Monday, June 17, 2019

Voodoo Histories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 14, 2019

One Night @ the Call Center

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Summberbook #1: The Pendulum

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 7, 2019

Elizabeth and her German Garden

Elizabeth and her German Garden, by Elizabeth von Arnim

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 4, 2019


Kappa, by Akutagawa Ryonosuke

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

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

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

Antique Kappa classifications

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

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

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

Friday, May 31, 2019

CC Spin: Stories of Walter de la Mare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 30, 2019


Baho! by Roland Rugero

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Women Talking

A remarkably hideous cover IMO
Women Talking, by Miriam Toews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 27, 2019

Down Among the Sticks and Bones and All Systems Red

Down Among the Sticks and Bones, by Seanan McGuire

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

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

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

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

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

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


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