Sunday, December 31, 2017

My Life in Books: a Tag

Courtesy of Lois at You, Me, and a Cup of Tea, who is evidently the best at finding these things.  I thought it would be fun for an end-of-year post.

Find a book for each of your initials

J -- Johnny the Clockmaker, by Edward Ardizzone (Js are hard! It took me a long time to find this one!)
K -- Kaleidoscope, by Eleanor Farjeon
L -- Leave it to Psmith, by P. G. Wodehouse
P -- Persuasion, by Jane Austen

Count your age along your bookshelf... What book is it?

Before We Visit the Goddess, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.  A wonderful novel and a fun thing to get, since I got to meet her a year or so ago.

Pick a book set in your country

The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck.  It's a definitive California novel, after all, and partly set in Bakersfield, where I was born.  I should really re-read it.

Pick a book that represents a destination you'd love to travel to

Hum.  I have a long list of destinations I would love to travel to!  I'll pick Ireland, and I have this interesting book about medieval Irish monks called Sun Dancing, so I'll go with that.  Besides, it's timely; back when The Force Awakens came out, I recognized Luke's island as one where Irish monks lived.  I was quite tickled to see the beehive cells in The Last Jedi.  (It's the island Skellig Michael, but it had been too long since I read the book for me to remember the name.)

Pick a book that is your favorite color

Er.  My favorite color is lime green, which is not a color that books really come in very often.  Looking at my shelves, I see exactly one: Lingua Latina II: Roma Aeterna (per se illustrata).

Which book do you have fondest memories of

I don't know about fondest, that's a pretty high bar, but when I met my husband, he had been living in South America and working hard, and had fallen out of the habit of reading for fun.  I lent him Howl's Moving Castle (a UK paperback edition which we still have), and it reminded him about leisure reading -- and hooked him on DWJ at the same time.

Which book did you have the most difficulty reading

Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War, because yow.  I didn't even get very far.

Which book on your TBR pile will give you the biggest accomplishment when you read it?

Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War, I guess.  Because it's STILL SITTING THERE.  Or, I also have the 10-volume Durant Story of Civilization, that one is a little daunting.

Favorite Books of 2017

Reading-wise, it's been a pretty good year.  Let's hope other things improve too.  I wasn't as consistent with my blogging as I would like to be, but it all got there eventually, and I read lots of great stuff.   This is not a list of my top ten or anything, and it doesn't include all the best stuff; I'm sure I missed lots.  But here are some favorites of 2017:

While I didn't get to read as much medieval literature as I would have liked (I guess this is a constant theme in my life, I did have the great fun of re-reading Eneas.  Another favorite was The Treasure of the City of Ladies.  And Bovo-Buch!   And Merlin and the Grail

I was in a kind of German mood and read some good history:  Germania and Stasiland were both excellent.

 Voices From Chernobyl -- well, there's not much to say about it.  A very important book that I'll never forget. 

 Their Eyes Were Watching God was a great novel, and probably the best American book I read all year.  It was fun to have my daughter read it in school some months later, too.

If you're looking for good writing and memoir,  The Burning Point is an incredible book.  I don't usually comment on writing too much, but Tracy McKay is an amazing writer.  Read this book. 

I got so much out of The Black Count  -- there's wonderful biography and history in here.  Just great stuff.

Celtic, Viking, and Anglo-Saxon Embroidery was one of the most inspiring books I read all year, as far as creativity goes.  I would like to be able to do all that stuff, please.

My #1 for 2017 is a book I'm still reading: Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts.  This is my new favorite book, and I'm going very slowly because it's so great.  Wow.

Goodreads says I have read 177 books this year. 

May 2018 bring you, and the world, joy and peace.  And plenty of good books to read.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Mount TBR: Final Checkpoint

It's time for that final post on the Mount TBR Challenge, and Bev says:

1. Tell us how many miles you made it up your mountain (# of books read). If you've planted your flag on the peak, then tell us, take a selfie, and celebrate (and wave!).  Even if you were especially athletic and have been sitting atop your mountain for months, please check back in and remind us how quickly you sprinted up that trail. And feel free to tell us about any particularly exciting book adventures you've had along the way.
My goal was to read 24 books, and I exceeded it by reading 29.  Some of them were really great, and a few were kind of meh.  Dirt was meh.

2. The Words to the Wise According to Mount TBR: Using the titles of the books you read this year, see how many of the familiar proverbs and sayings below you can complete with a book read on your journey up the Mountain. Feel free to add/subtract a word or two to help them make sense.  

A stitch in time...[saves] The Treasure of the City of Ladies

Don't count your chickens...[before the] Steppenwolf [eats them].
A penny saved is.... (a ticket in) The Lottery
All good things must come... (to) The Broken Citadel
When in Rome... (visit a) Lady of Quality 
All that glitters is not...  Dirt
A picture is worth... The Castle of Wolfenbach
When the going gets tough, the tough get...Further Afield
Two wrongs don't make...  Half a Crown
The pen is mightier than....  The Man in the Iron Mask
The squeaky wheel gets... (a)  Storm in the Village
Hope for the best, but prepare for...(being) Down and Out in Paris and London
Birds of a feather flock...(to) The Heart of Mid-Lothian

As always, thanks to Bev for hosting this great challenge!

Spin title: Henry IV, Part 1

Henry IV, Part 1, by William Shakespeare

My Spin title!  It wasn't exactly a 'scary' one, but I wasn't too excited either; I'm more looking forward to Part 2.  But here we go...this play is second in a line of four, after Richard II and before Part 2 and Henry V.

Henry IV is king of England, but the story is really more about his son, Prince Hal -- the future Henry V.  It's set in 1402-03, and we have a couple of major plot lines that converge.  The king won't do as the powerful Percys wish, and he threatens young Hotspur (Henry Percy, and about the 4th Henry in the play), who decides to foment a rebellion.  Meanwhile, Prince Hal is spending all his time hanging around inns, drinking with commoners, and generally causing consternation at court.  He's always with Sir John Falstaff, a corrupt old knight who prefers carousing to all else, and everybody is wondering if the Prince is going to be able to do his job.  The Prince's plan is to quit this life soon, and to accomplish some noble exploits that will impress everyone and show that he'll be a fine king, but first he's going to give Falstaff a good scare.

Prince Hal with Falstaff
Hotspur's rebellion grows and gives Prince Hal his chance.  He reconciles with his father and promises to kill Hotspur, and is given a command.   In the battle at Shrewsbury, Falstaff gets up to a lot of corruption and Prince Hal shows his stuff.  Hotspur is indeed killed (with Falstaff trying to take credit), and the rebels fall apart, so King Henry and the prince are victorious...but they have more forces to deal with in the next play.

I'd probably enjoy this play a lot more if I were in the mood for Falstaff, which I wasn't.   I think I'll read Part 2 pretty soon, though. That final scene with Hal and Falstaff is unforgettable!

Friday, December 29, 2017

The Faithful River

The Faithful River, by Stefan Żeromski

 A badly wounded soldier, near death, stumbles into a mostly-deserted manor house.  The only people there are Salomea, a young woman whose father is off fighting, and an elderly cook.  They take the soldier in and hide him during his long, slow recovery.

The novel, published in 1912, is set during the Polish uprising of 1863 and 1864, when Polish volunteers fought the Russian occupation of the eastern part of the country.  Poland didn't technically exist at this time, having been carved up and shared out between Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Prussia.  The novel is set in what is now south-central Poland, the Kielce region, and I think the river must be the Vistula.  The reader doesn't need to know a lot of this background, but a little bit is helpful.

Josef Odrowaz is a dashing young nobleman -- or he was, before the Russian troops slaughtered every wounded man on the battlefield.  Now he is only barely alive, and the locals dare not help him.  Salomea takes him in, but troops arrive at her house every couple of days, demanding food she doesn't have and searching for hidden rebels.  As Josef recovers, he and Salomea fall in love.

The river runs near Salomea's home and though it does not appear all that often, it proves itself to be more faithful to the Polish cause and to those to run to it for shelter than flawed human beings are.

It sounds like a simple plot, but in fact the novel is quite complex.  Stefan Żeromski examines the contradictions of the uprising and the war -- the Polish struggle for independence that is idealistic in concept, but brutal to the actual Poles.  Salomea is faithful to the Polish fight for freedom at the same time that she rails against its leaders for being so idiotic as to start a doomed uprising against a massive power like Russia.

The introduction to the novel says that Stefan Żeromski is venerated in Poland as one of its great novelists, but isn't well-known in English.  He's certainly worth searching out and reading.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Marshall Islands Legends and Stories

Marshall Islands Legends and Stories, coll. by Daniel A Kelin II

I lifted this title straight from Ann Morgan's project list, since there aren't a lot of Marshallese writers.  But I was extra-excited about this one anyway.  For one thing, I just like collections of folktales.  They are pretty well irresistible to me.  (Possibly this is a thing for most librarians?)  Plus, one of my very good friends lived in the Marshall Islands for a couple of years at about the same time that these tales were collected, in the early 1990s.  She speaks Marshallese and I'm going to lend her this book tomorrow, now that she's done with the semester and has some time to indulge in fun reading.  I think we're both sort of hoping that she'll recognize one of the storytellers as somebody she knew, even though that isn't really very likely.

In the Marshall Islands, storytelling is sort of an official calling.  You have to get permission from the iroij, the chief, to tell stories: "By custom the iroij own the legends, and the ones who are chosen to remember them can share them only when the iroij says so."  Some of them can only be told under special circumstances.   So Kelin was very fortunate to be able to hear a lot of stories.  He organizes them by geography, and each storyteller is profiled (often with a photograph, which is great) before their stories.

This is a nice collection, and it's only a selection of legends, not all the stories Kelin was able to collect.  Many of them, of course, are about how to behave properly and what happens if you don't.  Or there are mischief tales.  Others explain why things are the way they are, and they're very local; the storyteller can point to a landmark and explain how it got there.  I particularly liked one story that explained why the women from a certain island can fly when they are sad.

One tale reminded me of Cinderella (known the world around!); a little boy's mother died and his stepmother was cruel and didn't feed him, so his own mother arrived in the form of a white bird and took him away.

Kelin left in a lot of the language; every time somebody calls out or sings a little bit of verse, it's left in and the translation given.  This is really nice, since it gives the reader a lot of flavor that would otherwise be lost.  There are notes along the sides to show pronunciation and meanings, and a word list at the back.

A great collection of legends and folktales.  Good stuff.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Back to the Classics Wrapup

OK, I've finished this challenge just under the wire!  I wanted to fulfill all 12 categories, and I did, which earns me three entries in Karen's prize drawing.

I always have a lot of fun with this challenge.  Thanks, Karen, for keeping it going!

1.  A 19th Century Classic-- The Heart of Midlothian, by Sir Walter Scott
2.  A 20th Century Classic --The Foundation Pit, by Andrei Platonov
3.  A Classic by a Woman Author. -- Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
4.  A Classic in TranslationMarie Grubbe, by J. P. Jacobsen
5.  A classic published before 1800The Histories, by Herodotus
6.  A romance classic 
-- Shakuntala, by Kalidasa
7.  A Gothic or horror classic. 
Castle of Wolfenbach, by Eliza Parsons
8.  A classic with a number in the title. 
The First Wife, by Paulina Chiziane
9.  A classic
about an animal or which includes the name of an animal in the title.  Steppenwolf, by Hermann Hesse
10. A classic set in a place you'd like to visit.
  Rashomon, by Ryunsake Akutagawa (Japan)
11. An award-winning classic
Ajax, by Sophocles
12. A Russian classic.  -- My Universities, by Maxim Gorky


Ajax, by Sophocles

I really needed just one more classic for a challenge, and it was a tricky one -- an award-winner, published before 1967.  But I wasn't in the mood for a Pulitzer or a Newbery, and prizes weren't being given out in most of my favorite historical periods.  What to do?  O gave me the answer: a Greek play!  Sophocles never got less than second place.  So I picked a play I'd never read before, and voila!  An award-winning classic.

Poor Ajax.  He's the strongest and most mighty warrior around, but his pride has been hurt.  Achilles has just been killed, and Odysseus and Ajax both claimed his armor.  In the argument, the wily and smooth-tongued Odysseus naturally managed to convince all of the Greeks that the armor should be his.  The play opens after this; Ajax feels he's been dishonored, and he has every intention of killing not just Odysseus, but the leaders of the expedition who allowed the whole thing to happen.  Athena, however, is none too pleased with Ajax, and so she puts a madness upon him; he slaughters all the sheep and cattle, thinking that they are the Greek leaders he hates.

Once awake, Ajax laments his terrible fate and determines to kill himself.  His whole household turns out to beg him to live, but he eventually manages to sneak out and fall on his sword.  The household laments and prepares his body for burial, but Menelaus and Agamemnon arrive to forbid the burial in vengeance for Ajax's murderous intentions -- and his general inability to get along.  Odysseus, however, argues that it would be dishonorable to take such revenge on a dead man, even his worst enemy; and after all, it's better to treat the dead well so as to keep in with the gods and earn a good burial, since death comes to all.

This play is all about the dissension within the Greek camp.  Nobody is getting along, and everyone treats other Greeks like enemies instead of allies.  Here they are, fighting against Troy, but Troy is hardly mentioned. The heroes are fallen and degraded.

By the way, have you ever wondered why there's a cleanser called Ajax?  Well, just think....Ajax was stronger than all Greece....

Vintage Sci-Fi Not-a-Challenge in 2018

One of my favorite January things is this event!  Little Red Reviewer says:

Welcome to the Vintage Science Fiction not-a-challenge!  Through out the month of January, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016,, 2017 I will be reading and discussing as much “older than I am” science fiction and fantasy that I can, and everyone is invited to join me!  We’ll be talking about time travel, laser guns, early robotics, first contact, swords and sorcery, predictions for humanity and the authors who came up with it all. Haphazardly, the defining year for “vintage” is 1979.  The only “rule” for this not-a-challenge is that your blog post must be during the month of January. To see previous posts about Vintage Science Fiction Month, just type “Vintage” into the little search box-thing.

I have three or four books ready to go.  One is, er, the Silmarillion.  We'll see...

Back to the Classics 2018 Signup

I'm not quite finished with the 2017 challenge (almost there!) but I'm ready to sign up for next year!  Karen at Books and Chocolate says: 

It's back! Once again, I'm hosting the Back to the Classics Challenge.  I hope to encourage bloggers to discover and enjoy classic books they might not have tried, or just never got around to reading. And at the end, one lucky winner will receive a $30 (US) prize from or The Book Depository!


Here's how it works:

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

  • Complete six categories, and you get one entry in the drawing
  • Complete nine categories, and you get two entries in the drawing
  • Complete all twelve categories, and you get three entries in the drawing

And here are the categories for the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge:

1.  A 19th century classic.

2.  A 20th century classic.

3.  A classic by a woman author.

4.  A classic in translation.

5. A children's classic.

6.  A classic crime story, fiction or non-fiction.

7. A classic travel or journey narrative, fiction or non-fiction.
8. A classic with a single-word title.

9. A classic with a color in the title.

10. A classic by an author that's new to you.

11. A classic that scares you.

12. Re-read a favorite classic.

Head on over to read the full version of the rules and all that sort of thing, and sign up while you're at it!  This is always a fun challenge.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

2018 European Reading Challenge Signup

I can never resist this one!  Tour challenges are my favorite.  I would sign up for other continental tours if anybody offered....anyway, Rose City Reader is offering her usual, and since I was a little disappointed to only hit 12 countries in 2017, I'm going to aim for more in 2018:

Welcome to the 2018 European Reading Challenge – where participants tour Europe through books.  And have a chance to win a prize. Please join us for the Grand Tour!

THE GIST: The idea is to read books by European authors or books set in European countries (no matter where the author comes from). The books can be anything – novels, short stories, memoirs, travel guides, cookbooks, biography, poetry, or any other genre. You can participate at different levels, but each book must be by a different author and set in a different country – it's supposed to be a tour. (See note about the UK, below)

I always sign up for the Five-Star level, and then I secretly hope to beat Maphead, but he always wins.

TBR Challenge 2018 Signups

I've left the 2018 challenges until the last possible second, and now I'm going to have to post a bunch at once!  I haven't seen any new-to-me challenges that grabbed me, and so I'm going with my tried and true old friends like... the TBR challenges!  I have about 90 books crammed on to two shelves which are my TBR shelves, and they need some clearing.

Bev at My Reader's Block says:

January 2018 will kick off the seventh year for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge (I miscounted last year!) and I don't seem to be getting those mountains moved at all. ...So, once again, I plan to concentrate on reading primarily from my own books in the coming year. And you're invited to join me in knocking out some of those books that have been waiting in the wings for weeks....months...even years.

Challenge Levels:

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

Once again, I'll be aiming for Mount Blanc: 24 books.  Check out the rules and everything at her post and join up!

And, Adam at Roof Beam Reader is bringing his TBR Pile Challenge back!  This one is a little different, so the two go together nicely:

After a two-year hiatus (while I was writing my doctoral dissertation – sorry!) I am pleased to announce that Roof Beam Reader’s official TBR Pile Challenge is back for the SEVENTH YEAR!

The Goal: To finally read 12 books from your “to be read” pile (within 12 months).
1. Each of these 12 books must have been on your bookshelf or “To Be Read” list for AT LEAST one full year. This means the book cannot have a publication date of 1/1/2017 or later (any book published in the year 2016 or earlier qualifies, as long as it has been on your TBR pile). Caveat: Two (2) alternates are allowed, just in case one or two of the books end up in the “can’t get through” pile.

Go read Adam's post to learn more!  Here are my 14 books:

  1. Early Christian Writings (a collection)
  2. Rasselas, by Samuel Johnson
  3. Pan Tadeusz, by Adam Mickiewicz 
  4. Individualism and Economic Order, by F. A. Hayek
  5. Lectures on Russian Literature, by Nabokov
  6. Memoirs of the Crusades
  7. Confronting the Classics, by Mary Beard
  8. 800 Years of Women's Letters (a collection)
  9. Danubia, by Simon Winder
  10. An essay thing by Chinua Achebe
  11. The Sea and Poison, by Shusaku Endo
  12. Libraries in the Ancient World
  13. Fire in the Bones, by Wilcox (a biography of Tyndale)
  14. The Story of Science, by Susan Wise Bauer (my guru!)

That top one is a book I'm reading now, so don't count it.



Jamilia, by Chingiz Aitmatov

A while ago, I read Aitmatov's novel The Day Lasts Over a Hundred Years.  (It's actually over a year ago, holy cow.)  I also wanted to read Aitmatov's much shorter, and apparently more famous, novella, Jamilia.  The blurbs call it a great love story of the steppes.  It's told from the point of view of a Kyrgyz artist, Seit, looking back on his memories.

Jamilia is the beloved daughter-in-law of the house, a beautiful girl and a hard worker.  Her husband is off at the front, and she spends her days working with her much younger brother-in-law, Seit.  Seit sees her as a perfect older sister and watches as she shrugs off the advances of the men still remaining at the village.  He also sees how hurt she is by her husband's dutiful letters to the whole family, never to her.  When an injured ex-soldier, Daniyar, moves to the village, Seit and Jamilia enjoy his singing talents, and Seit is wholly sympathetic when Jamilia and Daniyar elope just before the husband returns home.

It's so short that I would have liked a little more, but it's wholly evocative of life on the Central Asian steppes under the Soviet Union and would make an excellent selection in a course on Asian or world literature.

Friday, December 22, 2017

2017 Challenge Wrapup

Time to start wrapping things up, though I still have one or two things to check off the list:

Reading All Around the World: Good progress with 27 countries. My very own project!  It's officially not a challenge, and it's certainly not just for 2017, so if you'd like to join me, please do.  This is a long-term deal.  I read books from 27 countries (two of which are freshly read and will be posted in a day or two).  That's about 15% of the total, so not bad! 

Mount TBR 2017: Completed with 29/24.  I aimed for 24 and wound up with 29 titles read, and of course more books on the TBR shelf than were there when I began...though that's largely because I went through my bookshelves and moved a bunch!

European Reading Challenge 2017: 12 unique countries.  I read a lot of things set in Europe -- I have 17 on the list but there were plenty more -- but only managed to hit 12 countries.  I was hoping for more.  Maybe in 2018!

Russian Literature Reading Challenge: Completed with 5 titles.  I aimed for the "Chekhov" level for 4-6 titles, and read 5.  I was really hoping for more, though.

Back to the Classics 2017: Almost completed with 11/12 titles.  I've got one more to go and I plan to get it done!  I need an award-winning classic published before 1967...

Reading the Histories in 2017...and then some: Near-complete failure with ONE title.  Oh man, I really fell down on this one.  I read Herodotus, hooray, but Thucydides nearly killed me and I only got to about page 90, and after that...well, I want to read Plutarch!  I do!  Sigh.

The Classics Club: Progress with 20. I started my new CC II list in March, and read 20 titles.  That's pretty good, I think!

On the whole, I'm pleased, but I sure am disappointed in myself over the Reading the Histories project.  Maybe I'll manage some in 2018?  On the other hand, it is kind of over the top to try to read a bunch of classics, books from every country, books according to taste, AND a long list of heavy histories...maybe that wasn't very realistic.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

My Life in Books

A fun tag for 2017 reading I lifted from Adam at Roof Beam Reader:



Tuesday, December 19, 2017


This cover is hard to look at
Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich, by Norman Ohler

I don't know who purchased this book at my work, but it was immediately snatched up by staff and passed around, so I had to wait my turn.  It's not all that long for a history book, and it's packed with eye-opening information.  Ohler has two main threads: drugs in the German social landscape, especially in the military, and then Hitler's personal drug use.

Recreational drugs like cocaine and heroin were popular in Weimar Germany, and the Nazis put a lot of effort into stamping out drug use -- at least at first.  German drug manufacturers then came up with a very pure form of methamphetamine, and this, marketed under the name Pervitin, seemed like the perfect pick-me-up for the new Germany.  It was modern, and scientific, and supported the fast-paced new lifestyle!  It became immensely popular (you could even get meth-laced chocolates for your lady friend!).  The military, in particular, was looking for ways to make German soldiers capable of grand new things, and, well, the Blitzkrieg was pretty much entirely fueled by meth.  By the end of the war, military leaders were dosing soldiers with whatever they could get in hopes of victory; Nazis were  the most drugged soldiers in history.

Ohler then investigates the relationship between Hitler and his personal doctor, Morell.  Hitler was vocal about his abstemious and vegetarian diet, but he was looking for ways to support his strength, and Morell was into the new science of vitamins.  He would give high-dose vitamins in shots, which sounded like great stuff.  As Hitler demanded more daily, Morell varied the shots with all sorts of interesting things: hormones, glucose, and drugs.  Before long, the Fuhrer was dependent on Morell for daily shots, and the shots had to get more and more potent.  It's amazing to read about, because by 1941, he was getting pretty strong stuff and it only got worse.  In 1943 he started taking regular doses of Eukodal: oxycodone.  The reason he seemed so brave and unbothered by the assassination attempt with a bomb was because he was stoned at the time, but his injuries also precipitated more addictions, to cocaine and then the stuff to distract from the cocaine.

If Ohler is correct, Hitler spent most of the war as high as a kite.  By the end, he was a wreck -- he was slowly dying -- and then as the supply dried up, he went into withdrawal.  Ohler uses Morell's own notes as his source, and they are chaotic and difficult to decipher; Morell was secretive about what went into the shots he made up, and he didn't really want others to know what he was giving Hitler.  But he did keep records of what he did, and it seems clear enough.

Two things struck me about this story: first, how very dangerous a personal physician can be to a powerful person.  The story sounds very much like Michael Jackson's.  Secondly, I've never believed the silly tabloid theories about Hitler's escape to Argentina, but this really makes clear how completely far-fetched such theories are.  The Fuhrer was dying anyway.

And lastly, Nazis gave us crystal meth.  Thanks a lot, Nazis.

A fascinating book that sheds some new light on what was going on in the Third Reich. 

Monday, December 18, 2017

Two 'Miss Read' stories

I've been reading a couple of Miss Read books; if you're not familiar with them, they're a series of novels set in the English countryside and focused on the doings of a small set of villages.  A nice element of these novels is that they could so easily slide into sentimentality, but they don't; they are in fact a little on the astringent side.

The Christmas Mouse is a very short novel, featuring a three-generational family of grandmother, widowed mother, and little girls.  On Christmas Eve, a mouse gets into the grandmother's bedroom, pushing her to sleep downstairs, where she is awoken by a runaway boy looking for food.  He is also in need of some sensible talk.  It's a charming little story, and if you're looking for a little dose of literary Christmas, this would be a good choice.

Miss Clare Remembers features one of the recurring characters, a beloved elderly teacher.  As she waits for her friend's visit, she remembers her youth.  It's really a description of English country life in the late Victorian/Edwardian era, and includes enough intelligent background that the reader is well immersed, without any rose-colored glasses.

Friday, December 15, 2017

The Story of English in 100 Words

The Story of English in 100 Words, by David Crystal

I've been listening to an excellent podcast, the History of English, which I highly recommend to language nerds.  It starts with a whole series on Indo-European roots and language.  I'm only in the early 20s of the episodes (so far about 100), and we haven't gotten to Old English yet.  It's a lot of fun.

So I thought it would be a good time to take this book off my TBR shelf and indulge in a little fun etymology.  And indeed it was fun!  Crystal goes chronologically, which is nice, starting about 1500 years ago with a runic inscription.  His words are chosen not just for their individual interest, but also for what they illustrate about the English language, so "street" talks about Latin loan-words generally, and "gaggle" is about the fun of collective nouns.*

The last ten or so words are from my lifetime and include app, LOL, and sudoku, so not quite as interesting to my mind.  But the title "word of the 20th century" goes to jazz, which I think is a good choice!

 This is a fun, casual read that is still packed with good information.  It's making the rounds among my family members, so I guess my daughter gets it next!

*a rash of dermatologists!

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Lady of Quality

Lady of Quality, by Georgette Heyer

Everybody needs a little Georgette Heyer in their lives now and then!  This one had been sitting around on my shelves for...probably a year or so, and I picked it up in a fit of "I'm going to read easy books that I can then put in the Little Free Library and clear up some space."  I wound up having a lot of fun with it.

Because guess what, this novel is set in Bath!  And now I have been to Bath, and I know much better what the Pump Room and Milsom Street look like, and I can have a lot more fun imagining the story.

Miss Annis Wychwood is wealthy and independent, and at 29 has never thought it worth her while to marry.  Tired of living with her overbearing (if well-meaning) brother, she has set up her own very respectable household in Bath, complete with irritating elderly cousin as chaperone.  Accident brings the sweet but headstrong heiress Lucilla Carleton into Annis' household, and the ensuing chaos -- along with a lot of opinionated relatives -- turns her life upside-down.

Just as much fun as Heyer's Regency stories always are.

A Riffle of Winter Reviews

I've been posting about recent books instead of dealing with my backlog, and now it's time to do some end-of-year cleanup around here (and on my desk!).

Masterpieces of Terror and the Unknown, by Marvin Kaye -- I read a bunch of the stories featured in this book for RIP.  There are some great classics in here, some really spooky stuff!  I ran out of steam and did not finish the collection (which is huge), but I really liked a lot of what I read.

The Mutabilitie Cantos of the Faerie Queene, by Edmund Spenser -- OK, it is way too late for me to be posting about these, but I did read them!  I want credit, darn it.  They were pretty interesting actually, being entirely different from the other cantos, set in Ireland (in Spenser's neighborhood, probably), and involving a judicial hearing with Nature as judge.

The Catholic Table: Finding Joy Where Food and Faith Meet, by Emily Stimpson Chapman -- I'm not Catholic, and lately I'm not much of a cook either, but I follow Chapman's blog and I really wanted to read her book.  It's good stuff.  Perhaps her perspective would not be as surprising and refreshing to her fellow Catholics (though maybe it would!), but I really appreciated the new-to-me angle she brought to her literary table, and I got a lot out of it.  Her book is part memoir (of her progress through and out the other side of an eating disorder), part meditation brought on by those experiences, and part tour through scripture and Catholic theology.  I'm glad I was able to get a copy.

You Just Don't Understand! Women and Men in Conversation, by Deborah Tannen -- I picked this up at random from our neighborhood Little Free Library, where I will shortly return it.  I wasn't necessarily going to read it; I'd never heard of Tannen, but I started it one day and then couldn't put it down.  I'm always a sucker for this kind of book anyway, but Tannen's writing is absorbing and nuanced, all about the broad differences in communication styles between men and women and how common it is for breakdowns in understanding to occur.  She points out that people have different, but equally valid, styles of talking based on differing goals.  We're often focusing on completely disparate aspects of a conversation and thus confused when the other person does not react as we'd expect.  I read a revised edition from 2007, and I bet many of us would get a lot out of this book.

 There is so much end-of-year blogging to do!  But at least I got these off my desk.  Wish me luck with the rest!

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Something on Sunday: 12/10

I missed last week, even though I meant to write; I mean to write a Sunday post and then the next thing I know it's 7:30pm and I'm tired! Anyway, this is Jenny's weekly event where we list things that got us through the week.

I had a pretty tiring week, really, because I tackled my annual chocolate project.  I've downsized it considerably, because I'm too tired to do more, but I did dip a lot of almonds and marshmallows.  I felt hugely short on sleep all week, but today (after something resembling a decent night's sleep) I feel much better.  And I do love chocolates.  Just the scent is something else!

We are slowly but steadily getting ready for Christmas.  We don't put up a tree until later, but I did get the Advent calendar out on the first.  One Danish thing I just have to do every year is an Advent candle, where you burn a bit every day.  But I couldn't find the brass candlestick I set it in!  I think I must have packed it into a Christmas box instead of putting it with the candles.  But I just HAD to find something to use as a candlestick...and that, my friends, is why my cute Advent candle is set into a gargoyle candleholder.  So Christmassy, isn't it?

Friday night I took my kids to a holiday concert, put on by the local symphony and a college choir.  It took place at the local Episcopalian church, which is a familiar spot for my kids as we have friends there and they did Vacation Bible School there for years (featuring science projects, because why not?).  My 17yo daughter had spotted the ad for the concert; otherwise I would not have known it was even happening, and I'm so glad we went.  The music was fabulous and ranged from cantatas and oratorios to kind of random classical selections to familiar carols.  It ended with probably the best carol sing-along I've ever been to in my whole life.  We're going to have to do that again!

The conductor told us a funny story, though.  Last month the symphony performed Stravinsky's Firebird -- in fact the 17yo and I went -- and he video-recorded one session (the one we weren't at).  The resulting video went viral:

Some poor lady was startled out of her wits, I guess!

Yesterday I took a friend of mine, who hasn't lived here long, on a tour of our town founder's mansion.  It was really fun.  I've been there lots of times, but I haven't been on the whole tour in several years, and the guide really knew her stuff.  She grew up here and actually saw the renovations being done when she was a kid.  The mansion was used as a college dorm and teaching hall for many years, and was just falling apart when people got together to purchase the house and preserve it as a historical monument.  We had a great time and then went out for sandwiches and plotted more local sight-seeing.

Another really nice thing happened yesterday too.  My older kid's glasses broke a few weeks ago, and we had to fix them with a sort of blob of Sugru, this moldable glue, until we could get her a new prescription and order new glasses.  Our friend, an ophthalmologist, squeezed her into a Saturday morning before his surgeries started, and now her new glasses are on the way.  It was just such a kind thing for him to do!  And now we will order a back-up pair...

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Nordic Theory of Everything

The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life, by Anu Partanen

Remember how a few years ago, Finland was everybody's idea of a perfect country?  Finnish education was the best!  Scandinavian government was the tops!  Right about then, Anu Partanen was moving from Finland to the US, because she'd fallen for an American and it seemed to make the most sense for her to move.  She was surprised to see Americans holding up Finland as an ideal, because Finns are notoriously pessimistic and find this puzzling at best, but as she got used to living in the US, dealt with culture shock, and found many things to love about both countries, she thought she might share a few ideas about what works (or not) in Scandinavia.  Buckle up, people; I have THOUGHTS.

Now, I spent over a year living in Denmark, so I'm pretty familiar with a lot of the stuff people talk about when they laud the Nordic lands.  And while I love DK, I've also got some of their attitude about the glorification thereof; as my host sister once said, "Det er ikke nogen eventyrland."*  I find hygge-hype weird and silly (and nobody can pronounce it either).  I'm also hugely skeptical about the logistics of putting Nordic ideas into practice in a country of over 300 million people.  I live in California; the SF Bay Area alone has more people in it than Denmark does.  How is universal health care supposed to scale up to that, even if we go by state?**

But I dived in anyway.  I took a break about halfway through because it was so depressing.  Man, life in Finland sounds pretty good in a lot of ways.  Easy taxes, preschool and old folks' homes for all, schools that are all funded at similar levels (and yet have teachers with a lot of autonomy), and medical care for everybody.  This is not to say that it's all perfect and Partanen thinks the US is terrible -- she is in fact now a US citizen, and spends a lot of book-time pointing out American strengths. 

What Partanen mostly does is talk about "the Nordic theory of love,"  how that translates into societal values, and how it's really not very different from American ideas.  Her claim is that the Nordic theory of love is that love is really only possible between fairly independent and autonomous parties who can choose freely to enter into a relationship.  Imbalances of power mess with relationships and limit freedom.  This turns into a belief that every kid ought to have about the same opportunities for education, that it shouldn't matter what your family's income is.  (Well, Americans think that too, don't we?  But we've wound up with this bizarre system where our property taxes go to the local schools (CA says: it's complicated), so some schools are rich and some are poor, so we spend a ton of money to get a house in the right district, and it keeps getting worse and more expensive.) Patanen's claim is that the Nordic system is very much in line with American values, while the American system frequently works out in a way that doesn't support the values we hold.

Partanen correctly points out that the Scandinavian governments are not, in fact, socialist.  They are capitalist countries that put a lot of resources into social welfare programs.  Nordic countries have put a lot of effort into being business-friendly; it's quite easy to start a business in, say, Denmark, and tech is big there.  Businesses don't have to spend any resources managing their employees' health insurance or medical/family leave, and nobody has to stay in a job they hate because they need the benefits (plus, think of all the medical money that goes to insurance paperwork and billing complexities).  Entrepreneurs can start businesses without worrying about health insurance.  It is entirely possible to get rich in Scandinavia, though getting mega-rich is not so easy.  And paid leave, as well as many other benefits, are scaled to income, which is an incentive to get an education and a good job in the first place.

She also nixes the idea that Scandinavians go for a social welfare society because they are particularly charitable.  No, Nordics like the system because they see it as working in their own interests and to their direct personal benefit.***  They pay about the same amount as we do, but they feel that they see more bang for their kroner.

Which is pretty much where I think the disconnect is for Americans.  Americans do not see the US government as beneficial to themselves, and they are skeptical that the government is capable of running social programs without massive waste and incompetency.  Maybe Finland is small enough that it is less full of pork?  Partanen even says that the Finnish government had a long period of trimming and reform; they also have strict rules about staying under budget.  That sounds like a fairy-tale to an American.

And here's another thing: at no point does Patanen mention American military spending.  Our federal budget does put a lot of money into Medicare, Social Security, and other things (not much into education, which is largely a state concern).  But it also puts about 16% (of total 2015 spending) into the military, which is much, much larger than any Nordic country does.  And while we get beaten up a lot for this, we also can't easily stop or get out of our role as the world's police officer.  Russia and China are both looking to expand, and while we may be bunglers at best, they're worse.  (And just the other day I heard a guy on NPR say he couldn't understand why the West isn't going after ISIS properly.)  Perhaps those European countries could step up their contributions?

So that's some of the governmental stuff she talks about that I wanted to address.  In a different direction, Patanen also talks about cultural standards and what she thinks are the pros and cons of each.  What I was particularly interested in was Janteloven; I have yet to see any Nordic commentator refrain from talking about Janteloven!  It's actually a set of 'rules' from an old novel that all Nordics recognize as putting a finger on a particular strain of their cultural character.  You'll have to look up the whole thing, but the first rule is "Du skal ikke tro, at du er noget."  "Don't think you're somebody."  You have no idea how snotty that can sound in Danish.  This is not really something that they consider to be a positive trait.  I'm always interested in reading about it, so I liked that.

America is in a mess.  Our costs for higher education and medical care have spiraled so high that it's perfectly possible to be financially ruined by them.  I think most of us are worried about money most of the time, and a lot of us have real and ongoing fears about it.  The middle class can no longer afford these costs.  Nordic countries have taken those worries out of the equation, which sounds like a beautiful, impossible dream to any American.  Personally, I'm ready to sign up, but I can't see how it could happen in our giant system.

And there are some trade-offs.  I didn't talk about higher education, which is free in Scandinavia (and comes with a student stipend, so that parents have no expectation of supporting their children financially after 18).  But the schools also have tracking, which Americans hate. The pragmatic, streamlined, job-focused Nordic system is very much at odds with the patchy but romantic American vision.

Oh well, maybe I could just brush up my Danish and move.  I've already got Christmas down!  I can make julejherter with the best, believe me.

Danish Christmas trees have flags, as do birthday cakes and summer days.


*It's not some fairy-tale land.

**  That said, 2017 was, medically speaking, very expensive for our family, and not that much even happened.  We have huge problems with medical care here and I for one am entirely ready to move to Finland.  I just don't see how to do it in the US.

***  I agree that it's wrong-headed to claim that, say, universal health care should be brought in because it's the Christian or charitable thing to do; opponents then correctly counter that it is not charitable to use tax money for social programs.  Charity involves opening your own wallet.  However, you can make a perfectly good argument that doesn't involve charity.