Friday, October 30, 2015

We Believe the Children

We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s, by Richard Beck

Readers who were around in the mid-80s may remember that a lot of people were worried about Satanic ritual abuse of children, particularly preschool-aged children in daycare.  Some daycares were accused of being centers of ritual abuse; the children were interrogated, evidence searched for, and a lot of people went to jail.    This was big stuff, people.

And it was almost entirely made up.  These huge, publicized cases were sparked by one person worried about a child--in at least one case, by a person with severe mental problems--and blew up into hysteria.  Almost certainly, some children who had actually been subjected to abuse were lost under the mountain of false conjecture and panic that mounted up.

Richard Beck has written up a history of the most publicized cases in which he also tries to explain--not really very satisfactorily--why this all happened.  I think that's the question we'd all like an answer for, but I'm not sure there is one.

Therapists and police questioned children--well, what they really seem to have done is badgered the kids until they gave in and made stuff up.  The rallying cry was "we believe the children," but the children were only believed if they produced elaborate stories that confirmed what the authorities thought.  The short excerpts of transcripts included in the book are awful to read, because it's so obvious that there is bullying and leading going on.  The scarier and more elaborate the stories, the more approval the children received, and so they came up with lots of amazing stuff (that would, incidentally, never fit into the few hours they spent at preschool; one kid said he'd been taken out of state in a plane).

Everybody went and searched for evidence--remains of sacrificed animals or babies, underground tunnels, elaborate costumes, weapons, and collections--and there was nothing.

The court cases dragged on for years and ruined quite a few lives; not only for the accused, but for many others too.  Imagine being a jury member!  Eventually much of it collapsed and some people were acquitted.  Others went to jail but were eventually cleared, or perhaps went free but remained registered as offenders.  Still others remain in jail today.

Still, it became an article of faith for many people that ritual abuse was a real thing that happened to children; I can recall that some adults I knew considered it to be a reasonable thing to fear.  The daycare panic led straight into the recovered-memory phenomenon of the 90s, in which adults went under hypnosis to recall their own ritual abuse as small children, this time usually perpetrated by their families.  Recovered-memory therapists considered almost anything to be evidence of repressed memories of abuse (thinking you had not been abused was one indicator) and this abuse was almost always supposed to be elaborately Satanic.  There was also a slightly less major panic about teens getting into Satanism and murdering people, often in obedience to death-metal bands.

Beck gives some fascinating description of all this.  He also delves into some history of psychotherapy, which I at least found helpful and relevant, especially in regards to multiple personality disorder.  He does also have an obvious bias, though, blaming all this hysteria on an anti-feminism backlash to the chaos of the 60s and 70s, and on the toxic nuclear family.  It becomes really obvious that he doesn't like the nuclear family one bit, though I'm unclear about what he'd like to replace it with...or really, several other things about his theories.  That's by far the weakest part of the book.

So here is the personal part.  I was very interested in this book, and in the whole issue of the ritual abuse panics, because I knew some people who believed it.  Reading this book was a very strange experience in some ways, really--it turns out that the first case started in Bakersfield, where we lived when I was a kid; we moved away just as it broke in the media.  (My mom says she read the accusations, but thought that nobody must know much about how preschools work--it all sounded so impractical.)

Much more to the point, when I was a teen, a family I knew fairly well believed that their youngest child had been subjected to Satanic abuse.  I never heard anything about a court case or publicity.  But I heard the story from the mother herself, and I believed her.  (I'll always tell you that my hometown contains a remarkably high percentage of really crazy things, and I can think of other moms who I would not have believed, but I considered her to be a sensible person.)  They moved and did not tell anyone where they went, but for at least the next 15 years, they continued to move periodically, believing that a network of Satanists were persecuting them.  I have no idea what to make of this now.  I've been wondering about it for a good ten years.  What was the real story there?

I, um, also managed to be a bit acquainted with a kid who actually was involved in a Satanic murder.  Reading this book made me realize that probably not everybody has these weirdo experiences in their background; I'd never really thought about it before.

So: read up on a strange chapter of recent American history, mentally argue (or agree if you want) with Beck's reasoning, and please comment below if you remember this happening.  Tell me I'm not the only one!

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Classics Club Event: Women's Lit in 2016

...or now, really.  The Classics Club is running a long-term event/celebration on great literature by women.  And there's a questionnaire and all!  So I don't know that I'll point it out every single time I read a classic work by a female-type person, but at the very least I'll answer these questions and talk about it every so often.  My first post for this event was Wives and Daughters the other day!  It took me a while to get all this stuff written out.

  1. Introduce yourself. Tell us what you are most looking forward to in this event.  I'm Jean, I'm a librarian and sewist and homeschooling mom, and I will most enjoy reading others' posts about women in literature.
  2. Have you read many classics by women? Why or why not?  Yes.  The fact is that I gravitate towards women writers anyway; this is not exactly an event that will push me out of my comfort zone.  Maybe I will search out lesser-known works or something.
  3. Pick a classic female writer you can’t wait to read for the event, & list her date of birth, her place of birth, and the title of one of her most famous works.  Let's go with Elizabeth Gaskell, because I read Wives and Daughters this week!  Mrs. Gaskell was born in Chelsea near London, and lived from 1810-1865.  I think she is most famous for North and South, a lovely novel about a refined rural Kentish girl who goes to live in an industrial Northern city.  Wives and Daughters is her crowning achievement, but is also unfinished, as she died before it could be completed.  It's almost done though.
  4. Think of a female character who was represented in classic literature by a male writer. Does she seem to be a whole or complete woman? Why or why not? Tell us about her. (Without spoilers, please!) I guess that depends on which heroine you choose, hm?  Let's go with Isabel Archer, the subject of Henry James' Portrait of a Lady.  I think Isabel counts as a whole person, as in, she is a fully-rounded out and complex character who is as realistic as any of James' -- or literature's -- characters.  (Is a whole woman different than a whole person?  What is a whole woman?)  Isabel is an American lady who travels to England, charms every man she meets, and eventually chooses to marry an awful fellow who lives in Rome and collects beautiful objects (such as Isabel).
  5. Favorite classic heroine? (Why? Who wrote her?)  I'm such a cliche; I love Jane Eyre best, by Charlotte Bronte.  She is just so principled and independent and stubborn about it.  
  6. We’d love to help clubbers find great titles by classic female authors. Can you recommend any sources for building a list? (Just skip this question if you don’t have any at this point.)  I can only recommend looking at blogs, usually but not always by other Clubbers.  In fact I suppose if you looked over my "Index of Reviewed Books" (which is months behind reality) in the literature section, you could find some.
  7. Recommend three books by classic female writers to get people started in this event. (Again, skip over this if you prefer not to answer.)  Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte (lesser known, but a great book, and then move on to the utterly fabulous Tenant of Wildfell Hall); The Book of the City of Ladies, by Christine de Pisan, one of my all-time favorite medieval works; and 
  8. Will you be joining us for this event immediately, or will you wait until the new year starts?  I was already starting Mrs. Gaskell's Wives and Daughters, so I guess I have joined.
  9. Do you plan to read as inspiration pulls, or will you make out a preset list?  Inspiration!  At least until I've finished my current CC list, which has a lot left on it and I'm nervous about getting done in time (for me, March 2017).
  10. Are you pulling to any particular genres? (Letters, journals, biographies, short stories, novels, poems, essays, etc?)  Hm, letters sounds fun!  Probably mostly novels and essays.
  11. Are you pulling to a particular era or location in literature by women?  Era, not really.  I'll take whatever comes along.  I do prefer to seek out literature from other places and languages.
  12. Do you hope to host an event or readalong for the group? No worries if you don’t have details. We’re just curious!  If I can think of a good one, I would be quite happy to.
  13. Is there an author or title you’d love to read with a group or a buddy for this event? Sharing may inspire someone to offer.  Gosh, I don't know, but I'd be happy to participate in a group read for anything long or intimidating.
  14. Share a quote you love by a classic female author — even if you haven’t read the book yet. I finally actually did read the source for a general favorite.  In Louisa May Alcott's Work, the heroine falls asleep in her servant garret while reading and leaves her candle alight, against house rules.  It sets fire to her clothing hanging nearby.  Her employers arrive home and run into her room just in time to prevent the fire from really getting going.  Christie, meanwhile, awoken by yelling to see all her clothing aflame, gets a little hysterical and laughs.  Her mistress cries:  "She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain!"
  15. Finally, ask the question you wish this survey had asked, & then answer it.  This was pretty thorough!

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Monkalong V: The Deadening

Mission accomplished!  We've finished The Monk!  At least, I hope you have; I know I did.  Here's
the final installment:

We last left Ambrosio in the now-familiar crypt, where he has interred Antonia.  Everybody thinks she's dead, and he plans to keep her imprisoned in a dungeon where she can be his slave.  He thinks she will probably enjoy it!  Antonia wakes up, and surprise, she is not very happy with her situation.  Ambrosio, monster that he is, therefore goes ahead and rapes her.  Of course then he looks at her with revulsion and blames her for the whole thing--yes, according to him, it is Antonia's fault that Ambrosio is a depraved criminal.  He's trying to figure out how to get rid of her when Matilda bursts in with the news about the burning nunnery and everyone running around like mad.

Matilda offers to kill Antonia to get her out of the way, but Antonia manages to run away into the rest of the crypt, where she screams to attract attention.  Unfortunately Ambrosio gets to her first and stabs her, so that Lorenzo only finds his true love near death.  She does get to explain, so he knows all--and discovers both the monk and Matilda, who is a girl!  Off to the Inquisition with them!

Now Virginia and Agnes are spending a lot of time together, and Agnes tells the story of her imprisonment, which is pretty grim.  She and Raymond get married; Virginia and Lorenzo get to be very good friends and will marry sometime; and the other two are being put to the question in prison. 

Well, Ambrosio is.  Matilda appears to him in a vision, looking ravishingly beautiful, and announces that she has escaped by selling her soul to Satan.  If he does too, they can be together!  Ambrosio hesitates, but in the end he is too much of a coward to face his punishment.  Just before he's taken to execution, he makes a pact with Satan, who whisks him off to a cliff...and then reveals, in a speech in the best Evil Villain tradition, that a) Matilda was a demon sent to tempt him (and "scarcely could I propose crimes so quick as you performed them"), b) Elvira was his mother and Antonia his sister, and c) now he's going to die and go to Hell, since he forgot to stipulate anything about living once he'd escaped from prison.  The joke's on you, Ambrosio!  The end.

Well, that was a story that, taken all together, was pretty dang crazy.  Unhinged, in fact.  Thanks a bunch to Alice at Reading Rambo for hosting, because that was quite fun in a deranged sort of way.  Ambrosio is THE WORST.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Wives and Daughters

Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell

This novel has been on my pile all year. I wanted to read it for the Back to the Classics Challenge.       A couple of weeks ago, I was going to spend several hours on a bus, and I needed some nice wholesome reading to pass the time. Wives and Daughters seemed the perfect choice, and it turned out lovely.

Molly Gibson is the village doctor's daughter, and she's been raised very simply (this is in the 1830s).  When she is seventeen, her father starts worrying that he can't chaperone or guide her properly, and so he marries a pretty, insinuating widow who is in fact shallow, manipulative, and selfish.  Molly does her best to get along with her new stepmother, but it's a continual struggle.

Her comfort is her new stepsister, Cynthia, who is charming and sophisticated, having grown up largely in French boarding schools.  The two become very close, but Molly does not always understand what Cynthia is up to and she insists on becoming involved in Cynthia's 'scrape' with a man who won't leave her alone.  It is Molly's reputation that suffers.

Sadly, the novel is not quite finished.  It appeared serially in Cornhill Magazine, and Mrs. Gaskell died before completing it, though only the final wrapping-up remains.  It's clear enough what Molly's fate will be, but I wish we could really read it.

It's a wonderful novel that explores the difficulties (and joys) of family relationships, especially where mothers and sisters are involved--very nuanced, careful, and realistic.

Mrs. Gaskell also spends a lot of time dividing the world into two sorts of people.  It's actually easiest to make two lists.  Things Mrs. Gaskell doesn't really approve of include: finicking snobbery or aristocracy, fancy poetry, old-school education in the classics and nothing else, hatred for the French, overzealous love of all things French, and over-interest in fripperies and dress.  Things Mrs. Gaskell does approve of include: plain English sense, science and mathematics, interest in the wider world, progress, simple dress, straightforward friendship with the French, interest in the poor, and plain English sense.  (Did I mention plain English sense?)

One thing that really comes home to the modern reader is how incredibly narrow and confined village life was, before fast transportation and communication made it easier to escape.  These people--well, most especially the women--are always with each other; the average day involves spending most of the waking hours with each other.  Only visits to other local residents, equally well-known, offer relief.  In the several years of the novel, Molly's stepmother leaves home for a visit to another city once.  To Mrs. Gaskell, this was normal life (though she emphasizes that Molly's stepmother, being a selfish woman, keeps Molly at her beck and call more than is normal).  To us, it sounds horribly confining, no matter how much we love our families.

Molly's town, like Cranford, is based on Mrs. Gaskell's home of Knutsford in Cheshire

I actually have a whole bunch of books to write up, and the Classics Club is having a celebration....there is all sorts of stuff to post about.  But I've been staying very strictly off the computer because of sore arms.  They're a lot better now, but I'm still going to stop typing before they start again.  I'll just have to wait.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Classics Club Spin: A Bend in the River

A Bend in the River, by V. S. Naipaul

This was my Classics Club Spin title!  V. S. Naipaul is a British writer, born in Trinidad, who started off writing Trinidad-based novels and moved to international waters.  He's pretty international himself, being of Nepalese descent by way of India and Trinidad.  He has won a Booker Prize, a Nobel, and a knighthood.

A Bend in the River, published in 1979, describes ordinary life in modern, post-colonial Africa through the eyes of one man.  He does little himself; he is an observer of the events around him.  The location is deliberately general; it's not too far from Uganda and South Africa, and inland, so I guessed at western Tanzania, but the point is that it's Post-Colonial Anywhere, Africa.  The colonial government is gone, there has been violence, and now a new president promises a new life, but he progresses from popular leader to tyrant.  Naipaul shows us what that looks like for the ordinary people of a small town.

The narrator, Salim, is an outsider.  He is part of a once-wealthy Arabic family that has lived on the east coast of Africa for generations; they are acclimated, but not fully African.  Salim seeks his fortune by purchasing a general store; the inland town at the bend of the river has been destroyed by the violence accompanying independence and the ejection of European officials, but it's a natural trading location and he can expect the business to revive over time.  So at first he's living in a burned-out wasteland with just a few other inhabitants, but he ekes out a living selling useful items to the villagers who come down the river to trade.

As the town slowly revives and grows, Salim gets to know people at all levels of society.  Each of the new president's actions have a strong effect on the town as he establishes a college, or brings in military troops, and so on.  Salim is introduced to Raymond, a European scholar of Africa who has been serving as an advisor to the president but is now being shoved to the side.  Raymond has studied and written on important African issues for years, but Salim comes to realize that he only understands the top layer of events--what the newspapers spin--and has no idea what people truly think or feel.  Salim is an outsider, but he's a lot closer in than Raymond, who doesn't really understand anything at all.

As the country's condition deteriorates and violence revisits Salim's town, he remains passive.  Salim almost never does anything himself; he simply watches.

It's an interesting novel, very 70s.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Monkalong IV

There's only one more week in our Monkalong event! This week ended in a real cliffhanger so I can't wait to finish the book. But meanwhile, on with our story....

Raymond and Lorenzo are so busy trying to find Agnes that they totally neglect to pay any attention to Antonia and Elvira. This is a bit unfortunate, because Ambrosio is doing some plotting. He's got this magic myrtle branch that the Devil gave him to get into Antonia's room. There is a very suspenseful section where he magically enters the apartment and gets into Antonia's locked room, and he's looking at her and he's about to make his move. But! Elvira has been on the watch. She is the only competent adult around here. Her only flaw is that she keeps failing to tell Antonia the facts about Ambrosio, or any facts in general. Antonia needs to know these things, and her ignorance is not helping her!

So Elvira interrupts Ambrosio, and she announces her plan to expose his hypocrisy to the world. We figure Ambrosio is actually her son, but he doesn't know this and he murders Elvira. Horrified, he leaves her corpse on the floor and flees away. The next morning, when Antonia wakes, she finds her dead mother on the floor. But everyone assumes that Elvira has died of her illness, and so no one suspects a murder. Antonia collapses anyway, and succumbs to a bout of brain fever, or whatever the 18th century equivalent of brain fever was.  (According to the Monk, illness is largely a result of emotional distress.)  She is now completely friendless and penniless, while Lorenzo and Raymond are both out of town. Not only that, Ambrosio is still plotting away, only temporarily daunted by his crime.    

After some recovery time, Antonia visits her mother's empty chamber, reads some ghost poetry and gets scared. Just then her dead mother visits her in a highly spooky manner and announces that in only three days, they will be together again! Ominous.

Ambrosio, a man of but one thought, uses this as an excuse to spend the night at the house, where he gives Antonia some poison that will make her look dead. Antonia is interred - surprise! - in the crypt under the monastery, and Ambrosio impatiently awaits her awakening.

Meanwhile, in other news, a nun has passed a message to Lorenzo that she has terrible information for him. In the middle of a fancy Catholic procession, Lorenzo and Raymond grab the prioress and the nun tells her story to an enthralled public - which is of the deliberate murder of poor Agnes! The crowd riots, pounding the evil prioress to a jelly and then getting completely out of control.

Lorenzo runs off to the nunnery to save the innocent nuns from getting murdered in the riot.  He gets caught in a fire and winds up down in the crypt--the same one Ambrosio is in, but they don't seem to run into each other.  It's the world's biggest and most labyrinthine crypt. He hears the same forlorn voice that Ambrosio heard so many weeks ago, but  Lorenzo is no superstitious coward like everybody else in this story, and so he finds his way down to a dungeon, where he discovers Agnes and her newly dead baby. So Agnes is not dead after all! But she is starving and sick. In all the tumult Lorenzo particularly notices another lovely young woman, Virginia, and it's emphasized that if Antonia had not already captured his heart, he would have fallen in love with Virginia. I think we know where that's going.

So this installment of the month has included secret messages, improbably elaborate Catholic processions, a terrifying ghost, some terrible poetry, and a scary secret dungeon, complete with fancy secret entrance. And demonic magic. Can't wait to finish this next week!

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

The Thrilling Adventures of  Lovelace and Babbage: the (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer, by Sydney Padua

I should have written this post for Ada Lovelace Day last week, but I've been having some trouble with my arms and repetitive stress. So I've been putting off writing any posts. I'm now experimenting with voice recognition on my tablet, and I'm pretty impressed by how well it works. I could type these posts - I'm not that badly off - but I need to save my typing for work. Of course, the voice recognition doesn't work anywhere near perfectly, but I can get a good amount of material down and then go back and edit it by hand.

The author of this graphic novel says that she wrote one comic for fun and then responded to popular demand by producing the entire work. It is a whole lot of fun to read. Padua posits that Ada Lovelace did not die at a young age, but survived, built the Difference Engine with Babbage, and then had some wild adventures with it. The book claims that they all live in a tiny pocket universe. This allows the author to play with time and history, bringing people like George Eliot in to the comic. Everybody in Victorian England seems to have known everybody else anyway; it's exactly how like today there are only about 10 British actors and they are all in everything. So you can find letters where Dickens tells a funny anecdote about Babbage, and someone else mentions lady Lovelace.

There are several adventures collected into the graphic novel, such as when Queen Victoria visits, the time when George Eliot's latest masterpiece was ripped to shreds, and my favorite episode: the day that Mr. Boole came to tea--librarians will rejoice. The author puts in lots and lots of fun footnotes explaining the history, who knew Babbage and Lovelace (everybody), and bits and bobs about other memorable Victorian characters. I also love how Wellington keeps showing up, always with his horse, even though they are indoors. It's a very funny graphic novel, and anyone with nerdly predilections would love it.  Thanks to my mom for making me read it!

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Hand of a Great Master

The Hand of a Great Master, by Konstanineh Gamsakhardia

When I was reading Eight Pieces of Empire a little while ago, the author mentioned that Georgians place a great value on their literature. He mentioned one of their favorite national authors, Konstanineh Gamsakhurdia, and I thought I would like to read one of his books. The particular book I was looking for doesn't seem to be available in English. In fact, I could only find one book that had been translated into English at all. And so I read that. I got it through InterLibrary Loan, and it came all the way from Kansas. It was kind of a cool book, since it was printed in Moscow in 1962. As far as I can tell, it's the only time Gamsakhurdia has been printed in English.     
Svetitskhoveli Cathedral

The Hand of a Great Master is historical fiction, set an 11th century Georgia. It deals with the construction of the great Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, which still exists today. Although the story seems to spend most of its time focused on the king, Georgi I, he is actually the antagonist of the novel. The hero is young Konstantineh Arsakhidse, the builder of the cathedral, who is in love with Shorena, the daughter of a rebel duke. The king wishes to marry her himself.

The names in the story are quite difficult for an English speaker, and I sometimes had a hard time telling everyone apart because of that. There is a lot of very interesting stuff about the different Georgian factions; it's a tiny country, yet it has many different groups who dress and live differently, and who are not necessarily friendly to one another. And their names are quite hard to pronounce too; one of the main groups is the Pkhovians, and if anyone can tell me how to pronounce that I would really like to know.

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, inside

It was an interesting novel to read, about a time and place I know nothing about, and I wish I could get hold of more books by Gamsakhurdia, especially the one I was hoping to find in the first place, which has a title something like The Smile of Dionysus.  He didn't always (or even usually) write romantic historical fiction, I don't think; usually he was criticizing the Soviets or something.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Fellowship

The Fellowship: the Literary Lives of the Inklings, by Philip and Carol Zaleski

The Zaleskis have written a sort of group biography of the four main Inklings: C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Owen Barfield.  They only touch very lightly on other members of the group, and really Lewis and Tolkien take up the lion's share of the space.

 The subjects are tackled sort of chronologically, so you skip between childhoods and educations.  If you are already a big Lewis/Tolkien fan, you will know quite a bit of the material, but the Zaleskis have a solid common-sense approach to the wishes and speculations that have built up around the two in the last 50 years or so, which is a nice help.

Where I mostly learned a lot was in the material about Barfield and Williams.  I've read some of their writings, so I was not totally unfamiliar with them, but I didn't know much.  Barfield was a talented man whose talents were not what people wanted.  For one thing, he was an enthusiastic follower of Rudolf Steiner* and Anthroposophy and he wanted to share those insights with an uninterested world.  Poor Barfield also spent much of his adult life trapped (as he saw it) working in a law office, which he mostly hated.

Charles Williams--well, I knew he was kind of an oddball, but wow.  He had some issues!  Williams was quite a strange person, charismatic, high-strung, manic, and troubled.  He invented some very interesting theology and Lewis had a tendency to think that he was more amazing than he actually was.  I liked the Zaleskis' descriptions of his novels as "highbrow pulp**," which is pretty good, and of his poetry as often "a nearly impenetrable thicket of obscurities."

The Zaleskis also take a good look at the Inklings' place in literature and history.  Christians all, they fostered something of a revival, but they also garnered a good deal of scorn from those who thought they were too escapist.  The authors reply:
Yet although the Inklings were guilty of the heresy of the Happy Ending, they were not optimists; they were war writers who understood that sacrifices must be made and that not all wounds will be healed in this life.  Their belief in the Happy Ending was compatible with considerable anguish and uncertainty here below.  One may be as gloomy as Puddleglum or as convinced as Frodo that "All my choices have proved ill" without losing hope in a final redemption.
It's a very interesting book and I enjoyed it quite a bit.  But it's huge and fairly exhaustive, so most likely only big Inklings fans will want to read it.

 *The only remnant of Steiner's teachings you will find in the popular realm today is Waldorf education.  But Steiner was a hugely prolific writer/philosopher, and wrote about all sorts of things, from dance to Lemuria and Atlantis to the nature of the universe.

**A phrase which reminds me of that movie, Dead Again, with a cast of highbrow British actors and a B-movie plot.

Monkalong III

It's Thursday morning and that means it's time for another dose of Monkly insanity! 

When we last left the actual monk two weeks ago, he had succumbed to the charms of Matilda.   It turns out that she isn't quite cured from snake venom though, and she has to go perform some secret rites down in the crypt that is shared with the nunnery, which for some reason Ambrosio isn't all that worried about.  He doesn't think "Gee, secret rites down in the crypt sounds kind of skeevy, maybe that could be a problem?"  He does get quite scared--he's worried enough, waiting in the dark on his own, that the sound of somebody crawling around and begging for mercy is only scary and then forgotten.  (Who could it be??  It's obviously poor Agnes, left to starve in an oubliette crypt.)  Even Matilda doesn't think much of her chicken-livered boyfriend.

Now they can embark on a life of secret lust!  Ambrosio is kind of worried about getting caught, but otherwise, as long as he can have a secret girlfriend in the abbey, he's pretty happy.  He simply redoubles his public piety and figures he has plenty of time to repent.

He is happy for a week. 

Less than a week, actually!  It takes Ambrosio less than a week to get tired of Matilda's charms!  Pretty soon he's avoiding her and checking out every other lady that comes along.  And who should come along for a visit but innocent little Antonia, asking him to pray for her sick mother! 

Antonia is awfully pretty, and for a moment Ambrosio feels respect and tenderness toward her because she's so innocent and modest, but before the day is out he's decided a) to break his vow and sneak out of the abbey to visit her, b) that he just has to get Antonia into his clutches.  So he starts visiting Elvira every day so he can talk with Antonia and convince her to sleep with him.  Antonia is too naive to understand what he's after, but Elvira figures it out and sets him up to get caught manhandling the girl (which seems pretty tough on Antonia!) so she can tell him to hit the road.

Foiled, Ambrosio boils with rage.  He's angry enough to listen to Matilda when she explains that she knows how to summon demons and has been spying on him this whole time, so she knows what he wants and is willing to help him get it.  Together they conjure up Lucifer himself, who agrees to give Ambrosio the means to sneak into Antonia's bedroom.

I like how Matilda helps him out, and then makes sure to tell Ambrosio that he's too weak and cowardly to summon demons himself.

This was a really short section.  Plenty happened, though.  Poor Antonia is going to suffer.  Agnes is suffering.  Even Matilda doesn't get to keep her boyfriend.  Being a girl in this novel kind of stinks.

Monday, October 12, 2015

R. I. P. X: The Martian

The Martian, by Andy Weir

 My husband and 15yo child told me I had to read this book right away, as soon as possible.  "But it's RIP right now!" I protested.  "I'm trying to focus on scary books!" 
"The Martian is scary," they pointed out. 
"It's supposed to be more like Gothic or horror," I explained.  "It's called Readers Imbibing Peril." 
"There is peril on every page!  He spends the whole time in peril!" they said. 
Well, that was pretty convincing.  So my final RIP title is  The Martian.

In the near future, NASA is sending manned expeditions to Mars.  It takes a really long time to get to Mars!    During the Ares III expedition, a month-long mission is cut short by a bad storm.  As the astronauts struggle toward the module that will take them back into space, the most junior member of the team is struck by flying debris and thrown out of sight.  His biometric systems all show him to be dead.  The team has to give up the search and leave without him, but Mark Watney is alive.

Once Watney wakes up, he realizes what's gone wrong--and that if he can figure out how to survive for four years, he could meet the next Mars expedition at their landing site.  Watney is an engineer and botanist, so he starts working on one problem at a time.  Water.  Food.  Communications.  And every day, Mars does its best to kill him.

 This is a great, exciting SF novel.  Everything in it is carefully researched and possible; Weir got all the orbits right and everything.  There is a lot of engineering talk, which you can enjoy or kind of skim.  Watney is a fun guy who is easy to root for; Weir does not go all dark and psychological in his book.  I suspect that in order to have the story work at all, you have to make your survivor an extremely stable personality with a penchant for jokes.  He does take care to point out that any astronaut chosen for a long-term mission would have to be like that, so it's not totally out there, and it lets Weird focus on the survival stuff.

It's hard to put down once you get into it, which is pretty quickly.  About 30 pages from the end I started begging my teen to just reassure me of Watney's survival.  She wouldn't.

I really enjoyed it, it's exciting and fun, and incidentally I learned a lot about Mars.  I haven't seen the movie yet, but we do plan to go.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Bright Continent

The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa, by Dayo Olopade

I'm a teensy bit behind on actual book reviews!  My desk is not happy with me because it's weighed down by too many books.  I've been trying to stay off the computer lately.  I hope I haven't forgotten everything I wanted to say about this book!

Dayo Olopade was raised largely in the US, but also spent lots of time visiting family in her parents' home country of Nigeria, and this gives her a good on-the-ground perspective for her subject.  Her thesis, pretty much, is that most African governments are so corrupt and incompetent that their main function is to impede, rather than facilitate, civil society.  Therefore, traditional models of aid have largely either been useless or damaging; and who says Africa needs tons of Western aid that may not fit actual needs, anyway?  Africa's largest resource is its own people, and far from being helpless victims of fate, they are excelling at making something from very little.  Spontaneous wealth production and change is happening at the grass-roots level, and we ought to pay attention.

This is a fantastic thesis, and I was prepared to love the book.  And overall I  liked it very much.  Olopade organizes her massively sprawling subject by dividing life into "maps" that each get a chapter: family, nature, young people, technology, and so on.  Given that she's covering most of a continent (she is focused on sub-Saharan Africa), it's impossible to do more than touch on various interesting stories here and there, so sometimes it feels kind of random and scattershot. 

The stories are fascinating, though!  I spent a lot of time picking out little bits to read to my husband.  I already knew, for example, that cell phones have enabled poor populations without infrastructure to leap ahead; individuals can save a lot of time and maximize profit by, for example, calling around to figure out which market would be the best choice on a given day.  I did not know that cell phones have become a way to save money, buy and sell, and even bank.  People are developing apps that work even on something like what I still have--a dumb phone on which I pre-pay minutes as I need them--and which are very popular in Africa.

An interesting thing about Olopade, though, is that she sounds like she's discovering the goods of a free market even as she is writing.  She often reports on basic principles in breathless terms as though they are new.  It's sort of fascinating to watch:
In the marketplace, social differences is perhaps Africa's only universal language.  It creates and reinforces social ties and provides an alternative to state-citizen relationships... (p 127) have the advantage of reflecting the real values of individuals and groups in a way aid does not.  Markets generate a built-in opportunity for ordinary people to express choice.  Consumers and partners are equal partners in transactions; as we've seen, donors and recipients are not.  (p 128-9)

Well, yes. 

Interesting book!  Worth reading!  And has lots of good information on why Africa is not hopelessly doomed to eternal poverty.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Monkalong II

People, I have had a DAY.  I've been looking forward to writing this post, which was due this morning, but life happened instead.  Speaking of which, Don Raymond has been having a lot of life too!  So on to our story.

This ENTIRE section of the novel--about 130 pages out of 400+ -- has been Don Raymond explaining to Don Lorenzo how he just happened to get Agnes the nun pregnant.  Remember Agnes the nun?  Lorenzo, her brother, demands a good explanation or else.  So Raymond goes into this incredibly long story:

He traveled around Europe under an assumed name so nobody would suck up to him or rob him for being a noble.  In a forest, he gets into trouble with some banditti!  (Banditti must have been much more exciting to 18th-century novel readers than they are to me.)  This other duchess lady is in trouble too, and Raymond saves her.  Though not all his servants--they all die.  Anyway, the duchess is grateful and invites Raymond to stay, whereupon he meets Agnes.

Agnes is doomed to nunhood by her superstitious parents (all the heroes of the novel scorn superstition, by which they mean being a devout Catholic.  As we know, English Gothic novels are mostly extremely anti-Catholic!), but she falls in love with Raymond instead.  This part gets really goofy.  Agnes sneaks out to meet Raymond and promises to elope with him as long as he promises to respect her honor until they can get married.  But she is going to sneak back in to her castle and then sneak out again later; she can't run away right now for some unexplained reason.  She has a cunning, complicated plan in which she will dress up as the Bleeding Nun, which is the family ghost.  Thus disguised, she will be able to walk right out of the castle!

Raymond waits outside at the appointed time.  The Nun shows up, and off they go.  But there's storms and lightning and the horses freak out and they crash!  This is because the Nun isn't Agnes at all; it's the actual Bleeding Nun, but Raymond doesn't know that (because, of course, she's wearing a veil.  All these veils are very exasperating.  How on earth is a woman running away in the dark supposed to see where she's going if she's wearing a veil anyway?).  This winds up kind of taking the insanity out of the story; he's eloping with a ghost nun!!  But that does not become clear for a long time, until he recovers from his injuries and she starts haunting him.  The Wandering Jew (!!) shows up and gets rid of her.

Meanwhile, Agnes got delayed and didn't find her lover waiting for her, and got caught.  So she figures she's been abandoned and she might as well be a nun after all.

(This is still Raymond's explanation, by the way.)

Crushed, Raymond returns to Madrid.  Agnes is a nun, but where?  He finally figures out where she is and gets a job as a gardener.  He gets hold of Agnes, they reconcile, and start meeting.  They plan to elope, again!  (Oh, by the way, this exact thing is what made the Bleeding Nun a ghost; she abandoned her vows.)  One night while planning, they get a little hot and heavy and forget themselves in a moment of passion.  Either that or Raymond flat-out forces himself upon Agnes, it's completely unclear.  Afterwards Agnes regrets everything and tells Raymond to go away forever.  Until months later, when she gets a letter to him.  She nourishes his Child in her Bosom, and must get away before her condition is noticed.  (Ahem.  At this point Lorenzo announces that he ought to kill Raymond, but "the temptation was too great to be resisted" so never mind. Yeah.)

So yet again they plan an elopement, and as we already know, Agnes gets caught.  Lorenzo goes to the convent and demands to see his sister, but the prioress denies him completely.  She's sick!  (Sounds legit.)  And a week later, Agnes is pronounced dead.

So, is Agnes dead?  Or is she starving in an oubliette?  I don't think we're going to see any more of her alive, but perhaps a new Bleeding Nun will appear!

This part was really kind of disappointing, with the incredibly long story of Raymond's adventures.  Still, accidentally eloping with a ghost nun and then getting fixed up by the Wandering Jew is pretty entertaining.  Next chapter is back to Ambrosio and Rosario/Matilda, still in exactly the same moment in which we left them about four chapters back, so I'm looking forward to that!

Maybe I should have written so much.  But I have a bunch of opinions even if it was kind of a boring bit.

Monday, October 5, 2015

FrightFall Readathon Master Post

This is a master post for the readathon, so anybody who is interested can come by and check in, and anybody who is not doesn't have to keep getting inundated with boring daily updates.  Every day I'll just insert what I've done.

Monday:  Today I surprised myself by reading quite a bit!
I finished The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings (but I only had 50 pages to go)
I read The Martian!  Boy is that an exciting book.
I got about 10 pages into my next section of The Monk.  Beware the Italian banditti!

Tuesday: Pretty good day.
I started this really fun graphic novel called The Adventures of Babbage and Lovelace, or something very similar to that, and it's neat.
Made a good amount of progress in The Monk--just 20 or so pages to go till the end of the weekly section.  It's been nothing but Don Raymond's story the whoooooole tiiiiiime, I'm bored now.
Got a little further with this Georgian novel, By the Hand of the Grand Master.

Wednesday: Whoops, forgot to update last night.  However, anybody who spent an hour and a half yesterday evening standing in the Walmart fabric department helping teenage girls to choose pillowcase fabric gets a FREE PASS.
I finished The Adventures of Babbage and Lovelace, or whatever it's called.  So funny!  My favorite part is when Mr. Boole comes to tea.  Review soon.
Finished The Monk section, can't wait to get back to the actual monk.  Late posting about that too.
A couple of bits and bobs here and there, but mostly I got into my new book, We Believe the Children. Boy will I have a lot to say about THAT pretty soon.  Even though I'm only about 30 pages along.

Thursday: It was too crazy a day to get much reading done, but I did do a bit, especially while sitting in the dentist's office.  Whee.
A short chunk of By the Hand of the Grand Master.  Almost done!
A little bit of We Believe the Children.  WHOA.  Um.  Mom, we need to talk about what was going on in Bakersfield in 1984 and must have heard about this stuff but I was too young to notice.
And a little weeny bit of the Ancrene Wisse.  Anchoresses should not look outside or talk very much, but they are expected to have maids.  ....okay.  So the Quest for the Holy Grail, with the hermitess who also has a bunch of servants, isn't as unrealistic as I thought?

Friday: I really got into one single book today.
I finished By the Hand of the Grand Master.  There wasn't much left.  Sad ending.
I've read at least 100 pages of We Believe the Children. Wow.  (Also my mom does not remember a whole lot.)

Saturday:  Written Sunday--I had a lot of time to read yesterday on a road trip, and I started Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters, which is very good.  I got over 200 pages in, and that's pretty much all I read. 

Sunday: Today I got pretty sick and haven't really been able to read anything at all except a little here and there.  Bummer of a way to wrap up a readathon.

OK, so now I'm all done!  And I find that I'm having some problems with repetitive stress in my arms, so I'm not going to write a whole wrap-up post.  I'm trying to strictly limit computer time.   But I had a fun time reading, and thanks Michelle!

RIP X: Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque

Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, by Edgar Allan Poe

 This is a two-volume collection of Poe's early stories, published in 1840.  He said that the meanings of "grotesque" and "arabesque" were clear, which they most certainly are not, and people have been arguing about it ever since.  Does one mean horror and the other terror?  Is grotesque more comic or satirical, and arabesque more psychological?  I rather thought that the grotesque stories might be the ones with a scary atmosphere, and the arabesque ones the more fanciful, but apparently I'm even wronger than most.

Only a couple of these stories belong in the super-famous category; Fall of the House of Usher and MS in a Bottle are both here.  Otherwise, I don't think I had ever read any of the other 23 stories.  Several of them are very nearly not stories at all--they are more like atmospheric vignettes, scenes that evoke a feeling.  Others are long but verbose and convoluted, so that they are hard to follow.

What surprised me was that so many of these stories are comic.  They are just plain funny, or outright silly.  They are weird-funny, such as the Man Who Was Used Up, about an incredibly handsome and dashing war veteran who turns out to be made entirely of prosthetic pieces, but they aren't scary or even vaguely menacing.  I was particularly tickled by The Signora Zenobia.

You see a lot of Poe's talent with words here.  This is clearly the same guy who wrote the Bells poem, throwing around oddball words with abandon and bringing off wild effects with them.

Read all at once, it was a little too much Poe for me.  I guess I prefer him in smaller doses.  After a while his unbelievable verbosity gets to me.  But it's a fun collection and much of it is different than your stereotypical Poe.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

FrightFall Readathon

I don't join readathons often--especially the ones that want you to stay up late!  I heard about the FrightFall Readathon a few weeks ago and have been waffling ever since, but hey, why not?  I've got a busy week coming up, but on the other hand I'm done with Banned Books Week (our best success yet, thankyouverymuch) and I'll just try to default to reading rather than putzing around, which is preferable anyway.

FrightFall is hosted by the Seasons of Reading blog, which is a cooperative venture just for seasonal readalongs, run by several book bloggers including Michelle at True Book Addict.  It will last from tomorrow, October 5, to the 11th.  There are few rules, but you're supposed to read some sort of scary/horror/thriller book somewhere in there.  Signups are here, and the guidelines can be found here.

I hope The Martian counts as a thriller, because that's all I've got at the moment.  (My husband and daughter say yes, because the guy spends the entire book on a knife-edge of death, so I'm going to roll with it.)  Of course, I'm also reading The Monk, but that's going to take all month.

Besides those two, I'm working on The Brothers Karamazov, and a historical novel by a revered Georgian author called By the Hand of the Grand Master.  Sadly, this important Georgian--Konstanineh Gamsakhurdia--is not exactly well-known in the West and I could only find one of his novels translated into English.  It's a pretty awesome book though, being a Moscow imprint from 1962. 

I'm also almost done with The Fellowship, a giant history of the Inklings, and that book inspired me to dig up a copy of the Ancrenes Riwle, an Anglo-Saxon rule for anchoresses.  Neat!  And of course, I have a large pile of other books.  So there is plenty for me to work on during this readathon.  Join me, won't you?

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Monkalong I

It's the first installment of the Monkalong!  Reading Rambo is hosting the activity, and she says "COME READ THIS 1796 NOVEL WITH US. It's bonkers."  Which is true enough.

I've read the first two chapters, and it's already getting pretty crazy.  So far, we have three pairs:

Antonia is 15 (at most) and Don Lorenzo spots her at church.  She's pretty cute, although not rich, so Don Lorenzo figures she would make a good wife.  Then he has a dream-vision in which she is tormented by evil and taken up to heaven.

Agnes and Don Raymond are in love, but Agnes thought he'd left her, so she entered a convent.  When Don Raymond came back, she started meeting him secretly.  Now she's pregnant and planning to elope, unless the prioress catches her first.  Agnes is also Don Lorenzo's sister!

Ambrosius is the incredibly clean-living young abbot of the monastery.  His preaching is all the rage and he's in great demand.  Unfortunately, Ambrosius is steeped in pride (the mother of all sins!) and far too complacent about his own virtue.  His best buddy and young acolyte, Rosario, is equally devout and virtuous, but aha! reveals that he is in fact Matilda, a beautiful young woman hopelessly in love with Ambrosius.  Matilda has some issues she needs to deal with.  She wants Ambrosius to keep her with him always--they can be chaste companions in devotion!--and when he thinks that might not be such a good idea, she threatens to kill herself, rending her robe and putting a dagger to her breast.  The sight of "the beauteous Orb" gives Ambrosius some very troubling second thoughts, but the next day they agree to part forever.  But!  When Ambrosius goes to pluck a rose to give Matilda as a memento, he is bitten by a deadly snake!  Matilda cures his illness by sucking out the venom, and then sickens herself.  She can only survive if Ambrosius succumbs to her considerable charms, which he does. 

I never heard of that cure for snake venom before. 

Oh, I forgot; Matilda also had her portrait painted as the Madonna and manipulated the monastery into buying it, so that Ambrosius has been adoring it for months.  (As Rosario, she always kept her cowl over her face so nobody ever saw it.  I don't know how she managed to see anything.)

This is all happening in Madrid, by the way. 

So far it's all pretty goofy and fun.  I'm pretty sure it's going to get way crazier soon!