Saturday, July 28, 2018

A Golden Age -- Summer Book 11

A Golden Age, by Tahmima Anam

(Just a note -- I've been traveling a lot.  I went to Portland for four days, took a day trip to Sacramento, and am about to head out for the wilds of Utah for eight days.  So while I'm reading, I'm certainly having a hard time finding time for blogging.  I'll be back, with plenty to talk about, fairly soon.  And I will have pictures to share too!)

Meanwhile, Rehana is preparing for a party and remembering her past.  Widowed all too young, she had no means to support her two children, and her husband's relatives took them away.  The lengths Rehana went to in order to get her children back have always been her most closely-held secret, and now the kids are grown and attending university.  The party is for the anniversary of their return, but it's 1971 in East Pakistan and the kids are really more interested in politics and the movement to break away from West Pakistan.  The Pakistani rulers are not about to let these upstart Bengalis have their way, and through nine months of war, Rehana finds herself helping with the rebellion and once again, doing everything to keep her children safe.

The story is actually based on Anam's own grandmother's experiences during the 1971 war, which she explains in an afterword.  Plus, it's a really good novel.  I've been meaning to get around to it for over a year, and now I'm sorry I waited so long.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Mount TBR Checkpoint #2

Bev has posted the second checkpoint for the Mount TBR Challenge.  She always gives some jobs, so here goes:

 1. Tell us how many miles you've made it up your mountain (# of books read).
I'm quite proud to say that I have read 21.5 titles out of a goal of 24.  This is much better than I usually do!
  1.  Early Christian Writings (a collection)
  2. The Age of Bede 
  3. The Ginger Star, by Leigh Brackett
  4. The Hounds of Skaith, by Leigh Brackett
  5. The Reavers of Skaith, by Leigh Brackett
  6. Crashing Suns
  7. Danubia, by Simon Winder
  8. The Story of Science, by Susan Wise Bauer (my guru!)
  9. Rasselas, by Samuel Johnson 
  10. Pan Tadeusz, by Adam Mickiewicz
  11. Fire in the Bones, by S. Michael Wilcox
  12.  Towers in the Mist, by Elizabeth Goudge
  13. Libraries in the Ancient World, by Lionel Casson
  14. Home and Exile, by Chinua Achebe
  15. Over the Gate, by Miss Read
  16. The Market Square, by Miss Read
  17. The Sea and Poison, by Shusaku Endo
  18. The Pocket Enquire Within
  19. Justinian's Flea, by William Rosen
  20. Miss MacKenzie, by Anthony Trollope
  21. Lectures on Russian Literature, by Vladimir Nabokov
  22. 800 Years of Women's Letters, ed. Olga Kenyon

2. Complete ONE (or more if you like) of the following:

 A. Choose two titles from the books you've read so far that have a common link. You decide what the link is--both have strong female lead characters? Each focuses on a diabolical plot to take over the world? Blue covers? About weddings? Find your link and tell us what it is.
 Danubia, by Simon Winder, taught me a good deal about the origins and dangers of European nationalism.   Then Pan Tadeusz, by Adam Mickiewicz  showed me an early example of it.

(In less interesting links, Leigh Brackett wrote 3 of these books and her husband, Edmond Hamilton, wrote another one.)

 B. Tell us about a book on the list that was new to you in some way--new author, about a place you've never been, a genre you don't usually read...etc.
While I'm very fond of Samuel Johnson, I've never been able to wade through his essays.  Rasselas was the first thing of his that I enjoyed reading.

 C. Which book (read so far) has been on your TBR mountain the longest? Was it worth the wait? Or is it possible you should have tackled it back when you first put it on the pile? Or tossed it off the edge without reading it all?

  My oldest TBR title was 800 Years of Women's Letters, ed. Olga Kenyon, and I could have tossed it off the edge.  It was OK, but it turns out I don't like letters much.  (I still have another collection on the shelf; should I toss it?  I paid real money for it...a long time ago...)

MOST of these books were worth the wait, though, and I enjoyed them.  Not Justinian's Flea so much. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Classics Club Spin #18

The newly revised Classics Club is kicking off with a Spin!  Habitual readers know the drill, and new ones can join in by reading the CC Spin rules.  The winning number will be announced on the 1st of August.

The catch is that I will be out of town on the 1st. I just got back from a trip, but I can't stay off the road and I'm leaving for 8 days or so, which means I'll probably miss out on several days' worth of Spin reading time.  The time frame is a little shorter this time around and I'll only have until the 31st of August -- which time is meant to be spent on the 20 Books of Summer project.  So there's a fairly good chance that I'll end up with quite a reading job!

Here's my list -- which I have not made any easier than usual, I must say I find Roderick Random pretty terrifying:

  1.  Walls of Jericho, by Rudolph Fisher
  2. The Palm-Wine Drinkard, by Tutuola
  3.  The Elder Edda  (Poetic Edda)
  4.  The Zelmenyaners, by Moyshe Kulbak
  5. The Bride of Lammermoor, by Sir Walter Scott
  6. Jurgen, by James Branch Cabell 
  7. First Love and Other Stories, by Turgenev
  8. Lais of Marie de France
  9. Constellation Myths, by Eratosthenes and Hyginus  
  10. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, by George Orwell
  11. Memoirs of the Crusades
  12. The White Devil, by John Webster
  13. The Journal of a Tour Through the Hebrides, by Boswell
  14. Aleph and stories, by Jorge Luis Borges
  15. The Adventures of Random Random, by Tobias Smollett  
  16. The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis 
  17. Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange (Medieval Arabic stories)
  18. Franny and Zooey, by J. D. Salinger
  19. The Green Face, by Gustav Meyrink
  20. The Well at the End of the World, by William Morris
Most of these are books that I have on the shelf, or possibly on my tablet.  Might as well try to shrink that ever-growing pile...

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Year of Reading Dangerously

UK edition, which is what I've got
The Year of Reading Dangerously, by Andy Miller

Andy Miller, writer and editor, cog in the machinery of British society, had stopped reading books.  In something like five (ten?) years, he had read magazines and Internet articles and only one book, and that one was The Da Vinci Code.  Books had fallen out of his life, replaced by his phone and Sudoku puzzles.  (Seriously, the man spends hours every week commuting on a train, and was doing Sudoku instead of reading.)  So he started thinking maybe he should read a book sometime.  He came up with a whole imaginary program, but it still took a couple of years before he actually picked up a book and read it.  After that, he finally embarked on a project of reading books -- the list being mostly books he had always meant to read, had in fact lied about reading, but had never actually read.

Miller starts off with The Master and Margarita, which won him my instant approval.  Then it's Middlemarch, another excellent choice.  After that, I hardly recognized a thing as Miller's tastes mostly do not overlap with my own.  There are a lot of modernistic guy novels, something called The Ragged Trousers Philanthropists -- which seems to be the British counterpart to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, only successful in its aim (while poor Sinclair only managed to kickstart the FDA) -- and a large section on the wonders of Houllebecq, who it doesn't sound like I would like.  Miller does tackle Pride and Prejudice but hates it.

There is a fantastic, fun chapter comparing The Da Vinci Code to Moby Dick.  There's a very nice section on childhood reading, including a bit praising the old Doctor Who episode paperbacks (--which I had just gotten a bagful of a few hours earlier!   Those are probably all over the place in the UK but they aren't common at all here).  There is quite a bit of musing on Miller's love for what he thinks of as the Contradictorial School of writing (which is mostly very bitter and complainy about Life):
Like many women, I suspect, Tina does not have much time for the Contradictorial School.  It does seem to be a style of writing that is practised and enjoyed almost exclusively by men, a fact which disappoints me.
Yeah, well, I'm disappointed by your lack of appreciation for Jane Austen, Miller, and it's true -- I don't have a lot of time for bitter, angry writers.  Gotta save my energy, see.

Book lovers will enjoy this meandering through favorite (or new!) titles, but may be slightly exasperated by Miller's previous book-sloth and amazement that reading is something that can fit into modern life and parenthood.  People who have let reading slip through the cracks may be inspired to pick up a book, so that's nice.  I never did quite figure out what was dangerous about Miller's reading program; I guess something about feeling alive again and thinking?  Maybe he just liked the idea.

One of the cover blurbs says "Like nothing else I have ever read."  The reviewer must not have read many of these kinds of books, because while this is a fun take on the "embark on a reading program and write a book about it" genre, it's hardly unique.  Unless you count that it's written by a man, and these books are mostly (but not always) written by women.

Monday, July 16, 2018

800 Years of Women's Letters -- Summer Book 9

800 Years of Women's Letters, ed. by Olga Kenyon

Way back in the 1990s I bought this book, and then never got more than about 50 pages into it.  I used to think I liked historical collections of letters, but in fact I do not.  Still, I've always meant to read this, and now I have.  Kenyon collected letters from lots of women, from a few lands and many times.

The letters are arranged by topic, which I did not love.  Sections address things like domestic labor, romance, travel, illness, and so on.  Each section has a little introduction, which is usually unnecessary and frequently embarrassingly laden with trite filler like "Women have travelled for multifarious reasons."  Well, yes.

Hildegard of Bingen I think is the oldest writer, but not the only medieval woman.  Other names include Elizabeth I, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Madame de Sevigne, a prolific correspondent.  Many of the writers are not famous at all.  Very odd indeed is the inclusion of some fictional letters from novels, most notably Mariama Ba's So Long a Letter.  That really puzzles me.  The letters are also nearly all from England, France, or sometimes the USA, with maybe a couple of Germans.  The only non-Western letters are fictional.  There are no Asians or South Americans at all.

It now comes off as hopelessly 90s, which I thought was interesting in itself.  How can a collection of historical letters have such a 90s flavor?  I think it is the particular style of the writing, which is feminist, but feminist in a very 90s way.  A collection gathered now would be quite different, I think, and would put a good deal more effort into getting more global coverage -- or else it would focus on one country or time.

Don't get me wrong; I enjoyed quite a few of the letters.  But I have learned since I bought the book that I don't love reading collections of letters, and this one had such weird quirks and omissions that it was not all that fun to read.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Angels in the Mist -- Summer Book 8

Angels in the Mist (Z-Tech Chronicles), by Ryan Southwick

Once upon a time in high school, I had a buddy named Ryan.  He's a fun guy and helped me get a good job driving pizza at Arnoldi's (though in hindsight I'm surprised that my parents let me drive pizza!).  We lost touch for a while, like you do, but with the magic of Facebook, we can  keep up again.  Ryan has always had ambitions to write, and now he's finished his first novel, which is going to be a trilogy, so obviously I wanted to read it!

It's true that this is not my usual kind of story -- you will not find a lot of tech/fantasy thrillers reviewed on this blog -- but I had a lot of fun with it.  It's a real page-turner with lots of action and suspense.  I was, at times, a little frustrated because I wanted ANSWERS to my QUESTIONS, and I wasn't at all sure that I would get them before the next volume (or, horrors, the third!).  Happily, the satisfaction/suspense ratio is nicely balanced and I came away with some good answers and some nice anticipation for the next installment.

The story: Anne gets along as a waitress in San Francisco; her life was derailed 18 years ago in a brutal attack, but she now brightens her customers' days and manages her PTSD symptoms as much as she can.  She's even thinking about entering the dating scene, but her first date goes awry and instead she's dropped into a new world -- one featuring vampires, cyborgs, martial arts, and a whole lot more.  She finds new, wonderful friends (some of which are human), romance, and a whole lot of danger.  With an angry vampire determined to rip her to shreds, Anne needs to use her own strength and learn to trust others too.  Learning to shoot a plasma gun really well would also be a good idea.

So, I enjoyed Angels in the Mist.  It's long, with a lot of plot and all sorts of things going on, and it's got more romance than I usually go for (which is almost zero, so most people like more than I do), and it's hard to put down.  The pace keeps up and the whole thing is a wild ride.

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Summer Half

Summer Half, by Angela Thirkell

It's been several years since I picked up any Thirkell novels, but I do love them.  Just the other day Brona read Northbridge Rectory, and somebody else mentioned Thirkell books too, and Sunday was far too sleepy and warm a day to try to read Nabokovian lectures or Chinese literary short stories!  So I picked up Summer Half and had a truly delightful afternoon.

If you're unfamiliar with the Thirkell novels -- she picked up Trollope's fictional county of Barsetshire and wrote contemporary domestic comedies in it.  Really, they are much like updated Trollope novels, with a wide cast of characters going through realistic but essentially happy lives, all given with a large dose of humor.  They are just such fun.

In Summer Half, young Colin Keith is reading law, but decides that a young man ought to be supporting himself, so he gets a job as a junior Classics Master at a prep school.  Nobody notices how noble and self-sacrificing he is being, but his term at school is good experience for him, and there he meets: Philip Winter, moody young Communist unhappily engaged to the headmaster's daughter --  Everard Carter, head of house, who falls in love with Colin's sister Kate but is convinced she loves the sophisticated -- Noel Merton, and lots of other people.  And Colin's youngest sister Lydia is one of my favorite Barsetshire characters of all time.  They eventually sort themselves out.

Virago is currently re-publishing the Thirkell novels in this very pretty format, which you can see above.  This is not at all what my copy looks like; mine is a pocket paperback from the 1980s with a painting of what look like mid-Victorian ladies at a dinner.  Since the story is set in about 1937, it's a bit misleading!

It was such a nice break from my other 20 Books of Summer reads that I might have to sneak some more in....

Dark Emu -- Summer Book 7

Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident?  by Bruce Pascoe

Some time back I read this amazing Australian book, The Biggest Estate On Earth, by Bill Gammage, which was a large, detailed explanation of Aboriginal land management techniques.  My mind was blown, and so then I needed this book by Bruce Pascoe to learn more.

Dark Emu is more of a short overview of several aspects of Aboriginal life; it is not as exhaustive on one topic as the Gammage book.  Pascoe uses old diaries and descriptions of what early white settlers found to show what he means.  He points out that Aboriginal people were engaging in sedentary farming; they were not 'only' hunter-gatherers.  They had villages, and large stores of food.  They had complex engineered aquaculture sites on rivers that allowed fish to flourish and be easily caught. 

White settlers did not always recognize what was going on right in front of them, either because Aboriginal technologies looked very different from what they were used to, or because they also kind of denied the evidence of their own eyes.

Pascoe wants Australians not only to recognize what Aboriginal people were doing, he wants to adapt some of these old practices into modern farming.  If the daisy yam is a nutritious food that grows well in the climate, why not grow it?  Why not try kangaroo grass for grain farms?  Why not farm kangaroo instead of sheep?  (He is impatient with people who feel weird about eating kangaroo, insisting that if a) sheep and cattle are bad for the Australian soil and b) kangaroo populations can be conserved and strengthened by a switch, that everybody can just get used to eating kangaroo.)

Fascinating information, and although it comes after and builds on the Gammage book, I'd recommend it first.  It's a shorter, easier read and more of an overview.  I'd imagine that each short chapter could easily be expanded into a large and detailed book.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Miss MacKenzie -- Summer Book 6

There are no good covers of this book.
Miss Mackenzie, by Anthony Trollope

It's been quite a while since I made time for a Trollope novel, and I've missed them!  I love Trollope's writing.  Miss Mackenzie has been sitting on my TBR shelf for a little while now; I found this nice old Oxford Classics edition from the 1920s that's in really good shape still, and a pretty olive green with art deco gold designs on the spine.  On the back flyleaf, somebody parked a needle many years ago, and now it's rusty.

Miss Mackenzie is not your average novelistic heroine.  She is thirty-five, not particularly beautiful or educated, and she's spent nearly the last 20 years nursing her father and then her brother.  Now she has a small fortune to live on, and no knowledge whatsoever of the world she so desperately wants to see more of.  So she moves to "Littlebath," a small city, and hopes to find congenial society.

What she mostly finds is that Littlebath is divided and she's supposed to pick sides, which she doesn't want to do.  Moreover, everyone seems interested in her money and not a lot else.  Miss Mackenzie has FOUR suitors in this novel, and while two of them genuinely like her, they all propose to use her money.  Her female relatives all want a cut too (preferably all of it).  Is anybody ever going to want Miss Mackenzie around because she is a kind, intelligent, loving woman?

For a while I thought this story would be kind of slow, but I was wrong.  I could hardly put it down for the whole second half!  It gets really suspenseful.  Oh, it was really good.  Trollope fans will not be disappointed by this one.  And Lady Glencora Palliser makes a cameo appearance, too.