Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Hobbit

The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien

It's been about nine years since I last read The Hobbit, which is quite long enough to have forgotten some things.  (Last time I read it aloud to a 7yo, and she found the story so exciting, she had to spend much of the time jumping around the room.)  It was just delightful to read it again and notice all the details.


I love my copy and wish I'd bought the others.
The Hobbit was written as a children's story, and I think some people find it surprising or jarring to see it told in child's terms.  The dwarves are not as serious and solemn as we expect--in fact they complain a lot and are not overly brave--and the elves actually play tricks on people and sing silly songs.  It can be hard to reconcile Tolkien's later elves with these ones, but it's also not something I'm inclined to worry over.  Still, since my last exposure to Middle-Earth was the movies,* it took me by surprise every so often.

 Smaug's ending is a bit puzzling to me.  He flies off and the dwarves never have to engage him at all.  I like that Bard is the one who kills him, yet it's a bit odd that Smaug can't get to Laketown, and I'm not at all clear on why that is.  It's wonderful that Smaug's death is not at all the end of the story, as we might expect from other, lighter tales.  No, it only kicks off a whole new series of difficulties that must be solved; and the dwarves are very much part of the problem.  They are no heroes.  Bilbo is the closest to being a hero, and yet he is mostly only a frightened little hobbit who nevertheless tries to do things for the best.  Much more like real life, really; and I suppose that when a young Tolkien was stuck in World War I, he noticed that there weren't a lot of mighty heroes to be seen -- just scared people trying to do their best.

Reading The Hobbit was lovely, and now I'm looking forward to the Lord of the Rings; it's really been a long time since I read those properly!  (My husband did that read-aloud, and my patchy listening might not count as a 'reading.')



 * We went and saw the first two Hobbit movies, but found the second one disappointing enough that we did not go to see the third.  Too many Jackson-type monsters and monster gags, not enough hobbit.  Though as the mother of a red-headed girl with ninja ambitions, I may be one of the few who did not quibble with the addition of Tauriel!  Her contrived romance with Kili, now that was annoying.


Saturday, February 18, 2017

Classics Club List II

I joined the Classics Club in March 2012 and set a goal of 150 books by March 2017.  I'm just about done now, and the of the four titles I have left, I really don't want to read two of them.  Pretty soon there's going to be another Spin (right?  I hope!  I love Spins!) and I want to be ready.  So as of today, I'm going to declare my old list finished and publish a new one!  I've rolled the last two titles over.

This new list is ....a bit unhinged, but you probably should have expected that.  Mostly I've just been writing down titles as I run into them, so I haven't done any research for this one or planned it out much.  It's still woefully short on some things, but let's not call it finished.

It's also far too long to plausibly finish in five years.  So while I'm going to give it a start date of March 2017, the due date of March 2022 is wildly theoretical.  I can't think that far ahead anyway.

So here we go....meet the Classics Club List II.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston

I don't quite know why it took me so long to read this lovely novel.  For one thing, I didn't know what it was about, and American literature in general is a weak spot of mine (my husband read this in high school, but I took almost no American literature at all, so I'm always missing major things). 

Janie Crawford is raised by her grandmother, who pressures her into marriage with a much older man in order to keep her safe.  This fear-based decision is a disaster for Janie, and she soon leaves to marry Jody, a talker with big plans.  They set up in Eatonville, a new town entirely run by black people.  Jody impresses everyone and becomes the mayor, and for twenty years, Janie runs the town store while Jody runs everything else.  He's not a bad mayor, but he oppresses and belittles Janie, and insists on living above everyone else.  Janie has more interest in living with her neighbors than in having money or a fancy house, but she is never allowed to.

Widowed at forty, Janie is wealthy and courted for it, but she falls in love with the much younger Tea Cake and marries him.  This has all the hallmarks of a disaster, but instead Janie is finally free to be herself and live as she wishes -- without worrying about social class.  She and Tea Cake move to Florida and live in happy conviviality with other laborers, until a hurricane drives everyone out and begins the end of their life together.  Afterwards, Janie goes back and tells her best friend her story, which is the frame of the novel.

Everyone talks in dialect; that is, the speech is all spelled as it should sound, which isn't fashionable today.  I enjoyed being able to hear it so much better, though I also had to go more slowly than I'm used to.  I felt like it was more immersive, partly because I did have to slow down and listen (so to speak).

When Their Eyes Were Watching God was published in 1937, it wasn't popular with the critics at all, who expected more protest, more highlighting of ugly realities.  They thought it was escapist romance.  Richard Wright hated it.  But since then, readers have come to appreciate Janie as a woman who is independent and strong in herself, who goes after what she wants and finds it within the traditions of black community.

It's a beautiful novel and a must-read of American literature.  I'm looking forward to reading more of Hurston's work.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Reading Progress: Nil

I have read almost nothing in the past few days, much less been able to blog; real life has been too exciting to allow for it.  On Sunday afternoon, the nearby town of Oroville was put under an evacuation order when officials realized that the reservoir's emergency spillway might fail--within the hour. 

Regular spillway broke and eroded the hillside

This situation had been developing all week, but all of a sudden it turned really dangerous.  Our family was perfectly safe; we live north, and the water would go south, so everyone was to evacuate north to our area.  As the evacuation order expanded further downriver, other people had to head south to Sacramento.  The best part of three counties was evacuated as the dam managers frantically tried to mitigate the danger.  Happily, the spillway did not fail, but we're all nervous; a lot of rain is coming in and it's possible this will all be replayed.  Everyone is back home now, but could have to leave again.

Rather than explain all the technical details here (which I could do; I know a lot more about that dam now than I did last week!) I'll just link you to this short video that summarizes the situation.  A map and diagrams are also helpful!



 Obviously I couldn't concentrate on Herodotus and Spenser; they were not a priority.  We spent our time either obsessively watching news or preparing to help out.  Cross your fingers and hope this all goes well.


Saturday, February 11, 2017

Crosstalk

Crosstalk, by Connie Willis

It's Connie Willis' latest book!  I had fun with it.

Twenty minutes into the future, Briddey's life looks perfect.  She has a great job at a big tech company which competes with Apple smartphones.  Her boyfriend Trent is the catch of the office and he wants to get married.  Her only problem is that her family doesn't know the meaning of privacy; they always either want to give her advice or ask her to fix things for them, and they really don't like the idea of her getting the new empathy-enhancement surgery with Trent.  It's just a simple little brain surgery to increase their emotional connection before they get engaged, no big deal...

But Briddey wakes up connected to someone else.  Suddenly she has a telepathic link to the weird geeky programmer downstairs.  As the chaos and the pressure mount, everything goes very pear-shaped indeed.

This is classic Willis stuff.  Lots of rushing around trying to avoid disaster and screwball comedy, plus unexpected romance (for the characters, anyway), culminating in revelation.  If you like Willis--and I do--you'll enjoy this story.

Connie Willis does tend to go too long; some of her books could be more tightly edited.  It's possible to get tired of the constant interruptions and inability to finish a conversation or a thought.  Then again, this is a book about how our cell phones and connectivity constantly interrupt us, so...

Friday, February 10, 2017

My Universities

My Universities, by Maxim Gorky

I've finished Gorky's trilogy of memoirs!  (Earlier posts: My Childhood and My Apprenticeship)  And indeed they are bitter, just like his name.  Gorky is usually miserable, and I was pretty surprised when he was happy for a while, but that was soon remedied.

This volume covers four years of late adolescence.  Young Gorky reads as much as he can, but he has never been to school and has nothing resembling a real education.  When he meets a student who invites him to come to Kazan and try to get into the university there.  Gorky eagerly heads off, but is only disappointed; he's not qualified.  He continues to read as much as he can--now with a little more system--and finds various jobs.

He's now starting to get into political issues, and works at a bakery that is a secret meeting place for revolutionaries.  Much of Gorky's "universities" are his talks and arguments with the people he meets.  However, life continues so unrelentingly grim that he eventually loses heart and attempts suicide.

Things improve from there, after recovery.  Gorky heads out to a village with some friends who are starting a sort of cooperative fruit-growing enterprise and store.  Their prices are lower, but the local peasants are hostile and suspicious; this eventually culminates in the biggest disaster of the book and Gorky's near-death.  Afterwards he finds work on the Caspian Sea.

I expected more about revolutionary philosophy than I found in this book.  What I did find was a real hostility to "Tolstoyans" and their belief in the simple wisdom and beneficence of the Russian worker or peasant.  "For them the people were the living embodiment of wisdom, spiritual beauty and kindness...But I had never known any people who were really like this."  All his experience, after all, has been of cruelty and violence.   He goes on to call the workers miserable specimens and finds admirable virtue in the humanist, idealist students, rather than in the poor he has always lived among.  All this romanticism about the simple peasant just drives Gorky crazy!

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Stasiland

Stasiland: True Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall, by Anna Funder

Oh my gosh, guys, this was such an amazing book.  I was GRIPPED, I tell you.  I just could not put this down and I kept reading bits aloud to whoever was nearby.

Anna Funder is an Australian journalist who has studied and worked a good deal in Germany, and in the late 1990s she noticed that nobody really wanted to talk about the East German past at all.  She decided to interview people and get as many stories as she could while the people were still around to tell them; it had only been a few years since the Wall had come down, but East Germany was mostly run by old men, and they were only getting older.  Stasiland was published in 2003, which doesn't feel like a long time ago to me, but I guess it was.

The people of the GDR were the most surveilled people around.  "In Hitler’s Third Reich it is estimated that there was one Gestapo agent for every 2000 citizens, and in Stalin’s USSR there was one KGB agent for every 5830 people. In the GDR, there was one Stasi officer or informant for every sixty-three people. If part-time informers are included, some estimates have the ratio as high as one informer for every 6.5 citizens."  The organization was actually 50% bigger than the East German military! They kept tabs on every citizen; there was listening equipment for every situation, and informants reported on ordinary, mundane events.

Not only did the Stasi use ordinary spy equipment, they jumped right into the bizarre.  Post-Wall, when a few dissidents died of unusual cancers, an investigation found that the Stasi had used radiation to mark people and objects they wanted to follow, and silently vibrating Geiger counters for surveillance.

The Stasi had ambitions that the West didn't dream of. They had a plan to invade West Berlin, complete with planned Stasi offices and staff for each one.  They also had a general plan for a crisis, in which nearly 86,000 East Germans would be quickly arrested and put into concentration camps.  The longer the GDR lasted, the more it tended to treat its own citizens as its enemy.  As an old Stasi officer explains to Funder, "Once an investigation was started into someone, that meant there was suspicion of enemy activity [and thus was an enemy]....as time went on there was more and more work to do because the definition of 'enemy' became wider and wider."

Stasiland just abounds in the sort of bizarrely ironic stories that Communistic states seem to produce; they'd be hilarious if they weren't more often too grim to laugh at.  Some of my favorites:
...pictures of protestors occupying the building on 4 December 1989, squatting in the corridors with the surprise still on their faces, as if half-expecting to be asked to leave.  As they entered the building, the Stasi guards had asked to see the demonstrators' identity cards, in a strange parody of the control they were, at that very moment, losing.  The demonstrators, in shock, obediently pulled their cards from their wallets.  Then they seized the building.  (p6)

[October 1989, as GDR falls] Here, at the Normanstrasse headquarters, there was panic.  Stasi officers were instructed to destroy files, starting with the most incriminating -- those naming westerners who spied for them, and those that concerned deaths.  They shredded the files until the shredders collapsed.  Among other shortages in the east, there was a shredder shortage, so they had to send agents out under cover to West Berlin to buy more.  In Building 8 alone, members of the citizens' movement found over one hundred burnt-out shredders. (p66)

[A former Stasi officer, in fact the one who chalked the line for the Wall, showing Funder through his museum of Wall artifacts, points out a girly calendar]  'That is the calendar for the border troops of the GDR,' he said.  'Do you know what is special about it?...That calendar was printed in mid-1990.  After the Wall came down.  It was printed because, even at that late stage, people here could not believe that the nation would simply cease to exist.  Despite all the evidence, they thought the GDR would go on as an independent country, with an army and a border guard of its own.  And that border guard would need its own girly calendar.'  (p169-170)

 I once saw a note on a Stasi file from early 1989 that I would never forget.  In it a young lieutenant alerted his superiors to the fact that there were so many informers in church opposition groups at demonstrations that they were making these groups appear stronger than they really were....he dutifully noted that it appeared that, by having swelled the ranks of the opposition, the Stasi was giving the people heart to keep demonstrating against them. (p197-198)
There is much more that I'd like to tell you, but I also want to leave something for you to read, so I've taken a couple of paragraphs out. There's lots more, about media and music, and stories of people who got caught up in the machinery.   Seriously, this is a fantastic book crammed with stories that should not be forgotten.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Getting to Green

Getting to Green: Saving Nature: A Bipartisan Solution, by Frederic C. Rich

I really liked this book!  It has a hopeful tone and is all about the massive common ground we really have in the US about environmental issues.  I also read it right before the inauguration, which made it read a little differently than it sounded when Rich wrote it (it was published in 2016, so I'm assuming he wrote it in 2015).  After that it became a weirdly ironic book as the last couple of weeks have unfolded.  Thus my delay in writing about it...

Rich's premise is that the trend of hyperpartisanism we've had for the past few administrations has really hurt our ability to get anything real done.  The last really effective piece of federal environmental legislation passed was in 1990, when Bush signed the Clean Air Act that called for a reduction in emissions that produced acid rain.  That bipartisan-designed legislation was a huge success; atmospheric acids were sharply reduced, and more easily and cheaply than expected.  It was considered a model for environmental progress that made both parties happy.  And it was the last time the US passed a major environmental bill.  There hasn't been one since.

Most Americans want a clean environment.  We are in favor of clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and land that we can all enjoy.  And yet, the environmentalist movement (called Green for short) has lost its way.  Greens tend to assume that conservatives are the enemy, and not for working with -- but can't pass any legislation with only one-sided support.  Republicans tend to assume that Greens hate capitalism and jobs.  With everyone busy virtue-signaling and obsessed with symbolism more than action, nothing gets done.  How to move forward and work together on something that, really, we all want?

Rich, a lawyer who has done a lot of work with both sides, has plenty of ideas.  He gives everybody a little bit of a scolding for things he sees as mistakes, and he has a plan for working together for progress which he calls Center Green.  It's good stuff.  I would really, really recommend this book; perhaps even more now, because it offers so many good ways for Greens to reach conservatives.  Rich points out the many ways that environmentalism has historically been a core conservative value.  It is expressed in different terms, which leftists frequently do not understand. 

Rich believes that right and left can work together, each expressing deeply held beliefs.  Instead of requiring ideological purity from allies (such as the insistence from many leftists that an environmentalist must also sign on to a wide package of leftist positions), we can work together on things we agree on.  Fracturing ourselves into ever-smaller groups with ever-longer lists of required beliefs will never lead to practical action.

On the vexed question of climate change, Rich argues that this is not an issue about which we necessarily need to convert each other.  Regardless, we can agree that a reduction of pollution is a good idea.  "Is there any doubt that whatever scientific models tell us about when and how the climate will be affected, the injection into the atmosphere of large quantities of greenhouse gases is not consistent with the virtue of prudence?"  

Here are some bits that might give you a good idea of what Rich is saying:
For too many Greens, the glass is always half empty.  In 2002, the EPA announced that two-thirds of America's rivers and half of its lakes had met the Clean Water Act goal of making U. S. waters fishable and swimmable.  Most environmental NGOs greeted this news by countering that a third of American rivers were too polluted to fish or swim in, choosing to see the glass as one-third empty, instead of two-thirds full.  They missed the opportunity to inspire Americans with the remarkable fact that after a century of treating rivers as open sewers, we had managed in only thirty years to return two-thirds of them to fishable and swimmable condition....The habit of pessimism has proven hard to break. (p113-114)

Right-wing critics are not the only ones to detect that Green values can appear indifferent to human needs.  Testifying in support of the spotted owl, the chief scientist of The Nature Conservancy gazed at the loggers and their families in the back of the room and experienced an epiphany: as described by the New Yorker, the scientist realized that "if you saw nature as having unlimited and unquantifiable rights and humans as having none, you turned environmentalism into a form of class warfare." (p164-165)
When I finished this book, I did think there was one large omission.  Rich says nothing whatsoever about genetically modified crops, and I wondered why.  So I visited his website, subscribed to his blog, and found out that in fact he's working on a book that will be entirely about that issue, which explains why it's not in Getting to Green.  I'm looking forward to that one.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

#HLOTR Readalong 2017



Brona Joy is hosting a readalong of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings for the next few months, and I'm on board for that!  February will be the Hobbit, and I've started reading.  I'm so hideously late with this post that it's a good thing too.


I love Pauline Baynes and will be posting her pictures a lot

So far I've found out how golf was invented.  We're laying plans and studying the map with secret runes....and it's not too late to join up, if you're interested!

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Thursday, February 2, 2017

Vintage Sci-Fi Month Wrapup

January is over, and I didn't post about all my books!  I got sick and have been curled up on the couch, coughing a lot, instead of doing much else (besides, of course, watching a lot of news).   So I'm going to do a riffle of reviews:

Spectrum, edited by Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest

I looked at this and thought, "Kingsley Amis and science fiction?  What?"  It turns out that he'd written a book about SF and then wound up producing a series of these Spectrum collections.  This is the first, and it's stuffed with big names: Pohl, Simak, Budrys, Heinlein.  Most of the stories were very good, though it kicks off with the Pohl story which is over-long.  I liked the Simak story, the Budrys one was typical (which means it was weird and macho, but interesting), and the Heinlein is a very early story featuring a causal loop.

Shakespeare's Planet, by Clifford Simak

This was a pretty good read, one of the best on this list.  An explorer ship with its crew in cold sleep has been traveling for over a thousand years when it finally lands on a viable planet.  Carter finds himself nearly alone, with only a robot and an alien carnivore for company.  The planet has a stargate, but it's closed; why?  And what are Carnivore and Carter going to do?






Hilariously bad original cover
Citizen of the Galaxy, by Robert A. Heinlein (1951)

I wound up picking this last one up, not expecting much.  It was pretty good though!  Thorby is sold off, again, at a young age, but this time he's picked up for almost nothing by a beggar.  He grows up in the slums of a cosmopolitan world where slavery is a major business, but when his adopted father dies, he joins a ship of legal traders, and then the military of the main group of worlds, where he discovers who he is and dedicates his life to fighting slavery.




The Broken Citadel and Castledown, by Joyce Ballou Gregorian (1973 I think)

I've had these two books sitting around for years.  It turns out to be most of a trilogy, and now I need to hunt down the last one!  The Broken Citadel is fairly typical middle-grade sword and sorcery; Sibby, age 11, is flung into another world, where she joins a group of travelers hoping to rescue a captive princess.  She has a lot more adventures after that!  Then, in Castledown, Sibyl is 18 and a college student when she is summoned back.  This one is quite a bit more innovative, and really intriguing.  The last book is The Great Wheel, which features Sibyl in her 30s.  Now that sounds really interesting!  You don't often get a grown woman being whisked off to another world.


Adulthood Rites, by Octavia Butler

This isn't a vintage read, but I'm throwing it in anyway.  Adulthood Rites is the second book in the Xenogenesis trilogy, and it's about Lilith's son, Akin.  Akin looks nearly human (for now) but is half Oankali; the only way for humans to have children is to cooperate with the Oankalis' program of genetic trading.  Renegade humans are now so desperate for children that they will kidnap the half-aliens, and Akin spends some years in a renegade village, away from his family.  There he becomes convinced that humans must be allowed to have their own children, and eventually embarks on a mission to persuade the Oankali to go along with the idea.

This second volume is just as good as the first one, and has all sorts of intriguing questions bouncing around.  I'm looking forward to #3, Imago, which is about yet another person (I hope I get news of Akin, though).

Well, it was a very science-fictiony January for Howling Frog Books, and we have Little Red Reviewer to thank for it.  I always get a lot of fun out of this event.  Looking forward to next year....