Thursday, September 19, 2019

The Green Face

The Green Face, by Gustav Meyrink

Getting back into the swing of things -- I hope -- I'll start with a book I actually finished a while ago.  (As I type, the carpet guy is stretching the carpet, which seems to mean getting the edges in place.  Everything in the house is now so chaotic that there is very little for me to actually do except sit at the computer!  I already did the dishes.)

I've been meaning to read this novel for so long, but I only had it on Kindle, and I'm not very good at reading books on my phone.  This book turned out to be quite hard to get into; it starts off with a man going into a shop with a strange sign that is nearly unreadable on a phone.  But, as I mentioned a month or so ago, I found a paper copy at the giant research library I visited in July, and I read the first few chapters there, which helped me get into it.  Then I read a lot on the plane home, which got me about halfway through.  Progress was quite slow after that but I did it!  (Am I pleased that I did?  Read on.)

Gustav Meyrink was of German extraction but lived in Prague, which he hated, in the first part of the 20th century.  He failed at banking, tried translation, and also wrote a lot of weird stories.  The most famous (and so far, the best one I've read) is The Golem, published in 1915.  He followed it up with this novel in 1916, and then with Walpurgisnacht, which I read a while back without realizing that I should have read Green Face first.  Green Face is Meyrink's most mystical work, which makes it very mystical indeed; large chunks are given over to philosophical theory-spinning.

The story is set in Amsterdam, but I'm not at all sure that Meyrink ever visited the place.  I get the feeling he wanted a port city for his story, and called it Amsterdam while really writing about Prague, as usual.

So this guy Hauberisser goes into a magic/curiosity shop and has encounters with some strange customers, and also a terrifying old man with a greenish face and a black band around his head.   Then he finds some old documents hidden in his apartment, and meets a group of somewhat occult worshipers who are looking for enlightenment, or change, or eternal life, which is usually marked by an encounter with an old man with a greenish face.  He's probably Chidher Green, and it's implied that he's also the Wandering Jew.  Hauberisser spends most of the rest of the novel on a sort of quest to find Green again.  He also falls in love with Eva, one of the occult group members, and she loves him too but either ascends to another plane or dies, possibly both.  Then the world falls apart in an apocalypse.

It's a weird novel, not terribly comprehensible, and I wouldn't consider it Meyrink's best work by a long shot even without its worst flaw: the inclusion of a "Zulu" character who is portrayed in terms about as horrifying as they could possibly be. I thought he was a minor side character until about 70% of the way through, and then he wasn't.  I usually try to read books of the past without reacting too much to elements we now consider objectionable, but this was just super-duper-bad, folks, and I cannot recommend that anyone but a Meyrink completist (as I appear to be?) read it.

But you can have a few quotations:
Spectres, monstrous yet without form and only discernible through the devastation they wrought, had been called up by faceless and power-hungry bureaucrats in their secret seances and had devoured millions of innocent victims before returning to the sleep from which they had been roused.  But   there was another phantom, still more horrible, that had long since caught the foul stench of a decaying civilisation in its gaping nostrils and now raised its snake-wreathed countenance from the abyss where it had lain, to mock humanity with the realisation that the juggernaut they had driven for the last four years in the belief it would clear the world for a new generation of free men was a treadmill in which they were trapped for all time.  [Meyrink's description of WWI and its aftermath]

 For a few centuries a diseased organism, so huge it eventually came to resemble a temple soaring up into the heavens, had been taken for culture; now it had collapsed, laying bare the decay within. Was not the bursting of an ulcer much less terrible than its constant growth?  [His opinion of Western civilization]

"Listen.  If one man has an idea, that just means that many others will have the same idea at the same time. Anyone who doesn't see that doesn't know what an idea is. Thoughts are contagious, even if they are not expressed; perhaps most contagious when they are not expressed."  [Meyrink invents memes?]

"From this example you can see that if he should appear to you as a man with a green face, his true countenance has still not been made manifest. But if you should see him in his true form, as a geometrical sign, as a seal in the sky which only you and no other can see, then know: you have been called to work miracles."

"The rationalists, who want to turn the people away from religion, do not know what they are doing. Truth is only for the few and should be kept secret from the masses; anyone who has only half understood it will find himself in a paradise devoid of colour when he dies."

Monday, September 16, 2019

It's the 21st Classics Club Spin!

Hooray, it's time for another Classics Club Spin!  Head over there to check out the rules, but they are very simple.  Choosing some titles, though, was a bit tricky for me.  A lot of my books are currently inaccessible, so I've had to be careful not to pick something that is not where I can get at it.  That said, here's my list:

  1. Sky Loom/Native American myth
  2. It Can't Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis
  3. Thus Were Their Faces, by Silvina Ocampo 
  4. The Obedience of a Christian Man, by William Tyndale
  5. The Bride-Price, by Buchi Emecheta
  6. Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens 
  7. Amerika, by Kafka
  8. Hunger, by Knut Hamsun
  9. The Leopard, by di Lampedusa 
  10. The Bride of Lammermoor, by Sir Walter Scott
  11. Subtly Worded, by Teffi
  12. The Red Cavalry Cycle, by Isaac Babel 
  13. Conjure Tales, by Charles Chesnutt
  14. Tales of the Narts (Ossetian myths) 
  15. Amrita, Banana Yoshimoto
  16. Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
  17. The Gray Earth, by Galsan Tshinag
  18. Season of Migration to the North, by Tayeb Salih 
  19. For Two Thousand Years, by Mihail Sebastian
  20. First Love and Other Stories, by Turgenev 
One I should read anyway for Back to the Classics, and two are on my TBR Challenge list.  Probably I will not get those at all....

Are you going to Spin?

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Back to Blogging...Maybe?

Howdy folks!  It's been a busy couple of weeks and I have this ridiculous stack of books next to me on my desk, waiting for me to post about them.  I will try to this week, but there is still some busyness to go, so we'll see.  Every day just seems to be packed with stuff I have to do!  This is not a real book post, this is a 'what I've been up to' post.

I've mentioned before that I'm a member of the local quilt guild, and last weekend we put up a mini quilt show at Bidwell Mansion.  The Mansion was the home of our town's founder, John Bidwell.  It was built in 1868, and this year is his 200th birthday, so there have been some celebrations, and since my mom is involved with the people who care for the Mansion, I knew something about it and I don't quite remember what happened, but it was partly my idea to get the quilt guild to do something at the Mansion this year, and it was decided to do a mini show of antique and reproduction quilts.  I wasn't in charge of it at all, but the woman who was had a change of plans that involved her being gone for a month before the show, so I said I would take over.  It turns out to be quite tricky to take over a project halfway through, but we muddled through and had a very successful weekend that made everybody happy.  Perhaps we'll do it again in future!

So here are some photos of quilts, which we scattered hither and yon around the Mansion.  These just belong to various guild members who kindly lent them for the occasion.  Another local historical place lent us their antique crazy quilt, which has a visible backing showing Bidwell Mills flour sacks, so that was a neat addition.  Our guild, by the way, is named after Annie Bidwell, John's wife, who was deeply involved in the temperance and suffrage movements.  John Bidwell actually ran for president on a platform of women's suffrage and temperance, which pretty much guaranteed his loss.

So last weekend I nearly lived at the Mansion.  We tore down on Tuesday and then I made sure everybody got their quilts back.  It is a bit nervewracking being in charge of twenty valuable quilts.

We've also spent the last few weeks preparing to get new carpet in two bedrooms and the hall.  Our carpet is long past its expiration date!  I have never in my life gotten new carpet before.  So we've been cleaning out and shoving everything easy into the third bedroom (currently unoccupied by my oldest, who moved out for college).  Once that was full, it was time to move the important furniture like dressers and headboards into the living room.  The night before Carpet Day, we moved furniture like mad, leaving only the beds.  And then our carpet guy let us know that his dad had passed away that day, and he had to go take care of business for a good four days.

So we're still not quite sure when the carpet will be installed -- I hope soon! -- but as long as we had an empty bedroom and at least three days for it to be empty in, we figured we should paint.  The room badly needed painting, but we hadn't figured on having the time or even energy.  So yesterday we painted all day long, and now the room looks fantastic as long as you don't look at the floor.  I'm calling it a blessing in disguise, and I sure hope that carpet shows up soon.  Right now you can barely get around the furniture and stuff in the living areas of the house!  It will be quite a job to put it all back again.

Oh, and Banned Books Week is coming up!  Less than 10 days to get ready in!  Oh dear there is so much to get done at work before that.  I am making ART!  Well, a collage.  Is that art?

Have you got reading plans for Banned Books Week?

Friday, September 6, 2019

My Quilty Weekend

There's been no time to post, because I'm helping to organize a mini quilt show of antique, vintage, and reproduction quilts at our town's most historic location.  I'll tell you all about it afterwards, but here's a photo of a lovely hexagon quilt made sometime before 1900.  I'll be back when I can think of something besides keeping this event on the rails!

Monday, September 2, 2019

The Dark Crystal: Creation Myths

The Dark Crystal: Creation Myths (3 vols.), by Brian Froud, et al.

A couple of years ago, we bought these graphic novels for our oldest.  With the release of Netflix' and Jim Henson Studios' new Dark Crystal series imminent, I decided I'd better get with the program and read them.  I'm glad I did that before we started watching the series (we've finished episode 2; we are no good at binge-watching anything and like to digest in between episodes).

We got these in separate volumes; they were out of print at the time, but now everything is being re-published and you can get them in a collected volume as well.  So that's what I've linked to.

A mysterious storyteller narrates the beginning of Thra and its peoples.  We see the origin of Aughra,  the arrival of the urSkeks from another planet, and their eventual division.  Gelfling folktales are sprinkled throughout, such as 'How the Gelfling Maiden Got Her Wings' or tales of an adventurous sailor looking for the perfect song.

The major character here is Raunip, who is Aughra's son and kind of a patchwork creature with differing eyes.  He is nearly as intelligent and curious as his mother (and just where did the other half of him come from?), but he's also something of a rabble-rouser and very suspicious of the urSkeks, whom he sees as outsiders who should leave Thra.  What business do they have, building a castle around Thra's crystal?

By the end, the Mystics and Skeksis have divided and are just beginning to settle into their respective places

The art concepts, like all of the Dark Crystal world, is clearly the work of Brian Froud, whose imagination and love of grotesquerie is unbounded.  The origin stories are neat to read, and I like the folktales.  It should be noted that the new series does not exactly chime with these tales, and I kind of wish they did, but hey.  I can roll with it.

If you're a Dark Crystal fan, you'll want to read these.  Indeed, I expect I'm the last to the party and everyone else already has.  I include the trailer for the new series in case you live under a rock and haven't seen it yet, but really so I can tell you how much I want that book at 0:44.  I might have to make one.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Witch Week 2019 is coming

Witch Week is coming up!  As we know, the days between October 31 and November 5 are Witch Week, when magic is abroad in the world.  To celebrate, Chris at Calmgrove and Lizzie Ross  will host the sixth year of Witch Week, and the theme this year is.....VILLAINS.

 They'll be featuring posts about:  Shakespeare!  DWJ!  Joan Aiken!  Narnia!  and the readalong will be Cart & Cwidder, by Diana Wynne Jones.  Oooo, I'm getting excited just thinking about it.  Hooray for Witch Week!

R. I. P. XIV

RIP completely snuck up on me, as I suppose is appropriate.  But if 20 Books of Summer is still going on, and it's 95 degrees out, how can it be RIP already?  Well, luckily for us, it just can.  September 1st happens no matter what the weather.  And so here we are, for the 14th year of Readers Imbibing Peril.  The rules are easy and general:
The purpose of the R.I.P. Challenge is to enjoy books that could be classified as:
Dark Fantasy.
The emphasis is never on the word challenge, instead it is about coming together as a community and embracing the autumnal mood, whether the weather is cooperative where you live or not.
The goals are simple. 
1. Have fun reading.
2. Share that fun with others.
As we do each and every year, there are multiple levels of participation (Perils)...
Ooo, new color scheme!  Nice!
 Head on over there to check out the Perils and decide what you want to do!

I walked around the house and gathered a few titles (a difficult task; we're prepping to put new carpet in two bedrooms and the books are double-stacked and all over the place where the carpet will not be).  I'm not sure yet what I'm going to read, but I'm finding myself in a mood to read some old kids' favorites, like William Sleator and John Bellairs.  I also have a few things on my TBR pile that seem appropriate, and though I read mysteries like candy all year long, I did grab a couple.  Recently a large box completely filled with my favorite kinds of mysteries was donated, and most of them were not in good enough shape to sell, so I got some Georgette Heyers I'd never read, and a few Sayers I didn't have.  I've been wanting to re-read Busman's Honeymoon for quite some time.  I also had a lucky strike recently to find some of the lesser-known Elizabeth Peters mysteries -- I'm reasonably fond of the Peabodys, but what I really like are the one-off Gothics and the Jacqueline Kirbys. 

So my collection of RIP reads is not exactly planned and coordinated, but it does look like fun!  Will you be joining RIP?


Friday, August 30, 2019

Sixpence in Her Shoe

Sixpence in Her Shoe, by Phyllis McGinley

I don't actually know that much about the mid-century American poet Phyllis McGinley, except that she won a Pulitzer Prize.  And she wrote this book, which is about "the world's oldest profession," housewifery, specifically as practiced in modern America.  Three sections on Wife, House, and Family organize a selection of chapters/essays, many of which ran in the Ladies' Home Journal or other magazines in the 1950s, and were then collected and edited into a book in 1960.

McGinley's thesis here is that the domestic calling is an honorable one, not to be despised -- not even by intelligent and educated women -- which can be blended, or not, with a profession, as the individual woman prefers.  Every so often she is clearly rebutting Betty Friedan.

It's a fun and refreshing read.  McGinley is a witty, humorous writer, and I love reading books about housekeeping.  (I'm not quite so good at the actual housekeeping, but I'm improving!)  Essays discuss topics such as:
  • the aggravating habit some folks have of assuming that a college education is wasted on a woman who chooses to stay home and raise a family (which still crops up today!)
  • the pleasures of thrift, as opposed to cheeseparing
  • what kind of cookbook she would write
  • the fun of slow house decoration
  • why you should be a casual mother
  • manners are morals!
and many more.  The section on children was fascinating to read, because here she is in the 1950s complaining about exactly the same things that people are worried about today:  over-protected, over-scheduled children with too many toys and academic pressure put on children far too young.  My goodness, just think what she'd say now! 

Phyllis McGinley clearly liked cooking a lot more than I do.  I got a little tired in the many chapters about the fun and creative art of cooking.

I enjoyed this book, and I think I'll read more about housekeeping soon.  I've been meaning to re-read the introduction to Home Comforts, which is one of the most inspiring housekeeping pieces I've ever read.  (My time is currently curtailed by rather a lot of actual house projects; we painted the hall and bathroom, got a bad piece of ceiling and a broken pocket door fixed, and there's one more project on the way.  That pocket door fix -- between the kitchen and the laundry room -- is very exciting; it broke years ago, the track was no longer available, this is the third or fourth guy to look at it, and he actually managed to fix it!  Yippee!  Finally, I don't have to listen to my washing machine any more!)

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Summerbook #20: The Palm-Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts

The Palm-Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, by Amos Tutuola

Woohoo, I have done it!  I honestly did not think I would be able to finish 20 of the books on my list.  I added some extras, especially when I went off to Illinois and suddenly had access to new stuff, but I was hoping to get 20 from my actual list.  I finished on August 27, so about 6 days before the deadline.  Woot!  Well, on to our novel...

Amos Tutuola was born in 1920 in Nigeria; according to his account, he was a good student and had a great interest in his Yoruban culture's folktales.  He became a good storyteller in school, and so years later when he saw magazine ads for books of African tales, he realized he could do that too.  He wrote his first book, The Palm-Wine Drinkard and his Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads' Town, in a short span of time in 1946, but then wasn't sure what to do with it.  After seeing a magazine ad for a publisher that solicited manuscripts, he sent it off to them, and they (being a religious publishing house) passed it on to a more general outfit.  It was published in 1952 and quickly gained fame in the West, and mixed reviews at home.  Some thought the writing (which was in English) was embarrassingly ungrammatical and would reinforce stereotypes of primitive Africans --and some American reviews bore this out, although the first review, by Dylan Thomas, was enthusiastic and did much to promote it.  Others defended the language, pointing out that great writers mess with grammar and write in unusual styles all the time.

Amos Tutuola
The story is that the narrator, right from a young age, loves to do nothing but drink palm wine.  His father gives him a palm farm and finds him a tapster, an expert who can produce lots of palm wine.  Everything is fine until the tapster dies, and the narrator can't find another one.  He goes looking.  Soon he meets a lovely girl who has seen a 'complete gentleman' in town and followed him to see where he lived -- despite his warning.  The gentleman returns all the body parts he borrowed until he is just a Skull, and keeps the girl in his house.  Together, the drinkard and the girl escape, marry, and set out on a long journey through the bush to find the town of Deads, to try to convince the dead tapster to work for the drinkard again.  They go through incredible adventures and ordeals on the way, meeting monsters and creatures of many kinds.

Tutuola then wrote My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which I think is supposed to feature the same narrator, maybe.  Oddly, The Palm-Wine Drinkard refers to incidents in this story, even though it was written a few years later.  He must have already had this novel in his mind.  The narrator tells of his life as a little boy; his village is attacked by soldiers, and he and his brother run away.  They get separated, and he wanders off into the bush.  He then spends years meeting various kinds of ghosts, getting turned into different shapes (such as a cow, or a monster), and always trying to find his way back home.  My favorite were the smelling-ghosts, which smell horrible.

The novels are built on the basis of Yoruban cosmology, with many elements of tradition and folktale, but they are not collections of folktales retold.  They feel nightmarish and dreamlike, with odd transitions and strange events.   The language is unusual to Western ears, being like the idiomatic English spoken by young people in Nigeria in the 50s, and it's also wonderful to read, full of wit and interesting expressions. 
...I was looking for a safe place to sleep. After a few minutes I saw a large tree which was near that place and there was a huge hole in its body which could contain a person. Not knowing that this hole was the home of an armless ghost who had been expelled from his town which belonged only to all the armless ghosts. When I entered this hole I travelled to a part of it which contained me, but it still went further, so I laid down and fell asleep at the same time, because I had no chance to sleep or rest once for all the time that I spent inside that pitcher. But when it was about twelve o’clock in the midnight this armless ghost who was the owner of the hole wanted to go out, of course, I did not know that somebody was living there before I entered. 
I enjoyed reading both these novels, which are both quest stories, but based in a different kind of cosmology than I am used to.  The results are just really neat and intriguing.  The Palm-Wine Drinkard is also, of course, a landmark in African literature.

A funny note: just as I was nearly finished reading this book, I came upon a reference in an article to a 1981 album by Brian Eno and David Byrne titled "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts."  Although I like the Talking Heads, I wasn't familiar with this album.  I learned that it was innovative for featuring a lot of sampling, especially of African and Middle Eastern sounds, and I was disappointed to find that neither Eno or Byrne had actually read the novel; they just thought the title sounded great for their album.  Come on guys, you can do better than that!  I mean, really, don't you think that if you're going to name your album after a book, you ought to read the book?

Speaking of David Byrne, hearing his name always reminds me of this song, though this isn't my favorite recording of said song.  It is, however, the one available on the internet, and there isn't that much.  Check out "Northdakota Chrome" on the same album...

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Summerbook #19: Purge

Purge, by Sofi Oksanen

This was a pretty harrowing novel, folks.  It was interesting, and well-written, but I don't think I'll be revisiting it and it should maybe come with a warning on the cover.

Aliide Truu, an old woman, lives in her farmhouse on the edge of the Estonian forest.  It's 1992, and an unknown young woman shows up in front of her house.   Zara is running from the terrifying men who captured and trafficked her, but she also has a reason for searching out this particular house.

Neither of the women want to tell their stories, but they each need to find out who the other is.  The reader, meanwhile, is given access to chapters of their histories; Aliide remembers successive waves of German and Soviet occupation, her sister's marriage to the man Aliide loved, and just what she did to survive, and to get what she wanted.  Zara grew up in Vladivostok, surrounded by her mother's and grandmother's memories and fears.  When she wanted to earn money in the West for medical school, she fell into a trap, as did countless young women like her.  What are these two going to do in order to escape their pasts?

As I said, this is a difficult novel to read.  Oksanen is not pulling her punches and there are descriptions of what Zara is put through.  It's also, however, a story about some pieces of history that aren't very distant from us, but that are not well remembered.  So you might want to try it, but know what you're getting into.