Saturday, June 30, 2018

Old Demons, New Deities -- Summer Book 5

Old Demons, New Deities: 21 Short Stories from Tibet, ed. by Tenzin Dickie

When I saw this cool collection of Tibetan stories, I knew I had to have it and read it for my world project.  I guess Tibet is not currently considered to be a 'country' since its annexation by China, but so what, we'll count it anyway.  When I was in college, "Free Tibet" stickers were everywhere; do people still have those?

The blurb gives some good information so here it is: The first English-language anthology of contemporary Tibetan fiction available in the West, Old Demons, New Deities brings together the best Tibetan writers from both Tibet and the diaspora, who write in Tibetan, English and Chinese.

The stories are varied: set in Tibet (pre- and post-occupation), or in various diaspora locations, such as India, Nepal, or Bhutan.  They are about all kinds of people and their struggles to survive or to be accepted, and a lot of them explore how Chinese occupation and exploitation has damaged or just plain destroyed Tibetan society and people.

I enjoyed this line from "The Season of Retreats," by Tsering Namgyal Khortsa:
...then the monk told him that it was quite hard to come across normal, functioning people in the decade that he had been in the West.  "Relationships and mobile phones," the monk said, "combine these two and they make people completely crazy."
I love the cover, which shows a traditional sort of design of a masked person in front of a background that, when you look carefully, is a mosaic of modern life, with logos, symbols, and cartoon characters all squished up together.

This is a valuable collection that I enjoyed reading.

Friday, June 29, 2018

The Seven Madmen

The Seven Madmen, by Roberto Arlt

Why did I pick this novel?  Well, it came along and I was looking for an Argentinian title that wasn't Borges.  I love Borges!  But I thought I ought to branch out a bit.  And this has a pretty intriguing title, plus I had heard of Erdosain before.  Upon such frail whims are my reading choices based.

Background: this novel was written around 1929, thus before anything I know about Argentinian history.  No Peron yet.  (Probably Hercule Poirot's buddy Hastings is running a cattle farm somewhere!)  The Depression hasn't even begun yet.

Erdosain is a hapless guy who is getting fired from his sad little job as a bill collector.  He embezzled 600 pesos* and he's got to pay it back right away.  Then his wife leaves him, and all he's got left is this awful cousin he hates.  Erdosain wanders the streets of Buenos Aires and meets up with a bunch of guys, most of whom are pretty strange, but the strangest of all is the Astrologer, leader of a burgeoning cult.  He plans to take over, and talks to his various followers in their own languages.  Communists think it will be a Red revolution; militarists think they'll be in charge, and so on.**  He'll get rid of unemployment by enslaving everyone, and fund it all with prostitution on a massive scale.  The seed money will come from Erdosain's annoying cousin, who they'll murder for his bank funds...

I can't say I really enjoyed this novel.  I finished it because it was short and I was already halfway through anyway.  It's a very 'guy' novel, and most of the guys are horrible people, and you know what, I just have a hard time stomaching novels where characters wax poetic about the beauty found in the suffering of prostitutes.  I'm sure it's a great classic of modernity but no thank you.


*600 pesos does not sound like much to a contemporary person, but it turns out to be quite a lot in 1929 Argentina.  A couple thousand bucks maybe.

**And again, I think of Agatha Christie, in Destination Unknown/So Many Steps to Death.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Autumn Equinox -- Summer Book 4

Autumn Equinox, by Jabbour Douaihy

In Lebanon, in the mid-80s, an unnamed young man writes in his diary.  He has studied in the US and sometimes writes to the girl he met there, but since he doesn't know her address and she can't write to him anyway, he's sending his letters into a void.  He has no job.  He's trying to improve his life -- he makes his mom and sister sit for three formal meals a day, throws out nearly all his books, and practices sitting so that he'll look confident.  All summer, as violence simmers under the village's ordinary life, he makes strange attempts at normalcy and writes about his life and his relatives, and his diary ends on the autumn equinox.

This is kind of a quiet but odd little novel, and although it's set in the middle of the Lebanese civil war, that war only breaks in to the story a few times.  The diarist seems like an ordinary young man at first, but his actions get stranger as the summer goes on.  Various quotations I liked:
I sometimes think that since we've laid down our arms and made peace with our enemies, Uncle Mansour lives only to prove his suspicions that life is a series of ambushes.  I don't think he's totally wrong about that.

What she also doesn't know is that I have to finish my project before the autumn equinox arrives, when the orange glow is only a harbinger of the end, and my willpower dissolves, and I become weak and unable to act or make any decisions. Anyway, I think that my mother and sister have been whispering about my change in behavior and has been hoping to marry me off as soon as possible.

...and the others have their own lives, which no one can penetrate, whereas I'm wide open, useless; I watched The Great Gatsby once, and it haunted me for a decade.

That's how I've spent the time, trying to find the perfect way to sit, one which would gather me around myself to be tenacious, alert, and handsome.

I spent yesterday afternoon trying to classify my books. First I set aside the detective novels because they don't leave any room for secrets, and then the modern poetry books because they make a religion out of a secret.

So all I kept were reference books. Today I think reference books make me feel secure, while the other books make me vulnerable. The dictionary organizes the world, and the novel turns it to rubble.

My mother says the signs of winter are beginning to show. I don't care about that because I've completed my plan, and here I am, clean and elegant. My life is smooth and organized. I don't fear the rain or anything else.

This was an intriguing short novel that I enjoyed pretty well. It does make me want to try more Arabic literature, so there you go.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Everything Happens As It Does

Everything Happens As It Does, by Albena Stambolova, trans. by Olga Nikolova
Published in 2002, in English in 2013, winner of 2013 Contemporary Bulgarian Writers Contest

Now that Bulgarian Literature Month is almost over at GLLI, I can publish my post here.  Head on over to see what's been going on before it's all done!   Thomas has been doing a great job.

Albena Stambolova, originally from Sofia, is a psychoanalyst and writer.  She lived and taught in Paris for some years in the 1990s, but returned to Bulgaria and won recognition with this, her first novel.  Since then, she has published two more novels, as well as essays and short stories.

Everything Happens As It Does is something of a mosaic whose pieces, some not visibly related, eventually go to make up a complete and satisfying pattern.  We follow characters who then disappear for a while as others take the stage without warning, and we are left to draw connections between them.  Everyone seems to carry echoes of fairy-tale figures, and that is especially true of the women.  I remembered many different tales, from "The Snow Queen" to "The Crane Wife," and even Millions of Cats.

Stambolova's style is simple and direct, full of plain statements, but with a good deal of substance under the surface.  She describes the unusual in the same tone as the everyday, so that it all blends, and we understand that the humdrum world is in fact full of strangeness.  Her descriptions are visual and refreshingly unusual.
This story considers itself the story of everyone.  I don't know if this is true.  You will be the one to decide.
I myself am certain that all stories are love stories, so I have refrained from classifying it as such.
It is simply the story of women and men who are mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, loved ones and friends...or, in a nutshell, or people who are tigers and lions, oranges and lemons.
This story is neither funny, nor sad.  It is simply a story that takes place somewhere on the border between the world we know and the world we are no longer very sure about.
I actually read this book in one sitting, something that I haven't done in many years; my reading time is normally very fragmented.  It so happened that I had driven some kids to a dance in another city and had a few hours on my own, so I took myself out to a sandwich and then spent most of the time reading.  This novel is quite short at 120 pages, and I finished it just as the dance was ending.  It was a wonderful and unexpected opportunity to be able to immerse myself completely in the story and just not come up for air.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Justinian's Flea -- Summer Book 3

Justinian's Flea: The First Great Plague and the End of the Roman Empire, by William Rosen

(So I went on a trip!  I knew I was going to be spending a lot of time in a car, not driving, so I took five books along, thinking that I would get a ton of reading done.  Ha ha.  I read about 150 pages of this book, and no others, in 5 days.  It was pathetic.  Every time I opened it up, I fell asleep.  (This is not really the book's fault, as I was not getting enough sleep and driving usually makes me sleepy anyway!)  I'll tell you more about the trip at the end, since it did feature some bookish goodness, but for now, it's on to the plague...

This is such an intriguing title; I've been looking forward to reading this book for quite some time.  But I was quite disappointed!  Rosen is analyzing why the Roman Empire fragmented, while the somewhat similar Chinese Empire stayed in pretty much one piece.  He posits that among other often-discussed factors, the arrival of the first waves of the bubonic plague in Constantinople and environs in 541-2 weakened the whole population just as new populations were pressing in (first the Goths, then the newly-converted Muslims).

This is a fascinating premise!  I want to read all about this!  But it took until two-thirds of the way through the book for anybody to actually come down with the plague.  There was so much in the way of background-setting and digression that I felt like I was...oh, say, slogging through underbrush trying to find a creek, but only ever finding new patches of brambles to shove aside.  First we had to set up the Roman Empire, complete with the establishment of Christianity and the east/west split.  We founded Constantinople and discussed trade routes.  We got through Justinian's youth, which involved his entire family background along with his uncle Justin, and a good deal of Byzantine politics, especially the chariot racing gangs.  Justinian ascended the throne and did a lot of stuff, and so did Theodora, whose background was examined in detail.  OK, now it's time for the plague!

No, it is not.  Now it is time to talk about fleas and various species thereof.  And a good long section on bacterial evolution and where Y. pestis came from (fascinating!  but by now I am tired and grumpy!), and exactly what Y. pestis does to a flea, and how rats come down with plague and humans are kind of incidental to the whole thing.  And the precise course of the bubonic plague through a human (again, fascinating but it's too late, I'm officially annoyed).  But now it's time for the plague, right?

Well, really it's time to discuss a lot of military campaigns in Italy, and just what the Goths thought.

There is hardly any plague in this book.  By the time it does show up, everything is murky and enmeshed in a zillion digressions (like what some guy said in 1880).  The effects of the plague are not as clear as they should be.  The whole thing comes off as patchy and way too digressive, without focus.  I was disappointed!

There is a lot of neat stuff in here.  I want to like it and recommend it.  But I don't.


I want to tell you about my visit to the Huntingdon Library in Pasadena, because it was quite booky, but I don't feel like it's enough to merit a whole post.  I was gone for days doing family stuff, and we also went to this fabulous museum I had never been to.  (I haven't made it down to LA in years!)  The Huntingdon is this massive estate full of fabulous gardens -- we visited the cactus garden, which looks like a set from Star Trek, and the Japanese garden -- museums of famous paintings, and a library of fabulously valuable books.  It is in fact quite difficult to do research at the Huntingdon, you need a lot of credentials, but they have museum displays for us peons.  I saw letters from Jack London, Lincoln, and Sir Isaac Newton!  And the BOOKS.  Enjoy these photos!

A First Folio!

Henry IV, printed during Shakespeare's lifetime

Gutenberg Bible
The Ellesmere Chaucer

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Don't Look Now

Don't Look Now: Stories by Daphne Du Maurier

Look what came across the donation table!  I grabbed it up (it will go back later) and had a lot of fun reading this collection of creepy stories.

"Don't Look Now" is the first story and takes place in Venice.  It is weird, the ending is completely not what I expected, and I got a fun kick out of it.

OK, probably everybody knew that Du Maurier wrote the original story for "The Birds."  I did not, and I didn't even really look at the title, so I got partway through and had a revelation all of a sudden.  This story is a good deal scarier than the movie, so pick it up sometime.

There are ghost stories, alternate universe stories, and creepy murder mysteries.  I particularly liked "The Blue Lenses," which could have been a Twilight Zone episode, and the final story, "Monte Verita," would have made a movie once upon a time.

A very worthwhile collection for those who like this sort of nicely creepy thing.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Enquire Within -- Summer Book 2

The Pocket Enquire Within: A Guide to the Niceties and Necessities of Victorian Domestic Life, ed.

by George Armstrong

Once upon a time, in 1856, a general book of knowledge, mostly domestic, was published under the delightful title Enquire Within Upon Everything.  It continued in print for over a hundred years and over a hundred editions!  My mom gave me this "pocket" version, containing the most interesting and entertaining parts of the original 1856 edition, for Christmas.  It's a fun book to dip into!

Chapters deal with such topics as housekeeping, home remedies, family life, and entertaining.  And wow, I learned a lot!  The Enquire Within people were very big on leeches, for example.  My first clue was a piece on "how often to change the water in which leeches are kept," which as you'll note, implies that keeping leeches is not unusual.  The medical section then has lots of information on leeches, including how to use them (be careful when applying them to the gums, as they are apt to creep down the throat), care for them, and even use a leech to make a barometer.

There were other topics besides leeches, though.  The editors consider flour to be a better burn remedy than butter, and explain exactly why (actually, it doesn't sound too unreasonable for 1856).   There are quite a few recipes, some of which sound pretty good, though I don't know how to tell if I have a "clear oven" or a "slack oven."  And there's a whole section on spelling, grammar, and diction for those wishing to study it.

They advise everyone to learn to swim, and give a good method for getting started -- walk out until you're up to your chest, then turn around and throw an egg into an area where you'll have to dive for it.  I'm pretty impressed; 50 years later, even the Fabian E. Nesbit obviously considered swimming to be mainly for boys.  There is also good advice for floating instead of drowning, though our usual dead-man's float doesn't seem to have been invented yet.

I must say, the ingredients often sound enchanting.  Remedies call for flowers of sulphur, wine of colchicum, and all sorts of lovely things.  Whatever Muscovy glass is, I would like some.

It's a practical book, aimed at the middle classes but with an eye to working-class people as well (though if you need to write a letter to the Queen, you can).  It's just a perfect example of the Victorian spirit of morality and practicality mixed with as much sentimental poetry as possible.  Personally I don't mind the moralizing; I can always use a reminder to yield not the golden bracelet of Principle while I live.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Detroit -- Summer Book 1

Detroit: An American Autopsy, by Charlie LeDuff

I've been meaning to read this for years, and it turned out better than I anticipated!  I hardly put it down for the day it took me to read it.  I originally heard of the book from my non-fiction loving buddy Maphead, who routinely supplies me with titles to put on that ever-growing TBR list.

Charlie LeDuff, journalist, decided to come home to Detroit in hopes of raising his daughter closer to family while simultaneously telling the world about the disintegration of Motor City.  He combines Detroit history with current politics and his own experiences to tell a story of corruption, decline, and loss of hope.  The book was published in 2013, just as Detroit was filing bankruptcy, and it seems that things might possibly be looking up a little bit these days -- let's hope so.

LeDuff keeps public servants, especially firefighters, at the center of his narrative.  Arson is both entertainment and income for some people, and Detroit firefighters are kept constantly busy putting out blazes in abandoned houses, for which they have to use equipment that is falling apart.  When LeDuff followed the paper trails of expenditures for firefighters, he found that millions of tax dollars were simply disappearing into fictional projects.

Detroit has always run on graft and backdoor dealing.  A strong system can withstand a certain amount of cheating, but as far as I can tell, there's a tipping point beyond which a society can no longer function properly.  Detroit passed that long ago, and also lost the industries that supported it.  (A person much more knowledgeable than I am might be able to compare with Chicago, which has a lot of corruption but still manages to function, if not very well, because it still has a lot of wealth and more diverse industries.)  The jobs disappeared and were not replaced, unless you count various forms of crime.

LeDuff also talks a lot about Detroit and race, which I knew virtually nothing about.  I knew that Detroit has a very large black population, of course, and I had rather had the impression that the factories there had fueled a rise in the black middle class, but I was not correct.  LeDuff explains that Detroit replicated a lot of segregationist rules, restricting black people to the lowest of jobs and to particular (very overcrowded) neighborhoods.  There was also a lot of rioting that I didn't know about.  So I learned a lot there.

Some years ago I read a book about global poverty that showed that a single-industry country is too precarious for survival.  Diversifying is the key to prosperity; if you only have one thing, most people will still be poor and that one thing will be fought over.  Diamond mines are a classic example, but I think Detroit qualifies too.  It was pretty much a single-industry city, and now that's just about gone.  There was nothing to fall back on.

This is a gripping story, and one I knew almost nothing about.  It's also -- as you might expect -- a very gritty book.  It could hardly be otherwise. 

Monday, June 11, 2018

Bulgarian Literature Month, or, Jean writes a guest post

June is Bulgarian Literature Month!  Thomas of My Two Stotinki has hosted events in June before, and this year he is hosting an entire month of posts at the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, which is an organization literature in libraries!  I've been following them for quite some time, so when Thomas put out a call for people to review Bulgarian books, I was both excited and very intimidated.  I took a deep breath and volunteered to read and review Everything Happens As It Does.

Take a look and read the other articles too!  There's a lot of neat stuff happening over there this month.

My post went live over a week ago, but I've been overwhelmed with the end of school.  It turns out that getting a freshman and a senior through finals (and graduated!) is way more work than I was expecting, and WAY more work than homeschooling them.  Massive final projects, frazzled nerves (theirs and mine), and endless ceremonies and gatherings took over my life.  But look, now I've got a high school graduate!

I've been missing my blog and my reading time, so I'll try to get a few posts up before I go out of town in a couple of days.  I'll have plenty of reading time in the car, I hope!  We'll have four adults driving, which is luxury.  (And two of them are much better long-distance drivers than I am; I get sleepy.)  The rest of my family will be home; I'm going to LA with my parents and brother.  I have not been to LA in a very long time.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Book Blog Expo Day 4: Blogging Advice

It's the last day of Book Blog Expo, hosted by Donna at Girl Who Reads!

Day 4 - June 2 - Blogging Advice. Do you have tips to share or need help with some aspect of your blogging? Today is the day to give and ask! This is a time for the blogging community to shine by helping one another out.

Well, I have very little advice to give.  The way I do blogging is not really designed to bring in the numbers!  I figure, if I start thinking of it as a job -- thinking in terms of audience and what my focus ought to be -- it won't be fun any more and I won't want to do it.  So I just do what I like.

What I would like help with is the design.  I like my fairly minimalist setup, but I would love to have a custom image/template like a lot of people do, and the person that was recommended to me seems to have stopped doing it, to my great sadness.  So if you have any recommendations for a not-too-expensive designer, let me know!

I'd also like to know the secret behind never hitting a blogging slump and always finding time to blog in no matter how off-the-rails life gets, but I suspect that those are Mysteries of the Universe that will never be solved.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Book Blog Expo Day 3: Anticipated Books

I found this Book Blog Expo hosted by Donna, which is happening instead of Armchair BEA.  It looked like fun so I hopped on board.

Day 3 - June 1 - Most Anticipated Books & Giveaway Day. Tells us all about the books you are most looking forward to this year (share even if your most anticipated book of the year has already come out). And since we are talking about anticipated books, what more anticipated than winning a great prize? If you are doing a giveaway, please include it in this day's post.

Here is where I have to confess that I am really bad at reading brand-new books.  I do look forward to some!  But most of my anticipated reads are books that are already on my shelf; I just need to get to them.

Here are three 2018 books I'm looking forward to.  One of these things is not like the other:

The Coddling of the American Mind, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt -- I just love these guys.  I'll listen to Greg talk anytime, and I did meet him almost 4 years ago in a free speech panel discussion at Berkeley that had to be experienced to be believed.  (One woman was angry that the panelists didn't agree with her that a particular person should be fired for his views, and wore a paper mask for the rest of the hour.  The woman next to me said that she was so happy to see that the panel agreed with her about the greatness of the heckler's veto, at which point I think they just wanted to wail in despair.  It was quite the experience.)

Angels in the Mist, by Ryan Southwick -- a little out of my usual roundhouse, it's a novel about...PTSD and vampires!

Hate: Why We Should Resist It With Free Speech, Not Censorship, by Nadine Strossen -- A timely title that I can't wait to get my teeth into.

Here are three books I'm just looking forward to reading as soon as I can:

The Palm-Wine Drinkard, by Amos Tutola -- an early and classic Nigerian novel!

The Glass Bead Game, by Hermann Hesse -- in theory, I'm excited to read this novel.  In fact, I am petrified of the thing.

Black Renaissance: The St. Orpheus Breviary, vol II, by Miklos Szentkuthy -- this book looks so strange, and the cover is so great, that I really want to read it.  It's another I'm scared of.

You'll note (or more probably you won't) that only one of these books is on my 20 Books of Summer list, even though five of them are in my possession (though I didn't even order Black Renaissance until after I'd made the list so that doesn't count).  Who knows why?  Life is a mystery.