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!

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Every Secret Thing

Every Secret Thing, by Patricia Hearst and Alvin Moscow

Well this one was a little out of character for me, but after reading the description on another blog I was intrigued.  I knew some, but not a lot, about the SLA and the Patty Hearst kidnapping.  This is her version of the story, published in 1982.  As I understand it, there are some different versions, and some documentaries and whatnot.  I read some of a piece from the late 70s that definitely cast her as a willing member of the SLA.  But back to this story...

Hearst starts with a short sketch of her early life as one of four Hearst daughters, wealthy and privileged but not famous.  At 18 she moved out to live with her boyfriend, a teacher at her former school (you can tell it was the early 70s because nobody seems to have had him arrested; she states definitively that she pursued him, but that's no excuse).  They moved to Berkeley, where he was doing grad work and she enrolled as an undergrad.  And then one day these random people showed up and kidnapped her.

The Symbionese Liberation Army was one of the small, very radical groups that kind of littered the ground in the late 60s and early 70s.  They despised the Weathermen as being too weak with their symbolic bombings that weren't supposed to injure people, and had assassinated Marcus Foster, the superintendent of Oakland schools.  After that they had to go underground, which meant hiding out in a small apartment with no outside contact.  Their intent was to kidnap the child of a very wealthy and influential person, and use her as a hostage to trade for their two impassioned members.

They kept Patty Hearst tied up and blindfolded in a closet.  The bindings lasted some weeks; the blindfold for two months.  When the governor said that there was absolutely no way that any prisoner exchanges were going to happen (think of the ensuing deluge of kidnappings there would have been!), the SLA didn't know what to do.  Should they kill her?  Make different demands?  While they thought about it, they figured they should educate her properly, so they took turns telling her about SLA beliefs for hours; the rest of the time they kept a radio playing loudly in the closet so she wouldn't be able to hear their discussions.  With not much food (and that of almost no value; the SLA seems to have lived largely on starches) and no exercise or sun, she was malnourished and weak.  She figured she ought to play along and agree with whatever they said, since she didn't want to be killed.

After a couple of months of that, they offered Hearst a choice: she could join the SLA or leave.  This didn't seem like a real choice; she assumed that it was a test and they would kill her if she wanted to leave.  She'd been trying to convince them that she believed in their cause and that she no longer wanted to be a member of the bourgeoisie.  So she became a junior, untrusted member of the SLA.  By this time they had her convinced that if they didn't kill her, the FBI would.

This is what people argue over a lot; did Patty Hearst want to be an SLA terrorist, or was she brain-washed, or what?  I found that the story reminded me forcibly of Elizabeth Smart's story; here we have a victim who is kept imprisoned, without opportunity to communicate, and constantly harangued with a particular version of the world.  After a while, you lose your mind and fall victim to coercive persuasion, otherwise known as brain-washing.  Hearst did not try to escape her captors even when she had the opportunity; she says it never occurred to her, since as far as she knew, the only possible result would be her death.  Even the comments people made in the press about Hearst reminded me of things I saw said about Elizabeth Smart -- conjectures that she had voluntarily run away in order to live on the edge, things like that.  So I'm inclined to believe Hearst's version of the story, since it fits what I've seen elsewhere.

One thing this book makes really clear: if you take a very small group of people and cut them off from the rest of the world, they lose their minds.  The members of the SLA, who lived in a small enclosed place with each other 24/7, with terrible food, not a lot of sleep, and practically no fresh air, were losing their holds on reality.

It's a fascinating book and I'm inclined to search out the CNN documentary, which somebody told me had interviews with surviving SLA members (who?  a bunch of them died) for a different angle.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Four Stories (from Norway)

Sigrid Undset
Four Stories by Sigrid Undset

Long, long ago I read Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter books and liked them fine, and I wanted to try something else she'd written, so I picked up this volume of four short stories.   The cover was not very promising as it said "Four touching, evocative, compassionate stories of 'little people' in modern Norway."  By modern they mean in the 20th century; the stories have no specific chronological settings, but they seem to me to be set before 1930, with at least one before World War I.   The book was published in 1959.

"Selma Brøter" is about a single lady office worker -- a spinster -- who observes and becomes involved in her younger co-workers' romance.

"Simonsen" is about an aging workman whose son finds him embarrassing.

"Thjodolf" concerns a sailor's wife whose only baby died at birth.  She fosters a little boy and becomes deeply attached to him, but then his mother appears again, and that sets off a whole chain of events.

"Miss Smith-Tellefsen" is the housekeeper to a motherless family in the isolated countryside.  She is fussy and the older children rather despise her.

They're realistic stories, and they're all tragic in their realism and their description of circumscribed, difficult lives.  They are well-crafted and beautifully written, but cheerful they are not.  I think I would have liked more...something.  Or less tragedy.

The 'other publications' page lists a book titled True and Untrue and Other Norse Tales, for younger readers.  That sounds intriguing!  I'd like to read that.

Fun fact though: Undset was born in Kalundborg, in Denmark.  That's just across the belt, as the crow flies, from where I lived on Fyn, but I've never been there.  It's just that the name 'Kalundborg' invariably sets off a song in my head.  When I got to Denmark, my host sister had just bought the new album by the band TV-2 and she played it every day for a month solid.  I know those songs very very well, and one of them is about...well, it's about the Kalundborg ferry:

I quite like TV-2, but this is a weird song.  I like it anyway, but probably my favorite off that album is Nærmest Lykkelig -- 'almost happy.'  TV-2 is not a very cheery band.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Three scary stories by William Sleator

The Boy Who Couldn't Die
Strange Attractors
The Green Futures of Tycho

We love William Sleator in our house.  My husband and I both grew up reading Sleator, and now we try to collect the books.  (Cheap on Abebooks!)  William Sleator specialized in YA/children's SF and horror, and boy he was good.   His most famous titles are Interstellar Pig (funny) and House of Stairs (Kafkaesque).

The Boy Who Couldn't Die -- Ken's best friend is killed in an accident, and Ken resolves that he will not die.  His search for a solution leads him to a woman who says she'll make him invulnerable for the low, low price of fifty bucks.  And it works; Ken can't be beaten up, or burned, so he decides to go for the thrills and spend his spring break diving with sharks in the Caribbean.  But at night, he's having awful, horrifying dreams of doing things he doesn't want to do.  What will be the price of immortality? 

Strange Attractors -- Max is excited to visit Mercury Labs for a tour, but finds that he went on the visit yesterday, and he has no memory of it.  Then the famous and charismatic scientist Sylvan and his daughter Eve invite Max over and ask for his help.  But there are two Eves, two Sylvans...who should Max help?  The imposters are altering the past with a time-travel device, and shoving the world towards chaos.  They're also manipulative and charming, and devastatingly attractive -- why?

The Green Futures of Tycho is another time travel story, and it's also one of the most effective horror stories around.  Sleator manages to pack an incredible amount of freakiness into about 130 pages.  Tycho is the somewhat bullied youngest of four siblings, and when he digs up a shiny thing, they all want to look.  It turns out to be a device that allows Tycho to travel into the future...but every time he does, things are worse.  And the device is doing some pretty weird things.  Is it even possible to save the future now?

Three solid SF/horror titles.  If you've never read the underappreciated Sleator, give him a try!  He's not too easy to find in the library any more, but he's well worth a bit of effort.