Monday, July 10, 2017

The Burning Point

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

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

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

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

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

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

____________________________________

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

Friday, July 7, 2017

Halfway Through 2017: Top Ten

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

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


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


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

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

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

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




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


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


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


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


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

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Alamut

Alamut, by Vladimir Bartol

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

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

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

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


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


Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Mount TBR Checkpoint #2

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


Bev wants to know two things:

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

 
I have made it more than halfway up!  I've read 15 out of my 24 titles, so I have 9 to go.  Considering the size of my pile, I ought to do better than that....
  1.  They Walked Like Men, by Clifford Simak
  2. Dirt, ed. Mindy
  3. The Best of Leigh Brackett
  4. Shakespeare's Planet, by Clifford D. Simak
  5. The Broken Citadel, by Joyce Bellou Gregorian
  6. Castledown, by Joyce Bellou Gregorian
  7. Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
  8. My Universities, by Maxim Gorky
  9. Germania, by Simon Winder
  10. The Heart of Mid-Lothian, by Sir Walter Scott
  11. Storm in the Village, by Miss Read
  12. Further Afield, by Miss Read 
  13. The Lottery, and Adventures of the Demon Lover, by Shirley Jackson 
  14. Steppenwolf, by Hermann Hesse
  15. The Histories, by Herodotus
  16.  

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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Monday, July 3, 2017

I'm back!

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

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


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

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

Uncle Boris in the Yukon

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Bai Ganyo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Faerie Queene, Book VI, Part I

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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



Wednesday, June 21, 2017

To Destroy You Is No Loss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Friday, June 16, 2017

The Widow Killer

The Widow Killer, by Pavel Kohout

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

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

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

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Bad News

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Blue Sky

The Blue Sky, by Galsan Tschinag

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

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

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

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




Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Stolen Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Wednesday, May 31, 2017

20 Books of Summer

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

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

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

LOTR Readalong: The Return of the King

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Monday, May 29, 2017

What's in your personal canon?

By now everyone has published, or at least seen, a personal canon post.  The idea is to compile a list of books that have had a real and lasting effect on us, and that we consider 'great,' whether or not they're classics in the usual sense.  So here we go, a list (inevitably partial) of books that have had a lot of impact on me.

I used to have this poster on my wall!
 First, I have to list an awful lot of children's authors.  The inside of my head was, to a large extent, built or influenced by these names, and even if I don't read them as often now, they are still some of my most important.  Since I read as much as I could of each of these, I'm not going to put individual book titles down.

Diana Wynne Jones
Daniel Pinkwater
Madeleine L'Engle
Eleanor Farjeon
C. S. Lewis
L. M. Boston
John Bellairs
Tove Jansson

Now for the books I read when I was more of an adult, in no particular order at all:

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
The Quest of the Holy Grail
My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell
The Queen's Diadem, by C. J. L. Almqvist
Arranged Marriage (and other works), by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years - Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber
The Book of the City of Ladies, by Christine de Pizan
Patterns of Thought, by Robert Foster
A Distant Mirror, by Barbara Tuchman
The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, and The Discarded Image, by C. S. Lewis
Man's Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl
Kindly Inquisitors, by Jonathan Rauch
A Time of Gifts and sequels, by Patrick Leigh Fermor
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert
Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak
Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
Up From Slavery, by Booker T. Washington
Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, and Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen
 In the First Circle, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon
Eugene Onegin, by Pushkin
The Rosemary Tree, by Elizabeth Goudge

If you haven't done a personal canon post yet, I hope you will soon!  I've loved reading others' posts.

Acquired this one a few years ago :)

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Burning Page

The Burning Page, by Genevieve Cogman

This is the third Invisible Library novel!  Irene and Kai are on probation, so they're stuck with a lot of scutwork jobs, but then a straightforward return to the Library blows up in their faces.  The Library is under attack by Alberich, who's got a scheme nobody has figured out yet -- nobody thought it was even possible to attack the Library at all. 

I'm enjoying this series a lot, because the stories are not repetitive.  Irene's situation keeps changing, depth is added, we find out more, and there's just a lot of well-developed story.  Now there's this question about her parents, and her detective buddy Vale has this really interesting problem where he might become a Fae, and all sorts of interesting possible stories coming up.

A really pretty good YA fantasy series, lots of fun.  I love these books.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Against Empathy

Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, by Paul Bloom

Paul Bloom is a psychology professor at Yale, specializing in child development and morality (among other things) and I reviewed his earlier book, Just Babies, a couple of years ago.  Here, he tackles empathy: what is it, do we need more or less or it, and what is it good for?  Since more empathy is often said to be the solution for many of our problems, what would that mean?

Part of the trouble is that empathy is a word that is a little difficult to pin down.  Strictly speaking, empathy is entering into the feelings of others; feeling just what the other person feels.  Not the same thing as understanding others' feelings or feeling pity for them, but actually feeling what they feel.   However, the word is often used in a looser sense.  Bloom is careful to differentiate and write about empathy in the strict sense.

So wouldn't it be great if we were all more empathetic with each other?  Isn't that where morality comes from, and the basis of all good policy?  (These are actual claims.)  Well, maybe.  Partly.  Possibly not.  There are a lot of problems with empathy, such as...

It's limited in number.  It's not possible for human beings to empathize with large swathes of people.

Empathy is biased; we tend to empathize far more easily with our own than with others.  It's also narrowly focused, considering just one story at a time.  Empathy is a great propaganda tool, because you can capture votes with a harrowing story even if the numbers show that the most good is achieved through some other method.

Empathy very frequently leads to less-effective outcomes, and can easily result in outright cruelty.  It's easy for empathy to become a warm, fuzzy, self-righteous form of plain old prejudice.

Bloom concludes that empathy, like anger, is a good servant but a terrible master.  He advocates instead for rational compassion that looks carefully at all sides of a problem, weighs the many factors, and tries to come to a fair solution.

 An interesting book, and full of things to think about.  I liked it.

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.