Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Year of Reading Dangerously

UK edition, which is what I've got
The Year of Reading Dangerously, by Andy Miller

Andy Miller, writer and editor, cog in the machinery of British society, had stopped reading books.  In something like five (ten?) years, he had read magazines and Internet articles and only one book, and that one was The Da Vinci Code.  Books had fallen out of his life, replaced by his phone and Sudoku puzzles.  (Seriously, the man spends hours every week commuting on a train, and was doing Sudoku instead of reading.)  So he started thinking maybe he should read a book sometime.  He came up with a whole imaginary program, but it still took a couple of years before he actually picked up a book and read it.  After that, he finally embarked on a project of reading books -- the list being mostly books he had always meant to read, had in fact lied about reading, but had never actually read.

Miller starts off with The Master and Margarita, which won him my instant approval.  Then it's Middlemarch, another excellent choice.  After that, I hardly recognized a thing as Miller's tastes mostly do not overlap with my own.  There are a lot of modernistic guy novels, something called The Ragged Trousers Philanthropists -- which seems to be the British counterpart to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, only successful in its aim (while poor Sinclair only managed to kickstart the FDA) -- and a large section on the wonders of Houllebecq, who it doesn't sound like I would like.  Miller does tackle Pride and Prejudice but hates it.

There is a fantastic, fun chapter comparing The Da Vinci Code to Moby Dick.  There's a very nice section on childhood reading, including a bit praising the old Doctor Who episode paperbacks (--which I had just gotten a bagful of a few hours earlier!   Those are probably all over the place in the UK but they aren't common at all here).  There is quite a bit of musing on Miller's love for what he thinks of as the Contradictorial School of writing (which is mostly very bitter and complainy about Life):
Like many women, I suspect, Tina does not have much time for the Contradictorial School.  It does seem to be a style of writing that is practised and enjoyed almost exclusively by men, a fact which disappoints me.
Yeah, well, I'm disappointed by your lack of appreciation for Jane Austen, Miller, and it's true -- I don't have a lot of time for bitter, angry writers.  Gotta save my energy, see.

Book lovers will enjoy this meandering through favorite (or new!) titles, but may be slightly exasperated by Miller's previous book-sloth and amazement that reading is something that can fit into modern life and parenthood.  People who have let reading slip through the cracks may be inspired to pick up a book, so that's nice.  I never did quite figure out what was dangerous about Miller's reading program; I guess something about feeling alive again and thinking?  Maybe he just liked the idea.

One of the cover blurbs says "Like nothing else I have ever read."  The reviewer must not have read many of these kinds of books, because while this is a fun take on the "embark on a reading program and write a book about it" genre, it's hardly unique.  Unless you count that it's written by a man, and these books are mostly (but not always) written by women.

Monday, July 16, 2018

800 Years of Women's Letters -- Summer Book 9

800 Years of Women's Letters, ed. by Olga Kenyon

Way back in the 1990s I bought this book, and then never got more than about 50 pages into it.  I used to think I liked historical collections of letters, but in fact I do not.  Still, I've always meant to read this, and now I have.  Kenyon collected letters from lots of women, from a few lands and many times.

The letters are arranged by topic, which I did not love.  Sections address things like domestic labor, romance, travel, illness, and so on.  Each section has a little introduction, which is usually unnecessary and frequently embarrassingly laden with trite filler like "Women have travelled for multifarious reasons."  Well, yes. 

Hildegard of Bingen I think is the oldest writer, but not the only medieval woman.  Other names include Elizabeth I, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Madame de Sevigne, a prolific correspondent.  Many of the writers are not famous at all.  Very odd indeed is the inclusion of some fictional letters from novels, most notably Mariama Ba's So Long a Letter.  That really puzzles me.  The letters are also nearly all from England, France, or sometimes the USA, with maybe a couple of Germans.  The only non-Western letters are fictional.  There are no Asians or South Americans at all.

It now comes off as hopelessly 90s, which I thought was interesting in itself.  How can a collection of historical letters have such a 90s flavor?  I think it is the particular style of the writing, which is feminist, but feminist in a very 90s way.  A collection gathered now would be quite different, I think, and would put a good deal more effort into getting more global coverage -- or else it would focus on one country or time.

Don't get me wrong; I enjoyed quite a few of the letters.  But I have learned since I bought the book that I don't love reading collections of letters, and this one had such weird quirks and omissions that it was not all that fun to read.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Angels in the Mist -- Summer Book 8

Angels in the Mist (Z-Tech Chronicles), by Ryan Southwick

Once upon a time in high school, I had a buddy named Ryan.  He's a fun guy and helped me get a good job driving pizza at Arnoldi's (though in hindsight I'm surprised that my parents let me drive pizza!).  We lost touch for a while, like you do, but with the magic of Facebook, we can  keep up again.  Ryan has always had ambitions to write, and now he's finished his first novel, which is going to be a trilogy, so obviously I wanted to read it!

It's true that this is not my usual kind of story -- you will not find a lot of tech/fantasy thrillers reviewed on this blog -- but I had a lot of fun with it.  It's a real page-turner with lots of action and suspense.  I was, at times, a little frustrated because I wanted ANSWERS to my QUESTIONS, and I wasn't at all sure that I would get them before the next volume (or, horrors, the third!).  Happily, the satisfaction/suspense ratio is nicely balanced and I came away with some good answers and some nice anticipation for the next installment.

The story: Anne gets along as a waitress in San Francisco; her life was derailed 18 years ago in a brutal attack, but she now brightens her customers' days and manages her PTSD symptoms as much as she can.  She's even thinking about entering the dating scene, but her first date goes awry and instead she's dropped into a new world -- one featuring vampires, cyborgs, martial arts, and a whole lot more.  She finds new, wonderful friends (some of which are human), romance, and a whole lot of danger.  With an angry vampire determined to rip her to shreds, Anne needs to use her own strength and learn to trust others too.  Learning to shoot a plasma gun really well would also be a good idea.

So, I enjoyed Angels in the Mist.  It's long, with a lot of plot and all sorts of things going on, and it's got more romance than I usually go for (which is almost zero, so most people like more than I do), and it's hard to put down.  The pace keeps up and the whole thing is a wild ride.

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Summer Half

Summer Half, by Angela Thirkell

It's been several years since I picked up any Thirkell novels, but I do love them.  Just the other day Brona read Northbridge Rectory, and somebody else mentioned Thirkell books too, and Sunday was far too sleepy and warm a day to try to read Nabokovian lectures or Chinese literary short stories!  So I picked up Summer Half and had a truly delightful afternoon.

If you're unfamiliar with the Thirkell novels -- she picked up Trollope's fictional county of Barsetshire and wrote contemporary domestic comedies in it.  Really, they are much like updated Trollope novels, with a wide cast of characters going through realistic but essentially happy lives, all given with a large dose of humor.  They are just such fun.

In Summer Half, young Colin Keith is reading law, but decides that a young man ought to be supporting himself, so he gets a job as a junior Classics Master at a prep school.  Nobody notices how noble and self-sacrificing he is being, but his term at school is good experience for him, and there he meets: Philip Winter, moody young Communist unhappily engaged to the headmaster's daughter --  Everard Carter, head of house, who falls in love with Colin's sister Kate but is convinced she loves the sophisticated -- Noel Merton, and lots of other people.  And Colin's youngest sister Lydia is one of my favorite Barsetshire characters of all time.  They eventually sort themselves out.

Virago is currently re-publishing the Thirkell novels in this very pretty format, which you can see above.  This is not at all what my copy looks like; mine is a pocket paperback from the 1980s with a painting of what look like mid-Victorian ladies at a dinner.  Since the story is set in about 1937, it's a bit misleading!

It was such a nice break from my other 20 Books of Summer reads that I might have to sneak some more in....

Dark Emu -- Summer Book 7

Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident?  by Bruce Pascoe

Some time back I read this amazing Australian book, The Biggest Estate On Earth, by Bill Gammage, which was a large, detailed explanation of Aboriginal land management techniques.  My mind was blown, and so then I needed this book by Bruce Pascoe to learn more.

Dark Emu is more of a short overview of several aspects of Aboriginal life; it is not as exhaustive on one topic as the Gammage book.  Pascoe uses old diaries and descriptions of what early white settlers found to show what he means.  He points out that Aboriginal people were engaging in sedentary farming; they were not 'only' hunter-gatherers.  They had villages, and large stores of food.  They had complex engineered aquaculture sites on rivers that allowed fish to flourish and be easily caught. 

White settlers did not always recognize what was going on right in front of them, either because Aboriginal technologies looked very different from what they were used to, or because they also kind of denied the evidence of their own eyes.

Pascoe wants Australians not only to recognize what Aboriginal people were doing, he wants to adapt some of these old practices into modern farming.  If the daisy yam is a nutritious food that grows well in the climate, why not grow it?  Why not try kangaroo grass for grain farms?  Why not farm kangaroo instead of sheep?  (He is impatient with people who feel weird about eating kangaroo, insisting that if a) sheep and cattle are bad for the Australian soil and b) kangaroo populations can be conserved and strengthened by a switch, that everybody can just get used to eating kangaroo.)

Fascinating information, and although it comes after and builds on the Gammage book, I'd recommend it first.  It's a shorter, easier read and more of an overview.  I'd imagine that each short chapter could easily be expanded into a large and detailed book.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Miss MacKenzie -- Summer Book 6

There are no good covers of this book.
Miss Mackenzie, by Anthony Trollope

It's been quite a while since I made time for a Trollope novel, and I've missed them!  I love Trollope's writing.  Miss Mackenzie has been sitting on my TBR shelf for a little while now; I found this nice old Oxford Classics edition from the 1920s that's in really good shape still, and a pretty olive green with art deco gold designs on the spine.  On the back flyleaf, somebody parked a needle many years ago, and now it's rusty.

Miss Mackenzie is not your average novelistic heroine.  She is thirty-five, not particularly beautiful or educated, and she's spent nearly the last 20 years nursing her father and then her brother.  Now she has a small fortune to live on, and no knowledge whatsoever of the world she so desperately wants to see more of.  So she moves to "Littlebath," a small city, and hopes to find congenial society.

What she mostly finds is that Littlebath is divided and she's supposed to pick sides, which she doesn't want to do.  Moreover, everyone seems interested in her money and not a lot else.  Miss Mackenzie has FOUR suitors in this novel, and while two of them genuinely like her, they all propose to use her money.  Her female relatives all want a cut too (preferably all of it).  Is anybody ever going to want Miss Mackenzie around because she is a kind, intelligent, loving woman?

For a while I thought this story would be kind of slow, but I was wrong.  I could hardly put it down for the whole second half!  It gets really suspenseful.  Oh, it was really good.  Trollope fans will not be disappointed by this one.  And Lady Glencora Palliser makes a cameo appearance, too.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Old Demons, New Deities -- Summer Book 5

Old Demons, New Deities: 21 Short Stories from Tibet, ed. by Tenzin Dickie

When I saw this cool collection of Tibetan stories, I knew I had to have it and read it for my world project.  I guess Tibet is not currently considered to be a 'country' since its annexation by China, but so what, we'll count it anyway.  When I was in college, "Free Tibet" stickers were everywhere; do people still have those?

The blurb gives some good information so here it is: The first English-language anthology of contemporary Tibetan fiction available in the West, Old Demons, New Deities brings together the best Tibetan writers from both Tibet and the diaspora, who write in Tibetan, English and Chinese.

The stories are varied: set in Tibet (pre- and post-occupation), or in various diaspora locations, such as India, Nepal, or Bhutan.  They are about all kinds of people and their struggles to survive or to be accepted, and a lot of them explore how Chinese occupation and exploitation has damaged or just plain destroyed Tibetan society and people.

I enjoyed this line from "The Season of Retreats," by Tsering Namgyal Khortsa:
...then the monk told him that it was quite hard to come across normal, functioning people in the decade that he had been in the West.  "Relationships and mobile phones," the monk said, "combine these two and they make people completely crazy."
I love the cover, which shows a traditional sort of design of a masked person in front of a background that, when you look carefully, is a mosaic of modern life, with logos, symbols, and cartoon characters all squished up together.

This is a valuable collection that I enjoyed reading.

Friday, June 29, 2018

The Seven Madmen

The Seven Madmen, by Roberto Arlt

Why did I pick this novel?  Well, it came along and I was looking for an Argentinian title that wasn't Borges.  I love Borges!  But I thought I ought to branch out a bit.  And this has a pretty intriguing title, plus I had heard of Erdosain before.  Upon such frail whims are my reading choices based.

Background: this novel was written around 1929, thus before anything I know about Argentinian history.  No Peron yet.  (Probably Hercule Poirot's buddy Hastings is running a cattle farm somewhere!)  The Depression hasn't even begun yet.

Erdosain is a hapless guy who is getting fired from his sad little job as a bill collector.  He embezzled 600 pesos* and he's got to pay it back right away.  Then his wife leaves him, and all he's got left is this awful cousin he hates.  Erdosain wanders the streets of Buenos Aires and meets up with a bunch of guys, most of whom are pretty strange, but the strangest of all is the Astrologer, leader of a burgeoning cult.  He plans to take over, and talks to his various followers in their own languages.  Communists think it will be a Red revolution; militarists think they'll be in charge, and so on.**  He'll get rid of unemployment by enslaving everyone, and fund it all with prostitution on a massive scale.  The seed money will come from Erdosain's annoying cousin, who they'll murder for his bank funds...

I can't say I really enjoyed this novel.  I finished it because it was short and I was already halfway through anyway.  It's a very 'guy' novel, and most of the guys are horrible people, and you know what, I just have a hard time stomaching novels where characters wax poetic about the beauty found in the suffering of prostitutes.  I'm sure it's a great classic of modernity but no thank you.


*600 pesos does not sound like much to a contemporary person, but it turns out to be quite a lot in 1929 Argentina.  A couple thousand bucks maybe.

**And again, I think of Agatha Christie, in Destination Unknown/So Many Steps to Death.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Autumn Equinox -- Summer Book 4

Autumn Equinox, by Jabbour Douaihy

In Lebanon, in the mid-80s, an unnamed young man writes in his diary.  He has studied in the US and sometimes writes to the girl he met there, but since he doesn't know her address and she can't write to him anyway, he's sending his letters into a void.  He has no job.  He's trying to improve his life -- he makes his mom and sister sit for three formal meals a day, throws out nearly all his books, and practices sitting so that he'll look confident.  All summer, as violence simmers under the village's ordinary life, he makes strange attempts at normalcy and writes about his life and his relatives, and his diary ends on the autumn equinox.

This is kind of a quiet but odd little novel, and although it's set in the middle of the Lebanese civil war, that war only breaks in to the story a few times.  The diarist seems like an ordinary young man at first, but his actions get stranger as the summer goes on.  Various quotations I liked:
I sometimes think that since we've laid down our arms and made peace with our enemies, Uncle Mansour lives only to prove his suspicions that life is a series of ambushes.  I don't think he's totally wrong about that.

What she also doesn't know is that I have to finish my project before the autumn equinox arrives, when the orange glow is only a harbinger of the end, and my willpower dissolves, and I become weak and unable to act or make any decisions. Anyway, I think that my mother and sister have been whispering about my change in behavior and has been hoping to marry me off as soon as possible.

...and the others have their own lives, which no one can penetrate, whereas I'm wide open, useless; I watched The Great Gatsby once, and it haunted me for a decade.

That's how I've spent the time, trying to find the perfect way to sit, one which would gather me around myself to be tenacious, alert, and handsome.

I spent yesterday afternoon trying to classify my books. First I set aside the detective novels because they don't leave any room for secrets, and then the modern poetry books because they make a religion out of a secret.

So all I kept were reference books. Today I think reference books make me feel secure, while the other books make me vulnerable. The dictionary organizes the world, and the novel turns it to rubble.

My mother says the signs of winter are beginning to show. I don't care about that because I've completed my plan, and here I am, clean and elegant. My life is smooth and organized. I don't fear the rain or anything else.

This was an intriguing short novel that I enjoyed pretty well. It does make me want to try more Arabic literature, so there you go.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Everything Happens As It Does

Everything Happens As It Does, by Albena Stambolova, trans. by Olga Nikolova
Published in 2002, in English in 2013, winner of 2013 Contemporary Bulgarian Writers Contest

Now that Bulgarian Literature Month is almost over at GLLI, I can publish my post here.  Head on over to see what's been going on before it's all done!   Thomas has been doing a great job.

Albena Stambolova, originally from Sofia, is a psychoanalyst and writer.  She lived and taught in Paris for some years in the 1990s, but returned to Bulgaria and won recognition with this, her first novel.  Since then, she has published two more novels, as well as essays and short stories.

Everything Happens As It Does is something of a mosaic whose pieces, some not visibly related, eventually go to make up a complete and satisfying pattern.  We follow characters who then disappear for a while as others take the stage without warning, and we are left to draw connections between them.  Everyone seems to carry echoes of fairy-tale figures, and that is especially true of the women.  I remembered many different tales, from "The Snow Queen" to "The Crane Wife," and even Millions of Cats.

Stambolova's style is simple and direct, full of plain statements, but with a good deal of substance under the surface.  She describes the unusual in the same tone as the everyday, so that it all blends, and we understand that the humdrum world is in fact full of strangeness.  Her descriptions are visual and refreshingly unusual.
This story considers itself the story of everyone.  I don't know if this is true.  You will be the one to decide.
I myself am certain that all stories are love stories, so I have refrained from classifying it as such.
It is simply the story of women and men who are mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, loved ones and friends...or, in a nutshell, or people who are tigers and lions, oranges and lemons.
This story is neither funny, nor sad.  It is simply a story that takes place somewhere on the border between the world we know and the world we are no longer very sure about.
I actually read this book in one sitting, something that I haven't done in many years; my reading time is normally very fragmented.  It so happened that I had driven some kids to a dance in another city and had a few hours on my own, so I took myself out to a sandwich and then spent most of the time reading.  This novel is quite short at 120 pages, and I finished it just as the dance was ending.  It was a wonderful and unexpected opportunity to be able to immerse myself completely in the story and just not come up for air.