Thursday, October 31, 2019

CC Spin #21: The Bride Price

 The Bride Price, by Buchi Emecheta

Happy Halloween, folks, and happy Spin Day too!  I was very excited about this title, since I love Emecheta's writing.  I found out that she considered it her best novel, but it also had tragedy attached to it; she based the story loosely on her own life, but when her husband found and read the manuscript, he was angered that his fictional counterpart was a descendant of slaves.  He burned the manuscript, which was the only copy.  Emecheta re-wrote her novel, but changed the ending from hopeful to tragic, reflecting her changed feelings and her failing marriage.

Aku-nna is a young teen when her doting father dies, leaving her and her mother and brother almost destitute.  The little family travels back to Ma Blackie's home village (Ma Blackie is much admired for her beautiful, extremely dark skin).  Ma Blackie becomes a plural wife to Okonkwo, a relative of her husband's, and Aku-nna and Nna-nndo go to school.  Aku-nna and her teacher, Chike, fall in love and vow to marry.

Chike's family is well-to-do in the village because of their educational status, but no one has forgotten that he is the grandson of a slave.  When British missionary schools were first established in the area, people sent their slaves to the schools, which were not considered useful -- but that enabled those slaves to rise in the world.  Thus Chike's ambiguous status; he's a teacher, but no respectable family would want to ally itself with him.  Chike's father can afford to offer a good bride price for Aku-nna, but will Okonkwo accept it?

Aku-nna has several suitors, and one of them, who she dislikes, kidnaps her to force her into marriage.  Aku-nna at first plans to kill herself rather than live with him, but then cleverly evades him and runs away with Chike.  They marry and live in newlywed bliss in another town...but Okonkwo has refused the bride price, and Aku-nna worries all the time about her people's belief that a bride whose price is not paid is doomed to die in childbirth.

This is a wonderful novel.  It's the third Emecheta I've read (the others are The Slave Girl and The Joys of Motherhood), and I plan to read at least one more.  I can maybe see why this one was her favorite.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The Bride of Lammermoor

The Bride of Lammermoor, by Sir Walter Scott

The Classics Club issued a dare to pick a spooky classic from our lists to read.  My CC list has already had most of the spooky classics taken, but I did have one left: The Bride of Lammermoor, by Sir Walter Scott.  I knew it featured a bride who goes mad and stabs somebody, and that an opera, Lucia di Lammermoor, was based on the novel.  Also, the novel was published in 1819.  But it's historical fiction, set at the end of the 17th century, over 100 years before Scott wrote it.

Edgar, Master of Ravenswood, has been dispossessed of his ancestral property.  His father was a Jacobite and was stripped of his title and everything else, too.  Edgar has a single tower left to him, Wolfs Crag, and no money whatsoever.  He has to find a job overseas, because he's certainly not welcome in Scotland, but first he would like to take his revenge upon the man who persecuted his father and then got all the property: Sir William Ashton, a grasping man.  Before he gets the chance, though, Edgar runs into a lovely young maiden being menaced by an angry bull, and of course saves her.  She is Lucy Ashton, his enemy's daughter, and they fall in love.  Lucy is lovely and sweet, but not much on standing up for herself.

Sir William is actually pretty in favor of the match, and Edgar is willing to forget his revenge if he can have Lucy.  The lovers make a sacred vow to each other, but then Lady Ashton comes home, and she doesn't like this idea at all.  Lucy holds on, but her mother simply runs her right over and arranges a marriage with a rich and in fact reasonably nice neighbor, who has no clue that his shy bride is being railroaded.  Edgar shows up but is not allowed to see Lucy alone, and she can't explain.  So she goes mad instead, stabbing her bridegroom during the feast and then dying in a delerium.

It's not quite as exciting a story as it sounds -- there is a lot of time riding around the countryside and meeting up with a comic steward -- but it's pretty good.  It was not at all a difficult read.  I would not put it as high as The Heart of Midlothian, though.  That's a great novel.

I have a great fondness for Patricia Wentworth mysteries, which are Golden Age but also complete cotton candy for the mind.  One, The Ivory Dagger, is a riff on The Bride of Lammermoor, though Wentworth changes several things.  She hangs a lampshade right on it, and it's pretty fun.  So I'm reading that now in order to enjoy the inside jokes a little more.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Nonfiction November: Week I

It's Nonfiction November -- which starts in October to make the weeks come out right -- and this week's post is hosted by Julz Reads.  Head over there to see everybody's posts!  This week's topic is Your Year in Nonfiction:

Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions – What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year? Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?
Themes that cropped up this year have been:

German/Eastern European/Russian history, as usual, with some literature thrown in too.  There is not enough time in my life to read all the history I want to, especially for that area.  I was particularly excited to read Tacitus, followed by A Most Dangerous Book, followed by Black Earth.  And Svetlana Alexievich is always a big deal to me; this year it was Secondhand Time.

Agricola and Germania, by Tacitus
A Most Dangerous Book, by Christopher Krebs
Black Earth: the Holocaust as History and Warning, by Timothy Snyder
Secondhand Time, by Svetlana Alexievich
The Possessed, by Elif Batuman (witty reflections on Russian literature and the people who read it)

Memoirs!  Some really amazing memoirs, often kind of literary in nature.  Also, a biography or two.  I had slightly mixed feelings about the Gorey biography, though it was also excellent in many ways...

Educated, by Tara Westover
Drawn From Memory and Drawn From Life, by E. H. Shepard
The Pendulum, by Julie Lindahl  (a memoir about German history, two of my categories at once)
Stet, by Diana Athill 
Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah 
Wesley the Owl, by Stacey O' Brien
Born to be Posthumous, by Mark Dery 
Such a Strange Lady, by Janet Hitchman
Every Secret Thing, by Patty Hearst

One of my most important books of the year, though, was a new topic for me: Northern Ireland.  Say Nothing gave me a lot to think about.  The same friend who gave me Say Nothing also told me to watch Derry Girls, which I am now hooked on.

Say Nothing, by Patrick Radden Keefe

Oddly, conspiracy theory books took up some space too.  I had a bit of a Jon Ronson kick with THEM, and then I got hold of Voodoo Histories, which was fascinating, and also meant that I've read the Aaronovitch brothers this year entirely accidentally.

Lost at Sea, by Jon Ronson
THEM, by Jon Ronson
Voodoo Histories, by David Aaronovitch

I also read more about...not exactly politics, but how our current political climate happened, and what to do about it.  These were important books to me, and I would recommend them to everyone.

Love Your Enemies, by Arthur C. Brooks
Alienated America, by Timothy P. Carney
How to Think, by Alan Jacobs
Enraged, by Emily Katz Anhalt (about ancient Greece, but completely relevant)

Lastly, we have the RANDOM but resistant to categorization!

Underground, by Will Hunt 
Babel, by Gaston Dorren
Ganga, by Julian Hollick (I want to read more travel books, but they got a bit shoved aside this year)
The Happiness Curve, by Jonathan Rauch

It's been a great nonfiction reading year; I only wish I could have crammed more in!  As for what I'd like to get out of this week...well, my TBR pile doesn't need any help, but who can resist a good-looking title??  I'm always up for more recommendations.


Othello, by William Shakespeare

Erica at The Broken Spine has been hosting the tragedy part of the Year of Shakespeare, and so I thought I'd sign up for a couple titles.  I decided to read Othello, and hope to read Antony and Cleopatra too, before the end of the year.

(The trouble I always have with writing blog posts about famous classics is...what do I say?   It's not like I'm going to tell you something you don't know.)

Othello is a newish and excellent general in Venice, and he's a Moor.  He's been winning battles and impressing everybody, and he's just secretly married the lovely Desdemona, daughter of one of Venice's senators.  His ensign, Iago, hates Othello because the general promoted a younger man, Cassio, above him, and vows to have his revenge upon all of them with the help of the dissolute Roderigo, who wanted to marry Desdemona.

Iago plays upon Othello's jealousy, implying that he knows that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio.  He masterfully acts the part of a good friend reluctant to give bad news, and manipulates Othello into a rage.  The evidence is provided by a stolen handkerchief planted in Cassio's room.  Othello, goaded beyond logic or thought, suffocates his innocent wife, only to find out about Iago's betrayal right afterward.  He kills himself and only Cassio is left to take his place as general and enact justice upon Iago.

Iago is brilliant at manipulation, but he eventually oversteps himself and his lies catch up with him.  I noticed that Othello's loss of trust in his wife means that he never gives her a chance to defend herself properly or to explain anything (not that she could, since she is ignorant of Iago's perfidy).  Nor does Cassio get a chance.  Giving ear to Iago, Othello becomes unable to hear anyone else.  He could have done better by keeping his head and his temper.

I'm glad I read this one; it had been too long since the last time.  Well, actually, my 16yo had to read it a while back for school, so we went over it together then, and I should have taken the chance to really read it with her, but I didn't.  So it's good to do it now.  (We are now experiencing a whole lot of togetherness as we read her AP US History book!  She finds it much easier to absorb and take notes if I read aloud, so I learned a lot about Andrew Jackson this weekend.)  I've never read Antony and Cleopatra at all, just Julius Caesar about five times, so that will be interesting too.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Such a Strange Lady

Such a Strange Lady: a Biography of Dorothy L. Sayers, by Janet Hitchman

Fun fact: Dorothy Sayers really, really hated it when people left out the L.  Pretty much everybody leaves out the L.

This was the first biography of Sayers to be published, sixteen years after her death, in 1975, and it was unauthorized.  It's an absorbing and witty biography, not too long or heavy, and it covers all the salient points.  I think a modern biography would make much of Sayers' friendships with the Inklings, while Hitchman almost completely ignores them, which is kind of refreshing.  It's an enjoyable read and I recommend it to Sayers fans.

It's got the title because so many people Hitchman spoke with started off with "She was such a strange lady..." and indeed Dorothy Sayers was an odd duck, which makes her all the more interesting to read about.  There is quite a bit about her youth, which was of course fairly miserable; tall and awkward, extremely clever but not very imaginative, loud, and prone to passions, she did not fit in well.  Hitchman describes her as "the last of the jolly women."

Sayers wrote largely from her own experience; she worked, for example, in an advertising office for years.  When she had a problem, she tended to write it out to get rid of it.

The biography covers all the periods of Sayers' writing, from mysteries to religious radio plays to her final all-consuming Dante project.  We also meet her husband, and her son a little bit.  This biography was the first time her son's birth was made public knowledge, in fact.  But mostly the book focuses on her writing, which I liked.

 Bits I thought were fun:
[At Oxford] She was...the Bicycle Secretary, probably because no one else would take on this onerous chore.  Bicycles were, and probably still are, both a blessing and a bane to colleges.  Students will leave them about, to the hazard of townsfolk and aging dons, then complain wildly that they have been stolen.  Previous Bicycle Secretaries at Somerville had yelled themselves hoarse trying to get the owners of the machines to park them in the places provided, not on the tennis courts, in the kitchen doorway, or in the corridors.  In her term of office Dorothy changed all that; she impounded the errant bicycles and released them only on payment of a fine to the Red Cross.  Her title was changed from Bicycle Secretary to Bicycle Tyrant and the freeways of Somerville were really free.

She was a mass of contradictions.  Her public manner was always formidable, but this camouflaged a deep shyness.  She talked incessantly, mostly about her craft, and managed, while continually burbling, never to give away a single thing about herself.  It was years, for instance, before people who considered themselves her closest friends knew where she lived, or that she was married.

[On working with Agatha Christie]  She found all the contributors friendly, only Miss Christie was a bit awkward because "she disappears and won't argue."  These two ladies both suffered from shyness -- in Dorothy it took the form of extroversion, in Agatha Christie just the opposite.  Anyone who has worked with her is well acquainted with her habit of withdrawing from anything that threatens to be a 'scene.'  She sees the signals way ahead of anyone else, and when the argument arrives she is just not there.  No one loved an argument more than Dorothy, and it is surprising that she found Christie merely 'awkward.'

[On her religious radio plays] One cannot but agree that without The Man Born to Be King we should never have reached Jesus Christ Superstar via Godspell...

I include a photo of Sayers here especially for my brother, who asked me a few weeks ago who she was and whether he should try a mystery.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

November Reading Events

There are so many events coming up in November, I do not know how I will manage!  I want to participate in all of them!  But that is tricky.  Here they are:

Witch Week is coming!  Hosted by Chris and Lizzie, this year's theme will be villains. As you know, Witch Week is the week between Halloween and Guy Fawkes.  And there's a readalong of Cart and Cwidder!

Brona will be hosting her popular and beloved AusReading Month event.  She has bingo!  I am signing up to read Jill Ker Conway's memoirs, The Road from Coorain and True North, both of which have been on my TBR shelf for a while now.

I have been unaware of Caroline and Lizzy's annual German Reading Month -- how did I miss that??  This looks super-exciting because they have all these cool things to do, which I will almost certainly not manage.  Here's a rundown of their program:
To commemorate The Fall of the Wall there will be an ex-DDR week. For the founding of the Weimar Republic, the badge has been converted to Bauhaus-favoured sans serif typography and we will host a readalong of Alfred Döblin’s seminal Berlin Alexanderplatz. Last, but definitely not least, there will be a Goethe Reading Week.
I could re-read Berlin Alexanderplatz!  I read it in about 1993 and I remember little, though we watched some of the movie too.  I mean I could have a whole Döblin party over here, because I also have his A People Betrayed, which is at least as long as Berlin Alexanderplatz.  (I stole it from my brother.)  And there's a DDR week!  However, I had already plucked Wolfram von Eschenbach's medieval knightly tale Willehalm off my TBR shelf.  What to do, what to do....

AND Non-Fiction November is happening too.  Last year I only did a couple installments, and then we had the fire, and I couldn't do anything for a while.  Now we're all gearing up for remembrances and such, and there's going to be a documentary on Netflix (which is not the same thing as the documentary Ron Howard is making for National Geographic).  Here are the Non-Fiction November categories:

Week 1: (Oct. 28 to Nov. 1) – Your Year in Nonfiction (Julz of Julz Reads)
Week 2: (Nov. 4 to 8) – Book Pairing (Sarah of Sarah’s Book Shelves)
Week 3: (Nov. 11 to 15) – Be The Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert (Katie at Doing Dewey)
Week 4: (Nov. 18 to 22) – Nonfiction Favorites (Leann of Shelf Aware)
Week 5: (Nov. 25 to 29) – New to My TBR (Rennie of What’s Nonfiction)

So it's all very very exciting, and pretty overwhelming.  I can't do all the things.  But I will probably try.

Tell Your Children

Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence, by Alex Berenson

This was a very, very surprising book on all counts.  Even the author was surprised!  I was too.

Alex Berenson, journalist, was -- like a lot of Americans -- vaguely pro-legalization of marijuana.  He'd done it himself a few times, no big deal, and had the usual ideas: that pot is safer than alcohol, it's silly to get worked up about it, people don't die from pot.  His wife is a psychiatrist who specializes in criminality and mental illness, and one day when they were talking about a case, she casually mentioned that 'of course,' the perpetrator was high and had used pot his whole life. 

"Of course"? 
Yeah, they all smoke marijuana; the studies show a link between pot and violence. 
--Wait, what?  

So Berenson the journalist took a hint from Berenson the psychiatrist and decided to look at the statistics and the studies.  What he found completely surprised him, because the evidence -- he tells you where the information comes from, though some of the numbers were run for him by a sociologist doing meta-studies -- shows that pot use can come with all sorts of problems that we just haven't paid much attention to.

As we all already know, modern pot is a very different animal than the stuff people smoked 30 - 40 years ago.  It's much, much higher in THC.  And it turns out that THC isn't really very good for us, and in large amounts can trigger violent outbursts, paranoia, or psychosis.  It even seems to serve as a possible trigger for schizophrenia; heavy pot users develop schizophrenia at a higher rate.  Societies that dealt with heavy pot smokers knew this in the past, too; Berenson cites cases in India and Mexico to show that it was a known risk.

I hadn't heard about this at all; I've just heard of cannabinoid hyperemesis and other problems.  Berenson does cover other risks of heavy pot use like that.  His research is global; he uses the Dunedin study, trends in the UK, Australian studies, and so on.  There is not, in fact, a lot of US research to depend on.

A couple quotations:
In its 2017 report, NAM found essentially no evidence that cannabis of cannabinoids can help cancer of any kind.  Worse, it found some evidence that cannabis use is associated with testicular cancer -- and that mothers who smoke are more likely to have children who develop leukemias and brain cancer.  But it's not just cancer.  The National Academy's report also found no evidence that cannabis is useful for a whole alphabet of diseases it's supposed to help...It found almost no evidence that marijuana can treat anxiety or [PTSD] -- and some evidence that the drug worsens those conditions.

The legalization community likes to call the United States exceptional in its attitudes toward drugs, implying that Europe has a more civilized attitude toward marijuana.  They're right.  The United States is exceptional.  But not because it's strict.  The United States has the loosest laws and highest rates of cannabis use among any major countries.  It also has the noisiest, most aggressive community of users.

I hope this information becomes better-known in the US.  I live in Northern California, pot central, and pot is a cure-all and a religion to some folks.  (It is a very boring religion.)  Pot is pretty much legal here -- we now export to the East Coast! -- and it's cheap, but it still drives a lot of crime.  I'm not a fan, and I'd be happy to see more factual information out there and less fluffy feel-good nonsense about pot being good for glaucoma and cancer.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019


Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages, by Gaston Dorren

Back in 2016 I enjoyed Dorren's Lingo a lot, so when I saw he'd written another book about the intricacies and quirks of world languages, I jumped on it.

If you take the 20 most-spoken languages in the world (by mother tongue), you cover just about half of the world's population.  If you learned all of them, you could communicate with most of the world, since lots of these are spoken as second/third/etc. languages.  So why not take a look at the top 20 and see which ones are what ones and what ones are who?

As in Lingo, each chapter covers one language -- he gives some basic statistics at the start, and then dives into whatever aspect of each language tickles his fancy.   He starts with #20, the smallest of the top, and the chapters are therefore numbered 20 - 1 instead of 1 - 20.  #20 is Vietnamese, which is a fiendishly difficult language if you are not Vietnamese, and Dorren knows this for sure because he studied it seriously for a good long time.

I found out a thing I didn't know, which is that Korean and Japanese are both linguistic orphans, with not much in the way of living language cousins.   I did know that Tamil is a language that's been tightly intertwined with nationalism, but I didn't know just how tightly. 

The chapter on Turkish was fascinating for its discourse on the history of Turkish language reform.  Ataturk, you see, wanted to make Turkish more purely Turkish, but the effacement of loan-words from Arabic and Persian, replaced with ancient Turkish root words dug up for new usage, went so far that 'reformed' Turkish was practically incomprehensible.  It was a relief when somebody went so far as to announce that Turkish was the human ur-language that all other languages were based on -- this allowed everybody to go back to the loan words they were used to and not worry about language purity.  It also illuminated for me a bit in a book I read some months ago, The Possessed, in which the Turkish author is bemused by her elderly relatives who insist that all other languages are related to Turkish.  Now I know why!

French, on the other hand, has insisted on language purity for a few hundred years.  Just what is linguistic purity anyway, and is there a point to it?  The more I read this book, the more pointless it seemed, and it's not like I was a fan before.

Meditations on language and power criss-cross the chapters.  Javanese is not popular, because it has all these variations depending on your social status (which I had to look up when I first tackled Indonesian literature).  Malay, however, has become a lingua franca over a large area precisely because it lacks those variations, and because it has successfully stayed out of nationalism.

Is Hindi/Urdu one language written two ways, or two different languages?  Depends who you ask.

There is a lot about Mandarin, of course, and a special bonus chapter on the Japanese writing system and its relation to the Chinese writing system.

Yep, I had a lot of fun with this one.  If I had the time and ability, I'd learn lots of languages myself!  I wish I could speak and read Russian and Hindi, in particular.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019


Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet, by Will Hunt

This was one of those books that just called my name when it showed up at work.  I like reading about under-cities...

Will Hunt's house happened to have an abandoned tunnel running under it, and exploring that tunnel sparked a life-long desire to explore the underworld.  Upon moving to New York City, Hunt joined the many people who explore subway tunnels...and eventually he talked a publisher into paying him to write a book about underground explorations.

Each chapter addresses a different part of the world and aspect of underground living.  There are the catacombs of Paris!  Scientific investigations into bacteria that live deep underground!  Hunt is privileged to visit ancient cave temples in Xibalba, a really ancient Aboriginal red ochre mine, and  even more ancient cave art in France.  He spends 24 hours alone in complete darkness in West Virginia.  He tells fascinating histories and tracks down subway graffiti artists.

I zoomed through this book and enjoyed every bit.  Hunt is not too self-conscious or overly poetic (like some exploration writers I could mention).  I don't dare give this book to my oldest kid, because said kid would promptly form ambitions to explore the New York subways and, as cool as that sounds, it also makes me very very nervous.  Highly recommended, as long as it's not my responsibility to keep you alive on this earth.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Busman's Honeymoon

Busman's Honeymoon, by Dorothy L. Sayers

I'd been meaning to read Have His Carcase, the Harriet-goes-hiking one, but I don't have it, so I read a different Sayers mystery that I haven't read for a long time.

Harriet and Lord Peter have finally gotten married -- in their own interesting way, which involves circumventing sister-in-law Helen's plans for a proper society wedding and a Paris honeymoon.  No, the newlyweds have decided to sneak off and spend their honeymoon week at their new country house, Talboys, which they've only just purchased.  The former owner promised to have everything ready for them to move right in.

Instead they arrive to a locked house; nobody is expecting them, Mr. Noakes has been gone for a week on business, and certainly nothing is ready at all.  There are even dirty dishes on the table.  Everything gets more and more fussed and ridiculous, as neighbors come clamoring in and chimneys fail to draw.  There is a lot of domestic comedy mixed with Harriet's musings on the new lights shed on Peter's character.  And then...Mr. Noakes is found dead in the cellar, having had his head bashed in.  Who could have done it, and why?

I had a lot of fun reading this; it had been a long time and so I had forgotten most of it.  A good addition to my RIP reading!  I still need a copy of Have His Carcase though...

My copy is a battered paperback from 1986 with a not-very-exciting cover, so you get this neat old-fashioned one.  My copy also has an ad in the back stating ominously that "By the year 2000, 2 out of 3 Americans could be illiterate."  So volunteer for literacy!  I'm glad that the literacy level of Americans doesn't seem to be quite that dismal, even nearly 20 years after the year 2000.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss

Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss, by Rajeev Balasubramanyam

I saw this reviewed fairly recently as an uplifting kind of a book that makes the reader happy, so I thought I'd give it a try.

Professor Chandra is the world's foremost economist, and yet here he is, not winning the Nobel Prize.  Again.  Also, his wife left him years ago, only one of his three mostly-grown children want to talk with him at all, and he just got run over by a bicycle.  Forced into a leave of absence from Cambridge, Professor Chandra has to find something to do with himself.

He starts with a four-day retreat in California, and then spends some time as a 'visiting scholar' in San Diego, learning how to do something besides work himself to death.  He gradually starts to try to mend fences with his children (letting them make their own choices is a help) and even his ex-wife, and finally starts to figure out that maybe work isn't the only thing out there.  He has always loved his family deeply, but almost the only way he knew of to show it was to work all the time and try to make his kids get into Ivy League colleges.  Maybe they could just...enjoy being together?

This was not as light or fun as I thought it would be!  It was all pretty depressing at first and I wondered how this could be a very uplifting, feel-good kind of novel.  But I did get drawn in to his worries and travails, trying to figure out what life is about and how to be...this thing people call happy.  And it is funny.  So while I didn't find it to be this wonderful, life-affirming story, I did enjoy it.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Book of Ballads and Sagas

Book of Ballads and Sagas, by Charles Vess (and Co.)

Back in the 1990s, Charles Vess did a series of comics/graphic novels in which he collaborated with various writers to produce versions of old ballads (plus one Norse myth story, thus the 'sagas').   Featured authors included Charles de Lint, Jane Yolen, and Neil Gaiman -- your standard 90s list of up-and-coming fantasy writers, in fact!   Now, those comics have been collected and reissued in a nice hardback edition, and if you were bookish in the 90s, this is guaranteed to give you some flashbacks.

So here we have (quick count) 13 ballads, surely a lucky number.  Most of them are reasonably well-known to anybody with a passing knowledge of ballads; there is Thomas the Rhymer, Barbara Allen, The Demon Lover, The Twa Corbies, and Tam Lin.  They're frequently given extra detail -- I was rather tickled to see that in "The Demon Lover," the girl runs off with James Harris -- or considerably more backstory.   and sometimes the stories are transposed to a different setting.  In "The Twa Corbies," a modern young woman in a big city observes as the corbies speak with the ghost of a dead homeless man.  "The Black Fox" features an Edwardian foxhunt.

"Barbara Allen" is enlarged to include a story explaining Barbara's coldheartedness, which is in fact to save her lover.  I don't know if the ballad usually ends with a rose growing from her grave and a briar from his -- as far as I can tell, it's an ending that has shown up in more than one song.  Reading that ending, however, rang a distant bell in my mind and I had to do some serious digging into my memory; once upon a time when I did a lot of camping with the Girl Scouts, a story about a rose and a briar was a favorite fireside song.  It took me quite a while to dig it up, because I was remembering the end, which doesn't match the rest of the song at all.  It's actually a parody of the ballad, sung in a weird pseudo-hillbilly style (!), but the way we sang it, it resolved into a plaintive last note.  It's barely visible on the wider internet -- I looked.  (Conclusion: the camp songs I learned were a strange mish-mash of all sorts of things saved almost at random, passed down through generations of girls who didn't know what they were singing.  I've also found out that one was a minstrel song, a couple were from obscure musicals, and one or two others were gospel songs.)

Other extras are included too, such as unfinished work that didn't get published, random cover art, and a very nice discography that lists many recordings of the ballads.  I spent a happy hour or so looking them up.  Evidently I should be somewhat embarrassed that I was unfamiliar with Steeleye Span, but if you aren't either, they're easy to find, and you can enjoy them too.

I enjoyed this book very much.  I'm always planning to learn more about old ballads, and I have both a compact Child and an Oxford Book of Ballads that I would like to read.  My trouble is mainly the same problem I have with poetry; you have to read just a few at a time, and I am bad at remembering to pick up the book for just a little while, but consistently.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Ali and Nino

Ali and Nino, by Kurban Said

I am now so, so far behind in my posts, but I really want to talk about these books...

Ali and Nino is widely considered to be the Azerbaijani novel; it's a movie and everything.  And indeed, it was a fascinating read and a good novel!  It was originally written in German and published in Vienna in 1937.  Sheer luck brought it back into prominence (instead of complete oblivion) after World War II.  But...who was Kurban Said?  It's a mystery!  At least, it was a mystery for a long time.  My edition says that Kurban Said was probably a writing team comprised of an Austrian baroness, Elfriede Ehrehfels, and Lev Nussimbaum, a Jewish man born in Baku who converted to Islam and had to flee to Europe during the Russian Revolution.   After Hitler took power, he moved from Germany to Austria, where he became an intimate of the baroness' circle.  Wikipedia has a very different opinion and says that at least half of this is nonsense.  It appears to be a real mess, complete with accusations of plagiarism, and I guess it's all still quite a mystery. 

Just before World War I, in a Baku dominated by Russia, Ali is a wealthy, well-educated young Muslim.  Nino is a Georgian Christian girl from a prominent family.  And Ali has been in love with Nino since they were children.  Once he graduates, at about age 18, he wishes to marry Nino, but there are a few complications.  Nino doesn't want to be forced to wear a veil or be part of a harem.  Ali's father is indulgent, but wishes to postpone the marriage for a while.  Nino's parents are similarly hesitant (Nino is 17!).  Ali uses an Armenian friend as a go-between, but when he kidnaps Nino in order to marry her himself, things turn ugly.  Ali kills him, but spares Nino (to his friends' consternation); he goes into hiding in Daghestan.

Nino eventually tracks Ali down, and they marry immediately, living in young married blissful poverty.  Only the Russian Revolution takes Ali away; he feels it his duty to serve his country in the turmoil between the Bolsheviks and the Ottomans.  (There is a lot about exactly what a Muslim man's duty might be in the context of WWI.)  Soon the young couple have to flee to Persia, where Nino has to live in an empty harem; she is miserable.  Happily Azerbaijan declares independence, Baku is peaceful for a time, and they become prominent citizens, acting as cultural ambassadors between East and West.  But when the Bolsheviks reappear, Nino has to leave with their child, and Ali has to fight a hopeless battle.

There is a lot about East and West, Islam and Christianity, male and female, desert and farmland.  Ali feels himself to be fundamentally Eastern, a man of the desert and of Islam, but in his love for Nino, a Christian and European who looks to the west, he is able to build bridges with her.  Together they construct a life that exemplifies an equal partnership and love between the two; their values are always in some tension, but also always considerate of the other's claims.  The tragedy of the novel is that the rest of the world won't let such a thing exist for very long.

A great novel, and one I enjoyed a lot.  Recommended for those interested in Caucasian literature or cross-cultural romances.

Monday, October 7, 2019

The Frontier Magic trilogy

Thirteenth Child
Across the Great Barrier
The Far West, by Patricia C. Wrede

This middle grade/YA trilogy is now several years old, but I completely missed it.  I like Patricia C. Wrede, who wrote the Dealing With Dragons books and generally seems to have a lively imagination. 

The story stars Eff, and tells the story of her life from birth all the way through her mid-20s.  It's an alternate history world in which magic is real and the world abounds with magical critters, many of which are highly dangerous -- especially on the Columbian continents, which are crammed so full of lethal animals that exploration and expansion are extremely difficult.  In a frontier Columbia where history is very different from ours, Eff tries to figure out where she belongs.

Thirteenth Child starts with Eff as a tiny little girl; her twin brother, Lan, is the seventh son of a seventh son, which makes him a powerful magician, but she is kid #13, and some of her relatives are convinced that she is naturally evil.  The situation is bad enough that her parents move out to the western frontier, and Eff grows up with secret fears that she really will turn out evil, which tends to short out her magic abilities. 

In Across the Great Barrier, Eff is starting to come into her own, and develops an interest in working with animals.  She joins an expedition to the West, encountering a Rationalist settlement, a plague of mirror bugs that eat everything in their path, and finally, a terrifying new species of lizard that may threaten everyone.

The Far West features Eff as a young woman, now working full-time in animal research.  The new species of lizard is so dangerous that Cathay has sent a delegation of magicians to investigate, and encourages a large expedition to push further west than anyone has before.  (In this world, Lewis and Clark didn't get far and never came back.)  Eff discovers more about herself, and about magic, than she dreamed.

Wrede really let herself go with the critters!  Columbia does not only have swarming weasels and mirror bugs; there are mammoths and saber cats, steam dragons and invisible foxes.  Some are magic, some not.  It's a lot of fun.  The history is so different that there isn't a lot of comparison to our world.  It's a neat trilogy and I enjoyed reading it.  And I must say, it was extremely perilous!