Monday, November 30, 2015

Fairy Tale as Myth, Myth as Fairy Tale

Fairy Tale as Myth, Myth as Fairy Tale: lectures by Jack Zipes

I was excited about reading these lectures by Jack Zipes, the big academic specialist in fairy tales, especially Grimm's fairy tales.  If you've read or seen the giant Grimm's collection, he's the editor.  I was looking forward to some nice chewy discussions about myth and folklore.  I was disappointed, and when I wasn't bored, I was arguing with Zipes in my head.  Bleh.

There are six essays in this volume.  The first is about the origins of the fairy tale, and talks about how French aristocrat ladies would write stories for each other or for girls.  This was the part I liked best, talking about how Madame D'Aulnoy "intended to present a woman's viewpoint with regard to such topics as tender love, fidelity, courtship, honor, and arranged must be cautious about labeling her an outspoken critic of patriarchal values or to see feminist leanings in her writings..."  He then goes on analyze Beauty and the Beast, blaming D'Aulnoy for not teaching girls true feminism and to go for what they wanted.  Instead, she instructs girls to "tame their unruly feelings" and do their duty. 

Myself, I can't help thinking that representing women's viewpoints in tales and pointing out that tender love and fidelity are good things in a husband is pretty feminist for the early 18th century.  I wonder what Zipes thought would be the result if D'Aulnoy started advising girls in the way that he wants her to have done.  I think it possible that she would have been considered mad and simply locked up.  Her tales certainly wouldn't have become popular.

An essay on Rumpelstiltskin did catch my interest because he spend a lot of time talking about spinning as the province of women.  On the other hand, I wasn't thrilled with his analysis and prefer Elizabeth Wayland Barber any day.  But he did describe a common social institution, the Spinnstuhe, where young women would live together (supervised of course), working and socializing.  Young men could come and visit in the evenings.  It sounded pretty good as a way for young people to meet and pair off in a safe environment.

The essay on the Disney influence on fairy tales was one I looked forward to and really disliked.  I don't even like Disney films much, but Zipes has nothing good to say about the cartoon industry, Disney, or any movies depicting fairy tales.  It came off as grumpy and unreasonable to me, and I was prepared to criticize Disney films.  Also, he's given to saying things like "No matter what they may do, women cannot chart their own lives without male manipulation and intervention..."  which he figures is unequivocally a bad thing.  But I have to think, well, turn it around.  Do men get to chart their own lives without reference to female opinion?  Neither is very likely, is it?  If he'd phrased it more reasonably, I'd be more receptive.

I'm probably not really equipped to get the essay on Oz as the American fairy tale, because I'm not a big Oz fan.  I read all the books as a kid, but I never got into the movie or the sequels and spinoffs (I did see Return to Oz in the theater, boy was that creepy), and Zipes really mixes them all up and talks about Oz in the popular imagination instead of Oz as described in the Baum stories.  His descriptions of Oz seem overly optimistic to me, especially when he says that Baum described Oz as a "perfect utopian world."  I don't remember that--I remember crazy stuff and rebellions and weirdness.  But then, I was ten and I didn't realize that Baum was making fun of General Jinjer!  I thought she was cool.

I skimmed the last essay.  He talked about that 80s show, Beauty and the Beast, a lot, but I never watched that show.  On the whole, I am kind of disappointed in this collection.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Vintage Science Fiction Month

This will be my third year participating in Little Red Reviewer's annual Vintage Science Fiction Month (not-a-challenge).  I have a Heinlein juvenile title, but am otherwise uncommitted, though I'm thinking about reading some PKD and maybe Simak.  Howabout you--want to read along?  Follow the link to see the details!

Mount TBR 2016

And I'm back to the Mount TBR Challenge to keep myself reading those books!  Bev at My Reader's Block is the host.  Bev says:

Challenge Levels:

Pike's Peak: Read 12 books from your TBR pile/s
Mount Blanc: Read 24 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Vancouver: Read 36 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Ararat: Read 48 books from your TBR piles/s
Mt. Kilimanjaro: Read 60 books from your TBR pile/s
El Toro: Read 75 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Everest: Read 100 books from your TBR pile/s
Mount Olympus (Mars): Read 150+ books from your TBR pile/s

And the rules:
*Once you choose your challenge level, you are locked in for at least that many books. If you find that you're on a mountain-climbing roll and want to tackle a taller mountain, then you are certainly welcome to upgrade.  All books counted for lower mountains carry over towards the new peak.

 There's lots more, so follow the link and check it out if you want to join too.  I've done Mount TBR a few times now and it's fun.

I'm signing up for the Pike's Peak level of 12 books, as always.  I haven't got my pile properly together yet, but here's a preliminary picture.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Hard Core Re-Reading Challenge 2016

Well, this is handy.  There are some books that I want to re-read, but that are kind of on the heavy side, so I was thinking a nice little re-reading challenge would be just the thing to encourage me to pick up Hayek again.  And what do you know, Lois at You, Me, and a Cup of Tea is hosting the perfect challenge!   She says:

Rules (And when I say rules please realize I'm one of the most flexible people in existence)

  • First off, this challenge is for EVERYBODY! That means YOU! I want anyone and everyone to join in on the fun!
  • I suggest you make a list of books that you want to re-read for 2015 and post it with your sign up post. You are welcome to add to it as the year goes on and you definitely don't have to read them all. I recommend it be a suggested list and you can just chose books off of it as you go along.
  • The challenge officially runs from January 1, 2016 to December 31, 2016. ONLY books started AND finished in that time frame will count....


Level 1 0-15 Re-reading itch
Level 2 16-25 Re-reading bug
Level 3 26-35 Re-reading fever
Level 4 36-50 Re-reading paralysis
Level 5 50+ Re-reading coma (if you can do this I highly commend you!)

Lois says a bunch of other things too.  Take a look.  I will only be signing up for Level 1 and will probably keep it to 10 books or fewer.  Here are some of my titles, but I haven't even got ten yet...

  1. My Childhood, by Maxim Gorky
  2. The Fair at St. James, by Eleanor Farjeon
  3. Caleb Williams, by William Godwin
  4. West With the Night, by Beryl Markham
  5. Last Tales, by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen)
  6. Pelle the Conqueror, vol. 1, by Martin Andersen Nexø
  7. Kaleidoscope, by Eleanor Farjeon
  8. The Road to Serfdom, by Eddison
  9. The Allegory of Love, by C. S. Lewis

Zuleika Dobson

Zuleika Dobson, by Max Beerbohm

I really didn't know what to expect from Zuleika Dobson, except that I had heard it was witty.  The cover of the edition I checked out at work (see below) is so hideous that you would never know it's a comedy, would you?  I found you a nicer cover too.  I'm pretty sure my copy qualifies as one of the ugliest book covers ever produced.  If you can top this, I'll buy you lunch.

Zuleika--who makes her living by conjuring--arrives in Oxford to visit her grandfather, the Warden of Judas College.  She is so charming and bewitching that every young man who sees her promptly falls in love with her.  She is used to this and takes it as her due, but she can never fall in love with anyone who throws himself at her feet so easily.  When the impeccable dandy the Duke of Dorset actually ignores her for an entire dinner, she falls in love for the first time--only to fall out again when he confesses that he also loves her.  In despair, the Duke vows to kill himself for Zuleika, and to his dismay, every student in Oxford thinks that's a splendid idea and decides to do it too!

This is a very fun Edwardian satirical read.  I'm glad I found it.

My cover appears to feature a vaguely 18th-century girl holding an ugly flower, a blindfolded guy flying, and...possibly a frog, but also possibly just another brown blotch.

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Castle

The Castle, by Franz Kafka

This unfinished novel is one of Kafka's longer works, and it's, well, Kafka-esque.  So much so that I had kind of a hard time with it; 400 solid pages of never getting anywhere got pretty difficult to take.

K. arrives at a village to take up a job as a land-surveyor at the Castle that overlooks the little town.  Everyone there either works for the Castle or wants to land a job there, but K. is not allowed to go there.  Nor can he meet with Castle officials.  There doesn't seem to be any land-surveying to do, but he is assigned two assistants, who do nothing to help him but do bother him a lot.  He makes friends with a messenger who isn't quite a messenger, and he meets a girl and becomes engaged, but that doesn't last long.  All his efforts lead nowhere.

All the conversations K. has with people in the village are the same; long, long monologues about village/Castle relations that meander around, contradict themselves with almost every sentence, and delve into careful distinctions that are so fine and nuanced that they don't really exist.  Nobody really knows much, but they're certainly willing to make it up.  Round and round we go with K., trying to get something done and never succeeding.  He might as well give up and die.

Kafka died before he could finish The Castle, and he may not have meant to anyway, but the ending he mentioned to Max Brod involved K.'s death, at which point the desired message from the Castle finally arrives--only to inform him that his "legal claim to live in the village was not valid, yet, taking certain auxiliary circumstances into account, he was permitted to live and work there."

I read the Muir translation in the 1954 "definitive" edition that includes a lot of alternate wording, fragments, and excised material, plus a foreword by Thomas Mann.  The most recent editions don't include all of that stuff and have a different translation.

I'll have to read Amerika one of these days...

Sunday, November 22, 2015

My Brilliant Career

My Brilliant Career, by Miles Franklin

It's AusNovember, and I read one of the really obvious classics, this novel by Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin, who wrote it for friends when she was only a teenager, It was published in 1901, when she was about 22.  It was a hit, but Franklin was upset by some reactions--I think an awful lot of people assumed it was more biographical than it was, or than she wished them to think it was--and she withdrew it for decades.  It discouraged her from writing more novels for a long time.

Sybylla is an imaginative, intelligent, discontented girl living in near-poverty on her family's station.  Once her father owned beautiful farmland, but his bad business decisions landed them all on a desolate station, and he has become a useless, tragic drunk.  Mother and children work hard and earn little, and it is with relief that her mother sends Sybylla to live with her grandmother at Caddagat.  There Sybylla blossoms, but not without bumps in the road, and then she is sent to work for an awful family.

This is a very unusual coming-of-age novel.  Sybylla is restless and discontented--a fascinating and realistic character--and often so contrary that she doesn't even know what she wants, or if she does know, she can't communicate it.  She's terrified of marriage and the life of inescapable drudgery that she feels it must lead to, since she's never seen anything different, yet at the same time she longs for the companionship and love that only marriage could give her.  There is a romance, but it has anything but a traditional conclusion.  At the end, she is in practically the same circumstances as when she started; there is no happy ending or resolution.  

It's as if you had Anne Shirley without the optimism and moral lessons.  Jane Eyre without the patience.  It's a novel from 1900, featuring a teenage girl, that does not show her brightening sad lives, learning morality, or otherwise doing the things that girls in novels from 1900 do.  This makes it a very odd reading experience!

PS I also had a copy of another Australian novel, The Man Who Loved Children.  It's supposed to be an amazing and brilliant portrait of a family where the parents hate each other.  I got about 4 pages in before I figured out that I cannot read a 600-page book about a miserable marriage and family right now.  Nope.  I see enough trouble in real life, thank you.  Sorry, Brona.

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Buried Giant

The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro

I've had a spotty track record with Ishiguro.  I didn't really like Never Let Me Go at all.  But I thought I'd give The Buried Giant a try since it's about Anglo-Saxon Britain.  And it's a pretty odd book, but I really liked it.

Axl and Beatrice are an elderly married couple on the social edge of their British village.  The Romans are gone, and Arthur lived a generation ago; the Saxons have come and live in separate villages of their own.  A strange forgetfulness lies across the land, and no one is able to recall much of the past or even stay focused on one idea for long, but Axl and Beatrice finally remember that they have a grown son, and they decide to go on a journey to find him.

They meet a Saxon warrior and a young orphan boy (in a scene reminiscent of Beowulf), who then join them on their travels.   We meet Sir Gawain and start to get an idea of what troubles the land, and the whole thing is a sort of fairy tale (magical realism?) that asks questions about the nature of love, hatred, and forgiveness.

I can see why a lot of the reviews I read are either negative or just puzzled.  It's an odd duck of a book.  I really liked it though.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Brothers Karamazov

The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

I've been working on this novel for a couple of months.  Now I'm not sure what to say about it.  What is there for me to say about one of the great masterworks of the 19th century and of Russian literature?  It is beautiful, and I loved most of it.  I wasn't too hot on the trial and the long lawyers' speeches. 

I thought the translation was pretty great.  Not that I know a lot about translating Russian literature, but I liked the feel and I could tell it was Dostoevsky and not Gogol or Tolstoy.  I read the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, and it came with a good tip: Karamazov is pronounced with a regular old Z, not a ZT sort of sound like Mozart.  Who knew?

This is a pretty hopeless post really but hey everybody, read The Brothers Karamazov if you can!  It's a great work of literature and a great experience too.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Radical Son

Radical Son: A Generational Odyssey, by David Horowitz

Why, you might ask, would I read a memoir by David Horowitz?  (Who the heck is David Horowitz? ask the younger readers.)  Excellent question, and my own husband wondered that as well.  But it's his fault really.  Warning: this got super-long. 

Here is what I knew about Horowitz 3 weeks ago: he's a conservative speaker dude, he's probably retired by now, and when I was at Berkeley in the mid-90s he came to speak, but was screamed down by people who didn't like him on account of the conservatism.  I didn't hear about it until afterwards--partly, I seem to recall, because the newspapers mentioning it were stolen--but I and most other students I knew thought that it was pretty shameful to scream down a speaker and not allow him to speak.  Free Speech Movement birthplace, remember?  We're always bragging about it, maybe we ought to try to live up to it once in a while?

(Also at that time, I wasn't any too clear on whether he was the same guy on TV who had a show called Fight Back! With David Horowitz in the 80s, so just to get that straight--they're two different guys.)

So my husband mentioned that he'd heard that Horowitz had started off as a Left activist, and his parents had been Communists.  Well, that I had to read about. 

Yep, Horowitz's parents were straight-up Communists, belonging to secret organizations that took orders from Moscow and everything.  This was at the height of the Cold War, so young David learned to keep a kind of double life--the public life of an ordinary American family, and the private life where his parents constantly talked politics and revolution but rarely uttered the C-word aloud.  Later, he attended vigils for the Rosenbergs and marched in May Day parades.  He was the classic red-diaper baby, brought up to fight for the Marxist revolution, which he did, at Colombia and especially at Berkeley.

Berkeley??  Aha, this explained a lot.  Horowitz spent the late 50s doing grad work at Cal and helping to build the New Left movement.  Disillusioned by revelations that the beloved Stalin was basically a monster, the American Left had stalled a bit.  Horowitz and others rebuilt it, disavowing the USSR and coining the argument that true communism had not yet been tried and was bound to work.*  After a few years abroad, he returned to Berkeley in time for the late 1960s, and was a central player for quite a long time.  (It was about this time I figured out that he was particularly hated at Berkeley because he was viewed as a traitor for changing his beliefs.)

(There is a whole lot of family stuff in here too, but I am skipping those bits, despite their centrality to the book.  I want to talk politics.)

Burned by his parents' mistaken devotion to Stalin, Horowitz was trying to stay clear of any one group.  He mostly wrote for journals and did theory.  But he managed to get involved with, if you can believe it, the Black Panthers.  He was hanging out with Huey Newton and helping to start a school in Oakland.

A lot of the time, he comes off as blindly and in fact willfully naive about the people he was working with, and about politics.  It seems to boil down to two main things, but even so it's pretty weird.  One thing was the fact that he was a theorist and writer anyway, living mostly in his head and involved with his children instead of, say, living in a commune and protesting a lot or doing drugs.  The other is that the people around him were doing the same--ignoring crimes committed by 'their own'  because the ideals were the important thing.   The Panthers were beloved by the Left....though not, curiously enough, by, say, the people of East Oakland (Horowitz actually wondered about this, apparently cluelessly).  This is because they were scary, violent criminals.  And eventually Horowitz's friend, Betty van Patter, who he had recommended as a bookkeeper, went missing and then was found murdered.

It actually took quite some time for Horowitz to figure out the obvious fact that van Patter had been killed by the Panthers.  (It took years for her own daughter and a lot of others to come to this realization.)  And it shattered his world.  All his rationalizations for the revolution and communism and the righteousness of his cause fell apart under the plain fact that everyone was willing to ignore his friend's murder, because she'd been brutally killed by people they approved of and were unwilling to discredit.  And this was standard operating procedure, as long as the killers had the right politics.  Cuban revolutionaries, Sandanistas, Kim Il Sung, Mao....all were violent, murderous dictators idolized for their politics.  For Horowitz, it had to hit home before he realized.
 As New Leftists, we felt ourselves immunized from crimes that the Left had committed in the past, both by acknowledging that they had occurred and by resolving to change the attitudes that had caused them.  But we had changed the attitudes, and now the crimes were being repeated.  I began to ask myself whether there was something in Marxism, or in the socialist idea itself, that was the root of the problem.
He spent a few years in a depression, trying to work through his ideas.  Here he'd thought of himself as a good, even superior, person, working for the good of all mankind, and he'd found himself in league with criminals and killers.  It was an actual surprise to him to realize that human beings are fundamentally flawed, and no amount of perfect social engineering will make us 100% virtuous and happy.  He still needed to make a living, so he was writing with a partner, Peter Collier, and doing family saga biographies, and they started doing other articles together as well.  After some years, they started publicly questioning Leftist movements, such as the Sandanistas...or the gay liberation movement, right as AIDS was hitting hard.

This was actually the hardest part of the book for me to read.  I knew about some of this history already, but reading the full list was awful.   Horowitz and Collier happened to be in the Bay Area in the early 80s, and they (along with lots of others) realized that the gay liberation political stance--with its insistence on absolute freedom and open bathhouses--was literally killing actual gay people, and intimidating a lot of people into silence, so they wrote an article describing the situation that was (of course) denounced and ignored.  Here's part of what was happening:  Doctors who tried to warn about the dangers were vilified as homophobes (even if they were themselves gay).  Officials refused to take any actions that weren't approved by the most vocal and radical gay leaders.  Public health officials were printing pamphlets that did not talk about known methods of transmission because they might stigmatize gay people, and instead insisting on general campaigns that claimed that everyone was at fairly equal risk.  They even protested proposals to screen blood donors--and this was after some hemophiliacs had become sick.  They seemed to believe that simply demanding a cure, or a vaccine, would result in one appearing in the near future.  Bill Kraus, a gay leader who knew he couldn't get the bathhouses closed but hoped to put up warning signs, was called a fascist and a traitor.  (A quoted activist: "You have a situation where institutions [like bathhouses] that have fought against sexual repression are being attacked under the guise of medical strategy.") The result of all this was that the HIV virus spread far and wide in the US, and killed thousands.  That was not inevitable.  So think about that next time you see a photo of the AIDS Memorial Quilt--those 'leaders' have a lot of deaths on their hands.

Once they started writing anti-Left articles, Horowitz and Collier were publicly categorized as conservatives, though at that point they didn't know a thing about conservative ideas.  But Horowitz started looking into it for the first time in his life.  Most of the rest of the book is about family stuff, but he did also start doing conservative events and so on; he just doesn't quite get to that part very much.  So I still don't know much about that end of things.

I was also surprised to learn that Patty Hearst was kidnapped from Berkeley.  I learned a lot of amazing Berkeley history, on the whole.  Please enjoy now, possibly the most Berkeley-in-1970 paragraph ever written (after the actual events):
...Scheer had formed an urban guerrilla commune with Hayden and his ex-wife, Anne, which they called the Red Family.  It was run on Maoist principles, and the walls of their headquarters on Bateman Street were draped with large portraits of the North Korean dictator and Ho Chi Minh, alongside Huey Newton and the Apache Geronimo....Political education for the communards consisted of readings from the Black Panther and Lin Piao's On People's War.  Commune discussions focused on such questions as whether underwear should be shared, and if it was a bourgeois hang-up to close the bathroom door when using the toilet.  [Scheer then gets Hayden thrown out for "bourgeois privatism" in his romantic relationship.]
This is from where his faith falls apart:
There was plenty of injustice in the system we opposed. But it had created procedures and institutions designed to redress of grievances, correct injustices, and put checks on the power of government. In rejecting our radical agendas, our opponents had always stressed the importance of "process" and following rules, even when the issues seemed obvious. As radicals, we were impatient with order and had contempt for process. We wanted "direct rule" and "people's justice," unconstrained by such legalism and the hierarchies they required. We had no use for law that pretended to be neutral between persons and classes, that failed to recognize historical grievances or the way rules were shaped by social forces. We did not believe in bourgeois legality and objective standards. The revolutionary will embodied justice and truth. We were going to eliminate "checks and balances" and let the people decide.
As a result, we had no justice. There were no means to redress the crimes committed by the Panthers or other tribunes of the people - in America or anywhere else. There was no institutional recourse, and no moral standard, to which we were committed. And there was no rationale to create them. This contempt for order, for objective values, for moralities that transcended particular interests, separated us from our enemies, and made their justice superior to ours - even when they were wrong... The truth - whatever it was - eventually had a chance to breathe. 
Socialist justice provided no such opportunity, and no such reprieve. It had been 40 years since Stalin's purges. The victims were dead, their memories erased. They were unpersons without public defenders, expunged even from the consciousness of the living. Those who knew the truth had to keep their silence, even as I had to keep mine. If we actually succeeded in making a revolution in America, and if the Panthers or similar radical vanguards prevailed, how would our fate be different from theirs? Our injustice, albeit mercifully smaller in scale was as brutal and final as Stalin's. As progressives we had no law to govern us, other than that of the gang.

You might be able to tell that I was very into this book.  I couldn't put it down, because I kept running into jaw-dropping things like "oh yes, I was hanging out with Black Panthers."  It was a pretty bizarre read.  And I loved learning more Berkeley history--I should get a book just about that.

*This is a rationale still used today, that communism would work great if it was just practiced correctly.  How many countries have tried communism and become murderous dictatorships?  All of them.  I would suggest that a system that must be implemented perfectly in order to work at all--and not kill millions--will never work if it has to be instituted by human beings.