Friday, August 23, 2019

The Opal and Other Stories

The Opal and Other Stories, by Gustav Meyrink

Here's another book I found at the university library.  I actually looked for The Green Face, because although I have that on my Kindle, I've been finding it difficult to get into.  I figured if I got started with the physical book, maybe I could then read the rest on Kindle.  Well, I didn't only find The Green Face -- right next to it was this collection of short stories that doesn't seem to be in print any more in the US (you can get it on Kindle though).  So I grabbed that and read it...and I did get enough time to read the first few chapters of Green Face as well, and my plan worked.  I'm now well into that novel.

So this is a collection of Meyrink's early short stories, written right at the beginning of the 1900s, before he wrote any novels.  (His later novel, The Golem, is what made him famous.  I've now also read Walpurgisnacht. )  At this time, he's trying and failing to make a living as a banker in Prague.  Meyrink hated Prague, and he wasn't a big fan of some other things, too.  In these stories, he really pours some venom on army officers and their 'code of honor'  (remember, this is German culture right before World War I, so these would be Prussian officers), and also upon doctors, who are lampooned as pompous quacks.  Which they probably were -- again, this is about 1900.  And one other thing -- Meyrink was very interested in Eastern religions, in the occult, pretty much anything that wasn't boring old Christianity.

The anti-officer sentiment in these stories led to their banning in 1916 in Austria.  Meyrink became the focus of nationalist attacks (in print) that sound more than a little hysterical to modern readers -- he was "blamed for lack of progress in the War" and also for attacking German womanhood.

The stories:

"Petroleum, Petroleum" is a prophetic satire that is possibly more horrifying to the modern reader than it was originally -- it was written in 1903 -- in which a mad scientist floods the oceans of Earth with a layer of crude oil.  It satirizes absolutely everybody, including telegrams:
...the verbatim telegram from along the Mexican Gulf coast, abbreviated according to the international cable code:  "EXPLOSION CALFBRAIN BERRYMUSH" which approximately translates as 'Seasurface completely covered in oil; cause unknown, everything stinks.  State governor.'
This interested the Yankees enormously, as the occurrence was without a doubt bound to make a great impression on the stock exchange and to push up the value of petroleum shares.
The solution is to dissolve the army.  Regular soldiers all have skills and can get jobs, and the useless officers can soak up the oil with blotting paper.

"The Black Ball," another prophetic horror story, features two Indian yogis who use an apparatus to focus their thoughts into semi-permanent images.  They wow the crowd, and others try:
It was in fact only the images projected by the mathematicians that were at all clear.  By contrast, the results excogitated by heads of juridical capacity were most peculiar.  General amazement and a universal shaking of heads, however, greeted the concentrated effort of that famous practitioner of Internal Medicine, Professor Mauldrescher.  Even the solemn Asiatics were amazed: an incredible jumble of small, discoloured lumps appeared in the glass, followed by a mass of blurry blobs and points.
But then an officer tries it...and creates a black hole that will, very slowly, eat the universe.

(As a matter of fact, Meyrink seems to have invented the idea of a black hole all on his own.  This was written in 1913, a few years before Einstein published.)

"Dr. Lederer" starts off with an event that terrifies the populace: a glowing disk of light appears in the sky, with the silhouette of a monster in it.
A chameleon, a chameleon! horrible.
He's poking fun at mob hysteria, but I think it comes off even sillier now than he meant it to be.  He didn't know about the Bat Signal, after all.  And I have to wonder if he really meant the cute little chameleon, or some scarier lizard?  Though I suppose in 1900 maybe chameleons looked pretty outlandish to Europeans.   And finally, for Tick fans, the whole thing can't help but evoke the Crusading Chameleon!

The Crusading Chameleon!
 In "The Automobile," an eminent physics' professor's refusal to believe that an automobile could actually work, and his mathematical arguments, actually render an automobile unworkable, which is pretty funny.  There is a story in which Prince Rupert Drops (described as pretty toys, now considered scientifically fascinating)  are used as an occult murder weapon.  And a jokester takes it very far indeed when he convinces an entire town that there are large gold deposits beneath certain houses, and that if they just demolish their houses and dig, they'll be rich.  The demolished houses spell out his initials if seen from above...

In a spooky description of a haunted church, we have:

Prayersnails!  ...mysterious outlines of women's veiled heads superimposed on cold, slimy snail bodies, with black, catholic eyes, sucking noiselessly across the chill pavement.

There are also several scattered stories featuring the evil genius Dr. Daryashkoh, who changes his victims  into horrible living machines or monsters through magic and vivisection.  I suppose he's a bit like that hokey old horror movie villain, the Reanimator, though Dr. Daryashkoh's creations are really scary.

It surprises me that these stories are not more well known and published in spooky collections along with Blackwood, Machen, James, le Fanu, and all those other early horror writers.  Some of these would fit right in.  Maybe because they weren't written in English?  Possibly the translations aren't out of copyright yet, or something.  Anyway, connoisseurs of scary stories would love these.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

The Blue Hills

My ILL edition
The Blue Hills, by Elizabeth Goudge (also known as Henrietta's House)

This is another book in the Torminster world, which begins with City of Bells and continues with Sister of the Angels.  As far as I know, none of the Torminster books are in print, which is a great pity and somebody should fix it.  This story is another one that is almost, but not quite, a children's story, and it has the same cast of main characters, with Henrietta and Hugh Anthony in the middle of a crowd of others.  Torminster is a fictional version of Wells in Somerset.

Hugh Anthony is home for the summer, and it's his birthday.  He wants to have a picnic up in the hills, and invites all the nicer old folks that he knows, having been surrounded by other boys for too long.   Each member of the party is asked what their birthday wish is, and they mostly wish for improbable things...and yet as the members of the party all get lost on the way to the picnic, each of their wishes comes true.

Much of the story has to do with the history around the patron saint of Torminster Cathedral, Saint Hugh, who was a local swineherd with a very exciting legend around him.  (I checked; Wells' patron saint is Andrew.  Not a swineherd.)  The legend, involving robbers and monks, pigs and angels, seems very improbable and has never been proved, but some people wish to find out more.

It is an enchanting fairy tale adventure that is one of my favorite kinds of literature, and not easy to come by.  If you have a copy, you are very lucky!

(I got this book through ILL.  I was going to buy a used copy, because I'm trying to collect Goudge, but even the 1970s pocket paperback costs about $40.  Thus MY wish is for the Torminster books to come back into print!  I don't have any of them.)

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Summerbook #17: Secondhand Time

Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets: An Oral History, by Svetlana Alexievich

Wow, this book achievement.  Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and it was well-deserved.  It's not a regular book of history; it's more like a monument, really.

What Alexievitch does -- has been doing for well over twenty years -- is interview people and transcribe their stories.  Mostly just ordinary people, and the stories are not edited much.  They're just set down.  The result is very immediate; you can almost see the people as they speak.

Many of the people in this book are elderly, and tell of long Soviet lives.  Others are quite young and may not even remember Soviet life.

There's a former Soviet officer, who offers the rather stunning information that a good 70% of the Soviet economy was militarized, and in his opinion that was only correct.  They weren't about to convert tank factories into factories for toasters!  They had to be ready at all times.

There's a lady who spent her infancy in the gulag, and her childhood in the orphanage down the road.  Other people who were convinced and happy Communists and can't get used to the new situation.  Lots of them wanted more freedom to read and speak, but the economic chaos of the 1990s was horrible for just about everyone.  Many people comment that they thought they'd get more books, salami, and freedom, and instead everything is about money, materialism, and bling all the time.  (I have to say, the West really screwed over the Russians with this whole 'shock therapy' thing.  What a mess.)

Sometimes she just collects random snippets, bits and pieces from the crowd on the street (as in the protests against the coup attempt against Yeltsin) or kitchen conversations at dinners, as everyone expresses different opinions.

A few quotations:

What an exciting time!  I handed out flyers in the subway...Everyone dreamt of a new life...Dreams...People dreamt that tons of salami would appear at the stores at Soviet prices and members of the Politburo would stand in line for it along with the rest of us.  Salami is a benchmark of our existence.  Our love for salami is existential...

War is a swamp, it's easy to get stuck in it and hard to get out.  Another Jewish saying: "When the wind is strong, the trash rises to the top."  [This is from a man who was a boy during the war and joined the partisans in the woods after he was left for dead in a mass Jewish grave.  The partisans were anti-Semitic too, but it was the only place he could be at all.]

The devil knows how many people were murdered, but it was our era of greatness. 

For us, communism was inextricably linked with the Terror, the gulag.  A cage.  We thought it was dead.  Gone forever.  Twenty years have passed...I go into my son's room, and what do I see but a copy of Marx's Das Kapital on his desk, and Trotsky's My Life on his bookshelf...I can't believe my eyes!  Is Marx making a comeback?  Is this a nightmare? [snip] Marxism is legal again, on trend, a brand.  They wear T-shirts with pictures of Che Guevara and Lenin on them.  [Despairingly.]  Nothing has taken root.  It was all for naught.
It's just this enormous array of different lives, placed next to each other for observation and perhaps comparison.  It's not at all an easy read; looking back at the dates on Goodreads, it took me nearly two months.  Most of the stories are harrowing in one way or another, and it's a lot to deal with.

For anybody interested in Soviet history, this is a must-read, as are Alexievitch's other books.  In fact, now she's got another book out.  She writes faster than I can deal with.  I will never catch up.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Summerbook #16: Hartmann von Aue

Arthurian Romances, Tales, and Lyric Poetry: the Complete Works of Hartmann von Aue

This is a long-held goal of mine, to read the complete works of Hartmann von Aue!  I did, some time ago, get hold of a (terrible) copy of Poor Heinrich, which is how I found out about this medieval German knight and poet.  I shall now quote my own blog post for background:
If you were here for my Arthurian literature project of 2014, you know that the mania for knightly romances and Arthurian tales spread through Western Europe in the 1100s.  I read French and German tales as well as English ones.  There were three great German poets of the courtly romance: Wolfram von Eschenbach wrote Parzival, and Gottfried von Strassburg wrote Tristan, but before them came Hartmann von Aue, who introduced the idea into Germany in the first place in the 1190s.  He has not become nearly as well-known in English as the two later poets...
This volume contains Hartmann's four narratives in presumed order of their composition: Erec, Gregorius, Poor Heinrich, and Iwein, but before that it has an early work, "The Lament," and a collection of lyrical poems.  I was really most interested in the romances, but I did read everything.

Erec and Iwein are both Arthurian tales retold from Chretien de Troyes' romances.  They were therefore familiar to me, but Hartmann put his own bits in too.

Gregorius is quite an interesting tale, an apocryphal saint's legend (like St. Christopher -- it was a very popular story, but disappointingly untrue).  Gregorius is, in fact, partially a version of Oedipus as far as I can tell.  A royal brother and sister are very fond of each other and eventually start an affair; the resulting child, Gregorius, is taken across the sea and fostered by a peasant, while the brother leaves, never to return, and the sister spends her life in penitence while she rules the kingdom.  Gregorius grows up and wishes to be a knight, and eventually ends up in his mother's castle; they fall in love and marry.  When the situation is discovered, Gregorius (who has become prideful) goes to a deserted island for his penance.  He stays on the island for 18 years, eating nothing and sustained by God.  Then some monks find him and he ends up Pope.

Thomas Mann eventually turned this story into a novel, The Good Sinner, in which Gregorius turns into a hedgehog during his time on the island.  I don't know why.

Here is my favorite quotation in the book, from Iwein, in an episode where Iwein causes a great storm to occur by pouring water on a certain rock.  This traditionally triggers a storm and a knight who comes out to defend his castle, but this time...
"...such a terrible storm that no one within the castle walls expected to survive.  Everyone was crying out, 'Damn the first settler of this land!  This suffering and disgrace is striking us at his whim.  This world has a lot of worthless places, but this is the very worst place ever to have a castle built on it.'"

So I was really happy to finally read all of Hartmann's works.  Also, I love the portrait of him on the cover, and am very tempted to put it on my wall somehow.  I just love how his eagles look like grumpy parrots and the crest on his helmet makes him look like a giant birdman on a horse.  His actual head is hard to find!  And his horse is so chipper!

Friday, August 16, 2019

Malgudi Days I

Malgudi Days: I, by R. K. Narayan

Here's another find from the great big university library.  This one just caught my eye as I was walking along; I didn't even look for it.  This shelf held several books published in India, in English.  (Actually, the library was crammed with Indian literature, but most of it wasn't in English.)  This was just a collection of the twelve Malgudi stories that had been turned into episodes of the TV series.

I'd read a couple of these stories before, but most of them were new to me.  I read the Penguin collection of Malgudi Days just a few months ago, but this was a different thing with little overlap.

I particularly remember a story about a little boy terrified to sleep away from his grandmother...and when he's forced to sleep alone, he accidentally catches a burglar and becomes a hero.   Another story features a family that promised to sacrifice their little boy's hair if he survived a dangerous...and now, twenty years later, it's about time they followed through, but the little boy isn't so little any more and he isn't thrilled with this plan!

I'd love to see the TV series made from these stories, and in fact it turns out that it's available on Amazon Prime!  So you can bet I'll be watching it.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

In Search of Lost Books

In Search of Lost Books, by Giorgio van Straten

This was just this fun little volume -- originally written in Italian -- about famous, or less-famous, lost books -- some of which might still be out there somewhere.  As, for example, the early works of Hemingway; his first wife was bringing them to him in a suitcase, and she just hopped out of the French train for a second to buy a Perrier.  When she got back, the suitcase was gone, and it was never recovered.

I was happy to see the story of Bruno Schulz, whose short stories I have read.  He was a Polish Jew, and so during World War II he hid the manuscript of his great life work novel with some Gentile friends.  Schulz was murdered by a Nazi officer who was annoyed with the Nazi officer who was keeping Schulz as a slave.  And the manuscript disappeared in the war and has never been found.

There's a chapter on Lord Byron's memoirs -- deemed too scandalous for publication, they were probably burned by the publisher.  One on Gogol's lost sequel to Dead Souls.  One on Sylvia Plath.  And there were some other authors who I was not as familiar with, but who sounds fascinating.  

And then there's the novel that van Straten got to read himself in manuscript, but didn't photocopy...but he sure wishes he had now.

What's nice is that van Straten talks quite a bit about what the books' content as well as the stories behind them.   It's just a nice, interesting, well-written little book of some lost bits of history.  So it's sad.  But intriguing, because what if that suitcase surfaces someday?

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Summerbook #15: Paradise of the Blind

Paradise of the Blind, by Duong Thu Huong

This is truly an amazing novel; beautifully written and hard to put down.  It was also banned in Vietnam and the author imprisoned for her writing, which was -- even in a time that was supposed to be welcoming to dissent -- too directly critical for the government's pleasure.  As a young woman, Duong was part of the North Vietnamese Communist Party (she was exactly the age to be a young enthusiast during the war), but became disillusioned and spent the 1980s writing and speaking about what she had witnessed.  She was expelled from the Party and imprisoned for a while, and then released and simply not allowed to travel for years.  In 2006 she moved to Paris, where she still lives today.

Hang, a young woman living in Russia as an 'imported worker,' receives a telegram summoning her to Moscow to see her uncle, a cadre leader.  As she travels on the train, she ponders on her family's history in episodes that jump around in time, eventually giving the reader a full portrait of a family torn apart by war.

Hang's mother had married a young man very slightly wealthier than she was; his family owned a few acres of rice paddy and hired help at harvest time.  This was enough to earn the enmity of her brother Chinh, a rising young official who made it his mission to dispossess the family of their bit of land.  The young husband died, and his sister made it her life mission to amass wealth and save it all for baby Hang, in whom all her hopes resided.  Meanwhile, Mom scraped a meager living in Hanoi as a market trader, constantly subject to Chinh's harangues, and yet still supporting him with food and money.  While Aunt Tam lived only for Hang, Mom lived only for Chinh's little sons.

Hang grows up craving the love of her distracted mother, and constantly subject to her uncle Chinh's demands.  Her life -- and the lives of all around her -- is deformed by the ever-shifting, impossible demands of Communism, which visits violence and destruction on her beloved home and eventually forces her out.  Only a final help from the eccentric but loving Aunt Tam (who comes with her own demands in the form of extravagant generosity) makes it possible for her to return.

One really interesting interlude in the novel is at a huge feast given by Aunt Tam, who is by now a force in the village by virtue of her personality.  One of the women helping doesn't want to serve a village official, because he's trying to steal her relative's land (and thus livelihood).  Tam tells her not to worry, and then proceeds to stage an evening of storytelling, regaling the officials with tales of just and unjust magistrates of the past.  It's highly successful...for the moment.  But eventually, nothing can stop a corrupt government from victimizing whoever it wants.

There is a lot about food, smells, landscape, and physical environment.  It's a very tactile novel, and written by somebody who loves her home.

I really liked this novel.  Highly recommended!

Monday, August 12, 2019

The Golden Skylark

The Golden Skylark, by Elizabeth Goudge

During my week away, I was living in a great big university library, so naturally I went and hunted up books I didn't have access to at home.  Most of them were for work, but I did sneak in a few fun books for when my brain couldn't think about academic research any more!  I looked up Elizabeth Goudge in the catalog and was quite thrilled to see two or three titles I'd never read.  This was the one I picked to read.

The Golden Skylark is a collection of short stories, and the dedication -- to a girl "who loves England" -- is a clue to the theme.  All of the stories take place in Great Britain.

There are historical stories about famous people, starting with "The Golden Skylark," about the poet Shelley as a young man and the origin (I presume fictitious) of his skylark poem.  There is a story about Sir Thomas More and his children at the time of More's arrest, and another about a teenage Princess Elizabeth meeting Jane Seymour for the first time.  There's also one about Shakespeare's 'dark lady.'

Sprinkled throughout the collection are charming tales about the du Frocq family on the isle of Guernsey, in which the children get into various kinds of mischief, with interesting results.

There is also a tale about a Scottish castle and the children who belong to it, and another of two elderly ladies, their treasures, and an old rogue named Jenkins.  Oh, and one about a shopkeeping lady's two treasures and the boy and girl who wish to buy them.

It's a beguiling little collection of stories; highly recommended for Goudge fans.  Reminds me a bit of Eleanor Farjeon's stories, too; I think if you like one you'll also like the other.  Lucky me to find it in a library collection!

I really could just live down there.  The more modern wing of the stacks had those moveable shelves that can cram almost double the books into the space, but unlike most of the moveable shelving I've seen, these had electric buttons instead of cranks.  I think the cranks are more reliable; the buttons are temperamental and getting elderly.  But, oh, the delights inside those stacks!  I found the mid-century English literature, literature from a dozen lands in their own languages, all sorts of lovely things on that floor.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Summerbook #14: Kalpa Imperial

Kalpa Imperial: The Greatest Empire That Never Was, by Angelica Gorodischer, trans. by Ursula K. Le Guin

I'd really been looking forward to this, and it did not disappoint.  Angelica Gorodischer is an Argentinian writer, and has published quite a bit, but this is her first book to be published in English.  This book was originally published in two parts, in the early 1980s.  Each part is a collection of stories.

Most of the time, the stories are told by an old storyteller -- but not always.  Some are different.  All purport to tell small parts of the extremely long history of the Empire, which has existed in various forms for thousands of years.  There are dark ages, many dynasties, and waxings and wanings of power.

The first story actually tells of the complete destruction of the Empire in what you might call prehistoric times, since all knowledge was lost for quite some time.  People lived in a new stone age until one young man ventured further into the old ruins than anybody else had, and started people building again.

Other chapters chronicle the long life of a city, or how an ordinary woman with a lot of common sense ended up advising a hemophiliac Emperor.  There is the story of a little neglected prince who is taught to hate his traitorous (and dead) father, until some workmen just happen to tell him a different version of history than the one he's been taught.

A disgraced Northern nobleman wanders into the rainforesty South and accidentally becomes the leader of a revolution, and a doctor lives in an empty mansion and tells people who to be cured.

The last story was one of my favorites, and is also one of the strangest.  A caravan is crossing the desert, and an orphan coaxes the leader into telling ancient legends -- which, it takes a while to realize, are a mishmash of our own ancient legends, stories, and films.  I enjoyed trying to tease out just what this story meant (I have no idea).

A really interesting set of stories to read, strange and dreamlike and not quite like ordinary SF/F.  I've never read a whole lot of Le Guin, but I think her fans would enjoy this too.  Also, I really love the cover.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Summerbook #13: Midnight Riot

Midnight Riot (Rivers of London), by Ben Aaronovitch

Accidentally, but appropriately, Summerbook #13 is the one with spooky magic!

I've been wanting to try this series out for a long time, but it's a British series that has not made a big appearance in the US.  So when I found a somewhat battered copy in the really neat SF/F used and new bookstore, Borderlands Books, in San Fransisco, on the evening that we went to the Chills concert (definitely one of the highlights of the year!).  Anyway, I saved it for a special fun read.

Peter Grant is a London constable, hoping to be a detective.  (We'd call him a rookie cop.)  He and his comrade Leslie start to look into a mysterious murder which seems to have been witnessed by...a ghost?  Soon Peter is swept into an unknown tiny branch of the Force that deals in supernatural crimes, headed by Inspector Nightingale, who is a wizard.  It will be Peter's job to learn magic -- lots of it -- and simultaneously negotiate with ticked-off river gods and goddesses.  And also find a ghostly serial killer who is getting more violent by the day.

This was a very fun story -- gripping, exciting, and well-planned.  I will definitely want to read more of these; Aaronovitch has built a solid basis for a series that will be half murder procedural and half wizardy magic.  CSI meets Gaiman's American Gods?  Of course, I'm quite late to the party; there are now six "Rivers of London" novels.

By the way, this is the second book by a British guy named Aaronovitch I've read this year.  I have to wonder: are they brothers?  Cousins?  Is Aaronovitch just a way more common name in the UK?  Fifteen seconds of research reveals that they are indeed brothers.  They have another brother who had a role on Coronation Street.  So, British Aaronovitches: a busy and public bunch.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Summerbook #12: The Claverings

The Claverings, by Anthony Trollope

Now that my big paper is pretty much done, I can write proper blog posts again!  I read The Claverings on the bus between Chicago and Champaign, and then on the way back again.  I finished it in O'Hare airport, waiting for my flight.  And what a lovely read it was -- so absorbing that I didn't want to put it down!

This is one of Trollope's individual novels; not part of a series.  It was written in 1864, and did not appear until 1866-67, serialized in the Cornhill Magazine. (Imagine, a novel all finished and not being written even as it was being published!)

Harry Clavering is the son of a clergyman who is cousin to a baronet -- on the edges of, but not part of, the nobility.  Harry has been brought up to be a rich, idle clergyman too, but he decides to buck authority and become an engineer, building bridges and railroads.  He also wants to marry the lovely Julia Brabazon, sister to the baronet's wife; but Julia, though she loves Harry, has different ideas about how her career should go.  Marriage being the only career open to women, Julia has decided to do the thing "sensibly," in cold blood, and is going to marry an extremely rich, extremely dissipated earl.  Harry vows never to love again.

Over a year later, Harry is an apprentice engineer and has gradually fallen in love with his employer's daughter, Florence Burton.  She is not beautiful, but she is lovely in character, intelligent, and generally the flower of middle-class England.  Harry tends to despise her hard-working family just a bit.  And Julia is back, having nursed her awful husband through his death -- and his spiteful efforts to sully her name.  She is rich, but friendless.  Harry helps her a bit, and then finds himself re-enchanted by a still lovely, and now wronged, Julia.

So here is the problem of the novel: Harry has let himself drift into a serious problem.  Julia didn't know he was engaged and now hopes to reclaim her lost love.  Florence is honestly in love with him and trusts him completely.  And Harry doesn't have the faintest idea of what he should do: lose his honor and his job, and become Julia's rich husband?  Or stay true to Florence, and leave poor Julia in the cold?  Julia is prepared to fight for what she wants; Florence is not -- she's not going to beg.

Meanwhile there is lots of other family drama going on!  A sneaky Polish-French brother-sister duo have latched on to Julia.  The baronet is horrible to his poor wife.  The penniless curate wants to get married and doesn't seem to realize that he would need some income for that.  The baronet's doofy brother thinks it would be a good plan to marry Julia...

Oh, it's all such a good story.  Great stuff.  And throughout, Trollope is quietly showing Florence's middle-class family as the best England has got, and the nobility as...well, kind of second-rate.  Harry doesn't really quite deserve Florence.

Florence, on the other hand, is hard to get to know.  She's such a paragon: intelligent, self-respecting, calm, virtuous, etc. that the more turbulent Julia steals the stage.  I'd rather be friends with Florence -- I'd rather BE Florence -- but she didn't get enough time to herself.

It did feel kind of like Trollope painted himself into a corner by producing this difficult scenario with the baronet and his brother, and then had to figure out how to fix it!

I really did love this novel.  Trollope is so great, and fellow fans will enjoy this story.  I think I'll re-read this one someday!


I'm not sure how I can possibly finish my list of 20 books by September 3.  Things have just been so busy.  But I'm in the middle of Kalpa Imperial now, and I'm loving it!

Friday, August 2, 2019

The Mystery Trip Revealed

Where did I go, what did I do, and how could it possibly have anything to do with women in translation??  Well, it's a little tricky to explain, but several months ago I applied for a "summer lab" on internationalization in community colleges.  I was not at all sure what I was getting into, but it seemed like it might be fun, so why not?  I'd figure it out as I went along, right?

The lab was at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which I mostly knew as the premier school for librarians.  It is in fact a huge university where a lot of research happens, and the International and Area Studies folks wanted to foster internationalization in community colleges.  (Internationalization, which my husband usefully pointed out to be can be abbreviated i18n, is the rather common-sensical idea that it's a good thing for students to get some amount of global perspective in their educations.  Also, yay study abroad.)  So the theme was to come up with some sort of internationalization project you could carry out at your college, and research how to do it for a week at Urbana-Champaign.  The price for getting to live in the library for a week is to produce some sort of paper, syllabus, or plan afterwards.

So off I went to Illinois, where I have never been.  They put me up in a dorm apartment, which was by far the fanciest apartment I've ever lived in (washer and dryer!  dishwasher!), and which surprisingly had a castle door in the second floor stairs that led to a dining hall that looked like a castle hall, or maybe chapel.  Every day for six days I would walk over to the main library and read as much academic verbiage as I could stand, saving the rest for later perusal.  For a break, I would give myself the treat of going into the main stacks and wandering around happily.  On Friday, there was a day-long workshop.

Stacks: the librarian's favorite hideout
I include here a photo of elevator buttons because all the elevators were different, hard to find, strangely labeled, and led odd places.  Like to floor 3.5, where I found a nice bundle of Elizabeth Goudge books. 

I met lots of lovely people and had a glorious time when I wasn't digging through academic verbiage.  In the evening, I went and found fireflies!  I'd never seen fireflies before.  I got two roommates, who were great.  I found a few fun books to read when my brain was worn out.

Right before firefly time

And now I'm home, writing this paper.  The kids are gone, so it's a perfect time,'s killing me.  I have ideas, I can write them down, but the part where I need to quote and cite all the research....well, it's not like I can't do it, I did after all write my library's APA guide, but it's horrible work.  I'm so glad I'm not a real academic.  I can't let myself do anything else -- clean the house, put the pictures on the walls after painting (that was two weeks ago), have fun.  Must write paper.  I'm only writing this post because there is other stuff going on right now.

And how could this connect to WIT month?  Well, advocating for more literature in translation is right in there, isn't it?  If I were a literature instructor, I could attend the summer lab and put together a syllabus for a "Women in Translation" class -- except I'd need a better title.  Sadly, as a librarian, my options seemed to be a little more limited than the instructors, who could pick anything to study.  I'd much rather be a librarian, though.

But if you work or teach at a community college, think about attending the International Studies Research Lab!  Everybody is great and I learned a lot.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Summerbook #11: The Plague

The Plague, by Albert Camus

I've been meaning to read this book for something like 20+ years, and I finally got around to it, and it's about...the plague.  A real honest-to-goodness episode of bubonic plague.  Which is great!  But I had somehow developed the impression that it was a metaphorical, not-actual plague, so I was surprised when it really was plague.

In Oran, a largeish North African port city, in the 1940s, rats start staggering out into the street and dying -- by the thousands.  Nobody quite knows what this could mean, but pretty soon there are a few sick people...and then a lot of sick people. 

The story is told by four or five men, but primarily from the perspective of Dr. Rieux.  He sends his wife off to a TB sanatorium just before the outbreak, and he is the first to realize that the mystery illness is plague, and urges quarantine measures and closing the city to reluctant city councilors.  Throughout the epidemic, he works himself to exhaustion, knowing that hardly any of his patients will survive.

We also have:
  • Rambert, a young journalist visiting the city for a story.  Trapped by the quarantine, he is willing to do almost anything in order to escape the city and get back to his girlfriend; he feels it unjust that he should have to stay in a city he has no connection with.  Eventually he changes his mind and joins the work teams fighting the plague.
  • Tarrou is the developer of the work teams; a newcomer to Oran, he is a bit mysterious and says that he in interested in becoming a saint, despite his lack of belief in God.  His entire life has been driven by his hatred of capital punishment.
  • Grand, who wants to be a writer but can't get past his obsession with the first sentence of his novel.  He quietly perseveres with help during the whole epidemic, eventually becomes ill, but is one of the few to recover.
  • Cottard, an eccentric who has just tried to kill himself but finds the atmosphere of epidemic to be stimulating.  He's much happier, until the plague is over.
Through these five men, we see the entire course of about nine months of plague, until the epidemic runs its course and the city is re-opened.  It's all very realist and detailed about how people respond to dire circumstances.

I did not exactly find it an easy read, but it was interesting and I'm glad I finally got around to reading it.  It also has references to both Kafka's novel The Trial and to Camus' own earlier novel, The Stranger, so that was fun.  Very well worth reading.

Monday, July 29, 2019

It's almost WIT Month!

And I'm back, just in time!

Every August, Meytal hosts Women in Translation Month at Bibliobio.  There is always tons of good information, stuff to think about, and great suggestions for books.  And this year there's a variety of images, too!  I like this one because I like purple and green together.

I put three books aside on my 20 Books of Summer list for August.  Since I haven't read them yet, I've lifted the book descriptions:

Purge by Sofi Oksanen: Oksanen is a Finnish-Estonian writer, and this novel is written in Finnish but set in Estonia (the languages are related).  It's all about Soviet-occupied Estonia and survival, and I'm really looking forward to it.  A disheveled girl arrives on an older woman's doorstep, and "as their stories come to light, they reveal a tragic family drama of rivalry, lust, and loss that played out during the worst years of Estonia’s Soviet occupation."

Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong: Banned in Vietnam!  The first Vietnamese novel published in the United States!  Plus, it's "an exquisite portrait of three Vietnamese women struggling to survive in a society where subservience to men is expected and Communist corruption crushes every dream."  This has been on my pile for some time.

Kalpa Imperial by Angélica Gorodischer. Translated from the Spanish by none other than Ursula K. Le Guin, in this fascinating-sounding book, "multiple storytellers relate the story of a fabled nameless empire which has risen and fallen innumerable times. Fairy tales, oral histories and political commentaries are all woven tapestry-style into Kalpa Imperial: beggars become emperors, democracies become dictatorships, and history becomes legends and stories."  I've been dying to read it since the first minute I heard about it.

I've got plenty to tell you about my trip, but I also have a lot of work to do because of the trip, so blogging will still have to be a bit skimpy until I get that done. I'm just taking a break from the job to pop in with a quick post.  Besides, I can't ignore one of my favorite summer events!

Come to think of it, my trip and the ensuing job have a connection to WIT.  Stay tuned to have that mystery revealed!

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

At Large and At Small

At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays by Anne Fadiman

Anne Fadiman is always good for essays.  This is just kind of a random collection, and they're very enjoyable.  I liked the one about ice cream, and the one about mail, and "Coleridge the Runaway" did not exactly endear Coleridge to me, but it did make me want to read the biography she mentions: is impossible to read this book without imagining what it would be like to talk with Coleridge (dazzling), have him as a houseguest (arduous), walk with him in the Lake Country (fun for the first forty miles), lie with him in a field to study the moonlight (damp).

You can't have a Fadiman collection without mention of the Arctic, and this essay, "The Arctic Hedonist," is great.  Whereas "Under Water" will deliver a gut-punch.  And "Procrustes and the Culture Wars" is just as relevant now as when it was written.
"Anger and fury," observed Swift, "though they add strength to the sinews of the body, yet are found to relax those of the mind."
I enjoyed these essays, which I always do when they're written by Anne Fadiman.

In other news, this summer has been absolutely nutso, and is heading towards a zenith of chaos.  I've got a 19-yo prepping to move out (Sunday is the day), a 16-yo prepping for back-to-back trips (leaving Thursday), and I'm going on a trip on Sunday for a week.  So naturally we decided to paint a bathroom and the hall right beforehand!  I've been spackling and TSPing and paint-buying.  Wish me luck.  And I don't think I'll be posting for a couple of weeks....

Monday, July 15, 2019

Summerbook #10: The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge

The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, by M. T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin

This was such a cool book!  I really enjoyed it.  It's very unusual.

For centuries, the elves and the goblins have been at war with each other, on and off -- mostly on.  Now, the elves are sending a gift to the goblin King as a peace offering -- an ancient carved jewel that they found buried, and that seems to depict a goblin battle.  The emissary is a scholar, Brangwain Spurge, who has studied elf and goblin history.  His goblin host is another scholar, the archivist Werfel; he will show Spurge around town while they wait for an audience with the King, Ghohg the Outworlder.  Werfel is eager to show Spurge his beloved goblin culture and anticipates wonderful scholarly discussions, but it doesn't turn out that way.

This story is actually told from three viewpoints.  Most of the text is Werfel's story from his point of view.  Then, Spurge is sending telepathic visual reports of his experiences back to the elven lands, and we see the print-outs of the images he transmits as chapters of consecutive images.  (These illustrations are very well-done, but they are not printed as clearly as they could be.  At first I thought it was just a disappointing printing job, but when I understood that they were supposed to be print-outs of telepathic images, I realized that they were printed like that on purpose.)  And every so often, we see a letter from the elf official who chose Spurge as the emissary, reporting on the progress of the elves' plan -- not all of which is known to Spurge.

The result is pretty fantastic.  Each character has a limited point of view and is seeing events through his own interpretation, so that it becomes not only an exciting spy/adventure story, but also an exploration of culture shock and the limited perspective with which we all see the world.  (When I was an exchange student, the materials talked about this in terms of sunglasses, as though, say, I come from a place where everyone wears blue glasses, and have arrived in a place where everyone wears yellow.  My glasses will never change completely to yellow, but will eventually become green, and never again will they be all blue.  There must be a pithy phrase for this, but I sure can't think of it right now.)

Also, giant pieces of armor, like in The Castle of Otranto!  And it was a finalist in the National Book Award in the Young People's category last year.  Here is a fun book trailer video:

Really neat story, give it a try. 

Friday, July 12, 2019

Summerbook #9: The Wanderer

The Wanderer: Elegies, Epics, Riddles, by unknown Anglo-Saxons

I sure wish I could read Anglo-Saxon.  Alas, I cannot, and if I ever get enough time to study it I'll probably be too old to learn it very easily.  (I probably already am; it was easy to learn the Russian alphabet at 19, but I cannot seem to learn the Greek alphabet now.  Maybe I just need to try harder.)  Anyway, we don't have a lot of Anglo-Saxon literature; you can fit it all into one good-sized book.  This is a collection of pieces, some from the Exeter Book, some from other sources, that I suppose is meant to serve as an introduction to Anglo-Saxon literature that isn't too difficult to enjoy.

Some of the pieces should be familiar to anyone who has taken a little bit of English literature: Caedmon's Hymn, the Dream of the Rood, a few short selections from Beowulf (why?).  But this collection is interesting because it features a lot of material that isn't as familiar.  I was happy to finally read The Battle of Maldon and some other pieces I'd heard of.

There is quite a bit of short poetry: a description of a ruined Roman city, the lament of an exiled wife, some heroic poems.  The Wanderer and the Seafarer are both poems about the life of a man in exile, who has lost his lord and his fellows in battle.  Loyalty to one's lord and the despair of the man who has lost his are very common themes.

Then there is a selection of riddles, the kind that describe an object in obscure terms.  I am terrible at these, but they're fun to read.

The one disappointment is that there is a very short selection from The Phoenix, a poem that describes the life of Christ allegorized as the life of a phoenix.  I would happily read this poem if I could find a modern translation, but so far I haven't been able to (I haven't exactly made it my quest or anything).  Every time I find a copy, it's just in the original Old English.  I find this puzzling.

This collection is a Penguin edition that has been around for fifty years or so.  Penguin re-issued it a few years ago in a fancy cover along with other "Legends from the Ancient North" with a sticker that says "Classics that inspired J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit."  I appreciate their efforts to attract new readers of classics through marketing to movie fans, I guess?

It really is a good short and easy introduction to Anglo-Saxon literature.  It gives a nice variety and nothing is very long, so readers don't have to be able to absorb a lot at once.  It's mostly poetry, and has been translated to still conform to the format as much as possible, so it gives a good flavor and doesn't just read as an essay or story.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Slightly Chipped

Slightly Chipped*: *Footnotes in Booklore, by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone

This is one of those fun books about the joys of antiquarian book-collecting.  The Goldstones find their entertainment in going on day trips to book dealers or book fairs, and buying beautiful first editions that they just can't resist.  They are not wealthy, but they do give the impression of having boundless leisure for browsing in bookshops.

There are humorous descriptions of book dealers and book sales, a section on mysteries, and a fascinating story about Cudjo, a Jamaican rebel hero.  Just a nice mix of stories like that.

Because the copy I read was a hardback in brand-new condition, I thought this was a pretty recent book, but it turned out to have been published in 1999.  It has an extensive chapter on the brand-new phenomenon of online book dealing, and how to enter this new world.  Why would anybody want to buy a book without inspecting it first?  Will Amazon take over the used-book world and jack prices up?  And so on.

There is an odd chapter about the auction of the effects of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor -- that is, the ex-King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson -- billed as the greatest love story of the 20th century (!), but still not staged in London because the British haven't quite forgiven them yet.  Anyway, I learned fun new-to-me facts like that Mohammed Al-Fayed (father of Dodi, who was boyfriend to Princess Diana) owned all this stuff, having bought it up the first time it was sold off.  Weird.

I wondered if the Goldstones had written more books, and it looks like they wrote three of these 'joys of book-finding' books.  More recently, Nancy Goldstone has written several books of medieval history, most of which were already on my wishlist.

A fun read, quite light, which makes book-collecting attractive -- though not to me personally.  I have no ambitions to own first editions.  But I'm glad somebody appreciates them.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Summerbook #8: Jamaica Inn

Jamaica Inn, by Daphne du Maurier

It was a dark and stormy night!  No, really, that's how it starts.  Mary Yellan is traveling to the Jamaica Inn; her mother's dying wish was that Mary go to live with her aunt at the inn.  Uncle Joss, however, turns out to be a terrifying tyrant who is clearly up to some really bad things.  At first, Mary thinks it must be smuggling, but it's much worse.  Mary has few friends to turn to.  There's the quiet-spoken but strange vicar a few miles away, and Jem, Joss' younger brother -- a horse-stealer and a rogue -- and Mary has little chance of saving her aunt on her own.

It's a classic Gothic story, with lots of foreboding, lonely moors, and storms, set...sometime in the 19th century, but it's hard to know when.  I'd guess earlier rather than later.  Mary is a tough, likable heroine.

I must say I didn't love the ending.  It was not a surprise, but it was a bit of a let-down. 

This is the second time in less than a month that I've read a novel featuring an albino person as a character.  I've never met anybody in real life with albinism, but it sure is a popular literary trope.

It was an exciting, entertaining novel.  Not my favorite of my du Maurier reads, but pretty good.

Friday, July 5, 2019


Brona posted this fun meme on her blog -- I don't know where she got it from -- and I thought I'd join in.  For one thing, I love the image!

Just post a list of A-Z, and fit a title to each one!  Brona very impressively had a title for each letter, even X.  I bet I cannot do that well.  However, that's at least partly because I keep a lot of my book wishlist on the shelves at work.  I keep track of the books I purchase on a spreadsheet so I know when they've arrived.  It's easy to add a field that marks the books I want to read.  Of course, I also want to read books that I didn't purchase...I keep a mental list of those, or check them out when I spot them, so I don't forget.  Anyway, here we go:

A -- Ancilla to Classical Reading, by Moses Hadas
B -- Black Renaissance, by Miklos Szentkuthy
C -- Coming Up for Air, by George Orwell
D -- Douglass: Autobiographies
E --  Extraordinary Delusions and the Popular Madness of Crowds, by Charles Mackay
F -- The Future is History, by Masha Gessen
G -- Getting at the Truth, by Robert Millet
H -- The High Book of the Grail (Perlesvaus)
I -- The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis
J --  Jill Kerr Conway, The Road to Coorain and True North
K -- Krakatoa, by Simon Winchester
L -- Lorna Doone, by Blackmore
M -- Medieval Mysteries, Moralities, and Interludes, ed. by Vincent Hopper
N -- A Novel Bookstore, by Laurence Cosse
O -- On Foot to the Golden Horn, by Jason Goodwin
P -- The Parthenon Enigma, by Joan Breton Connelly
Q --       O_O
R -- Russian Tattoo: A Memoir, by Elena Gorokhova
S --  Sixpence in Her Shoe, by Phyllis McGinley
T -- The Thirty Years' War, by C. V. Wedgwood
U -- The Uncommercial Traveller, by Charles Dickens
V -- The View from the Cheap Seats, by Neil Gaiman

W -- When the World Spoke French, by Marc Fumaroli
X -- Xenophon's Hellenika
Y -- The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, by Anderson and Yelchin
Z -- Why Democracies Die, by Levitsky and Ziblatt

So as we see, I had to cheat a little bit on J, X, Y and Z and use author's names.  And I couldn't find a Q at all, unless we count a book by one Nick Joaquin.  Does that mean I need more books?  Probably not -- I have too many already!

Anyway, this was fun and I hope to see others do it too!

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Summerbook #7: The Book of Chameleons

The Book of Chameleons, by Jose Eduardo Agualusa

This is an Angolan novel, originally written in Portuguese.  I was intrigued by the premise, and also I like chameleons, but there are no actual chameleons in this story.  There's a gecko though, and I also like geckos.

Félix Ventura sells genealogy.  If you have some money, but no family background, Ventura will fix up a nice respectable -- even illustrious -- family history for you.  His story is narrated by the gecko who lives on his walls (who is also the reincarnation of Jorge Luis Borges).  Ventura has sold quite a few new histories, and a couple of them are going to meet in interesting new ways to illuminate a murder mystery gone cold, while the gecko gains the name of Eulalio and has visionary dreams.

I liked this novel pretty well, though I won't claim to have understood the whole thing.  It seemed very dreamlike to me, even the parts that were not dreams.  It's also very short.  I would read another Agualusa if I came upon one that looked interesting.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Summerbook #6: Roderick Random

The Adventures of Roderick Random, by Tobias Smollett

Why on earth would I read a very long 18th-century picaresque comedy-drama that is practically unreadable by modern standards?  Well, as with so many things, it's John Bellairs' fault.  I am a big fan of his books, and like many of the more obsessive Bellairs fans, I think it's neat to do things connected with them.*  In one of the later books, Professor Childermass informs Johnny that the reason his brother Perry's proper name is, preposterously, Peregrine Pickle, is that their father was a fan of Tobias Smollett.  The professor himself is named Roderick Random.  So why not see what ol' Dad Childermass admired so much?

Roderick Random was Smollett's first, and most famous, novel, published in 1748.   After that come Peregrine Pickle and Humphry Clinker, and I do have both, but who knows if I'll read them.  Smollett was in the same London as so many other famous Georgian writers, but he mostly thought they were idiots or jerks, and they thought the same of him.  So he was not a friend of Johnson's or anything.  The story is partly autobiographical, especially the bits in the British Navy, which were considered strikingly true to life.

Roderick Random, born nearly an orphan and brought up by unloving relatives, does manage to scrape an education -- he can read the classics, and studies medicine.  This should allow him to establish himself as a surgeon and live in a reasonably prosperous manner, but instead his life is one long series of adventure, misfortune, and accident.  He is an apprentice, a Navy surgeon, an indigent, a servant, a gambler, and a soldier, among many other things.

Roderick and his best friend/servant Strap are a comedic buddy duo.  I have never seen Dumb and Dumber, but I suspect that it's a distant cousin to this novel, which must be one of the original  slapstick bro comedies.  Chamberpots and their contents feature largely, as do fights and beatings, stolen clothing, drunken adventures, and escapades with ladies of doubtful virtue.

There are plenty of fortuitous meetings and recognitions, too.  You would think there were only about fifty people in the British Navy, and not many more in England -- or the rest of the world for that matter.  And of course, in the most approved Georgian manner, all the good people end up ridiculously wealthy, and all the bad ones are reduced to penury.

It's quite an interesting read as a historical artifact.  The modern reader won't enjoy it so much as a story, but it's not terrible.  I prefer Evelina, but the preachier or more repetitious parts of Pamela are much harder to endure.  Tom Jones is probably better but I haven't read that for 20 years so cannot judge.  If you're looking for an 18th century read, you could do worse than pick up Roderick Random.

* Just recently we were excited to obtain a silver US 3-cent piece for pretty much no other reason than that it features in The Figure in the Shadows.  It's teeny!

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Summerbook #5: Four Birds of Noah's Ark

Four Birds of Noah's Ark: A Prayer Book From the Time of Shakespeare, by Thomas Dekker

I've never been a big Thomas Dekker fan, because the first thing I read by Dekker was his version of Patient Griselda, which is about as calculated to offend modern sensibilities as it could possibly be, and while I am pretty easygoing about historical perspectives, I would have been just as happy if the Patient Griselda story had never been invented.  Apparently I should really read some of his other, less horrifying plays.

By all accounts, Dekker was not a particularly religious man, but he did live and breathe in an atmosphere more saturated with religion than we can easily imagine, and he spoke the language of devotion fluently.  And in 1608, when plague was ravaging London, he wrote a book of prayer-poems for the people of England.  There is something for everyone here.

The book is divided into four parts, named after four birds.  First, the Dove presents poems for ordinary people with ordinary difficulties -- the humble and the hard-working and the poor.  Here we find prayers for schoolboys, wives, laborers, sailors, and maids.

The Eagle has prayers for those in power, or with stewardship over others, starting with Queen Elizabeth herself (who was gone by 1608 but got a prayer anyway), every station of royalty and government, clergymen, magistrates, and so on.  Then there are prayers for the country as a whole for times of pestilence, war, and disaster.

The Pelican, as a symbol of Christ's self-sacrifice for the benefit of humanity, presents prayers that ask for defense from the seven deadly sins -- one prayer each! -- and from temptation in general.

The Phoenix is a symbol of Christ's death and resurrection, so these are prayers of thanksgiving for various aspects of the Atonement.

They are lovely poems, and quite enjoyable to read, though I'm not very good at poetry.  This edition has been a bit modernized; the spelling is modern and I think the editor probably made the language just a little easier, because it really is meant as a devotional book for people to understand and meditate upon.  It's also a pleasure to look at, with nice printing and art.  A nice reading experience for me.

Friday, June 28, 2019


Most embarrassing cover ever

Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees

Chris at Calmgrove posted about this very interesting early fantasy book a while back, and I got it on Kindle to read.  Hope Mirrlees wrote just one book, in 1926, and it is excellent and odd.  It's one of those fantasy books written before the genre gelled into particular templates, and so it still reads as original and strange today.

The Free State of Dorimare lies on the coast where two rivers meet, and the capital, Lud-in-the-Mist, is a prosperous port town.  Generations ago, the Duke Aubrey was banished from Dorimare into neighboring Fairyland -- just over the Debatable Hills -- and there has never been any commerce with Fairyland since.   Dorimites live right next to the one place they strenuously ignore and cannot completely forget.

Nathaniel Chanticleer is like all the sensible men of the city, but his little son Ranulph has been talking a lot about azure cows and other difficult subjects, and now he claims to have eaten fairy fruit.  Everyone knows that to eat fairy fruit results in madness, and Nathaniel is in despair.  Curing Ranulph, and finding out how to stop the smuggling of fairy fruit, becomes his obsession.

This is more like it
 Read Chris' review, which is much more insightful than mine, but even better, read the book.  It's just a delight to read; the writing is wonderful, the story is strange, and the whole is unusual and refreshing.

The top cover there is on the cheap Kindle edition I got.  It reminds me horribly of the Serendipity line of books I hated as a child.  I thought they were sappy.  The very word Bangalee makes my teeth grit involuntarily.   I would much prefer this quite attractive British edition that is not particularly available in the US.


Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Summerbook #4: Ganga

Ganga: A Journey Down the Ganges River, by Julian Crandall Hollick

This guy Hollick, who has spent much of his career in radio explaining India to the English-speaking world, as far as I can tell, decided to take a trip down the Ganges to look at the river as a whole.  Except you can't actually do that; it's impossible to just start at the top and go all the way to the sea, for several reasons*, so he just did his very best to travel the length of the river in a few stints.  On the way, he describes the cultural and religious importance of Ganga, and studies some of its many difficulties -- environmental, industrial, and biological.

There are some problems specific to Ganga that are very difficult to solve.  India's massive appetite for power means that flow is frequently diverted to generate electricity, to the point that the river gets too small in places (happily constantly refreshed by new flow from tributaries).  Irrigation takes even more, and then there's the pollution.  Massive amounts of raw sewage and industrial effluvia are dumped in, and waste treatments plants are often in disrepair or rendered ineffective by improper treatment.

The amazing thing is that Ganga is as healthy as it is.  It doesn't seem possible, and yet the river actually does end up cleaner than it ought to be.  One key seems to be bacteriophages, and there's a large section on that.

Still, the demands on the river are unsustainable.  The Ganges river dolphin is endangered, there are dams and barrages in places that don't work and end up exacerbating the flooding they're meant to control, and too much water is taken out.  Hollick tries to be optimistic, but it's not easy.  Since the book is a little over ten years old, I really would like to know what's going on today in some of these spots.

A more enjoyable aspect of the book is the description of the beliefs and practices surrounding the river.  Hollick records stories about Ganga from as many people as he can get to talk with him, and it's enthralling.  I would have liked a bit more about that, but in fact there was plenty.  (The day after I finished the book, I was listening to a podcast by a British woman who asserted that the Thames is the most storied river in the world.  No, it very definitely is not.  That would be Ganga, and probably the Nile after that.)

A very interesting book about an important topic.  I only wish it was less than ten years old.

*Such as: by the time the ice is melted in the mountains, the plains are scorching hot, and also the Ganges is impassable or almost gone in spots.

WWW Wednesday #2

Dude, is it Wednesday already?  I nearly forgot, but since I remembered, here it is, the meme hosted by Sam at A World of Words.  Very simple, just answer me these questions three, ere the other side you see:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

What are you currently reading?
Secondhand Time, by Svetlana Alexievich.  Memories of the 1990s and the end of the USSR, from former Soviets.  Fascinating, very long, often quite nostalgic for the glories of the Revolution, or alternatively for the glories of the days when freedom seemed right around the corner.  Instead they got rampant commercialism, oligarchy, and a new dictator, which is not what democracy or even capitalism is about.  Russians really got the shaft with that 'shock therapy' idea where they just gave away entire industries to various moguls.
I started Hartmann von Aue all right, but I haven't gotten far at all.  I keep falling asleep, so I've moved it out of the bedtime reading spot to the coffee table.

What did you recently finish reading?
Just finished The Adventures of Roderick Random.  All the good guys end up filthy rich, and all the baddies end up poor, in the best approved Georgian fashion.  You have to love their straightforward interest in money!
I also finished an Angolan novel, The Book of Chameleons, by Jose Eduardo Agualusa.  There are no actual, non-metaphorical chameleons, but there is a gecko.
What do you think you’ll read next?
I'm planning to start The Wanderer, a collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry and riddles.  And I think I'll read Daphne du Maurier's Jamaica Inn; I don't quite want to start either the Trollope or the Camus quite yet.  I'll read something just for fun first.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Summerbook #3: Cat's Cradle

Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut

Funny that I should read two books practically at the same time that use the cat's cradle game as a theme.  I wound up getting out this old Dover book I have about 'string games around the world' only I can't find the yarn to try them out.  I'm sure there is yarn around here someplace...

Anyway.  Cat's Cradle is a nice read.  The narrator tells his story, starting with his project of writing a book about what was happening in America on the day that the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.   But now he's a Bokonist, and he's had some adventures with his friend Newt, whose father was one of the major physicists working on the bomb.  That father also invented ice-nine, and Newt and his siblings have some.

Bokonism is, I think, the famous part of this novel, and it's where the notion of a karass comes from.  The novel I'd read before made me think a karass was just your band of mates, but it's not; it's the other people chosen to do the same job as you on earth, in an ineffable sort of way.  You don't have to like them, or know them in person.

The other famous part is ice-nine, which my husband knew about although he's never read Cat's Cradle.  That was a pretty good bit, but I wouldn't want to spoil it.  In fact I'm having trouble writing this post without telling the whole plot, so this isn't turning out to make much sense.

Still, I enjoyed the book a lot and I shall perhaps read another few Vonnegut books soon.  I've never read anything besides the standard Slaughterhouse-five and Harrison Bergeron before.