Tuesday, December 31, 2019

My Tenth Blogiversary!

On December 31, 2009, I started Howling Frog Books because I wanted to participate in reading challenges.  I had no idea how much fun, great literature, and neat people across the world I was going to find!  So, to my fellow book bloggers and readers, thank you so much for ten years of bookish loveliness.  You have been a great help to me.

Just for fun, here is the very first book I blogged about: Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, by Susan Jane Gilman.


Ten years ago I was a homeschooling mom with a 9- and a 6-year-old.  I didn't have a job because the county had decided that the public library -- where I'd been doing sub work with the expectation of eventually working part-time at least -- didn't need much in the way of actual librarians.  I wasn't sure how I was going to solve that career dilemma, but meanwhile I was very busy doing classical education at home.

Now my kids are nearly grown; one is at college.  My career dilemma solved itself when the community college library offered me a little job, which has since expanded a good bit.  And thanks to the book blogging world, I know a lot more about classic and world literature.

So...thanks, everybody, and may 2020 bring us joyful reading.  And also more kindness.  And while we're at it, world peace.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Russian Literature Challenge 2020

Keely at A Common Reader is hosting another Russian Literature Challenge, hooray!  You would not believe the amount of Russian literature on my shelf.  Well, you would.  But it's a lot.  This challenge goes right along with my 2020 goals, and it's nice and relaxed, so I'm excited to join up.  Keely says:

Personally I'm not the greatest fan of challenges that have too many rules and regulations so I only have one: read as much (or as little) Russian literature in 2020 as you want to and share your thoughts if you so desire! I have a recommended reading list that I'll add the link to at the end of this post for ideas but how you define Russian literature is up to you.
 Here are some titles, in no particular order, that are on my list of things to read, but I'm not committing to anything specific at this time.

The White Guard or Heart of a Dog, by Mikhail Bulgakov
Shorter works of Tolstoy
Last Witnesses and The Unwomanly Face of War, by Svetlana Alexievich
Oblomov, by Ivan Goncharov
Most anything by Teffi
The Idiot and The Possessed, by Dostoyevsky, also short stories
First Love and stories, and Sketches From a Hunter's Album by Ivan Turgenev
And Quiet Flows the Don, by Mikhail Sholokov
The works of Vasily Grossman
Jacob's Ladder, by Ludmila Ulitskaya
A couple short things by Sholzhenitsyn I've got lying around
Red Calvary, by Isaac Babel
Stories by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

So, you know, hardly anything.


Sunday, December 29, 2019

More 2019 Wrap-Ups

OK, what else have we got to finish up here?

Back to the Classics:  I finished all 12 categories (just barely!).

1.  A 19th Century Classic --  Crime and Punishment, by Dostoyevsky
2.  A 20th Century Classic --  The Palm-Wine Drinkard, by Amos Tutuola
3.  A Classic by a Woman Author.   Elizabeth and Her German Garden, by Elizabeth von Arnim
4.  A Classic in Translation.--  Undine and other stories by Fouque
5.  A Classic Comedy.  --  Parnassus on Wheels, by Christopher Morley
6. 
A Classic Tragedy.  --  The Plague, by Albert Camus
7.  Very Long Classic
. --  The Adventures of Roderick Random, by Tobias Smollett
8.
A Classic Novella.  --  Kappa, by Akutagawa Ryunosuke
9. 
A
Classic From the Americas (includes the Caribbean). --  Walls of Jericho, by Rudolph Fisher
10. 
Classic From Africa, Asia, or Oceania (includes Australia). -- Essential Encounters, by Therese Kuoh-Moukoury
11.
A
Classic From a Place You've Lived. --  The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
12. 
Classic Play. 
--  Othello, by William Shakespeare  

 

The Chunkster Challenge:  I wanted to do more, but honestly I didn't think I'd do this well.  I read nine book for a total of 50 points, and I have two chunksters that I'm partway through.

  1.  Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky -- 7 points
  2.  Born to be Posthumous,  -- 5 points
  3.  Black Earth, by Timothy Snyder -- 5 points 
  4. The Adventures of Roderick Random, by Tobias Smollett -- 7 points 
  5. The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, by Anderson and Yelchin -- 4 points (bonus for second new author)
  6.  The Claverings, by Anthony Trollope -- 6 points
  7.  Secondhand Time, by Svetlana Alexievich -- 6 points
  8.  Every Secret Thing, by Patricia Hearst -- 5 points
  9. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck -- 5 points

Rose City Reader's European Challenge:  I read titles from 13 countries.  Not bad.  Since I'm trying to read all around the world, it's hard to really rack up the Euro numbers.  But hey, I got Andorra and Azerbaijan!
  1. The Teacher of Cheops, by Albert Salvado (Andorra)
  2.  Agricola and Germania, by Tacitus (Italy)
  3.  Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Russia)
  4. A Most Dangerous Book, by Christopher Krebs (Germany)
  5.  Enraged (Greece)
  6. Yeats: Short Stories (Ireland)
  7. Say Nothing (Northern Ireland/UK)
  8. The Zelmenyaners (Belarus)
  9. Lais of Marie de France (France)
  10. Purge, by Sofi Oksanen (Estonia)
  11. The Green Face, by Gustav Meyrink (Czechia) 
  12. Ali and Nino, by Kurban Said (Azerbajian)
  13. Four Stories by Sigrid Undset (Norway) 

 And the Georgian Challenge.  This one was hard!  I think I can count myself as having read four books, because while I'm still (still!) only halfway through Johnson and Boswell's journeys, that is really two books in one volume.  I read Johnson's book, but I'm still working on Boswell.
  1.  The Unknown Ajax, by Georgette Heyer
  2. The Adventures of Roderick Random, by Tobias Smollett
  3. A Journey to the Hebrides, by Johnson and Boswell
  4. The Bride of Lammermoor, by Sir Walter Scott

Also, I'm up to 52 titles read from All Around the World, and 81 from my current Classics Club list.  I have no idea how many books are on that list, though.  It's well over 200.

OK, 2019 is wrapped up!  Since I want to focus a little better this year, I'm going to try to cut down on the challenges for 2020.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

For Karen's Back to the Classics Challenge, I needed a classic set in a place where I have lived, and the solution was obvious: The Grapes of Wrath.  Cleo wanted to do a readalong in December, which suited me just fine, and so three people set out to read it together.  It's possible the timing was less than ideal, as this is the least wintery or Christmassy book I have ever read in any December ever.  It's an August book for sure.

What connection do I have to the locations in this novel?  The Joads set out from Oklahoma and take Route 66, with their destination being Bakersfield, California.  It's the only time I've ever seen anybody describe the land around Bakersfield in glowing terms.  I was born in Bakersfield, and so was my dad; his parents were not Okies, but they were pretty much part of the same migration west around that time.  (I did have a great-aunt who was an Okie; she said when she was little there were 14 children in their one-room schoolhouse, and only one of them wasn't her cousin.)  We moved away when I was in 6th grade, and went back to visit often.  The bitty places named in the novel -- Shafter, Weedpatch, Tehachapi -- are familiar names to me.  I can even tell you that Shafter became famous for its potato, the Shafter Long White.

So, it's the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma, and all the small farmers that claimed the land and have been living there for 2 or 3 generations...are now in debt to the banks.  They're growing cotton, a cash crop, and cotton takes a lot out of the soil, so every year it gets worse, and years of drought have made the land dry up and blow away.  The banks are forcing the tenant farmers out and bringing in mechanized, large-scale farming in hopes of getting something out of the land.  The Joads are part of this mass eviction, and everybody is heading to California in hopes of getting jobs picking crops.  Ma hopes for a little white house among the orange trees.

Half the book is the trip out to California, which is desperate.  If you look at a map, Route 66 is now Interstate 40, and it goes through a lot of hot and dry land.  It looks like an utterly miserable trip, and at the end of it is the Mojave Desert and a mountain range before you get to the promised land of...Bakersfield?  The Joads find themselves just one family in a crowd of thousands, all desperate for work, and the landowners pay almost nothing for wages when any work is to be had.  The family moves around, picking peaches and cotton, until...well, Nature itself rebels.



What's interesting to me is Steinbeck's attitude about the whole thing.  He's naturally angry about the farmers being kicked off the land.  What we now know, however, is that the Dust Bowl was caused by the farming methods themselves; that land was naturally drought-prone, but it was settled during some unusually wet years and nobody knew back then that farming it would also destroy it.  Cotton must have been a particularly bad crop to choose, in fact.  One tenant farmer says "if only we could rotate the crops..." and he's right; you have to replenish the land with clover or something.  But I think the tenant farmers were too poor to be able to do that -- in the eternal kick-in-the-pants of poverty, they can't afford the short-term loss that would give a long-term gain.  But I don't think Steinbeck (or anybody) knew back then that the whole enterprise was doomed.  Apparently different farming methods made a big difference; Oklahoma seems to do okay now, but I don't know anything about it.

Steinbeck waxes highly poetic in several places about the relationship between Man and the Land.  His idea is that tractor farming on the large scale is dead, while the small farmer who knows his soil has the one true way of farming.  And he's got this whole thing about vegetables not being as dignified as wheat.  Very poetic but maybe not entirely practical.

...the machine man, driving a dead tractor on land he does not know and love, understands only chemistry; and he is contemptuous of the land and of himself.  When the corrugated iron doors are shut, he goes home, and and his home is not the land.
A man may stand to use a scythe, a plow, a pitchfork; but he must crawl like a bug between the rows of lettuce, he must bend his back and pull his long bag between the cotton rows, he must go on his knees like a penitent across a cauliflower patch.
On the other hand, he's got a lot of good stuff to say about the anger of people who want to work, but who are not only unable to find work, but are harassed and cheated and beaten for not already having it.
...in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath.  In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.
It's pretty clear that he's figuring on some kind of riot or revolution.  Instead, the war came along and brought a lot of jobs and money with it.



When The Grapes of Wrath was published, it was not popular in Bakersfield.  My grandmother told me once that "they burned it in the streets," and that is true, but just the once for a photo op.  A couple farmers convinced a migrant worker, Clell Pruett, to burn a copy:

 You can read a nice short piece about the book's reception and outright banning in Kern County (for 18 months), plus the local librarian's fight against that ban, at this NPR story.



Here is some lovely Bakersfield scenery for you!
The Kern river and country near Bakersfield; be sure to imagine the 110 degree heat too.

The Joads pick cotton toward the end of the novel.  My elementary school was surrounded by cotton fields, and I used to pick it through the fence.  It's all housing now of course.

Oil is also a major industry.  My grandfather worked on oil derricks in the early 30s before he decided it was a good way to get mangled or killed and that electrical engineering would be a good idea.
The Fox theater opened in 1930, so the Joads might have seen it if they'd gone into town.  I was taken to movies there as a kid.

TBR Challenge 2019 Wrap-Ups

I'm running awfully short on time, so I'm going to do a three-fer wrapup post for the TBR Challenges.  Feel free to skip this long post!


For Mount TBR, I squeaked in with 25 titles read, one more than the 24 needed to hit my goal.  BUT two of those titles were read during my blogging break and did not get written up, so I don't know if Bev will count them.  Here they are:
  1.  Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  2. Individualism and Economic Order, by F. A Hayek (well, sort of)
  3.  A Most Dangerous Book, by Christopher Krebs  
  4. Undine and Other Stories, by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué
  5. Yeats Short Stories, by W. B. Yeats
  6. Black Earth, by Timothy Snyder
  7.  Kappa, by Ryonsuke Akutagawa
  8. Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah
  9. Drawn From Memory/Drawn From Life, by E. H. Shepard
  10. Elizabeth and Her German Garden, by Elizabeth von Arnim
  11.  Voodoo Histories, by David Aaronovitch
  12. Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan
  13. Roderick Random, by Tobias Smollett 
  14. Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut 
  15. Jamaica Inn, by Daphne du Maurier
  16.  The Plague, by Albert Camus
  17. The Claverings, by Anthony Trollope
  18. Purge, by Sofi Oksana
  19.  The Green Face, by Gustav Meyrink
  20. Such a Strange Lady by Janet Hitchman
  21. The Bride of Lammermoor, by Sir Walter Scott
  22. The Road from Coorain, by Jill Ker Conway
  23. True North, by Jill Ker Conway
  24. The Radiance of Tomorrow, by Ishmeal Beah 
  25. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Armitage translation
Bev also likes us to do one of these games:

 A stitch in time...[makes a] Cat's Cradle
Don't count your chickens...[before a] Kappa [steals them]
A penny saved is...[worth spending at] Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
All good things must come.. (to) Jamaica Inn
When in Rome...[be] Such a Strange Lady
All that glitters is not... The Radiance of Tomorrow
A picture is worth... A Most Dangerous Book
When the going gets tough, the tough get [a]...Green Face
Two wrongs don't make...Voodoo Histories
The pen is mightier than...The Plague
The squeaky wheel gets....Purge[d]
Hope for the best, but prepare for...[being] Born A Crime
Birds of a feather flock...[to] Elizabeth and Her German Garden




For the Virtual TBR Challenge, I also aimed for 24 books, and I read 31 (I'm almost done with that last one):
  1. Annie John, by Jamaica Kincaid
  2. Agricola and Germania, by Tacitus 
  3. The Happiness Curve, by Jonathan Rauch
  4.  Born to be Posthumous, by Edward Gorey
  5.  The Light and the Dark, by Mikhail Shishkin
  6. Enraged, by a classics professor
  7. Essential Encounters, by Therese Kuoh-Moukoury
  8.  The Possessed, by Elif Batuman
  9. The Zelmenyaners, by Moyshe Kulbak
  10. My Sister, the Serial Killer, by Oyinkan Braithwaite
  11.  Women Talking, by Miriam Toews
  12. Baho! by Roland Rugero 
  13. Stories by Walter de la Mare, vol. 1
  14. Wisconsin Death Trip, by Michael Lesy
  15.  Walls of Jericho, by Rudolph Fisher
  16. Four Birds, by Thomas Dekker 
  17. The Book of Chameleons, by Jose Eduardo Agualusa
  18.  The Wanderer: Elegies, Epics, Riddles (Anglo-Saxon literature)
  19. The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, by Anderson and Yelchin
  20. Kalpa Imperial, by Amgelica Gorodischer
  21. Paradise of the Blind, by Duong Thu Huong
  22. Works of Hartmann von Aue
  23. Secondhand Time, by Svetlana Alexievitch
  24. Lais of Marie de France 
  25.  The Palm-Wine Drinkard, by Amos Tutuola
  26.  Ali and Nino, by Kurban Said
  27.  Stories by Sigrid Undset
  28.  The Bride Price, by Buchi Emecheta
  29.  Babel, by Gaston Dorren 
  30. Four British Fantasists, by Charles Butler 
  31. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
The game for this challenge is My Life According to Books:

1. My Ex is Born to Be Posthumous
2. My best friend is The Possessed (ha!)
3. Lately, at work [it's been] Women Talking
4. If I won the lottery, [I'd visit] The Walls of Jericho
5. My fashion sense [is a]  Paradise for the Blind
6. My next ride [will be a] Wisconsin Death Trip
7. The one I love is [not] The Wanderer
8. If I ruled the world, everyone would [have] The Book of Chameleons
9. When I look out my window, I see My Sister, the Serial Killer
10. The best things in life are Essential Encounters


And finally, for Adam's challenge I did not complete my list for the first time ever.  I only finished nine titles and I'm three short.  Darn!



  1.  Undine and Other Stories, by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué
  2.  Black Earth: the Holocaust as History and Warning, by Timothy Snyder
  3. The Book of Red Hanrahan. by W. B. Yeats
  4. The Claverings, by Anthony Trollope
  5. Kappa, by Ryunosuke Akutagawa
  6. Roderick Random, by Tobias Smollett
  7. Individualism and Economic Order, by F. A. Hayek
  8. Elizabeth and Her German Garden, by Elizabeth von Arnim
  9. A House Full of Females, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
  10. Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens
  11. Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan
  12. Jerusalem: the Eternal City, by Galbraith Ogden Skinner
  1. The Death of the Grown-Up, by Diana West
  2. The Obedience of a Christian Man, by William Tyndale

Friday, December 27, 2019

TBR Challenges for 2020

I'm going to continue with Bev's TBR challenges next year.  Adam, to my sorrow, will no longer be doing his. Bev hsots two:

The Mount TBR Reading Challenge is simple: pick how high you want to go.  As always, I'll be aiming for 24 books from the pile, though that is not nearly as many as I should read!


 The Virtual Mount TBR Challenge is library-based, which is good for me because my pile of library books is nearly as large as my actual TBR pile.   If the book is on your mental TBR list, and you get it from the library, it counts.  I'll be aiming for Mt. Crumpit, which is also 24 books.  Naturally, the virtual mountains are fictional.


Excelsior!

Monday, December 23, 2019

Plans for 2020

The New Year is fast approaching, and I haven't done any wrap-ups or sign-ups or anything.  I've gotta get moving!  So I'm going to take a page from other posts I've seen and cram a few things in together.

Every year I think about cutting back on challenges, and every year challenges pop up that are irresistible to my very greedy book-loving heart.  However, all the challenges I want to join are in line with my existing goals, which are:
  1. Continue to work on Reading ALL Around the World and my Classics Club list;
  2. Read as much history as I can cram into my brain (favorite things: UK and Russia/Eastern Europe);
  3. Also and at the same time, read whatever I want.
 Totally doable, right?  So, here are two events coming up soon, and two of the challenges that I plan to sign up for (but not all, because I'm still hoping some favorites will appear):

My favorite way to kick off a new year, the Vintage Sci-Fi Not-a-Challenge, is hosted by Little Red.  I've been hoarding up tattered old paperbacks all year!  And this year, she's included a bingo card!  Finally, a bingo card I can do!





















Dolce Bellezza is hosting a Japanese Literature Challenge that runs just from January to March and involves reading as much Japanese literature as you want.  I will probably just go for one title: Amrita, by Banana Yoshimoto -- but I do have a couple of others available to me as well.



Rachel at Hibernator's Library is hosting a history reading challenge, which is excellent news.  It's the History Nonfiction Reading Challenge 2020, and as Rachel says:
After scouring the archives of challenges in the past, I discovered a paucity of history challenges. I plan on reading a lot of history next year, and think it would be interesting to see what others are reading too. I will post a linky on the first day of every month so you can include any nonfiction history books you’re reading. The rules are not strict – if you consider the book to be history, then go ahead and post it.

That's just what I need!



And, Erica at The Broken Spine is hosting a new classics challenge, whee!  This is The Reading Classic Books Challenge, and the rules are as follows:

1) ALL books must have been first published in 1960 or earlier
2) Books must be read between January 1st and December 31st
3) Books may be used for up to two prompts

There are 12 prompts: 
1) Read a classic over 500 pages
2) Read a classic by a POC and/or with a POC as the main character
3) Read a classic that takes place in a country other than where you live
4) Read a classic in translation
5) Read a classic by a new to you author
6) Read a book of poetry
7) Read a classic written between 1800-1860
8) Read a classic written by an LGBT author and/or with an LGBT main character
9) Read a classic written by a woman
10) Read a classic novella
11) Read a classic nonfiction
12) Read a classic that has been banned or censored
Yep, that's a good one too.  Looking forward to a new year of happy reading!  I now have lots of relatives in town for Christmas, so I'll sign off until afterwards.  Happy holidays to you!

Blackout and All Clear

Blackout and All Clear, by Connie Willis

Instead of finishing off my official TBR challenge list, I dived into Connie Willis' gigantic and sprawling time-travel epic story of World War II, the double-volume Blackout and All Clear.  Each is a good 600 pages long, so it could easily have been a quartet!




















In 2060 Oxford, several historians are preparing to jump around in World War II, observing various aspects of the war.  Merope, alias Eileen, is working with evacuated children in the countryside.  Polly goes to 1940 to observe the London Blitz.  And Michael will be Mike, an American reporter in Dover who just happens to see the home end of the evacuation of Dunkirk.    Other historians have plans too, and Colin, age 17, keeps hoping to go along even though he isn't even an Oxford student yet.

Things go very pear-shaped right away for the three historians; they arrive just a bit off-target, and their drops stop working.  Eileen vastly overstays her time when the evacuees all get measles and are quarantined for weeks on end; Polly's drop is promptly covered in bomb debris; and Mike ends up at Dunkirk itself.  And there are other stories popping up: Ernest is doing intelligence work meant to mislead the Germans; somebody is at V-E Day; and a young man is running around St. Paul's. 

Trapped in World War II, stranded in time, the historians worry that they've accidentally altered history.  What if the Germans win because Mike saved a soldier?  What if the timeline is collapsing and that's why they can't get home?

This story is incredibly complex (like history! like life!) and full of suspense.  You have to pay serious attention to who's who, which I didn't do well enough the first time I read this.  It's a bit of a deep dive, but it's such a wonderful story and Willis works so hard to pay homage to all the people who felt distinctly ordinary but who performed heroics daily, just by keeping on.



Sunday, December 22, 2019

The Number is...

The Spin number is...lucky 13!


That means I'll be reading Pramoedya Ananta Toer's Footprints, the third volume in the Buru quartet.  Which is about Minke, a Javanese living under Dutch colonialism, and his journey from clever but naive youth to understanding and active adulthood.  Set at the start of the 20th century, this third volume is where it gets really political, and Minke becomes more clearly based on a real person -- Javanese press pioneer Tirto Adhi Suryo.


I kind of meant to read this last summer, so I'm glad to have a push to get it done.  My plan is to read all four.

Just to prove that I have indeed been there for every single Spin, here is the complete list of my Spin titles so far!
  1. Ake: The Years of Childhood, by Wole Soyinka
  2. A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams
  3. Niels Lyhne, by J. P. Jacobsen
  4. Far From the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy
  5. Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya
  6. Kit Marlowe plays: Doctor Faustus and Tamburlaine
  7. The Small House at Allington, by Anthony Trollope
  8. The Crucible, by Arthur Miller
  9. My Name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok
  10. A Bend in the River, by V. S. Naipaul
  11. The Story of My Experiments with Truth, by Mahatma Gandhi
  12. Prufrock and Other Observations, by T. S. Eliot
  13. Why We Can't Wait, by MLKJr.
  14. Light in August, by William Faulkner
  15. The Heart of Midlothian, by Sir Walter Scott
  16. Henry IV, Part I by Shakespeare
  17. And So Flows History, by Hahn Moo-Souk
  18. Constellation Myths 
  19. Crime and Punishment, by Dostoevsky
  20. Stories of Walter de la Mare
  21. The Bride Price, by Buchi Emecheta

Friday, December 20, 2019

My Life in Books 2019

I picked up this tag from Chris at Calmgrove.  It seems fun.  This year I have read (according to Goodreads) 187 books, and so surely I ought to be able to fill this in?


‘My Life in Books 2019’
Using only books you have read this year (2019), answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title.
  1. In high school I was— Dancing with the Viper  (OK, maybe not, but it sounds cool)
  2. People might be surprised by— Footsteps in the Dark
  3. I will never be— The Green Face (at least I hope not)
  4. My fantasy job is—  The Last Dragonslayer 
  5. At the end of a long day I need—  Angry White Pajamas
  6. I hate—  Voodoo Histories 
  7. Wish I had—  The Mansion in the Mist
  8. My family reunions are—  Paradise of the Blind  (we are all ridiculously near-sighted!)
  9. At a party you’d find me with—  Such a Strange Lady
  10. I’ve never been to—  Ganga  (but I would sure love to go)
  11. A happy day includes—  The Green Futures of Tycho (actually those are really scary)
  12. Motto I live by:  Say Nothing
  13. On my bucket list is—  The Walls of Jericho
  14. In my next life, I want to have—  Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
Join me!  Do one too! 

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Four British Fantastists, Boneland, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Some Chaotic Thoughts


Four British Fantasists: Place and Culture in the Children's Fantasies of Penelope Lively, Alan Garner, Diana Wynne Jones, and Susan Cooper, by Charles Butler
Boneland, by Alan Garner 
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, trans. by Simon Armitage

I've been having one of those times when books criss-cross each other, and most of it was while I was taking a break.  But I really want to talk about them, so call it a themed riffle of reviews...


I loved Four British Fantasists so much!  Obviously it's right up my alley, seeing that DWJ and Cooper are two of my favorites.  I've never read Penelope Lively, but this book convinced me to.  If, like me, you are really into at least two of these four writers, you'll enjoy this analysis.  There were lots of wonderful insights, but the part I'll talk about here concerns Alan Garner, who does get a large share of the book because he concerns himself so much with place -- to the point of obsession.

The four authors featured had quite a bit in common, since they were all English, of approximately the same generation -- they were all children during WWII -- and they all went to Oxford, though they did not know each other.  They also tended to get accused of writing Tolkien derivatives, and Butler does a lovely job of pointing out that in fact, all four writers did very different things that were not particularly Tolkien-based.  At least two of them had not read Lord of the Rings when they wrote their own novels.  Butler quotes Garner as rather acerbically saying that when he did read LOTR to see if his books were very much like Tolkien's, what he discovered was that "the critics hadn't read Beowulf."

This book let me know that Boneland is a follow-up to Garner's two earlier books, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, so then I wanted to read it.  Butler comments on Garner's movement toward prose that becomes starker and more reliant on dialogue -- so that it's not very easy to read -- and on his preoccupation with the area of Cheshire where his family has lived for generations.  Butler says that Garner wants to make his readers work a bit to enter the particular world of this one landscape; he doesn't just want to give it away to any-old-body.  That is certainly true; he is opaque to the point of frustration.  Butler contrasts this with DWJ's attitude -- which I find far more sympathetic -- that it isn't fair to write for children and assume that they can visit a particular place.

In Boneland, which is definitely not a children's/YA novel like the first two,  Colin is now an adult, and a very troubled one.  Susan, his twin, is missing and possibly in the Pleiades.   Colin remembers nothing at all before the age of 13, and absolutely everything after that.  He's a brilliant astronomer who can't leave his home because he believes that his observation of the local landscape of Alderley Edge is what keeps it in existence.  After hearing his sister's voice, he becomes even more troubled.  His new psychiatrist tries to help him...unless she's an ancient enemy in disguise.

Colin's narrative trades off with that of the Watcher, a prehistoric guardian of a place he calls Ludcruck.  There must be someone to take care of this place to keep it in existence, but he hasn't seen anyone else for many years and he may be the last person.  Going in search of other people, he finds some...but they are not people like him.

Boneland is crammed full of references to the Alderley Edge area.  You can find many of the roads on Google Maps, but at least half of the references are to physical landmarks like particular stones or hills that are not listed in Maps, and which are not described.  This really is a book that works best if you already live in the area, which is ....not a feature I love.  It's all very well to have an intellectual discussion about sense of place, but most evidently it can be taken too far.

The Watcher's Ludcruck is what's now known as Lud's Church or Ludchurch in Staffordshire,* a crack in the stone that must be quite a sight.  It's only about 15 miles from Alderley Edge, so pretty much the same neighborhood, though Colin has never heard of it -- he's too busy doing the Watcher job for the Edge.  Lollards are thought to have worshiped there in the 15th century, thus the name.  Ludchurch is also thought by many (including Garner) to be the Green Chapel in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:
Hit hade a hole on þe ende and on ayþer syde,
And ouergrowen with gresse in glodes aywhere,
And al watȝ holȝ inwith, nobut an olde caue,
Or a creuisse of an olde cragge… (ll. 2180-83).

It had a hole at one end and at either side, 
and its walls, matted with weeds and moss,
enclosed a cavity, like a kind of old cave
or crevice in the crag -- 
[Armitage translation]


Now it so happens that I also read Simon Armitage's translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight a few months ago, but I never did get around to writing about it.  The edition has the original on one page, and the translation on the other, so I was trying to read the original first.  Armitage tries quite hard to retain the alliterative character of the verses, which often feels like a stretch, but I appreciate the effort to make it sound like it would have sounded to its intended audience.  It's a good addition to the Green Knight shelf of your library; I think for a poem like this, it's best to read a couple of translations so as to get a look at the work from more than one side.

This was a fun selection of books to read at approximately the same time, and I'd like to add another one or two to the mix.  All are interesting books of their own type.


_______________________________________

*Ludchurch belongs to the town of Leek, which is quite small and probably nothing special, but it's also my maiden name.  That doesn't mean that we belong to Leek-based stock going back centuries; the family legend is that two brothers were on the run from the law for sheep-stealing, and as they passed through Leek they thought it would be a good idea to change their name.  So I'd quite like to visit someday.  In fact this set of books has given me a long list of places to visit someday!


Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Classics Club Spin #22

Yeah, I thought I wouldn't be able to hold out against a Spin -- Spins are my favorite!  This is Classics Club Spin #22, and you probably know the routine; if not, check out the rules.  The lucky number will be posted on Sunday, December 22, and the goal will be to read the book by January 31st.  So here are my Spin picks, which I have chosen because they are already present on my groaning shelves -- I don't dare bring anything new in until I actually read some of what I've got!

  1. Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens
  2. Passing, by Nella Larsen
  3. Subtly Worded, by Teffi
  4. Lorna Doone, by R. D. Blackmore
  5. Amrita, by Banana Yoshimoto
  6. Thus Were Their Faces, by Silvina Ocampo  
  7. The Idiot, by Dostoyevsky 
  8. The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis 
  9.  Forest of a Thousand Daemons, by D. O. Fagunwa
  10. Homeric Hymns
  11. The Red Cavalry Cycle, by Isaac Babel
  12. The Female Quixote, by Charlotte Lennox
  13. Footsteps, by Pramoedya Ananta Toer (Buru Quartet, vol. 3)
  14. Conjure Tales, by Charles Chesnutt
  15. For Two Thousand Years, by Mihail Sebastian 
  16. The Gray Earth, by Galsan Tshinag
  17. The Obedience of a Christian Man, by William Tyndale
  18.  Amerika, by Franz Kafka
  19. Pelle the Conqueror (vol.1), by Martin Andersen Nexø
  20.  Tales of the Narts (Ossetian myths)

Are you participating in the Spin?  If you've never done it, give it a try!

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Radiance of Tomorrow

Radiance of Tomorrow, by Ishmael Beah

Well folks, I'm back!  Six weeks off has been very good for me, and we'll see where it goes from here.  My main trouble is the same as ever and is a universal: so many things to say, so little time.  And for my first post-break post, I've got a novel set in Sierra Leone.  Ishmael Beah is a well-known author now, and he started off with a memoir of being a child soldier, which I gather attracted some controversy, but I haven't read it.

The blurb on the cover calls this novel a parable, and I can see why.  It's mostly, almost entirely, a realistic novel, but the edges have been smoothed a bit so that things happen at the right time.  I noticed this mainly at the start; I think the story gets more real as it goes along.

In the countryside of Sierra Leone, people are starting to recover from the devastating civil war that slaughtered so many, and in which children were often forced to become soldiers.  The village of Imperi was empty for some time, but its inhabitants start to filter back in and bring their home back to life.  There are new residents, too -- teenagers who are trying to escape from their former lives as soldiers and build for themselves.  Two teachers, Benjamin and Bockarie, emerge as the main characters and start work at the newly reopened school.

Imperi's hopeful future, however, is threatened when a mining company starts operations nearby.  Peaceful nights are lost to drunken brawling, and there is no concern whatsoever for safety, either for residents or employees.  The river is ruined by chemical runoff, and the police and administrators are all raking in bribes, so there's no recourse at all; damages and deaths are simply ignored.   Eventually the families have to leave their ruined village and try to start new lives in the capital city of Freetown, which offers no more safety or security, but they always try to have hope in tomorrow.

These are really just shreds of hope that the characters are clinging to.  The optimistic title gives way to a very grim novel that nevertheless honors the determination of people to keep moving forward and find ways to survive.  It also notes the deep problems plaguing the characters' society, which all seem to have their roots in the endemic corruption present in all levels of power.  Beah asks how a society can progress if its people are not allowed to do honest work, gain real education, and see possibilities for a better future.

I found this story difficult to read just because the lives it portrays are so hard.  It's well worth reading, though, and it's beautifully written.