Thursday, July 30, 2015

Horrorstör

Horrorstör, by Grady Hendrix


You've probably seen this cute horror novel around; it's made to look like an Ikea catalog.  It's set in a fictional Ikea knockoff, Orsk, so as not to offend the actual Ikea, but it's exactly the same and pretty funny.  The items all have pseudo-Scandinavian names, but goofier.

Amy, a disaffected Orsk employee behind on her rent, is recruited to stay the night with a couple of other staff; every morning, they've been finding weird smelly stains on the Brooka sofas and busted Liripip wardrobes, so the manager wants to find out what's going on.  At first, nothing much, though they find another two employees spending the night in hopes of finding a ghost and making a smash hit ghost hunting show.  But then things start going a bit wrong.

It's a traditional haunted mansion story, except set in an Ikea, which works really well.  Lots of space to run around and get lost in.  Five bucks says someone wants to make a movie!  (I just googled; it's being developed for TV.)  The story wound up being both more in-depth and scarier than I expected, so it was pretty good.

I mean, I figured Amy the Disaffected Retail Clerk would stay that way, and her opinion of her geeky, over-enthused manager Basil would be the author's opinion of Basil, but no.  (I love Basil.  He is my favorite.)  Ruth Anne, the Nice Older Lady reveals hidden depths too.  So it was more worthwhile fun fluff reading than I expected.

The Ikea knockoff part is very funny and I had a good time with that.  The graphic design of the novel is a large part of the reading experience.  Each chapter starts with a piece of furniture and its catalog description, but the item names get progressively sillier, so the Kjërring bookcase leads to the Wanweird kitchen and the Frånjk table, which isn't even a thing that can be pronounced.  Then the furniture starts getting creepy and torturous.


I always get some fun out of Ikea names anyway.  They're often real Scandinavian words slightly wonkified, or else they sound like real words.  These take it a step or two further, starting with mock Swedish and leading straight into bizarre gibberish.

It is an actual horror story too, but probably kind of light on the modern horror scale.  I'm not much on horror, but it doesn't get quite horrory enough to make me put it down, which I would have done if it got too icky.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Arabian Nights and Days

Arabian Nights and Days, by Nahguib Mahfouz

After Shahrzad succeeds in telling her story for three years, and gives birth to a son, and stops the sultan from killing a new bride every morning...what happens then?

In chapter-long episodes, we follow the fortunes of the sultan's city and people, who frequently come under supernatural influence.  A pious man is beset by a genie, who orders him to kill the corrupt chief of police.  Two evil spirits produce a wedding night for a young couple and then separate them.  A man is given a cap of invisibility, but ordered not to obey his conscience in using it.  A man is beheaded for corruption, but deposited into a new body.  Finally the sultan himself sees amazing wonders.

It's written in a style very much like the 1001 Nights, and many of the characters have a strong tendency to speak in aphorisms and proverbs--sometimes for entire conversations.

I liked this quite a bit more than my previous Mahfouz attempt, but I don't plan to read any more by him.  I am not grabbed.  I'll be counting this as my Classics Club title instead of the Cairo Trilogy, which I can't quite face, but hey--I read two Mahfouz novels, that counts for something.

___________________

Hey, I'm going on a roadtrip!  I'm very excited to go down, see some old friends, and have a nice time before school starts back up.  It's been a busy summer and I do not feel prepared for school at all!  Maybe a day or two at the beach will help.  I've scheduled one post for a few days from now, but otherwise you'll have to get along without me for a little while.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

What If?

What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, by Randall Munroe

Lots of people read Munroe's webcomic xkcd--I do--and if you don't, you should probably take a peek at it to see if you'd like it.  It's full of geeky fun.  Munroe also writes a column called What If? in which you can send in a ridiculous question and he'll answer it in great detail.  For example:

What if I collected a mole of moles?
What if a baseball was thrown at 90% of the speed of light?
What if I collected all the elements and arranged them according to the periodic table?
What if I dove into a spent nuclear fuel pool?
How long could a nuclear submarine last in orbit?
What if we all shone laser pointers at the Moon?
What if we built a bridge out of Legos?

Many of the answers to these questions are some variation on "we would all die horribly," so the fun is in the details.  (You would not die if you dove into a spent nuclear fuel pool; technicians do that for maintenance.  Just don't get too close to the actual material.)

So this book is a collection of many of those What If? columns.  They are very fun to read, and my 12yo daughter zipped through it in about a day, giggling all the while.  I found that I got tired towards the end of the book; this is more fun to dip into than it is to read all at once.  And, sadly, the cover illustration is entirely hypothetical; no Tyrannosaurus Rex vs. Sarlacc scenario is included.  But it's a fun read, and I know I'll be lending it out to friends.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Henry James: Three short stories

After my ignominious defeat with The Wings of the Dove, I thought I'd try a few Jamesian short stories.  I wanted to get back on the horse (so to speak), and anyway I didn't have any other ideas about who to read in July for this particular challenge.  So, I checked out volume I of the Library of America's 5-volume collection of James' short stories, which has his first 24.  I read three, and here they are:

A Most Extraordinary Case -- Young Colonel Mason, veteran of the Civil War, is ill and alone when his aunt comes to his rescue and takes him out to her country home to nurse him back to health.  He makes friends with his doctor and with his lovely and intelligent cousin Caroline, but somehow he just doesn't recover completely...

The Romance of Certain Old Clothes -- A historical sketch set during the colonial era.  Two sisters compete for the affections of an excitingly classy English visitor, and their mutual jealousy might last even beyond death.

Osborne's Revenge -- Osborne's best friend went on a trip and became engaged to a nice young lady who then spurned him, leading to his suicide.  Osborne determines that she should realize what she's done and be sorry, so he arranges to be in the same area.

Except for a touch of ghost story in The Romance of Certain Old Clothes, these early short pieces are distinctively realist in the James manner, though they aren't as meticulously, tiresomely detailed as The Wings of the Dove.  I really liked them very much and would be quite willing to read more, so I'm pleased that I gave the short stories a try.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Bridge to the Sun

Bridge to the Sun: A Memoir of Love and War, by Gwen Terasaki

This lovely memoir tells the story of Gwen Harold, who met a rising young Japanese diplomat, Hidenari Terasaki, at a party.  They fell in love and married...in 1931.  They spent their married lives working to build bridges between Japan and America.

Mrs. Terasaki's story starts with Pearl Harbor and then goes back to the beginning of their relationship, so that she can tell about their early years and how desperately her husband (called Terry) worked to avert the war.  The militarist faction was gaining power, and Terry was one of the people who worked against them, even risking his life in a last-ditch effort to subvert their power.  When war came, he was devastated, knowing that the whole thing was insane, and defeat was inevitable.

All the Japanese officials in the US were promptly interned in a hotel until they could be traded for the American officials stuck in Japan.  Then they boarded a ship bound for a rendezvous port, at which the trade occurred.  The Terasaki family then spent the war in Japan, making Gwen one of the very few Americans to live in Japan during those years.  Her story and knowledge of life in Japan during the war is rare and valuable.  Even in the post-war years, it was a long haul; years passed before she could write to her family in the US.

Terry was appointed to a position with the Emperor to work with the American government, which was very important work, but it (and the war) took an enormous toll on his health.  He literally gave his life to his country in his efforts to bring peace to Japan.

A really worthwhile read.  It made a big hit when it was published in the late 50s, and there was a movie made (which I think probably amped up the romance a good bit).  Mrs. Terasaki spent the rest of her life traveling and speaking on behalf of Japanese-American relations, and her daughter Mariko has done the same.



Saturday, July 18, 2015

Five Children on the Western Front

Five Children on the Western Front, by Kate Saunders

I was fortunate to have a mom who went to the UK recently and picked up a copy of this award-winning children's book--which is not yet available here in the US.  It's a sequel to E. Nesbit's classic Five Children and It (and two following stories), in which five very ordinary Edwardian children find a Psammead--a sand-fairy--which grants wishes.  It's a wonderful story, and funny to boot.  (You can read a bit about E. Nesbit at my 2013 post.)

Those children were just the right age to grow up in time for World War I, and Kate Saunders decided to write the story.  She adds another, younger sibling born after the Psammead stories; Edie is nine, a couple of years younger than the Lamb, and young enough to be the center of the story.

Just as war is breaking out in 1914, Edie and the Lamb discover the Psammead in the old familiar gravel-pit.  But the Psammead is unhappy and confused; his magic is gone and he is feeling his age.  As the older siblings become embroiled in war, the Psammead realizes that although he was once a "desert god," he is being ordered to repent.  It takes nearly four years for him to do so, as the older siblings re-enact events from his long-ago days of power and he comes to sympathize with the people he wronged.

It's a good novel, and it also gives an accurate picture of World War I--it came out last year for the 100th anniversary.  I got well involved with the story and teary in places.  So I do recommend it; it's a good book.  My daughter, a Nesbit loyalist, enjoyed it very much and has been bugging me to get around to reading it.

Now, I will say however that Saunders takes the Psammead in a different direction than I think Nesbit imagined.  She casts him as having once had an entire (if small) kingdom, and that's not really how I imagine the Psammead.  This is pretty much OK in this case, because it's quite well done.

It doesn't feel like a money grab or a celebrity children's book, which I think is important.  I mean, I'd never tell you to read the celebrity-written Peter Rabbit sequel.  This feels more like a labor of love and a genuine novel written for love.




The five children and the Psammead live in Kent.  How I have not yet read a book set in Kent this year I do not know, but here is one!

Friday, July 17, 2015

The History of the Renaissance World

Love that gory picture!
The History of the Renaissance World: From the Rediscovery of Aristotle to the Conquest of Constantinople, by Susan Wise Bauer

This history series is challenging but very worth tackling.  The third volume of Susan Wise Bauer's history of the world project covers the Renaissance--what most people would consider to be the early Renaissance, really, but she makes an excellent case.  The Fall of Constantinople in 1453 marks the ending point of this book.  I haven't heard that she is writing another volume yet; she did a different project and recently came out with The Story of Science, a history of scientific discovery.  I'm looking forward to reading that, and I'm curious about whether she is planning to continue the history and produce a Durant-sized set or what.

This is a chronological world history, and so it constantly jumps around geographically as Bauer moves the reader forward  in time.  As more societies develop writing or come into contact with other peoples, they start showing up on the stage, so we see Mali and other African empires, early Mesoamerican peoples, and many others.  The Mongols get an enormous amount of space as they conquer pretty well all of Asia and then some; the Ottoman empire gets started and grows quickly; Europeans do a whole lot of squabbling and go crusading on a regular basis (the development and reasoning behind various crusades, and its eventual link to the Portuguese slave trade, is one theme that runs through the book); Hindus and Muslims duke it out in India.

Oh, and there's plague too.  But the plague is almost minor compared to the war.  One of my Goodreads updates for this book summed it up: "War, war, war, war, plague, war, war, plague, war. War!"  Do you know, the Mongols managed to shrink the population of China by about 50 million?  Many, many countries experienced shrunken populations through constant war and the attending poverty and disease.  Bauer also covers the beginning of the end of the Medieval Warming Period, which brought famine to weaken resistance to disease.  So overall, there's a tremendous amount of death going on.

I also re-learned the lesson of the History of the Medieval World: any group that gains the opportunity will seek to expand and impose its rule over others. Imperialism is a natural human impulse, regardless of race, culture, or creed. Everybody's done it. Though the Mongols were probably the most efficient and scary at it.

Bauer has an attractive writing style that I enjoy.  She is readable and fluent, while not repetitive (probably quite a trick when 90% of the chapters are about war).  She isn't flippant, but she is constantly coming up with trenchant observations that are striking or witty.  A few:
[King] John had a talent for turning gold into mud.

Yorimoto convinced a bunch of samurai to get behind his plan "based only on his family name and what must have been astounding personal charm."

...the emperor landed at Acre with only six hundred knights...Unfortunately, as Frederick II was excommunicated, the church could hardly take credit for it, which annoyed Gregory IX so much that he excommunicated Frederick II for a second time.

So, having learned precisely nothing from history, he sent an appeal to the pope for help.

[The army] included 120 war elephants whose tusks had been poisoned; this was a little off-putting to the Mongol army, but Timur...ordered his men to pile hay on the backs of camels, set it on fire, and drive the camels toward the elephants.

[John VII of Byzantium] was making a desperate tour of European courts, begging for men, money, and aid against the Turks.  He was having absolutely no luck.  The great kings were preoccupied, broke, invested elsewhere, or insane.
Many of the stories contained here are stranger than fiction.  I can't describe them here because it would take too much space, and I wish I could.  But my teenage daughter has been reading these for her schoolwork, and she says she can't understand why so many people think history is boring when there is so much weirdness going on.  So maybe that will convince you to give these a try.



Thursday, July 16, 2015

What Matters in Jane Austen?

What Matters in Jane Austen?  Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved, by John Mullan

There is a whole Jane Austen industry, with sequels, prequels, biographies, craft books, novels whose authors realized that just putting the words "Jane Austen" in the title would guarantee a best-seller, zombie spinoffs, and meditations about life.  Amidst all this debris, how do we pick worthwhile Jane Austen-themed books without wading through a sea of junk?  I don't quite know, and so I have mostly not read them, or been disappointed when I did.

But this book is different!  This is a truly insightful, valuable, and lovely book about Miss Austen's novels, and I promise that if you are a Janeite, you will adore this book.  John Mullan is an English professor of English, and here, in twenty essays, he asks questions and discusses each novel in that light.  He is quietly saying, "Here, try paying attention to this."  Some of the puzzles:

Do sisters sleep in the same bedroom?
Why is it risky to go to the seaside?
Do we ever see the lower classes?
How much money is enough?
What makes characters blush?
What do characters say when the heroine is not there?

In each case, the discussion is illuminating.  Before long I wanted to read each and every Austen novel again, to observe all these nuances developing.  Mullan shows us Austen's skill and artistry, and also her development of the novel form.  She was doing things that no one had done before, and in some cases she was doing them long before anybody else picked up on the ideas.

You will come away from this book with a new appreciation and enthusiasm for Austen's work.  Don't miss it.



Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Gulag Archipelago


The Gulag Archipelago: an Experiment in Literary Investigation, Abridged Edition, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

A while ago I said that Bloodlands was the most unremittingly grim and tragic book I'd ever read, but now I have to say that the Gulag Archipelago is just as grim--and I only read the abridged edition.  This is also a completely amazing book, when you know about how Solzhenitsyn did it.  He was himself a zek (as you know already), and during his time in the gulag he talked with many other people and remembered their cases.  This gigantic three-volume work is a history of the gulag, compiled from these first-hand narratives and from things people wrote to him.  He could not do much other research, of course, and his writing had to be completely secret.  In fact, he mentions once or twice that he never really expects anyone else to see his book at all.

In the foreword, Anne Applebaum (author of Iron Curtain, which is also on my pile) says that Solzhenitsyn's information is practically all correct, which is a pretty impressive feat in my opinion.  This is a strange kind of a history book, but a history it is.

Solzhenitsyn endeavors to tell the entire history of the gulag system, and he does it in two ways.  At first he writes a factual description of the arrest, questioning, and sentencing process.  The many ways of getting arrested are listed, as well as the myriad ways that were used to intimidate and torture prisoners in the Lubyanka.  He points out that the vast majority of people were arrested because of incredibly minor things, or for nothing at all--there were quotas to be met, after all, or resentful neighbors willing to fabricate offenses--and therefore nearly everyone cooperated meekly because they assumed that there was a mistake somewhere and it would all get ironed out soon, or at least that cooperation would help the case.  But once arrested, everyone was assumed guilty; there was no way to escape.

He also writes about the gulag system in a more historical manner, starting with the days right after the Bolshevik revolution.  One of Solzhenitsyn's major goals was to show people that the gulag was not a Stalin problem that really only existed during the Terror of the late 30s.  I think even to this day, people kind of think that Lenin wasn't so bad and he had a great vision until Stalin came along to ruin it with his special brutality.   But no: Lenin developed the gulag, with Trotsky's special help.  It was an integral part of the Soviet system and started immediately.  Solzhenitsyn gives us quotations directly from Lenin to prove that he always and openly planned to punish any dissent as harshly as he could:
...it was altogether impermissible to delay in the matter of prisons, whether old or new.  In the first months after the October Revolution  Lenin was already demanding "the most decisive, draconic measures to tighten up discipline...confiscation of all property...confinement in prison, dispatch to the front and forced labor..."
Solzhenitsyn in 1953, in prison uniform
Solzhenitsyn describes an incredible array of draconian punishments.  Zeks were dumped into frozen wastelands and ordered to build camps with primitive tools, if there were any.  They were forced to work 16-hour days with impossible quotas, and if the quotas weren't met they kept going until they were.  They were ordered to remove trees--without saws (they shook them down by rocking them back and forth).  They were killed at random and through starvation and work.  There seems to be no end to the methods of tormenting prisoners--at one point Solzenitsyn wryly observes that Western writers always seem to be obsessed with the latrine bucket as a symbol of the degradation of the concentration camp/gulag, but that they don't realize latrine buckets were very often not provided at all.

There is a whole section on children.  The population of the gulag was shockingly young, and there were crowds of children, often sentenced for offenses like picking spilled grain out of the road to eat or accidentally knocking a poster of Lenin down from a wall while playing.  Children could be sentenced as adults at twelve.  (Ten years was the minimum sentence from the start, and before long just about everyone was getting 25 years.)

Having religious beliefs was a guaranteed ticket to the gulag, especially in the 1920s.  Entire communities were emptied, as well as monasteries and nunneries, and the buildings often converted to prisons.

Not to mention the collective punishment and relocation of entire ethnic groups.  They would just decide that some village of a particular ethnicity was no good, go in and grab everyone, and haul them off to a desolate swamp somewhere, telling them to get started surviving.  The homes and possessions would be taken over. 

De-kulakization is also covered a bit, and he points out that by punishing and starving farmers for being hard-working, thrifty, prudent, and good at farming, the Soviets (who were urban-minded and suspicious of country people) broke the back of the Russian peasantry.  There could be entire books written on any one of these topics.

Near the end, Solzhenitsyn tackles the economics of the gulag system.  The Soviet Union, after all, wanted it to be profitable; all these prisoners were supposed to be building railways and roads and towns for the future, and forced labor doesn't cost anything (right?) and they figured it would be a good deal.  It turns out, however, that you can't count on getting good work out of starving slaves.  So the whole system was a gigantic money pit.

He also compares the gulag system to the prison/exile system under the Tsars.  After all, Lenin suffered in prison himself, did he not?  All those Bolsheviks, suffering under the repressive regime!  It's hard for Solzhenitsyn to rein in his sarcasm here, because under the old system there were relatively few radicals sent to prison, and when they were...well, it looks pretty good next to the system they invented when they got the chance.

I had a hard time picking out quotations; there are an awful lot I'd like to share.  Here are some:
We have to condemn publicly the very idea that some people have the right to repress others. 
According to the estimates of emigre Professor of Statistics Kurganov, this "comparatively easy" internal repression cost us, from the beginning of the October Revolution up to 1959, a total of...66,000,000 lives. 
And thus it is that I am writing this book solely from a sense of obligation--because too many stories and recollections have accumulated in my hands and I cannot allow them to perish.  I do not expect to see it in print anywhere with my own eyes; and I have little hope that those who managed to drag their bones out of the Archipelago will ever read it; and I do not at all believe that it will explain the truth of our history in time for anything to be corrected.
It is a good thing to think in prison, but it is not bad in camp [i. e. the gulag] either.  Because, and this is the main thing, there are no meetings.  For ten years you are free from all kinds of meetings!  Is that not mountain air?  While they openly claim your labor and your body, to the point of exhaustion and even death, the camp keepers do not encroach at all on your thoughts.  They do not try to screw down your brains and to fasten them in place.
Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either--but right through every human heart--and through all human hearts.  This line shifts.  Inside us, it oscillates with the years.  And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.  And even in the best of all hearts, there remains...an unuprooted small corner of evil.
The Tsars persecuted revolutionaries just sufficiently to broaden their circle of acquaintance in prisons, toughen them, and ring their heads with haloes.  We now have an accurate yardstick to establish the scale of these phenomena--and we can safely say that the Tsarist government did not persecute revolutionaries but tenderly nurtured them, for its own destruction.  The uncertainty, half-heartedness, and feebleness of the Tsarist government are obvious to all who have experienced an infallible judicial system.
 This is another book that everyone should read.  I can't come close to telling you about it.  Now, I only read the abridged version, and I'm going to consider that to be a preliminary; someday I'll read the whole thing.  But this is a quite sufficient amount for everyone to read if they don't want to deal with all three volumes.

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Wings of the Dove, and my failure at reading it

Even this edition wouldn't have helped.
This month's theme is Realism in Fanda's Literary Movements Challenge.  I chose to read Henry James' The Wings of the Dove, which is one of my Classics Club titles.  I quite enjoyed Portrait of a Lady a couple of years ago, and figured I would enjoy this too.

Boy was I wrong.  Wings of the Dove is 700 pages long; 300 pages into it, I was unhappily slogging and sometimes skimming.  I had never gotten to care one bit for any of the characters.  I was curious about the scheme that is the center of the plot, but it hadn't even gotten started yet and I was losing patience.  I felt that there was so much detail and nuance and fine shading of feeling that the characters and plot were lost in the morass--a real forest-for-the-trees situation.  I eventually told myself to stop suffering and put the dang book down already, and promptly felt better.

So I am hereby admitting defeat on this title.  It's my first Classics Club failure, so I'm not very thrilled, but wow, that novel was terrible.   I'm going to salvage my dented pride by reading one or two short stories by Henry James instead.