Thursday, May 25, 2017

Summer Reading

My school year is almost over, and there are some changes coming down the line.  Today is my last working day of the semester, and I have the summer off, so that will be an immediate difference.  Tomorrow is my last day as a homeschooling mom; my younger daughter will be heading to high school in the fall, and I guess I'm retiring.  So in a couple of months, I'll have a good deal more time to devote to such things as housekeeping, doing outside things, reading books, sewing quilts, and....well, hopefully working, but my bid for more hours is on hold for the moment.  I won't have any trouble filling the time, don't worry about that!

Every summer, I take a lot of books home from work and hope to have time to read them all, which I never do.  That doesn't stop me.  My TBR pile is particularly out of control these days, so to amuse myself I made a stack.  This is not a complete stack of all the books on my TBR and library shelves.  This is a stack just of books I want to read for the Reading All Around the World project, and it's incomplete because I took some more books home after taking the picture.


My other summer plans include emptying a kid bedroom, painting it, and putting a good deal less stuff back in.  I'll take the kids down to my hometown (and the beach!) for my friend's daughter's wedding.  And we plan to finish the summer with a trip to Oregon to see the solar eclipse!  It will be a partial eclipse around here, but if we go just a few hours north, we can see totality.

The eclipse is on our first day of school, so we'll be missing that.  It seems to me that this is an event of enough importance to rearrange the calendar a little bit.  Principals, I call upon you to start school on the 22nd of August rather than the 21st!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Accusation

The Accusation: Forbidden Stories From Inside North Korea, by Bandi

Wow, check out what I found, everybody!  This book is a historical event -- it's the first book smuggled out of North Korea.  "Bandi" is a North Korean writer who asked a friend to take these stories out of the country.  While we now have several memoirs written by North Koreans who have escaped, this collection of short stories is, so far, unique.

There are seven stories, plus some information about the writer in an afterword (which I skipped ahead to after one or two stories, I was too curious).  Honestly I was a little worried about how much information was given; it seems to me that it wouldn't be all that hard for the DPRK to identify this man.  I hope I'm wrong about that.  (Looking again, there is a note that says some of the information has been changed to protect him.  Which is better, but also, in that case why put it in?)

The stories are arranged consecutively; they each have a date at the end.  The first has 1989, the last 1993, and I thought that they got progressively more angry and bitter as they went along, as the famine of the 1990s hit and everything worsened.  They are all stories about somebody running into trouble, usually for no reason except accident and the malevolence of the government.  They are gripping and immersive, full of visual detail and a sense of dread behind everything.  What is most touching is an ever-present awareness of the feelings of loved ones, communicated without dangerous words. 

Some of the stories:

Gyeong-hee lives in the coveted center of Pyongyang, but such a small thing as her toddler's illness opens her up to suspicion right before a big state celebratiom.

Il-cheol writes to a friend to explain how his discovery of his wife's contraceptives led to his whole world turning upside-down, and then to his defection. 

All Myeong-chol wants to do is to visit his sick mother, but he has never been allowed a visit at all.  Now, worried that his mother is dying, he is desperate enough to try anything.

Why did old Yong-su, a decorated veteran who never stops working, scream at government officials, even swiping an axe at them?  They wanted to cut back his elm tree, which for Yong-su has been a symbol of his whole life of endless sacrifice and work for the Revolution.  But all the golden promises he has worked for have never, ever materialized.   (Yong-su reminds me very much of the horse in Animal Farm, though Bandi has undoubtedly never read Orwell.)
Myeong-chol longed to let himself sob out loud, to stamp the ground or shake his fist at the sky.  But, depending on the circumstances, he know that even crying could be construed as an act of rebellion, for which, in this country, there was only one outcome -- a swift and ruthless death.  And so it was the law of this land to smile even when you were racked with pain, to swallow down whatever burned your throat.

Her limbs began to tremble, and not only because of the September chill.  Fear swelled inside her -- fear, something which had to be instilled in you from birth if you were to survive life in this country.  Now, at last, she had the answer to the riddle, understood the force that had moved a hundred thousand people like puppets on a string.
These stories are good literature as well as an important glimpse into a closed world.  Bandi deserves to take a place next to the other great writers who have shown the world the reality of totalitarianism.


Girl at War

Girl at War, by Sara Nović

In 1991, Ana is a happy, rough-and-tumble girl of ten.  She and her best friend Luka get up to all sorts of things in their beloved city of Zagreb.  When the Yugoslavian civil war breaks out, things slowly deteriorate until Ana's family is caught up directly into the war.

Ten years later, Ana is a college student in New York with a lot of secrets.  She hasn't told anyone about her past, but she finds that she can't leave it behind her, so on a whim, she goes back to Croatia and hopes to find her old friend.  There, she tries to figure out how to confront and absorb the things that happened to her -- which we only discover as she re-lives them.

This is a really absorbing YA novel that is part historical fiction (for an actual YA -- to me it feels immediate) and part coming-of-age, even though Ana is actually an adult.  Having been through what she has been, she had to grow up fast, but is also a bit stuck. Her story, for the moment anyway, is about how to absorb and move on from horrifying events.

Ana is a wonderful, vividly-drawn character.  She is all angles and elbows and weird, angry/awkward silences.  (Dave Eggers could take a few lessons on writing protagonists from this novel.  Ana is a person, while The Circle's Mae is a cardboard figure.)

A worthy YA read. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Mrs. Miniver

Mrs. Miniver, by Jan Struther

Since I love mid-20th century British novels, it's somewhat embarrassing that I have never read Mrs. Miniver before.  I'd never even considered reading it until I saw it reviewed recently (by whom?  I don't remember now, sorry) and found out that it's exactly the sort of thing I love.  It was so popular that it was also made into a movie about the people at home during World War II, which I would also love to see, but as I read I discovered that unlike the movie, this is only barely a war novel.  The book ends before 1939 does.  Most of it takes place, over about a year, before the war starts at all.  Really, it's a novel that looks back on a sane world and bids it a loving goodbye.

Mrs. Miniver is a fortunate, sensible, and happy woman.  Her husband is an architect and, after several years of struggle, they are now reasonably prosperous.  They have three children, a London home, and a beloved country house, nothing too fancy.  Each chapter is a snapshot of their lives, and often focuses on the small joys of life.  Mrs. Miniver, being an intelligent woman, enjoys her own thoughts and has some good ones.
Another thing they had gained was an appreciation of the value of dulness. As a rule, one tended to long for more drama, to feel that the level stretches of life between its high peaks were a waste of time. Well, there had been enough drama lately. They had lived through seven years in as many days; and Mrs. Miniver, at any rate, felt as though she had been wrung out and put through a mangle. She was tired to the marrow of her mind and heart, let alone her bones and ear-drums: and nothing in the world seemed more desirable than a long wet afternoon at a country vicarage with a rather boring aunt. A mountain range without valleys was merely a vast plateau, like the central part of Spain: and just about as exhausting to the nerves. 

 Mrs. Miniver was conscious of an instantaneous mental wincing, and an almost instantaneous remorse for it. However long the horror continued, one must not get to the stage of refusing to think about it. To shrink from direct pain was bad enough, but to shrink from vicarious pain was the ultimate cowardice. And whereas to conceal direct pain was a virtue, to conceal vicarious pain was a sin. Only by feeling it to the utmost, and by expressing it, could the rest of the world help to heal the injury which had caused it. Money, food, clothing, shelter -- people could give all these and still it would not be enough: it would not absolve them from the duty of paying in full, also, the imponderable tribute of grief.
The novel ends before the Blitz starts, and Mrs. Miniver's war experiences are only just beginning.  She takes in a bunch of evacuee children, and it ends with planning for Christmas.  We and Mrs. Miniver know that her world is ending, and as Struther says in the 1942 foreword:
The present being, for so many families, what it is, there is nothing for them to do but to look back with gratitude and to look forward with faith and hope.
And that is what this novel does.

I can't believe I didn't read this wonderful book before.  If you're a British literature enthusiast, be sure to include it on your list.  I'll be keeping an eye out for the movie too.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Faerie Queene: Book V, Part II

Still trucking along in the Faerie Queene....when last we left our hero Artegall, he was a captive of the Amazon Queen Radigund, who forced him to wear women's clothing and spin thread.  Britomart is on the way to save him!

Ahahaha, will I finish in a year?  I'm betting not...

Britomart arrives at the Temple of Isis (who is Equity); she enters, but Talus is not allowed in.  Isis wears silver and linen, and is shown standing over a crocodile.  Britomart prays to her, and sleeps in the temple.  She is protected and refreshed, but she also has a bizarre vision, in which she merges with Isis.  The crocodile threatens her, but must submit, and then he fathers a great lion upon her.  Waking, Britomart is very disturbed and asks the priest for an interpretation of this dream.  He tells her that Artegall is the crocodile, and also Osiris, and together they will produce the British kings.  Calmed, Britomart sets off for the Amazons' land, where she meets Radigund in battle.  Radigund is a tigress, but Britomart is a lioness and prevails, though she is wounded.  She is horrified by the captives' dress and frees them all, then finds Artegall and dresses him properly.  After a rest, Artegall leaves once more upon his great quest.

Artegall and Talus meet a damsel on a horse, fleeing two knights, with another knight in pursuit of them.  The strange knight gets one, Artegall takes the other, and then, oddly, they start to fight too, until the damsel stops them.  Once they pay attention, they recognize each other -- it's Arthur!  The girl is a maid to Queen Mercilla (Mercy, and also Elizabeth I), who lives nearby.  She is constantly oppressed by a villain, provoked by his wife Adicia (injustice and pride).  The girl is Samient, who brings them all together.  After the two knights sneak into the baddies' castle, they have a big battle, kill the evil Sultan, and subdue the vengeful Queen Adicia.  (This may be a version of the Spanish Armada, and certainly from here on everything gets very obviously political.)

Adicia is exiled, and the knights go after Malengin (Guile).  He lives in rocks, but has hooks and nets like a fisherman (or like the Irish, Spenser says).  He nets Samient, but the knights block his cave, and he flees over the rocks, just like a goat!  Talus pursues, but Malengin shifts into a fox, a bush, a bird, and finally a hedgehog too prickly to hold, and Talus beats him into a pulp.  On they go to Mercilla's castle.  Awe and Order are the keepers who bring the knights in (they pass a scurrilous poet, Malfont, with his tongue nailed to a post).  Mercilla, aka Elizabeth, is described surrounded by governmental virtues, a rusty sword, and a lion.  She is in the process of dealing justice to Duessa, who in this case is Mary, Queen of Scots.  Everybody sympathizes with the pitiful-looking Duessa, and she receives mercy, though she is undeserving.

Now the widow Belgae asks for help from the tyrant Geryones, Geryon's son (and also Philip II of Spain).  Arthur asks for the job of defeating Geryones, and he sets out without Artegall, who continues on his own quest.  Arthur takes Belgae to Antwerp and fights the invading Seneschal and three cowardly knights to get into the castle.

Geryones attacks Arthur right away, without greeting.  He has three bodies!  Geryones is furious but Arthur keeps cool and strikes all three bodies at once, killing his foe.  Belgae then offers Arthur sovereignty over her land but he graciously turns it down (unlike the real-life Leicester).  Arthur hears that in the church, Geryones' great Idol stands with a Monster underneath, so off he goes.  He strikes the Idol three times and the Monster appears -- a foul fiend!  It is Echidna's child, and much like the Sphinx.  Their battle reminded me a lot of Redcrosse fighting Errour.  Arthur kills the monster, sets all aright, hooray, and now we should check on Artegall.   He meets with the old faithful Sir Sergis, who informs him that Irene is imprisoned by Grantorto, who plans to kill her.  This is Artegall's real quest: to save Ireland from the influence of Catholic Spain.  On his way, Artegall meets Burbon (Lord of France), who is dishonored, having abandoned his shield (become a Catholic).  His lady, Fleurdelis, has left him.  Artegall scolds Burbon, but also helps, and persuades Fleurdelis to submit to him.  (This is all getting pretty weird.  Too much politics spoils the allegory!)

And now for the final battle!  Artegall crosses the sea and meets a host of soldiers, whom Talus beats.
  He then challenges Grantorto to single combat and refuses all courtly entertainment beforehand (it might corrupt him).  The next day is the day chosen for Irene's execution, but Artegall gives her hope.  Grantorto arrives late, dressed as an Irish foot soldier.  He hits Artegall's shield and gets stuck in it, so Artegall abandons it (as Burbon did?) and strikes with a special sword, killing his enemy.  Everybody's happy, and Irena is again Queen of her land.  Artgeall puts the country into order, but is recalled to the Faerie Queene's court (as in real life).  On the way he meets two hags, Envy and Detraction.  They have a monster -- the Blatant Beast!  It is scandal and cruel rumor.  Envy throws a shewed snake at Artegall and it bits him in the back.  He goes on to the court, but bears the scar of the bite.


Phew, only one more book and some cantos to go!  I can do this!  Hey, guess what, Spenser invented the word "blatant."  Go Spenser.  I am not a fan of all this obvious political allegory stuff.  It's not nearly as fun as the earlier books.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Last Things

Last Things: A Graphic Memoir of Loss and Love, by Marissa Moss

Marissa Moss is an author/artist, and you may have seen her Amelia's Notebook series or her excellent picture-book biographies (or, I reviewed The Pharaoh's Secret a few years ago).  These days she has a small publishing company, too.  Her husband, Harvey Stahl, was an art history professor at Berkeley, and this is the story of his diagnosis of ALS and the family's journey through his illness and death.

This is a really, really tough story, and Moss tells it with wrenching honesty.  Harvey's illness hit so hard and fast that there was no time to absorb and come to terms with it.  Instead, he was mostly angry and shut off, while Marissa tried to stretch herself far enough to care for him and their three boys without falling apart.  Harvey only seemed to find solace (if any) in working on the book he'd been writing; each son suffered in his own way; and Marissa struggled to hold her family together, mostly feeling like she was failing everyone.
Last things sneak up on you, slip away, unnoticed, unmarked...the last kiss, the last "I love you"...because we assume there will be others.  We share a lot of "lasts" and don't even know it.
If you're familiar with Moss' work, you'll recognize her style.  It's like her other graphic work, but entirely rendered in black and grays -- no color at all.  Harvey died in 2002, less than seven months after his diagnosis, and just about fifteen years ago.  I think it probably took her that long to be able to write this.  That does make it possible for her to include information on her sons' growing up and her life now, which is really nice to have.  She also finished Harvey's book (and it's coming for me on ILL).

An excellent and extremely painful memoir.  Read it, and have a box of tissues nearby.



Ooh, look, I found a book trailer:

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Circle


The Circle, by Dave Eggers

Twenty minutes into the future, Mae is the newest hire at the hottest Internet company on Earth -- the Circle.  The Circle is like Google, Facebook, and all your business combined online; it makes everything super-easy, but you have to use your real identity.  No more passwords or 37 different accounts to remember, but also no online anonymity.  No more identity theft (this part is more than a little hand-wavy).  Mae is thrilled, and grateful to her best friend Annie, who is now at the top of the company and got her the job.

The Circle's leaders are very into transparency; everything should be open and seen.  Mae starts to move up in the company, and pretty soon she becomes famous worldwide when she goes 'clear,' wearing a broadcasting camera at all times.  She loves the fame and attention, and she gets sucked into the Circle's goal of seeing everything, all the time.  Even as she loses friends and family, she believes.

Mae is not much of a character.  She doesn't seem to have much (if any) personality; she is endlessly malleable to the Circle leaders' ideas.  Some of the things she accepts without question are just not believable.  She is a standup cardboard figure, built to carry out Eggers' message. 


I was kind of bugged by the way Mae just keeps adding more social media responsibilities.  She starts off with a job to do, and the Circle campus is jam-packed with events, parties, and workshops, so she is supposed to attend a lot of those.  Then she's supposed to spend hours a day on social media, participating and being visible.  Then they add a constant stream of survey questions into her headphones, and ever more.  I felt hemmed-in and suffocated once she got to the social media requirement, as I was supposed to do, but when they added the surveys I quit suspending my disbelief.  I don't think an actual human being would be able to sustain all that stuff, even for a day.  Eggers has her learning to find it soothing, but I think he piles it on too much.

I wasn't swept off my feet.  At first, I zipped along, but pretty soon I was reading about two pages a day because I just wasn't enjoying it.  Eggers has some good points, but he's also heavy-handed with them, and he ignores anything -- like hackers, HIPAA, and privacy/legality concerns -- that gets in the way of his dire warnings.  I guess there was a movie and it didn't do as well as people thought it would.  I'd skip it if I were you.

Friday, May 12, 2017

The Brueghel Moon

The Brueghel Moon, by Tamaz Chiladze

After reading The Hand of a Great Master some time ago, I was interested in reading more Georgian literature.  The older stuff is not really available in English, but some newer things are; there's a publisher called Dalkey Archive that publishes a bunch of things in translation, and they have a Georgian series.  So I picked The Brueghel Moon without knowing anything much about any of them.  It's very modern.

Levan, a well-to-do psychologist, is taken aback by the abrupt departure of his wife, who tells him that their marriage was just a habit and she was more his patient than his wife.  Left behind, he wanders aimlessly through memories, incidents, and possibly unreal fantasies.  Disjointed chapters feature a woman convinced that she had an affair with an alien, the wife of an ambassador, and strange links between them all.

Interesting but strange and I won't claim to have understood it.   A good experience.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Histories

The Histories, by Herodotus

As part of Ruth's Reading the Histories project, I took over three months to read Herodotus' Histories.  I do enjoy Herodotus, but he's not exactly easy, and the fact that my copy is a huge book that can only be read while sitting down on the couch, when I remember to pick it up, made it a very long read.

Herodotus, first known person to systematically collect information and deliberately set it down as a history (rather than having a bunch of propaganda or myth mixed in), did his best to verify what he learned.  When he couldn't, or when he is skeptical, or found several versions of events, he tells you so.  The main subject of his treatise is the war between the Greeks and the Persians, but he really only gets to that near the end.  First, he talks about everybody and everything, describing Lydians, Persians, Cimmerians, and any interesting anecdotes or history.

Herodotus' magpie brain is what I love about him.  He is just brimming with neat little stories, and since I did a lot of my reading while my daughter worked on her schoolwork, I was forever interrupting her to read anecdotes aloud.

I must confess that I did not take notes or read systematically; I just read the book.  So if you want detailed synopses, I am not your gal, but I am here to tell you that Herodotus is on the entertaining side.  I also adore the Landmark editions and wish to collect them all!  They are so alluring, with lots of maps and notes and appendices.

Now that I've finished Herodotus, it's time to tackle Thucydides.  Oh dear, this is much more daunting.  I took a couple of college courses in Classics (a perk of being a comp lit major!) and had a week to read Thucydides.  I didn't understand a word.  He is not easy, and I do not love reading boring accounts of battles, but I have my Landmark edition and I'm on page....37.  Wish me luck -- I'll sure need it.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Swan Riders

The Swan Riders, by Erin Bow

I was late to reading The Scorpion Rules, but I was less late to the sequel, The Swan Riders, and it was worth it; the story is imaginative and gripping.  

Greta, once a crown princess and a hostage to Talis, the artificial intelligence that runs the world, is now AI herself.  She, Talis, and two Swan Riders have to travel across the country (Saskatchewan, to be exact) before Greta falls apart.  Becoming an AI is extremely dangerous, and she could well die before she can receive good care. 

Her former subjects, however, are in revolt.  The Swan Riders themselves are plotting something.  And Elian, her friend, but headstrong and not given to analysis, is out there too.  Everything goes pear-shaped very quickly.

Erin Bow must be one of the best YA authors out there.  She is original and sharp, and Swan Riders gives readers plenty to think about as well as an exciting plot that keeps moving and layered characters with good depth.  Every person in this story is an individual with worth, and never a flat stock piece or part of a mass.  Good stuff.