Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Book Tag

Lois at You, Me, and a Cup of Tea posted another fun meme:

1. What book has been on your shelf the longest?  I have a lot of books that were on my shelves when I was a kid; a good number of them really still belong to my parents, only I snitched them (temporarily!).  I read my kids Winnie the Pooh from the same copy I had, so maybe that?  It is entirely possible that I have a few books that belonged to my mother when she was younger -- I'd guess Gift of the Mikado, maybe?

2. What is your current read, your last read, and the book you’ll read next?  I'm just now starting The Return of the King to finish up Brona's LOTR readalong, plus also Stolen Words, about the Nazi plunder of Jewish books.  My last read was Paul Bloom's Against Empathy -- watch for the review within 24 hours!  My next read?  How on earth am I supposed to know that?  That will depend on my mood and what the circumstances call for!  I'm particularly excited about "The Dybbuk," a play by Ansky, and Alamut, by Vladimir Bartol.  Check this: Bartol was Slovenian, and wrote Alamut in 1938 as an allegory of Mussolini.  Yugoslavians saw it as a story of Balkan strife, and then it inspired the video game Assassin's Creed.  I am not even kidding!  How can I not read that?

3. What book did everyone like, but you hated?  The Secret History, by Donna Tartt.  Bleh.  It sounded like I would love it, but I didn't at all.

4. What book do you keep telling yourself you’ll read, but you probably won’t? Well, I have a complete set of Will and Ariel Durant's "Story of Civilization."  I really want to read it, but it's an awfully daunting prospect.

5. What book are you saving for retirement? I suppose Will and Ariel Durant's "Story of Civilization"!

6. Last page: read it first, or wait ’til the end?  Oh, I never peek.  My dislike of knowing what's going to happen has now progressed to the point that I try not to watch trailers for movies I want to see.

7. Acknowledgement: waste of paper and ink, or interesting aside?  Usually I skip past them, but when I do look they are often interesting, especially when I know something about the author.

8. Which book character would you switch places with?   Well, I just read Mrs. Miniver, and she seems to have a pretty great life...but the war hasn't really started yet.  Oh, I know, I'd trade with Tolly Oldknow so I could live at Green Knowe.  Yep.  Really, no other choice could possibly be as good as that!

9. Do you have a book that reminds you of something specific in your life? (Place, time, person?)  Oh, lots!  E. Nesbit and Daniel Pinkwater remind me of lying on the floor in front of a bookcase in our living room when I was a teen.  That was a good reading spot.  Tom Jones makes me think of walking up University Avenue in Berkeley; I lived a 45-minute walk away from campus that semester and would read while I walked to class.  Clarissa makes me think of the same semester, but of the actual house and one of my roommates who was also reading it.  The Quest of the Holy Grail reminds me of a fellow student who approved of Gawain because "he knows his limitations," which I thought missed the entire point.  I never agreed with her about anything.  Loeb editions remind me of Cody's bookstore, and Spellcoats of the Berkeley Book Consortium.  Also, see question #15 below.

10. Name a book that you acquired in an interesting way.  I can't think of anything really fascinating, like buying an ancient dusty tome in an Arabian souk, but looking at my shelves I see a three-volume work on "The Ideals of Ancient Greek Culture" by Werner Jaeger, titled Paideia.  A few years ago, Dwight at A Common Reader did a whole set of posts about it, and I put it on my mental list of interesting possible reads.   Last summer when we did a massive weeding project at work, the set was going to go, so I nobbled it.

11. Have you ever given a book away for a special reason to a special person? Sure, but the story that comes to mind is actually a lend, not a gift.  When I first starting dating my husband, he had fallen out of the habit of reading for fun; a heavy college load and a couple of years working hard in Chile had shoved leisure reading to the side.  I lent him The Dark is Rising, and he remembered loving it long ago, and was just so happy to be enjoying a book again!  Then I lent him Howl's Moving Castle. 

12. Which book has been with you most places? Goodness, I don't know.  Oh, but when I moved into the dorms at college, I took only a few books, and one was Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals.  It went to every apartment and house after that, so I guess it's been around.  My husband was carrying it around for reading at some point, and was congratulated on his good taste by a visiting Briton who saw it as a bit of home.

13. Any “required reading” you hated in high school that wasn’t so bad two years later?  Most of the required reading was OK; honestly, my high school was not very good and the reading lists...were not onerous.  I remember doing Fahrenheit 451, some Shakespeare plays, Beowulf, and the 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner.'

14. Used or brand new?  I'll take six of one and half a dozen of the other, please!  I like old books and I like new books.

15. Have you ever read a Dan Brown book?   The Da Vinci Code came out when I was about 8 months pregnant with my younger daughter, and I thought it was an art history mystery.  I like art history mysteries, so I put the earlier book, Angels and Demons, on hold and read it during recovery from a c-section, with my jaundiced baby in a little baby tanning booth by my side.   It turned out not to be an art history mystery at all, but a nutty zoom around Vatican City featuring fancy tattoos and an anti-matter bomb.  It was like a B-movie in book form!  After that, as The Da Vinci Code was making a big hit, every other person I met would ask me if I'd read it and what I thought (this is a common hazard of being a librarian), so I read it too.  Also a B-movie book. 

16. Have you ever seen a movie you liked more than the book?   Um.  I have seen several movies based on books I haven't read, but I don't think I've ever both read a book and seen the movie, and liked the movie better.

17. Have you ever read a book that’s made you hungry, cookbooks included?  Someday I would really love to have a butter pie (from DWJ's Tale of Time City).  The Secret Garden has a good deal of yummy food in it.  And almost any Daniel Pinkwater book is guaranteed to make you hungry.  I would love to try a borgelnuskie!

18. Who is the person whose book advice you’ll always take?  My mom and I trade titles all the time, because we like a lot of the same stuff.

19. Is there a book out of your comfort zone (e.g., outside your usual reading genre) that you ended up loving?  One of my first book-bloggy challenges involved reading The Phantom of the Opera.  I've never seen the theater production, never wanted to, and am generally a bit intimidated by French literature, even of the mystery-thriller kind.  I didn't expect to love it, but I did.  Experiences like that cemented my affection for reading challenges!

PS: I know, I know, I'm behind on my memes.  Everybody's doing the personal canon right now.  I'm going to do it too -- I actually started something similar, but more in-depth, a few years ago and then found it to be too much, so I love the idea -- but you know me, I'm always behind the trend.  The good part of that is that you can look forward to a lovely surprise, long after everybody else has already done it!

Summer Reading

My school year is almost over, and there are some changes coming down the line.  Today is my last working day of the semester, and I have the summer off, so that will be an immediate difference.  Tomorrow is my last day as a homeschooling mom; my younger daughter will be heading to high school in the fall, and I guess I'm retiring.  So in a couple of months, I'll have a good deal more time to devote to such things as housekeeping, doing outside things, reading books, sewing quilts, and....well, hopefully working, but my bid for more hours is on hold for the moment.  I won't have any trouble filling the time, don't worry about that!

Every summer, I take a lot of books home from work and hope to have time to read them all, which I never do.  That doesn't stop me.  My TBR pile is particularly out of control these days, so to amuse myself I made a stack.  This is not a complete stack of all the books on my TBR and library shelves.  This is a stack just of books I want to read for the Reading All Around the World project, and it's incomplete because I took some more books home after taking the picture.

My other summer plans include emptying a kid bedroom, painting it, and putting a good deal less stuff back in.  I'll take the kids down to my hometown (and the beach!) for my friend's daughter's wedding.  And we plan to finish the summer with a trip to Oregon to see the solar eclipse!  It will be a partial eclipse around here, but if we go just a few hours north, we can see totality.

The eclipse is on our first day of school, so we'll be missing that.  It seems to me that this is an event of enough importance to rearrange the calendar a little bit.  Principals, I call upon you to start school on the 22nd of August rather than the 21st!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Accusation

The Accusation: Forbidden Stories From Inside North Korea, by Bandi

Wow, check out what I found, everybody!  This book is a historical event -- it's the first book smuggled out of North Korea.  "Bandi" is a North Korean writer who asked a friend to take these stories out of the country.  While we now have several memoirs written by North Koreans who have escaped, this collection of short stories is, so far, unique.

There are seven stories, plus some information about the writer in an afterword (which I skipped ahead to after one or two stories, I was too curious).  Honestly I was a little worried about how much information was given; it seems to me that it wouldn't be all that hard for the DPRK to identify this man.  I hope I'm wrong about that.  (Looking again, there is a note that says some of the information has been changed to protect him.  Which is better, but also, in that case why put it in?)

The stories are arranged consecutively; they each have a date at the end.  The first has 1989, the last 1993, and I thought that they got progressively more angry and bitter as they went along, as the famine of the 1990s hit and everything worsened.  They are all stories about somebody running into trouble, usually for no reason except accident and the malevolence of the government.  They are gripping and immersive, full of visual detail and a sense of dread behind everything.  What is most touching is an ever-present awareness of the feelings of loved ones, communicated without dangerous words. 

Some of the stories:

Gyeong-hee lives in the coveted center of Pyongyang, but such a small thing as her toddler's illness opens her up to suspicion right before a big state celebratiom.

Il-cheol writes to a friend to explain how his discovery of his wife's contraceptives led to his whole world turning upside-down, and then to his defection. 

All Myeong-chol wants to do is to visit his sick mother, but he has never been allowed a visit at all.  Now, worried that his mother is dying, he is desperate enough to try anything.

Why did old Yong-su, a decorated veteran who never stops working, scream at government officials, even swiping an axe at them?  They wanted to cut back his elm tree, which for Yong-su has been a symbol of his whole life of endless sacrifice and work for the Revolution.  But all the golden promises he has worked for have never, ever materialized.   (Yong-su reminds me very much of the horse in Animal Farm, though Bandi has undoubtedly never read Orwell.)
Myeong-chol longed to let himself sob out loud, to stamp the ground or shake his fist at the sky.  But, depending on the circumstances, he know that even crying could be construed as an act of rebellion, for which, in this country, there was only one outcome -- a swift and ruthless death.  And so it was the law of this land to smile even when you were racked with pain, to swallow down whatever burned your throat.

Her limbs began to tremble, and not only because of the September chill.  Fear swelled inside her -- fear, something which had to be instilled in you from birth if you were to survive life in this country.  Now, at last, she had the answer to the riddle, understood the force that had moved a hundred thousand people like puppets on a string.
These stories are good literature as well as an important glimpse into a closed world.  Bandi deserves to take a place next to the other great writers who have shown the world the reality of totalitarianism.

Girl at War

Girl at War, by Sara Nović

In 1991, Ana is a happy, rough-and-tumble girl of ten.  She and her best friend Luka get up to all sorts of things in their beloved city of Zagreb.  When the Yugoslavian civil war breaks out, things slowly deteriorate until Ana's family is caught up directly into the war.

Ten years later, Ana is a college student in New York with a lot of secrets.  She hasn't told anyone about her past, but she finds that she can't leave it behind her, so on a whim, she goes back to Croatia and hopes to find her old friend.  There, she tries to figure out how to confront and absorb the things that happened to her -- which we only discover as she re-lives them.

This is a really absorbing YA novel that is part historical fiction (for an actual YA -- to me it feels immediate) and part coming-of-age, even though Ana is actually an adult.  Having been through what she has been, she had to grow up fast, but is also a bit stuck. Her story, for the moment anyway, is about how to absorb and move on from horrifying events.

Ana is a wonderful, vividly-drawn character.  She is all angles and elbows and weird, angry/awkward silences.  (Dave Eggers could take a few lessons on writing protagonists from this novel.  Ana is a person, while The Circle's Mae is a cardboard figure.)

A worthy YA read. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Mrs. Miniver

Mrs. Miniver, by Jan Struther

Since I love mid-20th century British novels, it's somewhat embarrassing that I have never read Mrs. Miniver before.  I'd never even considered reading it until I saw it reviewed recently (by whom?  I don't remember now, sorry) and found out that it's exactly the sort of thing I love.  It was so popular that it was also made into a movie about the people at home during World War II, which I would also love to see, but as I read I discovered that unlike the movie, this is only barely a war novel.  The book ends before 1939 does.  Most of it takes place, over about a year, before the war starts at all.  Really, it's a novel that looks back on a sane world and bids it a loving goodbye.

Mrs. Miniver is a fortunate, sensible, and happy woman.  Her husband is an architect and, after several years of struggle, they are now reasonably prosperous.  They have three children, a London home, and a beloved country house, nothing too fancy.  Each chapter is a snapshot of their lives, and often focuses on the small joys of life.  Mrs. Miniver, being an intelligent woman, enjoys her own thoughts and has some good ones.
Another thing they had gained was an appreciation of the value of dulness. As a rule, one tended to long for more drama, to feel that the level stretches of life between its high peaks were a waste of time. Well, there had been enough drama lately. They had lived through seven years in as many days; and Mrs. Miniver, at any rate, felt as though she had been wrung out and put through a mangle. She was tired to the marrow of her mind and heart, let alone her bones and ear-drums: and nothing in the world seemed more desirable than a long wet afternoon at a country vicarage with a rather boring aunt. A mountain range without valleys was merely a vast plateau, like the central part of Spain: and just about as exhausting to the nerves. 

 Mrs. Miniver was conscious of an instantaneous mental wincing, and an almost instantaneous remorse for it. However long the horror continued, one must not get to the stage of refusing to think about it. To shrink from direct pain was bad enough, but to shrink from vicarious pain was the ultimate cowardice. And whereas to conceal direct pain was a virtue, to conceal vicarious pain was a sin. Only by feeling it to the utmost, and by expressing it, could the rest of the world help to heal the injury which had caused it. Money, food, clothing, shelter -- people could give all these and still it would not be enough: it would not absolve them from the duty of paying in full, also, the imponderable tribute of grief.
The novel ends before the Blitz starts, and Mrs. Miniver's war experiences are only just beginning.  She takes in a bunch of evacuee children, and it ends with planning for Christmas.  We and Mrs. Miniver know that her world is ending, and as Struther says in the 1942 foreword:
The present being, for so many families, what it is, there is nothing for them to do but to look back with gratitude and to look forward with faith and hope.
And that is what this novel does.

I can't believe I didn't read this wonderful book before.  If you're a British literature enthusiast, be sure to include it on your list.  I'll be keeping an eye out for the movie too.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Faerie Queene: Book V, Part II

Still trucking along in the Faerie Queene....when last we left our hero Artegall, he was a captive of the Amazon Queen Radigund, who forced him to wear women's clothing and spin thread.  Britomart is on the way to save him!

Ahahaha, will I finish in a year?  I'm betting not...

Britomart arrives at the Temple of Isis (who is Equity); she enters, but Talus is not allowed in.  Isis wears silver and linen, and is shown standing over a crocodile.  Britomart prays to her, and sleeps in the temple.  She is protected and refreshed, but she also has a bizarre vision, in which she merges with Isis.  The crocodile threatens her, but must submit, and then he fathers a great lion upon her.  Waking, Britomart is very disturbed and asks the priest for an interpretation of this dream.  He tells her that Artegall is the crocodile, and also Osiris, and together they will produce the British kings.  Calmed, Britomart sets off for the Amazons' land, where she meets Radigund in battle.  Radigund is a tigress, but Britomart is a lioness and prevails, though she is wounded.  She is horrified by the captives' dress and frees them all, then finds Artegall and dresses him properly.  After a rest, Artegall leaves once more upon his great quest.

Artegall and Talus meet a damsel on a horse, fleeing two knights, with another knight in pursuit of them.  The strange knight gets one, Artegall takes the other, and then, oddly, they start to fight too, until the damsel stops them.  Once they pay attention, they recognize each other -- it's Arthur!  The girl is a maid to Queen Mercilla (Mercy, and also Elizabeth I), who lives nearby.  She is constantly oppressed by a villain, provoked by his wife Adicia (injustice and pride).  The girl is Samient, who brings them all together.  After the two knights sneak into the baddies' castle, they have a big battle, kill the evil Sultan, and subdue the vengeful Queen Adicia.  (This may be a version of the Spanish Armada, and certainly from here on everything gets very obviously political.)

Adicia is exiled, and the knights go after Malengin (Guile).  He lives in rocks, but has hooks and nets like a fisherman (or like the Irish, Spenser says).  He nets Samient, but the knights block his cave, and he flees over the rocks, just like a goat!  Talus pursues, but Malengin shifts into a fox, a bush, a bird, and finally a hedgehog too prickly to hold, and Talus beats him into a pulp.  On they go to Mercilla's castle.  Awe and Order are the keepers who bring the knights in (they pass a scurrilous poet, Malfont, with his tongue nailed to a post).  Mercilla, aka Elizabeth, is described surrounded by governmental virtues, a rusty sword, and a lion.  She is in the process of dealing justice to Duessa, who in this case is Mary, Queen of Scots.  Everybody sympathizes with the pitiful-looking Duessa, and she receives mercy, though she is undeserving.

Now the widow Belgae asks for help from the tyrant Geryones, Geryon's son (and also Philip II of Spain).  Arthur asks for the job of defeating Geryones, and he sets out without Artegall, who continues on his own quest.  Arthur takes Belgae to Antwerp and fights the invading Seneschal and three cowardly knights to get into the castle.

Geryones attacks Arthur right away, without greeting.  He has three bodies!  Geryones is furious but Arthur keeps cool and strikes all three bodies at once, killing his foe.  Belgae then offers Arthur sovereignty over her land but he graciously turns it down (unlike the real-life Leicester).  Arthur hears that in the church, Geryones' great Idol stands with a Monster underneath, so off he goes.  He strikes the Idol three times and the Monster appears -- a foul fiend!  It is Echidna's child, and much like the Sphinx.  Their battle reminded me a lot of Redcrosse fighting Errour.  Arthur kills the monster, sets all aright, hooray, and now we should check on Artegall.   He meets with the old faithful Sir Sergis, who informs him that Irene is imprisoned by Grantorto, who plans to kill her.  This is Artegall's real quest: to save Ireland from the influence of Catholic Spain.  On his way, Artegall meets Burbon (Lord of France), who is dishonored, having abandoned his shield (become a Catholic).  His lady, Fleurdelis, has left him.  Artegall scolds Burbon, but also helps, and persuades Fleurdelis to submit to him.  (This is all getting pretty weird.  Too much politics spoils the allegory!)

And now for the final battle!  Artegall crosses the sea and meets a host of soldiers, whom Talus beats.
  He then challenges Grantorto to single combat and refuses all courtly entertainment beforehand (it might corrupt him).  The next day is the day chosen for Irene's execution, but Artegall gives her hope.  Grantorto arrives late, dressed as an Irish foot soldier.  He hits Artegall's shield and gets stuck in it, so Artegall abandons it (as Burbon did?) and strikes with a special sword, killing his enemy.  Everybody's happy, and Irena is again Queen of her land.  Artgeall puts the country into order, but is recalled to the Faerie Queene's court (as in real life).  On the way he meets two hags, Envy and Detraction.  They have a monster -- the Blatant Beast!  It is scandal and cruel rumor.  Envy throws a shewed snake at Artegall and it bits him in the back.  He goes on to the court, but bears the scar of the bite.

Phew, only one more book and some cantos to go!  I can do this!  Hey, guess what, Spenser invented the word "blatant."  Go Spenser.  I am not a fan of all this obvious political allegory stuff.  It's not nearly as fun as the earlier books.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Last Things

Last Things: A Graphic Memoir of Loss and Love, by Marissa Moss

Marissa Moss is an author/artist, and you may have seen her Amelia's Notebook series or her excellent picture-book biographies (or, I reviewed The Pharaoh's Secret a few years ago).  These days she has a small publishing company, too.  Her husband, Harvey Stahl, was an art history professor at Berkeley, and this is the story of his diagnosis of ALS and the family's journey through his illness and death.

This is a really, really tough story, and Moss tells it with wrenching honesty.  Harvey's illness hit so hard and fast that there was no time to absorb and come to terms with it.  Instead, he was mostly angry and shut off, while Marissa tried to stretch herself far enough to care for him and their three boys without falling apart.  Harvey only seemed to find solace (if any) in working on the book he'd been writing; each son suffered in his own way; and Marissa struggled to hold her family together, mostly feeling like she was failing everyone.
Last things sneak up on you, slip away, unnoticed, unmarked...the last kiss, the last "I love you"...because we assume there will be others.  We share a lot of "lasts" and don't even know it.
If you're familiar with Moss' work, you'll recognize her style.  It's like her other graphic work, but entirely rendered in black and grays -- no color at all.  Harvey died in 2002, less than seven months after his diagnosis, and just about fifteen years ago.  I think it probably took her that long to be able to write this.  That does make it possible for her to include information on her sons' growing up and her life now, which is really nice to have.  She also finished Harvey's book (and it's coming for me on ILL).

An excellent and extremely painful memoir.  Read it, and have a box of tissues nearby.

Ooh, look, I found a book trailer:

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Circle

The Circle, by Dave Eggers

Twenty minutes into the future, Mae is the newest hire at the hottest Internet company on Earth -- the Circle.  The Circle is like Google, Facebook, and all your business combined online; it makes everything super-easy, but you have to use your real identity.  No more passwords or 37 different accounts to remember, but also no online anonymity.  No more identity theft (this part is more than a little hand-wavy).  Mae is thrilled, and grateful to her best friend Annie, who is now at the top of the company and got her the job.

The Circle's leaders are very into transparency; everything should be open and seen.  Mae starts to move up in the company, and pretty soon she becomes famous worldwide when she goes 'clear,' wearing a broadcasting camera at all times.  She loves the fame and attention, and she gets sucked into the Circle's goal of seeing everything, all the time.  Even as she loses friends and family, she believes.

Mae is not much of a character.  She doesn't seem to have much (if any) personality; she is endlessly malleable to the Circle leaders' ideas.  Some of the things she accepts without question are just not believable.  She is a standup cardboard figure, built to carry out Eggers' message. 

I was kind of bugged by the way Mae just keeps adding more social media responsibilities.  She starts off with a job to do, and the Circle campus is jam-packed with events, parties, and workshops, so she is supposed to attend a lot of those.  Then she's supposed to spend hours a day on social media, participating and being visible.  Then they add a constant stream of survey questions into her headphones, and ever more.  I felt hemmed-in and suffocated once she got to the social media requirement, as I was supposed to do, but when they added the surveys I quit suspending my disbelief.  I don't think an actual human being would be able to sustain all that stuff, even for a day.  Eggers has her learning to find it soothing, but I think he piles it on too much.

I wasn't swept off my feet.  At first, I zipped along, but pretty soon I was reading about two pages a day because I just wasn't enjoying it.  Eggers has some good points, but he's also heavy-handed with them, and he ignores anything -- like hackers, HIPAA, and privacy/legality concerns -- that gets in the way of his dire warnings.  I guess there was a movie and it didn't do as well as people thought it would.  I'd skip it if I were you.

Friday, May 12, 2017

The Brueghel Moon

The Brueghel Moon, by Tamaz Chiladze

After reading The Hand of a Great Master some time ago, I was interested in reading more Georgian literature.  The older stuff is not really available in English, but some newer things are; there's a publisher called Dalkey Archive that publishes a bunch of things in translation, and they have a Georgian series.  So I picked The Brueghel Moon without knowing anything much about any of them.  It's very modern.

Levan, a well-to-do psychologist, is taken aback by the abrupt departure of his wife, who tells him that their marriage was just a habit and she was more his patient than his wife.  Left behind, he wanders aimlessly through memories, incidents, and possibly unreal fantasies.  Disjointed chapters feature a woman convinced that she had an affair with an alien, the wife of an ambassador, and strange links between them all.

Interesting but strange and I won't claim to have understood it.   A good experience.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Histories

The Histories, by Herodotus

As part of Ruth's Reading the Histories project, I took over three months to read Herodotus' Histories.  I do enjoy Herodotus, but he's not exactly easy, and the fact that my copy is a huge book that can only be read while sitting down on the couch, when I remember to pick it up, made it a very long read.

Herodotus, first known person to systematically collect information and deliberately set it down as a history (rather than having a bunch of propaganda or myth mixed in), did his best to verify what he learned.  When he couldn't, or when he is skeptical, or found several versions of events, he tells you so.  The main subject of his treatise is the war between the Greeks and the Persians, but he really only gets to that near the end.  First, he talks about everybody and everything, describing Lydians, Persians, Cimmerians, and any interesting anecdotes or history.

Herodotus' magpie brain is what I love about him.  He is just brimming with neat little stories, and since I did a lot of my reading while my daughter worked on her schoolwork, I was forever interrupting her to read anecdotes aloud.

I must confess that I did not take notes or read systematically; I just read the book.  So if you want detailed synopses, I am not your gal, but I am here to tell you that Herodotus is on the entertaining side.  I also adore the Landmark editions and wish to collect them all!  They are so alluring, with lots of maps and notes and appendices.

Now that I've finished Herodotus, it's time to tackle Thucydides.  Oh dear, this is much more daunting.  I took a couple of college courses in Classics (a perk of being a comp lit major!) and had a week to read Thucydides.  I didn't understand a word.  He is not easy, and I do not love reading boring accounts of battles, but I have my Landmark edition and I'm on page....37.  Wish me luck -- I'll sure need it.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Swan Riders

The Swan Riders, by Erin Bow

I was late to reading The Scorpion Rules, but I was less late to the sequel, The Swan Riders, and it was worth it; the story is imaginative and gripping.  

Greta, once a crown princess and a hostage to Talis, the artificial intelligence that runs the world, is now AI herself.  She, Talis, and two Swan Riders have to travel across the country (Saskatchewan, to be exact) before Greta falls apart.  Becoming an AI is extremely dangerous, and she could well die before she can receive good care. 

Her former subjects, however, are in revolt.  The Swan Riders themselves are plotting something.  And Elian, her friend, but headstrong and not given to analysis, is out there too.  Everything goes pear-shaped very quickly.

Erin Bow must be one of the best YA authors out there.  She is original and sharp, and Swan Riders gives readers plenty to think about as well as an exciting plot that keeps moving and layered characters with good depth.  Every person in this story is an individual with worth, and never a flat stock piece or part of a mass.  Good stuff.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Power of Glamour

The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion, by Virginia Postrel

What exactly is glamour?  Is it personal style?  Charisma?  Envy?  Does it involve sparkles and lipstick?  Is it shallow and frivolous, or does it reveal deeper insights about human nature? Virginia Postrel embarks on a quest to define and chronicle glamour.  She calls it a moment of longing, in which we look at an image and project ourselves into a better life -- one that isn't messy and awkward, but instead clear and graceful.

Glamour comes in all sorts of flavors; the earliest may have been military glamour, and Postrel uses Achilles as a primary example.  But so many things have glamour: princesses, suntans, wind turbines, airplanes, horses, and the Mysterious East.  They are dissected and analyzed for what it is that makes them glamorous.  Some elements seem to be important; glamour tends to attach much more to static images than to things that move, for example, and it has to be a bit distant and unknown.

The book is filled with beautiful images and photographs, and usually, if Postrel describes something, there will be a picture of it nearby.  One of my favorite things was a chart showing the difference between glamour and charisma; first a set of characteristics, and then a set of people. Barack Obama, Che, Spock, and Joan of Arc dead are all glamorous, while Bill Clinton, Castro, Kirk, and Joan of Arc alive are charismatic.

An intriguing analysis, and I enjoyed reading it quite a bit.  Readers of non-fiction and those interested in rhetoric, style, or psychology should add it to the list.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Two Books by Nick Bantock

No good image of this exists online
The Pharos Gate, by Nick Bantock
The Egyptian Jukebox, by Nick Bantock

A while ago I re-read the Griffin and Sabine trilogy, and  then I read the second trilogy, which had come out while I wasn't looking.  I found that second set to be a bit confusing.  Then, just recently, I discovered that a new book had come out upon Griffin and Sabine's 25th anniversary, and it purported to tell the outcome of the story.  I requested that and ILLed this other, intriguingly titled Bantock book at the same time.  So...

The Egyptian Jukebox is a puzzle book, published in 1993.  It reminded me of nothing so much as the I Spy books for kids that my daughter loved so much when she was younger; it's just much more elaborate.  There is this jukebox with ten drawers, each of which plays a recording of a story.  Your job is to read the story, study the matching drawer, and follow the clues.  Each drawer yields a letter; all the letters make the answer to the riddle of the jukebox.

I will admit that I had to do a little cheating to get started.  I couldn't understand how the clues worked at first and looked up a hint.  After that, I did OK and spent a couple of evenings (with the enthusiastic help of the I Spy-loving-daughter) figuring out the drawers.  I liked the puzzles; the drawers are fun to inspect and tricky to solve, but not impossible.  It's probably inevitable that the answer to the riddle is less fun than the puzzles are.  It's a fun book.

The Pharos Gate is the concluding volume to the story of Griffin and Sabine, and I found it pretty satisfying.  They arrange to meet at the Pharos Gate in Alexandria on a particular date, and each starts a long and winding journey.  Somehow they still manage to correspond, and a strange villain pursues each of them -- but why would anybody want to do that? 

I enjoyed this final volume a good deal.  It does furnish a pretty satisfying ending, which the second trilogy did not.  I may now revisit that second trilogy and see if it makes more sense now....

Also, I always want to make arty stationery like what Griffin and Sabine have, and I wouldn't know how to begin.  Sigh.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Classics Book Tag

The other day, Ruth at A Great Book Study posted this fun tag, which she got from Jillian at Dear Diary.  So I thought I would join the fun...everybody is doing this one right now!

1.   An over-hyped classic you never really liked:  OK, I'm a Philistine, or else I didn't read it at the right time, but Catcher in the Rye.  I read it at 14 because it seemed like a lot of people liked it (it's the book every teen celebrity recommends in order to sound good), and I didn't get it.  I found Holden annoying.  I read it again in my 30s to see if he was still annoying, and by then I was a mom -- so what I mostly noticed was that Holden spends two or three days with no sleep, consuming only alcohol.  That boy needs a glass of milk, a large sandwich, a quart of water, and a good night's sleep, and then he will feel much, much better.  A nice hot shower would help too.  After that he needs a summer job on a construction site and a grief counselor.

I realize that Holden is supposed to be a mess, for specific reasons, but mostly I just want to make him drink a lot of milk.

2.  Favorite time period to read about :  Oh, there are so many!  Probably the Middle Ages?  I love the High Medieval period, the Early Middle Ages...the Renaissance not so much maybe.  I'm also a sucker for WWII, Victorians, Edwardians, and many other times and places.

3.  Favorite fairytale : Patient Griselda!  OK, just kidding.  Nobody likes Patient Griselda.  Hm, it's a tough choice but I'm going to go for Tam Lin.

Never read this one.  Like the cover.

4.  What is the most embarrassing classic you have not read?  There's nothing I'm embarrassed about not having read.  By now I've read most of the more famous classics that I intend to read (Moby Dick is not included in this list), and there's lots of time to read more.  There's nothing embarrassing about not yet having gotten to a particular book, I don't think.  Well, it was probably a little embarrassing that at age 19 I had not yet read Little Women, but as a kid I was allergic to anything that said 'classic' on the cover.

5.  Top five classics you want to read :
  1. The Canterbury Tales, by Chaucer
  2. The Treasure of the City of Ladies, by Christine de Pizan
  3. The Man in the Iron Mask, by Alexandre Dumas
  4. A Town Called Malgudi, by N. K. Narayan
  5. Crime and Punishment, by Dostoyevsky
Two of these are actually re-reads, but they're still on my top five!

6.  Favorite modern book or series based on a classic : Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair, and subsequent titles.  He pretty much just romps barefoot through the meadows of literature.  My favorite joke is when a Shelley impersonator mugs somebody, leaving a tract on atheism behind.

7.  Favorite movie version or TV series based on a classic :  Well, it must be confessed that I am really very bad at watching movies and TV.  I am years behind on seeing BBC adaptations; I haven't seen Lark Rise to Candleford or Bleak House or anything, it's pathetic.  I mean, I read and loved Lark Rise to Candleford in 1995 (before it was cool!), but I've failed to see the TV.  So I can only choose from a few things, but I did like the Northanger Abbey movie I saw several years ago (would love to see that again!), and of course, the A&E Pride and Prejudice.  Oh, and let's not forget the 1985 Anne of Green Gables, which is perfection itself (we shall not mention Anne III; it does not exist).

8.  Worst classic to movie adaptation :  The first thing that comes to mind is a really terrible Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe that was on Wonderworks in the 80s.  Oh golly it was awful.  Casting Billie Piper as Fanny in Mansfield Park also seems like a mistake.

9.  Favorite editions you would like to collect more of : Well, if I could really have my way, I'd collect Anchor paperbacks with Gorey covers!  Somebody ought to reprint those; they'd make a mint.  If we're staying in the realm of the possible, I like the paperback Penguin English Literature series (not the hardback, which I don't like so much).  I would love to have Trollope's Barsetshire novels in those editions.

10. An under-hyped classicThe Little Bookroom, by Eleanor Farjeon, is a collection of her favorite stories.  I grew up reading it, but hardly anybody seems to know it.  And everybody should!

 I'm supposed to tag people to participate, so if you're reading this and want to do it, consider yourself tagged.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Spin Title: The Heart of Midlothian

The Heart of Midlothian, by Sir Walter Scott

It's my first Scott novel other than Ivanhoe!  I was expecting some sort of dashing Jacobite adventure, but in fact The Heart of Midlothian is mostly about country people and...a prison.

The story starts off agonizingly slowly, actually.  The first narrator meets a couple of Scottish lawyers, and then describes the Porteous riots of 1736 before mentioning a couple of tiny country houses and the family background there.  It is quite some time before we figure out that the main characters are two sisters, Jeanie and Effie Deans.  After that, though, it gets really good, so stick with it through the first 80 pages or so.

Effie is the pretty, light-hearted, headstrong younger sister in contrast to the responsible, serious Jeanie.  Their father is a respectable cowman, but nearly fanatical in his strict Presbyterian religion.  When Effie finds herself in trouble, she refuses to confide in Jeanie, and after disappearing for a couple of weeks, is arrested for child murder.  Effie is put into the Tolbooth, the cruel 'heart of Midlothian,' to await trial, and the justices plan to use her as an example to others.  She maintains her innocence, but cannot produce the baby.  Jeanie is pressured to save her sister's life by lying in court, and this she cannot do, but she can walk to London in search of a royal pardon!

Jeanie sets out, but things get more complicated than she anticipated.  Why is there a woman on her trail, determined to stop her?  Who is the father of Effie's child, and where is he?  What happened to the baby?   And will Jeanie's own true love misunderstand the things she has to do?  This story actually winds up covering years, so that some mysteries are not solved for a very long time, even until it's too late. 

Once I got into the novel, I enjoyed it a lot.  It's got lots of suspense and pathos, and moves along at a good clip.  You have to love Jeanie, who tries so hard to do what is right.  But wow, those first 80 pages are a bear to get through.  You have my permission to skim (though you'll probably want to go back later and read about the Porteous riots again, after learning who is who -- I did and it was a big help).

Effie Deans, by John Everett Millais

Scott's odd name for the Tolbooth prison has had quite a legacy.  In Edinburgh, the site is now paved over, and the spot where the gate was (and where executions took place) has a brick heart pattern design.  It is supposed to be traditional to stand on the heart and spit in token of scorn of the debtor's prison that once stood there.  The prison was torn down during Scott's lifetime, in 1817, and a friend of Scott's got him the door and gateway stones, which he put into his kitchen courtyard.  (Just meditate on that for a minute.  Are you kidding me, Walt.)  The "Hearts" are the oldest soccer team in Edinburgh, and their crest is based on the brick heart.

BBC Radio 4 recently did an audio interpretation of this novel, with David Tennant playing Sir Walter Scott.  You can listen to a clip here!  It says there will be three other episodes, and I suppose they'll all be different Scott novels.  It's called The Great Scott.  Of course it is.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids

How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids, by Jancee Dunn

As soon as I heard of this book, I had to have it.  Really, that has got to be one of the best parenting/family-advice book titles of all time.   I had to read it despite the fact that my kids are now teenagers and we have sort of passed the time of small children that this book mostly talks about (and anyway it was still full of good stuff).

Dunn almost comes off as a project author: "I will do X for a year and write a book about it!"  Except, it's not so frivolous; she really did need to spend a year or so working on her marriage and figuring out how to re-negotiate their workloads.  He tended to withdraw and not live up to his part, while she was angry all the time and had a serious yelling problem.

So Dunn tried various things: a marriage counselor who will brutally tell you what's up in one gruelling afternoon, hostage negotiation techniques, and some interesting stuff like that.  She talks about how her marriage improved, and uses that as a springboard to talking about the usual issues: equal chores, getting kids to do chores, money, intimacy, and all that sort of thing.

It is a really, really New Yorky book.  Dunn is a New Yorker and never quite wraps her mind around the possibility that some of her reading audience might not be.  This is a trait of New Yorkers that I find kind of irritating, but it's a general complaint and it's not like the book is ruined.

What I mostly liked was that she really does capture the frustration and yes, rage that I should think nearly all married moms feel every so often.  So I think it's a pretty good read -- one that both women and men can profit by.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Cal Day!

Last week I told you that I was heading out of town to go to Cal Day, which is a big open house at UC Berkeley.  I did have a lot of fun wandering around campus!  I didn't really take pictures to share, but I visited the libraries (partly to see what they've done in remodeling the interior of the quite hideous Moffitt Library).  I went to a special Bancroft Library exhibit with some fantastic historical books: an 1811 Sense and Sensibility, a Wycliffe Bible with a stunning rare binding, and an elderly little Piers Plowman with marginalia from various readers, among many other treasures.   The best thing was that I went to a lecture on the Canterbury Tales given by my old Shakespeare professor, Steven Justice.  He was a favorite of mine, and now I realize why; he's a phenomenal lecturer!  Wow, I was just blown away.  I want to read the Canterbury Tales again, too.  (Pondering: can I justify buying a Riverside Chaucer, 20+ years after taking Chaucer and using my mom's copy instead of blowing $60 on a new one?  Is there still a Riverside Chaucer?)

I did have one little thing I wanted to do for Howling Frog Books.  Back in January, I read this really terrible SF book called Shaggy Planet, and in the course of reading it, I found out that the author had gone to Cal and written for the (now-defunct) humor newspaper, The Pelican.  Bizarrely, The Pelican actually had its own teeny little building, Anthony Hall, because a student was very, very rich and apparently they would just let you build things at random if you were rich.  I'd never noticed Anthony Hall, which is tucked away by the creek, so I went to look for it.  It's an attractive little Arts & Crafts style building with pelicans all over it.  And here are photos!

I had a great weekend, saw various family members and a couple of friends, and bought myself a new sweatshirt to replace my ratty old one.  It was a lot of fun to wander around campus by myself, but usually I have even more fun by dragging my kids around and telling them tedious stories.  You can bet I'll want to go next year again!

Friday, April 28, 2017


My paperback cover -- terrible, isn't it?
Steppenwolf, by Hermann Hesse

In my endeavor to appreciate Hesse, I've now read Siddhartha and Steppenwolf.  I'm working my way up to The Glass Bead Game.  Of course, this novel is indelibly and vaguely associated with 70s late-hippie music in my brain, as I'm sure it is for most people my age, but I never really knew what 'steppenwolf' was supposed to mean in English.  It turns out to be very simple: wolf of the steppes, or as we'd say, a lone wolf.  The title could be rendered as Lone Wolf and that would work.  (For some reason, Wikipedia claims that a wolf of the steppes is a coyote, but it isn't and that doesn't work at all.  My advice is not to try to think of this as Coyote.  No.)

Harry Haller, mid-50s, thinks of himself as a double-natured being.  One side of him is an intellectual, high-culture sort of man, and the other is a wild and bloodthirsty lone wolf, always on the move and never at home.  Both sides of Harry despise the bourgeois society around him as frivolous and shallow, and he spends his life alone, reading, writing articles, and living in squalor.   At the same time, he can't resist stopping occasionally to appreciate the housewifely virtues of cleanliness, comfort, and good food, but he thinks of them as alien and weak.

Now this cover I like.
Harry finds a little book that is a treatise on the steppenwolf nature that tells him how wrong he is to believe that he (and only he) has just two natures; all people are multi-sided and complex.  He doesn't like to hear that, and goes to visit an old professor of his but ruins the visit by shouting and ripping up a treasured portrait of Goethe (there is a lot about Goethe).  Harry plans to kill himself but winds up in a dance hall, to his own shock, and meets a woman who promises to change his life.  She teaches him the pleasures of bourgeois life (dancing!  socializing!  romance!) and introduces him to the mysterious Pablo, who dispenses drugs and mad dreams.  Deep in a dreamworld, Harry lives out his fantasies, and it's unclear just how real they are.

It's a pretty strange novel.  I kind of enjoyed it.  I liked that Harry is portrayed as wrong in his scorn for plain middle-class life, good housekeeping, and enjoying dancing.  I won't claim to have understood it well; I'd probably need a second read and a college course in Hesse before I could do that.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Two Towers

The Two Towers, by J. R. R. Tolkien

Brona's LOTR readalong has been so very fun!  I haven't read these books in years and (as we all know) they are just so fantastic. And I have a little treat for all lovers of Middle-Earth; my mom sent me a link to this letter from Tolkien, describing various details of things.  It's good stuff: The Tolkien Letter That Every Lover of Middle-Earth Must Read.

In The Two Towers, the Fellowship splits into two groups (well, three for most of it).  Tolkien does this funny thing; where most writers (especially now) would alternate chapters, keeping both storylines going at once, he does not.  He simply splits the book in half and tackles each story separately, which means we are consecutively immersed in each one.  It's quite a shock, halfway through, to suddenly leave Aragorn and company in order to find Frodo and Sam.

Everybody knows the plot, so I don't know that I need to recap it.  Instead I'll just talk about some points that caught my attention this time through.

Ents.  Ents are pretty interesting; their age isn't compared with Tom Bombadil's, but they're older than just about anything else, and they've lost their women.  I think that's just fascinating, how Treebeard tells this story with the men preferring wilderness and forest, and the women going for orderly cultivation, gardens and agriculture, and they wind up completely separated.   The scholarly footnoter theorizes that the Entwives were destroyed during wars in the area that became the Brown Lands -- it's amazing just how much of Middle-Earth is blighted or blasted or poisoned -- but Tolkien always holds out the possibility that they escaped.  The Ents hope to one day find their wives again, but it doesn't seem too likely.  I really like how Tolkien plays on the fundamentally different goals of men and women to create beings that let it go too far; it winds up destroying them.  Marriage seems to me to be this thing where we take these two natures and try to channel them into a shared project of building a family, and the Ents couldn't do it.

Speaking of the Brown Lands -- at the beginning, we mostly see the pretty parts of Middle-Earth, like the Shire, various Elf strongholds, and even Rohan, so I tend to think of it as a beautiful world with this one corner that hosts a growing cancer.  But if you look at a map, that's not true at all.  Huge swathes of this world have already been blasted into scarred sterility by the previous wars of Sauron (Sauronic Wars?) -- there's the lost realm of Arnor, the Withered Heath, the Barrow-Downs and areas around Weathertop.  This world seems to be only about half inhabited, with an awful lot of empty wilderness where no one lives any more.  The Elves are leaving, but the Men aren't doing so well either; they too have been diminishing for a long time.  Instead, goblins are bursting out all over the place.

I'm very fond of the Rohirrim, Saxon/Vikings of the plains as they are.  They're on land, so they don't have ships but horses, and they make a religion of it.  These are people who would write epic poems just like Beowulf.  I bet Tolkien had a lovely time with them.

I like how Faramir shows up and is the only Man able to withstand the temptation of the Ring, and yet Tolkien doesn't make a big song and dance about it; he just slides it in there and leaves it for you to notice.  Even so, the Gondorians' insistence on following their customs exactly leads to trouble, as they force Frodo to lure Gollum in for capture.  Gollum is unable to understand that Frodo acts to save his life, and after that his budding possibility for redemption is squashed.  It seems that forcing people to do things isn't a good idea, even when it's for a good cause.

After I finished The Two Towers, I read the next part of DWJ's essay on "The Shape of the Narrative in Lord of the Rings."  It's very worth reading, and I've had a really nice time with it for an accompaniment.  And now I shall look forward to reading the final volume!

Monday, April 24, 2017

Elizabeth Goudge Day: The Valley of Song

The Valley of Song, by Elizabeth Goudge

Lory's Elizabeth Goudge event is now something I look forward to a lot.  This year, I splurged a little bit and bought two (used) books I've never read, but I am still saving those for later; I also got The Valley of Song through ILL.  It's a strange and charming story; a children's fairytale, but a long and complex one that makes me think of....oh, At the Back of the North Wind, maybe.  Goudge mixes her Christian imagery and older mythology with happy abandon, like Lewis does in Narnia, but it's a very different feel, and her story is set maybe 250 years ago, in the late 18th century, I think.

My ILL cover -- charming
Tabitha, age 11, would always rather be outdoors exploring, or visiting her little town's shipyard, than anything else.  She has discovered a magical place she calls the Valley of Song, and when she takes her friend Job to see it, he is transformed from an elderly woodcarver into the boy he once was.  Together, they enter the Workshop, where everything is made before it appears in the world, and where they meet fantastic creatures, including the figures of the zodiac.  Job's special place has trees, but when Tabitha brings other people, they each have their own zodiacal sponsor and special place in the Workshop too.  All of them are needed to build a beautiful ship from an abandoned shell, which will belong to the people of the town.

It's an unusual story, that's for sure, combining a fantasy tour of all creation, a love of one particular English village, and a deep belief in the possibility of redemption for everyone, no matter how lost they feel.   I really liked it, and now I have to give it back tomorrow, but maybe someday I can find a copy to own.  It would be worth having.

Friday, April 21, 2017

See you later....

I've been quite pleased with my two-week streak of posting (with time off for Sunday).  And I still have more books to write about; there are six on my desk at this moment.  But I'm going away for the weekend, on my own little adventure all by myself!  I always love to go to Cal Day, when UC Berkeley opens up the campus and there are lots of fun events.  And this time I'll go to some things for adults!  I'm excited, so maybe I'll post a picture or two when I come home.

Two years ago!

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Where Nothing is Long Ago

Where Nothing is Long Ago: Memories of a Mormon Childhood, by Virginia Sorensen

This lovely childhood memoir by a Newbery-winning author evokes a subculture that is now as foreign and puzzling as almost any you can think of.  Virginia Sorensen writes about life in a Utah farming town with strong Danish roots, and it seems to cover approximately 1917-1924 or so.  And she really knows how to start a story...

Virginia is about nine, playing in the hot summer weather, when Brother Tolsen comes running over, having just killed his neighbor during a dispute; the neighbor had twice blocked Tolsen's water in order to take it himself.  In the dry Utah climate, water for irrigation was of the first importance, and access to streams was carefully scheduled so that everyone would get a fair share.  Water-stealing was a terrible crime, and the entire community agreed that Brother Tolsen had acted in the defense of his family and livelihood.  They were relieved when the court case was decided in his favor, and felt sorry for the dead man's wife, because who could believe that her own husband could be a water-stealer?

I already knew about the irrigation system and how water-stealing was seen, and I was still stunned by this story.  There is quite a lot of culture here that readers may find a little difficult to grasp.

Sorensen goes on in a more moderate vein, describing a loving family (with its own complexities) and a nearly idyllic country setting where children could venture out and play unsupervised.  The stories are enchanting, as with her adoration of her kitten--Jiggs is one of the main characters--or funny, as with her love of going to funerals.  Others are painful; her beloved grandfather falls in love with a younger woman and is never welcome again.  She is terrified by a Peeping Tom.  And finally, as she gets older, there's a little bit of romance.

It's a wonderfully evocative memoir of a childhood, a time, and a culture that are now vanished.  It's probably difficult to get a copy of this book, though; mine is a loan, an ex-library copy from the early 1960s and I couldn't even find an image of it on the net.  It would be sad if it disappeared, but maybe ebooks will save it someday.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

All Natural

All Natural: A Skeptic's Quest to Discover if the Natural Approach to Diet, Childbirth, Healing, and the Environment Really Keeps Us Healthier and Happier, by Nathanael Johnson

Nathanael Johnson is a child of serious hippies, and grew up eating dirt and berries in the Northern California mountains, not too far from where I live now.  His dad didn't believe in diapers, and his mom didn't believe in sugar.*  Then he grew up and married a woman of the modern world, and pretty soon they were wondering: what really is the best way to have a baby?  Doula and water-birth, or epidural and hospital bed?  Thus a book was born as Johnson explored our ideas about so many topics from birth to how to take care of the environment, not to mention 'toxins' in our food and vaccines.

I had quite a lot of fun reading all of this, and some of the topics he investigates are on the unusual side.  One whole section was devoted to the arguments over raw milk; another was about vegetable toxins with a fascinating aside into diseases caused by long-term exposure to some foods (not processed foods, just certain plants).  I learned a whole lot about modern pig farming, which has changed completely in the last 20 years, and some good information on modern medicine.

I particularly enjoyed a section on forest recovery in Northern California.  In the 19th century, mining companies engaged in hydraulic mining, in which they simply washed entire mountainsides downstream through sluices to get gold or other metals out of the soil.  It took concerted efforts to get the practice outlawed.  Johnson writes about some areas that are recovering, and how interested people can best manage local lands.  Not every place can recover, though; this is what one mountainside near a favorite hiking spot looks like today.  You can see that the entire thing was just washed down to bedrock and there's no way for new soil to form:

Photo credit: Kevin Knauss
This was a fun and informative book that covers a lot of topics, not too deeply but enough for introductory purposes.  It's worth a read.

*Although my own hippie parents were a good deal more moderate, I completely understood Johnson's childhood longing for Twinkies and would like to invite him to the Facebook "Your Mom is So Berkeley" group, where he will feel right at home.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Two 'Miss Read' Novels

Storm in the Village
Farther Afield, by Miss Read

If you are feeling beset by the world and need a quiet refuge, Miss Read novels are hard to beat.  They're mid-century stories about a set of tiny English villages, narrated by 'Miss Read,' a teacher at the village school.  I read two a little while ago, and have two more waiting for the mood to strike one of these days.

Storm in the Village is the third Fairacre novel, and the (somewhat) peaceful village's life is threatened to be turned upside down if the government forces a local farmer to sell his fields for building a large settlement for power plant workers.  It would be larger than the village, so would children go to the school, or would the school close?  Bring business in, or just an awful lot of traffic?  Mr. Miller vows he'll die before he gives up his best land, and meanwhile there's other drama: a neglected boy runs away from home, and a junior teacher is dead set on ruining her life by falling for a scoundrel....

Farther Afield happens much later on (it's #11).  Miss Read is looking forward to a long summer holiday, but the first thing she does is to break her arm.  Her good friend Amy comes to the rescue with a holiday in Crete, but the reasons for it are not all good; Amy's husband is infatuated with a young secretary.  Miss Read and Amy argue the pros and cons of married and single life while enjoying the sunshine.  It's not so much of a comfort read, but it's certainly interesting!

Monday, April 17, 2017

The First Wife

The First Wife: A Tale of Polygamy, by Paulina Chiziane

I was intrigued as soon as I saw this novel.  It's the first published by a Mozambican woman, it's about polygamy, plus it's square, which is fun.  So here we go.

Rami, the narrator, has been married for twenty years, and to a prominent man -- her husband Tony is the chief of police, so they should have plenty for their needs.  But Tony is not around all that much.  Rami finds out that he has another family; in fact he has four mistresses, and most of them have several children.  Rami alternates between rage and hurt, but as she gets to know the other women, they realize that together they might be able to make Tony live up to his obligations.  They maneuver Tony into a polygamous marriage and start to demand their rights, but it's not a straightforward business.

Everything is told from Rami's point of view, and it's kind of stream-of-consciousness.  Rami has a tendency to discourse on the nature of men, women, or love, or anything else, and her moods change often; one minute she's pining for Tony, the next she's raging, so the reader is drawn deeply into her feelings.  She becomes very close with the other wives.  They strengthen and help each other, and resent each other too.  Much is made of the cultural differences between northern and southern women (and men).  The whole becomes an exploration of the difficulties between men and women, the possibly unbridgeable gap between their thoughts and goals, and the promises made and broken.  This is not a novel that offers a lot of hope in the project of marriage.

It's an engrossing, eventful novel with lots of drama, and at the same time, Rami's thoughts make for a repetitious background that may either irritate or provide deeper feeling to the reader. 

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Jill the Reckless

Jill the Reckless, by P. G. Wodehouse

I was in the mood for a nice escape, so I picked up my tablet and opened up a Wodehouse novel I'd never heard of before in the Kindle app.  A lot of early Wodehouses are now available for free, being out of copyright.  Jill the Reckless was published in 1920 as a serial -- after Psmith and Blandings Castle, but before Bertie and Jeeves really got going.

This cover is terrible.  Jill looks like a Gashlycrumb Tiny.
Jill is one lucky girl, being lovely, wealthy, and engaged to the broodingly handsome MP Sir Derek.  A series of misfortunes renders her penniless and single, and she ends up in New York working as a chorus girl, having one adventure after another.  There is a parrot, of course, an overbearing mother, a grifter uncle, and an upper-class twit or two.  It is all great fun.

Jill is a wonderful heroine and the story is gripping.  This has turned out to be one of my favorite Wodehouse novels! I just loved it, and I recommend it highly.

Friday, April 14, 2017


Imago, by Octavia E. Butler

I have now finished the Xenogenesis trilogy, and boy, it's a good read.  It's not hard SF, where you're mostly reading about future technologies and possibilities; this is the kind where a morality problem is set and explored from many sides.

Jodahs is the narrator for this third book, and it is something new again.  It accidentally develops into an ooloi, the third Oankali sex, a specialist in genetic manipulation without which reproduction cannot occur.  The Oankali survive by collecting and using all sorts of DNA, always changing into something a bit different.  But they didn't mean to have a hybrid ooloi so soon in the program, and Jodahs may not be allowed to stay on Earth at all.  Jodahs is desperate to stay and starts wandering too far from home.

There's a lot of really uncomfortable stuff in this book.  Lilith, in the first story, is fully human and embodies our viewpoint when faced with these aliens who do horrifying things to humans without permission, on the grounds that it is moral and necessary.  Lilith is not given a choice about becoming the mother of a bunch of hybrid children, and although she comes to understand the Oankali viewpoint, she never really accepts it and feels culpable for the things she has done.  Her son Akin is able to convince the Oankali to allow a 100% human colony on Mars against their inclination; Oankali morality says that humans should not be allowed to have children because they will eventually self-destruct in violence as a species.  Finally, Jodahs embodies the Oankali viewpoint most and explains it, but in my view he is never really able to make it acceptable to humans.  Too much of what the Oankali do violates human agency and denies choice.  The result, however, is an excellent exploration of choice and consent.

Previous posts on Xenogenesis:   Dawn and Adulthood Rites

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Excellent Sheep

Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, by
William Deresiewicz

Several years ago, William Deresiewicz published an online essay, The Disadvantages of an Elite Education, which garnered a lot of attention.  He then turned the essay into a book which I've been meaning to read for some time.

Deresiewicz, a Yale professor, starts off critiquing the ever-more-strenuous race to get into the Ivy League (or even a highly-ranked public school, but mostly the Ivies), and then the conformity seen on campus.  Perfect Ivy candidates do not have time for eccentricity; they have to fit a mold.  I think this is the strongest part of the book, with some excellent points about why we have this system and how it serves the people who benefit, but nobody else.

He then starts asking what college is actually for and what 'leadership' is really about.  There is some good stuff in there, but I did feel like it got kind of repetitive or something; I didn't feel like it was as strong.  There's a lot on what constitutes a meaningful life that really didn't feel terribly relevant, at least to me, so maybe that was it.  

Further on, Deresiewicz talks a lot about how our class divides are growing, partly because of this emphasis on elite education.  The Ivies serve the rich; hardly anyone else can afford the massive investment involved in producing an Ivy candidate.  Very few regular non-rich students get in.  Graduates then tend to hire each other into positions of power, because as we all know, an Ivy League education is the best.  The result is a self-perpetuating elite class that only rarely allows others in.

Since this book was published, I am hearing a little more buzz about Ivies looking for non-rich kids who have to get jobs.  But on the whole, the Ivies don't exist to serve the American people and never have.  So why do we assume that only Ivy graduates are qualified to wield power?

It's a pretty interesting read, with some bits I found trite, but overall it's got some good points.

Here's a bit from the article that also appears in the book, to give you an idea:
Elite schools pride themselves on their diversity, but that diversity is almost entirely a matter of ethnicity and race. With respect to class, these schools are largely—indeed increasingly—homogeneous. Visit any elite campus in our great nation and you can thrill to the heartwarming spectacle of the children of white businesspeople and professionals studying and playing alongside the children of black, Asian, and Latino businesspeople and professionals. At the same time, because these schools tend to cultivate liberal attitudes, they leave their students in the paradoxical position of wanting to advocate on behalf of the working class while being unable to hold a simple conversation with anyone in it...
But it isn’t just a matter of class. My education taught me to believe that people who didn’t go to an Ivy League or equivalent school weren’t worth talking to, regardless of their class. I was given the unmistakable message that such people were beneath me. We were “the best and the brightest,” as these places love to say, and everyone else was, well, something else: less good, less bright. I learned to give that little nod of understanding, that slightly sympathetic “Oh,” when people told me they went to a less prestigious college....I never learned that there are smart people who don’t go to elite colleges, often precisely for reasons of class. I never learned that there are smart people who don’t go to college at all.
I'm not actually sure how seriously to take that last bit, as it seems to me impossible to get through life without finding out that there are an awful lot of brilliant people who didn't go to Yale or even Chico State.  Is it possible to live so securely in the ivory tower?  I don't see how.