviet rule.

It's a short novel, simple and profound in its story, and lovely in execution.  Really, it was wonderful to read.  With all its loss, this is the most pleasant part of the trilogy, as Dshurukuwaa will grow up to be oppressed in a Soviet school and struggle with living in two radically different cultures.  I'll definitely be reading the next two books.

And, bonus material: here is Tschinag singing a shamanic song.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Stolen Words

Stolen Words: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books, by Mark Glickman

[Aside before this Very Serious Book Post: Last time I blogged, over a week ago, I was all pleased because I had actually cleared my desk of books to write about -- for the first time in at least a year.  Then I had a busy week that involved a whole lot of driving around.  I even went out of town for a few days, which was fun, especially since I really had nothing to do except deliver a kid and then listen to her perform two days later, so I went to a bookstore and generally goofed off.....and now I have six books on my desk and haven't posted a thing for days.  Summer is eating up my time in an even more odious manner than usual; I'm not working, there's no school, and yet I have less free time than before.  How does that work?  We haven't even gone swimming yet!  Well, anyway...]

We all know that the Nazis had every intention of destroying all vestiges of Jewish culture and influence, and in early days they would collect 'Jewish' books and stage book-burnings.  Book-burnings were a lot of fun and made great night events, but had the disadvantage of drawing the scorn of every civilized nation and showing the Nazis up as brutish thugs -- plus books are hard work to burn anyway.  So their ideas changed a bit, and -- here is the bit you probably didn't know -- they decided to collect Jewish books instead and build massive libraries which were going to showcase the great culture conquered and demolished by Aryan might.  So as Nazis plundered treasures and artworks all around Europe, they were also deliberately plundering Jewish libraries and making Jewish books of all kinds disappear.

Glickman starts out with a short history of Jewish literacy and writing, starting with Moses.  In a fascinating couple of chapters, he'll whisk you through a few thousand years of Torah scrolls, Maccabee revolts, rabbinic teachings, amazing books combining texts and commentaries -- conversations that stretched over centuries -- and the constant threat of losing those books when various powerful types decided that Jewish learning was dangerous stuff.  (NB: In one of those coincidences that pop up in a reading life, I learned that the extremely pious French king Louis IX planned to burn Jewish books at the pope's behest, was dissuaded by a sympathetic cardinal, and then did it anyway after the cardinal dropped dead, since that was obviously a sign of God's wrath.  Louis IX, and his psalter, is also the subject of Picturing Kingship, the book Harvey Stahl, Jewish himself, spent his life writing.  I have it right now on ILL, though it's much too large and scholarly for me to really read properly.  And of course, I got it after reading Last Things a few weeks ago.)

After this introduction, we move on to Nazi theory and the importance of Jewish books.  The Nazis started off with lots of emotional appeal and mob action, and early book-burnings were part of this, but even more than they wanted to be masters of whipped-up mobs, the Nazis wanted very badly indeed to be modern, respectable, and above all, rational and scientific.  So pretty soon, they turned from haphazard, slapdash book-burnings to systematic, intellectual efforts to justify anti-Semitism.  They would use anthropology and biology to design "a science of supremacism."  This was hugely appealing to an awful lot of people, who jumped right on the bandwagon, and it gave rise to two organizations within the Nazi power structure (which was in fact not rational at all, since it was based around vying for Hitler's attention) which focused entirely on collecting Jewish books for a massive institute of anti-Semitic research.  Even as the war machine ripped through Europe, officials came right behind them and packed up innumerable Jewish libraries for shipping back to Germany.

Plate tipped in to repatriated books
OK, I'm getting waaaay too wordy here, but the rest of the book is just as gripping as the first few chapters.  Hiding books in ghettos!  Post-war warehouses of books to sort through!  How do you repatriate a library, and what if that library's former home is now in Stalin's also-anti-Semitic grasp?  Hannah Arendt!

I found this book to be utterly fascinating; it illuminated a corner of World War II that few noticed at the time, but which had massive cultural reverberations.  It's well-written, and I kept reading bits aloud to whoever was handy; my 16-year-old daughter was quite intrigued as well.  I do kind of wish I'd read this book before I read Outwitting History, because chronologically they would have gone better that way, but it doesn't really matter.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

20 Books of Summer

o posted a summer project that I do not remember running into before, though I must have.  Karen at 746 Books hosts The 20 Books of Summer challenge:

For anyone who hasn’t taken part before, 20 Books of Summer is a reading challenge I do each year from 1 June to 3 September where I read 20 books from my TBR in three months. ...  As ever, there will be a 15 books and 10 books option and as previous years, a few Australians might take part and rename it the 20 books of winter! I’ll have a Master Post with a linky where you can share your reading lists and the #20booksofsummer hashtag will be buzzing again.
So that seems like fun!  I'll be choosing a mix of library and actual TBR books, since as I showed the other day, my library TBR pile is nearly as large as the pile of books I actually own.   Here are my picks; I accidentally included two extra and then couldn't figure out which to take out, so now I have wiggle room, I guess?
  1. Limonov, by Emmanuel Carrere
  2. Half a Crown, by Jo Walton
  3. Bai Ganyo, Konstantinov
  4. Rashomon, by Ryünosuke Akutagawa
  5. Marie Grubbe, by Jens Peter Jacobsen
  6. Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon
  7. At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women
  8. The Dybbuk and Other Writings, by Ansky
  9. The Book of Memory, by Petina Gappah
  10. Bad News, by Anjan Sundaram
  11. Train to Pakistan, by Khushwant Singh
  12. To Destroy You Is No Loss / Bamboo and Butterflies, by Joan Criddle
  13. The Foundation Pit, by Platonov
  14. Alamut, by Vladimir Bartol
  15. The Blue Sky, by Tshinag
  16. A Golden Age, by Tahmima Anam
  17. Untouchable, by Mulk Raj Anand
  18. The Towers of Trebizond, by Rose Macaulay
  19. The Go-between, by L. P. Hartley
  20. The Story of My Teeth, by Luiselli
  21. Lyrics Alley, by Leila Aboulela
  22. This Earth of Mankind, by Toer
I don't see how I could possibly read all that and Thucydides too, but we shall see.  It's good to have goals, right?

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

LOTR Readalong: The Return of the King

The Return of the King, by J. R. R. Tolkien

I enjoyed this final installment so much!  It's a very long time since I read it, and I'd forgotten how rich and detailed it all is.  Gandalf is already in Gondor, preparing it for battle.  Aragorn and Theoden are mustering all the troops they can to go fight for Gondor, and it takes a long time, just like real life.  Aragorn decides to go down the Paths of the Dead.  But all of their dramatic fighting (which would normally be the crucial scene) will be useless unless Frodo and Sam get to Mount Doom, and providing cover for them is half the point of all that battle.  Sauron has tremendous resources and is only poking at Gondor so far.

What I really had the most fun with was Tolkien's use of changing writing styles and dialogue.  He just lets himself go in this volume!  People describing battles, or even just talking around the battles, sound exactly like Beowulf, with lots of alliteration.  Gimli is particularly strong with it ("With its own weapons was it worsted!"), but Gandalf and others use it too.  The parts about Aragorn's coronation and the events around that sound straight out of high-style Arthurian tales, but when it comes time to clear out the Shire, everything is straightforward and down-to-earth.  Sam's style takes over, and only the other three Fellowship hobbits talk a little more poetically.

The very end of the story is full of renewal and rebirth for Men, and (most) Hobbits in the dawn of the Fourth Age.  Middle-Earth, much of which has been desolate or blasted since the last war, is going to be repopulated and rebuilt, and it's Men that are going to do it.  Well, mostly.  The Ents have already started at Orthanc, having turned the whole ugly, mechanical gouge in the earth into gardens, orchards, and a clean lake.  It seems they're getting a little domesticated, like the lost Entwives.  Faramir and Eowyn plan to do similar work in Ithilien.  The Shire, after its cleaning, is going to be more fertile and friendly than ever.  Most of the cast travels back over their route, setting each place in order for the renewal.  (Most authors would not bother with this at all, but Tolkien feels it absolutely necessary.)

The Elves, however, are going to go away.  They have been diminishing for a long time -- I suppose ever since the last war -- and soon only a few will remain.  Gandalf, whose job was fighting Sauron, is going too, and so is Frodo, who is no longer really of the world at all, having been too badly maimed during his quest.  They shall all leave Middle-Earth, and so even in the midst of all this happy renewal, there is a melancholic strain that takes over the end.

I'm very glad Brona decided to host this readalong - it's been great!  Now, I wonder if I should read the Silmarillion, which I have never read at all, nor the Children of Hurin.

As a farewell to Middle-Earth, let's have "Bilbo's Last Song:"

 Day is ended, dim my eyes,
but journey long before me lies.
Farewell, friends! I hear the call.
The ship's beside the stony wall.
Foam is white and waves are grey;
beyond the sunset leads my way.
Foam is salt, the wind is free;
I hear the rising of the Sea.

Farewell, friends! The sails are set,
the wind is east, the moorings fret.
Shadows long before me lie,
beneath the ever-bending sky,
but islands lie behind the Sun
that I shall raise ere all is done;
lands there are to west of West,
where night is quiet and sleep is rest.

Guided by the Lonely Star,
beyond the utmost harbour-bar
I'll find the havens fair and free,
and beaches of the Starlit Sea.
Ship, my ship! I seek the West,
and fields and mountains over blest.
Farewell to middle-earth at last.
I see the Star above your mast!