Thursday, December 31, 2015

Trigger Warning

Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances, by Neil Gaiman

Fun fact: I am reading two different books titled Trigger Warning at the same time.  The other one is about free speech, and (also) written by a Brit.

I'm a Gaiman fan, and there's nothing not to love about this latest collection of short stories with a few scattered poems.  They are just what you want in a Gaiman collection--creepy or unsettling or fun stories.  One is a Doctor Who story; one features an elderly Sherlock Holmes.  One or two or three are takeoffs on familiar fairy tales. They're all good.

So, happy new year, everybody!  May 2016 be filled with great books and fun blogging discussions for all of us.  Not to mention peace on earth, good will towards men.  This is also my 6th blogiversary, so I'm entering my 7th year of blogging.  Seven is a lucky number, right?  So I'll aim for a really excellent year. :)

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Statues That Walked

The Statues That Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island, by Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo

Short version: this is a fantastically interesting book.  Read it!

Easter Island (aka Rapa Nui) is so famous that you would think that exhaustive archaeology work has already been done, and that everybody has a pretty good idea of what Rapanui society was like before the modern era.  NOT SO.  Instead, everybody has been depending on a hodgepodge of a narrative that postulated a society run by power-hungry kings presiding over warring tribes who committed "ecocide" in their insatiable desire for ever more statues, leaving Rapa Nui devastated.  Jared Diamond used this narrative as a dire warning in his famous 2011 book Collapse (which I have not read).  He was also completely wrong.

Hunt and Lipo were running some minor archaeological studies in the early 2000s, and they weren't actually after the moai at first; they were looking for some other things, and they expected to find confirmation of the traditional collapse story.  Instead, they found clues to a completely different history, which they lay out here.

They postulate a story that puts the settlement of Rapa Nui at 1200 AD, later than has been thought.  The soil of the island has always been poor for farming, because it's old volcanic soil (new is fertile; old is not), and instead of plowed fields as you would expect to see, the Rapanui practiced lithic mulching and other practices that involve using rocks to protect vulnerable plants.  The thick forests of palms are indeed gone now, but not because people chopped them all down to move statues; it was because the rats that traveled with Polynesians wherever they settled ate all the seeds and young shoots of the very slow-growing palms.  And the Rapanui were never a warlike people; the island is too small and the population too closely related to make war a profitable enterprise for anybody.

So what caused the collapse that so evidently shrank the Rapanui population and stopped the statue-building culture?  Well, the same tragic but utterly inevitable thing that caused every other newly-contacted population in the Western hemisphere to experience calamitous societal collapses: disease brought by unwitting Europeans.   As simple as that.  Plus, of course, the ensuing exploitation that all Polynesians were subjected to in the 18th and 19th centuries, but that came afterwards.

And what about the moai, those mysterious giant stone heads found all over the island?  Hunt and Lipo point out that we'll never know just what the rationale for them was, but they do think they figured out how the statues were moved around the island (not tree sleds), and that they served a particular societal function that made them beneficial.  But I won't spoil everything for you.

Fascinating book, I loved it.  Rather than a cautionary tale of a power-maddened people careening towards ecocide, the Rapanui are an example of a people who lived in the most marginal of ecologies, and fit their society to thrive within it.  So there, Jared Diamond.

Monday, December 28, 2015

2015 Favorites

Goodreads has been a big help to me in figuring out what I read this year and what the best parts were.  I'm very good at forgetting these things, but looking at a chart helps.  Here are my highlights of 2015 reading---

New authors: So many!  This year was the first time I read Robert Heinlein.  I met a bunch of Eastern European authors I didn't know: Karel Capek, Bruno Schulz, Bohumil Hrabal.  I read my first Wallace Stegner novel!  I finally read the excellent historian, Anne Applebaum.  I met several others, including Miles Franklin and Thomas Mofolo.  Lots of people, really.

I failed at some things this year, too.  I discovered that Henry James' The Wings of the Dove is well-nigh unreadable for me, and that Marxist interpretations of the slave-owning South in Roll, Jordan, Roll are not my cup of tea.  It also turns out that I can't read Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.  (Funny: I happened upon a Classics Club survey from the end of last year, asking what I was determined to read no matter what in 2015.  My answer was Roll, Jordan, Roll and Gravity's Rainbow.  Oh, what hubris!)

I read a bunch of fascinating history, which may have been the best part of the year.  From Leftist Berkeley to crushed Eastern Europe, with Easter Island, the Inklings, a crumbling Soviet empire and even wishful thinking about ley lines and recent bouts of hysteria about Satanism, I got some wild history reading done.

The Monkalong was a very fun October group read, and the Beowulf readalong helped me to get deep into that.  I'm hoping for two readalongs in 2016.

Here are my chosen best ten eleven titles, in no order whatsoever:
  1. The Tyranny of Silence, by Flemming Rose.  My favorite topic always wins. :)
  2. Vineland, by Thomas Pynchon.
  3. The Gulag Archipelago, by Aleksandr Solzhenistyn.
  4. The Dean's Watch by Elizabeth Goudge.
  5. Between the Woods and Water by Patrick Leigh Fermor.
  6. An African in Greenland by Tete-Michel Kpomassie.
  7. The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories by Bruno Schulz.
  8. The Last Chronicle of Barset, by Anthony Trollope.
  9. Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner.
  10. Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte.
  11. Iron Curtain, by Anne Applebaum.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

2016 Challenges

Here's a rundown of my plans for 2016, in which I tried, as always, to not sign up for ten-plus challenges.  I think I mostly succeeded.  I'm going to have to prioritize my Classics Club list!  Looking forward to a fun year of reading with you all as company. :)

January Event: Vintage Science Fiction, hosted by the Little Red Reviewer.

I've got a pile all ready to go--a couple of Heinlein, an Asimov I haven't read in 20 years, a new translation of Roadside Picnic, and an Ursula K. LeGuin I've never read (I never did get into her books).  Looking forward to it!

Classics Club, hosted by The Classics Club

I've only got a year and three months left before my deadline, and about 35 books still to go, mostly difficult ones!  Oh no!!  I'm going to try to focus on this one in 2016.  The CC is also hosting a special women's event for 2016.

Back to the Classics, hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate.

I haven't chosen any titles to fit the categories.  I'm going to wing it this year and see how it goes!

Mount TBR, hosted by Bev at My Reader's Block.

I have looked through my house for TBRs and have been worryingly successful at it.  I've got 47 titles on the pile, oh dear.  Here is a photo of a shelf I put together, but it's not complete.  I signed up for the first level of 12 books, but I'm hoping to do better than that.  If I was smart, I'd focus completely on TBR and CC titles this year!

Hard Core Re-Reading, hosted by Lois at You, Me, and a Cup of Tea.

I've amassed quite a pile for this challenge, and am looking forward to revisiting some books I've enjoyed in the past.  Here's a photo!

Reading England, redux, hosted by o at Beyond the Stars.

I'm just going to aim for a few counties this time, and hopefully ones I haven't hit yet.

Bible as Literature, hosted by Adam at Roof Beam Reader.

I'm going to read and participate in the discussions, but I probably won't post much about it here.  Actually, is it still happening?  The link doesn't work any more.  I'll certainly understand if it's canceled; it's an ambitious project.

So that's SIX challenges in all, and as you can see I've tried to stick to what I've already got on my plate, because there is plenty there.  Although, as always, if something neat comes up, I'll probably get all excited and add it too!

Saturday, December 26, 2015

2015 Challenges Wrapup

So how did I do this year with my challenges?  Let's take a look.

The Classics Club: I read something around 27 titles from my CC list!  But I have 35 left to go.

o's Reading England 2015 Challenge: I read 25 books in 23 counties. Pretty good!

  1. The Journey Through Wales and Description of Wales, by Gerald of Wales (Herefordshire)
  2. Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte (Yorkshire)
  3. Sister of the Angels, by Elizabeth Goudge (Somerset)
  4. To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis (Warwickshire) 
  5. Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome (Berkshire) 
  6. Little Dorrit, by Charles Dickens (London) 
  7. The Last Chronicle of Barset, by Anthony Trollope (Wiltshire) 
  8. King Lear, by William Shakespeare (Gloucestershire)
  9. Henry V, by William Shakespeare (Hampshire)
  10. Dr. Wortle's School, by Anthony Trollope (Northamptonshire)
  11. The Dean's Watch, by Elizabeth Goudge (Cambridgeshire)
  12. Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope (Rutland) 
  13. Poetry by Wordsworth (Cumberland) 
  14. The Provincial Lady in Wartime, by E. M. Delafield (Devon) 
  15. The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell (Essex) 
  16. Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, by John Donne (London again) 
  17. Ecclesiastical History of the English People, by the Venerable Bede (Tyne and Wear) 
  18. Kit's Wilderness, by David Almond (County Durham) 
  19. Five Children on the Western Front, by Kate Saunders (Kent) 
  20. The Old Straight Track (Herefordshire, again) 
  21. Lucky Jim, by Kingley Amis (West Midlands) 
  22. Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell (Cheshire) 
  23. Zuleika Dobson, by Max Beerbohm (Oxfordshire)
  24. Mantlemass Chronicles, by Barbara Willard (Sussex)
  25. The Old Wives' Tale, by Arnold Bennett  (Staffordshire) 

Adam's TBR Pile Challenge:  I read 12 titles, using one alternate and finding that two titles were pretty well unreadable.

  1.  The White Goddess, by Robert Graves
  2. The Travels, by Marco Polo
  3. Roll, Jordan, Roll, by Eugene Genovese * (DNF fail)
  4. Muhammad: Prophet of God, by Daniel Peterson (this is a secular biography)
  5. The Makioka Sisters, by Junichio Tanizaki *
  6. The Gulag Archipelago (abridged), by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn *
  7. The History of the Renaissance World, by Susan Wise Bauer
  8. Little Dorrit, by Charles Dickens *
  9. The Secret History, by Procopius
  10. Eight Pieces of Empire, by Lawrence Scott Sheets
  11. The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky *
  12. Between the Woods and the Water, by Patrick Leigh Fermor
  1. Crotchet Castle, by Thomas Love Peacock (DNF fail)
  2. Fairy Tale as Myth, by Jack Zipes
The Introverted Reader's Books in Translation Challenge: I read 33 books in 21 languages from 4 continents.

  1.  Prisoners of Power, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (Russian)
  2. The Journey Through Wales and Description of Wales, by Gerald of Wales (Latin)
  3. The Case of Comrade Tulayev, by Victor Serge (French) 
  4. Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke (German) 
  5. Too Loud a Solitude, by Bohumil Hrabal (Czech) 
  6. The Street of Crocodiles, by Bruno Schulz (Polish)
  7. The Story of My Experiments With Truth, by Gandhi (Gujarati)
  8. Analects of Confucius (Chinese) 
  9. The Royal Game and Other Stories, by Stefan Zweig (German) 
  10. Faust (Part I), by Goethe (German) 
  11. RUR, by Karel Capek , and three other Capek plays (Czech) 
  12. Sanaaq, by Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk (Inuttitut) 
  13. Galileo, by Bertolt Brecht (German) 
  14. The Secret History, by Procopius (Greek) 
  15. The Makioka Sisters, by Junichiro Tanizaki (Japanese) 
  16. Falling in Love: Stories from Ming China, trans. by Hanan (Chinese)
  17. My Uncle Napoleon, by Iraj Pezeshkzad (Persian)
  18. The Song of the Volsungs (Old Norse) 
  19. An African in Greenland (French) 
  20. The Cloud Messenger, by Kalidasa (Sanskrit) 
  21. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, by the Venerable Bede (Latin) 
  22. The Gulag Archipelago (abridged ed.) by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Russian) 
  23. Arabian Nights and Days, by Nahguib Mahfouz (Arabic) 
  24. Tevye the Dairyman, by Sholem Aleichem (Yiddish)
  25. The True Deceiver, by Tove Jansson (Swedish) 
  26. The Hand of a Great Master, by Konstanineh Gamsakhurdia (Georgian)
  27. The Ancrene Riwle (Anglo-Saxon)
  28. The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky (Russian)
  29. The Castle, by Franz Kafka (German) 
  30. Women and Appletrees, by Moa Martinson (Swedish)
  31. Chaka, by Thomas Mofolo (Sesotho)
  32. The Travels of Marco Polo (Old French/Italian) 
  33. The Absolute at Large, by Karel Capek (Czech)

Fanda's Literary Movements Challenge: This is the one I fell down on.  It took me three months to read The Brothers Karamazov, and I didn't read anything for the last three months' categories (except I am reading The Symmetry Teacher for December right now, but I probably won't finish before Dec. 31!)  This, woe is me, is the first time I have failed a challenge.  As my husband would say, ¡qué lástimaFinal count: 9 out of 12.

January :-- The Journey Through Wales and Description of Wales, by Gerald of Wales
February :-- King Lear and Henry V, by William Shakespeare
March :-- Faust, by Goethe and The Essay on Man, by Pope
April :-- Pieces of Blake, Bits of Wordsworth, and Two Drovers by Scott
May :-- Work, by Louisa May Alcott
June :--The Jungle Book, by Rudyard Kipling
July :--The Wings of the Dove, by Henry James (total failure) James' short stories
August :-- The Awakening, by Kate Chopin
September:-- The Brothers Karamazov, by Dostoyevsky
October :-- Light in August, by Faulkner
November :--...Something by Kerouac?
December :--The Symmetry Teacher, by Andrei Bitov

Karen's Back to the Classics Challenge:  I read books for all 12 categories, finishing in October.

2.  A 20th Century Classic -- The Makioka Sisters, by Junichiro Tanizaki (1957, English trans.)
3.  A Classic by a Woman Author. Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell
7.  A Classic with a Person's Name in the Title-- Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte
8.  A Humorous or Satirical Classic. -- Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome
9.  A Forgotten Classic. Street of the Crocodiles, by Bruno Schulz

10.  A Nonfiction Classic.  The White Goddess, by Robert Graves
11.  A Classic Children's Book. The Jungle Book, by Rudyard Kipling
12.  A Classic Play. -- King Lear, by William Shakespeare

I had some good challenges this year, and it was a lot of fun.  Thanks everybody!


 OK, I still have four books on my pile and no time, so I declare a mini-review post.

The Old Wives' Club, by Arnold Bennett

Two sisters, young in the mid-Victorian era--their lives diverge for many years.  One stays at home, marries the assistant, and has a small family.  The other makes a runaway marriage and lives in Paris for 30 years.  In their later years, they reunite.

Lots of realism here--Bennett was an Edwardian with no interest in conveying a message or finding meaning in his novel.  The sisters live their lives and wonder what it was all for.

I do like this novel for its mention of fancy clothing for children!  What we now call heirloom sewing--a hobby of mine, and a particularly oddball one--gets a whole page pointing out that it is really kind of ludicrous.  I cannot disagree; in fact, the first time I saw an heirloom sewing magazine, my thought was "how incredibly impractical!"--and then I got hooked anyway.

This book is set in Staffordshire!

Speaking of  English counties, this next one is for Sussex.  The Mantlemass Chronicles, by Barbara Willard, is a YA historical fiction series.  I was given four of the seven (six?) volumes.  It's a sort of family saga through the generations, though it jumps around a bit, and it centers on the small forest manor of Mantlemass in Sussex.  I thought it was pretty good--well-written, not too focused on the romance, and crammed with history--but it does get pretty tragic.

The first volume, The Lark and the Laurel, is also the lightest.  Cecily, a confined and refined young lady, is sent to live with her aunt at Mantlemass when the Wars of the Roses end and her father is not only on the wrong side, but a turncoat.  She learns to become a capable woman, and foils her father's attempt to use her as a political pawn.  The next three, A Sprig of Broom, A Cold Wind Blowing, and The Eldest Son, handle the next two generations through the Tudor succession and the dissolution of the monasteries.  They're exciting, but tough reading.

The Mango Season, by Amulya Malladi

Priya has spent the last seven years in the US, getting lots of education and building a life away from her kind of dysfunctional family in Hyderabad.  Now it's time to visit and break the news that she does not want her parents to arrange a marriage to a nice Telugu Brahmin boy; she's going to marry an American.  But the longer she stays, the more frightened she is of telling the truth--her beloved grandfather will disown her, her mother will never accept it, and snotty Aunt Lata will be thrilled to have the ammunition.  Meanwhile there is plenty of family drama anyway, and Priya's visit has some surprising results.  It's a fun, fast read.

I was annoyed by the back blurb, though, which claims that "a secret is revealed that leaves her stunned.  Now she is forced to choose between the love of her family and the love of her life."  I spent half the novel trying to figure out what this secret could possibly be--she can't have a secret American half-brother.  And in fact there is no shocking secret.  So don't expect one.  It's just a good story with no big giant secret.

Confucius Lives Next Door: What Living in the East Teaches Us About Living in the West, by T. R. Reid

This was a fast and enjoyable read.  Reid moved his family to Japan in the late 90s, and talks partly about his own experiences there and throughout East Asia, and partly about social conditions, with some history thrown in.  His question is, why is Japan such a stable and safe place to live? --with sidelines on Singapore and China, etc.  What cultural underpinnings are the reasons for this?  And what can Westerners learn from Asian cultures?

There are some really interesting stories, and Reid talks a lot about the Confucian underpinnings of Asian societies.  He posits that the moral teachings of Confucius are much of what helps Asian societies to be so stable--but points out that in fact, those morals are not a lot different than other moral systems.  It may be more that Asian societies are more willing to teach those morals all the time--in school, in public, everywhere.  He also points out that, just as in the West, politicians like to use the moral system to push forward their own agendas; authoritarian Singapore uses it as much as the more democratic Japan, but in quite different ways. 

All in all, pretty interesting.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Reading England 2016

O at Behold the Stars is continuing her Reading England Challenge next year, with some new twists and twiddles added.  Head on over there to check out the options and the rules--it's so long that I'm not going to quote her.

I've enjoyed participating this year, but I probably read too many--over 20 titles!  I'm going to pull back and only read a few books this time, and I'll try to find ones from counties I haven't already done.

PS I still wish somebody would do this with another country!

The First Book of Calamity Leek

The First Book of Calamity Leek, by Paula Lichtarowicz

This YA novel was published in the UK a couple of years ago, and only in the UK.  I really really wanted to read it, so a little while ago we took advantage of AbeBooks and got a copy for just a few dollars.  Then I found out that it's coming out in the US in April next year, so you can read it too.

The reason I wanted to read it was the completely bizarre title.  Leek is my maiden name (I still use it officially) and Calamity Leek is such a weird name for a girl that I wanted to find out what the deal was.  If you're a Leek, then obviously you've got to read about this kid!

Calamity and her sixteen sisters live together in the Garden, kept safe by the Wall.  Outside is extremely dangerous, so they must never look; they are being trained for a special mission, which will be fulfilled soon.  Meanwhile, Aunty keeps them safe and the Divine Mother watches over them.  It sounds, at first, like a book set in a dystopia or other world, but it's much weirder than that.  When one of her sisters goes over the wall, Calamity's world starts to crumble.

The interesting thing about this story is that usually, the protagonist is the special girl, or the rebel, or the chosen one--the kid who breaks the mold and finds out what's really going on or starts the revolution or whatever.  Calamity is not the rebel.  She is the coward--the kid who, in the narrative structure, clings to the rules or tattletales, who is always admonishing the others to behave, or who otherwise does not go along with the curious rebels.  Calamity has invested her entire being into the rules that make her universe sensible, and she clings to them no matter what--long after they've ceased to make sense.

A pretty good YA novel, not really dystopian or fantasy even though it starts off sounding like it, pretty dang bizarre, and a refreshing perspective.  Read it!

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Absolute at Large

The Absolute at Large, by Karel Čapek

It's Karel Čapek's first novel!  Printed in 1922, two years after the play R. U. R., this is another science-fiction premise, and--at least at first--it's a bit comedic.

It a futuristic 1943, an engineer comes up with a machine (the Karburator) that produces power by annihilating matter completely; the energy contained in each atom is liberated and consumed, thus providing practically infinite power from tiny amounts of fuel.  Unfortunately, it turns out that matter has two parts.  There is the physical part, which produces the atomic energy, and there is also the spiritual component, which, when destroyed, releases the Absolute into the air.  If you conceive of God being present in all matter, well, now it's free and floating around. 

Anyone who gets near a Karburator experiences religious ecstasy.  They perform miracles and healings, or give away all their goods to the poor, or start preaching, or perhaps even levitate.  The Absolute is inspirational, and it's also creative; put a Karburator into a factory and it will produce endless fabric or sausage snaps or whatever, no matter what raw materials it starts with.  But it doesn't seem to be intelligent.  It takes on the characteristics of the people it influences.

So the economy collapses because the Absolute does not understand supply and demand.  It simply creates, endlessly.  All the merchants have given away their possessions, and there is no one to move goods. In any case, somebody installed a Karburator in the mint and now there is endless paper money.  Pretty soon, factions arise and there is a devastating global war....

This is a great early SF novel!  I really enjoyed it.  Get hold of a copy if you're interested; it will repay the time.

Sunday, December 20, 2015


Chaka,  by Thomas Mofolo

I have here on my desk a pile of seven books to post about.  With most of them, I want to discuss things and talk at length!  But, with everything going on, I might have to do a mini-review roundup.  We shall see.  But for the moment, let us talk about Chaka.

Chaka was written in the Sesotho language in 1909, but not published until 1925 (with some revisions).  It was translated into English in 1931.  It is a fictionalized account of the life of Chaka, the chieftain that united the Zulu tribes through conquest, and then went on to conquer quite a bit of South Africa, in the early 19th century.  Despite the more adulatory legends around his name, Chaka was a brutal warlord who killed an awful lot of people, his own as well as those he conquered, and he was pretty good at the whole thought-policing thing too. 

Mofolo writes a story about Chaka that brings in quite a lot of...not symbolism...more like he puts elements into the story to illustrate things about Chaka's character and reign.  The trouble is, you wind up having to look up the real biography in order to figure out what is and is not fiction, and quite a bit of the fiction has found its way into the popular account of Chaka's life.

In the novel, Chaka is the illegitimate son of a king, and even though he is the oldest son--the only one for a long time--he is rejected because the king is being blackmailed.  Chaka grows up persecuted and isolated despite his obvious talents, and only when he leaves his home and meets a doctor/sorcerer who anoints him to become a king does he start to have good fortune.  Chaka enters the service of a neighboring king and proves himself an excellent warrior.  Upon this king's death, he takes over the tribe and begins to conquer others.  The doctor gives him a choice as to how far to go, and Chaka deliberately chooses to become an all-conquering king through black magic.  He becomes...not entirely sane.

Much of this is not factual.  Chaka was not illegitimate, nor did he have a sorcerer mentor who used black magic and gave him two supernatural spy-helpers.  Chaka also did not murder his fiancee and his mother.  These elements are introduced to give narrative shape to Chaka's real political weaknesses and hunger for power.  Mofolo charts Chaka's rise and fall by clear moral markers, but real life was not so clear.  He also writes with sympathy for the child, but gradually deepening moral disapproval for the man.

A very interesting novel!  Also an important one, so don't miss it if you're reading African novels.  Also, I didn't read the introduction until afterwards, which was a good choice.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

TBR Challenge Wrapup

I'm done with Adam's TBR Challenge, and sadly this is the last one he will host; he's retiring it.  But, excelsior!  Onward and upward to better things, right?  OK, so I'm happy to have finished this list.  I put some real toughies on it, and I wasn't at all sure I would be able to finish.  In fact, I must admit to have failed with TWO titles, but luckily we get two alternates for just that problem! 

Here's my list, with links to posts:
  1.  The White Goddess, by Robert Graves
  2. The Travels, by Marco Polo
  3. Roll, Jordan, Roll, by Eugene Genovese * (DNF fail)
  4. Muhammad: Prophet of God, by Daniel Peterson (this is a secular biography)
  5. The Makioka Sisters, by Junichio Tanizaki *
  6. The Gulag Archipelago (abridged), by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn *
  7. The History of the Renaissance World, by Susan Wise Bauer
  8. Little Dorrit, by Charles Dickens *
  9. The Secret History, by Procopius
  10. Eight Pieces of Empire, by Lawrence Scott Sheets
  11. The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky *
  12. Between the Woods and the Water, by Patrick Leigh Fermor
  1. Crotchet Castle, by Thomas Love Peacock (DNF fail)
  2. Fairy Tale as Myth, by Jack Zipes
I'd been looking forward to reading Roll, Jordan, Roll, and when I picked it up I was very interested in the first chapter, which talked about the dynamics between slaves, overseers, and slaveowners.  It sounded exactly like the relationships between serfs, barons, and the king in medieval England, before the Tudors came along.  But then the book dove into a lot of talk about the bourgeoisie, and I realized it was going to be waaaay more Marxist than I could really deal with.  So I grabbed an alternate title, Crotchet Castle, by Thomas Love Peacock.  He was a funny satirist and I had previously liked his Nightmare Abbey, which pokes fun at the Romantic poets and Gothic literature.  Crotchet Castle, however, pokes fun at political economists.  Let me just tell you, 200-year-old political economic ideas are boring and incomprehensible, even when--possibly especially when--satirized.  Unreadable books, both of them.  I was really sad to fail at Roll, Jordan, Roll, though.

So thanks to Adam for hosting the challenge!  I really feel like I won a bit of a victory with this list.

The Travels of Marco Polo

The Travels of Marco Polo

In 1271, a young Marco Polo traveled to China with his father and uncle, and he spent almost the next twenty years traveling around the East--China, India, Indonesia, even Zanzibar.  He is said to have worked for Kubilai Khan as a diplomat.  He returned to the West in 1295 and some time later was captured as a prisoner of war.  In prison, he met Rustichello of Pisa, who wrote down his stories, and together they produced The Travels, written in Old French with quite a bit of Italian mixed in.  It was a massive popular success even during Polo's lifetime, though right from the beginning people questioned Polo's veracity.  Even now it makes for exciting reading.

Polo starts off by describing the route to China, skipping most of the places already well-known to Westerners, so that he spends a limited amount of time in the Middle East.  When he gets to Persia, he describes Parsi believers, saying that the Magi were from here and identifying their individual home cities.  Then he describes the Silk Road route, and only gets to Kubilai Khan about a third of the way through the book.

He is really pretty fulsome about Kubilai Khan, and spends a lot of time on the wealth and power of the king and court.  I was pleased to notice the bit about the summer palace at Shangdu--popularized as Xanadu by Coleridge--so that was fun.  Prester John, one of my favorite legendary kings, is also found here and is treated as a real person.  His grandsons are named as kings too.  There is quite a bit of history included.

After the glories of Kubilai Khan, Polo travels all over northern and southern China (known to him as Cathay and Manji).  Then he sails to Bengal; the India he describes is somewhat confused geographically, because he made two separate trips, but it is recognizably Hindu in character.  The story of Prince Gautama Buddha is also included, though a bit garbled.  He also describes Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Java, parts of Indonesia, and all sorts of other places.  It's really fun to pick them out on the map and match them up to today's map.

Most of his descriptions are methodical in nature; that is, he'll start with the name of the place, who the king is and whether they owe allegience to the Khan, what religion is practiced, the language, and then the products of the area and anything special about the citizens.  After that, he'll talk about anything interesting--the land, or a river, cultural practices, and so on.

I'm kind of sorry I put off reading this for so long.  It's exciting stuff!  And it wasn't nearly as difficult to read as I expected.  The only problem was that, of course, every time I picked it up, my brain would start playing a tape of kids yelling "Marco!  Polo!" endlessly and forever  Oh, how I hate that game.  I bet that had something to do with my reluctance to read the book!

Monday, December 7, 2015

Back to the Classics Challege

Karen is hosting again, and I'm joining again.  Who can resist the Back to the Classics Challenge?   Karen says:

The challenge will be exactly the same as last year, 12 classic books, but with slightly different categories. You do not have to read 12 books to participate in this challenge!

  • Complete six categories, and you get one entry in the drawing
  • Complete nine categories, and you get two entries in the drawing
  • Complete all twelve categories, and you get three entries in the drawing
And here are the categories for the 2016 Back to the Classics Challenge:

1.  A 19th Century Classic - any book published between 1800 and 1899.

2.  A 20th Century Classic - any book published between 1900 and 1966. Just like last year, all books MUST have been published at least 50 years ago to qualify. The only exception is books written at least 50 years ago, but published later.

3.  A classic by a woman author

4.  A classic in translation.  Any book originally written published in a language other than your native language. Feel free to read the book in your language or the original language.

5.  A classic by a non-white author. Can be African-American, Asian, Latino, Native American, etc.

6.  An adventure classic - can be fiction or non-fiction.

7.  A fantasy, science fiction, or dystopian classic. Dystopian could include classics like Animal Farm or 1984.

8.  A classic detective novel. It must include a detective, amateur or professional. This list of books from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction is a great starting point if you're looking for ideas.

9.  A classic which includes the name of a place in the title.  It can be the name of a house, a town, a street, etc. Examples include Bleak House, Main Street, The Belly of Paris, or The Vicar of Wakefield.

10. A classic which has been banned or censored. If possible, please mention why this book was banned or censored in your review.

11. Re-read a classic you read in school (high school or college).  If it's a book you loved, does it stand the test of time?  If it's a book you disliked, is it any better a second time around?

12. A volume of classic short stories. This must be one complete volume, at least 8 short stories. Children's stories are acceptable in this category only.

And as usual, I shall plan to finish all 12 categories. I still have to think about possible titles for each category, so I'll try to post some in the near future.  Let the fun begin!

Women and Appletrees

Nobody in the novel is this well-dressed.
Women and Appletrees, by Moa Martinson

Moa Martinson (born Helga Maria Swarts) was a Swedish feminist writer who always worked on behalf of the working class.  Her whole life was given to her ideals, especially for working-class women.  (I seem to recall she was also in favor of free love, but that's left over from a long-ago class and may be somebody else.)

Women and Appletrees starts with Mother Sofi and her best friend, Fredericka, and their lives in the 1840s.  They farm, and they shock the village with their scandalous habit of bathing once a week.  Sofi has many children, and two generations later...

We follow Sally and Ellen, two of Sofi's descendants, through their lives up to about World War I (both are partial autobiographical portraits of Martinson herself, Sally more so).  Both grow up in slums, enduring hunger, violence, and trauma, and end up meeting in a tiny farming village.  Ellen has reacted to her childhood by becoming obsessed with purity and cleanliness.  She comes to live with her father-in-law, and her marriage begins fairly happily, but her husband turns more and more to drink.  Sally refuses to marry her drunken sailor man, but bears him many children and becomes an active Socialist.  The men aren't present much, and the women's friendship is the primary relationship of the novel.

This is a tough world, where women live in dire poverty, work hard for their childrens' welfare, and depend on each other for support.  Nearly all the men are off somewhere else, and are drunken and violent--earning money, but mostly drinking it. 

There is plenty here to have fun analyzing.  You could spend a good hour of class time discussing how Martinson pictures women as writing their histories on their bodies, in scarred flesh and blood and milk instead of with paper and ink, and all sorts of enjoyable themes like that.  In fact I did, because my copy of Women and Appletrees is from a college course in Scandinavian literature.  It's still in print and I wish it was more widely known.

And the Spin number is....


Which means I'm going to be reading an early German sort-of novel, Simplicissimus, by Grimmelhausen.  This was recommended to me by my brother, who is a professor of Middle High German.  It was written in 1688 and is an angry satirical adventure of the Thirty Years' War, a vicious war that decimated large swathes of Europe.

It's quite long, and as I noted in my Spin list, I actually started it a little while ago.  I'm not very far in yet, and I definitely need some motivation, so this is a good thing.  Wish me luck!

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Classics Club Spin #11!

Hooray, it's time for another Spin!  If you don't know about the Classic Spin, you can find all the information at the link.

I am starting to run pretty low on titles!  This is good news, but it does mean that there are really gigantic books on my list that I cannot realistically expect to finish by February 1.  However, here we go, sometimes with comments:
  1. William Faulkner,  Light in August. (what was I thinking, putting Faulkner on my CC list?)
  2. Pensees, Pascal
  3. Mario Benedetti, The Truce  
  4. On the Origin of Species, Darwin 
  5. Unknown, Japan, 630. The Kojiki
  6. Thomas Mann, Germany, 1924. The Magic Mountain.
  7. Mario Vargas Llosa, The War at the End of the World.
  8. “Our Town,” Thornton Wilder.  (I have never read or seen this play!)
  9. Cesar Vallejo, Los Heraldos Negros.
  10. Murasaki Shikubu, Japan, ca. 990.The Tale of Genji
  11. Picnic At Hanging Rock, by Joan Lindsay
  12. Rilke, Malte Laurids Brigge. 
  13. John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
  14. Cesar Vallejo, Poemas Humanos.
  15. Augusto Roa Bastos, I the Supreme or another work.
  16. The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams  (another classic American play I've never read)
  17. Gunter Grass, The Tin Drum
  18.  Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks
  19. Grimmelhausen, Simplicissimus (this is cheating a leetle bit because I started this title recently, but it's so scary I think I can get away with it)
  20. “Why We Can’t Wait,” Martin Luther King Jr.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Bible as Literature Challenge

Adam at Roof Beam Reader is setting up a very ambitious challenge for 2016.  (He's also dropping the TBR Challenge, so we'll have to find others.)  Adam says:

About the Event: The Christian bible is one of the most influential texts in western literature. As someone who reads literature for pleasure/edification and who teaches Literature in English at the college level, I frequently re-familiarize myself with many historically rich texts from a variety of mythologies and cultures....

As a special note, I will be reading the bible as literature and crafting my posts as such. This challenge is not specific to nor exclusively meant for Christians; instead, it is for readers who are interested in learning more about a very important text in the western canon. As such, I invite anyone and everyone to participate, regardless of faith or lack thereof. Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Atheist, Hindu, Agnostic, Mormon, Humanist? Come along!

What I would love is a lively and spirited discussion of the stories, philosophies, history, and cultural issues. We might discuss allegory, parables, comparative religion, metaphor, and symbolism to name just a few topics. The text will be treated respectfully and the discussions will follow in that same spirit — disparaging remarks about anyone’s beliefs will not be tolerated (and therefore all comments will be moderated). We’ll do our best!...

The Reading Plan
  • January: Genesis 1 through Exodus 40
  • February: Leviticus 1 through Deuteronomy 4
  • March: Deuteronomy 5 through 1 Samuel 17
  • April: 1 Samuel 18 through 1 Chronicles 2
  • May: 1 Chronicles 3 through Esther 10
  • June: Job 1 through Psalms 89
  • July: Psalms 90 through Isaiah 17
  • August: Isaiah 18 through Ezekiel 8
  • September: Ezekiel 9 through Zechariah 14
  • October: Malachi 1 through Luke 18
  • November: Luke 19 through 1 Corinthians 8
  • December: 1 Corinthians 9 through Revelations 22
Adam has chosen a fun edition of the KJV to read--the B&N edition with Doré illustrations, which will be easy for anyone else to get too.  I thought about getting a copy, but it's $20, and since I already have several KJVs sitting around the house, it seemed silly to get a new one just because it has cool illustrations (that I can borrow from my mom's house).  Anyway, it is not a rule to read the KJV -- read whatever edition you want.

I don't actually plan to post about this challenge here--I'll read along and participate in the discussions, which will be posted on Mondays.  I'll maintain an image link on my sidebar, but that's about all you'll hear from me here, I think.  If you want to join in, pop on over to Adam's blog to sign up.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Fairy Tale as Myth, Myth as Fairy Tale

Fairy Tale as Myth, Myth as Fairy Tale: lectures by Jack Zipes

I was excited about reading these lectures by Jack Zipes, the big academic specialist in fairy tales, especially Grimm's fairy tales.  If you've read or seen the giant Grimm's collection, he's the editor.  I was looking forward to some nice chewy discussions about myth and folklore.  I was disappointed, and when I wasn't bored, I was arguing with Zipes in my head.  Bleh.

There are six essays in this volume.  The first is about the origins of the fairy tale, and talks about how French aristocrat ladies would write stories for each other or for girls.  This was the part I liked best, talking about how Madame D'Aulnoy "intended to present a woman's viewpoint with regard to such topics as tender love, fidelity, courtship, honor, and arranged must be cautious about labeling her an outspoken critic of patriarchal values or to see feminist leanings in her writings..."  He then goes on analyze Beauty and the Beast, blaming D'Aulnoy for not teaching girls true feminism and to go for what they wanted.  Instead, she instructs girls to "tame their unruly feelings" and do their duty.

Myself, I can't help thinking that representing women's viewpoints in tales and pointing out that tender love and fidelity are good things in a husband is pretty feminist for the early 18th century.  I wonder what Zipes thought would be the result if D'Aulnoy started advising girls in the way that he wants her to have done.  I think it possible that she would have been considered mad and simply locked up.  Her tales certainly wouldn't have become popular.

An essay on Rumpelstiltskin did catch my interest because he spent a lot of time talking about spinning as the province of women.  On the other hand, I wasn't thrilled with his analysis and prefer Elizabeth Wayland Barber any day.  But he did describe a common social institution, the Spinnstuhe, where young women would live together (supervised of course), working and socializing.  Young men could come and visit in the evenings.  It sounded pretty good as a way for young people to meet and pair off in a safe environment.

The essay on the Disney influence on fairy tales was one I looked forward to and really disliked.  I don't even like Disney films much, but Zipes has nothing good to say about the cartoon industry, Disney, or any movies depicting fairy tales.  It came off as grumpy and unreasonable to me, and I was prepared to criticize Disney films.  Also, he's given to saying things like "No matter what they may do, women cannot chart their own lives without male manipulation and intervention..."  which he figures is unequivocally a bad thing.  But I have to think, well, turn it around.  Do men get to chart their own lives without reference to female opinion?  Neither is very likely, is it?  If he'd phrased it more reasonably, I'd be more receptive.

I'm probably not really equipped to get the essay on Oz as the American fairy tale, because I'm not a big Oz fan.  I read all the books as a kid, but I never got into the movie or the sequels and spinoffs (I did see Return to Oz in the theater, boy was that creepy), and Zipes really mixes them all up and talks about Oz in the popular imagination instead of Oz as described in the Baum stories.  His descriptions of Oz seem overly optimistic to me, especially when he says that Baum described Oz as a "perfect utopian world."  I don't remember that--I remember crazy stuff and rebellions and weirdness.  But then, I was ten and I didn't realize that Baum was making fun of General Jinjer!  I thought she was cool.

I skimmed the last essay.  He talked about that 80s show, Beauty and the Beast, a lot, but I never watched that show.  On the whole, I am kind of disappointed in this collection.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Vintage Science Fiction Month

This will be my third year participating in Little Red Reviewer's annual Vintage Science Fiction Month (not-a-challenge).  I have a Heinlein juvenile title, but am otherwise uncommitted, though I'm thinking about reading some PKD and maybe Simak.  Howabout you--want to read along?  Follow the link to see the details!

Mount TBR 2016

And I'm back to the Mount TBR Challenge to keep myself reading those books!  Bev at My Reader's Block is the host.  Bev says:

Challenge Levels:

Pike's Peak: Read 12 books from your TBR pile/s
Mount Blanc: Read 24 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Vancouver: Read 36 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Ararat: Read 48 books from your TBR piles/s
Mt. Kilimanjaro: Read 60 books from your TBR pile/s
El Toro: Read 75 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Everest: Read 100 books from your TBR pile/s
Mount Olympus (Mars): Read 150+ books from your TBR pile/s

And the rules:
*Once you choose your challenge level, you are locked in for at least that many books. If you find that you're on a mountain-climbing roll and want to tackle a taller mountain, then you are certainly welcome to upgrade.  All books counted for lower mountains carry over towards the new peak.

 There's lots more, so follow the link and check it out if you want to join too.  I've done Mount TBR a few times now and it's fun.

I'm signing up for the Pike's Peak level of 12 books, as always.  I haven't got my pile properly together yet, but here's a preliminary picture.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Hard Core Re-Reading Challenge 2016

Well, this is handy.  There are some books that I want to re-read, but that are kind of on the heavy side, so I was thinking a nice little re-reading challenge would be just the thing to encourage me to pick up Hayek again.  And what do you know, Lois at You, Me, and a Cup of Tea is hosting the perfect challenge!   She says:

Rules (And when I say rules please realize I'm one of the most flexible people in existence)

  • First off, this challenge is for EVERYBODY! That means YOU! I want anyone and everyone to join in on the fun!
  • I suggest you make a list of books that you want to re-read for 2015 and post it with your sign up post. You are welcome to add to it as the year goes on and you definitely don't have to read them all. I recommend it be a suggested list and you can just chose books off of it as you go along.
  • The challenge officially runs from January 1, 2016 to December 31, 2016. ONLY books started AND finished in that time frame will count....


Level 1 0-15 Re-reading itch
Level 2 16-25 Re-reading bug
Level 3 26-35 Re-reading fever
Level 4 36-50 Re-reading paralysis
Level 5 50+ Re-reading coma (if you can do this I highly commend you!)

Lois says a bunch of other things too.  Take a look.  I will only be signing up for Level 1 and will probably keep it to 10 books or fewer.  Here are some of my titles, but I haven't even got ten yet...

  1. My Childhood, by Maxim Gorky
  2. The Fair at St. James, by Eleanor Farjeon
  3. Caleb Williams, by William Godwin
  4. West With the Night, by Beryl Markham
  5. Last Tales, by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen)
  6. Pelle the Conqueror, vol. 1, by Martin Andersen Nexø
  7. Kaleidoscope, by Eleanor Farjeon
  8. The Road to Serfdom, by F. A. Hayek
  9. The Worm Ouroboros, by Eddison
  10. The Allegory of Love, by C. S. Lewis
  11. Man's Search for Meaning, by Victor Frankl
  12. Dancing Goddesses, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber

Zuleika Dobson

Zuleika Dobson, by Max Beerbohm

I really didn't know what to expect from Zuleika Dobson, except that I had heard it was witty.  The cover of the edition I checked out at work (see below) is so hideous that you would never know it's a comedy, would you?  I found you a nicer cover too.  I'm pretty sure my copy qualifies as one of the ugliest book covers ever produced.  If you can top this, I'll buy you lunch.

Zuleika--who makes her living by conjuring--arrives in Oxford to visit her grandfather, the Warden of Judas College.  She is so charming and bewitching that every young man who sees her promptly falls in love with her.  She is used to this and takes it as her due, but she can never fall in love with anyone who throws himself at her feet so easily.  When the impeccable dandy the Duke of Dorset actually ignores her for an entire dinner, she falls in love for the first time--only to fall out again when he confesses that he also loves her.  In despair, the Duke vows to kill himself for Zuleika, and to his dismay, every student in Oxford thinks that's a splendid idea and decides to do it too!

This is a very fun Edwardian satirical read.  I'm glad I found it.

My cover appears to feature a vaguely 18th-century girl holding an ugly flower, a blindfolded guy flying, and...possibly a frog, but also possibly just another brown blotch.

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Castle

The Castle, by Franz Kafka

This unfinished novel is one of Kafka's longer works, and it's, well, Kafka-esque.  So much so that I had kind of a hard time with it; 400 solid pages of never getting anywhere got pretty difficult to take.

K. arrives at a village to take up a job as a land-surveyor at the Castle that overlooks the little town.  Everyone there either works for the Castle or wants to land a job there, but K. is not allowed to go there.  Nor can he meet with Castle officials.  There doesn't seem to be any land-surveying to do, but he is assigned two assistants, who do nothing to help him but do bother him a lot.  He makes friends with a messenger who isn't quite a messenger, and he meets a girl and becomes engaged, but that doesn't last long.  All his efforts lead nowhere.

All the conversations K. has with people in the village are the same; long, long monologues about village/Castle relations that meander around, contradict themselves with almost every sentence, and delve into careful distinctions that are so fine and nuanced that they don't really exist.  Nobody really knows much, but they're certainly willing to make it up.  Round and round we go with K., trying to get something done and never succeeding.  He might as well give up and die.

Kafka died before he could finish The Castle, and he may not have meant to anyway, but the ending he mentioned to Max Brod involved K.'s death, at which point the desired message from the Castle finally arrives--only to inform him that his "legal claim to live in the village was not valid, yet, taking certain auxiliary circumstances into account, he was permitted to live and work there."

I read the Muir translation in the 1954 "definitive" edition that includes a lot of alternate wording, fragments, and excised material, plus a foreword by Thomas Mann.  The most recent editions don't include all of that stuff and have a different translation.

I'll have to read Amerika one of these days...

Sunday, November 22, 2015

My Brilliant Career

My Brilliant Career, by Miles Franklin

It's AusNovember, and I read one of the really obvious classics, this novel by Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin, who wrote it for friends when she was only a teenager, It was published in 1901, when she was about 22.  It was a hit, but Franklin was upset by some reactions--I think an awful lot of people assumed it was more biographical than it was, or than she wished them to think it was--and she withdrew it for decades.  It discouraged her from writing more novels for a long time.

Sybylla is an imaginative, intelligent, discontented girl living in near-poverty on her family's station.  Once her father owned beautiful farmland, but his bad business decisions landed them all on a desolate station, and he has become a useless, tragic drunk.  Mother and children work hard and earn little, and it is with relief that her mother sends Sybylla to live with her grandmother at Caddagat.  There Sybylla blossoms, but not without bumps in the road, and then she is sent to work for an awful family.

This is a very unusual coming-of-age novel.  Sybylla is restless and discontented--a fascinating and realistic character--and often so contrary that she doesn't even know what she wants, or if she does know, she can't communicate it.  She's terrified of marriage and the life of inescapable drudgery that she feels it must lead to, since she's never seen anything different, yet at the same time she longs for the companionship and love that only marriage could give her.  There is a romance, but it has anything but a traditional conclusion.  At the end, she is in practically the same circumstances as when she started; there is no happy ending or resolution.  

It's as if you had Anne Shirley without the optimism and moral lessons.  Jane Eyre without the patience.  It's a novel from 1900, featuring a teenage girl, that does not show her brightening sad lives, learning morality, or otherwise doing the things that girls in novels from 1900 do.  This makes it a very odd reading experience!

PS I also had a copy of another Australian novel, The Man Who Loved Children.  It's supposed to be an amazing and brilliant portrait of a family where the parents hate each other.  I got about 4 pages in before I figured out that I cannot read a 600-page book about a miserable marriage and family right now.  Nope.  I see enough trouble in real life, thank you.  Sorry, Brona.