Friday, November 27, 2020

Understanding the Book of Mormon

 Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader's Guide, by Grant Hardy

I've read this book very slowly this year; it's fascinating, but it's also fairly heavy-duty.  Grant Hardy's complaint is that, in academia/the world outside the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, everybody spends so much time arguing about the origins of the Book of Mormon that they never examine the contents.  He proposes a different approach that doesn't need everybody to agree about whether the book is fiction or history: why not examine the narrative as we would a literary work?  The Book of Mormon has several different narrators, and we can examine their methods and motivations in the same way whether they were real or not.

...if the Book of Mormon does not qualify as a literary masterpiece, it is nevertheless a complex and coherent work of literature, and its narratological strategies are of more than passing interest.  Professors in English departments are probably not used to thinking of the Book of Mormon as a puzzle along the lines of Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, but both works display a similar intricacy; indeed, to confuse Mormon and Joseph Smith would be a category mistake of the same order as failing to distinguish Charles Kinbote, the editor of Pale Fire, from Nabokov himself.
The result is quite a lot of absorbing analysis that illuminates stylistic and editing choices, literary parallels and deliberate quotations, all sorts of stuff that the average reader (like me) would not notice until it's pointed out.  Naturally, most of the people reading it are still going to be LDS and it's probably only of outside interest to people studying or working in the Mormon Studies departments being established in just a few universities.  But Oxford UP seems to have found it worthwhile, so that's nice for me.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Network Effect

 Network Effect, by Martha Wells

OK, I love the Murderbot Diaries series.  It's fantastic.  This novel didn't disappoint and was so good -- and also set up for a good long run of Murderbot stories in the future, so yay!

Murderbot, known in public as SecUnit, now works for Dr. Mensah on the independent planet of Preservation.  On the way home from a research mission with some of Mensah's family members, the ship is attacked and Murderbot, plus the teenage Amena, are kidnapped by some strange grey aliens.  It turns out that an old friend is in trouble, and so Murderbot is pulled into a very complicated hostage situation...

It's a lot of action, thrills, angst, and weird alien remnants, plus Murderbot's difficult feelings.  It's nice to be with people who treat it like a person, but also that means they want to talk about feelings and....hug.  Ack.

I love how Murderbot isn't a human, and really, really doesn't want to be one.  It's always kind of bugged me that so many non-humans in SF want to become more human (I'm looking at you, Data).  I mean, sure, one of SF's big things is examining the human condition, but still.

This is a great series, and I'm happy to see that there's another installment being published in April!

Sunday, November 22, 2020

And the Spin number is...


Which gives me Lorna Doone by R. D. Blackmore, an intimidating brick of a mid-Victorian novel set in Scotland.  I hadn't realized that it's historical fiction, being set nearly 200 years earlier, in the late 1600s.   Doubtless there will be a whole lot of very Scots dialogue!

Of course, when I googled the title to get a nice book cover image, the first thing that came up was cookies.  I don't think I've ever had a Lorna Doone cookie, but it is pretty funny to me.  When the cookies were first made and named by Nabisco, they would have been meant to evoke the romance of the Highlands.  Today, if you told almost any American that you were reading Lorna Doone, they'd think "'re reading a cookie?"  The name would be meaningless otherwise.

Scots wha hae!

Friday, November 20, 2020

Classics Spin #25!

 Hooray, it's that time again, and we're going to have a Spin!  This is the 25th Spin, which must be some kind of anniversary, right?

We all know the rules (and if you don't, just click on that link up there), so let's get right to the list.  The Spin Number will be announced on Sunday, and the deadline won't be until January 30, 2021, so this is a good time to load up the list with terrifying doorstops of books!

  1.  Diary of London, by Boswell 
  2.  The Gray Earth, by Galsan Tshinag
  3.  The Eustace Diamonds, by Anthony Trollope
  4.  Thus Were Their Faces, by Silvina Ocampo
  5. The Female Quixote, by Charlotte Lennox
  6.  The Hunchback of Notre Dame, by Victor Hugo
  7.  The Well at the End of the World, by William Morris
  8.  The Black Arrow, by R. L. Stevenson 
  9.  For Two Thousand Years, by Mihail Sebastian 
  10.  Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens
  11.  Oblomov, by Goncharov
  12. Marriage, by (somebody...)
  13.  Stories by Nick Joaquin
  14. Lorna Doone, by R. D. Blackmore 
  15. The Four Quartets, by T. S. Eliot
  16.  The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis
  17.  News from Nowhere, by William Morris
  18. Stalingrad, by Vasily Grossman
  19.  The Idiot, by Dostoyevsky
  20. Swallows and Amazons, by Arthur Ransome

A lot of the books on my CC list are not currently easy for me to get, so I'm trying to stick with books that are easily available as things are right now.  That makes my choices a little limited.


Wednesday, November 18, 2020

A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking

 A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking, by T. Kingfisher (Ursula Vernon)

I only recently discovered Ursula Vernon at all, when I read Castle Hangnail in September.  After that, I kept seeing this book pop up on Amazon, but I didn't connect any dots until Redhead explained it all in her review and convinced me that this was a must-read.   So: T. Kingfisher is Vernon's pen name that she uses when she writes for adults.  I'd call this a YA book, but apparently publishers didn't quite know how to deal with it, so she just published it herself.

Mona is 14, and a baker.  It's her job to get things started at 4am every morning at her aunt and uncle's bakery, and she is good at what she does.  Like quite a few people in her town, Mona has a minor magical talent -- hers is bread.  She can persuade muffins not to burn and make gingerbread men dance, that sort of thing.  And one morning, she goes into the bakery, and there's a dead body on the floor.

The murder of an unknown teenage girl pulls Mona into a wider political world she knows nothing about, and shouldn't really have to.  Somebody is killing magic-users, and somebody else is deliberately sowing political division in order to gain power.  Mona and her friend Spindle have to go on the run, and then gain access to the Duchess who rules the city - a very tricky prospect.  It only gets wilder from there, as they try to stop not only the terrifying Spring Green Man and a political coup, but a whole invasion...

This story has enough packed into it to have made a trilogy.  It's witty and funny -- I often laughed out loud -- and also dark and scary.  It's unusual, in that Mona thinks a lot about the contradictions of heroism and points out that teenagers shouldn't have to be saving cities, and if they do, it's because all the adults around have done a really bad job at being adults.  The characters are wonderful and come in great variety, including an animate skeleton horse and Bob, the possibly-sentient and definitely angry sourdough starter.

A wonderful novel, and I don't really quite understand why publishers didn't want to deal with it.  It's not darker than Harry Potter or plenty of other middle-grade/YA books.  You should read it.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Solutions and Other Problems

 Solutions and Other Problems, by Allie Brosh

Like the entire rest of the internet, I love Allie Brosh's cartoons and was more than a little worried that she had essentially disappeared for several years.  And indeed, it turns out that she was having a rotten time, what with the medical issues and the divorce and the tragedy of losing her sister.  Brosh also decided that cartoon-blogging just isn't a good format for her, so she put everything into a book, which is just as good as the first one.  

Solutions and Other Problems is over 500 pages of text and illustrations, so there's plenty.  25 short essays talk about everything from childhood experiences to dogs Brosh has known, the odd neighbor kid, and her sister.  As always, half of the pieces had me laughing too hard to breathe, and several of the others brought on the tears.

The first couple of chapters are available in their entirety if you preview the book, so I recommend that if you want to give it a try.  Anybody who enjoyed Brosh's former work is going to love this book too, but also anybody who enjoyed it before has probably already bought Solutions and Other Problems.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Moomin books

The Moomintroll books, by Tove Jansson:  Comet in Moominland, Finn Family Moomintroll, Moominpappa's Memoirs, Tales from Moominvalley, Moominvalley Midwinter, Moominpappa at Sea (I don't own the last, Moominvalley in November)

We've all been feeling the strain lately, I know, what with the election and the Covid and the state of things generally.  I've reacted to it by reading nothing but the most comfortable of comfort reads.  The Russian history, the horizon-broadening literature, anything the least bit demanding, has fallen by the wayside.  I decided to take November off as far as events go, so no Australians (sorry, Brona) or non-fiction parties.  Instead, I have read at least six Moomintroll books in the last couple of weeks.

I've long been a fan of the Moomins -- I discovered them in my mid-teens with a battered paperback of Finn Family Moomintroll.  That was about 1988 and they were at a low ebb of fame in the United States (and they've never been well-known here), so I don't know how I happened to get lucky enough to even hear about them.  But it had been years since I'd read them all together.

If you're unfamiliar with the Moomins, they are books written in Swedish and set in Finland; Tove Jansson was a Swedish-speaking Finn, of which there are many (her partner, Tuulikki Pietilä, was just plain Finnish).  Jansson was an illustrator and artist as well as a writer, and the Moomins were a comic strip as well as stories, which revolve around the Moomin family of trolls, and feature a huge cast of characters -- all sorts of creatures who live in the forest and go about their own business.

Moomins live a very attractive life; they like adventuring and swimming, and build round houses with lots of twiddly decorations.  They like to have as much freedom as possible, and therefore do not worry about each other if somebody just doesn't come home for a while.  There is always another bed to put a guest into, and plenty to eat.  It sounds like an ideal sort of life, but sadly us humans have to do things like earn a living and so cannot live like that all the time.  Just around the edges.

Jansson writes beautifully about the joys of independence and solitude, as well as the happiness of company, family, and a good party.  Her characters often cherish useless items of decoration, or contrariwise are thrilled to get rid of every possession.  They also, of course, get angry or jealous or in trouble and back out of it again.  And they're always ready to go adventuring or sailing, possibly with the Hattifatteners.

It's all just as comfortable a comfort read as you will ever find, besides being classics of children's literature.  Moomins are far better known in Europe and Japan than they are in the US, so if you have an American kid in your life who is not familiar with them, the books make excellent gifts and read-alouds.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Witch Week!

 I hope you've been following Lizzie and Chris' Witch Week events over on Lizzie Ross Writer!  There have been some wonderful posts and today is the last day of Witch Week (which, as we know, ends on Guy Fawkes' Day).

I participated in two of the posts; we had a really nice readalong discussion of Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book.  I hadn't read it in a long time, and this time I got the graphic novels too.

 I also contributed a post about the works of M. R. James, which was a nice experience for me.  I'm grateful that Lizzie and Chris were willing to have me as a guest blogger!

I do so enjoy so many aspects of Gothic literature, and have loved reading all of the posts.  Go visit for yourself.



Wednesday, November 4, 2020

The Life of Glückel of Hameln

 The Life of Glückel of Hameln: A Memoir, by Glückel

I am so glad I ran into this book!  It's truly one of a kind, I think.  I'm surprised I didn't run into it earlier.  It should be more widely known, outside of the world of Jewish history where it's long been a classic.

Glückel (1646–1724) was a Jewish-German woman from a Hamburg family.  At fourteen, she was married to her husband and together they ran a successful business and had twelve children.  Her husband died when they were only in their early forties, and she worked hard to keep up the business and marry off her children well.  She was persuaded to marry again, to a wealthy banker, but he lost all their money before dying and she ended her life in poverty.  Glückel wrote her memoirs -- in an early form of Yiddish -- for her children, on nights when she couldn't sleep because she was so sad about losing her beloved first husband.  She wanted them to know where they came from, and what her life had been like. 

The first few pages are missing from the surviving book, so we don't get to know much about Glückel's early life and family.  She was betrothed at 12 and married at 14, because at that time Jewish families arranged their children's marriages early on, and then the young couple would live with the boy's parents for several years, learning how to run a business and getting established, before moving to their own home.  All the Jewish families lived in their towns by permission, and were sometimes persecuted or expelled, so they had to be very careful in their businesses.  Glückel paints a wide-ranging picture of 17th-century Jewish life in Germany (and even France), with her main concerns being her beloved husband, her adored children, and the family business.  She constantly reiterates that she never owed anybody anything she couldn't pay, until her second husband lost all (and she tries to be pretty soft on him too).

All of this is mixed in with moralizing, exhortations to her children, stories to set examples, and expressions of faith.  She notes that the most important thing is to love one another (but in these degenerate times people do not love each other), and to accept the Lord's will, whatever it may be.  Don't grieve for losses -- "no matter what you may lose, be patient for nothing belongs [to you]; it is only lent."  Glückel actually does quite a lot of grieving, but she also tries hard to accept her circumstances.  All will be made well in "the future world."

This is such a fascinating memoir; it feels like a special opportunity to get to look into the life and thoughts of a woman who lived so long ago, since we have so few personal accounts like this.  I loved 'meeting' Glückel and getting to know her.  Highly recommended.



Monday, November 2, 2020

The Five Jars

 The Five Jars, by M. R. James

I read a bunch of M. R. James short stories for Witch Week -- watch out for my article later this week -- and watched some BBC adaptations too.  I also discovered a book I hadn't run into before -- The Five Jars, a short novel for children that nevertheless has many of James' favorite elements.  It's written as a letter to "Jane."

James tells the story of how he went on a forest ramble and found a magic spring.  He's given directions and digs up an ancient box with five tiny jars in it, and dreams of how they are to be used.  Each day, he can gain a new skill with the contents of one jar.  He becomes able to understand the language of animals, see the unseen, and so on, but there are evil forces after the box and it must be carefully guarded.  At last he is even able to visit the homes of some of the people he has got to know.

This novella was charming -- so much fun, unusual for a children's fantasy story, and a little bit spooky.