Friday, August 26, 2016

Classics Club: August Meme

Every month, the Classics Club blog posts a question for us to answer, and I just about never get around to it.  Memes in general, I am not good at them.  But today I think I will do it!
What classic piece of literature most intimidates you, and why? (Or, are you intimidated by the classics, and why? And has your view changed at all since you joined our club?)

I have gotten a lot less intimidated, that is for sure.  The CC has helped me focus my reading and discover that I can tackle scary books!  But there are still a couple of areas that really make me nervous:

French literature.  Nothing is scarier.  Zola?  Balzac?  Hugo?  Proust?  Eeeek, save me! I feel quite proud of the fact that I have now read The Count of Monte Cristo (1000 pages of adventure and melodrama) and Madame Bovary (fabulous novel which required a readalong to give me courage).   Now that I'm getting to the end of my CC list, though, I'm thinking I'll need to put Hugo on the next one.  I still don't know about those other guys. The thought of reading Zola makes me shrink and quiver.  But perhaps, someday, French literature will be my pale green pants with nobody inside them.

Anything heavily philosophical.  I tried to read Aristotle's Ethics.  Bleh.  I took one look at William James' Varieties of Religious Experience and felt faint.  I can deal with Plato and Socrates just fine, but anything else....well, I dunno.

Moby Dick.  I have no plans ever to read Moby Dick.  I cannot see why I should!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Scholar Adventurers

The Scholar Adventurers, by Richard Altick

I came across this intriguing title while weeding.  At first it didn't look too prepossessing, but the description--"Altick's classic portrayal of scholars on the prowl"--looked kind of fun, so I took it home.

Altick describes the travails of the literary scholar (pre-Internet!) who wishes to track down the unpublished, unknown bits and pieces of information.  He starts off with the papers of James Boswell, whose debauched reputation led his Victorian relatives to suppress the masses of letters, diaries, and other writings he had left behind.  The tale of how batches of Boswell papers eventually saw the light of day is a fascinating one!

Other chapters ask who Sir Thomas Malory really was, or describe quests for lost papers of Byron or Shelley.  Altick also describes literary forgeries, texts in cipher, and all sorts of fun things.  What has happened when science teamed up with literature to the benefit of both?

Since the chapters aren't closely related, it's a great book for dipping into.  It's just full of fun stories.  I'm glad I found it!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog

Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog, by Boris Akunin

I like Russian stories, and I like mysteries, so I should have started reading Akunin years ago.  I did start this one several years back, but I made the mistake of trying to read it on a BART train, and when I failed to get into it, I put it aside and meant to try again sometime.  I finally did, and it was an enjoyable read!

Bishop Mitrofanii, spiritual leader of a country province, has a reputation for solving tricky mysteries.  In fact, it's the unobtrusive Sister Pelagia who does the detecting, and when the bishop's elderly aunt writes to him about the violent killing of her beloved white bulldog, he sends Pelagia off to deal with the problem.  It doesn't seem too important, but Pelagia meets a motley and unusual group of residents at the aunt's estate, and soon realizes that there is a lot at stake.  More dogs are killed, and then people. 

The nineteenth-century setting is wonderful.  Akunin excels at creating a vanished world, illustrating a whole social order, and linking it to our own.  He has also done it with his much larger series about Erast Fandorin, a Moscow diplomat and detective.  I'll certainly have to seek out more of his books--especially the next Pelagia title, which involves a haunting by a black monk.  Shades of Chekhov!

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Death of Vishnu

The Death of Vishnu, by Manil Suri

For some reason, I thought this was a post-apocalyptic SF novel.  It is absolutely not.  It is the first in Suri's "Hindu Myths" series, which so far has three volumes; they are unconnected except that they use mythology as their inspiration and symbolic language.

Vishnu is the errand ganga for a block of apartments; he therefore sleeps on the stair landing and lives on a system of tips and perks, but now he is dying.  As he lies there, waiting to die, he (mentally?  symbolically?) ascends the stairs, considering the life stories of each tenant, and possibly attaining godhood along the way.

We get to know each family and personal drama.  The Pathaks and the Asranis constantly quarrel over every little thing, especially over who should pay for Vishnu's ambulance.  Kavita plans to elope with her upstairs neighbor, Salim, but really she just wants to live in a Bollywood movie--her feelings have very little to do with Salim.  Mr. Jalal (Salim's father) has been a trial to his devout wife for years because of his determined disbelief, but now he's obsessively looking for enlightenment.  Vinod lives in the past, reliving his happy years with his wife.  And the radio-wallah has gone a bit mad.  Vishnu also remembers his childhood and his years pursuing Padmini, a prostitute.

It was an interesting novel, and made quite a splash when it was published in 2010, but I didn't love it.  I'm not all that much of a modern literature person and this wasn't really my taste, except that I like books about India!  I may well pick up the next Suri book, The City of Devi, because it actually is sort of an apocalyptic novel, but I may not.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings

Hey everyone!  We've been starting school and such, so I haven't written much in the last week.  And it's only going to get busier from here, as I start back to work, but I've got some great books to tell you about, so stay tuned.  Meanwhile, we went to see a fantastic movie this weekend, and I want to tell you about it, because it's not getting nearly as much attention as it deserves!

Kubo and the Two Strings is a Laika production; they do stop-motion animation, and you might remember Coraline, which was also fantastic. The 3D they do is some of the best we have seen (and for once, doesn't hurt my eyes). Kubo is an original story, inspired by Japanese mythology....look, just watch the trailer:



It's gorgeous, it's a great story, it's an amazing, creative, unusual movie, it's...not produced by a big studio, and so it's just not getting the attention.  I'm telling you now, it's worth every penny and minute, and I hope you'll go see it too.  Go quickly!






Monday, August 15, 2016

Last Tales

Last Tales, by Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen

I always enjoy reading Isak Dinesen, and I have just about everything on the bookshelf because I took a course in college that was almost nothing but Dinesen (I did a good bit of Scandinavian literature).  She was an odd duck in her day, and reading her now is almost surreal; the stories are so strange to our sensibilities, especially in this last collection.  She did her level best to write as though she lived in the 18th century, or possibly earlier, and nobody thought more of aristocracy, nobility, or the mysterious power of femininity than she did.

I remember once my instructor showed us a photo of her standing on a stage with Betty Friedan.  Two more dissimilar women could hardly be imagined, and I have to wonder if they'd ever read each other's works (probably not) or if they could possibly have had anything to say to one another.  Karen Blixen was tall, slim, elderly, elegant and proud.  She'd probably put belladonna in her eyes for the occasion.  Betty Friedan was a good deal younger, short and stout in a shapeless dress that emphasized her scorn of fripperies.  The mutual disdain almost radiated from the photo, and I sure wish I could find a copy online for you to see!

Dinesen in her later years
Last Tales was originally published in Danish and my copy is listed as a translation, so I'm counting it for Women in Translation month.  Dinesen mostly wrote in English and then translated into her native Danish, so I wasn't at all sure about this title, but they were her last works so maybe she just went with the Danish.  The first several stories were for a novel that was never written.  Then there are two "New Gothic Tales," one of which is unfinished, and three "New Winter's Tales."

The unwritten novel was going to be called Albondocani and the tales belonging to it have an Italian flair, with cardinals and sculptors and intrigues.  (In fact, a cardinal tells two of the stories, which are titled the First and Third--there is no Second Cardinal's Tale.)  Characters frequently say things like:
For the entire being of a woman is a secret, which should be kept.  And one more deep secret to her becomes part of it, one charm more, a hidden treasure...
...as to the shedding of blood, this to our shepherdess--as to any lady--is a high privilege and is inseperably united with the sublimest moments of existence, with promotion and beatification.  What little girl will not joyously shed her blood to become a virgin, what bride not hers in order to become a wife, what young wife not hers to become a mother?
 The final tale in this section, "The Blank Page," is a bizarre little story on the power of silence.  (I told my husband the storyline and he was really pretty horrified.)  I don't want to spoil it for you, but it's so short that I thought I could probably find it in full, and so here it is--click and read.

I wondered what Albondocani meant, and the Danish Wikipedia page on Last Tales says it was one of the names of Caliph Haroun al-Rashid in The Thousand and One Nights, which sounds about like something Dinesen would choose, but I can't find any mention of the name connected to Haroun al-Rashid or The Thousand and One Nights otherwise (perhaps it's usually spelled differently?).  Instead, the only other mention of "Albondocani" is a tiny private press, mostly known as a publisher of Edward Gorey's works.  So there's your mystery coincidence of the day for you...and if you know anything about it, tell me!

After that are two "Gothic Tales," which doesn't mean that they have ghosts and bleeding nuns--it means more elaborate and Romantic in the German style, though "Echoes" is about an Italian opera singer hiding out in an Italian village.  "The Caryatids" is unfinished but travels as far as Canada.  Women are the caryatids of the story:
We did not forget our honor, or the honor of our houses, when you went away.  There is not one, no not one, of the women of Haut-Mesnil, who has disgraced her name, the name of our father.  Is it forever, then, the task of the women to hold up the houses, like those stone figures which they call caryatids?  And are you now, Lord of Haut-Mesnil, going to pull down all the stones of our great house, upon your own head, and upon mine, and the heads of all of us?
Like the "Winter's Tales" collected together, the new Winter's Tales are more domestic and set in Denmark, but they are still pretty obsessed with the honor or nobility of old families.  In one, a young squire discovers that he may--or may not--be the son of his old nurse instead of the lord he thinks himself, but perhaps that is only fair.  In another, a young commoner loves his cousin, a countess, and so he despairs.  And in the last, a poet, a prostitute, and a king sit together and converse all night.

It was neat to revisit these stories that I hadn't read in years, and to remember the class discussions we had about them.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Grave Goods

Grave Goods: Essays of a Peculiar Nature, by John P. O'Grady

This is an odd little collection of essays on topics that literary academics don't write essays on.  Some of the stories have ghosts, or witches, or strange happenings. 

There's a lady who makes and sells magic mirrors, and another one who is a psychic consulted by police (really?  I am skeptical).  In one essay, a country beekeeper announces that the bees are gone because he didn't give them the news properly--this is an old belief, that you have to give the bees the news respectfully--and so they go on a bee hunt and instead find a stone marker of Rip Van Winkle's sleeping spot.  Things like that.

The essays are all about events within the United States, and they often feature natural settings--O'Grady is an environmental writer.  They're things he says happened to him, or to friends of his, or at least that he knows of.

The last essay features a guy who was the night watchman at a San Francisco cemetery that was being dismantled and moved to Colma.  He also wrote poetry.  An elderly lady shows up in the middle of the night and gets him to help her dig up a manzanita plant; she claims it's the last wild manzanita around and so she's going to take care of it before it gets bulldozed.  This puzzled me, since manzanita is a common wild shrub/tree all over California, but then I thought maybe it was some special subspecies--manzanita usually grows in dry climates, not cold, damp San Francisco.  The species is given, so I looked it up, and sure enough, there's a special one native to the area, which is endangered.  (Manzanita is notable for its very smooth reddish bark, which peels off in curls.)

It's a pretty interesting book of essays.  Not especially fabulous, but not a waste of time.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, by Dubravka Ugrešić

I couldn't resist this title!  I've had it on the pile for a little while now, and the Women in Translation event this month gave me an opportunity to pick it up.  It's post-modern and odd, not exactly a reworking of the Baba Yaga stories, but more finding her in modern life--an unusual story about women getting old.  There are three distinct parts, which makes it not quite a novel to my mind. 

The first part is narrated by an unnamed writer/academic whose elderly mother just wants to die, but meanwhile keeps her apartment obsessively clean.  The writer goes to Bulgaria (her mother's birthplace) to take photos, but a younger academic, Aba, attaches herself and just won't leave.

Then we go to a spa, where three older ladies have come for a vacation.  Pupa is very elderly and keeps her feet in a fur boot for warmth.  Beba works in a hospital and misses her son, and Kukla is a serial widow who secretly writes.  Their lives are accidentally and completely changed during their visit.

And then the third part of the book consists of a long letter by Aba, now a professor specializing in folklore, giving a Baba Yaga primer and analyzing the first two stories in light of Baba Yaga legends!  Not only that, her full name is Aba Bagay.  So that was odd.

Dubravka Ugrešić is Croatian, or post-Yugoslavian possibly; when the war broke out, she was vocally opposed to nationalism and wound up having to leave the country.  She lives in Amsterdam now, and writes post-modern things and criticism.

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg is part of the Canongate "Myths" project, a long-term endeavor of publishing modern reworkings of ancient myths.  Several of the titles on the list will be familiar, but it looks like 2011 was the last time they published a title.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: the Untold History of English, by John McWhorter

Somebody, probably my mother, mentioned McWhorter's name while we were on our UK trip, and then when I got home and went to work weeding the library collection, I came upon this book, so I took it home.

There are a zillion books out there that will tell you about the history of the English language, but McWhorter feels that they're inadequate and do not properly address the why of how the language evolved.  Why, for example, do we say "I'm driving to the park" instead of "I drive to the park" like every other Germanic speaker?  (I have often wondered this myself.)  Why do we say do all the time when it doesn't actually mean anything much?

Well, McWhorter is here to tell you why.  He's got some very strong opinions, and in fact he's rather given to ranting--I think about half of this book is dedicated to rants about linguists who disagree with him and why they are wrong wrong wrong.

He'll take you through the effects that invasions and population-mixing have had on the English language, and he'll explain his theories quite well.  They make sense.  But, as you can figure out from the tone of the book, he's apparently in the minority.

A whole long chapter is also dedicated to arguing over the hypothesis that grammar and language determine thought.  I think this is a bit of a digression from the main thesis, really, but it's pretty interesting.  When people say (I have said it myself) that speaking a different language tends to make your thoughts different too, I certainly never took it to mean anything like what he is talking about here.  I simply meant that thoughts take on a slightly different flavor or shape.  McWhorter takes it more literally than that, but he seems to be arguing with people who also do that, so maybe it's fair.  It's a lot of ranting, though.

The final chapter is really intriguing, and takes McWhorter's theories really far back in time, to Indo-European roots and what prehistoric population mixing might have gone on to make European languages what they are.  That was my favorite part, though I enjoyed almost all of the book.  It just could have used about a third less ranting, is all.  There's plenty of fun theory-spinning to keep any language lover happy!

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Conference of the Birds

The Conference of the Birds, by Farid ud-Din Attar, with Rafiq Abdulla

It was only after I read this book--introduction and all--that I figured out that it's really selections from a longer poem.  It's only mentioned in one spot that I nearly missed!  So now I feel kind of dumb, but I did enjoy the poetry and maybe someday I'll find the whole thing.  I have no idea how long it is.


The Conference of the Birds is a Sufi poem, a sort of allegory of humanity's journey to God.  All the birds of the world meet together, and the hoopoe encourages them all to look for the Simurgh, the King of Birds--that is, God.  The hoopoe is their spiritual leader, wiser than the rest, and he tells them that the journey is long and difficult, but nothing else is worthwhile.

The birds are at first happy enough to look for the Simurgh, but when they realize how arduous the quest will be, they start dropping out and giving excuses.  The sparrow is afraid, the owl doesn't have the energy, the duck finds satisfaction enough in his water, the nightingale is a romantic more interested in poetry and roses than religion.  Each has a common failing, and the hoopoe sees through every one of them and tells them what they need to hear.  There are also birds who honestly dedicate themselves to the journey from the start, and a large group sets out.


It's a long trip.  Some birds die along the way.  There are seven allegorical hazardous valleys to cross, and I don't really get how exactly they work (Sufi steps to enlightenment, I suppose), but they are Love, Understanding, Detachment, Unity, Bewilderment, Deprivation and Death.  Those that cross all the valleys--only a few out of the many that started--get to the Simurgh's palace....where at first they are denied entrance.  Only when they insist that they will never leave are they allowed to enter and become one with their Beloved.

Though I'm not a Sufi, there is plenty here for anybody to think about and the poem is a stirring one as well as great literature.  The volume of selections I read is lavishly illustrated with illustrations from illuminated manuscripts held by the British Library, which was neat.  I enjoyed the artwork.