Sunday, March 26, 2017

DWJMarch: The Pinhoe Egg

I've been having a lovely time reading all the Chrestomanci books; it's been a really nice respite for me.  The Pinhoe Egg is the last, and one of the best!  Kristen says she thinks it's one of DWJ's best books overall, and yeah, I think I'd put it in the top ten.  It's just so much fun -- she was really at the top of her game and you can see her doing all the great DWJ things, but a bit more so.  Marianne's village is full of interesting characters (almost none of whom are very good people), and I love watching Marianne and Cat solving problems together and becoming a team.

Question of the Day: There are three different kinds of magic in this story: enchanter magic, dwimmer (natural magic), and the hybrid tech-magic that Joe uses. Which kind of magic would you most like to have?

First, I'll note that the three nine-lived enchanters -- Gabriel de Witt, Christopher Chant, and Cat Chant -- have magic that differs completely from the others.  It's often stated that they don't really understand each others' talents.  Christopher has no interest in animals but loves cars and machines (see Conrad's Fate), and Roger seems to inherit that preference.  Cat is developing his talent for dwimmer, which is magic having to do with alive and growing things.   (DWJ seems to have really gotten into this idea toward the end of her life; several of her later books involve various forms of growing magic and animals.)
Joe's flying machine!

But which would I choose?  That's a tricky one.  To my shame, I'm really not a very good gardener, and I'm not much of an animal person.   I doubt that dwimmer would choose me, though it sounds pretty great.  But I'm also not much into mechanics, like Joe and Roger are.  Any magic I developed would be more likely to be bookish and possibly mosaic-like, with patterns.  Like what Irene does.  But I'll certainly go for enchanter-level talents if any are available!

The Fellowship of the Ring

The Fellowship of the Ring, by J. R. R. Tolkien

Brona is hosting an LOTR readalong, and in March we read The Fellowship of the Ring.  It's been a long, long time since I read it, and I enjoyed it so much!  I just didn't put it down for a few days.  Since there's no point in talking about the plot, I'll just put down a few random thoughts.

It really does take Frodo forever to get going.  Reluctant to leave the Shire and venture into danger, he waits until danger is on his doorstep.  I can't help thinking about Tolkien's experiences in World War I, which was so horrifying that in the 1930s, both Britain and France waited until it was just about too late.  The peoples of those countries didn't want to have to get into another awful war; they wanted to live decent, quiet lives in safety.  No wonder they hoped it would go away.  But just as for Frodo and the Shire, evil was coming for them regardless, and looking away only made it worse in the end.  (Yes, I know Tolkien said that LOTR wasn't an allegory and that he hated allegory.  But themes aren't allegory at all.)

For the first time, I found myself enjoying Tom Bombadil.  Previously, I've found him annoying and felt like he didn't belong to the story very well, but this time it worked for me.  Tom is, to my mind, what we might call a genius of the land; he belongs in his place and that's all he cares about.  He's very powerful and he's helpful, but he's not really any help in this fight unless it's on his own territory.
My edition

The trek through Moria is longer than I'd remembered, and most of it isn't that scary, right up until the battle at the end.  They even find a record of Balin's people.  But then it's all fighting and the bridge over Khazad-dûm. 

Anyway, it was lovely to read this again and I'm looking forward to The Two Towers.  Thanks to Brona for deciding to do this!

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Man Who Saved Britain

The Man Who Saved Britain: A Personal Journey Into the Disturbing World of James Bond, by
Simon Winder

Remember a month or so ago, I read and enjoyed Germania?  Well, I happened upon another, earlier Winder title at the public library, and I think it's pretty obvious that if you find a whimsical book about the cultural implications of James Bond, you have to read it.  At least, I do.

Here's the funny part, though: I've never been a Bond fan, and have not seen most of the older movies.  I don't think I've ever watched a whole Connery Bond movie, and I'm pretty sure the only one I've seen all the way through is the terrible Live and Let Die with Roger Moore (it's the one with Jane Seymour in).  I have seen some of the newer Daniel Craig films -- for some reason I've seen Casino Royale three times, why? -- but I haven't searched them out or anything.  I think Daniel Craig looks like a chimpanzee.  My Bond knowledge is therefore extremely patchy, to the point that I had not realized that Donald Pleasence's frequent appearances as an evil super-villain in some of my favorite B-movies stem from his role as the original blueprint evil super-villain in Bond films.  So I learned a whole lot about James Bond here -- more than anyone really wants to know.

Winder is about ten years older than I am and was the perfect age to grow up obsessed with Bond films, just like every other boy in the UK, despite the fact that by then Roger Moore had taken over the role.  He is therefore in a great position to have fun noodling around with ideas about what Bond meant to the collective British psyche, and proceeds to hop barefoot around the meadows of mid-century Britain with abandon.

In a nutshell, Winder's sort-of-thesis is that post-WWII Britain went into a tailspin of an identity crisis.  It was traumatized and out of money, the Empire was disintegrating, and entire industries based on that empire were evaporating into thin air.  In just a couple of decades, the UK went from a major world power -- one of the Big Three -- to a poor, kind of marginal country on the edge of Europe that had to beg to join the EU.  The fictional character of James Bond -- suave, worldly, sophisticated, and always superior to everyone he met -- provided a fantasy of British cool and importance, and even gave ordinary folks instructions on luxury goods and world travel.  Between Bond and the Beatles, we all think that Britain in the 60s was fantastic, and we have this vague impression that MI6 was doing important, amazing spy stuff.  It's not true, but it's a lot more fun than reality was.

Much of this book is very fun.  Some is pretty wince-worthy, what with the way Bond generally stomps all over modern mores.  And some is less fun.  I was often bothered by Winder's tone about his own country, which was very much in the self-hating British mode.  I don't mean that I didn't like that he had honest criticisms about his country's history and culture; I mean that he frequently came off as pointlessly mean or self-hating.  He got extravagantly disgusted about various points of British culture that aren't really worth getting all upset about.  It was neither enlightening nor entertaining, just kind of unpleasant.  And at one point he's really pretty vicious about the French for no reason that I can discern.

Still, I learned a lot and there are some very entertaining nuggets of anecdote, history, or story.  (For example, the Bond film director Cubby Broccoli was so named because his Italian market-gardening family developed broccoli in the first place.)  It was a worthwhile read.  And I liked this bit about Lego:
I never had quite enough Lego bricks to make more than a single Lancaster bomber and only that through roping in all sorts of implausible shapes which undermined any sense of documentary truth.  Lego then remained true to its relentlessly decent Danish roots and great care had been taken to use jolly colours and no shapes that could be construed as remotely weapony.  This was fine for the tots of Denmark, whiling away happy hours clicking together model nursery schools or yogurt factories, but in the murkier world of British childhood, where the crying need was for models of coastal gun batteries or V-2 launch sites, Lego bricks fell well short.
I think the image here is actually the UK edition.  The one I read features a smirking Connery and a stoned-looking girl wearing very little.  I actually stuck a post-it note over her in order to be able to read the dang thing!

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Skies Belong To Us

The Skies Belong To Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking, by Brendan I. Koerner

This has been on my wish-list for quite some time, and I finally got tired and ILLed it.  Oh, it was so fascinating!  I learned a ton.  Koerner gives a general run-down of airplane hijacking history in America and focuses in on one particular and intriguing case, along with some large dollops of relevant current events.

People, America in the 60s and 70s was kinda unhinged, at least where hijacking was concerned.  Airplanes were interesting, a symbol of power and the future, and there was no security whatsoever.  Passengers didn't have to go through any kind of procedure at all -- they didn't even have to show ID.  Once people figured out how easy it was to gain national attention and power, however fleeting, by hijacking a plane, a lot of them decided it would be a good way to solve whatever problems they had.

A fun fact I learned: one of the very earliest hijacking attempts actually occurred right here in my hometown, in 1961!  The guy was drunk and tried to force the pilot to take him to his hometown in Arkansas, but the plane was still on the ground and he was captured instead.

Most early hijackings followed the examples of those in other countries and involved forcing the plane to go to Havana.  People thought that they would be greeted as heroes and live great lives in Cuba.  Castro was happy to accept hijacked planes -- he could demand ransom money for each one -- but the hijackers were invariably subjected to weeks of interrogation followed by either incarceration or the Cuban equivalent of the gulag.  Later on in the 70s, Castro got tired of taking in unstable and violent people, and stopped accepting planes at all.

Our featured hijackers are Roger Holder, a Vietnam vet with serious trauma and a heavy drug habit, and his girlfriend Cathy Kerkow, who liked parties and shocking people.  Holder wanted to tell the world about the horrors of the war, and he constructed elaborate hijacking plans to broadcast his message.  He wanted to rescue Angela Davis, who was on trial, and take her to North Vietnam where they would be hailed as fellow fighters against injustice.  Angela would be grateful to him!

The actual hijacking didn't quite go as planned.  Angela Davis had no desire to be rescued.  Holder and Kerkow wound up in Algieria, guests of the International Black Panthers (Eldredge Cleaver and some friends), which sparked a short run of hijackings to Algeria now that Castro was no longer accepting anybody.  From there, they eventually went to Paris.   Koerner follows Holder through the rest of his tragic life, but Kerkow is more difficult; she thrived in Paris, and engineered a disappearing act in which she probably switched identities and just merged into the background.

I really had a lot of fun with this book, especially with learning about hijackings in general.  There is all sorts of weird stuff in here.  Anybody interested in recent history would probably enjoy it.

DWJ March: Conrad's Fate

Today we're talking about Conrad's Fate, a story I just love.  We have Conrad, a great narrator who has to figure out that he's been lied to his whole life, and get to see more of Christopher and Millie before they grow up.  I would have been perfectly happy to read endless adventures of Christopher, Millie, and assorted friends, but DWJ was not that kind of writer.

One character I both love and cringe at is Conrad's mother, who ignores everyone and everything in order to write books of academic feminism.  She is awful, sometimes in an over-the-top, funny way, and more so in a truly tragic way.  I suspect that DWJ was poking a little fun at herself here, magnifying the way all writerly mothers have to neglect other things in order to write at all.  Conrad's mother is not the usual hungry mother of DWJ writing -- that element shows up in the Countess -- but the way she utterly neglects her children and even succumbs to spells pushing her to forget them makes her just as bad in her own way.  She and the Countess are a pair.

And for today's question, Kristen asks:
If you were to discover a family secret, would you rather it be: a noble title, money, or magic?
 Well, I don't know what earthly use I'd have for a noble title!  (Unless maybe it comes with a semi-ruined castle and lots of money for upkeep of said castle?)  Money would certainly be awfully useful, but magic would be more interesting.  I guess it would depend on what kind of magic it is.  Also, I'm a sucker for surprises, so I'd probably pick magic just to see what would happen.  I can never resist the unknown quantity -- at gift exchanges I never steal opened presents.  I invariably pick the most intriguing-looking mystery package, and usually end up with something dopey.  (I got dollar-store Tupperware two years in a row at the Christmas party, and it still didn't cure me!)  On the other hand, if I had lots of money I could take another trip to the UK and see Bristol this time....

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

#MarchMagics: Reaper Man

Today Kristen is posting about Reaper Man.  Again, it had been so long since I'd read this that I'd forgotten most of it -- though not the Death of Rats.  He is a favorite character in our home! 

Today's question is a toughie.  Kristen asks:
Some of the extra life force in Ankh-Morpork causes head-wizard Archchancellor Ridcully's swears to be personified. They remain in a little swarm above his head and perched on his hat.

 If your favorite swear word/phrase turned into a creature, what would it look like?
My problem here is that my usual swear words run along the lines of 'dangit,' 'drat,' or in moments of real heat, 'hell.'   My mom suggests that a dangit would be small and fluffy.  I envision it sort of like those dust sprites in Totoro, only in color.  They could be little floaty green and blue puffballs.  Probably Archchancellor Ridcully's swears would then eat them as snacks.
But now seems like a good time to introduce you to our ol' buddy Death of Rats, here.  When animal skeletons filled the stores last Halloween, we realized that we needed to get a rat and fix him up.  Here he is, outfitted with glowy blue eyes, a black cape with the whole universe inside,* and a 3D printed scythe.  He greeted our trick-or-treaters in style. 


*The cape was originally made so that my daughter's American Girl doll could be a wizard.  We turned it inside out and it fit great.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Biggest Estate on Earth

The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, by Bill Gammage

This book wins the prize for Most Mind-Blowing Book of 2017 So Far.  Way back during Brona's AusNovember event, she posted about this book, and obviously I was going to have to read it.  I don't really know diddly-squat about Australian history, except for a vague impression of hunter-gatherer Aborigines decimated by British colonialism/prison settling.  I certainly did not know that the Australian landscape of 1788, when the First Fleet arrived from Britain, was a very different place than it is now.

The native Australians were running the entire continent as a vast...park.  Like a "gentleman's estate in England" kind of park, with lots of grassland and trees scattered about, with places for game to feed and multiply.  They had every inch of the land covered and took care of all of it, encouraging different habitats and plant varieties in carefully planned patterns.  Thousands of years of cumulative knowledge gave them the expertise to manage the land so that game was plentiful but not too much, and water was conserved in soil.  Then they could travel over the land and always be assured of enough for all, even in terrible droughts: "Across Australia the end was the same: to make resources abundant, convenient and predictable.  Only the means varied."  They accomplished all of this with several tools, but largely with expertly-wielded fire.

European settlers took the parkland as natural, describing it in detail and often comparing it to an English estate park.  Few realized that the Aboriginal habit of burning was a land-management technique -- though they did know that burning grass encouraged new growth for grazing -- and hardly anyone seems to have understood the breathtaking extent of the work.  Modern Australians have usually taken the early paintings of bucolic Australia to be exaggerations, but they weren't.

It actually did look like this

When the land-management patterns were disrupted, soil became compacted, water drained off, and most of all, new trees and spinifex took over.  The brush wildfires that now occur in Australia on a regular basis are new; Aboriginal fire management once prevented them.

Gammage proves his case exhaustively, using (apparently) every early painting and map, photos, and descriptions to compare 1788 to today.  He reels off names of trees, shrubs, and grasses until you're dizzy, and he seems to know exactly what each of them needs.  Many of the tree names, unfamiliar to a non-Australian, confused me at first, until he explained that most of them are either types of eucalyptus or types of acacia (golden wattle is one of those).  It's a long, heavy, and fascinating book, so it took me quite a while to read, and his thesis is hard to deny.

The result of this land management system was abundance.  Early settlers noticed, and resented, that Aborigines acted like leisured gentry.  "In most seasons they had plenty of spare time....Art was voluminous and intricate...Songs were long, corroborees might last months, initiations years."   Not only that, but part of the system was that in times of plenty, much was left to the animals, while people made sure to act like they were in a drought.  Their methods ensured that they could just about always avoid famine.

Aboriginal Australians invented a land management system for which we barely even have a name.  They planted crops, hunted, and gathered, but they did it in a framework that took in every corner of the continent.  Every bit was known by some family.  I don't think anything like it has ever happened anywhere else.

So: a lot of fascinating history here.  Gammage is exhaustive, but it's very worth a read. 

DWJ March: Lives of Christopher Chant

Today, we're reading one of my all-time favorites, and certainly my favorite Chrestomanci title, The Lives of Christopher Chant.  This is just such a great story! 

Kristen comments on Christopher's sullenness through a good half of the book.  He's got good reason to feel put-upon; although he doesn't understand or articulate it until the Goddess does, Christopher is a kid who has never had anybody love him.  He gets pulled and pushed around with no warning, so it's no wonder he's rude and grumpy when he is taken away from school (which he loves) to go to the rather grim Castle.  But at the same time, he has to figure out that he bears some responsibility for his unhappiness too; his behavior has alienated the Castle people, who are sympathetic, even if clumsy.  When he makes an effort, things change for the better, and stubbornly clinging to his misery has done him no good at all.

On to the question of the day -- Kristen asks,
When The Living Asheth gets to World Twelve-A, she needs a new name so that she can hide from The Arm of Asheth. She chooses Millie because of the boarding school books that she adored from Christopher's world. If you needed a new name, which bookish moniker would you choose?
 Ha, I would think of a DWJ name first, but I don't really feel that Polly Whitaker suits me, and Tanaqui only works as an Internet handle, not a name.  (Now I'm looking at my bookshelf and realizing that I can't pick an Indian or Russian name because that would be too implausible.  This is hard!)  Jane, from Susan Cooper's books, is a good solid name but far too close to my own; it's a cop-out, really.  How about Bentley Saunders Harrison?  Nope.

What if I go with an author's name, like Eleanor or Diana?  Those are both nice.  I'd have to pick a last name out of a phone book, in that case.

And the Spin number is...


Which means I'll be reading Sir Walter Scott's Heart of Midlothian, which is very long and very wordy.  I hope I can bash my way through it!  It's not exactly scary, but it's a bit intimidating.

It turns out that "Heart of Midlothian" is also the name of a Scottish soccer team (OK, football club) and a piece of Edinburgh paving that apparently you spit on.  I'll have to investigate that a little further, but right now I have to go to a work meeting....

A small mystery to unravel

Monday, March 6, 2017

MarchMagics: Mort

Kristen at We Be Reading has put up her question for Mort, the 4th Discworld novel and the first one about Death.  I've been recommending this one for years but haven't read it in ....I don't even know how long.  So while I remember the characters -- Mort, Ysabell, Albert, and Death himself -- I didn't remember the plot at all.  And it's kind of a weird plot!  Death is always hoping to figure out people a little better, though, and I did enjoy Mort's realization of his boss' complete loneliness. 

Question of the Day: Death has a soft spot for Discworld's kittens and cats. If you were not fully of this (our) world, what would be the thing that would attract/intrigue/charm you the most?
Kittens is a pretty good answer!  Otherwise I might go for human babies.  Or art; the amazing stuff that people do just to make something they enjoy making or think looks pretty.  Oh!  Penguins!  I vote penguins.