Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Roadside Picnic

My copy--pretty good for 1977

Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Ekaterina at In My Book reviewed this Russian SF classic for Vintage SF Month, and I was intrigued but didn't expect to get to read it very soon.  Then I started back to work for the new semester and found a copy in the stacks!  Wow!  I feel so lucky.  It's the first English edition from 1977, and includes another short novel, Tale of the Troika.  I'll be reading that too.

In the not-too-distant future, a bunch of alien artifacts landed on Earth in 6 locations, as though shot in packets.  Redrick Schuhart has grown up right next to one of the Zones, and he's a stalker--he makes illegal runs into the Zone to find alien artifacts to smuggle and sell.  Stalking is an incredibly dangerous job; the Zone is filled with bizarre phenomena and invisible deadly dangers.  You might find so-so's, which act like batteries and multiply spontaneously, but you might also fall into a ditch and have your bones disintegrated by witches' jelly.  Although the Zone emits no detectable radiation, stalkers' DNA mutates and their children are not quite human.  So why did this stuff just fall from the sky?  Is it just so much alien garbage, left by the roadside?

New edition cover
The story follows Redrick and other inhabitants of the town over years.  The characterization is great!  Red is just your average crum-bum trying to make a living, and he feels like a real person you might know.  There is a really nice blend of both concept and character that isn't always easy to find in SF.  It's a great limited-perspective story, too; it doesn't give much away and only lets you see what happens in this one town.  They could have milked the concept for a whole series.  (The novel did spawn a movie, the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series of video games, and the dangerous Russian sport of exploring abandoned and crumbling Soviet installations.)

As far as I can tell, the story is set in Canada, with some characters from all over the world, drawn by the Zone.  From the setting and plot, you might never realize that the authors are Russians, except that I felt like the whole atmosphere was very Russian indeed.  The story feels Russian to me.  But I wonder if I would have thought that if I hadn't known already?

My last chance to use cool image
I see that the new edition says, "This authoritative new translation corrects many errors and omissions and has been supplemented with a foreword by Ursula K. Le Guin and a new afterword by Boris Strugatsky explaining the strange history of the novel’s publication in Russia."  Now I want to read it too, to find out what the omissions were, though I though this translation was perfectly fine.  And I'd really like to read that afterword.

This is a very influential book, and also an excellent story.  I think you should read it, and I'm looking forward to reading more Strugatsky works.

Richard III

Richard III, by William Shakespeare

Richard III, as everyone already knows, is Shakespeare's most villainous villain, embracing evil and having people murdered left and right until he comes to a well-deserved end in battle.  And as a cartoon villain he's pretty great; he thinks of everything and tirelessly makes everything terrible for everyone around him, even his poor old mother.  He even tries to marry the older sister of the princes he had killed!

Evil Richard III
I really liked the prominent roles that the women played towards the end.  Possibly because there were no men left, having all been murdered by that time, but the ladies have these wonderful scenes where they lament their losses and blame Richard III for everything--just as he deserves.

I did find this play quite difficult to read, just because there are all these characters, all with titles that make it tricky to keep track of them, and anyway which Edward or Richard or Elizabeth are we talking about again?  I would very much like to watch a performance--I should have looked at the DVDs when I was at the library yesterday.

Only averagely awful Richard III
Having read The Daughter of Time and followed the surprise excavation of Richard's body last year, I'm pretty familiar with the historical background and reasons why Shakespeare made his character so mustache-twirlingly rotten.  Richmond, the glorious hero of the play and savior of all England, became King Henry VII, founder of the Tudor dynasty and Queen Elizabeth's very own grandpa.  He was in fact an awful person, but then so was pretty much everyone else who clawed their way to a contested throne.  You don't get that kind of job without being pretty horrible.  I'm sure the real-life Richard III was awful too, even though he didn't really go around scheming in iambic pentameter.  

And my answer to The Question is, yeah, I totally think he had the princes bumped off, Josephine Tey's defense notwithstanding.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014


Dune, by Frank Herbert

I hadn't gotten around to reading Dune before.  I've seen two film versions, though (the one with Sting and the SciFi Channel's miniseries).  I guess it was high time I read the real thing.

In the very far future, there is a galactic empire--but an empire without computers or artificial intelligence.  Instead, certain people are trained to calculate.  Mentats are coldly logical and concentrate on math; the Bene Gesserit learn to manipulate emotion and influence politics, using religion as their tool.  The desert planet of Arrakis produces one of the most valuable substances in the galaxy, and it is therefore exploited and oppressed--but the desert people of Arrakis are waiting for their savior.  He is Paul Atreides, and he's going to change everything.

The setting is clearly based on the politics of the Middle East.  Spice is oil, the Fremen are probably Bedouin, and much of the vocabulary is based on Arabic.  The Arabic borrowings were probably less obvious 40+ years ago, when hajj wasn't a word that everyone knew.

It's a good story, very complicated and well-done.  There's some great stuff, and the Fremen culture is neat to read about. I'm not sure it's really "the bestselling SF adventure of all time!" like the cover says, but it's one of the big SF classics.  I've heard that the sequels are all less good, though, so I think I'll stop while I'm ahead.

This was going to be my final post for Vintage SF Month...but then I found something pretty great!  Stay tuned to see if I can get in under the wire.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Euro Reading Challenge 2013 Wrapup

Rose City Reader's 2013 Challenge actually extended to the end of this month, so as to give space for wrapping up anything that needed finishing--a great idea, I thought.  Now it's time for the final post and count.  Here are the different countries I visited.  Many of them got several books, really.  I ended up reading maybe 4 books set in Poland, for example, and I don't even know how many UK titles.  And for this purpose, I can only count one UK book, not separate titles for Scotland, England, Wales, and NI.  So here it is:

  1. Five Billion Vodka Bottles to the Moon, by Iosif Shklovsky (Ukraine)
  2. Anna Karenina, by Lev Tolstoy (Russia)
  3.  The Middle Window, by Elizabeth Goudge (UK)
  4. Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James (Italy)
  5. Sister Queens, by Julia Fox (Spain)  
  6. Zaremba, or Love and the Rule of Law, by Michelle Granas (Poland)
  7. The Red and the Black, by Stendhal (France) 
  8. The Trial, by Franz Kafka (Austro-Hungary/Czech Rep.) 
  9. The Queen's Diadem, by C. J. L. Almqvist (Sweden) 
  10. Der Struwwelpeter (in German, so Germany)
  11. Shopping for a Better Country, by Josip Novakovich (Croatia) 
  12. Niels Lyhne, by Jens Peter Jacobsen (Denmark) 
  13. Bloodlands, by Timothy Snyder (Belarus) 
  14. In Search of Ancient Ireland, by Carmel McCaffrey and Leo Eaton (Ireland)
  15.  Beware of Pity, by Stefan Zweig (Austria)
  16. Eirik the Red and Other Icelandic Sagas (Iceland)
16 different countries in all.  This is well over the goal of 5 books at the highest level, but there is no way I will win the Jet Setter Prize for the most countries visited.  I would probably have to work pretty hard at that.

The Winter's Tale

The Winter's Tale, by William Shakespeare

January is Shakespeare Month at the Classics Club, and so I read "The Winter's Tale."   I knew the basic storyline, and I may have read it in college, but I'm not sure about that.  Anyway, it made for a nice Shakespearean interlude, and after that I got ambitious enough to start "Richard III," which I'm hoping to finish before the month ends.  Wish me luck, since I'm still on I.3.

Leontes, King of Sicilia, and Polixenes, King of Bohemia, have been best friends since boyhood.  Polixenes is on an extended visit with Leontes and his queen Hermione, but when he accedes to Hermione's request to stay longer, Leontes becomes uncontrollably jealous and paranoid.  Although everyone in the court reminds him of Hermione's perfect character, he convinces himself that she is unfaithful and that her children are not his.  He orders his new infant daughter taken away and exposed, and even assurance from the oracle at Delphi fails to placate him.  Leontes puts Hermione on trial for treason, and only realizes his mistake when his son, the prince, and Hermione both die of sorrow.  Meanwhile, daughter Perdita is brought up by a shepherd in Bohemia, and sixteen years later, all will change.

1866 chromolithograph by Owen Jones and Henry Warren
Here is a sample for you.  This is Paulina, Hermione's lady-in-waiting, trying to persuade Leontes to accept his daughter and abandon his paranoia, to which he responds with a threat of burning at the stake
It is an heretic that makes the fire,
Not she which burns in't. I'll not call you tyrant;
But this most cruel usage of your queen,
Not able to produce more accusation
Than your own weak-hinged fancy, something savours
Of tyranny and will ignoble make you,
Yea, scandalous to the world.
I don't exactly know if this is a comedy or something a bit more vague.  It's not very funny and there is a lot of pyschological drama, but there is a wedding or two at the end and nobody dies.  Some have called it a "late romance," which seems reasonable.

Although "Winter's Tale" has not produced as many famous quotations as, say, "Hamlet," you would recognize a few.  Here is found the phrase "a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles" and the world's best stage direction: "Exit, pursued by a bear." Even better, there is no mention of a bear until that line!  Oh, and this speech, which rings so true to so many: 
I would there were no age between sixteen and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting--

"The Winter's Tale" is a Shakespearean example of a novel made into a play!  Yes, just like so many modern filmmakers, Elizabethan playwrights were happy to turn popular works of fiction into plays.  This story is based directly on the short prose romance Pandosto: The Triumph of Time (or, The Historie of Dorastus and Fawnia), a tremendously popular work published in 1588.  Shakespeare's version was first produced in 1511, and everyone would have known the connection.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

2013 What Books Reveal About Yourself

 This was a fun idea I saw at ipsofactodotme.  I didn't do a proper 2013 retrospective, since I felt the constant challenge wrapups were more than enough, but the idea here is to post the first sentence of the first post of every month and see what it says about me.  Let's give it a try, shall we?

I discovered that I sometimes had to use the first book post of the month instead of the actual first post, and sometimes I've skipped a tiny non-sentence.  Otherwise this would be a boring list.


I was planning to start a really big chunkster today, preferably Anna Karenina, but I woke up with a hangover--which is hardly fair, considering my revels last night consisted of fizzy lemonade, Just Dance 4, and card games, and ended before midnight.


Aren't fashions in titles funny?  Title trends come and go, and right now very long subtitles seem to be the thing.  The shorter and/or more cryptic the main title is, the better, and then the subtitle should be long and elaborate, with a touch of humor.


Huck Finn is the latest WEM book (you can follow along at Classic Case of Madness*).


I must admit that American literature is one of my really weak areas, and the Civil War is too, and this [Red Badge of Courage] is on my CC list, so it was good for me to read it. 


The English Teacher turns out to be the third in a trilogy, but it didn't matter as much as you would think.


Yesterday I mentioned that I was put into a complicated quilting mood by a quilting book.


The WEM ladies have been reading Mrs. Dalloway, and I particularly wanted to join them, as this is one of my CC titles but I, for one, am quite afraid of Virginia Woolf.


I've read some Kafka before, but never this famous novel.


Jonathan Last takes on demographic numbers here, and although I suppose his primary focus is on the United States, he spends a lot of time talking about the whole world too, since sharply dropping birthrates are a worldwide trend.


This was an excellent spooky read for fall!


This must be one of my more obscure titles, and probably needs an explanation.  "Two-Gun Nan" was a cowgirl in Western-style shows from about 1905-1929--like Annie Oakley, but later on.


The last creepy ghost story novella I read was a bit of a disappointment, but not this.

Eugene Onegin Readalong, 3 & 4

Eugene Onegin Readalong, 3 & 4

I've read two more chapters, and Tatiana has met Onegin.  Although she has only met him once, and barely spoken with him, she falls for him hard.  Her habitual pensive mood becomes a fretful preoccupation that follows a time-honored formula: as any proper heroine would do, she can't sleep or eat.   Finally she does something that would be truly shocking to her family and society: she writes Onegin a letter declaring her feelings, and waits on tenterhooks for a response.  Onegin gently but firmly refuses Tatiana and leaves her to yearn and pine away, which she does, while he leads a solitary and restful country life.  But then Lensky wants him to go to dinner and meet the whole family again--oh, dear.

Tanglewood has more questions:

Chapters 3 & 4 Questions

- Impressions of Tatyana and Olga?

They are both so young!  Poor Tatiana, she's never met young men or had crushes before, and this just bowls her over.  I can't help thinking that nowadays we'd call it a crush and wait for her to get over it, but in her milieu, with only romantic novels to go on, she is sure that this is a once-in-a-lifetime true love.

- What do you make of Onegin's reaction to Tatyana?
He is remarkably sensible and decent, and though he is not exactly kind, that's a good thing.  He just tells her no, that she doesn't really know him and it would never work, and he leaves, planning not to see her again.  This is exactly what you would hope a man of 26 would say to your 17-year-old daughter.  It is not, however, what you expect out of the hero of a poetic novel from the early 19th century!  He could so easily have acted like Willoughby (from Sense and Sensibility), or he could have accepted her love and the story could have been a romance.  Pushkin uses a third, unexpected option, which I love.  This is the thing that makes me like Onegin, because I never thought much of him before. 

- How does the story, thus far, compare or contrast with another classic romantic novel (of your choice)?
Oh.  Well, I guess I'll go with Sense and Sensibility, having already referred to it.  Tatiana, come to think of it, is much like a quiet, reserved Marianne, don't you think?  She doesn't talk like Marianne but she's been doing some very similar things.  But Onegin, being a decent fellow and not a charming blackguard like Willoughby, doesn't lead Tatiana on.

Ongoing Questions

- Reactions and/or predictions?
I think I already talked about those.

- Any quotes or passages that stand out?

I really liked this verse about Tatiana's love of novels, and the craze for Gothic horrors.  The previous verses detail Tatiana's fondness for certain authors and how the hero of such a book would always act virtuously.  The last bit about Byron cracks me up.
But nowadays all minds are clouded, 
A moral brings on somnolence, 
Vice in the novel, too, is lauded 
And there has gained pre-eminence.  
The British Muse's tales intrude on 
The Slumber of our Russian maiden, 
And now she's ready to adore 
Either the pensive vampire or 
The vagrant Melmoth, restless, gloomy, 
The Wandering Jew or the Corsair 
Or the mysterious Shogar.  
Lord Byron's whim most opportunely 
Clothed even hopeless egotism 
In woebegone romanticism.

And on Onegin himself: his first youth he'd fallen prey
To stormy errors and delusions
And passion's unrestricted play.
Spoiled by the life he had been granted,
By one thing for a while enchanted
Another disenchanting him,
Thwarted desire tormenting him,
Tormented, too, by quick successes,
Hearing amid the noise and lull
The timeless mutter of the soul,
A yawn with laughter he suppresses:
Precisely so, eight years he killed,
His prime thus passing, unfulfilled.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Dead Souls

The big central word is "poem."
Dead Souls, by Nikolai Gogol

This was most certainly a Long-Awaited Read for me.  It's been on my TBR pile for at least a year, and I've really wanted to read it, but needed a bit of a kick to get over the Russian Literature Nerves so many of us have.

The first thing you need to know is that Dead Souls is a comedy, darkly satirizing Russian life in Gogol's day.  Even for a modern American, it's funny; to a Russian, it must be hysterical.  The other thing you need to know is a tiny bit of background about the Russian feudal system of the early 19th century, when serfs still belonged to the land they lived on.  They had to pay rent to the owner, and taxes (the owner didn't pay taxes but collected the serfs' taxes and sent them on), and had to ask for permission to go off the estate to earn money.  Every so often the government would take a census and register each male 'soul' tied to the estate.  Taxes were then due from that soul until the next census, even if he died.  These are the "dead souls" of the title.

We meet Chichikov roaming the countryside, buying up dead souls.  For several chapters, he meets different landowners, all of whom are kind of oddball in their own ways.  They are in fact archetypes personifying Russian problems, as well as people. Once he's got enough, Chichikov has a scheme to make lots of money with his dead souls, which scheme is worthy of The Producers.  Chichikov's adventures are really something else.

The second volume of the book is unfinished, but still interesting.  Chichikov is now in a different province, still working on his scheme and meeting up with a different cast of people, primarily Tentetnikov.  He also meets a sort of ideal landowner, Konstanzshoglo, who stands as a solution to all the endemic problems of Russia that we have met so far.  Chichikov vows to reform and become a Konstanzshoglo, and he buys an estate--but the next time we see him, he's still a cheat and a charlatan.

The Russian idea of poshlost  is central to the story, and it's one of those words that is hugely meaningful and has no English equivalent.  It means something like petty, banal, and vulgar all at once, plus some.  Chichikov is poshlost personified, apparently.

Gogol said his novel was not a novel at all; he called it a poem or an epic in prose.  Chichikov is a bit like Odysseus, voyaging around to different places (and, like Odysseus, outwitting or cheating the people he meets).  There isn't really a novelistic plot structure.

I read the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, and am not really qualified to judge it, but it seemed good to me.  Certainly I think I enjoyed it better than I would have the first copy I got, which was on the elderly side and had a translator's note that made it pretty clear that the translator did not, in fact, like Gogol.

Good stuff--read it. 

This was my first Long-Awaited Read and took most of the month.  I've started another one: Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin--but it's going to take a long time.  There is no way I will finish it in January.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Game Players of Titan

I love this new series of covers.
The Game Players of Titan, by Philip K. Dick

It's turning out to be a very PKD and Bester-heavy month for me!  This time I read The Game-Players of Titan which, in classic PKD fashion, involves an awful future scenario, much questioning of reality, and lots and lots of drugs.

After a devastating world war and fight with slug-like aliens from Titan, there are not a lot of people left and fertility is nearly gone.  The alien vugs dictate a lot, and they make people play the game of Bluff to trade property and spouses.  Pete Garden has just lost his home base of Berkeley (and his wife, but no big deal) and he's determined to get it back, but this particular loss sets off a chain of events that lead to a murder, an unexpected trip to Titan, and a game of Bluff against the expert and telepathic vugs.

This was a great read.  Part scary SF scenario, part murder mystery--but then it goes way off the rails.  The second half is just nuts, but if I tell you about it, it will just spoil the story.  So I'm not quite sure how to tell you much at all, but it's a great example of PKD's writing and would be a reasonable
choice for a first try.

I have just one more SF title that I'm thinking of reading this month.  Dune.  Would you believe I've never read Dune?  I'm not sure I'll really get to it, or at least finish it before the end of January, but it does seem like it's about time I read it.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Stars My Destination

The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester

It's my other Bester book for Vintage SF Month!  Also published as Tiger! Tiger! (as in the Blake poem), it tells the story of Gulliver Foyle, the most dangerous man in the galaxy if only he knew it.

Bester explores what would happen if people could "jaunte" -- teleport by the power of the mind.  In this future, once the ability is discovered, it can be taught, and almost everyone can jaunte--though not usually more than 500 miles at a time.  And you have to know where you're going.  In such a world, the wealthy hide behind mazes and criminals live in a round-the-world night.  Girls are guarded from attack by seclusion in rooms without doors that only their family or friends can enter, and the highest mark of prestige is to walk where you're going.

Gully Foyle, a rough and violent laborer, lives for just one thing: revenge on the people who left him to die on a derelict wreck of a spaceship.  His life is dedicated to finding out who they are and why they did it.   As a matter of fact, much of Gully's plot is explicitly based on The Count of Monte Cristo!  Treasure, secret identity, and all.  But Gully also holds a secret that could change the world.  He doesn't know it, but some other very powerful people do.

Another good yarn from Bester, an early SF great.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Erec et Enide

Erec is very comfy at home with Enide
Erec et Enide, by Chretien de Troyes

Erec et Enide is the first story in my book of Chretien de Troyes' Arthurian Romances, and one of the earliest tales in the tradition.  I may have read it in college, but I don't remember doing so, so it certainly felt like the first time.  Erec has pretty much fallen out of the Arthurian tradition; I don't know that he appears in Malory and you certainly don't run into him in the modern retellings, so here is a quick summary:

King Arthur declares a stag hunt, and Erec keeps the queen company as they watch the hunt.  A strange knight comes by and insults them; Erec cannot retaliate because he is unarmed, but he vows a quick revenge.  Once the hunt is over, he arms himself and sets out to follow the knight, and ends up in a town where he defeats the knight and meets Enide, a poor but gentle girl.  Erec takes her back to Camelot, where they marry before setting out to go to Erec's home kingdom.  There, Erec is so enamored of his lovely wife that he stays home with her until people start gossiping about his lack of valor.  This makes Enide cry and they set out together to find some adventure.  Erec orders Enide not to speak to him, but when danger threatens, she cannot help warning her beloved husband though it earns her his anger.  Eventually they arrive at a town with a deadly peril called "The Joy of the Court."  Erec defeats the peril, discovers some relatives, and goes back to Camelot until his father dies and he becomes king of Nantes.

It's a very typical story in many ways, and unusual in others.  Erec and Enide are married near the start of the story, and they are never separated, nor does Erec ever suspect Enide of unfaithfulness (though he is angry at her for a while).  I fully expected Erec to spend most of the story trying to rescue Enide from captivity or peril, and then marry her at the end.

Also, they visit towns which are full of people!  Usually, Arthurian stories have the court, the wilderness, churches, and various knightly manors, but actual towns are not common.  Nor are ordinary people--you meet knights, damsels, hermits, and so on, but not plain old peasants. That is still true here; the towns are filled with knights and ladies, not ordinary folks.  Peasants and merchants do not rate a mention in a courtly romance!  It gives you this interesting image of a sort of fairy-tale town that matches the fairy-tale wilderness of most Arthurian romances.  No real 12th-century town was ever like that, which is probably why there aren't many in the stories.

As far as I know, only Culhwch and Olwen is earlier in the romantic tradition.  I need to get that!  But for now, I'm going to stick with Chretien and read the next story in the book, Cligès.

Eugene Onegin Readalong, 1 & 2

Eugene Onegin Readalong, 1 & 2

I am keeping up with the readalong, but not with the blog posting about the readathon.  I have a new copy with a different translation--Stanley Mitchell--and I love it.  I think it was Tom the Amateur Reader who told me that if the Deutsch translation was the one I'd read before, reading a different version would be like reading a different book, and it is.  I'm very glad to be reading this for the second time, so I can absorb better!  Tanglewood has these questions about the first two chapters:

Chapters 1 & 2 Questions

- First impressions of Eugene?
Honestly, Eugene is not the kind of guy I love.  Society dandies drenched in ennui--no, thank you.  Though I rather suspect that Pushkin is poking a little fun at the type, maybe?

- What do you make of the narrator's commentary?
He's humorous and a bit ironic while being sympathetic too.  I think.  I don't know of another poem where the narrator puts himself so much into the story as a writer.  "Well, here I am at the end of Chapter 1.  Off you go, little poem!"  He breaks the fourth wall quite a lot.

- Thoughts on the characters sketched out in Chapter 2?
Lensky is a nice boy, though idealistic poets are also not my cup of tea.  Olga is a sweet girl, and though she is supposed to lack depth, she is something like 17 years old so that is not very worrying. Tatiana I love, though if she were my kid I'd want to make her go outside and get some exercise.  I'd worry about her a bit, what with the never playing, but she is a lovely girl.

Ongoing Questions

- Reactions and/or predictions?
 Well, I'm enjoying it, don't know that I have much else to say right now.  I already read it once so I know what's going to happen.

- Any quotes or passages that stand out?
I think this translation is better than the one I read first, so I'm much happier with it this time.  It flows better, I think. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2014


We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, trans. Mirra Ginsburg

This is my double whammy title: a Vintage SF Russian Classic!  We is one of the very first dystopian novels written (leave it to a Soviet to invent dystopian literature!), and it inspired both Brave New World AND 1984.

Zamyatin started off as a Bolshevik, but after the Revolution, he was unhappy with the way things were going in the new Soviet regime. He seems to have disliked authorities of any kind.  Disillusioned by the oppression he saw, he became a dissident and wrote critiques and political satire.  He was an eminent voice in the 1920s, in the middle of all that literary maelstrom that was going on.  We, written in 1920-21, bears the distinction of being the first work banned by Soviet censorship.  It was not published in Russia for decades, but Zamyatin smuggled it out to the West, where it was published in 1924, though not in an English translation.  Zamyatin hung on in the USSR for some time longer, but was eventually exiled; he died in Paris in 1937.

We consists of the writings of D-503, a mathematician in charge of building a spaceship that will take the One State's message to other planets and societies.  Everyone who can is asked to write material in praise of the State to go on the ship, and of course D plans to comply, but his writings describing the beauties of life under the Benefactor turn into a diary describing his meetings with I-330, a woman who both fascinates and repels him.  Under her influence, he first falls apart and then starts to think about disobeying the State.

The One State is fascinating all by itself.  Glass is their main building material; everyone lives in glass apartment buildings, visible at all times with no secrets.  People are called numbers, and absolutely everything is rationalized, numbered, and measured.  Even recreation consists of walking in step with thousands of others while patriotic music plays.  The ruler, called the Benefactor, is weirdly prophetic of Stalin in several ways.

As a piece of history, this is an amazing book.  I'm not so sure how I feel about the writing.  D has an irritating tendency to use ellipses and leave sentences unfinished.  It can even get a little tricky to figure out what he is saying.  Geometric shapes are very frequently used as symbols of people (I'm not quite sure how to describe what I mean) which is very appropriate to D but also difficult to understand in spots.  In other places, Zamyatin has some great prose that I enjoyed a lot.

I read up a bit about how much Huxley and Orwell owed to Zamyatin, and that was very interesting.  I also found Orwell's review of We, written upon his first reading of it (in French, since it was not yet available in English), so you might like to look at that.

The edition I read was translated by Mirra Ginsburg in 1972.  Newer translations seem to have superseded this one.  Ginsburg was more familiar to me as an author of picture books for children, but she translated Bulgakov and other Russian texts.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, by Philip K. Dick

This must be one of the odder titles in SF, but then this is Philip K. Dick we're talking about--weird is what he did.  While I've read some of Dick's short fiction, I don't think I've read any full-length novels.  Maybe.

Jason Taverner is one of the most famous celebrities in America--millions watch his show every week.  He's made several record albums, he's in every issue of every gossip tabloid, everyone knows who he is.  And one morning, Jason Taverner wakes up with no identity.  No one remembers him.  There is no record of his birth or his fingerprints or anything; and in the fascist American state of 1988, a person can't even walk a few blocks without proof of ID.  How can Taverner survive without getting killed or sent off to a labor camp?

The solution to Taverner's sudden loss of identity--partial as it is--only comes at the end, and is much, much weirder than I expected.  The whole story is bizarre, but it sure is interesting.  I would have liked more explanation of the world, especially why students live as outlaws, underground in kibbutzes, and aren't allowed into wider society, but Dick was a pro and knew better than to explain everything to death.

Also I think this premise must have informed the creation of UPN's 1990s show, Nowhere Man.  Does anyone remember that?  My husband and I used to watch it when we were first married.  The end was pretty terrible, if I recall, but we enjoyed it a lot.

History in English Words

History in English Words, by Owen Barfield

I was so excited about this book when I first got it!  Then I made the mistake of trying to dip into it as a bedside book instead of really focusing and reading it all at once, and I got bogged down.  This time around, I treated Barfield right and read it in large chunks, and it's a fantastic book.

Owen Barfield was an Oxfordian scholar, a philosopher (in the old sense) and essayist, and an Inkling.  He and C. S. Lewis met in 1919 and were solid friends for many years, during which they appeared to agree on very little.  Barfield was very interested in 'the evolution of consciousness' and spent a lot of time on developments in language and culture.  Later on he became an Anthroposophist, which I am still not quite sure how to pronounce, but you see its remnants now in the Waldorf philosophy of education.

History in English Words was an early book, published in 1926, and is nothing less than a history of Western thought as expressed in the English language.  The first section of the book is general and starts with pre-history and the development of the Indo-European language family, but since the book is from 1926, Barfield uses the older term of Aryan.  (So if you read it, remember that every time he says Aryan, he means what we would mean by Indo-European.)  From there he focuses in on England: the successive invasions of new groups, the new waves of religion and ideas, and then modernity.  The second section handles more specific stages in the development of Western thought as expressed in English words, starting with a chapter on myth and going through to mechanization and so on.

Where Barfield is really at his best is in explaining how new ideas needed new words, and relating this history of thought in a clear, concise manner that is just wonderful.  I did find that it needed concentration; like so many older non-fiction books, Barfield is dense and writes a 200-page book where a contemporary writer would produce 500 or more pages.

A great book of philology.  Language geeks should not miss it.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Where the Red Fern Grows

Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls

For the Children's Literature Event, I wanted to read Where the Red Fern GrowsEmily of Classics and Beyond reviewed it a little while ago, and I had never read it, so I thought I would.

Billy, who lives way out in the Ozark Mountains, wants nothing more than a hunting dog.  He begs, he pleads, but his family is far too poor to afford any such thing.  Eventually Billy figures out a plan; he works and saves for over two years and orders a couple of redbone hound pups.  He and his dogs are inseparable, and they hunt raccoons every night (the story is set around the 1920s, when raccoon coats were all the rage).  Billy's dogs are such good hunters that he enters them in a contest.

There is a whole lot about dogs and hunting and raccoons.  I am not interested in those things at all, but I hung on, drawn by Billy's intense feelings, his family and Ozark background, his faith in God, and the knowledge that it wasn't that long a book anyway.  Billy's family is great and I really enjoyed them; the portrayal of his parents was probably my favorite thing about the book.

Emily did not like the writing; she felt that although it's a good book, she wouldn't call it a classic because she felt the writing wasn't up to that level.  I'm not sure what I think about that, because while the writing was indeed not terribly poetic or anything, I did think that Rawls had what is called a voice, which conveyed a lot about the particular place and time and culture he was writing about.  I enjoyed that.  It's not my kind of a book, but I can see that many people would love it and consider it a childhood classic and make sure their kids read it too.  So I have no verdict on that question.

It is just as well that I didn't read this as a kid.  I'm not a dog person and I don't think I would have liked it when I was 10, when I mostly read fantasy.  I found out that Wilson Rawls also wrote Summer of the Monkeys, which was read aloud to my 5th grade class, and it's probably a wonderful book, but I hated it simply because I didn't like being read to, so I've never read that either.  I am now a huge proponent of reading aloud to children--I think it's really important--but I had no patience with it myself.  My kids think this is hysterical.

The Demolished Man

The Demolished Man, by Alfred Bester

Alfred Bester is one of the great grand-daddies of science fiction, so I wanted to read one or two of his classics.  The Demolished Man is a great yarn, set in a future where some people have developed telepathic powers.  These "espers" (as in ESP) are organized and controlled by a Guild that oversees their employment and also by the way wants to make the whole human race telepathic.

Ben Reich is the powerful head of the Monarch corporation, obsessed with overtaking the rival D'Courtney company.  He decides that he must kill D'Courtney--but no one gets away with murder these days, not in a world where telepaths can sense violent intentions and report them before they become actions.  Reich starts planning, and blackmailing his subordinates into helping him.  He is sure that between him and his new partner, a high-level esper, they can plan the perfect crime.  If the plan fails, they will both be put through the process known as Demolition.

This novel was originally published in 3 parts in Galaxy, so I've included an original cover image for you.  It won the first Hugo Award (named for the founder of Amazing Stories magazine) in 1953, and of course it's been very influential.  The idea of the Esper Guild, an organization to control telepaths, is great and has all sorts of avenues to explore.  Babylon 5 lifted the idea entirely, called it the Psi Corps, and named its menacing leader Alfred Bester in homage.

Great stuff, and necessary reading for the serious SF fan (or even the fundamentally unserious, like me).

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Rendezvous With Rama

The insanely ugly cover of my copy
Rendezvous With Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke

I've been looking forward to the Vintage Sci-Fi Not-A-Challenge this month, and I collected several books for it.  I've been reading a lot of them!  My first title was Rendevous With Rama; I've read most of the major Clarke books, but not this one.  Clarke is usually more about the concept than about characterization, and that is really obvious here.  Rama is the main character, and the people are not terribly distinct.  That's OK with me, since I like concept-exploring SF pretty well.

Over 100 years in the future, mankind is spread out over the solar system.  Scientists spot an incoming celestial body, but it's not a comet or anything else familiar--it's a ship, a cylinder headed straight for the Sun.  The Endeavour is the only human spaceship able to get to the mystery ship (christened Rama) in time, and the crew have only three weeks to learn as much as they can before proximity to the Sun will force them to leave.

Most of the story, therefore, is about exploring Rama.  At first, the crew thinks it must be a dead hulk; whatever beings once lived in it must be long gone, having died out in the vast spaces between the stars.  But Rama starts to wake up, and Clarke explores ideas about how a self-contained world could work.  It sounds very much like the space station in Babylon 5, which must have used some of the ideas.

There were some more Rama books; maybe I'll check them out sometime.

Awesome event button

My Uncle Silas

My Uncle Silas, by H. E. Bates

I've been on a little bit of a blogging break, I guess, and now I have at least eight books tell you about!  I'd better get started.

H. E. Bates is the same fellow who made a smash hit with his books about the Larkin family in The Darling Buds of May.  He wrote a couple of little vignettes based on an elderly uncle of his, a happily reprobate countryman who he called Uncle Silas.  Silas proved so popular that Bates wrote a whole bookful of short pieces about him.  Bates can describe him better than I can:
Certainly there was no strain of the Puritan in my Uncle Silas, who got gloriously and regularly drunk, loved food and the ladies and good company, was not afraid to wear a huge and flamboyant buttonhole, told lies, got the better of his fellow-men whenever the chance offered itself, used a scythe like an angel, was a wonderful gardener, took the local lord's pheasants, and yet succeeded in remaining an honest, genuine and lovable character.
Bates shows himself as a wide-eyed young boy, always willing to believe the tall tales Silas spins for his benefit.  They are great little pieces with wonderful feeling, and they are illustrated by probably the best possible artist for the job--Edward Ardizzone.  The stories were so popular that Bates eventually produced another volume, called Sugar for the Horse.  They might be harder to find, but I'd quite like to read them sometime.

When I went looking for book cover images, I found out that there was--of course--a TV series based on these stories. Albert Finney played Uncle Silas.  Is there anything in British literature the BBC has not adapted to television?  Just wondering.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Start Your Reading Now!

Well, actually, start your reading 2.5 hours ago, but that was too early.  It's the Second Annual Classics Club Readathon!  I'll be reading as much as I can all day, but I have other things to do too--like go out with my husband to celebrate our anniversary.  Which is really on Monday.

I have lots of books that want me to read them, but I'll be starting with

Where the Red Fern Grows--I started it yesterday and got a couple of chapters in

Dead Souls--so far so good, but I'm not very far along yet.

I think I'll save any vintage SF for later in the day--so far this week I've zipped through 3 already!

I'll update every so often, but mostly in a readathon, I read.  Have a great reading day!

12:00pm PST: I didn't read either of those books.  Instead I picked up History in English Words by Owen Barfield to read over breakfast, and just kept going with that.  I read the first section of 4 chapters and now I'm going to switch.

The CC has some questions.  I'm supposed to say:
  1. Name and Blog: Jean at Howling Frog Books
  2. Snacks and Beverages of Choice:  so far, breakfast and water.  And a slice of the lovely apple pie I made yesterday.
  3. Where are you reading from today?:  my house.
  4. What are your goals for the Readathon?: modest--just to read as much as I can today.
  5. What book(s) are you planning on reading?: Dead Souls, Where the Red Fern Grows, History in English Words...
  6. Are you excited?:yes! :)

6:00pm PST:  This afternoon I worked on three books:

Where the Red Fern Grows--I got more than halfway through.  Boy, is there a lot about dogs and raccoons.

Dead Souls--I read three longish chapters and am nearly 100 pages in now.  It's pretty funny!

Arthurian Romances--I read a little more than a third of "Erec et Enide," one of the earliest Arthurian romances.  You never hear of Sir Erec nowadays, but he's got quite a story.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Happy New Year! -- What Are You Reading?

Happy 2014 everyone!  May you all have a wonderful year of reading great books of all kinds.

January is so full of exciting events that I do not know how I'm going to fit it all in.  I'm going to give it a good try, though.  Here are some of my plans:

Long Awaited Reads Month: I've been saving these titles:
  1. Maidenhair
  2. The Thing Around Your Neck
  3. Dead Souls
  4. In the Steps of the Master 
  5. The History of the Renaissance World
  6. The Mill on the Floss
Vintage Science Fiction Not-A-Challenge:
  1. Rendezvous With Rama, Arthur C. Clarke
  2. Dune (can you believe I've never read Dune?), Frank Herbert
  3. Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, Philip K. Dick
  4. The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester
  5. The Forever War, Joe Haldeman
  6. We, Evgeny Zamatin
Children's Literature Event:
  1. Where the Red Fern Grows, Wilson Rawls
  2. The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum
  3. ??? 
The Eugene Onegin Readalong: starts January 7th

The Classics Club theme for January is Shakespeare/Elizabethan England, and (if I can!) I'd like to read The Winter's Tale, it being winter and all.  It was my Shakespeare professor's favorite play (yes, really), and I haven't read it since.  Come to think of it, I probably took Shakespeare in 1994, so that makes 20 years.  Oh dear.

In order to do even a tiny bit of this, I will certainly need a readathon, and luckily the Classics Club has obliged with its Second Annual Readathon on the 4th.

All this doesn't even include all the challenges I signed up for.  So if you stop hearing from me, it's because I suffocated under a giant pile of great books, OK?  Send help!

Arthurian Challenge--Go!

Hello, fellow Arthurians!  I am so excited about this year's challenge.  We are going to have a lot of fun! 

Please comment and tell me what you are going to read first, or what you are excited about.

I think I want to start with some Chretien de Troyes--it's a long time since I read Lancelot.  I've just read a couple of the really old chronicles (Nennius and Gildas), so now I'm going to go for some fanciful adventure.  I'm also going to start reading Arthur's Britain, which is quite a long book and I'm sure will go slowly.

The Knight of the Cart (Lancelot!)