Friday, February 27, 2015

No Place to Hide

No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, by Glenn Greenwald

A couple of years ago, a successful NSA contractor in his late 20s, Edward Snowden, collected a whole lot of top secret NSA files and revealed to the world that the super-paranoid, tin-foil hat wearing people who were convinced that the US government was keeping tabs on everyone...were not anywhere near paranoid enough.

Because the NSA is keeping tabs on all of us.  In fact, its explicit goal--ironically, an inefficient and ineffective one, if the stated mission is to fight terrorism--is for no phone call, email, chat message, or internet session in the US to go unmonitored.  They store billions of exchanges per day, quite unconstitutionally.  None of this has ever caught a terrorist attack in the planning stages.  But it does ensure that we feel surveilled.

Greenwald tells the story of how Snowden contacted him and how they broke the story in a series of news stories at the Guardian.  He then breaks off to tell the story itself, covering the basics of the NSA's goals and methods.  In the third section, he talks about the aftermath and how he and Snowden were targeted.  Greenwald has a lot to say about journalism and how it too often serves the interests of those in power rather than all citizens.

This is one of those books that is important to read, but is hugely depressing. 

Thursday, February 26, 2015


Book, by Robert Grudin

Back in the mid-90s, I had a copy of this novel and enjoyed it a lot, but at some point it disappeared.  Happily, I found a library copy (pro tip: do not name your novel Book, for it will give library software fits if you can't remember the author's name) and took it home to enjoy once more.  This is possibly the first academic satirical comedy I read, unless David Lodge came first.

Adam Snell, professor of literature and failed novelist, has disappeared just two days before his post-tenure review--at which half the English department was planning to savage his reputation and get rid of him.  They're just as happy to think he'll turn up dead soon so they can get a really cutting-edge literary theorist in.  But where is Snell?  Why are copies of his novel disappearing?

Grudin, an English professor himself (and fellow graduate of Berkeley's comparative literature program, albeit 25 years earlier than I), just has a fun little romp through literary theory and textual conventions.  Collected documents and transcripts tell the story--part of the time, anyway.  Footnotes and marginalia stage a revolt in disgust.  A good time is had by all.

I wish I still had my copy of Book.  I like re-reading it.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Henry V

Henry V, by William Shakespeare

 I've been wanting to read Henry V for a long time; I never have before, so I wanted to fill in that gap.  Everybody knows what happens--I don't like writing posts about Shakespeare plays because I feel like whatever I say, it's kind of pointless.  However, just in case, this is a "historical" play about the young Henry V, his claim to own all of France, and his campaign to win it.  In a surprise fluke, the English actually defeated the numerically superior French at the battle of Agincourt, for God, Harry and St. George.

Even though I knew what to expect in the plot of Henry V, I had a really hard time getting into it.  My daughter and I got out the DVD of the movie--the 1989 one with Kenneth Branagh as Henry--and watched it together, and that really helped a lot (I got it for schooly purposes but we hadn't watched it yet).  What I mostly noticed about the film, which is beautifully produced with lots of setting and costuming, was that they cut about 90% of the dialogue from the play.  Even the most famous speeches lost a few lines.  Instead, there was much more emphasis on the visuals, with lots of time on landscapes and people doing things, and of course plenty of fighting.  To explain some background, they also added in that final scene from Henry IV Part 2 where the new king throws Falstaff off like an old pair of shoes. The film of Henry V is over two hours long; the play performed as written must be even longer.  It would be neat to see it performed like that, and I wonder if anyone produces it whole these days.

Much of this play is historical propaganda, really.  English people looked back on Henry V as a wonderful king.  The glory of Agincourt!  France right where it belonged, under an English king! Never mind the fact that ruling both France and England together was just not possible.  It was a ridiculous idea that consumed lives and years and treasure and never paid off.  Then, the Tudors descended from Katherine of Valois, Henry's French wife.  Henry left her a widow after only two years, during which he was mostly still fighting in France.  She was young and pretty, and the government was worried sick that she would remarry, so they passed a law that she could not marry until her son reached his majority (he was six at the time) and approved a marriage.  Katherine then proceeded to live with Owen Tudor and produced six children, almost certainly without getting married at all, though the Tudors claimed she did.  Henry VII was their grandson.

I don't quite know how to count this for the Reading England challenge; it mostly takes place in France, but I think it should count.  I shall put it down as belonging to Southampton, where at least one act takes place, and that is in Hampshire.

King Lear

King Lear, by William Shakespeare

 For the Literary Movement Challenge, Fanda asked readers to focus on drama.  Before I figured that out, I was considering reading Tyndale's Obedience of a Christian Man and worrying that I would never be able to read it in the time.  I still plan to read Tyndale but it was somewhat easier to read a couple of Shakespeare plays for February. 

Cordelia in the court of King Lear, by Ford Madox Brown
King Lear is a fairy tale cast as a historical event and tragedy.  Lear was a legendary pre-Roman king in Britain; he appears (spelled Leir) in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, and in Holinshed, where Shakespeare got the story.   Lear, a rather silly king, decides to divide his kingdom between his three daughters based on how fervently they declare their love for him.  The two older sisters walk off with the swag, and youngest Cordelia, who honestly loves her father but refuses to flatter him, is disinherited.  Lear soon finds that his older daughters have little respect for a father without power, and he runs off into the wilderness and goes mad.  Meanwhile, Edmund the schemer is plotting to get his legitimate brother disinherited so that he can have all the power.  In fact, why shouldn't he kill off his father too, and marry one of the new queens?

Bonus: Dwight at Common Reader just posted some great Lear material.  Click on over to his post for a handy cartoon guide to the characters and plot, and a highly entertaining rating of Falling Gloucesters.

Fanda asks us to discuss whether the writers we read for this challenge fit into the literary movement we chose.  Well, I played it pretty safe with this month, because Shakespeare is the epitome of the English Renaissance, right?   I probably should have shaken it up a bit and read Dekker or Marlowe, but I'd been wanting to read King Lear anyway.  And I really can't stand Dekker.

The majority of the action takes place at the castle of the Earl of Gloucester, though it does move to Dover in the later part of the play.  I am going to count it for Gloucestershire.

The Story of My Experiments With Truth

The Story of My Experiments With Truth (Gandhi's Autobiography), by Mohandas Gandhi

Experience has taught me that civility is the most difficult part of Satyagraha.  Civility does not here mean the mere outward gentleness of speech cultivated for the occasion, but an inborn gentleness and desire to do the opponent good.
I read Gandhi's autobiography for the first time when I was about 18, and I loved it.  I whipped through it in three days (which is unbelievable to me now).  So when I made up my Classics Club list, I put it on as a re-read, thinking it would be nice to re-visit a book I don't really remember too much about.

Gandhi wrote this in installments for a weekly publication, and all the chapters are quite short.  It must have taken several years.  He starts with his childhood, especially his struggles with dietary and religious questions, and goes through to cover the development of his satyagraha philosophy and its application in several early instances.  Salt came up, and the beginnings of spinning and weaving, but he does not get all the way to the independence movement or anywhere close to it.

I was surprised to see how very much there is about diet.  I got quite bogged down about two-thirds of the way through in a seemingly endless series of chapters on diet, which got more and more ascetic until he was giving up salt (a bad idea, I think!) and living solely on fruits and nuts.  He also extolled an ideal of complete abstinence in marriage.  Gandhi was also interested in experiments with communal living and farming, so there was quite a bit about various endeavors with that. 

The political and historical stuff was great, though.  Just fascinating, and I wished he had written more on those topics and the development of the independence movement.

I still enjoyed this book a lot, but now, of course, I'm more engaged with what it all meant at the time, so I understand it much better.  

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Street of Crocodiles

The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories, by Bruno Schulz

I asked my daughters' violin teacher for recommendations.  He said this was his very favorite book, so I tried it.  And it is something else, man.  Whoa.

Bruno Schulz was a Polish Jew, shot by a Gestapo officer in about 1944, pretty much out of pique.  He had already stashed his pre-war writing and art with Gentile friends, and all of it disappeared, so that all that is left are these two collections of short stories, The Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass.  That is a literary tragedy, folks, because Bruno Schulz was a genius of bizarre writing.

These pieces are really strange, surreal, weird things. They are often dream-like, and always very very descriptive--positively lush with description--more like a painting than a story.  They are mostly domestic stories, about parents, relatives, or the neighborhood--his father most of all.   Insects feature largely, especially cockroaches and bedbugs.  People transform all the time--into scary birds, or strange animals, or inanimate objects, and then they magically reappear as normal...or not.

Here are some sample quotations for you:
In flats of that kind, wallpapers must be very weary and bored with the incessant changes in all the cadenzas of rhythm; no wonder that they are susceptible to distant, dangerous dreams. The essence of furniture is unstable, degenerate, and receptive to abnormal temptations: it is then that on this sick, tired, and wasted soil colorful and exuberant mildew can flourish in a fantastic growth, like a beautiful rash.

"Am I to conceal from you," he said in a low tone, "that my own brother, as a result of a long and incurable illness, has been gradually transformed into a bundle of rubber tubing, and that my poor cousin had to carry him day and night on his cushion..."

The salesgirls now walked up and down between the rows of books, their faces, like gray parchment, marked with the dark greasy pigment spots of brunettes, their shiny dark eyes shooting out sudden zigzag cockroachy looks.

It is, as usual in that district, a gray day, and the whole scene seems at times like a photograph in an illustrated magazine, so gray, so one-dimensional are the houses, the people, and the vehicles. Reality is as thin as paper and betrays with all its cracks its imitative character.

My father was the first to explain the secondary, derivative character of that late season, which is nothing other than the result of our climate having been poisoned by the miasmas exuded by degenerate specimens of baroque art crowded in our museums. 
The second collection, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, is also illustrated by Schulz, who was an artist as well as a writer.  They're little pen illustrations, and reminded me somewhat of Maurice Sendak when he drew people (sketchy things, rather than illustrations).

If you are in the least interested in weird or surreal modern literature, Bruno Schulz is a must-read.  Kids who like Vonnegut would totally go for this guy, but he's a little bit more difficult.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

DWJ March is coming up!

Kristen at We Be Reading has posted the information for DWJ March, woohoo!

This is going to be the fourth DWJ March and Kristen is thinking we ought to have a focus to talk about, which I think is a good idea.  So, there's a theme: The Ladies and Lasses of DWJ.  I think this is a great topic to focus on, because DWJ did in fact have some issues in writing about girls and women.  Early in her writing career, she tended to avoid writing female protagonists and always made them boys.  I remember she said that in some interview, and why she did it, but now I'm not sure where the quotation is.  It was a while before she really was able to write girl protagonists.  And then there are DWJ's mothers and older women characters, an awful lot of whom are....hungry.  Controlling, yet neglectful.  Malevolent in some way.  And did I mention hungry?  Yes, we can write a lot of posts about the ladies and lasses of DWJ.  I have no doubt that somebody could write a book.

Cool image, don't you think?

But that's not all!  Kristen has already got giveaways of three books going, which she hopes to be able to send out before DWJ March begins.  Head on over and enter.

There will be three readalongs! And one will be a co-op read with another group!  Kristen lists:
Aunt Maria (a.k.a. Black Maria), discussion post up here on 3/9, Twitter chat on 3/13 The Islands of Chaldea, discussion post up here on 3/17, Twitter chat on 3/21 The Spellcoats, discussion post up at Here There Be Books on 3/25, Twitter chat on 3/29
I've been saving Islands of Chaldea (my second read) for this event, and I've been wanting to re-read Black Maria too.  The Spellcoats has long been a favorite of mine, so I'm all set to participate in all three.

Well I don't know about you, but I can't wait!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

S. / Ship of Theseus

S. / Ship of Theseus, by Doug Dorst and J. J. Abrams

I did not know WHAT to think when I ran across this book...thing.  What I noticed first was that it was stuffed full of ephemera, kind of like Griffin and Sabine on steroids.  I thought it must be a big gimmick.  And I got curious, so I read it.

The idea is that it's a nested story.  You have a book that looks like a novel printed in the late 1940s, complete with library sticker* and stamps.  The book is a real, complete novel.  Then, two people have written notes all over the margins of the novel, and those notes tell a story too.  As you read, you find another novel and at least one other story of two people who communicated more through books than they did directly.  AND there are codes.  And shadowy bad guys, maybe.  And a secret symbol, and a jerk of a professor, and a mystery about the author's identity.

I read the novel--Ship of Theseus--first.  It purports to have been written in the late 40s, in Czech, by one V. M. Straka--a mysterious recluse of an author.  It tells the bizarre tale of S., who has lost his memory and gets hijacked onto a derelict ship with mystery freaky sailors, when he really wants to go searching for a girl whose name might be Sola.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that the novel is readable and interesting.  Since I've been actually reading the writings of weird post-WWII Eastern European authors, I can tell you that while it's decent and weird, it's not as good and weird as the real thing.

After that you go through and read the notes, of which there are FOUR iterations, each color-coded so you have some chance of understanding what's going on.  They're still really confusing.  The novel has been left out at the university library, and Jen (a senior and a library clerk) starts writing notes to the owner, Eric (an expunged grad student and Straka scholar).  As they get to know each other through the notes they write, they try to solve the codes hidden in footnotes and figure out who Straka really was.  Somebody might be after them, though.

If you work really hard, you can figure out a lot about the mystery.  There are large websites devoted to this.  I gather that J. J. Abrams came up with the idea, Doug Dorst wrote it, and a team was required to design and sort out the details.  Abrams directed LOST, which I never watched, but I think I understand part of how fans felt about it.  There is no satisfying final resolution here.  You will have to work really hard to figure out more than the surface information.  And, for myself, I can't be bothered to work that hard.  The effort required is not worth the solution, for me.  I'm not even prepared to work quite that hard for Thomas Pynchon, and I'm a lot more willing to work for him.  It feels too designed.

It's very, very pretty.  It's reasonably fun to read.  But don't expect to just be able to finish it and feel satisfied; you might be bugged that there's this whole elaborate online THING you have to do if you want to understand anything.  It's also extremely ill-suited to libraries--there's so much stuff in the pages--so don't be surprised if your friendly neighborhood public library doesn't have it.

* The call number is 813.54, which is really American literature after 1945.  Right date, wrong country.  Czech literature after 1945 is 891.8685409, and yes, I looked it up (Slavic lit really gets the short end of the stick in Dewey).  And then there's the mystery about Straka's identity and citizenship, but I think a cataloging librarian would go with the original language of the book.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Black Spider

The Black Spider, by Jeremias Gotthelf

The NYRB Classics list is very dangerous.  I'm tempted by just about every title.  Such as The Black Spider, an early horror novel written by a Swiss German in 1842.  Also the cover is freaky scary, right?  It's an allegorical wax sculpture of Vanity.

In an idyllic and fertile Swiss valley, a family is preparing for a christening.  During the party, a guest notices an old and blackened post which has been built into the neat and well-tended window frame.  The grandfather tells the story of the post, which goes back centuries and is a cautionary tale of demonic horror, warning against the sins of pride, vanity, and ingratitude to God.

I hadn't realized when I started the story that it is a devout tale which takes demonic power quite seriously.  It's also a really Swiss German tale; you can just see all these prosperous, careful farmers with their incredibly neat houses and fields and their concern with making sure everything is just so.

An older collection, with Gorey cover!
I enjoyed the tale a lot.  It's short, just over 100 pages, and I read it quickly.  It's quite scary, but not gory, and a great example of 19th century horror.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Texts From Jane Eyre

Texts From Jane Eyre, by Mallory Ortberg

SO FUNNY.  There, that is my opinion of this collection of texts from famous literary characters.  Mallory Ortberg writes The Toast, which I don't exactly subscribe to because there's more profanity than I like, but which I have often enjoyed perusing because it's very funny, mostly about art history, or literature, or history in general. It makes me extra happy to find humor about classic literature.

I would love to quote half this book at you but it's not easy, because it's all little texts.  But here is one installment of Edgar Allan Poe.

where are you?
where are you?
you're like two hours late
it's almost midnight
I can't get out of the house right now
Is your car blocked?
do you need a ride?
it's like
there's this bird
there's a bird on your car?
no he's sitting on my statue
it's like
mm it just keeps looking at me
got those fiery bird eyes
you know?
fired up eyebirds
you know
like how when a bird looks at you so much
that you can't leave the house
that's never happened to me
well it's happening like crazy over here
so i have to keep looking at him
it might take a while
oh and plus i fell asleep reading
i was asleep for like an hour
i literally just woke up
and now i have this bird thing to deal with
so i don't think i'm going to make it tonight
sorry hun :)

They are nearly all hysterical.  Medea is really good, and William Blake is a hoot, and HAMLET, and there's The Yellow Wallpaper which is freaky.  Also Nancy Drew!

Everybody who likes books should read it.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Last Chronicle of Barset

The Last Chronicle of Barset, by Anthony Trollope

I officially love Trollope more than Dickens.  Trollope, it seems to me, writes more about everyday things.  He is nice.  Most of the characters are trying to do right, though they often get it wrong.  Dickens gives us lily-pure heroines, super-evil villains, and memorably eccentric quirky people, and there's lots of melodrama.  Trollope shows us ordinary people: mostly pretty nice, some kind of jerks, some real cheats, but mostly good, flawed people trying to get through life.  A Trollope heroine is good and noble, but she's not perfect or improbably angelic.  A Trollope enemy is an annoying sort of person who makes you mad, but who is not evil--just really not doing well.  I think it's more realistic.  OK, there's not a lot of seamy underbelly (there is some), but does Dickens describe seamy underbelly realistically either?

Anyway.  This last Barsetshire story braids together many characters (most, I think) from earlier volumes.  There are three main plotlines:
  1. Mr. Crawley, impoverished curate of Hogglestock, is accused of stealing £20.  Young Major Grantly was just about to ask the eldest daughter Grace to marry him; what will he do now, especially since his family is against the match?  Will the Crawley family survive this disaster?  Mrs. Proudie, the bishop's wife, is determined to interfere.
  2. Lily Dale, who was jilted by Mr. Crosbie three years ago, is still single, and John Eames is still in love with her.  But he's getting tired of begging and is starting to think that maybe he ought to make one last appeal and then quit.  He's doing pretty well these days in his career; will Lily decide to marry him?
  3. John Eames' friend Conway Dalrymple, an artist, wants to paint a picture of Miss Van Siever as Jael.  He intrigues with her and one Mrs. Dobbs Broughton, to get it done.  This all happens in London and contains all the seamy underbelly stuff of the novel.  Many of these wealthy London city types are shallow and predatory of each other, and some characters get a bit more caught up in it than they ought to.  Johnny Eames is pretty vulnerable when it comes to intrigue.
That third plotline is less interesting to me than the others, actually, but there are some pretty funny moments in it too.

I thought Mr. and Mrs. Crawley were so well-drawn; their story is painful, but I couldn't put it down.  Mr. Crawley is a wonderful character.  He is a strong and intelligent man who has suffered under grinding poverty for years, doing a good job with his work, also having some intermittent mental issues because of his constant misery--and yet also, he often wallows in a self-indulgent pity-fest.  He's not a perfect martyr; he's also a regular, kind of selfish guy who has some pride issues.  His wife bears up, doing the very best she can for him, but she has a breaking point too, and where it is really surprises him.

I also love the two heroines of the novel, Grace Crawley and Lily Dale.  They are Trollope's two ideal young women (and they have their opposite number, who is really fun to read about).  What I love about them is that they are both virtuous women doing the best they can in their difficult circumstances, and they have strong senses of their own worth and dignity.  Neither of them will put up with ill treatment, nor will they deliberately do anything they feel is wrong.  They worry about their decisions, and try to act for the best, but they won't give in to pressure from others.

Now that I've finished the Barsetshire novels, I wonder what Trollope I should pick next.  Should I read the Palliser novels?  Maybe a stand-alone?  I'm also tempted to read Angela Thirkell books (again!  I have a bunch) to see what happens with their grandchildren.

Barsetshire is a fictional county, but it's pretty much Wiltshire.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Without You, There is No Us

Without You, There is No Us: My Time With the Sons of North Korea's Elite, by Suki Kim

In 2011, Suki Kim, a journalist and writer, managed to get a job at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), teaching English to the most elite young men in the country.  She did this by going undercover as a missionary, because PUST is a Christian outfit that employs missionaries as teachers.  (They can't preach or mention Jesus or anything, so it's mainly an effort to open things up a little.)  How exactly the highest echelons of North Korea came around to agreeing to have their sons educated by outsiders is a bit of a mystery, but Kim does spend a little time speculating on that.

I think this might be a unique book, though.  Not many outsiders get to see any of the higher levels of North Korean society, so I was very interested to read about Kim's experience.  At the same time, by writing the book she was not just going to anger the North Koreans, but also PUST, which relied on her agreement to confidentiality and which probably got into trouble over this.  Kim says that she has no loyalty to PUST and doesn't seem worried about that (she seems a bit offended over the existence of missionaries), but I do.  If PUST is one of the only ways the future leaders of North Korea are able to meet outsiders, is it fair to jeopardize it?  I'm not sure how I feel about the ethics of this, even as I think it's an important book to read.  At the very least, I'm bothered.

Kim starts off with her own background, which makes interesting reading much of the time.  Her own family lost members to North Korea, and she writes eloquently about the pain of never knowing what happened. 

She also writes about the difficulties of living in a closed society--so tightly supervised that she is nearly always monitored.  Teachers are mostly confined to the campus itself except for special field trips to tourist spots.  Everyday items are luxuries.  It's difficult and suffocating.  She partly reacts by obsessing too much over a romantic relationship (which is not as interesting as the rest of the book, honestly, but I can certainly understand it).

More, she writes about her students, whom she loves and thinks of as like her own children.  For children of the 21st century, they seem impossibly naive and sweet.  Having seen hardly any media, they entertain themselves by singing together and playing soccer.  They obviously miss their families terribly (living in the same city, they cannot see or visit their parents, much less friends).  At the same time, they have grown up surrounded by the cult of Kim Jong-Il, and when they are reminded of Americans, they turn very different.  Many of their friendships are assigned and involve monitoring each other. 

And at all times, they lie-- glibly and without any hesitation, both to protect each other and themselves.  Kim is hugely disturbed by this at first, but comes to realize that it must be something of a survival reflex.  To me, it seemed like many of their lies were a form of expressing their true wishes.  They would talk about the parties they attended, how they slept in late, things like that, and it sounded like they were talking about what they would have liked to do without actually coming out and saying "I sure wish I could sleep in instead of standing guard over the Kim Jong-Il building in the freezing cold at 3am."  Kim only seems to recognize this when they all insist that they will be at the bus to say goodbye when she leaves, even though everyone knows it's impossible.

Kim also eloquently talks about her doubts and difficulties in teaching the boys.  On the one hand, her instinct and desire is to push them to think, to get them to realize the incredible poverty of their minds and society.  On the other hand, if they start talking about ideas, it could easily lead straight to a prison camp or death.  These boys are privileged compared to most North Koreans, but nothing will keep them safe if they say the wrong thing.  At times she hopes that they will never, never think too much, so that they will be safe.  At others, she does push.  And she went ahead and wrote the book; though she changed names and all, I should think there would still be some danger there.

Lots to think about here.  You can also visit Kim's own website about her experience and her book.

Friday, February 13, 2015

I Mustache You Some Questions

Lory at Emerald City did this fun little meme and invited all to participate, so I thought I would. 

Four Names People Call Me Other Than My Real Name:
  1. Mom
  2. Hon
  3. Mommy --I am now out of nicknames and have to resort to...
  4. Little Toad.  This was my camp name when I was 12 or so, because one of the counselors was named Toad and we looked a lot alike.  Toad was an awesome counselor.  I was very happy to be Little Toad.
Four Jobs I’ve Had:
  1. Airplane hangar janitor (first real job! I swept airplane hangars!  It was a company that painted small planes and the areas had to be kept clean so as not to get dirt in the wet paint.)
  2. Snack bar at Camelot mini golf course
  3. Assistant at bakery -- I worked at two bakeries, one a general bread, cake, and donuts place and one a fancy wedding cake bakery.  I still don't eat donuts much.
  4. Librarian
Four movies I have watched more than once:
  1. The Secret of Roan Inish
  2. Star Wars, any of the proper trilogy (not to mention the Ewok Adventure)
  3. Veer-Zaara
  4. Ghostbusters

Four books I’d recommend:
  1.  The Great Divorce, by C. S. Lewis
  2. The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death, by Daniel Pinkwater
  3. Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
  4. My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell

Four places I have lived:
  1. Bakersfield, CA
  2. Berkeley, CA
  3. Otterup, Fyn, Denmark
  4. Santa Maria, CA  (I've been in CA my whole life except for that one year)
Four places I have been:
  1. London
  2. New York City
  3. Regensburg, Germany
  4. Bakewell, UK
Four places I’d rather be right now:
  1. London
  2. Agra
  3. St. Petersburg
  4. Dublin
Four things I don’t eat:
  1. Corndogs.  They are treacherous.
  2. Horse sausage (yes, I've tried it)
  3. Cotton candy in a plastic bag
  4. Coke
Four of my favorite foods:
  1. Chocolate
  2. Samosas
  3. Pizza
  4. Tri-tip--Santa Maria-style BBQ
Four TV shows that I watch:
  1. Red Dwarf (we just finished watching every episode, again)
  2. MST3K
  3. Doctor Who
  4. Agent Carter
Four things I am looking forward to this year (2015):
Red Dwarf
  1. Rain (I hope!) 
  2. Working on my quilt project(s)
  3. DWJ March
  4. Am considering a summer road trip to the land of tri-tip and beaches...
Four things I’m always saying:
  1.  Have you seen the book I was reading?
  2. What are you working on?  (to a kid doing schoolwork)
  3. I brought you a present! (this is usually a library book, not a present at all)
  4. Have you brushed your teeth? 
Four people I tag:
  1. I don't like tagging people.  I admit that it is silly to participate in these things and then refuse to tag people but that is how I roll.  So there.

Too Loud a Solitude

Too Loud a Solitude, by Bohumil Hrabal

Bohumil Hrabal, Czech poet and writer, was born in 1914, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, on the eve of war.  He died in 1997, about eight years after the Czech Republic cast off Communism and then split from Slovakia.  Even if he'd never moved from his hometown, he would have lived in about six different countries, I should think--or at any rate under about 8 governments.  What he must have seen in his lifetime is a bit boggling to contemplate.  He wrote Too Loud a Solitude near the end of his life, in the early 1990s, and saw it made into a movie shortly before his death in a fall from his apartment window. Hrabal is one of the major 20th-century Czech writers.

Hanta is a little man with a great inner life.  His daily work, and his artistry, are bound together--Hanta works in a basement where he is continually inundated with waste paper and trash.  His job is to run the compacting machine that packs the paper into bales, but he is always behind, because Hanta is an artist in rubbish.  Each bale is lovingly designed and packed to be just right, with a secret treasure in its heart that no one will ever see.  He also rescues many of the thousands of old books that are thrown away, and he reads great literature, storing words away in his mind and his home.  The new order of Socialism is creeping up on him and his odd little life, though, and soon he will be swept away on a tide of industrialization, forced order, and inhumanity.

Hanta's life is a continual meeting of beauty and ugliness.  He sees cruelty and blood, and also beautiful moments in the lives of the downtrodden.  He thinks amazing and wonderful thoughts even as he works in garbage.

Some quotations:
For thirty-five years now I've been in wastepaper, and it's my love story.  For thirty-five years I've been compacting wastepaper and books, smearing myself with letters until I've come to look like my encyclopedias-and a good three tons of them I've compacted over the years.  I am a jug filled with water both magic and plain; I have only to lean over and a stream of beautiful thoughts flows out of me.  My education has been so unwitting I can't quite tell which of my thoughts come from me and which from my books, but that's how I've stayed attuned to myself and the world around me for the past thirty-five years. Because when I read, I don't really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing on through the veins to the root of each blood vessel.
I was glad the Bonjour, M. Gauguin sides showed above the slats, and I hoped that everyone the truck passed would enjoy it.  As the truck drove off, the flesh flies came alive in the Saplena Street sun, swarms of blue, green, and gold flesh slies that were certainly entitled to be locked up with Paul Gauguin's Bonjour, M. Gauguin, in large crates and doused with acids and alkalis in paper mills, because those wild flies refuse to give up the idea that life is at its most beautiful in gloriously rancid, decomposing blood.
I've been compacting wastepaper for thirty-five years, a job that ought to require not only a good classical education, preferably on the university level, but also a divinity degree, because in my profession spiral and circle come together and progressus ad futurum meets regressus ad originem, and I experience it all firsthand...
Hrabal likes long sentences and longer paragraphs, with repetition of certain phrases (nearly every chapter begins with the "thirty-five years" line).  A couple of his earlier books are just one novel-length sentence. 

I liked this book a lot and I'll be planning on reading more Hrabal in the future.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Little Dorrit

I like the bricks and chains motif...
Little Dorrit, by Charles Dickens

Firstly: Dorrit is a last name.  Little Dorrit's first name is Amy.  I am probably the last person on the Internet to figure this out, but because I have actually known someone named Dorrit, and always think of it as a first name, I was quite surprised to find out otherwise.

Little Dorrit was born in Marshalsea Prison, for her father, a gentleman, is imprisoned for debt.  Most of the inmates get out sooner or later, but not Mr. Dorrit; his affairs are too complex and the amount too large for an easy solution.  So he simply lives there for 22 years, keeping up a pathetic insistence that he is a gentleman and his children should not work for a living.  Little Dorrit is the youngest and most sensitive of his children, and she works very hard to keep and comfort her selfish father.  Arthur Clennam, meanwhile, is a businessman who finds himself interested in Little Dorrit's welfare.  And then we're off on one of those twisty Dickens plots--adventure, intrigue, and strange coincidences await! 

This being a Dickens novel, we have a Cast of Thousands, many of whom are very quirky or eccentric, and a lot of subplots.  We've got the nice Meagles, their pretty but somewhat unfortunate daughter Pet, and their fiery and dissatisfied maidservant, Tattycoram (who has a very interesting plotline of her own).  The Merdles, wealthy and cold.  The frightening murderer on the run and the nice little Italian man who lives in fear of him.  Arthur's bizarre mother and household.  Even a secret twin!  One of my favorites was Clennam's former love, whom he was not allowed to marry.  The scene where they meet again for the first time in twenty years is a hoot, and I became very fond of Flora.

The story stays in London (especially Southwark, in the neighborhood of the Marshalsea) for the first half, but the second half goes travelling all the way to France and Italy.

I quite enjoyed Little Dorrit, and would like to see the TV series, but since I hardly ever get around to watching things like that it might be a while.  I am not good at TV these days.  I am finding, though, that Dickens is not my favorite.  He is fine and good, but reading an 800-page Dickens novel is a slightly daunting prospect when compared with reading a similar amount of Trollope, who I am finding to be more truly enjoyable.

Marshalsea Prison  (it's long gone now)

Since Little Dorrit is exclusively set in London and Southwark as far as England goes, it will count for London.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

A little general update

I haven't had a ton to post about lately, because I've been trying to read too many books at once.  They are all so great and I want to read them ALL, but the result is that I don't finish any in anything resembling a reasonable amount of time.  I had a couple of really short novels--I'm talking 100 pages here--and I was finding that I'd read, say, a paragraph a day for 4 days because every time I picked one up I'd promptly get pulled off to do something else.

I really do have a wonderful pile of books, and more to come.  At work, I'm now purchasing for the language and literature collection, and one thing I've been doing is buying a lot of world literature.  This is both good for the collection and deliriously fun, and there are quite a few titles that I want to read.  It's hard work to limit myself and not just check them all out at once, but that would not be fair.

A favorite character in a favorite cartoon!
Over the weekend, I went on a little roadtrip (and incidentally got some reading in, since I wasn't doing the driving!).  I went to see a dramatic production of C. S. Lewis' book The Great Divorce, which is one of my favorite books ever.  It was quite interesting, with three actors doing all the parts.  I enjoyed a lot of it.  I did feel like it was sometimes a little overly dramatic, but that's theater for you.  Any play I produced would be boring, probably.  Anyway, it was neat to see, and if you should get the chance, it's well worth going.  I think I'll have to re-read the book, again...

Thanks to the hours in the car, I now actually have several neat books to post about, but you might have to be patient with me.  I'm going to be working extra hours for the next few weeks and might not get to the blog as much as I'd like.  I've got all sorts of things to tell you about, though, so stay tuned.

Three Men in a Boat

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), by Jerome K. Jerome

I enjoyed Connie Willis' To Say Nothing of the Dog so much that I promptly needed to read Three Men in a Boat too.  I had a lot of fun with it!  It's a great little relaxing and funny read.

J. and his two friends need a break from the turmoil of life, so they decide to take two weeks on the river.  They will hire a boat and go up the Thames, camping or staying at inns and enjoying the open air and scenery.  So off they go, traveling from the edge of London to Oxford, having adventures on the way.

Jerome is just a really funny writer.  It's great stuff.  He takes a camping trip and turns it into immortal literature.   Here's a bit on the awkwardness of staying in a house where there is a courting couple...

It must have been much like this when that foolish boy Henry VIII was courting his little Anne.  People in Buckinghamshire would have come upon them unexpectedly when they were mooning round Windsor and Wraysbury, and have exclaimed, “Oh! you here!” and Henry would have blushed and said, “Yes; he’d just come over to see a man;” and Anne would have said, “Oh, I’m so glad to see you!  Isn’t it funny?  I’ve just met Mr. Henry VIII. in the lane, and he’s going the same way I am.”
Then those people would have gone away and said to themselves: “Oh! we’d better get out of here while this billing and cooing is on.  We’ll go down to Kent."

And they would go to Kent, and the first thing they would see in Kent, when they got there, would be Henry and Anne fooling round Hever Castle.

“Oh, drat this!” they would have said.  “Here, let’s go away.  I can’t stand any more of it.  Let’s go to St. Albans—nice quiet place, St. Albans.”
And when they reached St. Albans, there would be that wretched couple, kissing under the Abbey walls.  Then these folks would go and be pirates until the marriage was over.
Every so often, Jerome stops being funny and puts in some philosophy or sentiment.  In these spots, he writes the kind of prose that only a Victorian could possibly have written.  I do not say it is bad prose; it's just really, really Victorian.  I tried quoting some, but you'll just have to read it in context.

I've now made something of a triangle.  I read Have Spacesuit, Will Travel last month, and in it, Kip's dad reads Three Men in a Boat and talks about how great it is.  Connie Willis read it for that reason, and dedicated To Say Nothing of the Dog to Heinlein.  Neat, huh?

I traced the Thames from London to Oxford.  To me, it looks really long and far for a rowing trip.  They do have a sail every so often, but I can't quite understand how they can possibly get so far while rowing upstream.  If some English person could enlighten me I would be grateful.  Anyway, the majority of the trip is spent in Berkshire, so that's where I'm counting this book.