Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The World Between Two Covers: Reading the Globe

The World Between Two Covers: Reading the Globe, by Ann Morgan

You all know I like to read books from all over the world, so I was interested in this title right away.  I thought it would consist of thoughts about literature from all over the world.  Then I was surprised to find that it is actually a blog-project book.  Then I was surprised again to find out that it's not really quite a blog-project book, since it isn't a description of the project; it's more thoughts on what 'world literature' is, what it means to read the globe, and issues pertaining thereunto, which developed as a result of the blog project.

A few years ago, Morgan was doing a blog project where she read only women authors for a year, and then she realized that she hadn't read anything not written in English since college.  Her shelves were stuffed with Brits and Americans and a few other English-speakers, and that...was about it.  So she decided to read one book from each country in the world, in a year.  This would be (approximately) 196 books.

I have to admit to a little bit of personal chagrin at the beginning. I looked at that and went "Wait a minute.  I try to read books from all over.  Nobody wants to hand me a book deal.  What's Ann Morgan got that I haven't got?"  The obvious answer to this is:
  1. An audience of more than 20 readers
  2. An actual career as a writer of some kind/the ability to write a book
  3. The discipline to read nothing but 196+ books, one from each country, and nothing else, for a year.
Because that strikes me as a really insane project.  I could not possibly have that kind of laser focus.  I can't read that many novels--nearly all contemporary--with hardly any non-fiction, I can't limit myself to one particular selection of books, and I can't read for 4 hours a day, which is pretty much what she had to do, as well as pick shorter novels (except, for some reason, Ulysses for Ireland).  I am a literary butterfly.  Like the fellow in the Wodehouse novel, I flit and sip.  If I feel like reading something I'm jolly well going to read it, never mind the schedule.

Well, on to the actual book--first it had to occur to her to read around the world, and so she spends a good deal of time talking about how easy it is to read in an insular fashion.  After all, mostly we like to read books that are a bit familiar, where we already know something about it.  Living in the English-speaking world, our books dominate, and except for the standard well-known exceptions, we rarely see others.  It takes a certain amount of effort to go looking for more books from other places, and if you're trying to get something from everywhere, it can be extremely difficult.  Not every country has a book industry.  And how do you get a book from North Korea anyhow?  Morgan wound up reading a few unpublished manuscripts or personal writings, and in one case, a brochure.

Then there are the rather uncomfortable aspects of reading something from an extremely different culture.  The jokes don't always translate well.  The moral or cultural standards are sometimes strange or offensive to others.  The reader will run into descriptions of Westerners that are not very fun to contemplate.  Morgan spends a lot of time on these issues, and on topics like censorship and the pitfalls of translation.

I was tickled by one little incident Morgan describes, in which she called a translation 'deft' and was taken to task by someone who pointed out that it wasn't actually possible for her to really judge the translation:
I had to hold my hands up here: 'rendered through Derbyshire's deft translation' was an asinine thing to write and I wasn't sure what I'd meant by it.  I had fallen into the trap of unthinking, lazy reviewing where a desire to indicate an awareness of the text having been translated made me reach for something trite and meaningless in the absence of anything better to say...
I loved it because I really dislike reviews that say pretentious things like 'deft translation' but I could also understand how she came to write such a thing.

Sometimes I found her questions or thoughts to be a little over-finicky, but on the whole it was a very interesting read.  She was mostly talking about things I'm very interested in too.  And while she did not give a book-by-book account of her year, she did talk about various titles and provide the full list in an appendix.  Quite a few are friends of mine, too; I recognized Too Loud a Solitude, An African in Greenland, So Long a Letter, and others, as well titles and authors that are either sitting on my mental TBR shelf or on my actual one.  I also added lots of books to my wishlist!

Random thoughts:

I do have one question: Morgan says that "I entered into an involved Twitter correspondence with, of all things, the Panama Canal, whose favorite writer..."  What?  Never does she say that there's a person running the Twitter account.  Just the Panama Canal, which has taste in literature.

NB: Morgan also has an odd little habit of calling books echt, genuine or authentic, when they meet her criteria for being from another place (as opposed to, say, a book by a British writer that is set in Burundi.  It's probably a good book, but it's not what she's looking for).  I'm not sure how I feel about it.  Does she use echt because she doesn't want to say 'authentic'?  In that case, putting it into German isn't really helping. 

If anyone wants to help me reach an audience of thousands, get kind offers of books from around the world, or get a lucrative book deal, just let me know. ;)  Meanwhile, you can visit Ann Morgan at her blog and see what books she read.

Friday, May 27, 2016


Bibliocraft: A Modern Crafter's Guide to Using Library Resources to Jumpstart Creative Projects, by
Jessica Pigza

Talk about a fun book!  Jessica Pigza is a rare book librarian and crafty blogger at the New York Public Library.  She keeps dropping the names of my favorite designers, like Heather Ross, Gretchen Hirsch, and Mary Corbet.  I would like her job, please.

Library collections, especially collections of older books full of public-domain images and patterns, are wonderful sources of inspiration if you're an artistic type.  Pigza spends the first half of the book showing the reader how to access all this wonderful stuff, and the second half has various small projects by popular designers, along with their inspirations.  The projects weren't really my favorite, but then I am not actually much of a crafter; I do sewing, mostly of quilts or other particular things.

The library information is wonderful.  Pigza explains the different types of libraries and where to find what you're looking for.  She given a nice run-down on library organization and the basics of Dewey vs. Library of Congress, and explains subject headings and how to make them work for you.  She also provides a quick explanation about copyright in the US and avoiding trouble.  And THEN, there's a lovely massive list of online library collections that will have you happily browsing for months.

The Biodiversity Library's flickr stream of old biology prints!
The British Library's tour of illuminated manuscripts!
Children's books from the 17th-20th centuries!
And so much more.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Edward Gorey: His Book Cover Art and Design

Edward Gorey: His Book Cover Art and Design, with essay  by Steven Heller

Oh, this was a fun book!  It's a lovely collection of many of Edward Gorey's book covers, with particular emphasis on his early work at Anchor.  This is by no means a complete collection of all the covers Gorey ever did, even of the Anchor titles; it's just a nice sampling.  And there's a rather interesting essay to go along with the covers--again, mostly but not entirely about the Anchor period.  My favorite bit:
Gorey was given certain authors to illustrate as a matter of course.  He recalled, "I became very well known for my Henry James covers.  I hate him more than anybody else in the world except for Picasso....I've read everything by Henry James, some of it twice, and every time I do it I think, 'Why am I doing this again?  Why am I torturing myself?  I know how I feel. Why can't I just accept that?'...Everybody thought, 'Oh, how sensitive you are to Henry James,' and I thought, 'Oh sure, kids.'  If it's because I hate him so much, that's probably true."

Not in the book, but look!

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Fleet Street Murders

The Fleet Street Murders, by Charles Finch

It's the third Charles Lenox mystery!  I actually liked this one better, mostly, except for one thing.

It's Christmas, and Lenox is engaged to Lady Jane, so all is right and happy in his world.  He's hoping to run for Parliament soon--he's always dreamed of it, and his brother is an MP--but it all happens very suddenly when an MP for the northern town of Stirrington dies sooner than expected.  The election's in two weeks, so Lenox gets going.  I think over half the novel is actually about the process of running for MP!  It was pretty fun, really.

There's a murder, too.  Two prominent newspaper men killed at exactly the same time.  The police are baffled, Lenox is dying to help, but Stirrington is far away.  So there are a lot of telegrams, and a couple of fast train journeys.  It's a pretty good mystery

The only glaring problem here was in the continuation of the delicate society lady's pregnancy, continued from last time.  She goes to the doctor all the time.  She fusses about whether to paint the nursery pink for a girl or blue for a boy.  Sadly, she then loses the baby--she is less than 12 weeks along at this point--and she and her husband each blame themselves.  The whole thing is just so modern, which detracted from the story.  It's not in the least bit Victorian, any of it.  Then it's less than a month before she announces she's expecting again and all is well.  ARGH.

But on the whole it was an improvement.

Friday, May 20, 2016

On the Radio

Hey, everybody, remember a while ago I said I was going to be on a local radio show, talking about books?  Well, the show has aired!  It's an hour long, and most of it is about our local history; my mom has written two books about John Bidwell (check out her blog at goldfields) and so that is the majority of the show.  I pop in every so often in the second half.  Bidwell is a fascinating character who was deeply involved in California history, so I encourage you to listen to the whole thing, but should you only have a few minutes to spare, the second half starts at 28:30.  Listen at Nancy's Bookshelf.

Faerie Queene Readalong Book II: Guyon, the Knight of Temperance

Well.  It took me two weeks to read Book II, yet I still feel I'm doing well.  Everyone seems to have agreed to slow down to whatever pace each can maintain; I think we all ran headlong into the brick wall that is the cold, hard reality of reading Spenser!  And now it's taken me another week, just about, to write this very very long post.

Book II is kind of strange, but there's a ton to say about it.  It's hard for me to believe that Spenser tackled temperance as his virtue of Book II, right at the beginning, because temperance is a really tricky virtue to write a knightly adventure about!  Temperance is all about not getting into battles willy-nilly--it's self-control, moderation, and keeping your temper.  If everybody in Le Morte D'Arthur went around being temperate all the time, nothing would ever happen!  Perhaps Spenser is showing off a bit here: "Look, here's a wild and crazy adventure starring the Knight of Keeping Calm!"  Guyon doesn't even have a lady love to travel with--instead he has a Palmer, a dour old pilgrim dressed in black (though Palmer does get a magic staff).

Like Redcrosse, Guyon has much to learn about actually practicing temperance.  His Palmer has to tell him what to do on a regular basis, and he sometimes falls into temptation, though not as often as poor hapless Redcrosse did.  There is some wordplay here; Guyon has to depend on his guide a lot, and the word guide appears on a regular basis near his name.  I'm not sure of all the nuances of the name Guy at this time, pre-Guy Fawkes, but Guyon is definitely a regular guy.  And so, on to the story:

Right away, our old decievers, Archimago and Duessa, show up to convince Guyon that Redcrosse has raped Duessa.  Guyon believes them at first, and promptly attacks a very surprised Redcrosse, but--showing superb horsemanship--Guyon veers off at the last moment, realizing that something is wrong.  The two knights meet for a talk and become friends instead.  Oddly, Guyon figures out the truth on his own and needs no explanation.

Moving off into the woods, Guyon finds a dying lady with a dead knight by her side.  Her infant plays at her side, but since she is bleeding from a massive wound, his hands and arms are covered in her blood.  Guyon is able to revive her long enough for her to tell her sad story--her husband, Sir Mortdant, went adventuring and fell under the spell of the wicked Acrasia.  She, the lady Amavia, went searching for him and spent a long time curing him of the deadly drugs he'd been given, but just as he was getting well and they were heading home, Acrasia got him to accept a drink to refresh himself by the way.  Of course it killed him.  Here Amavia dies herself, unable to finish her story.  Guyon buries the two, takes charge of the child, and vows revenge upon this Acrasia.    (Note here that Acrasia means 'without restraint'--she is excess.  Mortdant is 'death-giving' and Amavia is 'love of life'--but her husband gave her death.)  But it is a long way to Acrasia's Bower of Bliss.

Guyon and his Palmer try to wash the baby's hands clean, but cannot.  He is permanently dyed red.  Palmer explains that it will be a testament to the crime, and also that this particular well will not wash away anything unclean.  Also, as they come out of the wood, Guyon's horse is gone, stolen away!  So poor Sir Guyon is stuck walking on foot, in armor, carrying a baby and Mortdant's armor.  (Odd, isn't it, that such a great horseman loses his horse?  I'm not sure what to make of that.)  They find a castle nearby, built upon a rock (yep, the Biblical one).  Inside, there live three sisters, who are like the three bears.  Elissa, the eldest, is a scold, never satisfied--everything about her is stingy and too little.  Perissa, the youngest, is over-enthusiastic and wanton, too much all over.  She is just like Lydia Bennett!  And Medina is just right: serious and courteous, welcoming and calm.  Elissa and Perissa have lovers--the rough Sir Huddibras and our old enemy Sansloy.  Both attack Guyon on sight, and there is a three-way battle until Medina brokers a truce.  Guyon explains that he's on his way to deal with Acrasia, and his Palmer was the one to go to court asking for assistance.

Guyon entrusts the baby (now named Ruddymane) to Medina, and walks away on foot.  We move now to the horse thief, Braggadocio --Spenser invented the name!  He's just a hoodlum who saw the horse and grabbed it, but now he puffs himself up with pride and bullies the first person he sees, taking him prisoner.  This is Trompart, a flattering toady.  They run into Archimago, who as usual complains about Redcrosse and Guyon.  Braggadocio gets carried away and talks a lot about what a great knight he is even though he only has a spear, for he has sworn never to carry a sword until he can have the best in the world.  Archimago promises it to him and flies off to get Arthur's sword, scaring the two frauds silly.  They run into a forest and promptly get scared again, so they hide in the bushes and see Belphoebe arrive, dressed as a huntress.

Here Spenser stops and spends ten verses on a blazon, a detailed catalog description of a woman's features and virtues.  Belphoebe is just like Artemis, beautiful, virginal, and with every virtue...and she very nearly shoots Braggadocio, thinking him to be a deer.  He crawls out and they converse--Belphoebe extols honor through work, but Braggadocio has stopped listening long ago and tries to embrace her instead.  So she menaces him with her spear and takes off through the woods, as he loses his temper, brags some more, and finally rides off on the disgusted horse.

Guyon, meanwhile, runs into a madman tormenting a poor fellow named Phaon, with a hag behind them.  Guyon jumps in to save Phaon, but can't defeat the man--Furor--until he stops the hag.  This is a really weird one, folks.  The hag is Occasion--she is every excuse anybody ever found to get angry or commit sin.  She is a sort of opportunity, so her hair hangs down in front and she is bald in back--because you have to grab opportunity when it arrives, and you can't grab it from behind!  So Occasion has to be bound and gagged before Furor can be subdued.  Phaon can then tell his story, which is the same as in Much Ado About Nothing--he was Claudio and his love was Hero, only, tragically, Phaon got so furious that Furor gained control over him, and he killed his sweetheart.  Guyon points out that some temperance would have saved the situation.

Guyon next meets up with Pyrrocles, the fiery-tempered knight from Book I, who promptly attacks him (on horseback) without greeting or warning, a highly unchivalrous maneuver.  Guyon, still on foot, defends himself and accidentally beheads the horse.   Which is terrible, by Elizabethan knightly standards as well as ours.  They fight on foot, and since Guyon is wary and controlled, as opposed to Pyrrocles' fiery style, Guyon wins.  He asks why he was attacked, and it seems that Pyrrocles wants Furor and Occasion freed.  Generous Guyon grants the wish--and they start beating Pyrrocles.  Guyon, who was somewhat susceptible to Occasion before, is now on his guard and immune to her, but he does want to help Pyrrocles.  The Palmer intervenes here, saying that since Pyrrocles sought his own sorrow, he should not be rescued.  His squire, Atin (a boy Ate, or anger) runs off to inform the brother Cymochles, the unstable, that he should take revenge upon Guyon.

Cymochles, however, runs into a snag on his way.  He spots a little boat on the lake, and calls to it for a ride.  It's piloted by Phaedria, who is light-mindedness and idleness.  (Phaedra means shining or joy, but the classical Phaedra had a passion for her stepson).  She takes Cymochles into her magic boat, and she is so witty and charming and wanton that he forgets all about his brother.  He is taken to a lovely island and takes a nap in Phaedria's lap; then she enchants him and leaves him there.  Back in her boat, she picks up Guyon (refusing to take the Palmer) and takes him to the island too, but he is reluctant about the whole thing and spends the entire time politely insisting on leaving.  Cymochles wakes up and attacks Guyon out of jealousy, and Guyon wins, but Phaedria is glad to be rid of this party-pooper and sets him back on shore, now without his Palmer.  Just then, Pyrrocles runs up and throws himself into the sludgy lake water, screaming that he burns and wishes to die.  Atin leaps in to save him and Archimago intervenes to fix both of them up.  Goodness.

Guyon, alone, meets Mammon, the god of worldly wealth, who throws all of his gold into a put as soon as he's seen.  He is all black and smoky and filthy.  They argue about wealth, its value and utility, and Mammon offers a tour.  So he takes Guyon down into the underworld (where Duessa has already been), and they enter the House of Richesse through a tiny door next to the gates of hell.  The house is filled with dusty, cobweb-covered gold--in fact Arachne lives on the ceiling--and Mammon describes it all as heaven, full of bliss and grace.  Guyon refuses it all.  As they go further in, they are attacked by the iron man Disdain and they see Ambition's temple throne with a massive golden chain next to it, which throngs of people try to climb.  Like Lucifer, she has fallen, and Mammon offers her to Guyon as a wife.  Then they go into Persephone's garden, which is full of black, poisonous plants and a tree with golden apples--the one I thought grew on Mount Parnassus.  They meet poor Tantalus, and Guyon, again eschewing mercy for justice, refuses to give him a drink, which I thought was pretty awful.  They also meet Pilate, whose hands are most certainly not washed clean.  Guyon asks to leave, and actually faints away upon exiting the underworld, whether from fatigue or moral weakness, I'm not sure.  He needs help, anyway.

Happily, the Palmer finds Guyon...with an angel ministering to him!  This is the only point at which God sends visible aid or directly interferes.  And oh no, here come Pyrrocles and Cymochles again, inflamed by Archimago, and they think Guyon is dead, so they plan to strip his body.  Our hero, Arthur, arrives just in time.  There's a lot of mix-up about swords, but the upshot is that Arthur wins and Guyon revives.  They become friends and Arthur asks how Guyon got that great shield with Gloriana's image on it and became one of her knights.

They arrive at a castle, but the guards tell them that they can't get in because the castle is besieged.  They fight the besiegers, but they're not soldiers; they're insubstantial creatures that swarm and sting.  Finally, the knights enter the House of Temperance, run by Alma, which means both soul and nourishment.  She gives them a tour of the castle, which is really a human body!  It's really strange and there is some oddball symbolism here.  They go right through the digestive tract, complete with privy waste gate (no over-delicacy here, please, says Spenser).  There is a heart, home of Praysdesire and Shamefastness.  The tower of the head contains three old men: Imagination (or Foresight), a sort of Present Wisdom, who specializes in law and philosophy, and Memory with his books of learning.  Memory owns histories of Britain and Fairyland, and the knights eagerly sit down to study.  Canto Ten is all about British history (courtesy of Geoffrey of Monmouth and Holinshed).  Did you know that Stonehenge is a memorial to the British lords killed by Hengist?  I didn't.

After this, the knights are ready to save the castle from its siege by Maleger, who is both disease and sensual evil.  Thus the evil soldiers come in twelve groups: seven for the deadly sins, and five for the senses.  Each sense tower is attacked by things that can affect it--Sight gets ugly creatures and sightly sins like envy and lust, and Hearing gets slander and gossip.  Spenser couldn't think of any smelling sins, so that one just gets really stinky problems.  We also learn that Arthur's horse is named Spumador, ick.  It means frothing.  Arthur has to fight Maleger, who sends diseases and infirmities ahead of him, and keeps coming back stronger after every attack.  Finally we realize that he is gaining strength from the earth itself, and Arthur uses the traditional solution and triumphs.

Acrasia's Bower of Bliss

Now it's finally time for Guyon to face Acrasia.  He and the Palmer sail for three days, encountering perils of excess such as the Gulf of Greedinesse and the Rock of Vile Reproach, which are Scylla and Charybdis with new names.  They also pass the Wandering Islands, where Phaedria reappears and calls to them.  There's a quicksand of Unthriftyhed, and all kinds of perils, frequently from the Odyssey.  At last they reach Acrasia's land, which is a lovely garden, but crammed full of extra artistic touches, such as fake ivy, painted flowers, and all sorts of things that aren't real.  In fact they're overdone, too lavish, and in bad taste.  Kitschy, really.  Guyon does OK walking through this garden, until he spies two naked damsels bathing wantonly in a fountain.  He stops and stares through the trees at them until the Palmer rebukes him.  Then they sneak up on Acrasia, sitting in a bower with a young knight's head in her lap.  Her clothes are mostly gauze, and a crowd of watchers stand around and sing.  The knight's name is Verdant, so he's young and alive and the opposite of poor Mortdant, who Acrasia already used up.  They throw a net over the lovers and tie Acrasia up, but let Verdant go with a lecture about temperance.  After that, Guyon tramples and destroys the entire garden!  It's over-pretty and false.  Give Guyon some honest mud and box hedges any day; he's fine with flowers, but not with pretending that flowers are prettier and more abundant than they actually are.  And the animals are really men enchanted by Acrasia, so the Palmer fixes them, except for one who prefers his hoggishness...and that's the end.  Bam.

Is it just me, or does this book seem really....fragmented?  The adventures don't really flow into each other, it seems to me.  Spenser sure can get a lot of material out of a dull-sounding virtue like Temperance, though.

Twice in this book, Spenser describes knights lying down with their heads in ladies' laps as pretty much the height of earthly bliss (although not in a good way).  This really amuses me.  And it's not because he's using it as a euphemism; in the Acrasia/Verdant episode, he makes it quite clear what they've just been up to.

One verse in Canto I made me laugh aloud and read it to my husband and daughter, who were also tickled.  As Guyon tries to revive poor Amavia:
Out of her gored wound the cruell steele
  He lightly snatcht, and did the floodgate stop
  With his faire garment: then gan softly feele
  Her feeble pulse, to prove if any drop
  Of living blood yet in her veynes did hop;
  Which when he felt to move, he hoped faire
  To call backe life to her forsaken shop;
  So well he did her deadly wounds repaire,
That at the last she gan to breath out living aire.
From now on we're going to be asking each other whether the living blood in our veins does hop.

Literary notes:
There's a lot of callback to Virgil's Aeneid here.  Medina's castle has some details that remind me of Dido and Aeneas, and Guyon's trip to the House of Richesse bears several resemblances to Aeneas' underworld trip.

Then, the final canto features a bunch of Odyssean perils with new names, and Acrasia bears a very strong resemblance to Circe, who likes to turn men into animals and take illicit lovers.  Remember how she wouldn't let Odysseus leave for years, even though he wanted to?  Even the last man who prefers being a pig is straight from the Odyssey.

I presume that Shakespeare and Spenser both got the Claudio/Hero story from Holinshed or someplace like that.  Spenser did it first, but only by a few years.  A similar story also appears in Orlando Furioso, which also appeared in the 1590s.

The Wandering Islands seemed a bit like the islands in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.  Not very much, but I wonder if they were in Lewis' mind.

The song in the Bower of Bliss is rendered in a slightly different rhyme scheme, which is neat.  The theme is the one all impatient lovers use: "Gather the Rose of love, whilest yet is time..."  sound familiar?  Herrick must have liked Spenser, he practically lifted the line verbatim!

Phew!  That was a long one.  On to Book III!  Excelsior!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Shepherd's Crown

The Shepherd's Crown, by Terry Pratchett

It's always bittersweet to read a favorite author's last novel, and I didn't get to The Shepherd's Crown right away.  It's the last Tiffany Aching story!  So there were lots of feelings.  And Pterry being who he is, he doesn't pull any punches, either.  Also if you haven't read this yet, there are some big events, so don't go looking for spoilers.

Tiffany is now almost grown, and she's coping with more responsibility than ever, which is an awful lot; she's a one-woman poverty relief team, midwife, and watcher-out for the defenseless.  It is, in fact, getting to be overwhelming, and the rest of us can see that Tiffany needs to learn some delegation skills.  But there's no time to think about that, because the boundary between worlds is faltering, and the Fairies have noticed, and they're planning an invasion.

Pterry always had a habit of asking questions about who belongs and who can change.  He's still doing that, reminding us that goblins are now respectable and productive members of society.  Once we had Esk, a girl who might be a wizard; now we have Geoffrey, a boy who might want to be a witch.  Could even the Queen of the Fairies learn to have some feelings?

And of course, there are lots and lots of Feegles.  I do love Feegles!

It's a worthy finale for the Tiffany Aching and Discworld books.  I still think I Shall Wear Midnight is the apex of Pterry's writing, but this is a lovely coda.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Read Bulgarian Literature in June

A week or so ago, Scott at Six Words for a Hat pointed me to a blog I didn't yet know, for a reading event that sounds very tempting.  Thomas at My Two Stotinki hopes people will join him in reading Bulgarian literature in June.  I would love to, though we'll have to see how it goes since June is a little bit crowded.  I downloaded a classic Bulgarian novel (Under the Yoke by Ivan Vazov) and filled up my wishlist a little more with the  modern titles.  If you'd like to read something Bulgarian this summer, drop by My Two Stotinki and see what's going on!

Stranger in the House

Stranger in the House: Women's Stories of Men Returning from the Second World War, by Julie Summers

I enjoyed Home Fires so much that I promptly requested Stranger in the House, which is all about the British husbands, fathers, and boyfriends who came home when the war was over.  It could be a very difficult adjustment for everyone, and of course many men never recovered from their experiences.

Summers organizes a large number of personal stories into chapters by relationships; there are the mothers, the widows, the wives and the children.  She doesn't try to do lots of analysis, but simply presents story after story with some short comments, mostly allowing people to speak for themselves.  It's an excellent approach, because the stories are as varied as the people, and generalities are difficult.  Most families had some difficult readjusting to do, but some had an easy time.  Some families fell apart or never really recovered, though it's not always the ones you'd think.  Both men and women were sometimes unfaithful to their partners, and had to deal with guilt and forgiveness...or not.

Quite a lot of space is given to the men who were taken prisoner in the Far East.  These men had had no contact with the rest of the world for years; they had been maltreated, tortured, and starved; and they usually had several tropical diseases or health conditions.  They also had the hardest time acclimating to normal life, and carried deep scars.  Summers shows several of the children--who often feared and resented their fathers while they were still alive--learning about what they had been through and coming to realize what those ordeals had meant for the rest of their lives.

It's a fascinating book that does valuable research into a part of family life that was often glossed over at the time.  I didn't love it as much as Home Fires.  It didn't feel quite as organized, but I think that's the nature of the matter.  I still didn't want to put it down, though, and read it quickly.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

It's Almost Summer!

We are in the last two weeks of the semester here, and we are really feeling the crunch.  I have girls with lots of work to finish, and the result is that I can hardly get to my computer for any blogging, because somebody is always writing a paper or doing Spanish homework---even more so than usual.  We are really looking forward to the end of May, because it means not only the end of the school year and the start of some relaxing summer time, but also because...(drumroll here please):

I'm taking my girls on a trip!  Sadly my hard-working husband has to stay home and work hard, but my mom and I are taking my daughters TO THE UK for a couple of weeks.  This is hugely exciting stuff, people.  We've never been able to take our kids much of anywhere and a few months ago I realized my kid is going to be out of the house really soon, and the result is this trip.

We've got it all planned, and it's starting to really sink in that pretty soon we'll actually be there.  Every couple of hours we look at each other and have a moment of flailing excitement.  It's still too big to take in all of it, so we mostly get excited about one thing at a time.  The Green Knowe manor!  Ely Cathedral!  The Tower!

I'll take lots of pictures, but I don't know that I'll put too much up here unless people want me to.  Not everybody loves seeing other people's travel photos.  On the other hand, I might decide to document the whole thing here, day by day, so I'll have it.  I'll have to think about that.


Strawberry Hill!

Police boxes!

Thursday, May 12, 2016

A lot of Company novels

In the Garden of Iden, by Kage Baker
Sky Coyote,
Mendoza in Hollywood
The Graveyard Game
Black Projects, White Knights

As you know from my earlier post, I fell down on the Faerie Queene project last weekend when I was kind of under the weather.  The universe handed me a make-up gift, though, when my ILL of the second Company novel arrived at just the same time, and I zipped through 4 books in 3 days.  I hadn't yet gotten to post about the first one, so I'll just put them ALL here....

First, the setup.  In the 24th century, some people figure out how to make immortals, but there's a catch.  It takes massive surgery and augmentation, and only works on tiny children who fit the physical profile.  Not very useful for rich old people who want to keep living.  They also figure out time travel...but you can only go backward, and you can't change recorded history.  So they form Dr. Zeus, a company that exploits these two technologies by taking orphaned historical toddlers, raising them into Company operatives, and getting them to preserve, steal, or manipulate events behind the scenes.  There is a wonderful cancer treatment in a particular plant species that went extinct in 1400.  There are cellars full of hidden art long thought destroyed.  And so on.  Dr. Zeus has a massive concordance of events, but it only goes up to 2355, after which there is no communication at all.  What will happen when the Silence arrives?  And what will the cosseted citizens of the 24th century do with a bunch of tough, manipulative immortals?

In the Garden of Iden: This is Mendoza's life story--how she became a Company operative and her first assignment in Tudor England, posing as a Spanish lady during the reign of Queen Mary I.  She's nervous around mortals, but she gets to live near a large garden stocked with interesting plants to study and save...and then she meets Sir Walter's secretary, Nicholas, who is young, intelligent, and a fanatic heretic.  They fall in love and Mendoza, still young and naive, dreams of ways to save Nicholas.

Sky Coyote features Facilitator Joseph, assigned to Point Conception in California (which is right near my hometown, incidentally).  It's 1700 and the conquistadors will arrive within a few decades, so Dr. Zeus wants to save an entire Chumash village.  The stories will go into a library, the work and habits will be recorded by anthropologists, the artifacts will be saved...and the people will become employees of the Company.  Joseph's job is to impersonate Sky Coyote and convince the people of Humashup to go along with this plan.

Mendoza in Hollywood:  About 150 years later, Botanist Mendoza is assigned to save species native to Southern California before a dire drought kills them off (as starving cattle eat anything around).  She and several other operatives staff a stagecoach inn along a road that will someday become Hollywood, and they have some interesting adventures, and then an English spy arrives who is the exact double of Mendoza's long-lost mortal love, Nicholas.  Neither of them know that they are both tools of Dr. Zeus' long-term plans.

The Graveyard Game covers a huge amount of time, as Joseph and Literature Preserver Lewis start talking.  Nobody has heard from Mendoza since 1863, when the Company made her disappear.  Joseph and Lewis are determined to find her, but they both know it's dangerous to pry into secrets.  Clandestine work is tricky when your every move is monitored, too.  It takes them decades, even centuries, but they uncover some unsettling information about Dr. Zeus' plans.  What happens when immortal operatives become inconvenient?  What's so special about Catalina Island?  And does anyone know what will happen in 2355?  Operatives are told that they will then be free to live openly in an idyllic future, but somehow that seems unlikely.

Black Projects, White Knights is a collection of short stories about preservers working in history to save (or, why not, commission) historical treasures.  Mendoza and Joseph try to buy a particular grapevine that will someday produce a unique wine; Lewis is thrilled to work with Flinders Petrie on an Egyptian dig, but there are a few things he's supposed to grab while he's there; Kalugin, whose specialty is going down with shipwrecks in order to save treasure, runs into a snag.  There are also several stories about little Alec Checkerfield, a 24th-century child who is more talented than he ought to be.  Future society is extremely regimented and conformist, but Alec wants more than anything to be a pirate.

I had a great time reading these, and am now on the next one.  It was a good idea to read them close together--there are a lot of details and clues, and it's better to keep them fresh.  I'm pretty sure I did not read all the books in the series the first time around, too.  This time I'll try to get them all.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

An Evening with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

I promised I would tell you about my exciting event!  You see, the community college I work for sponsored a weekend creative writing seminar, and they asked Chitra to come and do one of the workshops.  This event also kicked off her book tour for Before We Visit the Goddess.  I was not able to attend the seminar, but there was a reception and book reading the night before.  I figured my mom and I would go in and be part of the audience, and I could get my book signed.

When we arrived, though, my co-worker--who helped coordinate the whole thing--grabbed me and took us right over to Chitra, explaining that I am one of the college librarians.  We then had several minutes of happy conversation, as Chitra told us about her love and appreciation for libraries, and we traded stories about our various times studying at Berkeley.  I asked her something I've always wondered about her early book of poems, Leaving Yuba City, and she explained how she got to know that history.  (Yuba City is right down the freeway, and has had an Indian community for over 100 years.)

When the reading started, we got front row seats (because all the rest were already taken).  Chitra read two sections of her new novel and then did a Q&A--of course, she had to answer the Yuba City question again.  Then we stood in line for a while and I got my book signed.  I just had a great evening, and Chitra was so nice--a really lovely person.

This is, admittedly, the world's worst photo.  The flash was turned off, and we were in a yellow-painted room at night, with yellowish lighting, so it turned out awful--my shirt is supposed to be blue.  But who cares?  I'm sitting with one of my favorite authors!!

Here are some of the photos taken for the event.

The audience just before starting

During the reading

Library staffers

My mom and I with Chitra

Sunday, May 8, 2016

A little update...

I was on track to finish Book II of The Faerie Queene, until I spent the weekend being sick instead.  So my Book II post will appear when it appears, and it looks like we have a general agreement to slow down anyway.  It's all good, and I'll be back here soon.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The September Society

The September Society, by Charles Finch

Charles Finch writes a Victorian mystery series, starring gentleman detective Charles Lenox.  A year or so ago, I read the first Lenox mystery, A Beautiful Blue Death.  I was a bit disappointed, but I did eventually get around to reading the second one.  (I have four of them.)  This time it's in Oxford...

A distraught mother asks Lenox to investigate the sudden disappearance of her son, George, a popular Oxford student.  Lenox notices some odd things placed around George's room, as though he was trying to leave a message, and then finds that George's best friend is gone too.  It doesn't seem too serious, until George turns up dead in a nearby wood.  As Lenox pursues tiny wisps of clues, he starts to think that the beginnings of the case may lie in the past, in India, and that the small and unimportant September Society may be more significant than it seems.

Last time I read a Lenox mystery, there was an amusing bit about a ballroom and the transit of Venus (see link above).  I wondered if there would be anything similar this time, and I was not disappointed.  At one point, Lenox is taken to see a young man who has invented the science of ballistics fingerprinting--he can look at a fired bullet and identify the gun it came from, matching markings left by the rifling in the barrel.  Ahem.  This story is set in 1866, well before forensic ballistics was a solid thing (though somebody had noticed it), and there has never been 100% accuracy, as this fellow is supposed to be able to achieve.  I read the passage aloud to my husband and enjoyed listening to his howls of frustration.

It's not a bad mystery, it's just also not great.  I am not grabbed.  I do not care much about the characters, and the historical setting seems kind of sloppy to me.  A wealthy lady's dress is described as a slim column, when it ought to be something Scarlett O'Hara would choose.  People are forever calling each other by their first names, even when they aren't close friends.   A dainty society wife announces her pregnancy when she is less than 3 months along, and in mixed company!  Things like that.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Narcissist Next Door

The Narcissist Next Door: Understanding the Monster in Your Family, in Your Office, in Your Bed--in Your World, by Jeffrey Kluger

We're hearing a lot about narcissism these days, and Jeffrey Kluger is here to explain what narcissism is, how people with it behave, and some of the research--as well as entertain us with anecdotes about famous narcissists.  This is the opening passage of the book, and mind you, it was written before the election cycle got started:
It can’t be easy to wake up every day and discover that you’re still Donald Trump. You were Trump yesterday, you’re Trump today, and barring some extraordinary development, you’ll be Trump tomorrow.

There are, certainly, compensations to being Donald Trump....

But none of that changes the reality of waking up every morning, looking in the bathroom mirror, and seeing Donald Trump staring back at you. And no, it’s not the hair; that, after all, is a choice—one that may be hard for most people to understand, but a choice all the same, and there’s a certain go-to-hell confidence in continuing to make it. The problem with being Trump is the same thing that explains the enormous fame and success of Trump: a naked neediness, a certain shamelessness, an insatiable hunger to be the largest, loudest, most honkingly conspicuous presence in any room—the great, braying Trumpness of Trump—and that’s probably far less of a revel than it seems.

Contented people, well-grounded people, people at ease inside their skin, just don’t behave the way Trump does...
Kluger devotes chapters to:
  • personal and romantic relationships with narcissists--entrancing at first, but they will cheat 
  • what they're like to work with at the office --interview very well, energizing at first, then everybody hates them; move them around a lot and the downside won't show too much
  • in the White House--it's not possible to become President without it   
  • Hollywood and prison.  At the same time.
There's also a chapter or two about tribal identity and dominance, which doesn't seem like narcissism exactly, but it can carry some of the same characteristics.  Humans are always, always looking to define ourselves in terms of us and them, and it can easily get violent.  "Collective narcissism" gets really obvious in sports, war...and business (cue section on Steve Jobs).

It's a highly readable and entertaining book, and I liked it.  Kluger mostly writes for Time magazine, but he also wrote Lost Moon/Apollo 13 with Jim Lovell, which is a great read--and he includes a couple of interesting stories about that here--and some other books that look pretty interesting too.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Faerie Queen Readalong I: Redcrosse, the Knight of Holiness

I did it, I read all of Book I!  My minimum requirement was two cantos a day, but I managed three a couple of times.  I'm hoping to read ahead, because I'll be gone for two weeks in the middle of this event and I'd like to be able to prep a post ahead of time...but the schedule is already pretty demanding.  The reading is not terribly difficult, but it is slow.  I keep thinking that I've read a large chunk, only to look back and realize that in fact I have read six verses.  So here we go with analysis...

Each book in the Faerie Queene features a knight, and a story, about a particular virtue.  The Redcrosse Knight, to be known as St. George after he accomplishes his feats, is all about Holinesse.  This does not mean that Redcrosse already exemplifies holiness; he doesn't.  Holiness is what he's working towards and struggling with.  His foes symbolize various forms of unholiness, and he falls into their clutches at least as often as he defeats or avoids them.  He is in fact kind of incompetent at the whole 'heroic knight' job, which is the point of the story, since he is Everyman struggling with sin.

Redcrosse and Una

We open with Redcrosse traveling with Una, who is veiled in black.  She rides on a white donkey and leads a baby lamb (which never appears again).  A dwarf accompanies them and probably symbolizes Prudence.  Una is Truth, the daughter of the king and queen of Eden, whose land is being oppressed by a terrible dragon, and they are on their way to free Eden.

Pretty soon, they get lost in a wood and find a cave with a monster in it.  Redcrosse is overconfident of his abilities and rushes in to fight this terrible monster, Error.  She thrives in darkness and has lots of little monster children, who sting.  Redcrosse falters but eventually prevails; she vomits hideous black poison all over him first, mixed with frogs and...books and papers?  Yep, these are theological arguments and tracts, possibly Catholic.  Once she is dead, her children slurp up the gore and then burst, leaving our heroes free to leave the forest by the clear road they are now able to see.

We then meet Archimago (a great mage, or a great image--he is hypocrisy), who desires to separate Una and Redcrosse so as to defeat them both.  He is dressed like a hermit and appears humble, but there are a lot of hints that he has a changeable, unstable nature; there is a lot of moon/water imagery here.  Archimago takes them in, but gives Redcrosse a false dream that Una is faithless to him, so that Redcrosse runs away, leaving Una deserted.  On the road, he meets Sansfoy (faithless, as Redcrosse has been) and a beautiful maiden.  Redcrosse kills Sansfoy in battle, and the maiden introduces herself as Fidessa (she is in fact Duessa, falsehood) and gives a fake biography.  She drops hints that she is not all she appears to be, but Redcrosse is busy looking at her, and he doesn't really listen to what she says--or to the warning delivered by a speaking tree.  Duessa is described in terms comparable to the Whore of Babylon in Revelation, and she's also the Catholic church in some ways.

 Duessa takes Redcrosse to the House of Pride.  There is a very long description of Lucifera's house, counselors (the other six deadly sins, each with matching animal mount), and courtiers.  Sansjoy (joyless--there are three brothers) arrives and the two knights agree to a joust.  Redcrosse wins and is taken back to Pride's house to be nursed--this is where he really falls victim to Pride, since before, he was uncomfortable and resisted the place.  Duessa sneaks out and takes the wounded Sansjoy to Hades, to be cured.  She returns to find Redcrosse gone, having been warned by the prudent dwarf that the dungeons are crammed full of miserable people.  She finds him again resting at a cursed fountain that makes people lazy; he has taken off his armor, a huge mistake, because Redcrosse's armor is that described in Ephesians 6, the armor of God.  Defenceless against sin, Redcrosse succumbs to Duessa's seduction and is then attacked by the giant Orgoglio--pride, presumption, and sin.  Orgoglio throws Redcrosse into a deep dungeon, gives Duessa a beast to ride (again, the one in Revelation), and she becomes his paramour.

Una and the lion
Meanwhile, Una ventures out on her slow little donkey to search for Redcrosse.  A lion attacks her but, seeing her wronged innocence, he becomes her guardian.  They have an adventure with superstition, are tricked by Archimago, and at last run into Sansloy, who kills the lion and takes Una prisoner.  He tries to seduce her, then to rape her, but she is saved by forest satyrs, who are enamored of her virtue and beauty.  Una lives with them--rather like Snow White--and tries to teach them, but until she meets a half-human Sir Satryane, she cannot get away.  Satyrane and Sansloy then battle as Una runs away in fear--and we never do learn the outcome.  Instead, the dwarf finds her and gives her Redcrosse's discarded armor.  She meets Arthur, the excellent knight who is Gloriana's love, who promises to help her.

Una saves Redcrosse in Despair's lair
Arthur battles Orgoglio, as his squire tries and fails to defeat Duessa on her beast.  Arthur must deal with both, and the giant turns out to be a literal gasbag--he deflates upon death.  Arthur must descend deep to find Redcrosse, who is starving and sick.  They strip Duessa of her Babylonian finery, and she turns out to be a filthy monster.  After she runs away, Arthur tells his story and they rest in the well-provisioned castle.

Redcrosse is not yet well, but he rushes into the next adventure anyway.  He enters a cave to meet Despair, who uses rhetorical tricks to convince Redcrosse that suicide is really the only way to live.  Una has to recall him to reality.  Despair, unhappy at his loss, tries to kill himself, but that's a daily occurrence for him; he can't die.  Una takes Redcrosse straight to the House of Holinesse, run by Dame Caelia and her three daughters, Fidelia, Speranza, and Charissa.  There, Redcrosse really learns what he needs in a sequence that has him repenting and learning the gospel.  Finally, Mercy takes him up a hill, where Contemplation shows him heaven, but tells him all the other things he has to do first.
Redcrosse and Una meet Charissa

Finally, Una takes Redcrosse--now strong and healthy--to fight the dragon.  There are three days of battle.  On the first day, the dragon whaps Redcrosse right into a well.  This seems like defeat, but it is the Well of Life--Redcrosse is now baptized and healed, and rises to fight again.  He does better, but the dragon still beats him.  He then spends the night under the Tree of Life, which exudes a healing and strengthening balm.  Only then can Redcrosse kill the dragon.  In this victory, Una finally unveils to reveal her true beauty, and the King plans to betroth the couple.  Archimago and Duessa have one final try--Duessa writes a letter accusing Redcrosse of breach of promise, and his whole story must be confessed before the happy conclusion can be reached.  Even then, the now-St. George must leave to finish six more years of service before he can return to marry and rule.

Redcrosse asleep under the Tree of Life

Well!  That's a lot of story, and I left quite a bit out.  I really like the allegorical bits describing houses and characters who personify ideas, like the fancy but weak House of Pride and the House of Holiness with its lovely description of Charity.  (I wound up in an argument with my mom and daughter about this--in Spenser, Hope wears blue and Charity wears yellow, which seems right and proper to me.  Those two, who have just read Dante, insist that Hope wears green and Charity wears red.  Well, fine.)

Neat literary moments I noticed:
  1. Spenser uses the name Tanaquill as an epithet for Gloriana/the Fairy Queen.  DWJ's narrator of the Spellcoats is named Tanaqui (and there's an entire etymology to go with it).  
  2. The first thing that happens to Una and Redcrosse is that they get lost in a wood, much as Dante's persona does at the beginning of the Divine Comedy.  Both are lost in the difficulties of earthly life and sin. 
  3. The monster serpent Error throws her coils around Redcrosse in just the same way as the witch does with Prince Rilian in The Silver Chair.  (Any similarities to Lewis stories are guaranteed to be on purpose; Lewis loved the Faerie Queene and I think he used a lot of the same kinds of ideas in the Narnia books.  Both are full of pageantry and a similar kind of feeling--a joyful throwing in of every Christian, mythological, or legendary character in a glorious hodgepodge of color.)
  4. Archimago sends a sprite to the house of Morpheus, which is reached through the dual Gates of Sleep.  Homer tells us that false dreams come through the Gate of Ivory, and true ones through the Gate of Horn.  Spenser changes the horn to silver, and I wonder if that is in tune with all the other watery, moony kinds of images he's using in that passage.  The sprite actually uses the Gate of Ivory, since Redcrosse has a false dream about Una's unfaithfulness.
  5. Sir Arthur gives Redcrosse a diamond box containing a liquor that will heal all injuries--the prototype of Lucy's diamond flask with healing cordial in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Next, it's on to Book II--Sir Guyon and Temperance.  Here we go!

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Spin Title: Prufrock and Other Observations

First publication of Prufrock
Prufrock and Other Observations, by T. S. Eliot

For the Classics Club Spin, I drew a single poem: "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," by T. S. Eliot.  This poem was written around 1910 when Eliot was only about 22, and it's all about alienation and massive feelings of inadequacy around women.  Prufrock wants to find love (the carnal sort), but he can't even decide to talk to the women he meets.  He misses every opportunity and just ends up sad and frustrated, thinking about his own inertia and about getting old.  He says, "I have measured out my life in coffee spoons," tiny little smidgens of experience, and he'll probably never dare to do anything as exciting and sensual as eating a peach.  He also prefaces the poem with a quotation from Dante's Inferno, intimating that he's speaking from his own personal hell.

It's a poem that feels squalid.  There's a lot of physical detail, but most of it is...kind of like a dirty London fog.  There's a feeling of going downward into decay, rather than up into anything happy.  Prufrock starts right off with:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
The first two lines are sing-songy and sound like they're going to lead into a romantic, downright soppy sort of poem, but then he whaps you right between the eyes with an unconscious surgery patient, probably pale and clammy with blood trickling and doctors in surgical masks.  Life is unpleasant and squalid, but also sterile and numb. 

I also read the rest of the poems in this book; there are about 12 of them and they're all quite a bit shorter, all very modern and full of jarring images.

Critics apparently didn't think much of Eliot's poetry at first, but then he was part of a new group of writers who were doing stream-of-consciousness and all sorts of outlandish things.  Before long, Prufrock had established Eliot's career as one of the vanguard, and became a landmark of modernist poetry. 

Now I just need to tackle the Four Quartets...