Thursday, August 31, 2017

20 Books of Summer: Wrapup

It's the last day of August, and I'm supposed to have read 20 books for Cathy's annual event.   Let's see how it went, shall we?

I accidentally put 22 books on the pile, and figured that would give me some room to dislike a couple of titles.  And indeed, although I'd been looking forward to both Limonov and Inherent Vice, once I started them, I didn't like them.  So that leaves 20 titles, and I managed to read 18 of them.  I think that's pretty good!  I read 12 other books too, so that leaves me with 30 for the summer.

  1. Limonov, by Emmanuel Carrere
  2. Half a Crown, by Jo Walton
  3. Bai Ganyo, Konstantinov
  4. Rashomon, by Ryünosuke Akutagawa
  5. Marie Grubbe, by Jens Peter Jacobsen
  6. Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon
  7. At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women
  8. The Dybbuk and Other Writings, by Ansky
  9. The Book of Memory, by Petina Gappah
  10. Bad News, by Anjan Sundaram
  11. Train to Pakistan, by Khushwant Singh
  12. To Destroy You Is No Loss / Bamboo and Butterflies, by Joan Criddle
  13. The Foundation Pit, by Platonov
  14. Alamut, by Vladimir Bartol
  15. The Blue Sky, by Tshinag
  16. A Golden Age, by Tahmima Anam
  17. Untouchable, by Mulk Raj Anand
  18. The Towers of Trebizond, by Rose Macaulay
  19. The Go-between, by L. P. Hartley
  20. The Story of My Teeth, by Luiselli
  21. Lyrics Alley, by Leila Aboulela
  22. This Earth of Mankind, by Toer

One thing I figured out about this list is that is was too fiction-heavy.  I wish I'd put more non-fiction in, and now I'm going to indulge in one or two non-fiction titles before getting into more of the world literature stuff I've been reading.  I need more balance!  I especially wish I'd put Voices From Chernobyl on, because it could have been a WIT August title too.  But that is no matter, really.  I'll just start it now.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Story of My Teeth

The Story of My Teeth, by Valeria Luiselli

Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, otherwise known as 'Highway,' has a career change in mid-life and becomes an auctioneer and collector.  Not just any auctioneer, but a legend and story-spinner, who can auction anything by using the auctioneering styles he has learned and invented: hyperbolic, parabolic, allegoric, and more.  Having bought Marilyn Monroe's teeth and implanted them in place of his own, he decides to auction off his original teeth as historical artifacts from famous people.  And then his estranged son steals his teeth and imprisons him in a room with scary video clowns...

I am not even kidding about that last one.  This is a surreal novel that reminds me a lot of Mario Bellatin's Shiki Nagaoka.  Bellatin even makes an appearance here, along with many other literary figures, or sometimes just their names attached to other characters.  Highway has an uncle named Juan Pablo Sánchez Sartre. There are a lot of people named Sánchez.

Luiselli wrote the novel in parts, having them read aloud to workers at a juice factory, who then gave input and added their own experiences to the story.  The read-alouds were an idea from a job that used to exist all over Latin America: the tobacco reader, who would read aloud to cigarette and cigar rollers.  

It's a pretty strange novel, and I kind of liked it, though on the whole I'm not sure how I feel about the current massive crop of surrealist fiction.  I guess maybe the world is so strange now that surrealism feels like a good response?  Discuss.


This is my last 20 Books of Summer title, and a WIT August book as well!  A good way to finish off.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

At the Pulpit, and a new event: #BloggingTheSpirit

Laurie at Relevant Obscurity had the excellent idea of reserving one day a month to talking about spiritual-type stuff, since many of us are a bit shy on this topic.  She says:
A call for anyone with social media to post something on religion or spirituality. Post a book review, a personal post on how you practice, or what connects you to God/Spirit/The Big Cheese, a poem/photo/piece of art that inspires you.
Use #bloggingthespirit on August 27th on Twitter and Instagram or my blog so we can find you.  Jews, Christians, Muslims Pagans, Tree-Huggers, Those-Inspired-by-Life, see you on the 27th!
For the first post, Laurie talks about a book of Madeleine L'Engle's that I have not read in a long time.  Go check it out!

At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women, edited by Jennifer Reeder and Kate Holbrook

Early in the summer I bought myself a small pile of books on religion, and I was particularly excited about this one.  It's huge, though, so it took me a while to read.  LDS women have been speaking to each other and to a general public since the beginnings of the LDS Church, and I've always been fascinated and inspired by the lives and words of early LDS sisters.  They were amazing women.  What I have not necessarily done before is to read about LDS women of the 20th century, and it turns out they were pretty amazing too.

The earliest of these pieces are spontaneous talks, sometimes quite short, and usually not written down word for word.  For example, I really liked Jane Neyman's piece in 1868, summarized in the meeting's minutes:    
Mother Neyman addressed the meeting on the subject of charity, encouraging all to be forbearing and forgiving, refraining as much as possible from scrutinizing the conduct of our neighbors, remembering always that we are human and must therefore err.  
Mother Neyman went on to spin a long allegory about charity digging a grave and burying all malice and envy, with all sorts of poetic imagery.  It's all still entirely good advice for our era. 

The early discourses also include poems or hymns, which many women used to express their feelings more eloquently than they could in prose.  Many of the names in this section were familiar to me as women I have read about before.

As the pieces moved ahead into the 20th century, the names became less familiar and I didn't know as much about the context, except of course in wider world history.  It was neat to see these sisters confronting war and the modern world, and encouraging each other to become educated and active in the world.  I enjoyed many of the mid-century pieces a lot.  Then, as we moved later into the 20th century, we got to people I'm very familiar with, who I've seen speak (on TV, I mean, not in person).  For some of these talks, I was a teenager and not very prepared to understand or appreciate what they were saying.  For one or two, I remember when they were given, as with Chieko Okazaki's section (she was very popular and I have several of her books).  The last few pieces were not as famous, but they were excellent, and I really liked those.

The cover shows President Belle Spafford of the Relief Society speaking in General Conference in 1966.  She was president for about forever in the mid-20th century, and did a lot of pretty neat stuff.  The Relief Society is the LDS Church's women's organization, and is called such because one of its main purposes is to provide relief to the poor and/or suffering, and also because it was named in 1842, so that it sounds odd to modern ears.  But boy, if you want to learn church lady skills, the Relief Society is where it's at.  (Church lady skills, which are universal, include providing meals, giving rides, planning funerals or other large gatherings, showing up to disasters with diapers in one hand and food in the other, teaching lessons on any topic to any age group, and cleaning really scary houses, all on very short notice.  I should start a list!)

So I guess this isn't the most informative post I've ever written, but this is a necessary book for the small number of people interested in LDS history or LDS women in particular.  There is a lot of great stuff coming out right now on history and especially on women in history, so pay attention!

Friday, August 25, 2017

Post-summer riffle of reviews: part II

Here is a whole set of books I've read from various countries in the last few weeks.  Most of them will show up in my Reading All Around the World list, and one I picked for August's Women in Translation event, which I nearly missed!  Most of these were also on my original 20 Books of Summer list (which currently stands at 17!  No way will I finish that list in the next week, but I read quite a few other books too).

Lyrics Alley, by Leila Aboulela  (Sudan): This novel of a wealthy and powerful family in 1950s Sudan is a tapestry of interwoven lives.  The patriarch, Mahmoud Bey, is a forward-looking man invested in bringing infrastructure and wealth to his country.  His son, Nur, is about to marry a cousin and they are very much in love, but a tragic accident leaves Nur paralyzed and depressed.  The family dynamics are complex and sometimes disastrous. Nur has to break through the weight of expectations and pity in order to forge a new life and identity for himself.

Parts of the novel are told through different narrators: Soraya, a young student engaged to Nur, starts the story, but Mahmoud Bey's second wife Nabilah has part of it, as do Nur and his teacher Ustaz Badr.  It took me a while to get into the story; I had a hard time with it at first, but once I got involved I was eager to see where everyone ended up.  It turns out that Aboulela based the whole thing very loosely on her own family history, so that was neat.

This Earth of Mankind, by Pramoedya Ananta Toer  (Indonesia): This is the first volume in the Buru Quartet, which Toer narrated day by day while a political prisoner on Buru Island.  He was arrested, never tried, and spent 14 years there.  All four novels were banned in Indonesia until 2000; the afterword says that "the government accused the books of surreptitiously spreading Marxism-Leninism -- surreptitious because, they claimed, the author's great literary dexterity made it impossible to identify actual examples of this Marxism-Leninism."

Minke is a brilliant young Javanese student -- the only Native in his prestigious school, in fact.  It is 1898 and Indonesian society is strictly divided into Pure Europeans, Indo-Europeans, and Natives, the last group having almost no legal rights at all.  Minke is invited to visit an unusual household where Nyai Ontosoroh, the Native concubine of a Dutch businessman, runs the entire enormous business operation herself.  The daughter, Annelies, has led an isolated life and she and Minke fall deeply in love, but colonial law threatens to destroy everything they have worked for.

It will probably take me a while to read all four novels, but I do want to, and I've got the next one now.  Minke's story is complex and fascinating, and wow did I learn a lot about Dutch colonialism in Indonesia.

Letters from Klara, by Tove Jansson  (Finland):   Jansson's adult works have little in common with her Moomintroll books for children, but they do share a penchant for a feeling of remote mystery.  In these short works, most of the story is under the surface and left untold.  Some of them are only a few pages long, such as "Robert," in which a standoffish student in an art class writes letters to each fellow student, breaking off non-existent relationships.    In "The Train Trip," a man meets an old classmate on a train and finds out how different recollections can be.  And in "Pictures," a young artist leaves home on a scholarship, but only paints his own landscape while his father contends with terrifying hallucinations.  Tove Jansson really knew what she was doing with the short story format.

Jansson lived in Finland and wrote in Swedish; there are a lot of Swedish-speaking Finns.  So I'm counting this title for Finland, but maybe sometime I'll read a book translated from the Finnish too.

Untouchable, by Mulk Raj Anand  (India): This day-in-the-life story, written in 1935, reminded me a bit of Ivan Denisovich.  Bakha is a strong and handsome young man, but he is a Dalit; he has no caste and his fate is to work at the filthiest of jobs.  He cleans a set of latrines over and over.  When he accidentally bumps into someone on the street, it becomes a dangerous public humiliation for him.  We follow Bakha through a whole day of difficulties and small moments of ease, until finally he sees a visit from Gandhi, on his tour speaking against caste divisions.

One thing this novel will convince the reader of: modern toilets are a massive blessing to humanity -- especially the poor -- and life is a lot better with them.  Anand paints a realistic and painful portrait of Dalit life; it's an important classic of political Indian literature.

Train to Pakistan, by Khushwant Singh  (India): So then to follow up, I read this novel about Partition in 1947.  A North Indian Punjabi village -- half Sikh and half Muslim -- has not yet been touched by the violence raging across the country.  But it sits right on the train line to Pakistan, and although the villagers vow to stick together and defend each other, their alliance can't stand up to events.  This is another important Indian classic that hurts to read.

The Dybbuk, and Other Writings, by S. Ansky:  Ansky was a Yiddish writer who traveled throughout Eastern Europe, recording ethnographic observations.  He rejected the religion of his heritage, but had enormous commitment to the Jewish people.  "The Dybbuk" is a strange play in which a bride becomes possessed with the spirit of a dead young man who is convinced that she is rightfully his.

There are also several short stories portraying Jewish peasant life, some of which are pretty sordid (not as fun as Fiddler on the Roof!) and others featuring starving scholars concerned with politics, like Ansky himself.  Finally, there is a piece of descriptive history, "The Destruction of Galicia," chronicling vicious pogroms in a part of Ukraine.

Six mini-reviews!  Now we're getting somewhere...I still have one more book I'm reading for WIT August, and I hope to have that finished soon so I can write about it in August.  And hey, guess what, I finally finished the Faerie Queene!  So I need to write a post for that too.  Stay tuned.

Aren't these beautiful?  Don't you just want to read them right now?

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

An end-of-summer books round-up, part I: lighter reading

Hey folks, things have been super-crazy around here as we've ended our summer with a road trip to Oregon for a couple of days in Portland and, of course, the eclipse (pictures forthcoming!), which meant skipping the first day of school.  Yes, my 14-year-old missed her first day of high school!  So it's been a whole lot of school shopping, road trip packing, and homework up-making.  Both kids had summer assignments due on the first day of school and arranged to turn them in early through email.  The 17-year-old, who played summer grasshopper a little too long, wrote an entire paper on the road (thank you, technology!).  We got back very late Monday night and were all exhausted for the big school and work day.  We're still recovering.  But it was all worth it!

Meanwhile, I got a lot of reading done and the books have been piling up like nobody's business.  I'm going to have to surrender to the inevitability  A riffle of reviews is what we've got coming up here; I have no fewer than thirteen books on my desk!  I think I'm going to do them by categories or something; I have light reading, world literature, religion books....well, let's see what happens.  I'll start with the lighter books:

The Hotel Under the Sand, by Kage Baker:  I'm a fan of Baker's Company series, which I've read twice during the lifetime of Howling Frog Books, but I didn't know she had ever written a children's book.  And what really made me decide to track it down was that Diana Wynne Jones gave it high praise!

Emma, age nine, is lost in a storm and fetches up on the Dunes, where there are no people except Winston, the ghost of a bellboy who once worked at the Grand Wenlocke.  It was the most amazing hotel in the world, but it disappeared under the sands a hundred years ago.  When a storm brings the Wenlocke back up, Emma and Winston go into business, along with a cook, a pirate, a little boy -- and some very interesting guests.  It's a truly charming fairy tale, with fun twists and turns.  Very much worth reading; in fact it ought to be much more popular, and considered a children's classic.

The Long War, by Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett: I read The Long Earth just a few weeks ago, and loved it.  This second volume picks up 20 years after Step Day and ten years after the first book ended.  People are spreading out all over the Long Earth, and although at first it seemed like an opportunity for a fresh start for humanity, it doesn't work that way.  The uglier parts of human nature spread out right along with everything else, and there is a crisis point coming.  I don't want to spoil the story, so I'll just say that this was a great sequel and I can't wait for The Long Mars to arrive.

When Dimple Met Rishi, by Sandhya Menon: Jenny's review convinced me to put this title on hold right away, and I really liked it.  It's a YA romantic comedy, complete with disastrous first meeting.  Dimple, ambitious and completely uninterested in romance, is spending the summer before Stanford at a prestigious coding camp, where she meets Rishi, a romantic traditionalist.  There is a high-stakes coding competition, snotty rich kids, misunderstandings with family, and everything, it's a very fun story.  I did have a few quibbles with some details (why is a fancy coding camp at SF State, except to place the story in San Francisco?  If Rishi isn't an engineer in his soul, how'd he get into MIT's program?), but otherwise I liked it a lot.

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel:  A famous actor has a heart attack in the middle of a performance and dies; that same night, a flu pandemic arrives in North America and modern civilization comes to an end in less than a month.  Years later, the survivors mostly live in tiny villages, but Kirsten Raymonde belongs to the Traveling Symphony.  When they get to St. Deborah, they meet a frightening 'prophet' who has taken over the settlement. The main characters all have connections to the actor, and as the narrative jumps back and forth in time, we get a picture of the pandemic and its aftermath.  It's a very enjoyable read, but I found the 'connections' theme to be a little on the tenuous side.

The Verse by the Side of the Road, by Frank Rowsome, Jr.: This is such a funny little book; it's a history of Burma-Shave signs!  Rowsome tells the story of how the roadside signs were invented and how the system worked (it was complicated!), and includes lots of cute anecdotes; my favorite was the Navy ship full of sailors in the Arctic who were astounded to see a set of Burma-shave signs on an iceberg...written in Russian.  The appendix includes all the rhymes, which is necessary but a little hard on the eyeballs.

Five books down, eight to go!  Maybe I can produce an International Edition.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Book of Memory

The Book of Memory, by Petina Gappah

Memory is in prison for murder.  She is the only woman on death row in the Harare prison, and her lawyer has asked her to write down everything, to be sent to an advocate in America, in hopes of getting an appeal.  So Memory writes for her life, starting with the day her parents sold her to a white man when she was nine years old -- the same man she is in prison for murdering.  But even Memory does not know the whole story of her life.

It's a really good novel, and Memory's account is full of fascination.  She jumps back and forth, talking about her childhood with her family, as an albino child in a slum, then to life in the Harare prison, then to her adolescence in Lloyd's care, where she was given an excellent education but had little explained to her.  She keeps coming back to the same questions: why did Lloyd buy her?  Why did her family give her away? and does not expect ever to know.

Good stuff.  I recommend it.

PS This book is, of course, for Zimbabwe in the Read All Around the World project, and it's also book #11 in my original list of 20 Books for Summer.  

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Go-Between

The Go-Between, by L. P. Hartley

The first line will be familiar to all: The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

Leo, now well into his 50s, opens up a box of memories and tells the story of the summer of 1900, when he turned 13.  It was first a sort of awakening, and then a life-changing trauma.  As Leo remembers his lost innocence, he also wonders whatever became of the people involved...

Leo goes to stay at a country house with a much wealthier school friend, and since Marcus' older sister is engaged to the local baronet, there is a constant social whirl around her.  She enlists Leo as a messenger in her secret romance, and it all ends in disaster.

This is a really famous novel, considered a classic of the 20th century, but it mostly did not enchant me.  Its exploration of the emotional and mental life of a young teen boy did not reel me in.  It was fine, but I did not love it, and I was ready to be done well before it was over.  My final opinion is meh.  Sorry, L. B. Hartley.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Marie Grubbe

Marie Grubbe, by Jens Peter Jacobsen

This post is about a 19th-century Danish novel you've almost certainly never heard of.  But stick around till the end for a real surprise...

J. P. Jacobsen is virtually unknown in the English-speaking world, but he was quite important in European literature.  I studied his more famous second novel, Niels Lyhne, in college, and re-read it a few years ago.  In that post, I gave a little background, and here it is again for your convenience:
 ...a major classic of the late 19th century -- for literary middle-Europeans interested in Romanticism and Naturalism.  Thomas Mann and Rainer Maria Rilke considered it to be among the greatest of novels.  Henrik Ibsen and Stefan Zweig cited Jacobsen as an influence.  Both Zweig and James Joyce even wanted to learn Danish so they could read this novel in the original!  But J. P. Jacobsen remained obscure in the English-speaking literary world, and Niels Lyhne was not translated into English until 1919, forty years after it was published in 1880.
Jacobsen's first novel was Marie Grubbe, published in 1876, and it too made something of a splash.  It's historical fiction about a real person; the actual Marie Grubbe was a 17th-century noblewoman (she lived 1643–1718).  Jacobsen begins his story with Marie as a young teenager, where she develops a huge crush on the old king's dashing son, Ulrik Christian Gyldenløve, but he dies and she is soon married off to the new king's dashing son, Ulrik Frederik Gyldenløve.  This works for about a year.  Ulrik Frederik becomes viceroy of Norway, but Marie is miserable.  After a divorce, her father marries her off to a neighboring landowner, Palle Dyre, and that is miserable too, but she meets Søren, a stablehand on the property, and falls in love with him, although at this point she is over forty and he is about half her age.  Marie and Søren marry and live in dire poverty.  She is finally happy, but this comes at the cost of her downfall; having started off a lovely, delicate lady of the court, she has been defeated, and has descended through degradation into a gross sensuality.

It's not all that easy to keep track of the characters -- there are two kings, each with illegitimate sons, and they mostly seem to be named Ulrik, a name I have always disliked -- and there's a handy foreword to help, explaining that illegitimate sons of Danish kings were always given the surname of Gyldenløve, which means 'golden lion.' 

I wasn't gripped by the novel; whatever Rilke and Joyce and Zweig saw in it, I did not.  It was fine, but I did not love it.  I would read Niels Lyhne again, but I doubt I will bother much with Marie in the future.  Clearly I'm a Philistine.

Now for the really wild part.  Marie Grubbe was translated into English in 1917, and although some few English literary types loved it, it remained pretty obscure and was practically unknown in America.  Except for one remarkable exception: a copy made the rounds among Harlem Renaissance writers, and Zora Neale Hurston read it.  Then she used the framework -- a woman marrying three times, only finding happiness with the third, seemingly inappropriate, husband and a life of poverty --  for her amazing novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (which I only read for the first time back in February).

That was pretty surprising to me, and I wanted to know more.  I tracked down an academic paper on it,* and read up a bit.  It seems Hurston didn't love Jacobsen's treatment of Marie, and wanted to write the story her own way, with 'Marie' undefeated.  And good for her, I say!  I liked that novel much more.

As far as blogging goes, just call me Ms. Procrastinator.  But hey, I finished a quilt top, got a kid's wisdom teeth taken out (and was driven nearly mad by the recovery) and painted a bedroom.  Now I'm very much not looking forward to the start of school.  I have to do this paperwork, and there's shopping stuff, and they have to pack lunches every day.  Homeschooling was easier.  But!  Before that, we're going to go see the solar eclipse.  Have you got eclipse plans?? 

* Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes were Watching God and the Influence of Jens Peter Jacobsen's Marie Grubbe
Author(s): Jon Woodson
Source: African American Review, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Winter, 1992), pp. 619-635

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, by Natasha Pulley

Jenny reviewed this book a while ago and I was intrigued enough to get it from the library, though I was not sure I would like it.  I'm still not sure whether I liked it!

In an alternate Victorian London, telegraph clerk Thaniel Steepleton* has a mysterious gold watch show up in his lodgings.  Six months later, the watch saves him from an Irish bomb.  The bombing is not very interesting, but the watch is; where did it come from?  Thaniel finds Keita Mori, a Japanese watchmaker with some fairly stunning inventions and something odd about him.  Much of the story is dedicated to figuring out just what Mori's mystery is, and what it means.

We also have Grace, who wants to be a physicist but is hemmed in by family demands that she marry.  I found her to be an awkward character; I don't love where she fits into the story, I don't know why she is at Oxford, despising classicists, when Cambridge is where the science is at and also they accepted women students first, and could she really get a chair in either location?  It's interesting that she's after proving the existence of aether, which may actually exist in this version of the universe, but otherwise she does bizarre things.  

It's almost steampunk, but the clockwork is too pretty.  I kind of liked this novel, and I was also frequently annoyed by it.  I am distinctly ambivalent about the whole thing, including the cover, which I want to love but which may just be too much.  And that might be how I feel about the story too.

If you've read this, let's argue about Grace in the comments!

*Thaniel?  Dude, really?  He even apologizes for it in the story, but that is not enough.