Thursday, May 31, 2018

Book Blog Expo, Day 2: Bookstores

At the last possible moment, I found out about the Book Blog Expo event, hosted by Donna at Girl Who Reads.  Looks like fun so I'm joining in!

Day 2 - May 31 - Favorite Section in the Bookstore. Do you head straight to the new releases or bargain rack? Do you spend hours perusing the mysteries or perhaps you can't drag yourself out of the young adult section? Or is there something unique about your local indie bookshop that makes it a must stop every time you pass it? Whether you shop in a brick and mortar or an online bookstore, what is your favorite section? Consider discussing the genre itself or providing a list of favorite (or recent) finds.

Who says I spend all my time at the bookstore?  I spend all my time at the LIBRARY.   Libraries are full of books I can take home for free!  That said, I certainly like bookstores too, and I am always happy to pop into the local (very large and wonderful) used bookstore to have a look around.  I can also spend a happy evening browsing at Barnes & Noble with my husband.

I have lots of favorite sections in my library (the one I work in).  P is the home of literature, and I'm always poking around in there for more novels, from the Slavic works in PG to the Germanic novels in PT.  TT has books about sewing and embroidery -- fancy ones I can't afford to buy myself, though some of the fanciest end up in the art books.  G is for geography, so the travel books are there, and folklore goes in G too.  Z is where books about books live!  D - F is history.  All of those are favorite spots.  As a former co-worker once said to me, "Everything is better in the stacks." 

And of course, a work day is not complete without a perusal of the New Books shelf, even though nothing may have shown up there from one day to the next.  The cart of returned books also needs checking, in case anyone has been reading anything good.

When I go to the used bookstore, it's a little different.  I check the tail end of the mysteries section in case there is anything by an author I collect, and I look through the SF for old paperbacks with fun covers.  I also like to look at the history section, especially for Lakeside Press editions, which are for some reason fairly common at that store.  Sometimes I grin at the shelf where someone marked "Bad Wolf" in pen a few years ago, and I enjoy walking on the creaky wood floors.  The building is kind of historic and there are some neat stories associated with it.

That's a couple of my favorite book places.  I could talk about the local public library, or all sorts of other places too.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Book Blog Expo, Day 1: Intro and Networking

Hey, I just discovered this event: the Book Blog Expo, hosted by Donna at Girl Who Reads.  It's instead of BEA.  Looks like fun, so I'll just start in...

Day 1 - May 30 - Introductions & How to Network. Since networking starts with an introduction, we will roll these topics into 1 post. Gives us the 411 on you - who, what, where, when, why and how. Who are you, What do you blog, Where do you blog (also share where to find you on social media), When did you start blogging, Why do you blog, How do you go about your blogging and being involved in the book community (how do you network).

Who/What/Where: I'm Jean, I'm a librarian, mom, and quilter, and I live in rural Northern California -- the part everyone forgets exists.  (This has pros and cons: it's not very crowded, which is nice, but the rest of the state likes to use our water and forgets to give us any money.)

When/Why/How: I've been blogging since 2010 and I started because I wanted to participate in reading challenges.  I didn't know anything about blogs at the time, so my friend had to help me get started.  I've been a minimalist Blogger person the whole time, and while I'd like to spiff the place up a bit, I'm pretty happy where I am as far as platform and format.  This is a fun hobby for me, and I like the freedom to write about whatever I'm reading and not worry about a large audience.  I post what and when I like, but I aim at three times a week.

I don't have a focus on this blog, but right now I'm mostly reading classics, world literature, history, and whatever else I feel like reading.

Find me on Facebook at Howling Frog Books, and Twitter @JeanLeekPing.   I am really, REALLY bad at Twitter, which is a shame for a book blogger, but I just can't deal.

Networking: I'm always up for visiting new folks and participating in fun events!  Nobody could call me a talented networker but I love my friends and finding new ones.  I'm pretty useless at readathons events, but challenges and theme months are my favorites.  I have my own event, which is more of a long-term project that will take forever: The Reading All Around the World project!  Join us; there are badges!

The Sea and Poison

The Sea and Poison, by Shusaku Endo

I'm not sure why I have this book on my TBR shelf.  I thought it was one my brother-in-law had sent me; he used to send us books from Japan and so I have several volumes of Murakami, Endo, and Oe just sitting around.  But this one is a discard from the public library and I have no idea where it came from.  I'm also wondering what happened to my copy of Silence, which I remember loaning out in a pile to a friend's daughter who was studying Japanese (she is living there now!).  But she gave them back.  So where did Silence go?

This is a really tough novel, and it's written in such a quiet, understated way that the awfulness stands out all the more.  It's the story of Suguro, a young medical intern at a wartime hospital, as well as two others who work there.  The hospital is near the city of Fukuoka, but it's far enough out that it has not yet been bombed.  Supplies and food are short, and the hospital inmates (most of them seem to have TB) are dying; it's only a question of how long they have.  Suguro is mocked for his preoccupation with one old woman's case -- what's the point?  Then he is asked to assist at secret operations for the military.  Three American prisoners are to be vivisected, nominally for research purposes.

Suguro is not forced to take part, but he agrees to.  He ends up sickened and unable to participate, but it's too late.  He is tarred with the same brush as the others.  Two other participants have written their confessions and life stories: Toda, a cynical young doctor who thinks everything is pointless but nevertheless looks for ways to act upon his resentment and exert cruelty, and Ueda, a nurse who has lost everything and lives completely alone.

Endo shows us the social pressures exerted on the three protagonists and the effects of their choices.  In this environment, it is difficult to resist evil, but when they do not, guilt becomes their permanent companion.  Suguro's life is forever tainted by his failure to refuse.

Wrenching stuff.  Be prepared when you read it.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Home and Exile

Home and Exile, by Chinua Achebe

If a Chinua Achebe book you've never seen before comes across the donation table, you've got to take it home, right?  That's what I figured, anyway, and it turned out to be a quite interesting little book of three lectures that turned into essays.

The three essays have a continuous train of thought, exploring the beginnings of modern African literature.  Starting with his own young days, in which the only novels about West Africa came from an outside perspective, he goes through the first stories that became available in the 1950s, starting with  The Palm-Wine Drinkard, the initial book that opened the gates.  (This made me happy, since I have that novel sitting on my pile...though I forgot to put it in my 20 Books of Summer list and now I'm sorry.)

He dissects a few novels: Mister Johnson, by Joyce Cary, which first gave Achebe a clue that stories could have an agenda, The Palm-Wine Drinkard, and V. S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River, of which Achebe is really not a big fan. (I didn't quite know what to make of it when I read it.)

Interesting essays if you're a literary type.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Two more "Miss Read" books

Over the Gate
The Market Square, by Miss Read

These Miss Read novels are just like bon-bons for me.  They're light, but not at all sentimental, and they chronicle English village life with both affection and astringency.  There are two or three series, all set in the same fictional area, but some are about the villages of Fairacre or Thrush Green, and some are about the market town of Caxley.

Over the Gate must be one of the later Fairacre books, as it features the teacher narrator doing relatively little.  Her plot is slight, but serves to string together entertaining stories from Fairacre history, from "Mrs Next-Door" to a magic salve and a truly shivery ghost story.  Reminded me of some of L. M. Montgomery's later Anne novels.

The Market Square is set in Caxley and chronicles the intertwined lives of two men and their families -- Sep Howard, the quiet and almost timid baker, and Bender North, a boisterous ironmonger.  We follow them for many years, from Edward VII's coronation through the 1930s.  I really liked it.

Now if only I could live in an English village....

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Libraries in the Ancient World

Libraries in the Ancient World, by Lionel Casson

My mom gave this neat book to me several years ago, and I hadn't gotten around to reading it.  I kind of thought I knew plenty about ancient libraries; after all, I took a history course in library school!  Well, I probably forgot all about whatever I learned in that, and this book is a nice informative and fun read.

Casson starts off with ancient Mesopotamia.  We probably usually think of Ashurbanipal as the first well-known king with a library, but he definitely wasn't the first Mesopotamian king to have one.  We know of two large libraries earlier, one of which belonged to Tiglath-Pileser I.  Ashurbanipal did have a really great library, though, and Casson also talks about how the Assyrians identified the tablets and cataloged them.

The Greeks also had libraries and cataloging methods!  They mostly went in for personal collections that they shared around with friends.  Then the Library of Alexandria was built especially to keep scholars around, but the Romans actually invented public libraries that were open to, apparently, just about anybody.  They put libraries in the public baths, even.  While the Greeks liked to keep their books in small rooms full of shelving and then take the scrolls out to a colonnade to read them, the Romans built reading rooms that looked like our idea of a public library, with shelving and nooks along the walls and large reading tables in the middle of the room.  Roman libraries were usually double-barrelled, with a selection of Greek classics in one room and Latin in the other.

Libraries even spread around the Roman Empire, not just in Rome itself.  And gradually, the Romans started using codices -- bound books like ours -- along with scrolls.  Codices were convenient to carry and easy to store and label, and Christians liked them in particular, so they spread quickly.

Casson ends with the fall of Rome, the loss of libraries in the chaos, and their preservation within monasteries in the beginnings of the Middle Ages.  It's a fairly quick read and quite fun, so I recommend it to library nerds everywhere.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Jim Henson

Jim Henson: The Biography, by Brian Jay Jones

A couple of weeks ago, I took my 15 year old to see Labyrinth playing at the movie theater.  It' s one of my favorite movies and we had a great time.  That put me in the mood to read the Jim Henson biography I've been meaning to read for a couple of years now, so I brought it home from work and wound up enthralled, more so than I'd expected.  I'm a big Jim Henson fan.

It's a solid, thorough biography that chronicles Henson's family background and childhood, but really gets detailed when he hit college.  Henson's ambition was to work in television, and in the mid-50s, of course there was no such thing as college coursework aimed at a career in TV.  He wound up a home economics major because that was where a lot of the hands-on stuff was happening, and he fell into puppeteering as a way to get started in TV.  Henson had no intention of being a puppeteer forever; that was just what happened.

Jones takes the reader through Sam and Friends and the early forays into advertising that really got the Muppets going.  (I was unaware of the Wilkins and Wontkins coffee commercials, but they're really funny.)  There's lots of wonderful stuff about the start of Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, and the Muppet movies.  Having grown up with the movies, I had never realized how much they had to invent for each one!  In fact, Henson did a lot of inventing all the time, right from the beginning, and developed lots of things that became television standards -- or stretched the boundaries so far that they didn't quite work yet.  He was forever seeing possibilities that wouldn't really be feasible for years.

All of the major Muppet players' contributions are carefully documented.  It's a lot of fun to read about how Frank Oz got into everything (he's described by one co-worker as the world's greatest puppeteer -- who doesn't want to be one) and how all these people worked together.

Jim Henson did not only want to do Muppets, though.  He was always coming up with new things to do, and he particularly wanted to get into doing strange, other-worldly films.  He did a lot of experimental film-making, and he developed The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, both of which took tremendous work and weren't necessarily understood by everybody.  In the first iteration of The Dark Crystal, Henson actually had the Skeksis speaking other languages -- it was just sounds and bits of various other things, and only the Gelflings spoke English.  Viewers were supposed to understand the action pretty much on its own.  This was an utter flop and they had to go back and figure out how to put English into the existing film.  That film became a big hit, but there were complaints about the lack of humor.

So humor was in the next one, Labyrinth, but the script went through too many cooks and the whole thing was based on world-building rather than character.  It was kind of a flop, which was a huge blow to Henson.  (Personally I disagree with the criticisms; I think it's a neat story.  You start off with this self-pitying girl who would rather live with her possessions and her daydreams than with her people.  During her journey, she has to reject all those things -- her old toys, her dreams of being a romantic princess, her self-centeredness, all that stuff -- and put her people first.  Once she learns to do that, she gets everything back, only better.)

He still had a zillion ideas and the energy to pull them off; but instead Henson's sudden death, at far too young an age, was an awful shock.  Jones goes through the whole thing and it becomes clear that by the time anybody realized that he was really sick, it was already too late.

The Muppets are still around, and they've made some great stuff.  I've enjoyed most of the movies.  But I sure do miss Jim Henson.  What a genius he was.

I spent a lot of time looking up old Muppet clips on Youtube, and happily they are mostly available there.  Check out this great piece, "Visual Thinking" -- I found four versions, three of which use the same audio and animation.

 And there was the beginning of a fabulous cracked fairy-tale series that never got to be, "Tales of the Tinkerdee."  This is actually the first time Kermit wears a collar and becomes more frog-like; before this he was just Kermit, not Kermit the Frog.

As a final touch to the Muppet fun, here is a photo from just this week.  My 15 year old's school was doing a spirit week, and Wednesday was Meme Day.  The 17 year old suggested this brilliant idea, which involved digging our Kermit puppet out of the closet and clothing him in a doll's wizard cloak that I sewed up several years ago, and which has now been put to work (inside out) as a cloak for  Death of Rats and now also Evil Kermit:

Wednesday was also Braces Off Day, so that smile is a lot less metallic now!  I keep making her bare her teeth at me.

Friday, May 25, 2018

The Egg and I

The Egg and I, by Betty MacDonald

This somewhat fictionalized memoir came across the donation table, and I'd heard somewhere that it was fun, so I took it home to read in random moments.  Betty MacDonald may be familiar to some as the author of the wonderful Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books for children (in which Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, who may be a witch and was definitely once married to a pirate, knows how to cure children who have fallen prey to bad habits and become Answer-Backers or Slow-Eaters-Tiny-Bite-Takers).

Betty MacDonald tells some hair-raising stories about her childhood in Colorado before she really gets going with her marriage to Bob.  Bob's dream is to be a chicken farmer in the Pacific Northwest and Betty gamely agrees, signing up for a life of isolation, no electricity, very hard work, and a stove that eats fuel but doesn't like to get warm.  And lots of rain.  And lovable but difficult neighbors, especially the Kettles.

She makes it all extremely funny and engaging, plus also you'll want to go live in the beautiful wilderness of Washington state.   If you take out the humor, you'll realize that it was a very hard life indeed and no wonder she was thankful to sell up and move to an easier spot.

It's a very enjoyable memoir, except for one thing; she is awful when writing about Native Americans.  I mean, terrible.  Luckily it's only a few chapters, but wow.  So watch out for that.

MacDonald wrote three other memoirs after this, about surviving the Depression, getting TB, and living on Puget Sound.

One funny thing about my copy is that the type is exactly the same as in the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books I read as a kid.  Chapter headings and all.  They must have been printed at the same time, I suppose!

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Patience and Fortitude

Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library, by Scott Sherman

Let's talk about the New York Public Library!  You know the one, it's in a lot of movies, with the lions out front.  That is the 42nd Street main building, but the NYPL also has a whole lot of branch libraries.  The only one I've been to is the Greenwich Village branch, which looks like a red-brick castle.  Anyway, here is an interesting fact: the NYPL is not exactly a "public" library in the usual sense; it is not owned and operated by the City of New York.  It's a private non-profit which is governed by a board of trustees.  It gets some city money for salaries, but much of its funding has to be raised privately and put into an endowment, which is controlled by the trustees, who are usually prominent, wealthy NYC people.  And the funding wasn't doing too well in the 1960s and 70s, and in the early 2000s it was pretty dire.  Branches needed major repairs, collections were slipping, it was all very depressing.

Patience and Fortitude is about the trustees of the NYPL getting a little bit off-track.  They're entrusted with running a huge, complex system, part of which involves popular daily services, and part of which involves deep research collections available to all (unlike most research collections!).  But the trustees at this time were enamored of imitating corporations like, say, Netflix or FedEx, and wanted to slim down and find more money.  They developed a plan to "monetize non-core assets" -- that is, sell library branches for the real estate value -- and also do a grand renovation of the 42nd St. building for huge amounts of money, and also move most of the 42nd St. book collections off-site to be stored in New Jersey.  Patrons would have to order books and wait for delivery.  This would be fine, because the future is all ebooks anyway, and it would all be computers and book scans.  Somehow, the renovation (costing $300 million) would result in $15 million of yearly revenue.  At the same time, specialized research librarians who curated some amazing collections were let go, as the city kept cutting budgets.

All this planning was being done on the quiet, and it was about to all happen, but the 2008 recession interrupted the project.  A few years later, it was revived, but this time word got out more quickly.  Protest and controversy erupted.  Each side accused the other of elitism.  Architects pointed out that the proposal to tear the multi-storied steel stacks out of the library would be really quite a serious problem, especially since the floor of the reading room is supported by those stacks.  Arguments went back and forth, until the whole thing finally fizzled.  Trustees agreed not to sell the Mid-Manhattan branch, but to overhaul it instead.  The stacks would stay, but they had already been emptied.  And the Donnell Library, home to a beautiful world languages collection, was gone, sold for cheap to a real-estate developer who promised to put a smaller library into the basement of the new tower to be built there.

The ending of this book is sort of happy, in that the stacks and the Mid-Manhattan library survived.  I found it mostly sad, though.  The stacks still stand empty, their contents apparently stashed in various warehouses, with some of it just unknown or lost.  The Donnell Library's replacement did open, but it's not quite the same.  The Mid-Manahattan Library is finally actually being renovated and is not open yet.

The NYPL is planning a new giant renovation of the 42nd St. building, though this time it promises to leave the stacks alone.  I'd hope they'd overhaul the air system down there so the books can be put back where they belong; I don't know where those books are, but I bet they're not in proper storage facilities.

I found reading this book to be a stressful experience!  I kept feeling all this dread and my stomach would twist into knots.  I did not enjoy reading about the decline of the world-class Slavic collection.  I wish people would stop thinking that libraries should be like Netflix.  Netflix should be like Netflix, but libraries should not.  This was popular thinking when I was in library school, too, and I remember one large city library boasting that it was all about popularity, and it had stringent standards for keeping books; if a book didn't circulate 7 times a year, it was out.  Aigh!  This is not to say that weeding is not an important part of collection development; it is.  But you have to take into account the purpose of the collection, and the needs of people whose tastes may not run to James Patterson.

Appreciate your friendly neighborhood public library today, folks.  And if you're in New York, drop by a branch and tell the beleaguered librarians hello for me.  Maybe give Patience a pat.

Oh, and I did want to share with you this nice bit of writing by William Zinsser from 1961 about the NYPL and "the quality of freedom":

This is a building that takes no sides because is presents all sides.  It grants its visitors the dignity of free access to information.  It does not hide the ugly or censor the injurious.  These guarantees are woven through every division, and often they take extraordinary form.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

12 Rules for Life

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, by Jordan B. Peterson

Oh, let's have a little controversy here at Howling Frog, shall we?  Oh boy.

Until fairly recently, Peterson was a popular but unfamous lecturer of psychology in Canada.  He'd done a stint at Harvard, written a book about Jungian psychological stuff, and was your average moderately-left Canadian.  Then he went on TV to protest a proposed law which would mandate the use of preferred pronouns.  (This is coerced speech.  It's not even censorship, the government saying you can't say something; it's the government saying that you HAVE to say something.  That is a power no government should have, and it's definitely worth protesting.)  And everything exploded.

Peterson is now enormously vilified and even more enormously popular.  His lectures are easily available on YouTube -- he talks a lot about archetypes and Jungian interpretations of myths and Bible stories.  He appeals to disaffected, directionless young men, essentially by ordering them to clean up their lives and make something of themselves.  While I get why a lot of people don't like Peterson, he seems to be making a real difference in the lives of exactly the kind of young men who are most at risk of falling into the trap of extremism.  Which all by itself makes him a rare and important influence, and somebody to keep around.

He had already been writing this book, I gather -- it's pretty hefty, 400 very dense pages -- and it wound up getting published at just the moment when everybody was starting to hear about this guy.  So I read it.

There are twelve 'rules,' which are unpacked in twelve long chapters.  They range from "stand up straight with your shoulders back" -- that is, be ready to engage with the world courageously -- to "assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don't."  The rules often turn into long pieces on the importance of attention, of building meaning in your life, and so on.  He sounds like a wordier Viktor Frankl sometimes, and he quotes Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, and Nietzsche a good deal.

There is a lot about tragedy; Peterson figures that the central problem of life is dealing with the fact of suffering and evil.  Life is not about happiness, he says; happiness is fairly unusual and fleeting, so what are you going to do when things are bad?

It's a pretty interesting book, with lots to think about.

  Stand up straight with your shoulders back
  Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping
  Make friends with people who want the best for you
  Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today
  Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
  Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world
  Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
  Tell the truth – or, at least, don't lie
  Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don't
  Be precise in your speech
  Do not bother children when they are skateboarding
  Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street

Monday, May 21, 2018

Towers in the Mist

Towers in the Mist, by Elizabeth Goudge

This was our readalong title for Elizabeth Goudge Day, and I'd been saving it for a whole year.  It is one of the "Cathedral City" trilogy and set in Elizabethan Oxford, the others being The Dean's Watch (Victorian Ely) and City of Bells (Edwardian Wells).   And boy, does she have a good time with the Elizabethan setting!

This is a family story, so we get to know all of the Leighs: the Canon of Christ Church, his many children, and the elderly and imperious Great-Aunt Susan.  But we start first with a young scholar, Faithful, who has walked to Oxford in the hope of getting an education despite his penury and is sort of adopted by Canon Leigh.  Mostly we follow Joyeuce, the eldest daughter, who has been burdened with the housekeeping since her mother died four years ago.  She finds it extremely difficult, and then a wealthy but perhaps unsuitable scholar, Nicolas, wants her to sneak out to see him.

The house is almost as much a character as the rest of the family, and apparently it was Goudge's actual home while her father worked at Oxford.  She seems to have populated her lonely house with plenty of company!  She also entertains herself by describing daily life and sprinkling famous characters throughout; Philip Sidney and Walter Raleigh are both there as teenagers, and the whole thing works up to a grand visit by the Queen.  And it's all done in a sense of fun; there are jokes and humorous asides all throughout the story that lighten the serious and even tragic events.  I think this might be the story where Goudge allows herself to have the most fun in an adult novel.

I really enjoyed this one and look forward to reading it again.  Of course, all the descriptions of embroidery and tapestry work might have helped with my impression.  But it really was a delightful read all 'round.

20 Books of Summer!

I was really, really hoping that Cathy at 746 Books would repeat her 20 Books of Summer Challenge, and hooray, it's here! 

The rules are simple: pick (or don't) 20 books to read between June 1 and September 3.  It's OK to change them, it's OK to leave blank spaces, and it's OK not to finish.  Go for 10 or 15 if you prefer!

I have chosen 22 titles, because I want to be able to throw a couple out if I don't like them.  Here they are:
  1. Miss Mackenzie, by Anthony Trollope
  2. The Sybil, by Par Lagerkvist
  3. Angels in the Mist, by Ryan Southwick 
  4. The Pocket Enquire Within
  5. The Glatstein Chronicles, by Jacob Glatstein
  6. Child of All Nations, by Pramoedya Ananta Toer
  7. Autumn Equinox, by Jabbour Douaihy
  8. Tram 83, by Fiston Mwanza Mujila
  9. Stories by Lu Hsun
  10. Old Demons, New Deities (Tibetan short stories)
  11. Four Birds of Noah's Ark, by Thomas Dekker
  12. Maps, by Nuruddin Farah
  13. Lectures on Russian Literature, by Vladimir Nabokov
  14. 800 Years of Women's Letters
  15. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, by Caitlin Doughty
  16. A Golden Age, by Tammim Anam
  17. The Shadowed Sun, by N. K. Jemisin
  18. Little, Big, by John Crowley
  19. Justinian's Flea, by William Rosen
  20. Dark Emu, Black Seed, by Bruce Pascoe
  21. The Light and the Dark, by Mikhail Shishkin
  22. Detroit: An American Autopsy, by Carlie LeDuff

I even did a little statistical analysis:
  • 8 TBR titles (2 for Adam's challenge)
  • 7 Reading Around the World titles
  • 5 Classics Club titles
  • 8 non-fiction / 14 fiction
  • 4 women / 18 men (!)  This is surprisingly unbalanced for me; I usually favor women writers pretty heavily.  But then a lot of these are books I've been putting off for a while...well, we shall see.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Dawning

The Dawning, by Milka Bajic-Poderegin

I now have a pile of books that is really pretty daunting; there are nine sitting here waiting for me.  But I have an interesting reason; I've been working on a guest post and it's taking up most of my blogging time.  It's for a much more professional kind of blog, and I'm quite nervous about the whole thing.  Stay tuned!

I think I mentioned that my husband and I spent a weekend at Tahoe recently, and the long drive back and forth gave me some fabulous reading time.  I spent much of it immersed in this lovely novel.  I found it at my library and thought it would make a good pick for my reading around the world project; the back cover copy said it was set in Bosnia.  Well, it turned out to be a good deal more complex than that once I really got started!

The Dawning was written in Serbo-Croatian about (mostly) ethnic Serbs, set in what was then Bosnia and Herzegovina, and is now Montenegro.  I finally decided to count it as my Montenegro title.   Milka Bajic-Poderegin wrote it in the early-mid 1960's (presumably under the Communist Yugoslavian regime) and died in 1971; it was first published in 1987 and was her only novel, but she had planned it to be the first in a trilogy that would extend through the end of World War II.

The setting is quite specific: the real village of Plevlje, which is now a good-sized town.  We start in the mid-nineteenth century, under Ottoman rule, and end just as World War I ends, but much of the story is spent at the start of the twentieth century, at a time when Austrian troops were occupying the area in cooperation with the Ottomans.  It's quite confusing to those of us without a basic grasp on the history, but luckily there is a foreword to help.

The story starts with Savka's wedding; she is barely 15 and hardly knows her new husband, Tane, but she gradually settles in and comes to love him.  His murder while traveling for business is a great shock, from which she never really recovers, but she takes solace in her children.  (The murder struck me as interesting because the servant comes back and blames the Turks, who he claims ambushed them, but Tane's brothers are anxious to avoid blaming the Turks, despite seeing them as oppressors.  They are certain that the servant is guilty.)

Savka's daughter, Jelka, is the center of the novel.  As a young woman, she falls in love with Janko and chooses him over her uncles' objections, to their anger.  Her life, embedded in Janko's extensive and dramatic family, is meticulously chronicled.  She has several children and runs a large establishment but she has many difficult times.  Janko has wide interests and desires to make friends with both Turks and Austrians, with the result that Jelka's life broadens and she becomes good friends with the pasha's wife, and gets to know Austrian ladies a little as well.  As her children grow up, the political situation becomes more precarious and Janko becomes ill, forcing Jelka to manage everything alone.

Jelka's youngest daughter, Milena, becomes the final protagonist of the story as she matures, trying to get more education (difficult under the circumstances), and watching the dawn of a new day for Serbians who have hoped for freedom for over 500 years.

As I said, the political background is complex.  I think it's important to know that at the time, Serbians had a sort of legend or belief that at the battle of Kosovo in 1389, Prince Lazar had to make a choice between victory and an earthly kingdom, and the Kingdom of Heaven (which would come with defeat and captivity on earth).  He chose heaven, setting the Serbs on a long path of purification through suffering which would only end in 1912 with victory over the Turks and independence.  That's part of the novel's theme, which looks forward to a dawning day of Serbian freedom and progress.  But all the political stuff is also mostly kept in the background.

At the same time, Poderegin shows a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society in which people mostly get along most of the time.  Muslims and Christians (and even a few Jews) rub along together -- Serbian, Turkish, Bosnian, Austrian, and others (Poderegin doesn't really distinguish between Serbs, Montenegrins, and Bosnians at all that I can tell).  There is some strife, especially when conditions are uncertain, and everybody has their flaws, but there is a quiet insistence that it's better to be courteous, friendly, and to live together under the conditions that nobody around here created anyway.  This exists alongside joy in the prospect of Serbian independence, fleeting as it is going to be.

But more important than all the politics (and the reader's tragic knowledge of what comes after*), it's a novel about women, domestic life, and finding ways to survive the most difficult of circumstances.  I found it captivating.  I really enjoyed it a lot, and I hope a few other people will find it too.

*Fun fact I learned from this novel: the name Slobodan is based on the Serbian word for liberty.  Yeesh.  But there are a lot of Slobodans; it's a fairly popular name.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Linnets and Valerians

My copy's cover, which I like
Linnets and Valerians, by Elizabeth Goudge

For Elizabeth Goudge Day a couple of weeks ago, I got into the mood to re-read Linnets and Valerians, which is really my favorite of her children's books I have read (there are several I haven't).  It reminds me very much of an E. Nesbit story!  For one thing, there are four siblings in 1912 whose father is going out to India; a very familiar setup.

Nan, Robert, Timothy, and Betsy Linnet are staying with their very stern grandmother while their father is gone, but it isn't working out at all.  Pretty soon, Robert decides that they must all simply run away and leads them out on an expedition.  Luckily for them, they meet up with a grumpy, elderly gentleman who turns out to be their own uncle, and he agrees to keep them.  It soon becomes evident that although the area is mostly idyllic, there are a few nasty folks on the scene too.  The children's adventures lead them all over the hills and into the answer to an old and tragic mystery.

Goudge's characteristic love of nature and favorite theme of redemption for all are both on full display here, with a fairly large dollop of magic added.  The people are all beautifully characterized and distinct, and there are a lot of bees, which I always enjoy.  This is just a lovely book to read.  I can't say I love the current book cover on Amazon, but it is available and on Kindle too.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Upside of Stress

The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good For You, and How to Get Good At It, by Kelly McGonigal

Well, you have to read a book by Professor McGonigal.  This was actually recommended to me, and now I'm going to recommend it to all of you, even every member of my family, because I plan to make them read it too.  It's just a really interesting book that contains some fascinating research into the nature of stress, how we deal with it, and how we can deal with it a lot better by tweaking a few thoughts.

One weird element of modern society is that people tell us to avoid stress in such a way that just makes most people laugh hopelessly.  We're convinced that stress makes us sick and unhappy, and yet most of us cannot avoid difficult workplaces, illness in the family, financial worries, and lots of other stressful things.  BUT!  It turns out that stress is far more complex than we thought, and humans are in fact great at dealing with it.  This makes intuitive sense; after all, life has always been difficult and we developed to deal with it.  If we weren't pretty tough we wouldn't be here.

Research shows that how we think about our stress has a large -- even a surprisingly large -- effect on how we deal with it.  A lot of the time when we're feeling worried (say, about an exam) we interpret it as imminent failure, as an inability to deal with the situation.  But we can also interpret it as excitement and preparation to bring a lot of energy to the task.  Stress means that a lot of physical and mental systems kick in to deal with a challenge.  And just changing our thinking around these feelings can help us to take advantage of that energy.

Stress can also nudge us into reaching out for help.  We don't only have a fight-or-flight response; we also tend to want to reach out to others, and that can help us to face the situation.  Common wisdom often encourages us to escape stress, but in fact we can do a lot better by helping our loved ones, serving others, and caring for people.

And finally, McGonigal channels Viktor Frankl and says that it's very helpful to find meaning in our suffering.  We can do this by thinking about why we're stressed and what's important to us in this situation. So:

The science also tells us that stress is most likely to be harmful when three things are true:
  1. You feel inadequate to it; 
  2. It isolates you from others; and
  3. It feels utterly meaningless and against your will.
As we've seen, how you think about stress feeds into each one of these factors.  When you view stress as inevitably harmful and something to avoid, you become more likely to feel all of these things...In contrast, accepting and embracing stress can transform these states into a totally different experience.  Self-doubt is replaced by confidence, fear becomes courage, isolation turns into connection, and suffering gives rise to meaning.
She's not just talking about simple problems here.  McGonigal is careful to state that she herself has struggled with a a fairly severe anxiety problem, and that the strategies she outlines can be most helpful to the folks with the most difficulties.  One of the most interesting parts of the book is her description of her work teaching job skills to people in poverty, with more problems than most of us deal with.  She found that talking about this stuff could make an enormous difference.

I thought this was a fabulous book, and one that Everybody Should Read.  My younger daughter has started it and says she likes it too.  Go forth and read!


In other news, it's been really hard to find any blogging time lately, maybe because the semester is winding down.  There's all this stuff happening -- concerts and graduation (for one kid), and I had a lovely opportunity to spend a weekend at Tahoe with my husband too.  That was really nice.  And I went and saw TWO movies in one week!  One was an all-time favorite, Labyrinth, which then sparked a desire to read the Jim Henson biography I've wanted to read for a couple of years now.  And it's great!  I've got lots of other good books to tell you about too....though it may have to wait until my job ends after next week!

Thursday, May 3, 2018


Walpurgisnacht, by Gustav Meyrink

I saved this book to read over actual Walpurgisnacht, which is April 30.  The novel starts at that point and then continues for a couple of months, except that time is also stalled; the characters can't get past it.  Meyrink wrote Walpurgisnacht in 1917, and it continues the train of thought he was following in his prior novel, The Green Face, which I haven't read yet.  I guess I got it a little bit out of order.

The story is set in Prague, during World War I.  German officials and aristocrats live in a sort of palace/office complex and virtually never leave; certainly they never, ever cross the river to the ordinary people of Prague.  The river (Moldau then, now Vltava) is a nearly uncrossable barrier.  These aristocrats are few, elderly, decrepit, and senile, with the exception of the young and voracious Polyxena.  She is carrying on an affair with Ottokar, a poor violinist.

The actor Zrcadlo (Mirror) appears at the palace; he might be dead, or possessed, or just strange, but he has a talent for changing his appearance.  He may be reflecting your soul back at you, or he might be a conduit of communication with far-off magicians.  As Ottokar gets involved with violent revolutionaries (who have few goals besides revolt), Polyxena discovers an occult talent for possession and uses Zrcadlo to influence the mob.  They crown Ottokar king -- but not for long.

Like Meyrink's most famous novel, The Golem, this is a very strange novel, with comic and grotesque elements. It presents the rulers of European empires and tells us that these empires are dying, about to fall, and that they deserve to do so.*  It presents the populace as different, but no better; they are violent, ignorant, and eager to seize power themselves so as to become the oppressors.  Nobody is benevolent, certainly not Polyxena or Ottokar.  And all of that is mixed up with a large dose of Meyrink's bizarre imaginings, and his obsession with, and hatred for, Prague.
Furious, he chewed at his fingernails, surreptitiously observing the others from beneath his eyebrows, to see what attitude they would take.  Discord was the last thing he wanted at the moment; above all, he had to keep the reins firmly in his grasp.  He was determined to lead a movement, what banner it went under was unimportant.  He had never in his life believed it would be possible to put nihilist theories into practice, he was much too intelligent for that.  He left that kind of nonsense to dreamers and fools.  But to whip a stupid crowd into a frenzy with anarchist slogans and in the ensuing confusion secure some position of power for himself -- to sit for once inside the carriage instead of on the box -- that, he realised, was the message behind all the anarchists' teachings.  The secret slogan of the anarchists, "You get out of the way and let me in," had long been his, too.

"What does the fellow want?" he asked aloud.
"Don't know," was the laconic reply.
"What does he look like?"
"Different every day, if it please your Honour."
"What on earth does that mean?"
"Well, Stefan Brabetz changes his clothes every five minutes.  So that no one will know it's him."
Halberd thought for a while.  "All right, let him in."

He was filled with content at the presentiment that the Walpurgisnacht of life was soon to give way to a day more radiant than anything he had experienced during his life...

Nobody could call Meyrink easy to read, but he's certainly interesting.  I plan to read The Green Face too, hopefully sometime soon -- but there are so many books to read...

*Looking at the situation from the other end of a century or so of even more violence than the empires managed to accomplish, it's much easier to note that they had their good points.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Fire in the Bones

Fire in the Bones: William Tyndale -- Martyr, Father of the English Bible, by S. Michael Wilcox

It's a biography of William Tyndale, the great translator of the Bible into English!  I had this recommended to me a few years ago and it's been on my TBR shelf ever since.  It's written from an LDS perspective, and would not really be of interest to others.  Plus, Wilcox's tone is frankly kind of adulatory, which feels a little odd if you're more used to biographies that aim for a semblance of objectivity.

Wilcox puts a lot of historical background into the book, assuming that the average reader won't necessarily be all that familiar with late medieval and Reformation-era figures.  So Wycliffe and the Lollards get an introduction before Tyndale does, and Wilcox makes sure to explain who the various players are, especially Cromwell and More.  And boy is he partisan; he shows a grudging respect for Sir Thomas More as a famous humanist, martyred for his faith, but on the whole Wilcox is solidly on the Reformation side and doesn't like More one bit.

It's a detailed, interesting biography of Tyndale, though, which follows him through all his difficult moves around Germany and the Netherlands.  There is also plenty of space given to the details of translation and the phrases Tyndale coined that have become English idioms, which is a lot of fun.  Wilcox considers Tyndale's translation to be one of the great accomplishments of the age, and the King James Bible (which used a good deal of that translation) to be the greatest work of English literature, with only Shakespeare in competition.

I enjoyed reading this biography, and I've been planning for a long time to follow up with one of Tyndale's own works, The Obedience of a Christian Man, to get a better idea of what he was really like.  This is a nice book, but Wilcox is so enthusiastically and completely a Tyndale fan that it comes off as rather one-sided.