Wednesday, April 30, 2014


Maidenhair, by Mikhail Shishkin

This book has been a long-term project.  It's a Russian modernist novel that made a big splash a few years ago.  I've been reading it, slowly, since...January?  It's not that it was incredibly difficult; it's weird but if you let it wash over you it's not overwhelming.  But taking it slowly worked pretty well for me.

There are several strands in the braid that make up Maidenhair:
  • A translator at a Swiss border post interprets for Russian people seeking asylum.  They tell long, elaborate stories (often untrue) and Peter sometimes does too.  In fact, sometimes you wonder which is which.
  • He writes letters to his son, "Nebuchadnezzarsaurus," about the boy's imaginary kingdom.
  • There are sections of the diary of a Russian singer who was a young teen in 1914 and who lived to see the USSR crumble.
  • The interpreter re-lives his affair with his son's mother (his wife?) and his obsession with her former lover, calling them Tristan and Isolde.
  • Ancient history, Persian and Greek
All of these things bleed into one another, so that allusions to the interpreter's life show up in the singer's diary and so on.  Time is not exactly a real thing and events actually happen on top of each other, layering and running into each other.  As you get closer to the end, the narrative turns more and more into a stream-of-consciousness thing that rambles everywhere, in and out and around.

Pretty strange, and a good reading experience for me.  Shishkin writes in that Russian tradition where plot is maybe not as important as the ideas discussed in the novel; there's a lot about life and death and love and such.  Definitely worth trying out.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Arthur's Britain

Arthur's Britain, by Leslie Alcock

I got this years ago and then couldn't get very far in it.  No wonder--the first 100 pages are interesting, the last 100 pages are interesting, but in the middle there are 150 pages or so that are incredibly dry. 

Alcock wrote one of the really definitive books of "Who was the real Arthur?" back in 1971, and he was well qualified to do so after excavating Cadbury Castle.  It's now a Penguin "Classic History" title, but since it's also 40 years out of date, I wouldn't recommend it for up-to-the-minute accuracy.  Overall, though, it's probably reasonable enough.  It's a portrait of 5th-century Britain, focused on the archaeological and textual evidence--what there is of it.

The first 100 pages delve into the historical texts that mention Arthur: Nennius, Gildas, all our old friends.  From these, Alcock concludes (after a lot of detail and argument) that Arthur would have been a famous warrior, but not a king, and a Christian.  Some of the sources, he notes, refer to Arthur as a pretty awful guy, and others show him very devout (of course it could easily be both!).  Eminent warriors drew stories to themselves and became legends, even fairly soon after their lifetimes.

Then we spend a really long time on pottery, and more time on other evidence. 

Finally Alcock spends a very interesting 100 pages on warfare, economics, and other material about the lives on ancient Britons.  Hardly any of this stuff has anything to do with Arthur; it's (as advertised) a book about Britain as a whole.

By now there are probably more enthralling books about 5th century Britain than this--though Alcock is a thorough and careful researcher, unlike many pop-history authors; it's just that no one but an archaeologist wants to read that much about pottery.

Monday, April 28, 2014

News From NowHere

I'm finding that I get overwhelmed with Life at the End of the Semester and stop posting for a week or so at a time.  So here's an update:

I've been doing some great reading.  I'm nearly halfway through The Mill on the Floss, which is on my TBR list for this year, and I thought I'd read it for the Classics Club April theme.  I'm enjoying it a lot.   Pretty soon I shall start August 1914 too, for the May theme.

My really big project now that I'm done with What is to be Done?* is that I ILLed Charles Williams' Arthurian poetry!  I'm working my way through it by reading the poems in the chronological order that C. S. Lewis recommended for beginners.  There is an accompanying Lewis essay, and I'm reading a section of essay, then the chunk of poems the essay covers.  This is a huge help, because Williams' poetry is far beyond me.  If I had time to do a second reading, I would then re-read them in the proper order Williams arranged them in, in their two books, because that is a deliberate arrangement--not that I would understand that either.

I'm working extra until the end of May.  My theory was that I would earn extra money for summer (instead, it will be going to car repairs, whee).  My wonderful mom comes over and helps the kids with their schoolwork while I'm gone, or I couldn't manage very well--working 3 days a week is a whole different thing than 2, even if one of those days is only for a couple of hours.

We belong to a charter school for independent study, and I'm on the school board.  Our very rapid growth is the last few years has led to some growing pains, and school board business is suddenly much more important than usual.  Last week I attended a meeting that ended up 6 hours long...and it takes 90 minutes to drive there, so 9 hours all told.  Such are the perils of joining a school that covers 7 counties!

I'm looking forward to summer!  Lots of fun stuff planned, and I hope for lots of swimming.

*"Fun" fact about What is to be Done? that I didn't put in the review: I ILLed it from Sac State, and the book pages had all these clumps of hair in them.  It was horrifying.  It took me a really long time to read the novel, because I could only read it if I could take the book outside and shake it out every few pages.

We Learn Nothing

We Learn Nothing: Essays by Tim Kreider

I picked up this book of essays at work, and they were just kind of fun.  Tim Kreider is a cartoonist and essayist, and these were all about life and friends and hard times and so on, and they're very funny in a kind of rough-edged way.  Here's a sample that I really like:
Years ago a friend of mine and I used to frequent a market in Baltimore where we would eat oysters and drink Very Large Beers from 32-ounce styrofoam cups. One of the regulars there had the worst toupee in the world, a comical little wig taped in place on the top of his head. Looking at this man and drinking our VLBs, we developed the concept of the Soul Toupee. Each of us has a Soul Toupee. The Soul Toupee is that thing about ourselves we are most deeply embarrassed by and like to think we have cunningly concealed from the world, but which is, in fact, pitifully obvious to everybody who knows us. Contemplating one’s own Soul Toupee is not an exercise for the fainthearted. Most of the time other people don’t even get why our Soul Toupee is any big deal or a cause of such evident deep shame to us but they can tell that it is because of our inept, transparent efforts to cover it up, which only call more attention to it and to our self-consciousness about it, and so they gently pretend not to notice it. Meanwhile we’re standing there with our little rigid spongelike square of hair pasted on our heads thinking: Heh – got ‘em all fooled!”
What’s so ironic and sad about this is that the very parts of ourselves that we’re most ashamed of and eager to conceal are not only obvious to everyone but are also, quite often, the parts of us they love best...
 See?  Pretty good.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

What is to be Done?

What is to be Done?  by Nikolai Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky

I read this for Tom's April readalong, and I was quite excited about it because What is to be Done? was an important part of a literary debate in 19th century Russia about what Russian society should be.  Turgenev first asked the question in Fathers and Sons, and here Chernyshevsky tries to answer it.  He doesn't claim great literary talent; in fact, he says right out that he hasn't got much.  He wrote a novel--while in prison--because that was the way Russians got around the censors to write about revolutionary ideas.  Such ideas are very thinly veiled in this novel, which likens Russia to a bad wheatfield that is sorely in need of drainage and general reform.

There is a plot, though.  Vera is a young woman who is desperate to escape her family, especially her mother, who is a crook and a cheat, and who wants to arrange an advantageous marriage for her daughter.  Vera is rescued by Lopukhov, a virtuous medical student and tutor who marries her (this being the only means of escape open to a young woman).  They have an odd, formalized but friendly marriage, and Vera starts a sewing collective.  Well, she starts a sewing business which is run along profit-sharing lines, and her seamstresses share expenses by moving in together--there is a lot about how to take advantage of economies of scale, but (disappointingly) nothing whatsoever about sewing.  Chernyshevsky is all about the message; there is hardly any detail or setting or anything to bring the world of the novel to life.

Vera's business is a good success, but she falls in love with Lopukhov's best friend Kirsanov.  Lopukhov sets her free by committing suicide, and Vera is heart-broken until this sort of Revolutionary Superman guy, Rakhmetov, visits and gives her a letter from Lopukhov explaining that really he has run off to Europe so she can be free.  Vera marries Kirsanov and they live happily ever after for about 150 more pages.

It's a really weird story in several ways.  Sometimes I think it was written by an alien or something.  The point is to set Vera free, to make her an equal member of society.  Evidently Chernyshevsky really wanted to set his own wife free and have her be equal too--which meant striving and earning her own way in the world, since everyone can only be equal when they earn their own living
--but Olga didn't want to be free.  She wanted to be a bourgeois housewife like everyone else.  So Chernyshevsky wrote himself a story where everything would be like he wanted, and he spends a lot of time explaining just how to live so as to be happy and have plenty and everything just wonderful.

I honestly have no idea why Russian revolutionaries loved this book so much.  Lenin thought it was fantastic and life-changing.  Why?  Vera starts a business, and she is treated as an equal to her husband--not the usual thing to be sure, but drawing a line from Vera's ideal of everyone doing as they please and the Bolshevik Revolution is something of a difficult exercise for me.  And there's this guy who lives like an ascetic, among the people, working to bring the revolution forward advice.  That's pretty much it.  Nobody acts like a Bolshevik that I can see (this novel is pre-Marx, for one thing).

It's a historical curiosity far more than it is great literature.  The first two-thirds or so are quite readable, but the last third loses shape and becomes more difficult to stick with as Chernyshevsky doesn't seem to know where to point his characters next.  Vera is free; what else is there to do?  If you want to read it, be sure to get the 1989 translation by Katz; you can get the first translation free digitally, but the Katz is a lot better.  You'll need ILL.

The next chapter in this literary debate is Dostoevsky's Notes From the Underground.  I'll be getting that pretty soon, but since May is "WWI month" at the Classics Club I think I'll tackle August 1914 first.

Friday, April 18, 2014

A Time of Gifts

A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube, by Patrick Leigh Fermor

In 1933, an 18-year-old Patrick was thrown out of school and decided that he might as well go on a walking tour of Europe.  He set off to walk to Constantinople.*  As a much older man, he sat down with his memories and diaries to write out the story in a three-part set.  This is the first volume; I have the second waiting; and the third was never finished but it was published posthumously so I will read it too.

Since I cannot think of anything much more wonderful than to walk across Europe (can you?), I was instantly hooked.  And truly, I enjoyed this so much!  Fermor throws the people he met, scenery, history, art, strange stories, and all sorts of things into his book--and in many cases he's talking about a world that is now gone.  Most of this volume is spent in Germany, and Nazism is just getting started.  It has little foothold as yet.  Fermor also spends a good deal of time in Vienna and Prague, and finishes off just as he is getting into Hungary.

Fermor meets a wider variety of people than would seem possible.  Thanks to his father's diplomatic connections, he's able to stay with upper-class people in castles every once in a while, and they write on to other friends to expect him.  Most of the time, though, he's drinking with sailors in pubs, sleeping in hostels with vagabonds down on their luck, making friends with students his own age, or even asking respectable housewives if they'd like their portrait drawn for a couple of shillings.  He has practically no money and will sleep anywhere.  

 Loved it.  Can't wait to continue the journey.

*Been a long time gone, Constantinople, but that's what he calls it.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Green and Burning Tree

The Green and Burning Tree: On the Writing and Enjoyment of Children's Books, by Eleanor Cameron

Eleanor Cameron was the author of The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet and other Mr. Bass stories, as well as some other books too.  This is a collection of essays and speeches from the mid 1960s about children's literature--writing it, reading it, and enjoying it.  She talks about a lot of my favorites and mentions a few I think I would like to read. 

At time she gets a little too misty-eyed about myth and children and all, but mostly it's some quite good stuff if you're interested in children's literature.  I especially liked the last two essays, which were about Wanda Gag and Eleanor Farjeon.  They were fun.  But the whole thing was quite worth reading.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Quest of the Holy Grail

My ancient but well-loved copy
The Quest of the Holy Grail

The Quest is part of the giant set of stories known as the prose Lancelot, or Lancelot-Grail cycle.  It was written in Old French, and apparently--as far as anyone can figure out--the pieces were written by different people working together.  The Quest claims to be by one Walter Map, an archdeacon, but almost certainly is not.  It was probably written by a clerk--someone religiously trained but attached to a court.  It's a spiritual fable, really; as full of adventures and jousting as any Arthurian tale, but with a completely different focus.  The story of the Holy Grail takes the chivalric ideal and tears it to bits, showing it to be completely inadequate.  Every custom of the chivalric tale is turned on its head.

In this ultimate quest, all the knights set off separately to search for the Holy Grail; as in any knightly venture, they trust to chance to send them adventure.  We follow several characters: Gawain, Lancelot, Percival, Bors, and of course Galahad wander around and meet with strange events. 

Well, not Gawain.  This knight, the perfect example of earthly chivalry and prowess, cannot seem to meet with any adventure at all, and neither can any other knights he runs into.  All that ever happens to him is to meet monks and hermits, all of whom tell him that he must confess and repent of his sins in order to truly join the Quest.  Alas, Gawain always makes excuses for why he can't be shriven just now,* and hurries off to find the adventures that never come.  He only ever manages to fight with other (unrecognized) knights and kill his own friends.  In Gawain we find that perfect earthly knighthood is not good enough.

Lancelot has his problems too.  He is so weighted down with sin--much more so than Gawain in fact--that he cannot join the Quest either.  Lancelot does want to repent, and he spends much of his time learning to shed his old ways and embrace new ones.  He is rewarded with marvelous visions and time with his son Galahad, and he is allowed to almost see the Grail.  Sadly, despite his good intentions, we all know that he's going to go back to court and fall into his old ways, so there is a shadow over his adventures.

Percival is very amusing to read about.  He is innocence personified, so much so that he falls for every obvious trap set for him, and is only rescued at the last second.  Percival wanders alone and has many adventures, but he never does learn to be wary.

Bors is more of a thinker.  He is careful, and he knows much more.  He is also given an awful trial; he has to make a choice between conflicting duties and though he wins through, he also pays a terrible price.

Galahad is the only character who begins the story already prepared for the Grail.  He wanders (much of which we do not see) and accomplishes much, but you do kind of get the feeling that he's waiting for everyone else to get ready to join him on the final piece of the Quest.  Still, he's not utterly boring and he does have some moments of difficulty.

I think here is where we see the Arthurian landscape at its most characteristic.  It's all wilderness, or castles, or hermits; there are no cities or ordinary people, only the characters who have some part to play.  (Although there is one lady hermit who has a fully staffed manor house!)

The landscape may be characteristic, but little else is.  Every knightly habit gets overthrown.  In any other adventure, a knight who finds a shield or sword or sign with some warning on it would promptly take his chance and have some sort of victory, but here, knightly pride inevitably leads to trouble.  Many behaviors that usually lead to glory fall flat in this story; only spiritual virtues will get these knights on the road to adventure.  Many of the adventures are allegorical in nature, and the author takes that characteristic medieval delight in expounding the meanings of images, events, and visions.

One of the most fun things about the Grail quest is the wonderful and somewhat deranged history and genealogy scattered throughout the story.  There is a magical ship, set off by King Solomon to wait for his last descendant to come and use it, with a fantastic sword and a doorway made of wood originally grown by Adam and Eve.  We learn some of the 'history' behind the legends of the Maimed King and the Fisher King and the Waste Land (the author must have gone through fantastic contortions to get it in the shape he wanted).  We learn Galahad's family history--he is a descendant of Joseph of Arimathea's brother-in-law Nascien--and there are all sorts of wonderful visions and explanations of all of it.  Fantastic stuff. **

I haven't even told you yet about Percival's sister, who is sort of a female version of Galahad.  She is mysterious; she travels with the three final companions in a sisterly fashion, makes prophecies, always knows what's going on (like Galahad), and eventually becomes a female type of Christ, giving up her life so that a sinful woman may literally wash in her blood and be saved along with all her people.  The author also sets up knightly couples to match Biblical couples, and Percival's sister even purifies the concept of courtly love.

I just love this story.  It is so weird and great.  Just wonderful. 

* I remember studying this in college, and an outspoken, confident classmate said she really liked Gawain here, since "he knows his limitations."  I'm not sure what she thought was going on. 

**Just as I was reading all this, an acquaintance posted on Facebook that he had found some genealogy for his family that showed he is a descendant of Lancelot's line.  He had a list that was quite similar to the one here.  I didn't quite have the heart to disillusion him.

Excellent Women

Excellent Women, by Barbara Pym

Mildred Lathbury is 32 and unmarried, which appears to render her an elderly old maid in English society.  (She keeps sounding older than she actually is.)  Mildred likes her quiet life helping in the parish and taking tea with friends, and while she would like to marry, she doesn't want to marry any of the actual men of her acquaintance.  The quiet little neighborhood gets a bit shook up when a married couple move in and become Mildred's upstairs neighbors, and a pretty young widow takes lodgings in the rector's attic.  Everybody wants Mildred's advice or help or energy.  Why not move in with her or expect her to pack all the furniture?  Surely she has nothing better to do...

Amy at Book Musings said the other day that Barbara Pym novels have "some sly observational humor that's crushed under the weight of a little too much depressing postwar English ennui."  Which is the PERFECT thing to say about Barbara Pym.  I've now tried her twice and have come to the conclusion that, as much as I should theoretically like her, I just do not.  I heard that Excellent Women was an early novel and a very funny comedy.  It was OK, and I read the whole thing, but my final conclusion has to be...meh.

I liked Mildred and her stubborn refusal to live down to everyone's expectations that she pine after any single man around.  I liked that it was a novel that didn't have a romance as its focus.  But it didn't seem all that funny to me.  Witty and mildly amusing, yes, but not the "high comedy" it is billed to be.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Language Freak Summer Challenge (Second Edition)

Ekaterina at In My Book hosted a language challenge last summer that I really enjoyed, so I'm joining up again.  Here is the second edition!

There are a whole lot of rules and arrangements, so go visit Ekaterina to check it out.  I'm going to commit to the Beginner level of just one book in a foreign language, and if it goes really well I might do another one.  Right now I am not sure what to do.  I have two possible titles--a YA book called Stjernen Uden Himmel (The Star Without a Sky), about WWII that I am pretty sure was translated from German.  It's probably not a very difficult book, but I have never read it before.  My other possibility is to read the classic Niels Lyhne, which is Serious Literature and more difficult, but I have read it fairly recently in English and I still have the English copy to help me along if I get stuck.

Ekaterina has some questions:
  • What languages do you know? Note: even if you are a beginner, it totally counts! And don't forget to mention what your mother-tongue is!  I'm a native English speaker and I once spoke Danish pretty fluently, but I'm rusty now.  I've also studied German and Russian a bit.
  • What is your history with these languages?  I lived in Denmark for a year or so and studied Scandinavian Lit in college, reading the texts in the original (and English too).  I took 2 semesters of German and 4 of Russian.
  • Do you use them or are you out of practice?  The German and Russian are nearly gone.  I'm out of practice with Danish but not that bad.
  • Have you read some books in these languages? Did you like it?  I've read books in Danish.  Not the others, not properly.  Reading in Danish is much harder work than in English, but it is also pretty fun.
  • What are your plans for the challenge?  1 or 2 books that will be pretty difficult for me.

Looking forward to it!

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Romance of Tristan

The Romance of Tristan, by Beroul

Beroul's Romance of Tristan is a very early version composed around the middle of the 12th century in French verse.  We only have part of it; the extant fragment starts well into Tristan and Yseut's affair and breaks off just before the episode of their deaths.  My translation is in prose and includes summaries of the action before and after the fragment.

Everybody knows the story of Tristan and Yseut, right, so I'm just going to talk about what interested me about this version.  Beroul is very careful to note that the potion is to blame for their irresistible passion for one another.  This potion is efficacious for exactly 3 years to the minute, and as soon as it wears off, they end their affair.  The whole time it's going on, Yseut employs tricks to convince her husband that she is faithful to him--which she is not--and yet this is considered completely justified.  I can't quite tell if it's supposed to be justified because it's all the potion's fault and therefore not "real," or if Yseut is supposed to be really sort of married to Tristan, since he was her first love.  Maybe both.  Later on, they renew their affair and that too is considered justified, so I think it might be both.

Other versions are longer and more elaborate, and I will probably read one later in the year.  I have the prose Romance of Tristan and Gottfried von Strassburg's German Tristan, so there's plenty to chew on.  Right now I'm enjoying The Quest of the Holy Grail, which is fantastic, and after that I have the German Parzifal, which I'm quite excited about.  Oh!  And over the weekend, I picked up a library discard of the 2-volume Everyman edition of Malory to replace my awful old paperback with its small, blobby type.  The library binding is quite hideous but will last forever.  I got the York Cycle of Mystery Plays too!

Happy National Library Week!

On of the things I've been doing instead of blogging in the last week has been prep for National Library Week at work.  And I have some fun news for you folks-- Oxford University Press is making their Oxford Handbooks Online content free all this week!  Follow the link and see what you can find on your favorite topics.  There's a lot to read.

Another thing I did instead of blogging was a trip to the Berkeley campus for Cal Day, one of my favorite events of the year.  I drag my kids all over campus to libraries and science demonstrations.  Here is my younger daughter at the bottom of the 4-story staircase and light well in the Doe Library stacks.  I'll post a couple more pictures later--I haven't taken them off my camera yet.

We also went hiking at a local beauty spot.  It's always full of wildflowers at this time of year.  This is my mom and my kids.

Books have also been happening!  See you soon!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Un-Rest Cure

The Unrest-Cure and Other Stories, by Saki

I got this for Christmas!  It has illustrations by Edward Gorey!  I've always meant to read Saki and here was my chance.  Look at that beautiful cover.

The Unrest-Cure is a collection of short stories, most of which start off as ordinary events in upper-middle-class British lives but take a sharp turn toward the weird, the oddball, or the macabre.   Quite a few of them feature a young man named Clovis, who enjoys making a little trouble now and again..  They were great, and some of them were very funny, too.  (Or, on the other hand, horrifying; "Sredni Vashtar" is one of the selections, for example.)  There are one or two illustrations for each story and they fit perfectly.

A great book for a little relaxing dip into a weird story.  I will definitely be reading more Saki.

Candide Readalong: Wrapup

Although I haven't posted about it at the right times, I have been reading along in Candide and finished it on time.

In the later part of the book, Candide and his friends travel around the world.  They discover that South America is mostly just as cruel and awful as Europe, but there is one isolated and secret place--El Dorado, where everyone is happy and kind, and gold and jewels are just dust by the wayside.  Candide loves it there, but must continue to seek Cunegonde, so he takes lots of jewels with him and goes back to ordinary civilization.  He promptly loses most of the wealth, but he's still quite well-off.  Traveling back to Europe, he gains a new companion, Michael, who expects only suffering.  They meet many miserable people and dethroned kings.  They suddenly find all their old companions, even the dead ones, who aren't so dead after all.  Cunegonde has lost her beauty and Candide no longer loves her, but marries her anyway out of duty.  They all live miserably and bickeringly until they realize that happiness does not after all lie in enormous wealth and having lots of servants, but in laboring honestly and freely (in a garden!) to get their living.

Which I could have told them, actually.  Ha.

I'm very glad for the readalong that made me read Candide--I was much more scared of it than I needed to be!  (Lesson of the Classics Club: books are just not that scary. Probably even Ulysses isn't that scary.) Thanks to Fariba at Exploring Classics for hosting!  (Due to bizarro Internet problems in my local area, I can't actually see Fariba's blog at the moment, which is a bummer, so I hope she sees me! I'm surprised I can post; WordPress is impossible but Blogger works.  Weird.)

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The History of the Ancient World

The History of the Ancient World:  From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome, by Susan Wise Bauer

I read this when it was first published several years ago, and I decided to read it again this year because I wanted to see if it would work for my older daughter to use for history next year (and can I just say that high school is coming at me like a freight train, eek!).  Fair disclaimer: Susan Wise Bauer, the author, is my homeschooling guru and can (almost) do no wrong in my mind.  If I get around to writing one of those Top Ten Influential Books Of My Life lists people are doing right now, The Well-Trained Mind will have to be pretty near the top.  In fact you can see the story of that here. 

I had not remembered how enjoyable this book is.  I had a lot of fun with it, as well as the part where I re-learned lots of ancient history.  It took ages to get through, because it's 800 pages of dense non-fiction, but I was surprised at how easy it was to gulp down 50 pages at a sitting.

This is a survey of recorded human history from a birds'-eye view, from the earliest Sumerian records until Constantine's conversion to Christianity.  (Which is not the fall of Rome, as the title says, but she didn't pick the title--blame Norton.)  SWB works mostly chronologically, skipping around from Mesopotamia to China to Italy.  Very often you feel like she is starting new chapters with "Meanwhile, on the other side of the world..."  She mostly--not always--only puts in societies that are mentioned in texts; seeing archaeological evidence as archaeology and not so much history, she says little about groups until they show up in records with a story attached.  So new groups pop up all the time, as they run into record-keeping peoples or start writing themselves.

It's all very interesting, and she puts in lots of little stories to keep some personal perspective; it's not all grand movements of armies.  But this is big-picture history that works well as a background or primer for further reading.  SWB uses the myths and legends of each society to explain elements of their worries and hopes, which is neat.

I think it's a good history.  My daughter has been peeking at it and is now looking forward to using it as a spine for history next year.  There is a study guide; it's not exactly thrilling, but it's solid.  I will need to figure out a time to require a short research paper.  (The other day at work I tried to help a guy who has never written a research paper in his life.  He had tried to develop a thesis, but it was incomprehensible and he didn't really know what he meant by it.  I pointed him to excellent resources, including a step-by-step tutorial of how to write a paper and a whole slew of 'current topics' ideas; I sure hope it works.)  Oh.  Sorry.  Anyway, I enjoyed it and now I'm looking forward to reading her history of the "Renaissance World"...which is chock-full of death and disease.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Spin Title: Bless Me, Ultima

Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya

Way back in college I had to take a course on modern American literature, which I was quite annoyed about at the time, but turned out to be a good thing because I found out that there were lots of books I liked after all.  One of our titles was Bless Me, Ultima, and at that time I enjoyed it.  I decided to put it on my Classics Club list as a re-read to see if I would like it again.   

Antonio is a small boy torn between loyalties.  His mother wants him to be a priest and like her family, the quiet, earth-connected Lunas; his father wants him to follow the independent and wild Márez ways.  He loves the church but is drawn to the hints of older animistic beliefs he sees around him and wonders if the golden carp in the river might be a better god to follow.  As Antonio starts to grow up and witness the tragedies that happen in his town, he depends on his special relationship with Ultima, the curandera, for stability and comfort. Ultima seems to be the only person who might know how to resolve all these tensions and help Antonio know what to do.

My verdict?  Although I enjoyed several things about the novel, I think I liked it better the first time.  This time around I got very tired of the small-boy antics of Antonio's friends, which are described in loving (if gross and tiring) detail.  Antonio himself struck me as oddly mature, intelligent, and introspective for a little boy--not that I haven't known some real-life boys who were intelligent and introspective (I have!)--but it was laid on awfully thick.  Antonio is presented as a visionary, almost like a child in a medieval story of a martyred saint.  I'm sure that was on purpose, but it was a bit much for me.

I also get impatient with stories that present old pagan beliefs as kinder and gentler than Christianity.  The golden carp is described as punishing those who don't act the way he wants, especially anyone who fishes for carp, so I'm not sure why Antonio thinks he's all that nice and will fix everything.  While Antonio is worried about which system to choose, Ultima says they are all one anyway.  She is presented as a good Christian, but that is secondary to her powers as a good witch that come from her knowledge of nature.  There is evil as well in the three malevolent witches in town; Ultima defeats them, but at the cost of her own life.

It was interesting to revisit the book, but I'll stick with reading more of Thomas Pynchon if I'm going to revisit old modern lit courses.