Friday, May 26, 2017

Against Empathy

Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, by Paul Bloom

Paul Bloom is a psychology professor at Yale, specializing in child development and morality (among other things) and I reviewed his earlier book, Just Babies, a couple of years ago.  Here, he tackles empathy: what is it, do we need more or less or it, and what is it good for?  Since more empathy is often said to be the solution for many of our problems, what would that mean?

Part of the trouble is that empathy is a word that is a little difficult to pin down.  Strictly speaking, empathy is entering into the feelings of others; feeling just what the other person feels.  Not the same thing as understanding others' feelings or feeling pity for them, but actually feeling what they feel.   However, the word is often used in a looser sense.  Bloom is careful to differentiate and write about empathy in the strict sense.

So wouldn't it be great if we were all more empathetic with each other?  Isn't that where morality comes from, and the basis of all good policy?  (These are actual claims.)  Well, maybe.  Partly.  Possibly not.  There are a lot of problems with empathy, such as...

It's limited in number.  It's not possible for human beings to empathize with large swathes of people.

Empathy is biased; we tend to empathize far more easily with our own than with others.  It's also narrowly focused, considering just one story at a time.  Empathy is a great propaganda tool, because you can capture votes with a harrowing story even if the numbers show that the most good is achieved through some other method.

Empathy very frequently leads to less-effective outcomes, and can easily result in outright cruelty.  It's easy for empathy to become a warm, fuzzy, self-righteous form of plain old prejudice.

Bloom concludes that empathy, like anger, is a good servant but a terrible master.  He advocates instead for rational compassion that looks carefully at all sides of a problem, weighs the many factors, and tries to come to a fair solution.

 An interesting book, and full of things to think about.  I liked it.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Book Tag

Lois at You, Me, and a Cup of Tea posted another fun meme:

1. What book has been on your shelf the longest?  I have a lot of books that were on my shelves when I was a kid; a good number of them really still belong to my parents, only I snitched them (temporarily!).  I read my kids Winnie the Pooh from the same copy I had, so maybe that?  It is entirely possible that I have a few books that belonged to my mother when she was younger -- I'd guess Gift of the Mikado, maybe?

2. What is your current read, your last read, and the book you’ll read next?  I'm just now starting The Return of the King to finish up Brona's LOTR readalong, plus also Stolen Words, about the Nazi plunder of Jewish books.  My last read was Paul Bloom's Against Empathy -- watch for the review within 24 hours!  My next read?  How on earth am I supposed to know that?  That will depend on my mood and what the circumstances call for!  I'm particularly excited about "The Dybbuk," a play by Ansky, and Alamut, by Vladimir Bartol.  Check this: Bartol was Slovenian, and wrote Alamut in 1938 as an allegory of Mussolini.  Yugoslavians saw it as a story of Balkan strife, and then it inspired the video game Assassin's Creed.  I am not even kidding!  How can I not read that?

3. What book did everyone like, but you hated?  The Secret History, by Donna Tartt.  Bleh.  It sounded like I would love it, but I didn't at all.

4. What book do you keep telling yourself you’ll read, but you probably won’t? Well, I have a complete set of Will and Ariel Durant's "Story of Civilization."  I really want to read it, but it's an awfully daunting prospect.


5. What book are you saving for retirement? I suppose Will and Ariel Durant's "Story of Civilization"!

6. Last page: read it first, or wait ’til the end?  Oh, I never peek.  My dislike of knowing what's going to happen has now progressed to the point that I try not to watch trailers for movies I want to see.

7. Acknowledgement: waste of paper and ink, or interesting aside?  Usually I skip past them, but when I do look they are often interesting, especially when I know something about the author.

8. Which book character would you switch places with?   Well, I just read Mrs. Miniver, and she seems to have a pretty great life...but the war hasn't really started yet.  Oh, I know, I'd trade with Tolly Oldknow so I could live at Green Knowe.  Yep.  Really, no other choice could possibly be as good as that!


9. Do you have a book that reminds you of something specific in your life? (Place, time, person?)  Oh, lots!  E. Nesbit and Daniel Pinkwater remind me of lying on the floor in front of a bookcase in our living room when I was a teen.  That was a good reading spot.  Tom Jones makes me think of walking up University Avenue in Berkeley; I lived a 45-minute walk away from campus that semester and would read while I walked to class.  Clarissa makes me think of the same semester, but of the actual house and one of my roommates who was also reading it.  The Quest of the Holy Grail reminds me of a fellow student who approved of Gawain because "he knows his limitations," which I thought missed the entire point.  I never agreed with her about anything.  Loeb editions remind me of Cody's bookstore, and Spellcoats of the Berkeley Book Consortium.  Also, see question #15 below.

10. Name a book that you acquired in an interesting way.  I can't think of anything really fascinating, like buying an ancient dusty tome in an Arabian souk, but looking at my shelves I see a three-volume work on "The Ideals of Ancient Greek Culture" by Werner Jaeger, titled Paideia.  A few years ago, Dwight at A Common Reader did a whole set of posts about it, and I put it on my mental list of interesting possible reads.   Last summer when we did a massive weeding project at work, the set was going to go, so I nobbled it.

11. Have you ever given a book away for a special reason to a special person? Sure, but the story that comes to mind is actually a lend, not a gift.  When I first starting dating my husband, he had fallen out of the habit of reading for fun; a heavy college load and a couple of years working hard in Chile had shoved leisure reading to the side.  I lent him The Dark is Rising, and he remembered loving it long ago, and was just so happy to be enjoying a book again!  Then I lent him Howl's Moving Castle. 

12. Which book has been with you most places? Goodness, I don't know.  Oh, but when I moved into the dorms at college, I took only a few books, and one was Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals.  It went to every apartment and house after that, so I guess it's been around.  My husband was carrying it around for reading at some point, and was congratulated on his good taste by a visiting Briton who saw it as a bit of home.

13. Any “required reading” you hated in high school that wasn’t so bad two years later?  Most of the required reading was OK; honestly, my high school was not very good and the reading lists...were not onerous.  I remember doing Fahrenheit 451, some Shakespeare plays, Beowulf, and the 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner.'

14. Used or brand new?  I'll take six of one and half a dozen of the other, please!  I like old books and I like new books.

15. Have you ever read a Dan Brown book?   The Da Vinci Code came out when I was about 8 months pregnant with my younger daughter, and I thought it was an art history mystery.  I like art history mysteries, so I put the earlier book, Angels and Demons, on hold and read it during recovery from a c-section, with my jaundiced baby in a little baby tanning booth by my side.   It turned out not to be an art history mystery at all, but a nutty zoom around Vatican City featuring fancy tattoos and an anti-matter bomb.  It was like a B-movie in book form!  After that, as The Da Vinci Code was making a big hit, every other person I met would ask me if I'd read it and what I thought (this is a common hazard of being a librarian), so I read it too.  Also a B-movie book. 

16. Have you ever seen a movie you liked more than the book?   Um.  I have seen several movies based on books I haven't read, but I don't think I've ever both read a book and seen the movie, and liked the movie better.

17. Have you ever read a book that’s made you hungry, cookbooks included?  Someday I would really love to have a butter pie (from DWJ's Tale of Time City).  The Secret Garden has a good deal of yummy food in it.  And almost any Daniel Pinkwater book is guaranteed to make you hungry.  I would love to try a borgelnuskie!

18. Who is the person whose book advice you’ll always take?  My mom and I trade titles all the time, because we like a lot of the same stuff.

19. Is there a book out of your comfort zone (e.g., outside your usual reading genre) that you ended up loving?  One of my first book-bloggy challenges involved reading The Phantom of the Opera.  I've never seen the theater production, never wanted to, and am generally a bit intimidated by French literature, even of the mystery-thriller kind.  I didn't expect to love it, but I did.  Experiences like that cemented my affection for reading challenges!



PS: I know, I know, I'm behind on my memes.  Everybody's doing the personal canon right now.  I'm going to do it too -- I actually started something similar, but more in-depth, a few years ago and then found it to be too much, so I love the idea -- but you know me, I'm always behind the trend.  The good part of that is that you can look forward to a lovely surprise, long after everybody else has already done it!

Summer Reading

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

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


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

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

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Accusation

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

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

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

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

Some of the stories:

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

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

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

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

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


Girl at War

Girl at War, by Sara Nović

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

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

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

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

A worthy YA read. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Mrs. Miniver

Mrs. Miniver, by Jan Struther

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Faerie Queene: Book V, Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Last Things

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

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

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

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



Ooh, look, I found a book trailer:

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Circle


The Circle, by Dave Eggers

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

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

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


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

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

Friday, May 12, 2017

The Brueghel Moon

The Brueghel Moon, by Tamaz Chiladze

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

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

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

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Histories

The Histories, by Herodotus

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Swan Riders

The Swan Riders, by Erin Bow

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Power of Glamour

The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion, by Virginia Postrel

What exactly is glamour?  Is it personal style?  Charisma?  Envy?  Does it involve sparkles and lipstick?  Is it shallow and frivolous, or does it reveal deeper insights about human nature? Virginia Postrel embarks on a quest to define and chronicle glamour.  She calls it a moment of longing, in which we look at an image and project ourselves into a better life -- one that isn't messy and awkward, but instead clear and graceful.

Glamour comes in all sorts of flavors; the earliest may have been military glamour, and Postrel uses Achilles as a primary example.  But so many things have glamour: princesses, suntans, wind turbines, airplanes, horses, and the Mysterious East.  They are dissected and analyzed for what it is that makes them glamorous.  Some elements seem to be important; glamour tends to attach much more to static images than to things that move, for example, and it has to be a bit distant and unknown.

The book is filled with beautiful images and photographs, and usually, if Postrel describes something, there will be a picture of it nearby.  One of my favorite things was a chart showing the difference between glamour and charisma; first a set of characteristics, and then a set of people. Barack Obama, Che, Spock, and Joan of Arc dead are all glamorous, while Bill Clinton, Castro, Kirk, and Joan of Arc alive are charismatic.

An intriguing analysis, and I enjoyed reading it quite a bit.  Readers of non-fiction and those interested in rhetoric, style, or psychology should add it to the list.




Monday, May 8, 2017

Two Books by Nick Bantock

No good image of this exists online
The Pharos Gate, by Nick Bantock
The Egyptian Jukebox, by Nick Bantock

A while ago I re-read the Griffin and Sabine trilogy, and  then I read the second trilogy, which had come out while I wasn't looking.  I found that second set to be a bit confusing.  Then, just recently, I discovered that a new book had come out upon Griffin and Sabine's 25th anniversary, and it purported to tell the outcome of the story.  I requested that and ILLed this other, intriguingly titled Bantock book at the same time.  So...

The Egyptian Jukebox is a puzzle book, published in 1993.  It reminded me of nothing so much as the I Spy books for kids that my daughter loved so much when she was younger; it's just much more elaborate.  There is this jukebox with ten drawers, each of which plays a recording of a story.  Your job is to read the story, study the matching drawer, and follow the clues.  Each drawer yields a letter; all the letters make the answer to the riddle of the jukebox.

I will admit that I had to do a little cheating to get started.  I couldn't understand how the clues worked at first and looked up a hint.  After that, I did OK and spent a couple of evenings (with the enthusiastic help of the I Spy-loving-daughter) figuring out the drawers.  I liked the puzzles; the drawers are fun to inspect and tricky to solve, but not impossible.  It's probably inevitable that the answer to the riddle is less fun than the puzzles are.  It's a fun book.


The Pharos Gate is the concluding volume to the story of Griffin and Sabine, and I found it pretty satisfying.  They arrange to meet at the Pharos Gate in Alexandria on a particular date, and each starts a long and winding journey.  Somehow they still manage to correspond, and a strange villain pursues each of them -- but why would anybody want to do that? 

I enjoyed this final volume a good deal.  It does furnish a pretty satisfying ending, which the second trilogy did not.  I may now revisit that second trilogy and see if it makes more sense now....

Also, I always want to make arty stationery like what Griffin and Sabine have, and I wouldn't know how to begin.  Sigh.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Classics Book Tag

The other day, Ruth at A Great Book Study posted this fun tag, which she got from Jillian at Dear Diary.  So I thought I would join the fun...everybody is doing this one right now!


1.   An over-hyped classic you never really liked:  OK, I'm a Philistine, or else I didn't read it at the right time, but Catcher in the Rye.  I read it at 14 because it seemed like a lot of people liked it (it's the book every teen celebrity recommends in order to sound good), and I didn't get it.  I found Holden annoying.  I read it again in my 30s to see if he was still annoying, and by then I was a mom -- so what I mostly noticed was that Holden spends two or three days with no sleep, consuming only alcohol.  That boy needs a glass of milk, a large sandwich, a quart of water, and a good night's sleep, and then he will feel much, much better.  A nice hot shower would help too.  After that he needs a summer job on a construction site and a grief counselor.

I realize that Holden is supposed to be a mess, for specific reasons, but mostly I just want to make him drink a lot of milk.

2.  Favorite time period to read about :  Oh, there are so many!  Probably the Middle Ages?  I love the High Medieval period, the Early Middle Ages...the Renaissance not so much maybe.  I'm also a sucker for WWII, Victorians, Edwardians, and many other times and places.

3.  Favorite fairytale : Patient Griselda!  OK, just kidding.  Nobody likes Patient Griselda.  Hm, it's a tough choice but I'm going to go for Tam Lin.

Never read this one.  Like the cover.

4.  What is the most embarrassing classic you have not read?  There's nothing I'm embarrassed about not having read.  By now I've read most of the more famous classics that I intend to read (Moby Dick is not included in this list), and there's lots of time to read more.  There's nothing embarrassing about not yet having gotten to a particular book, I don't think.  Well, it was probably a little embarrassing that at age 19 I had not yet read Little Women, but as a kid I was allergic to anything that said 'classic' on the cover.

5.  Top five classics you want to read :
  1. The Canterbury Tales, by Chaucer
  2. The Treasure of the City of Ladies, by Christine de Pizan
  3. The Man in the Iron Mask, by Alexandre Dumas
  4. A Town Called Malgudi, by N. K. Narayan
  5. Crime and Punishment, by Dostoyevsky
Two of these are actually re-reads, but they're still on my top five!

6.  Favorite modern book or series based on a classic : Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair, and subsequent titles.  He pretty much just romps barefoot through the meadows of literature.  My favorite joke is when a Shelley impersonator mugs somebody, leaving a tract on atheism behind.


7.  Favorite movie version or TV series based on a classic :  Well, it must be confessed that I am really very bad at watching movies and TV.  I am years behind on seeing BBC adaptations; I haven't seen Lark Rise to Candleford or Bleak House or anything, it's pathetic.  I mean, I read and loved Lark Rise to Candleford in 1995 (before it was cool!), but I've failed to see the TV.  So I can only choose from a few things, but I did like the Northanger Abbey movie I saw several years ago (would love to see that again!), and of course, the A&E Pride and Prejudice.  Oh, and let's not forget the 1985 Anne of Green Gables, which is perfection itself (we shall not mention Anne III; it does not exist).



8.  Worst classic to movie adaptation :  The first thing that comes to mind is a really terrible Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe that was on Wonderworks in the 80s.  Oh golly it was awful.  Casting Billie Piper as Fanny in Mansfield Park also seems like a mistake.


9.  Favorite editions you would like to collect more of : Well, if I could really have my way, I'd collect Anchor paperbacks with Gorey covers!  Somebody ought to reprint those; they'd make a mint.  If we're staying in the realm of the possible, I like the paperback Penguin English Literature series (not the hardback, which I don't like so much).  I would love to have Trollope's Barsetshire novels in those editions.


10. An under-hyped classicThe Little Bookroom, by Eleanor Farjeon, is a collection of her favorite stories.  I grew up reading it, but hardly anybody seems to know it.  And everybody should!

 I'm supposed to tag people to participate, so if you're reading this and want to do it, consider yourself tagged.


Monday, May 1, 2017

Spin Title: The Heart of Midlothian

The Heart of Midlothian, by Sir Walter Scott

It's my first Scott novel other than Ivanhoe!  I was expecting some sort of dashing Jacobite adventure, but in fact The Heart of Midlothian is mostly about country people and...a prison.

The story starts off agonizingly slowly, actually.  The first narrator meets a couple of Scottish lawyers, and then describes the Porteous riots of 1736 before mentioning a couple of tiny country houses and the family background there.  It is quite some time before we figure out that the main characters are two sisters, Jeanie and Effie Deans.  After that, though, it gets really good, so stick with it through the first 80 pages or so.

Effie is the pretty, light-hearted, headstrong younger sister in contrast to the responsible, serious Jeanie.  Their father is a respectable cowman, but nearly fanatical in his strict Presbyterian religion.  When Effie finds herself in trouble, she refuses to confide in Jeanie, and after disappearing for a couple of weeks, is arrested for child murder.  Effie is put into the Tolbooth, the cruel 'heart of Midlothian,' to await trial, and the justices plan to use her as an example to others.  She maintains her innocence, but cannot produce the baby.  Jeanie is pressured to save her sister's life by lying in court, and this she cannot do, but she can walk to London in search of a royal pardon!

Jeanie sets out, but things get more complicated than she anticipated.  Why is there a woman on her trail, determined to stop her?  Who is the father of Effie's child, and where is he?  What happened to the baby?   And will Jeanie's own true love misunderstand the things she has to do?  This story actually winds up covering years, so that some mysteries are not solved for a very long time, even until it's too late. 

Once I got into the novel, I enjoyed it a lot.  It's got lots of suspense and pathos, and moves along at a good clip.  You have to love Jeanie, who tries so hard to do what is right.  But wow, those first 80 pages are a bear to get through.  You have my permission to skim (though you'll probably want to go back later and read about the Porteous riots again, after learning who is who -- I did and it was a big help).

..
Effie Deans, by John Everett Millais

Scott's odd name for the Tolbooth prison has had quite a legacy.  In Edinburgh, the site is now paved over, and the spot where the gate was (and where executions took place) has a brick heart pattern design.  It is supposed to be traditional to stand on the heart and spit in token of scorn of the debtor's prison that once stood there.  The prison was torn down during Scott's lifetime, in 1817, and a friend of Scott's got him the door and gateway stones, which he put into his kitchen courtyard.  (Just meditate on that for a minute.  Are you kidding me, Walt.)  The "Hearts" are the oldest soccer team in Edinburgh, and their crest is based on the brick heart.

BBC Radio 4 recently did an audio interpretation of this novel, with David Tennant playing Sir Walter Scott.  You can listen to a clip here!  It says there will be three other episodes, and I suppose they'll all be different Scott novels.  It's called The Great Scott.  Of course it is.