Monday, June 17, 2019

Voodoo Histories

I love this cover
Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History, by David Aaronovitch

This was such an interesting book!  I'm very glad I picked it up at Moe's last year.  (In fact, there are a couple others I wish I'd gotten too!)

Aaronovitch covers the histories of several conspiracy theories, in detail.  It's fascinating, and also important, because they've had such an influence in modern history and we all -- no matter how skeptical or well-informed we are -- have a few stray thoughts that originated with a conspiracy theory.

We start off with the grand-daddy of them all: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  I was already semi-aware of the history of this anti-Semitic forgery, but Aaronovitch provides a lot of information that I'd never heard.  I knew it had been written by a Russian nobleman, but it turns out that it was discovered as a forgery within a decade or so.  (I forget exactly how long and my kid nicked the book.)  Not only that, most of it turned out to be directly plagiarized from a French novel satirizing Napoleon III...which was much older than the date of the supposed meeting it records.  The Protocols has been known to be a forgery for over 100 years now, and yet it's still a tremendously popular 'source.'

From there, we move to Stalin's fake trials and obsession with Trotsky, and then some very complex American history that winds up taking in the New Deal, America First, the idea that "Roosevelt knew" about the attack on Pearl Harbor, and eventually the McCarthy era.  And there's a lovely chapter about JFK's assassination, and even Marilyn Monroe gets a look-in.

One really interesting thing about this book was that Aaronovitch is British, and so he features several British conspiracy theories, some of which I'd never heard of.  He covers not only the famous theories about Princess Diana's death (which would in fact have been pretty well impossible to orchestrate), but also the murder of an elderly lady involved in anti-nuclear protests and the suicide of a man caught up in a leak scandal.

One of my very favorite chapters, though, was about the development of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, hoaxes about the Priory of Sion (an admitted forgery), and all sorts of weirdness that eventually made its way into The Da Vinci Code, much to the exasperation of wearied tour guides all over Europe.  And then the HBHG authors sued Dan Brown for plagiarism while simultaneously claiming their guff was history!   It's a fairly astounding chapter.

He does not talk about moon landing hoaxes, though, or the anti-vaccine folks, or plenty of other things.  Nobody could cover it all!

I was quite surprised to find out that Gore Vidal was an enthusiastic supporter of conspiracy theories.  Who knew?  Also, it's important, and difficult, and pretty disturbing, to tease out the threads of anti-Semitism that run through so many conspiracy theories.  You can still see them today, and in fact they're getting more obvious. 

Great book, I learned a lot, definitely a favorite of 2019.  I can't exactly call this litany of lies, hoaxes, and delusions entertaining, but Aaronovitch does provide nice doses of wit and humor to keep the reader going through the swamp.

Friday, June 14, 2019

One Night @ the Call Center

My copy features the movie poster
One Night @ the Call Center, by Chetan Bhagat

A couple of novels by Chetan Bhagat came across the donation table, and I took them home to see what they were about.  Bhagat is a popular young Indian author who, I gather, writes about the problems of young Indians.  This is only his second novel, written in 2005.  Bhagat writes in English, but a very Indian version of English, which I liked.

Shyam, like a zillion other young adults in India, works in a call center.  They do a lot of computer support, but Shayam's department deals with appliances.  All night, he and his five team members take calls from Americans having trouble with their ovens or vacuums, which doesn't give them a wonderful opinion of American intelligence.  Shyam wants desperately to move up in the company; he and his co-worker Vroom built a webpage that deals with a lot of customer problems, but his manager just keeps spouting business cliches and telling him he needs to develop his skills.

On the team, we have Vroom, who loves cars; Esha, budding model; Radhika, young wife; Priyanka, who is saving up for college, and Military Uncle, who is much older and kind of grumpy.  During one night -- which is Thanksgiving in the US, and thus involves a lot of calls about turkeys -- they're going to find out some truths about each other.  And eventually, they'll get a phone call from God.

It's a fairly light novel that is obviously hoping to be made into a movie, which it was (Hello, with Salman Khan, and I gather it was a flop).  It's not terrible, but it's not great; it's a standard formula story -- much like The Breakfast Club, say.  But, you know I'm always up for a fun Indian novel.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Summberbook #1: The Pendulum

The Pendulum: A Granddaughter's Search for Her Family's Forbidden Nazi Past, by Julie Lindahl

Not so long ago, I read Belonging by Nora Krug, about a German woman's search for her family's past and her fears about what she might find.  Krug's journey ended in a bit of relief; for the most part, her grandparents hadn't done anything much.  Julie Lindahl, however, found some really terrible things in her family's history, and this is her memoir.

Julie Lindahl, who is just a few years older than I am, was born in Brazil to a German family.  That fact in itself contains a lot of information, but Lindahl grew up -- mostly in Europe -- without knowledge of what it might mean.  Her family's silence about the past was complete, even as it warped all their relationships; they thought they should not burden the future.  It didn't work.  Little Julie, even as a tiny child, felt that she herself must be somehow guilty of the worst crimes, though she did not know what they could be.

As a young woman in her 20s, Lindahl started to realize that her grandparents must have done something during World War II.  It took many years to unearth the truth; her grandfather had died in Brazil, and her grandmother maintained a steadfast refusal to acknowledge the past as it had actually occurred.  She would reminisce about their lovely estate in Poland without admitting what had happened -- though her ongoing nightmares and nervous tics told their own story.  Everyone told Lindahl never to ask.

So Lindahl had to find out almost everything on her own, through government records and historical sources, finding the other people who knew the history and were willing to take her to the sites.  Visits in Poland and Germany eventually turned into trips to Brazil -- Lindahl even found her uncle, who was not dead at all.  Facing the past brought Lindahl a lot of pain, but also healing -- sometimes of her family relationships, but also new family to love and understand, friends who helped, and many kindnesses.

This isn't just a fascinating story of tracking down history.  It's also a meditation on oppression and cruelty, forgiveness and healing -- how to face the past and deal with it, so it informs the future without burdening it unduly.  I'm very glad I could read it.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Elizabeth and her German Garden

Elizabeth and her German Garden, by Elizabeth von Arnim

Elizabeth von Arnim is most famous as the author of The Enchanted April, a novel I am very fond of.  I think I would like to re-read it now.  This is actually her first book, which reads as a memoir but is really a novel I think.   She published it, anonymously, in 1898 and it turned out a huge best-seller.  From then on, her many books were billed as "by the author of Elizabeth of Her German Garden," or just "by Elizabeth."  However, debts forced her and her husband to sell the estate memorialized in the novel and move to England, and then the husband died in 1910.  Elizabeth moved to a chateau in Switzerland, had an affair with H. G. Wells, and hung out with clever people.  A disastrous second marriage (to Bertrand Russell's brother Francis) ended in separation, as she fled to America in 1919.  She spent the next two decades in various parts of Europe, until she moved to America and lived there for the last couple years of her life, dying in 1941.

As I said, this reads like a memoir.  It's just Elizabeth's narrative of her life in this rather isolated German estate; she goes ahead of the rest of the family, to put the house in order, but regards the house as very secondary to the garden, for which she has plans and ambitions.  If at all possible, she will spend the whole day in the garden, hoping nobody will bother her.  As the family arrives, she often has her three small daughters (the April, May, and June babies, as she calls them) with her.  People visit; one is her best friend and enjoyable, others are foisted upon her and provide exasperation or entertainment.  (The solution for truly exasperating people is to take them on a summer picnic at the Baltic coast -- which is incredibly beautiful, but also overrun with mosquitoes.)

It's a lovely, pleasurable, and relaxing read, with the exception of the husband, who I hope was nicer in real life than she let him be in the story.  It's an odd portrayal, which mixes affection and annoyance...but he doesn't come off all that well.  Maybe it worked better in 1898?

I can't decide whether this is English or German literature.  It's both and neither.  Von Arnim is an Englishwoman living in Germany, and while she likes it that way, she's kind of prickly about both lands.  She portrays herself as not very good at enjoying company or other people all that much.

I could really see the roots of The Enchanted April, so that was interesting too.  I did enjoy this one a lot, but there was a fly in the ointment.

My copy is a slightly elderly Virago paperback.  I can't find a link to a decent real-life edition on Amazon, but the Kindle version is free.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan

Hello summer!  I finished my semester at work about 10 days ago, and I thought I would relax and take it easy for a few days, but the universe had other plans and dumped a bunch of random stuff in my lap.  I can't even remember what, but it sure kept me busy.  Now $20booksofsummer has started, and I have six books waiting to be blogged about, all of which I started before June 1st.  So I'm going to play a bit of catchup here...

My neighborhood has a Little Free Library, and I found this novel in there one morning.  I was skeptical that it would be any good -- novels about bookstores abound, after all -- but I didn't quite want to not read it.  The book startled me quite a bit by glowing at me in the dark after I'd gone to bed; all the books on the cover are printed in glow-in-the-dark ink, on the spine and the back and everything.  And once I got into it, I found that I was pleasantly surprised by this very fun, beguiling novel.

Clay is an up-and-coming young designer in the Bay Area until the 2008 recession hits him hard and the startup he's been working for* fails.  Desperate for work, he lands a spot as night clerk at this 24-hour bookstore, where almost nobody buys books.  Instead, odd people come in and borrow mysterious books from the back room.  The books are encoded; what are these people up to?

Clay ends up with a team of friends -- Kat, the Google genius he loves, his roommate the model builder, his best friend and software millionaire Neel, and eventually Mr. Penumbra himself -- working on solving the antique riddle set by Aldus Manutius himself.  Kat figures the power of the internet can solve anything!

This was such a fun scavenger hunt novel.  Also it's much better written than The Da Vinci Code, which apparently it has been compared to.  Yes, there is an old puzzle and a scavenger hunt, but those are the only resemblances.  Sloan deliberately occupies a space at the intersection of technology and antiquity, and he has a great time doing it.  I would have expected him to do it really badly, but no!  it's so entertaining and witty!

There were some really good jokes and descriptions of the techie life.  I insisted that my husband sit and listen to me read him a description of various coding languages (C, Ruby, etc.).  Here are some other favorite bits:

Neel made his millions in middleware....He sells tools they cannot do without -- tools they will pay top dollar for.  I'll cut to the chase:  Neel Shah is the world's leading expert on boob physics.

Neel takes a sharp breath and I know exactly what that means.  It means: I have waited my whole life to walk through a secret passage built into a bookshelf.**

Kate gushes about Google's projects, all revealed to her now.  They are making a 3-D web browser.  They are making a car that drives itself.  They are making a sushi search help people find fish that is sustainable and mercury-free.  They are building a time machine.  They are developing a form of renewable energy that runs on hubris.

You know, I'm really starting to think the whole world is just a patchwork quilt of crazy little cults, all with their own secret spaces, their own records, their own rules.

Also, I suspect that the Emeryville-based "California Museum of Knitting Arts and Embroidery Sciences" is a jokey expansion of Lacis in Berkeley?

So, just a giddy romp through the meadows of bibliomania and techie dreams, and great fun.  Oh, and guess what, there's a novella prequel as well, easiest to get on Kindle for a couple bucks.  I just got it.

*NewBagel, which produces robotically perfect and uniform bagels and sounds positively Pinkwateresque.

**We all have, Neel.  We know exactly how you feel.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019


Kappa, by Akutagawa Ryonosuke

The poet Akutagawa, who suffered from mental illness or depression for most of his life, wrote this novella in 1927 at top speed, in just a couple of weeks.  He did this right after his sister's husband committed suicide, leaving him to straighten out a terrible financial mess.  The story was written out of his disgust with life, the world, and most of all with himself.

This is the narrative of patient #23 in a mental hospital: he met a kappa one day and chased it, falling into Kappaland.  He had to join Kappa society, learn to speak, and make friends.  After a year or so, he became disenchanted with Kappa life and found a way back home, but now he wants only to return, and he describes his friends and Kappa society to anyone who will listen.

When a Kappa is about to be born, the father yells in to it and asks if it really wants to be born and exist, warning it to think carefully.  The child in the story answers:  "I do not wish to be born.  In the first place, it makes me shudder to think of all the things that I shall inherit from my father -- the insanity alone is bad enough.  And an additional factor is that I maintain that a Kappa's existence is evil."

Antique Kappa classifications

The poet Tok is Akutagawa's self-portrait -- he has strong views about art and considers himself a super-Kappa (just as every Kappa artist does; they all like Nietzsche I guess)  He kills himself and haunts his house, wanting only to know if his work is now admired as it ought to be.

In Kappaland, the ladies do all the pursuing and the men run away as much as possible.  Books are published from a ground grey powder, and workers who lose their jobs are eaten.  While this story is something of a fable, it's also very obviously a vicious satire of ordinary Japanese life. 

It's an absorbing little novel, and very very short -- I actually read the whole thing while sitting at the airport waiting for my flight.  Give it a try!

Friday, May 31, 2019

CC Spin: Stories of Walter de la Mare

Short Stories, vol. 1, by Walter de la Mare

When will I learn not to read giant collections of short stories all at once?  I regret it every time.

Walter de la Mare sure wrote a whole lot of short stories.  They were for an adult audience and published in magazines at the turn of the century, when there was an endless demand for them.  Volume I covers 1895 - 1926, so a good bit more than just the turn of the century. 

These stories are mostly somewhat spooky.  They're not outright scary or horror; they're gently unsettling, or creepy, or disturbing, but they're not usually obvious about it. 

Some of them are rather thematic.  There were four or five stories in a row featuring characters inspecting gravestones for interesting, amusing, or pathetic epitaphs, which I sincerely hope were real epitaphs de la Mare had collected himself.

One story, one of the more obviously spooky ones called "The Riddle," had a detail that I believe may well have made its way into John Bellairs' The Mansion in the Mist.   

But, the trouble is that when I try to read an entire collection of short stories, I very soon get pretty tired of whatever the short stories are.  This is nearly 500 pages' worth of de la Mare being gently unsettling, and I just didn't want that much all at once.  So while I didn't finish the collection, I did get a good dose of de la Mare, and I believe I could spot one of his stories at 100 paces.  I'm going to call it good.

So that was a fairly successful Spin, I think.  I hope another one shows up soon -- and meanwhile, tomorrow is the start of 20 Books of Summer!

Thursday, May 30, 2019


Baho! by Roland Rugero

If you're trying to read around the world, some countries have abundant literature available in English (Nigeria, for example) and others, not so much.  Since I'm late to this project, I'm benefiting from a minor but noticeable trend to make global literature more available in English.  I'm seeing more books published from countries that haven't previously been available -- my TBR pile includes the first novels from Madagascar, Guinea Bissau, and other places.  (I also got to read the first literature to come out of North Korea, but that's more a function of smuggling than of publishers taking notice.)  And this is the first Burundian novel available in English.  It was written in French, but also contains a good deal of Kirundi, which is left in and a translation added.

Nyamurgari, a mute teenage boy, is out working and tries to ask a girl where he can go to relieve himself.  Frightened, the girl thinks he is trying to rape her, and screams for help.  Nyamurgi wants to explain everything, but first he has to run away...and then a mob is after him.

As Nyamurgi flees, other people's perspectives break in.  An old one-eyed woman tending her goats remembers the time before the drought, before the war that shattered her country, and she keeps an eye on Nyamurgi through the whole ordeal.  We are shown parts of Nyamurgi's childhood, scenes of local life, and memories from Nyamurgi's uncle, an ex-soldier who is planning to save his nephew from the mob.

Although tribal names appear only once in the entire novel, memories of the war between the Hutus and the Tutsis keep erupting into the story from below.  Everyone is living with unbearable memories they try to forget; everyone is afraid.  Nyamurgi becomes a scapegoat for their fear, but the story also offers him a chance at escape.  Maybe the people can escape their past, also?

The one-eyed old woman has respect for every thing living.  From a young age she knew to respect the Twas, the third ethnic group after the Hutus and the Tutsis.  It was even murmered that she might be one of them, by her father's bloodlines.  But it does not matter!  The essential thing is to live.
This is an extremely short novel, really a novella, and yet it manages to fit in several perspectives with stories of their own.   Because it switches perspective often (which is apparently a Burundian storytelling technique, I liked that) and is sometimes kind of opaque, I wouldn't classify it as an 'easy' read.  It actually took me a few days to read it, when I thought I'd be able to zip through.  It's a really interesting novel and, I think, a good choice if you're making a list of global or African literature to read.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Women Talking

A remarkably hideous cover IMO
Women Talking, by Miriam Toews

Whoof, this is a difficult one, folks, so you have been warned.  First a very short background, then the novel, then some information about the reality.

For a few years in the mid-2000s, women in a particular Old Order Mennonite colony in Bolivia suffered from mysterious night-time violence.  In 2009, nine men were arrested and charged with drugging entire households with an anesthetic spray in order to rape girls and women.  They were convicted in a mass trial and are in jail.

Miriam Toews, who grew up in a more liberal Mennonite family in Canada, wrote Women Talking as a sort of novelistic response to the events in Bolivia.  I don't know that she's actually trying to portray the people and events; the characters are based on people she knew, and she doesn't seem to have gone to Bolivia.  I really get the feeling that she tidied everything up a lot for her narrative, which may have been necessary, I don't know.

In the novel, eight women are gathering in a hayloft to discuss what they should do in response to the mass rapes.  The perpetrators are arrested, all the men have gone to town to post bail for them, and these few women are taking this chance to be together and formulate a response to the demand put upon them: that they either forgive the perpetrators, or be excommunicated.   The colony's schoolteacher, August Epp, is taking minutes since the women are illiterate, and he's the narrator.  They have three possible routes open to them: they can stay and fight, do nothing, or leave.

As the women discuss their options, they also work through their relationships with each other and the implications of leaving or staying.  They want to be true to their beliefs, and they don't think they can just stay and pretend nothing happened.  But they know almost nothing about the world outside their colony; they don't even speak Spanish.

This is a gripping novel.  It's pretty short and not at all a difficult read, so it's fast and compelling.  That said, I have some problems with it.  Even before reading anything about the real-life case, I wasn't sure I should buy the idea that all the women are completely illiterate, never having gone to school at all.  (I don't know that much about Mennonites, but in my limited experience they're big on literacy.)  I'm not sure I love the idea of using a man as the narrator for this story, even if he's as sympathetic as August is, and widely considered to be not actually a Man.

After reading the novel, which I did without ever having heard of the Manitoba colony, I found a couple of articles about it.  This article from Vice is the fruit of a months-long project that included stays with a Manitoban family.  I learned from it that these are Old Order Mennonites, somewhat more radical than the Mennonites I have met, but the girls still go to school and learn to read, though they don't get as much math and accounting as the boys do.  I also learned that far from trying to bail out the perpetrating men, colony leaders were the ones who turned them in, deeming the case too difficult for them to deal with on their own as they normally would.  As far as I can tell, Toews both neatened up the story and also made it worse in several ways, which you would think would be quite difficult to do.  I'm not sure we needed it to be made worse.

After that, I found a fascinating series of articles written in a Canadian Mennonite publication.  I link to the first one, but I would recommend that if you start, you stay with it through at least all four installments -- they aren't that long -- and perhaps the two 'extras' as well.  From this, I learned quite a lot, including that the jailed men may not have been the actual problem; they may have been scapegoats to cover for a much deeper and more widespread issue (the Vice article touches on some aspects of this, but doesn't go into it much).  On the other hand, it's hard to know for sure and we can't just castigate all the men of the colony.  It's much more complex than that.  And this series has some very insightful things to say about the ways in which we tend to assume that we have all the answers and can speak for a group of people we see as backward and primitive.  Commenting both on Toews' novel and the actual colony, the author says:

...I wanted to better understand those women. Instead, I feel I read what a literature-steeped, progressive, Torontonian might have colony women think. 
But to the extent that the book views colony Mennonites through a North American lens, it contradicts what seems essential in supporting colony women. In the context of interviews and Toews’s earlier writings—including a 2016 non-fiction essay for Granta entitled “Peace shall destroy many”—it is hard not to see in Women Talking a bias towards formal education, literature, and urban western society. That is, a bias towards the narrative of civilization, progress and progressiveness.
Our adoption of progress and civilization—including its rampant individualization, materialism and inherent sense of superiority—is largely why colony Mennonites consider us devoid of moral authority and see us as unwelcome intervenors. It’s a shortcoming as glaring to them as their patriarchy and closedness is to us. We see ourselves as better; they see themselves as better. And the women remain isolated behind a wall of men, beyond the reach of concerned North Americans.
So.  I'm ambivalent about this novel.  While it's good to bring these issues into the light, and there was much that I appreciated about the story as it was written, I also feel like it might be a disservice to tidy up the story so much.  And I think it's really strange to take an utterly horrific real-life event and make it worse for a novel, as if it  Sensation?  A clearer message?

Monday, May 27, 2019

Down Among the Sticks and Bones and All Systems Red

Down Among the Sticks and Bones, by Seanan McGuire

AND All Systems Red: The Murderbot Diaries, by Martha Wells

I read two short, modern SFF novels, so I thought I'd bundle them, though they have little in common otherwise.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones:  Twin sisters Jillian and Jacqueline have been forced into certain patterns by their unseeing parents...and then they find a staircase in the closet, that takes them to the Moors.  A different law holds sway there.  They're taken in to the Master's castle, and while Jack chooses to go and live with the local doctor, Jill chooses a princess' life.  Will they be able to save each other when the time comes?

This story was fine, but a little too Angela Carter-esque for my taste.  There was a lot to like, and I enjoyed it OK, but the overall impression was not my style.  I also found it hard to believe in the parents.

All Systems Red: Far in the future, planetary exploration is sponsored by corporations, and the lowest bidder wins the job -- which means that safety equipment doesn't always work like it should.  The security android for this surveying expedition has hacked its own software and calls itself Murderbot.  It just wants to be left alone to watch serials and figure out what it is, but then the mission group on the other side of the planet goes dark and the scientists have to figure out what happened, so Murderbot is along for the ride.

I really liked this one.  It did remind me a lot of a Doctor Who episode (say, early 11th Doctor), but I like Doctor Who.  I enjoyed Murderbot's perspective, the story was good, the characters were well-done.  It's really a novella, and I think there are four in the series now.  I might even read them.


I do have to admit that the word 'Murderbot,' while awesome, also brought this old Muppet show clip to mind, which was probably not what Wells was going for.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Playing Back the 80s

Playing Back the 80s: A Decade of Unstoppable Hits, by Jim Beviglia

This was just a fun book for me to look through.  Beviglia really just wrote letters to absolutely everybody who had a hit song in the 80s, asking for the story behind the song.  If he got an answer, he did an interview and published the story -- just one song per band.  As a result, the book is a little hit-and-miss; presumably Madonna didn't bother to reply (I don't like Madonna anyhow so that was OK with me), and he says in the foreword that although he's a big fan of 80s rap, nobody responded, so there's no rap and it makes him sad.

The selection is stronger on early 80s material than on the later years, and I would say that it's heavy on groups that were not as well-known.  The Police appear, but not U2 or Depeche Mode.  No Cyndi Lauper.  However, many of my own favorites are here, like Men Without Hats, Corey Hart, Bruce Hornsby, Talking Heads, and lots of others.  There were also some songs I just didn't know, like Lunatic Fringe by Red Rider.

The fun thing about this book was that it was obviously necessary to listen to each song as I read about it.  I tried to just read the book at first, but it would describe some particular feature of the song, like the delayed chorus of Journey's Don't Stop Believin', and I'd have to go find my phone and bring up Google Play so I could figure out just what he was talking about, and so pretty soon I just sat on the couch playing each song as I read, even if it was a song I don't really like (*cough* Eye of the Tiger).   A bunch of new things made it on to my playlist!

I definitely do not love all the songs listed.  For some reason that awful thing Cry by Godley & Creme is there (how was that a hit??), and I've always hated the Piña Colada song but I'm hardly the only one.  There are some real oddballs, like Styx' Mr. Roboto, one of the weirdest songs ever, and one of my all-time favorites, Georgia Satellites' Keep Your Hands to Yourself.

So much fun.  For those of us who loved the 80s, anyway!

I decided I had to include one video, but it was hard to pick just one.  I figured on going with the ultimate 80s ballad, Don't Stop Believin', but it doesn't seem to be around.  So I pick the cheerful lunacy of The Safety Dance!

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Alienated America

Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse, by Timothy P. Carney

After the 2016 election, we all saw a lot of people trying to figure out just how and why Trump won.  There's been a lot of blame going around, but I've never really seen an explanation that I thought really hit the nail on the head, until I ran into this book.  Carney focused in on the original, core Trump fan base -- not the people who eventually voted for him because he was the Republican nominee, but the people who really cottoned on to his campaign from the beginning -- and looked for the common denominator.

Carney's thesis was that certain segments of the population really resonated with Trump's declaration that the American dream is dead.  A lot of people didn't agree with that at all, but that's because this is all geographically based.  There are plenty of places in the US where the American dream is dead, and those are the places that produced Trump's core.

Carney describes a cycle that includes three major ingredients: jobs, families, and community support.  If you have all three, the result is a thriving community.  Start losing them, and you get a downward spiral in which unsupported families fall apart or cannot form, which produces people who aren't well-suited for working, and community breaks.

A major thing I took from this is that you can't have just a person/household and a state.  People need middle-size institutions -- local organizations that they contribute to and that provide support and meaning.  These things can, and should, come in a wide variety of flavors: neighborhood sporting groups, the PTA, the bird-watching association, the Lions or Rotary, the quilt guild and the library and the local churches.  But churches turn out to be the really big one.  They've always been important in American civil life, and when churches close, there is not a lot to replace them and it is a real loss, especially to the lower-income people who need community most.

I suppose that this is because churches are some of the very few institutions that bring a very wide variety of people together and then explicitly expect them to support and help each other and the wider community.  My church congregation is mostly made up of people who are not particularly like me.  There are all ages and income levels and backgrounds, and we are organized to produce community almost automatically, by teaching each other's kids, by paying attention to needs, by being expected to show up and do certain things on a regular basis.

Church makes it easy to do service work on both a large scale and one-on-one.  This has always been true -- for example, in my congregation, nobody had to think up the idea of getting the teens to feed the homeless, it just happens that our turn comes around, and the kids are expected to show up and do it.  After the Camp Fire, though, I saw it work on an enormous scale.  Everybody in town wanted to do something, and they did -- but it was easy to find things to do through the churches.  There was a website at mine that let people sign up to host families and say whether they could deal with pets/wheelchairs/babies/etc. so people were matched up easily.  Trucks of toys arrived and the kids were told to organize them into a giant Christmas store (the usual police-sponsored Toys for Tots, only huge).  Most teens would have liked to do something like that, but a lot might not have the opportunity as easily.  Trucks of furniture showed up and the call would go out to come unload.  At the same time, if one elderly lady with asthma was suffering from the smoke, a call would go out and somebody would come up with an air filtering machine, take it over there, and get her taken care of. 

A bunch of teens organizing a zillion toys for kids who lost their homes
I don't know of a secular equivalent of this, but we need to figure one out.  Church is becoming less common, but those community needs are still there.  The dissolution of community life appears to be driving a lot of our problems.  I talked about this with my oldest, who is totally uninterested in church but retains a lot of that community training, and who was very interested in the question because it's very visible.

Anyway, there was a lot more to this book -- it's quite long and contains a lot of fascinating analysis, both of communities that are disintegrating, and of ones that are thriving, plus a lot more. 

The same three things we saw with the erosion of the family we see with the erosion of community: it is unequally distributed, it is concentrated in the working class, and it is geographically discrete to the point that we can see it on a map. 

Half the problems we think of as problems of poverty are problems of eroded civil society.  half the problems we think of as problems of modernity are really problems of eroded civil society. (147)  [I recently saw another book making this point: Palaces for the People by Eric Klinenberg.  The first chapter is about libraries!]

When central government grows past a certain point, civil society retreats. (157)

This is the tendency of a large central state: when you strengthen the vertical bonds between the state and the individual, you tend to weaken the horizontal bonds between individuals.  What's left is a whole that by some measures is more cohesive, but individuals who are individually all less connected to one another. (197)

...we couldn't tell the story of Trump without discussing community.  They story of how we got Trump is the story of the collapse of community, which is also the story behind out opioid plague, our labor-force dropouts, our retreat from marriage, and our growing inequality. (205)

Just as Occupy Wall Street turned to the central state for relief from alienation and disenfranchisement, Trumpism offered a strongman to restore things to their proper order.  The contradiction should be obvious, though.
The disenfranchisement Americans have felt is not really a matter of the federal government being taken away from the people -- Washington was always too distant, always too large for any individual or family to have meaningful sway.  Modern disenfranchisement was really the disappearance and erosion of the layers of society where an individual and a family can make a difference. 
But once that middle layer of society is gone for long enough, many people -- especially those most effected by its absence -- can no longer imagine it or see its value.  Instead, knowing in their hears that they are political animals made to shape the world around them, they look to the most visible level of politics (because it's the one that is still there and not fading) and imagine that it's at that level that they're supposed to live their potential as political animals. (214)

Local institutions of civil society allow for more pluralism, more voice, and more human-level politics.  Centralized politics raise the stakes and make the ordinary man feel powerless. (216)
I'm officially declaring this one to be a Book Everyone Should Read.  Whether you do or not, though, think about what you are doing in your community, and whether there is more you could do in some way that fits you.

The whole time I was reading Carney commenting on the community benefits churches bring, the same line kept repeating in my head, so here it is:

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

20 Books of Summer

Hooray, it's that time again, when we start planning our summer reading and Cathy posts her #20booksofsummer challenge!

Cathy says:
Can I keep up my winning streak and complete my 20 Books of Summer challenge this year?
From 3 June until 3 September I will be attempting to read my 20 Books of Summer. Why not join in with your own 20 (or 10, or 15!), read along with some of the books or just cheer me on as I try and get that dreaded 746 down by another 20 in just 3 months.
So I spent a happy evening checking out my TBR and library shelves, and here is the result.

 It was very difficult to pick 20 books and I wound up with 22, telling myself that two are alternates in case I hate some.  I was quite tempted to choose 20 books from different countries for my Reading All Around the World project, but I decided that I wanted a variety.  I wound up with 4 Around the World titles (that is, for countries I haven't hit yet), 12 Classics Club books, 6 from my TBR (3 from Adam's list and 3 random), 3 chosen for WIT in August, and a few just for fun because I want them.  I have plenty more if I run out.
  1. The Walls of Jericho, by Rudolph Fisher (CC)
  2. Four Birds of Noah's Ark, by Thomas Dekker (CC)
  3. Kalpa Imperial, by Angelica Gorodischer (WIT)
  4. Purge, by Sofi Oksanen (RAAtW, TBR, WIT)
  5. Paradise of the Blind, by by Duong Thu Huong (CC, RAAtW, WIT)
  6. The Book of Chameleons, by Jose Eduardo Agualusa (RAAtW)
  7. The Palm-Wine Drinkard, by Amos Tutuola (CC, RAAtW)
  8. The Inland Sea, by Donald Richie
  9. Arthurian Romances, Tales, and Lyric Poetry by Hartmann von Aue (CC)
  10. Secondhand Time, by Svetlana Alexievich (CC)
  11. A House Full of Females, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (TBR)
  12. Midnight Riot, by Ben Aaronovitch
  13. The Adventures of Roderick Random, by Tobias Smollett (CC, TBR)
  14. The Claverings, by Anthony Trollope (CC, TBR)
  15. The Wanderer (Anglo-Saxon bits and bobs) (CC)
  16. Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut (CC, TBR)
  17. The Plague, by Albert Camus (CC)
  18. The Lais of Marie de France (CC)
  19. Jamaica Inn, by Daphne du Maurier (TBR)
  20. The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, by Anderson and Yelchin
  21. The Pendulum, by Julie Lindahl
  22. Ganga, by Julian Hollick (TBR)
I sure hope I'll have more time for reading this summer than I have had lately!  There are so many fascinating books out there...and I find more at work all the time.  Right now, my brain is telling me to "stock up for summer" despite the piles of books all over the place.  I tried to resist but it didn't work very well.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Drawn From Memory and Drawn From Life

Drawn From Memory and Drawn From Life, by E. M. Shepard

Last Christmas, I had utterly failed to find a good gift for my mom and had fallen back on nice socks.  We all like socks, but still.  And on December 23, Lory posted about her new book -- a memoir by E. H. Shepard, who illustrated Winnie the Pooh and The Wind in the Willows.  This was clearly the ideal gift!  It didn't arrive for weeks, but eventually my mom got a really good present, and then I borrowed it too.  Naturally!

Drawn from Memory is the story of Shepard's early childhood until the age of 8, and it is utterly charming.  He was a the child of a fairly ordinary middle-class Victorian family in London, albeit one with theatrical and artistic connections.  It was 1887, and life was very exciting, what with horses and cabs, ships in the seas, and a Jubilee for the Queen.  Shepard just shares a succession of memories of ordinary Victorian life, from childhood illnesses to exciting moments such as a neighborhood fire or a trip to the pantomime.  Such as:

I remembered very well my first introduction to sea-bathing. Father and Mother had been in for a dip and had taken Ethel with them. Cyril and I were handed over to the tender mercies of the Bathing Woman. This formidable female was dressed in a serge bathing dress and a straw bonnet.  She had red and brawny arms and her skin looked as if it were covered with barnacles. As she spent most of her life in the water, this may even have been the case. Her method was simple: the more difficult subjects, like my brother and myself, were tucked under her arms, where, our tender skin suffering acutely from contact with the rough serge, we were carried out to sea. The protesting body was then ducked, not once but several times, according to how the victim took it. The more he yelled, the more the duckings, until, nearly asphyxiated, he was reduced to silence. The torturer, meanwhile, in what was supposed to be a soothing voice, repeated, 'Dippy go under, dear!'  with each immersion, though her final remark to me did not sound like that. It took a lot to reduce me to silence and I was handed back to my parents with the comment: 'Well, that's the last I want to see of 'im!'
When Shepard was ten, his mother became ill and died, which was an enormous shock and loss to them all.  Thus he begins his second memoir at that point, when his life was shattered.  He and his siblings went to live with the aunts for a while.  School also began around then and was quite horrible for a while.  There were, however, many better moments as well, and as young Ernest had always been talented at drawing, he started to attend art classes.  This memoir goes all the way up through art school, his engagement with his wife Florence (Pie), who was a talented painter, and the beginning of their married life.

Both volumes, as you'd expect, are liberally sprinkled with lovely little illustrations.   They're a joy to read and I'd highly recommend them to anyone interested in Victorian life or, as we might say, the lives of great illustrators.  Shepard's work is so well known -- almost anyone would recognize the drawings of Winnie the Pooh -- and this might be a nice selection for any Pooh or Wind in the Willows fan.

"simply messing about in boats"

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Born a Crime

I feel like it's been a really long time since I wrote any posts, but I guess it hasn't been all that long really.  A lot has happened, is all.  I went on a trip!  I visited one of my best friends, who now lives in Utah, and we went to a women's conference at BYU.  I spent a leisurely hour touring the BYU main library, and now I need to live there.  Otherwise, I've mostly been working a lot -- just a week and a bit left to go! -- hanging out with the family, and trying to get sort of caught up with the house in spare moments (a bootless effort, I fear).  Two very busy weekends in a row have meant no time for Howling Frog and now I have a large pile of books!  One of which is...

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, by Trevor Noah

You've probably seen this book everywhere; I know I have.  I know who Trevor Noah is, but I've seen almost nothing of what he's done, since I hardly watch any TV.  That does not matter, though, because this memoir is not at all about becoming a big star in comedy.  It's about growing up in South Africa, being born under apartheid and living through the post-apartheid years.  And it's especially about Noah's mother, who is about as dauntless and brave a person as you could hope to find.

Noah, with a Swiss father and a Xhosa mother, was literally 'born a crime' because apartheid was still in full force and cross-racial dating or marriage was punishable by prison time.   As you all know, the races were strictly divided into black, colored, and white -- and little Trevor looked colored but was not, which meant that he learned to navigate a lot of different groups and speak several languages, because he figured out that if he could speak to people as a member of the group, he was accepted as one. 

He was also, evidently, about the naughtiest kid ever born -- smart and undeterred by painful experience ("I never let the memory of something painful prevent me from trying something new"). 

This memoir consists largely of three ingredients: his mom's amazing bravery, insightful descriptions of how South African society worked, and his own hair-raising adventures.  Of course, Noah manages to turn events that must have been quite terrifying into comedic episodes that make you laugh -- without taking away the seriousness of what happened.  It's a very interesting read, and deserves the attention it's been getting.

Friday, May 3, 2019


 Belonging: A German Reckons With History and Home, by Nora Krug

This showed up on the new books cart at work and I couldn't resist.  That happens a lot, and it's becoming a problem, because I can't read as fast as I can take books I'm trying to only take the books that I don't have on a list.   It probably isn't helping much, but maybe I can read a lot over the summer.  (I say that every summer and it never works.)  Anyway, this was a graphic novel of sorts, and therefore wouldn't take long...

It's actually more like a scrapbook, collage, and diary.  Nora Krug grew up in Germany, and must be just about exactly my age.  This the record of her struggle with being German in the wake of the 20th century; growing up as a child with this sense of collective shame and guilt, while also not quite understanding what actually happened, and having these blank spaces where family members might have been.  The questions: what did her grandparents actually do...or not do?  How did they feel?  How do you develop a sense of heimat, of your home space, or is that not possible?

As an adult, Krug moved to New York City, married a Jewish guy, and continued to wrestle with her family history  -- her lack of knowledge of it.  This is the record of her search for information, interspersed with memories of childhood, favorite German things (often familiar to me too), and historical items picked up at flea markets.  It's entirely absorbing.

Krug keeps her focus right on World War II, and not a lot else.  There is almost nothing about the split between East and West Germany, though she spent her childhood in it.  There is nothing about reunification, which must have happened when she was about 15 or 16.  This is excellent for the memoir, but I would have been interested.

A really good read.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The Zelmenyaners

The Zelmenyaners, by Moyshe Kulbak

A couple of years ago, I read Outwitting History, about saving Yiddish literature from the dumpster of history.  IT was one of my favorite books of the year, and it put some Yiddish titles on my wishlist.  This was one of them, and I finally picked it up!

The Zelmenyaners appeared in a serial format in a Yiddish monthly magazine called Shtern (the Star), published in the Soviet Union.  It was actually two series; the first one ran in 1929 - 1930, and the second 1933 - 1935.  It became a comic family saga, about a Jewish family in Minsk.

None of the Zelmanyaners are actually named that.  Their father, Reb Zelmele, has been dead for a while now, but it's still his courtyard, with his descendants all living around in a big house, and little houses, and stables.  Bubbe Bashe is their matriarch, and she's so old she's like a little hen.  The four sons now have children and grandchildren, and so there are Zelmenyaners all over the place, all a bit alike.  And this is their story, which goes on as the USSR gets more powerful, and it shoves even those Zelmenyaners around.

The first series of stories is funnier than the second, but it's all interesting and enjoyable.  My favorite was probably Uncle Itshe, because
Apart from his family traits, Uncle Itshe has one all his own.  He sneezes like an explosion.  Once a sneeze of his caused a neighbor to faint. 
In the days of the Civil War, Uncle Itshe's sneezing was unnerving....
Me too, Uncle Itshe.  Me too.  Also he's a tailor, so he sews and sneezes, just like me.  Much later on, he has to give up being an independent and go to sew in a factory -- who ever heard of a factory of tailors?

There are all sorts of stories in this satirical story of Jewish Soviet life.  Great stuff, I wish it was better known.  Hooray for the Yiddish Book Center, and the folks who saved these books!

The cover has words in Russian and Hebrew.  I can't read the Hebrew, but the Russian says народная, people.  As in, those are the people's tractors!  If you can read the Hebrew, please comment and tell me what it says.

Monday, April 29, 2019

My Sister, the Serial Killer

My Sister, the Serial Killer, by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Ayoola summons me with these words -- Korede, I killed him.

I had hoped I would never hear those words again.

Korede is the older, plain sister who works hard at her job as a nurse.  Ayoola is the younger and stunningly beautiful younger sister who always gets what she wants and has men falling at her feet.  Ayoola also has a worrying habit; every so often she needs Korede to help her clean up and hide the body of a boyfriend.  The first couple of times, it was easy to believe it was self-defense, but it's getting harder for Korede to believe in Ayoola's innocence.  And now Tade, the kind doctor Korede daydreams about, is interested in Ayoola.

This is a gripping story!  It's a pretty fast read, but it's not a simple story at all.  In the end, it's pretty disturbing.  A good, suspenseful novel.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Spy Runner

Spy Runner, by Eugene Yelchin

I like Eugene Yelchin, writer of middle-grade fiction.  Some years ago I read the Newbery Honor book, Breaking Stalin's Nose, which is great.  And I have a nice new copy of The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge on my TBR shelf; it's co-authored and illustrated by Yelchin.  So when my mom handed me his new novel, I was happy.

Jake is 12, and living right next to an Air Force base, he knows that being a good American is important.  His dad has been missing for 12 years, since the end of World War II, and Jake is pretty sure the Russians have him imprisoned.  He knows all about Communists from his favorite spy comics, so when his mom welcomes a Russian boarder into their home, Jake goes on high alert.  He just knows that Mr. Shubin is a spy.  But pretty soon his classmates are calling him a Communist, and there's this car following him around, and his best friend's dad is acting really weird.  Jake just has to figure out what's going on.

There is a lot in this story!  Jake and his friends don't really know what the Cold War is about, but they're right in the middle of it.  There's some McCarthyism going on, and there's real spying too, and Mr. Shubin is definitely not who he claims to be.

On the other hand, I was kind of annoyed at Jake's mom, who never seems to stop and listen for a minute.

Action-packed, but you'll cry.  A great middle-grade story that is kind of unusual.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The Possessed

The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, by Elif Batuman

This was such a fun book -- at least, if you like Russian literature, or wry stories about oddball academics, or information about Uzbekistan.  I like all of those things.

Elif Batuman writes a sort of memoirish thing about her time in grad school -- some chapters were originally articles, so it's not always a smooth narrative, but it sure is fun.  Instead of writing a novel, she ends up at Stanford studying Russian literature. And then she goes to a conference on Tolstoy, right at Tolstoy's estate!  Eccentric academics abound, Batuman formulates a theory that Tolstoy was murdered, and fun is had by all.  It's finished off by a group dinner so strange and uncomfortable that a faculty member despairingly groans  "It was a dinner from Dostoevsky, that's all."

There is some quite fascinating stuff about Isaac Babel, a library display, King Kong, and Soviet propaganda posters.  I bet you didn't know that King Kong has a connection to Isaac Babel!  I sure didn't.

Much of the book is not about Russian literature, or Russia, at all.  Quite a large chunk is devoted to an intensive language-study stay in Uzbekistan, and the very interesting people there, and Old Uzbek literature. ("Dilorom and I were studying the lesser Old Uzbek scholar-poets.  Most of them were either madmen or saints.")

Then there is some really lunatic stuff about Peter the Great's niece, Anna Ioannovna.  Wow.

Favorite bits:
     “While it's true that, as Tolstoy observed, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and everyone on planet Earth, vale of tears that it is, is certainly entitled to the specificity of his or her suffering, one nonetheless likes to think that literature has the power to render comprehensible different kinds of unhappiness. If it can't do that, what's it good for?  On these grounds I once became impatient with a colleague at a conference, who was trying to convince me that the Red Cavalry cycle would never be totally accessible to me because of Lyutov's "specifically Jewish alienation."
     "Right," I finally said.  "As a six-foot-tall first-generation Turkish woman growing up in New Jersey, I cannot possibly know as much about alienation as you, a short American Jew."
     He nodded: "So you see the problem."

...I [was] ambiguously positioned between Turkey and the exasperating twentieth-century discourse of "shoestring travel": the quest for an idyll where, for three U.S. dollars, Mustafa would serve you a home-cooked meal and tell you about his hair collection.  The worst part of this discourse was its specious left-wing rhetoric, as if it were a form of "sticking it to the man" to reject a chain motel in favor of a cold-water pension completely filled with owls.

[on her surprise at finding that Uzbek actually is related to Turkish, as an eccentric uncle had always asserted] my experience, Turkish people thought that every language was close to our Turkish language.  Many times I had been told that Hungarian was related to Turkish, that the Hungarians and Turks descended from the same Altaic peoples, that Attila the Hun was Turkish, and so on.  When I went to Hungary, however, I discovered that Hungarians do not share these beliefs at all.  "Of course we have some Turkish words in our language," they would say.  "For example, handcuffs.  But that's because you occupied our country for four hundred years."
I enjoyed this one a lot; it's just so much fun.  You don't even have to be terribly interested in Russian literature, just willing to put up with a lot of mentions of Pushkin.  Highly recommended.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The Spin number is...


That's a number I don't think we've had before.

When I first looked at my list to see what 19 was, I read Banana Yoshimoto's Amrita.  So I checked it out of the library and read some pages.  So far so good.

This morning I looked again at my list, and behold, Amrita was #18!  I'm actually supposed to read Walter de la Mare's short stories -- the first volume, anyway.  It's huge.  We'll see how far I get -- it's over 500 pages long!  Amrita looked a lot more doable.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Black Earth

Black Earth: the Holocaust as History and Warning, by Timothy Snyder

This is a truly great work of history, one I would highly recommend.  It's also quite a dense and difficult read, which is why it took me something like 3 months to get through.  It took some concentration to read -- something I don't always have in large supply! -- and it was one of those books where it's very easy to read two pages and then realize you have no idea what those pages said.  It was very worth it, though; this is an important work.

An interesting thing about this book is that it barely touches on the usual focus of the Holocaust: Auschwitz and other famous concentration camps.  Most of this book is about the political background and development of the Holocaust, the beginnings, who cooperated and how.  There is much more about death squads in Eastern Europe.

Snyder gives the most lucid and practical explication of Hitler's philosophy -- if such it can be called -- that I have seen.  Hitler said a lot of things, depending on who he was talking to and trying to persuade, so it's important to pin down what he actually thought, which is there to find.  He wasn't quiet about it or anything, he just also said whatever would help him get what he wanted.

The main claim of the book is that the really important element in killing Jews was to take away the state somehow.  If the structure of the state could be destroyed, Jews were extremely vulnerable.  Being a persecuted minority in a state was a good deal better than being stateless.  Thus it was easiest to kill people in Eastern European states where Soviet Russia had already come in and destroyed or changed much of the government; all they had to do was to destroy what was left.  And the killing was first mostly not done by camps, but by squads of men assigned to the job.  Camps came later. 

What made it possible to get squads of men -- who were often not Germans or Nazis, but members of the invaded lands -- to do this job?  Or for area residents to betray their neighbors to the squads?   That's a large part of Snyder's analysis.  An awful lot of them just thought they would profit or benefit somehow.  Many were people who had cooperated with the Soviets; the Nazis made it clear that killing Jews would get them immunity from punishment, and their neighbors' property.  They were promised benefits to their country if they killed Jews.  And there was always the fear of famine and not enough food to go around.

One lesson of this analysis -- and also of Say Nothing, which I was partly reading at the same time -- is one that I can't seem to put into clever words.  It sounds utterly banal.  But so many of these people did terrible things -- because they thought they would get what they wanted if they did.  A lot of the time they wanted something that sounded good, like freedom for their people.  (Or, quite often, a house or apartment, or some property.)  It never worked, though.  Don't commit bad actions in order to get what you want.   You can't build on a terrible foundation.
The idea of rescue seems close to us; the ideology of murder seems distant. Ecological panic, state destruction, colonial racism, and global antisemitism might seem exotic.  Most people in Europe and North America live in functional states, taking for granted the basic elements of sovereignty that preserved the lives of Jews and others during the war; foreign policy, citizenship, and bureaucracy.  After two generations, the Green Revolution has removed the fear of hunger from the emotions of electorates and the vocabulary of politicians.  The open expression of antisemitic ideas is a taboo in much of the West, if perhaps a receding one. Separated from national Socialism by time and luck, we find it easy to dismiss Nazi ideas without contemplating how they functioned.  Our forgetfulness convinces us that we are different from Nazis by shrouding the ways that we are the same.
A very important book; read it if you can manage to do so.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Essential Encounters

Essential Encounters, by Therese Kuoh-Moukoury

I have read hardly anything for my Around the World project lately, even though I have something like 15 books sitting here waiting to be read.  (I am thinking of making my 20 Books of Summer list completely out of African novels, doesn't that sound good?  I absolutely could, but in that case I'd have to put that one I just chose back on the pile, which doesn't seem like that great a  So I picked this one up to get me back in the groove.  This is a Cameroonian novel, written in 1959 but not published until 10 years later, and it is "the first novel by a woman of sub-Saharan francophone Africa."  In fact it was pretty influential so I thought it would make a good selection.

Flo tells her life story entirely in the present tense, so that everything is happening right now.  As a young woman, she enters a cosmopolitan social circle that includes both black and white, and becomes best friends with Doris, who is French.  They are inseparable and study in France together, but Flo is a dreamy romantic, while Doris has career goals and scorns romance.

Flo eventually meets Joel, a budding doctor, and falls deeply in love.  They marry and all is well, for a time, but Flo loses the baby she wanted so much and cannot seem to conceive again.  This doesn't bother Joel, but Flo feels her womanhood is at stake.  Then she realized that Joel is losing interest in her, and so she hatches a plan.  She'll bring Joel and Doris together, and then at least she'll have a sort of sister-wife, as in the old polygamous days.

The novel is focused on how old Cameroonian mores are changing into an entirely new system, and the two are completely incompatible.  Flo's attempts at bringing back old practices only backfire, but there are not a lot of good options for her in the new system either; Doris just tells her that she should have tried harder to hold on to her husband, as if she hadn't.

What we don't see in this story is much about racial issues.  Kuoh-Moukoury didn't want to go over that ground; she wanted to focus entirely on intimate personal relationships.  It's also an amazingly short novel, less than 100 pages, and every sentence counts.  It doesn't feel rushed or too short, and yet a tremendous amount is packed into those few pages.

This would be a very good selection for somebody wanting to get into African literature; it's not a difficult read, and it touches on so many important themes.  It would make a very good companion read to Mariama Ba's So Long a Letter.

As a side note, I keep thinking the title is a series title about important authors.  It sounds like an academic series, doesn't it?  "Essential Encounters: Buchi Emecheta"  "Essential Encounters: Chinua Achebe"   Essential Encounters: Therese Kuoh-Moukoury"  I keep looking for the novel's actual title elsewhere on the cover.  But no, the title was originally in French and it's about interpersonal relationships, and was probably not supposed to sound like an academic series of author profiles.

Monday, April 15, 2019

It's the Classics Spin #20!

Well, this is just what I need to get back in the groove!  Life kind of took over there for a couple of weeks, and I just haven't seemed to find time for blogging.  Even reading hasn't been doing so hot, though I did finish a very dense history book.  On the other hand, we're having a spectacular (and long!) spring and work has been hopping, so things are fine.  And I love me a Spin!

This is the 20th CC Spin, and I have done every single one, which I believe is something only Brona and I can say.  She can even list all her links, which I have never found the time to collect.  Anyway, the rules are simple: list 20 books from your CC list, and commit to reading the one that comes up on the CC's roulette wheel.  The prize is the reading experience -- admittedly, once in a while you get the booby prize!
Guess I'd better put something good into that 7 slot

1 has been my unlucky number a few times, so I'm going to put something really easy in that slot.  That number has something against me!  The winning number will be announced next week on April 22.

  1. The Claverings, by Anthony Trollope 
  2. The Plague, by Albert Camus
  3. The Burning Plain, by Juan Rulfo
  4. Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens 
  5. Sketches From a Hunter's Album, by Turgenev
  6. Lorna Doone, by R. D. Blackmore
  7. Madwoman on the Bridge, by Su Tong 
  8. Four Stories, by Selma Lagerlöf 
  9. Oblomov, by Goncharov
  10. Paradise of the Blind, by Duong Thu Huong
  11. The Well at the End of the World, by William Morris
  12. Amerika, by Kafka
  13. The Road From Coorain by Jill Ker Conway
  14. Subtly Worded, by Teffi  
  15. Palm-Wine Drinkard, by Tutuola
  16. Lais of Marie de France
  17. The Bride-Price, by Buchi Emecheta
  18. Amrita, Banana Yoshimoto
  19. Stories by Walter de la Mare (vol. 1)
  20. Elizabeth and her German Garden, by Elizabeth von Arnim
Looking at my list, I see it's out of date.  I have a whole pile of African and Latin American literature that I haven't yet put on there.  I'd better do something about that.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Say Nothing

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, by Patrick Radden Keefe

It was complete coincidence that my co-worker lent me this book in March and I felt like I ought to read it right away instead of putting it on the TBR pile where it would sit for a year.  But I did read it, and it was pretty gripping, as well as very depressing and now I have a lot of Feelings.  I should note that except for this book, my knowledge of Northern Irish politics is gained mainly from osmosis and not any systematic study. 

Say Nothing is ostensibly about the disappearance and murder of Jean McConville, a Belfast widow and mother of ten, in 1972, at the height of the Troubles.  It's really more about everything the IRA was doing, but the story of Mrs. McConville serves as a focusing lens.

Northern Ireland, in the 1960s, was a fairly poor area, with about 2/3 Protestants and 1/3 Catholics.  The Catholics were very definitely an oppressed minority, disallowed from good jobs.  The Protestants, as a minority within the entire island, also felt threatened, which encouraged them to continue policies of exclusion towards Catholics.  Illegal paramilitary groups and British government forces entangled each other in an ever-increasing spiral of violence.

This book focuses on the IRA -- mostly the Provisionals -- but it's made very clear that the Protestant paramilitaries were doing pretty much exactly the same kind of thing, except they had the British on their side.  The Provos considered themselves to be soldiers in a war against an occupying force, and as such they planned to shove the British out of Northern Ireland.  The Provo narrative is mainly about two sisters, Dolours and Marian Price, and two men, Gerry Adams and Brendan Hughes.  All four were deeply involved in the Provos.

Jean McConville's story is short.  She was a Protestant married to a Catholic (not common, but not unknown when they married in the 50s) and lived in Catholic neighborhoods.  They had ten children and when her husband died of cancer, she fell into a depression, rarely leaving the apartment where the family lived.  One night she was taken by the IRA and interrogated; the next day (or perhaps several days later), she was taken again and just disappeared.  No one helped the children, who nearly starved before being taken into various horrible institutions. 

Keefe weaves all of this stuff into a complicated but coherent narrative.  There are bombings, murders, double-crossings, and a code of silence that makes it all difficult to document.  There are, for example, two stories about Mrs. McConville's abduction; that the family had been labeled 'Brit-lovers' after she gave a pillow to an injured British soldier outside her door, or, according to the IRA, she was an informer -- which seems unlikely for several reasons. 

Keefe gives quite a bit of history: such as the bombs, which were in theory supposed to damage property and the economy, thus the British (who owned the businesses).  Of course, in actual fact they hurt and killed people and the rest of the UK barely noticed.  So they figured they'd take the war to London and make people sit up and take notice.  The trouble with bombs is, they're not very controllable.  As far as I can see, the IRA's dedication to violence mostly backfired on them. 

Gerry Adams seems to have been the guy who decided that politics would work better, and he gradually worked his way through politics until he could get the Good Friday agreement going.  In his public career, he always denied ever belonging to the IRA, and his political aspirations really embittered his former companions, who were left wondering why they had done such terrible things if their promised reward -- the British out of Northern Ireland -- was going to be denied.  Having committed such violence in their youth, they frequently spent the rest of their lives trying to drink away the memories.  Adams comes off as calculating and kind of a sociopath -- albeit also possibly the only person who could put together a cease-fire and agreement.

Keefe only mentions the Omagh bombing and the Real IRA in passing, which I found odd when so much time is given to the ins and outs of the rest of the process.  My understanding is that Omagh gave a large boost to the controversial Good Friday agreement.  Instead Keefe skips right over it to talk about Boston College's oral history project to collect the testimonies of the people involved, only to be opened after their deaths.  That's fascinating too, and it didn't go all that well.

Mrs. McConville's remains were finally found buried on a beach on the Cooley peninsula in Louth.  Her children were never really given any solace.

I learned a whole lot.  I'd like to read about the 'other' side as well.  All of it is very dark and a terrible warning of where human beings can go in the name of a cause, or because of there being two opposing sides.  I mean, look at the McConville children; everyone knew their mother was gone and they were on their own, and nobody was prepared to help them, because they were tainted by possible contact with the other side.  Surrounded by people they knew, they were left entirely alone. 

Or the Provisional IRA members, who committed murders in the name of a possible future, and then murdered their own members as well.  Who planted huge bombs and then blamed others for it.  Who 'disappeared' people for what, in the end, turned out to be maybe no reason at all.  Even their self-justifications turned out to be nothing.