Thursday, January 31, 2019

CC Spin: Crime and Punishment

Lurid cartoons on every panel!
Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, trans. by Oliver Ready

My chunkster Spin title was Crime and Punishment, and despite the completely un-cozy nature of the novel, I really was pretty excited to read this new translation by Oliver Ready.  I read Crime and Punishment once before, years ago (maybe 15?  after I moved to this house but before I started the blog), and I don't know what translation that was, other than an older one -- given that I was reading a very elderly pocket paperback, it was probably Constance Gannett.  I remember almost nothing, but I did find it something of a slog.  Well, this translation is not a slog!

The story is well known: Raskolnikov, a student in St. Petersburg, has no money and no energy either.  Everything makes him angry, and he lies in his filthy little room and feverishly stews over his terrible, tempting plan -- there's this awful pawnbroker woman, and if he killed her, he could take her money!  He's got a couple of rationalizations for this; she's a useless leech on society, and he could be a Napoleon, above petty moral rules because of his impending greatness, which the money would help.  But his lack of direction seems to have almost as much to do with it.  Raskolnikov performs the murder, and kills a harmless sister too, but he grabs only a few pawned items before running off.  He hides those, and completely fails to profit from his crime.

There's the crime, and the punishment takes up the other 4/5 of the novel, as Raskolnikov finds out that he can now never be free of the terrible fear of discovery.  His best friends and his family are only irritants.  Everything gets worse and worse...

Ready's translation is lively and gripping.  I really liked it, and there are helpful notes as well.  If you're going to take this one on, I recommend investing in this newer edition; it's worth the money.  I have not read the other new translations, so I can't compare, but I think I did prefer this writing to the P/V translation of The Brothers Karamazov I read a few years ago.  Who knows.

I'm excited about the next Spin; it can't come soon enough!

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

A Top Ten of what I'm looking forward to

First, a little update:  I started back to work last week.  It's a new semester, filled with hope and possibility!  It's nice to be back, and I am also working a lot more hours now, as a co-worker is on maternity leave.  It's a good chance for me to do more (and earn more!), but the transition is proving a little rough.  Suddenly I seem to have almost no time at home, so keeping the household running takes up the hours I'm not at work.  Don't worry, I'm making the kids step up; everybody is willing enough, but we're working on that elusive skill of noticing that things need to happen without Mom pointing it out.  Reading time is only somewhat curtailed (since a lot of my reading time happens while doing other things anyway) but wow, I'm going to have to be very intentional about scheduling blogging time or it will never happen.

Meanwhile, everybody else did a weekly Top Ten post about the books they wished they'd read in 2018, but didn't.  I don't generally do the Top Ten, largely because I struggle to keep up as it is, but this one tickled my fancy.  Then I went and checked the master list, and this week's topic is books you're now looking forward to, which is practically the same here is a combo Top Ten, of books I'm looking forward to reading this year, some of which I didn't get to last year!

Five history titles, with heavy focus on Russia.  If I ever get through my growing pile of Russian history books, I will be highly impressed with myself.

When They Come For Us, We'll Be Gone: the Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry, by Gal Beckerman.  This has been on my wish list for a while, but now I HAVE a copy!

Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History, by David Aaronovitch.  Picked it up at Moe's in Berkeley.  Looks good!

Ganga: A Journey Down the Ganges River, by Julian Crandall Hollick.  A tour of the Ganges, with focus on environmental questions.

 Secondhand Time: the Last of the Soviets, by Svetlana Alexievich.  The famous documentary history.

The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, by Masha Gessen.  Life in post-Soviet Russia.

 Two medieval literature titles, which, like Russian history, only represents part of what's actually on my shelves:

The Wanderer: Elegies, Epics and Riddles.  A collection of Anglo-Saxon bits and bobs.

Arthurian Romances, Tales, and Lyric Poetry: The Complete Works of Hartmann von Aue.  I've read one of his stories and want to read the rest!  I'm so fond of his angry parrot eagle insignia.

Three novels I'm looking forward to (and possibly also nervous about):

Black Renaissance: St. Orpheus Breviary, Vol. II, by Miklos Szentkuthy.  Intimidating as all get-out, irresistible premise, not to mention the cover.

The Palm-Wine Drinkard, by Amos Tutuola.  The first Nigerian novel, so quite important.

Purge, by Sofi Oksanen.  An Estonian novel about the darkest days of oppression.

And, a two-volume memoir I'm counting as one:

Drawn From Memory and Drawn From Life, by E. M. Shepard.  Memoirs by the illustrator of Winnie the Pooh and Wind in the Willows.  I got these for my mom's very late Christmas present, since I only found out about them on December 23rd and they had to be shipped from the UK.  She liked them a lot and I expect to find them delightful.  They're Slightly Foxed editions and thus completely charming.

Dang, even counting Shepard as one, that's still eleven.  Too late now!

My problem is, I have a zillion wonderful books to read, and not nearly enough time to read them in.  I have this fantastic book buffet at work, but I just can't read fast enough...

Monday, January 28, 2019

A Fall of Moondust

A Fall of Moondust, by Arthur C. Clarke

I got a bit bogged down in my Vintage Sci-Fi reading when I picked up an Alfred Bester novel and didn't love it.  I will still finish it, but I wanted to do one more fun read before the month was over, so I picked this 1961 Clarke novel that looked interesting.

In the not-too-distant future (from us; I think this is set around 2020 or so), the Moon has a few cities and a small tourist trade.  Pat Harris and Sue Wilkins run a Moon bus-ship, the Selene, for trips across the Sea of Thirst.  This large crater is filled with moondust, which acts almost like a liquid -- though it doesn't ripple.  A moonquake pulls the Selene down under the dust, trapping 22 people alive.

This is a technical problem novel which made me think of a cross between The Poseidon Adventure and The Martian.  Can the Selene be found?  If it's found at all, how to bring it up from under unknown fathoms of dust?  Inside, how to keep 20 tourists from panicking, or suffocating?

I enjoyed this one a lot.  There's a nice balance between human problems and technical ones, and Clarke (a mathematician and physicist) has a good grasp of the science involved; he knows, for example, that dust on the Moon won't billow or puff, though he doesn't know that real moondust is extremely sharp and abrasive -- that was a surprise for when we actually got there, eight years later.

The cultural artifacts from 1961 are pretty fun too.  There is no mention of computers.  A passenger on the moonship wants to smoke, and there's an emergency cache of 1000 cigarettes on board -- though their buried status precludes actually lighting up.  One lady passenger is strictly girdled.  It's pretty much 1961, just on the Moon.

Fabulous Retro SF Cover Art!

I adore old paperback cover art, and I especially love old SF cover art!  In honor of Vintage Sci-Fi Month, Little Red has asked about our favorite covers.  Here are some of mine.  I love anything with a spaceman in a silly outfit...

 I read these all the time when I was a kid, and to me they are perfect examples of SF cover art.

You can't go wrong with an axe and lots of red hair, right?

This one is just so goofy.  I love weirdo covers like these.

I love these because they're so perfectly typical of the period's style, so surreal and supposed to be all symbolic.

Ahahaha perfecto.

My husband also likes SF art, and his tastes run to John Berkey, Vincent di Fate, and Chris Foss -- spacescapes with huge ships or structures hanging in front of planets.  Whenever I read Archer's Goon, Howard and his spaceships reminds me of him.  Here's one for the husband, "a really complicated spaceship, full of unnecessary but soothing twiddles."

John Berkey
 Do you have any favorite covers to share?

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Born to Be Posthumous

Born to Be Posthumous: the Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey, by Mark Dery

My librarian co-worker and I have both been looking forward to this, and we had to have a polite argument about who got to take this book home first and keep it over winter break.  "You should take it first; I have so many books at home."  "No, you should have it -- I might not be able to finish it in time!"  I wound up with it and am due to take it back on the first day of the semester, which is tomorrow -- today by the time this is published.  So I'd better hurry up and get this post done.

Can you believe nobody has done a Gorey biography before this?  Me neither.  On the whole, it's an interesting read and delves into Gorey's childhood, Army service during the war*, and all other events through his whole life. There is a happy amount of discussion of Gorey's particular aesthetic, and the implications thereof. Of course, all writing and artistic pursuits are carefully documented, which is nice; I enjoyed reading about each little book and how it was produced.  I often had to go look at my Amphigorey volumes to study things.

Gorey was a ballet fanatic, and pretty much went to every performance of the New York Ballet for years and years.  He also watched movies all the time, and read a zillion books -- you end up wondering how he ever managed to do it all.  (the book's proposed solution: he didn't sleep all that much?)

The only trouble I had with the biography was perhaps one that is intrinsic to the pursuit of biography at all.  Gorey was an intensely private person and didn't necessarily like people poking into his personal life.  This shows up very starkly in Dery's preoccupation with Gorey's sexuality.  When asked, he said he figured he was gay, but pretty much asexual.  Dery has a really hard time accepting this, and often seems determined to diagnose Gorey as more of a gay man horrified by his own feelings, which isn't really very convincing at all, given Gorey's personal style and circle of friends.  Why not let him define himself?  It was sometimes uncomfortably like poking him with a stick or trying to pry him open.  Dery does kind of calm down by the end.  And as I said, perhaps this problem is intrinsic to the whole project of biography, at least when about people who like their privacy.  (Like me.  I hope I never get famous and have somebody try to figure out all my feelings!  Happily that is not very likely.)

I wound up with a short list of things to watch that were very influential; as above, Gorey watched a huge number of films and had a very filmy, theatery sort of brain, and he also remembered everything, apparently.  I have really got to watch some Feuillade films, especially this series, "Les Vampires."  Once you see the head vampire lady, you know you've seen her a zillion times in Gorey imagery!  This is the first of seven episodes, and she doesn't show up until episode two, but there are other things, such as the cat burglar at the end of this one.

*Fun fact: Gorey was, for a while, posted to Camp Roberts in California, which he hated even more than he hated the rest of Army life.  The only real car accident I've ever been involved with was right next to Camp Roberts -- I and three friends were in two cars, and the other car lost control and went off the road.  No harm done, except a cracked oil pan, but the car was jammed into a curb and we had to get a truck to lift it off.  Every time I pass Camp Roberts I try to figure out exactly where that happened and I have never managed it.  I swear it happened, I even have a photo!

Monday, January 21, 2019

Three Weeks: the Glynalong

Three Weeks, by Elinor Glyn

Reading Rambo is a genius at coming up with insane readalongs, and as she said...
I never thought you could actually read Elinor Glyn's books; she seemed like some distant untouchable literary figure, referenced in The Music Man, but whose works were not to be seen by contemporary eyes. Well that is nonsense. They're right there on the internet for free.

This was a revelation to me.  I could read Elinor Glyn!  So I joined in the Glynalong and here I am, having finished one of Glyn's more scandalous novels, Three Weeks.  It's a romance novel of 1907 and it's no wonder it caused a fuss; this story straight-up involves an older married lady seducing a young man and having an affair with him for, you guessed it, three weeks.

Paul is a 23-year-old young man who has fallen in love with the Wrong Girl -- that is, one who is of a slightly lower class and isn't very pretty.  Isabella is a tall, strapping young woman with "large red hands" and "large pink lips," so she is worthless.  (As an owner of large hands and, ahem, fullish lips, I'm on Isabella's side, and I think she ought to dump Paul's sorry self and go on a trip around the world.)  Paul's parents send him to Switzerland in the hope that he'll forget Isabella.

And boy howdy does he!  Paul meets The Lady, a mysterious Foreigner (Russian?  Balkan?) who sets out deliberately to seduce him -- because she has a rotter of a husband and she wants to produce a baby to secure the succession away from him.  It's all put into very high-flown language, though, and Paul is instantly besotted with her.  There's a lot about how he worships her -- and a lot of her writhing about on tiger skins, too!  Tigers are a big theme.

The Lady forbids Paul from asking her name, or where she's from, or pretty well anything at all.  They're just going to live for the moment and their love shall wax as the moon does!  So they go off to a mountain where they can stay together, and then they go to Venice, and all in all Paul packs an entire life into his three-week affair.

There are some really awful bits of dialogue.  The Lady tells Paul that women will always love their men if they're sufficiently masterful and overbearing.  I was particularly annoyed by this bit:
They [ancient Greeks] were perhaps too practical to have indulged in the mental emotions we weave into it now—but they were wise, they did not educate the wives and daughters, they realised that to perform well domestic duties a woman's mind should not be over-trained in learning. Learning and charm and grace of mind were for the others, the hetaerae of whom they asked no tiresome ties. And in all ages it is unfortunately not the simple good women who have ruled the hearts of men. Think of Pericles and Aspasia—Antony and Cleopatra—Justinian and Theodora—Belisarius and Antonina—and later, all the mistresses of the French kings—even, too, your English Nelson and Lady Hamilton! Not one of these was a man's ideal of what a wife and mother ought to be. So no doubt the Greeks were right in that principle, as they were right in all basic principles of art and balance. And now we mix the whole thing up, my Paul—domesticity and learning—nerves and art, and feverish cravings for the impossible new—so we get a conglomeration of false proportions, and a ceaseless unrest."
"Yes," said Paul, and thought of his mother. She was a perfectly domestic and beautiful woman, but somehow he felt sure she had never made his father's heart beat.  
GAH.  Blergh.  I get that women's roles were overly restricted to the domestic sphere, but I'm unconvinced that the Lady has a solution here.  Paul, Lady, you are both terrible.

OK!  So!  At the end of the three weeks, at the full moon, the Lady abandons Paul.  He promptly falls apart:
...ere his father could arrive on Sunday, Paul was lying 'twixt life and death, madly raving with brain fever.
And thus ended the three weeks of his episode.
BRAIN FEVER!  Amazing.  I didn't expect that in a 20th century novel!  (I might need a gif here.  This is the most gif-appropriate moment I've ever had on my blog.)

Paul's life is in ruins.  After recovering from the nearly-fatal brain fever, he goes home and hates everything, or he travels and hates everything.  He's all sophisticated and stuff now, everybody loves him, but he doesn't care a bit:
And all the time Paul spoke he saw no sea of faces below him—only his soul's eyes were looking into those strange chameleon orbs of his lady. He said every word as if she had been there, and at the end it almost seemed she must have heard him, so soft a peace fell on his spirit. Yes, she would have been pleased with her lover, he knew...
I like that "strange chameleon orbs" bit -- did I mention that Paul can never decide whether the Lady's eyes are green, or purple, or grey, or what?

Anyway, Paul's father is full of a manly silent sympathy, but he's the only one who Understands Paul.  I won't tell you the bizarro ending; the whole thing is pretty weird. 

It's particularly odd how all the women characters except the Lady are so denigrated.  They are all terrible, according to the author.  Paul's mother is too fussy; Paul is condescendingly kind to her and pats her on the head every so often.  Isabella is too tall and hearty.  Other English girls are insipid and dull.  This is not exactly a feminist novel.

It's all incredibly over-written and dramatic and couched in noble language.  It must have been absolutely thrilling in 1907, but now it comes off as hilariously overwrought and swoopy, when it's not being outright terrible.   Makes for a great readalong, though!

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Books about making books!

Cover to Cover: Creative Techniques for Making Beautiful Books, Journals & Albums, by Shereen LaPlantz
Innovative Bookbinding: Secret Compartments and Hidden Messages, by Shereen LaPlantz
Bound: Over 20 Artful Handmade Books, by Erica Ekrem

I've been getting a little bit into bookmaking, which has been so much fun.   I've tried out several books on the subject, and here are three I looked at recently.

Cover to Cover is full of great ideas.  It's a very good general book about making books, and covers a lot of the basics.  Shereen LaPlantz seems to have specialized in taking simple ideas and coming up with a zillion ways to implement them in cool ways.  This would be an excellent purchase for somebody like me who wants to try out different things and is not yet very knowledgeable.  (Several of the books I've looked at in the past have turned out not to be very good, so this is a serious recommendation.)  There is also a lot of variety here; you can make a traditional journal with hard covers and a Coptic stitch, or an artistic oddity that could go into an exhibit.  The diagrams are quite good and fairly easy to follow.

Innovative Bookbinding is a reprint of a book that actually had samples of several of the illustrated techniques in it, but of course that made it intensive to produce.  My copy just has photos of those, and is a good deal easier to come by.  It is entirely about secreting small surprises into handmade books, and putting in various sorts of pockets, slots, puzzles, and so on.  I tried some of the techniques and I couldn't get the fancy flexigon right, but I did make a really cool little book and some puzzle samples.  All of the diagrams are hand-drawn, and there are not as many as I would like, but there are enough.   I liked this book very much and plan to go back to it for many ideas.

As far as I can tell, you can't go wrong with a book by Shereen LaPlantz.

Bound is a little different.  It's more about making new books from old -- that is, it has techniques for taking apart an old, worn-out hardback book and using the covers to produce new items.  Or you might like to use an old cigar box, a worn-out sweater, or even some leaves.  There are also some leather projects.  There are some nice ideas for spine stitching  I found this book to be frustratingly short on diagrams and illustrations.  The projects are cool, though also a bit too artsy for my taste. 

I do like to have a lot of diagrams and illustrations.   I always want to see every step and every detail, and I get frustrated when there isn't enough for me to easily grasp what's going on, or if I can't see inside an interesting feature.  And I'm used to sewing instructions that mostly do show everything.  Some of these things are meant more for inspiration than exact copying, and I'm all for that, but I still want to see every little bit!  How else can I know my options?

My main problem with bookmaking is that I like making the books, but I haven't got a lot of ideas about what to put in them.  I would mostly like to make blank books for other people to write in.   While I adore secret compartments in books, you have to put something good in them and I'm never sure what to put.   I need an artistic partner or something.  Or maybe if I keep making little samples, I'll eventually think of things to put in there?

Friday, January 18, 2019

The Secret of Sinharat

The Secret of Sinharat, by Leigh Brackett

Yep, I found another Stark novel!  This short novel takes place on Mars, before the story I first read in Black Amazon of Mars.  (In fact, that novel is also included in this volume, but under a different title, so I read a page or so before figuring it out.)  It's just as adventurous and dramatic as the others. 

Stark has been hired to go to Mars and fight as a mercenary, but his mentor finds him and explains that there's a lot more to the story than his employer has revealed.  He agrees to try to stop the imminent war instead, to spare the many tribes of innocents who will be slaughtered if the plan goes forth.  So Stark joins Delgaun and Kynon, who plan to unite the Drylander tribes of Mars, plunder the richer cities, and then take over the world.  It all seems straightforward enough, but it sure isn't!  This is all part of a deep plot by an ancient and hidden evil.

This was a fun one.  I enjoy Brackett's worlds and peoples!

My copy -- it's OK
A much more awesome copy

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Kar Kaballa / Tower of the Medusa

Kar Kaballa, by George Henry Smith / Tower of the Medusa, by Lin Carter

So fun to have an Ace Double title to read for Vintage Sci-Fi January!  It was hard to choose which to read first, but I went with

Kar Kaballa, which was pretty great.  I would happily read the other three books set in this world, but sadly they seem almost impossible to come by.  On Earth's twin world (in another dimension, not on the other side of the Sun), much is the same, yet different.  Our myths are their reality and vice versa; the Annwn Empire, with its capital of Avallon, is not the British Empire, but it was founded by Arthur when he was brought there by Morgan le Fay.  Shakespeare is a folk-figure who is popularly credited with great plays that are actually folktales sprung from the people. 

Annwn is complacent and has paid no attention to the Gogs across the sea, but Dylan MacBride, a Highlander soldier, knows that the Gogs (think Mongolian hordes) are about to invade in huge numbers.  He's desperate to convince someone of the truth, and then he meets this strange man who claims to be from a United States.  He has this machine -- a Gatling gun he wants to sell.  Perhaps together they can save the Annwn Empire from being overrun by the Gogs?

This was a very fun novel that can only be described as swash-buckling, and also kind of presciently steampunky.  Sword fighting!  Airships!  Gryphons!  Evil gods that lurk under volcanos!  Celtic priestesses!  Evil undead minions!

Tower of the Medusa, on the other hand, was dreadful.  An overblown mess, it was at least hilariously badly written and extremely short.  Set a thousand years after the collapse of a great galactic empire, as planets are only just beginning to re-master science, we have Kirin, the greatest thief in the galaxy, hired to steal the Medusa, a weapon which would allow the holder to grab ultimate power.  It's been hidden and fanatically defended by a cult for thousands of years.

No fewer than three people want Kirin to steal the Medusa, which lies beyond a complex and deathly labyrinth.  The mages, who want to destroy it; a witch-queen, who plans to rule, and the Veiled One, the evil manipulator who will simply wait until Kirin gets the device and then grab it.  Here are some samples of the text:

Then they [25 assassins] came at him again, silent and deadly as panthers. His boot-heel caught one full in the belly. The little monster fell backwards in the slop, gagging and spitting. Three more sprang at his throat. One he slew with a swift jabbing blow to the nerve-clump just below the base of the skull behind the ear—a stroke with stiffened fingers he had learned years ago from a Ghadorian nerve killer he met on Shimar in the Dragon Stars.
But more came at him through the mists. He fought them with everything he had. Never had he battled so desperately, not even that time the murderous priests of Zodah trapped him in the act of stealing the tiara of their harlot queen. But the little men with three eyes were the most deadly adversaries he had ever faced. They fought in utter silence with a grace and skill and economy of strength that was astonishing.Then he knew them for what they were—trained killers! Members of the weird assassin cult of Pelizon across the cluster from Zha.
The Death Dwarves!
The picture was now a scene of somber majesty and brooding terrors. No sound accompanied the space-vision, but the imagination of the viewer could almost hear the cold wind that shrieked like a banshee through the fang-sharp needle spires of naked rock that clawed up into the mist-veiled sky. There was a flat and barren plain, an endless desert of dim grey crystals that stretched from world's edge to world's edge. Over all stretched an eternal cloak of phantasmal fog, torn and tattered into a thousand leering faces and weirdly haunting shapes by the howling winds. The shadowy rags of mist streamed in undulant and serpentine tendrils above a titanic structure of dead black stone that loomed against the fog-phantoms like some colossal citadel of demons. The black castle was unthinkably huge, immeasurably aged. A forest of sloping turrets and grotesquely-formed domes, a wilderness of arcades and columns, squat towers and yawning gates like the leering maws of nameless stone monsters. The chill, the eerie cry of endless winds, the haunting air of mouldering decay and aeon-old desolation struck awe into the very roots of Kirin's soul. "That black castle is Djormandark Keep," the Witch Queen murmured at his side.
But he did not need her words to tell him this, for no man could mistake the colossal ebon fortress. Djormandark was one of the enigmas of the Universe, and the very world whereon its titanic ruin reared its cloven, castled crest was known as the Planet of Mystery—dark, legend-fraught Xulthoom, the World of the Hooded Men.
He was incredibly ugly. His mouth was a broad lipless gash and his three eyes were glowing slits filled with evil malignant glitter. His skull-like head was devoid of hirsute adornment.
"Master!" he croaked. The robed figure turned to regard him.
"Speak!" the robed one commanded harshly.
"We have lost contact with Pangoy," the Death Dwarf said. "His receptors went dead in the third quarter of the Hour of the Toad."
 Devoid of hirsute adornment!  The Hour of the Toad!  That's a band name, that is.  I've got to name something the Hour of the Toad.

Kar Kaballa was a lot of fun.  I would read that again.  Tower of the Medusa was so bad that it was only sort of fun, kind of like The Star Wars Holiday Special.  You think it will be ironically fun, but you're wrong.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Individualism and Economic Order

Individualism and Economic Order, by F. A. Hayek

This is the one book from my TBR Challenge last year that I didn't manage to read, because it is so very daunting.  So I decided it should be my first pick this year!  That way the scariest thing would be over with.  Imagine my dismay and consternation when I actually opened the book and read the words:

...I should in fairness warn the reader that the present volume is not intended for popular consumption.  Only a few of the essays collected here (chaps. i and vi, and possibly iv and v) may in a sense be regarded as supplementary...the rest are definitely addressed to fellow-students and are fairly technical in character.
 Now, I found Hayek's works for laypeople quite difficult enough.  I knew I couldn't wrap my brain around technical essays for fellow economists!   So I decided that I would read the four essays he thought regular people could handle, and call it good.  And indeed I bashed my way through them.  I found out that he was entirely correct to say that everything in those essays is also in The Road to Serfdom; evidently this book is just a technical expansion on that one.  So, don't read this.  Read that.

The essays were about philosophical or societal points: different definitions of 'individualism,' how knowledge works in a society, when and where 'free' enterprise can be free (or not), and various other things I didn't necessarily grasp.

Too high-level and technical for me, but I'm glad I tried.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The Happiness Curve

The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, by Jonathan Rauch

All through his forties, Jonathan Rauch* was fairly miserable, and he didn't really have a good reason to be.  His career was doing well, he'd accomplished more than he'd dreamed of, his personal life was happy, he was healthy and strong -- and yet he couldn't stop telling himself that he should be doing far better.  He often felt like bolting from his perfectly good career.  Was this a midlife crisis?  Was he just a really ungrateful, terrible person who didn't appreciate his blessings?  The more he scolded himself, the worse he felt.

As a journalist, though, he could find out some things, and in fact he found out quite a bit.  It's quite stunning to me, but it turns out that it is normal to be kind of miserable in your 40s, approximately.  It happens across cultures, in every country.   In fact, it's hard-wired into us and other great apes do it, too.  Of course, our circumstances have a lot to do with it too; we're talking about an aggregate, shadow effect here, a tendency.

In this fascinating book, Rauch unpicks the causes of mid-40s malaise, calling it the U-curve of happiness.  It seems to be part of our brains reprogramming, changing from the ambition and high expectations of early adulthood to a more mellow, accepting, and even altruistic mindset.  American culture tells us that aging is terrible and we can expect to grow steadily unhappier after 45, but in fact it seems that people become, on the whole, happier after 50 -- even in the face of health problems and other life difficulties.  It becomes easier to be grateful and enjoy the moment.

Everybody over 35 should probably read this book, or the article that was its forerunner, or at least find out about it.  In fact, just knowing about the effect is a help, because then you know you're not just a terrible, ungrateful weirdo, or a person who needs to trash everything and escape your ordinary life; you're just going through a natural phase which will eventually end.  And Rauch hopes that we'll develop structures to help people transition, much like how we once assumed that teenagers were just gangly adults, but now have things like high school and a knowledge of adolescent development.

Check this book out from the library for your 40th birthday; you won't be sorry.

Long ago, when I was 30 and he was 66, the late Donald Richie, the greatest writer I have known, told me: “Midlife crisis begins sometime in your 40s, when you look at your life and think, Is this all? And it ends about 10 years later, when you look at your life again and think, Actually, this is pretty good.” In my 50s, thinking back, his words strike me as exactly right.

Jonathan Rauch is also the author of my Best Book for 2014, Kindly Inquisitors.  Read that too!

Sunday, January 13, 2019

1973 Annual World's Best SF

1973 Annual World's Best SF, ed. by Donald Wollheim

I think this series has been going forever!  I found the 1973 edition, with ten short stories, and about half were by people I'd heard of.  I really picked it up because it had a story by James Tiptree, Jr., and I've been hoping to read her (without any effort on my part, ideally -- no nearby libraries have any of her works and I've pretty much been relying on the donation table for vintage SF anyway, so I just sort books and hope something shows up).  On the whole, the stories were indeed pretty good!  Here are a few I liked:

"Goat Song," by Poul Anderson: long in the future, the world is governed by a god-computer, SUM, whose living representative is a woman rendered immortal.  Once a year people can petition her.  This guy is so sad that his girlfriend is dead, he petitions for her to be resurrected, and it's granted...but he has to walk all the way out without looking back.  Hello, Orpheus!

"The Man Who Walked Home," by the aforementioned Tiptree:  Two perspectives on the same event.  Most people see a monster, for just a moment, once a year, for several hundred years.  The poor monster's perspective is different.

"The Gold at the Starbow's End," by Frederik Pohl:  a starship is sent out to colonize a planet spotted around Centauri (which might be there, or not).  The scientist in charge of the project hopes for great things, but he thought he'd be able to understand them when they came.

"Long Shot," by Vernor Vinge: a long-term space voyage, from the perspective of the ship. 

"Thus Love Betrays Us," by Phyllis MacLennon: stranded on a very alien planet, a botanist befriends a local inhabitant and learn to communicate.  Except that a culture so alien as this -- well, can you ever understand what the other is thinking?

I enjoyed reading them, and most haven't aged badly at all.  I would like to know who W. MacFarlane was.

Saturday, January 12, 2019


Educated: a Memoir, by Tara Westover

I've been hearing about this memoir, but I wasn't going to seek it out.  A friend of mine is visiting and said I should read it, so she lent me her copy...and I was hooked.  I read it in three hours!

Tara Westover was raised in very rural Idaho as part of a survivalist-minded family.  Their dad was convinced that the government, doctors -- well, anything establishment -- was out to get them.  The Ruby Ridge incident convinced him a good deal further.  As is often the case, they got more extreme over time, so that the oldest kids went to public school for a while, but the younger kids did not have birth certificates and never went to school at all.  The mom, who started off a home herbalist, was encouraged (well, pushed) to become a not-quite-illegal midwife and full-time healer.  In theory, the family homeschooled, but the necessity for work overrode most educational pursuits, and after a while they figured as long as you could read, you were fine.  Tara was the youngest of this family.

Westover's dad worked very very hard, mostly in scrap and sometimes in construction.  But the need for money, and it seems his own issues, drove him to cut corners and totally disregard safety.  The whole memoir is thickly strewn with dreadful injuries and car crashes, paired with an utter refusal to go to doctors, take even the mildest pain-killers, or put on seatbelts. 

And then there was the abuse inflicted by one of the older brothers.  Tara recounts her experiences as a teen, but later realized that the other siblings suffered too -- it was just when she was much smaller, and not something she saw herself.  People, it's a horrific account.  But all of this was ignored and smoothed over by a family that was tightly interwoven and dependent on not recognizing reality.

Escape was offered by Tara's older brother Tyler, who was always the bookish one and had insisted on going to college.  He told a sixteen-year-old Tara that she could go to college, too.  BYU would take homeschoolers, so all she had to do was get a 27 on the ACT.  Tara could read very well (having been raised mostly on 19th-century religious texts), but her math was minimal and her science non-existent.  She didn't think she could possibly take the test or go to college, but Tyler helped and she did it.

I guess I can't summarize the whole story for you, but Westover details a long, hard struggle to become educated and extricate herself from the tangled mess of her deeply-loved, incredibly dysfunctional family.  That second one is the harder job.  As Westover moves through BYU, then Cambridge, and then Harvard, she slowly starts to figure out how bad the situation is.  Her dad is getting more erratic (she figures he is probably bipolar) and then is burned in a ghastly accident, which paradoxically launches the family into the essential oils field, where they are now a large business. 

The end result is that Westover is close with a couple of brothers -- the ones who also left -- but can't contact others.  The remaining family members say she is dangerous and deluded.  The entire memoir is causing a bit of a kerfuffle, as Westover is accused of lying and making up the stories in the book.  I don't really see why she would do that.

Tara's family is LDS, as am I, but I think she is quite correct in trying to emphasize that their religion was not material to the family problems.  Her dad's ideas were clearly based in mental illness and survivalist rhetoric, though of course he picked bits out of their religion to justify his narrative.  He seems to me to have ignored a lot more.  The only thing I would say is that during her time at BYU, Westover seems to have worried that she might have been the only female student around who wanted to go into academics.  I suspect that the difficulties she describes made it hard for her to see the others; I find it quite impossible to believe that that there were no other ambitious female students or  professors.  Tara is my baby sister's age, 15 years younger than I am, and I certainly knew quite a few back when I was a student in the early 90s (even at BYU, which I did not attend).  

It's an excellently-written, gripping, harrowing memoir that deserves the attention it's getting.  My only caveat is to say that if you come from a family with severe mental illness and abuse problems, it will probably be too difficult for you to read.  Everybody else should take a look.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Agricola and Germania

Agricola and Germania, by Tacitus

I've been meaning to read Tacitus (well, the easy bits) for some time, but what kicked me into gear was the book on my shelf all about the influence of Germania on European culture and history.  I am allowed to start reading it after I write this post!

Tacitus is considered the best Roman historian -- at least, he's the best we've got!  We certainly don't have everything he wrote.  Large chunks are missing from one of his longer works.  I read two really short things; a life of Agricola, Tacitus' father-in-law, and this sort of tour of the territory of Germania, which was most of Northern Europe.

The largest part of Agricola's biography covers his time as governor of Roman Britain.  It has a short description of Britannia, and of how Agricola extended Roman rule right up to the Pictish territory; I think this is as far as it ever got, up to the Firth of Forth.  There are famous stories in here.  This is how we know about Boudicca and the Iceni rebellion, and where we hear of the Ninth Legion in border skirmishes (I have really got to read The Eagle of the Ninth).  The account of the occupation of Britannia finishes off with a fiery speech from a Caledonian chieftain to his remaining British allies, Agricola's corresponding speech to his troops, and the ensuing battle, which was a horrible slaughter for the Britons.  Of course, the speech from the chieftain is necessarily fictitious, and it's an eloquent condemnation of Roman brutality and decadence.

Tacitus recounts that after retiring from the British command, Agricola should have been in line for a really important post in Asia or Africa, but the emperor, Domitian, was jealous of Agricola's brilliant career and the general was forced to keep a low profile and refuse the opportunity.  Soon afterwards, he died....of poison?  Tacitus is clearly suspicious but doesn't want to openly accuse any particular person.

Germania is a description of Northern Europe as cold, dreary, and full of trees.  The inhabitants are strong but lazy, virtuous but dim, and tough but uncivilized.  They wear trousers.  They live in tiny scattered villages in houses made of wood (ugh), and have no interest in building cities.  Here we find the sentence that became the seed of 500 years of ugliness and horror:
...I accept the view of those who think that the peoples of Germania have never been tainted by intermarriage with other nations, and stand out as a race distinctive, pure and unique of its kind.
As the footnote points out, Tacitus then goes on to describe the Germanii in exactly the same terms as the Gauls are stereotypically portrayed: red hair, blue eyes, huge of frame, can't stand hard work or heat but good in the cold.  The account is actually short on praise, and where it does laud the Germans it's really to point out flaws in the Roman character; Tacitus contrasts German honesty and virtue with Roman cunning and decadence in order to tell Romans to shape up, not because he thinks the Germans are great.  Northern straightforwardness was held to come with a corresponding lack of intelligence.

And of course, that sentence is also pretty well meaningless.  What does it even mean to be a pure race?  Do we know what Tacitus meant by it, and could he have even said what he meant?.  Are they supposed to have sprung fully-formed from the earth or something?

All this only takes a few pages.  The rest of the very short book is taken up with describing where various tribes live, and any special characteristics they have (one group wears their hair in a different way, one is identified with a tribe that once sacked Rome long ago).

Both of these books are extremely short and easy to read -- together, they take up just about 60 pages in my book -- so they are a good taste of Roman history and literature for the nervous beginner.  Like me!  I'm not bad at Greek literature, but Roman is a whole different kettle of fish as far as I'm concerned.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

What If This Were Enough?

Looks beige, is in fact a bit sparkly
What If This Were Enough? by Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky writes this kind of oddball advice column, Ask Polly, for the Cut.  At least, I've never read any advice columnist like that before!  I like it a lot, so when she put out a book of essays recently, I picked it up.

I'm kind of mixed on the essays.  Several of them are critiques of pop-culture things -- TV shows and such -- that I have never seen, so it's kind of hard to care about them.  On the other hand, never having seen The Sopranos was not a big barrier to understanding the critique, which was excellent.  And she's usually drawing pointers about the larger American culture, which I do live in, so it's not like they're totally irrelevant...but still, I don't know anything about most current TV shows (by which I mean virtually any TV of the last 15+ years) and I don't feel like I need to.*

When Havrilesky is not writing about TV, which is over half the time, I'm pretty enchanted by her sharp insights and sincere pleas for more sanity in the world.  Her writing is fantastic, and kind of unusual; get used to her voice, and you can spot it anywhere. There's an incredible essay on Shirley Jackson called "Haunted," several on family themes, and just a bunch of neat stuff.

Worth a read, enjoyable, especially if you watch TV.

*I've been known to watch modern TV.  I finally got to Stranger Things and am now waiting for season 3 just like everybody else, even though I nearly quit seven minutes in to the first episode.  And we're currently watching the second season of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the books but is certainly interesting.  

Monday, January 7, 2019

Beyond the Sound of Guns

Anachronistic 1962 cover!
Beyond the Sound of Guns, by Emilie Loring

My brother got me this great little paperback romance novel for Christmas (off his work book-trade table; we don't really buy gifts for adult siblings, just for the kids).  It was published in 1945, but as you see, my copy is from 1962.  The blurb on the back is irresistible:
As the Second World War raged across the world, lovely, raven-haired Kit Marlowe and her brother sought peace and quiet at her brother's Double-H Ranch.  Then war came to this remote cattle country. Enemy agents were stealing the Double-H beeves needed to feed our fighting men. And Kit knew her luck was bad when she stumbled on the identity of the head of the saboteurs, for this fanatical enemy would use any means to silence her forever. Irrevocably trapped, only one man could help her - bold and charming Colonel Rex Danton, the man who had stolen her brother's fiancée - the man she had sworn to hate!
 Cattle-rustling Nazis, who doesn't want to read that?  In true paperback fashion, however, the plot is not really quite like the blurb.  Kit's brother, an ex-Army officer suffering from war trauma, has bought the ranch as his new career and Kit is there to look after him.  An evil, conniving ex-fiancée, dodgy cowhands, an overly-persistent suitor, and many other elements combine to make Kit's life a lot more exciting than she bargained for.  Are escaped German POW's plotting to high-jack (sic!) the Double-H beeves?  No they are not!  That's a cover-up for their much more dastardly plot.

The text is bizarrely educational in spots, citing (for example) the exact number of acres of Wyoming ranch land taken over by the military for training grounds, or what the most important industry for Our Fighting Men is.  There is a lot about Our Fighting Men!  There is also, less surprisingly, a lot about fashion; Kit looks beautiful in everything, and since this is a romance novel, she has WAY more clothes than your average young woman did in 1944.  Otherwise, she is a model young woman who is desperate to help with the war effort, and has to keep reminding herself that the job she's doing is valuable too.

It was an entertaining historical artifact, so I had fun.  Emilie Loring was pretty popular back in the day (so I gather) and it was neat to see what people read for light pleasure back then.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

The Teacher of Cheops

The Teacher of Cheops, by Albert Salvadó

Literary works by Andorran writers that are translated into English are not thick on the ground, since the principality of Andorra only has about 77,000 people (according to a quick check on Wikipedia).  My town has more people than that, and it has several authors -- but I bet none of them are translated into another language.  So I lifted a page from Ann Morgan's "Year of Reading the World" list, and read Albert Salvadó, who has one novel translated into English from the original Catalan.  And it's a historical novel about ancient Egypt!

This is the life story of Sedum, born into slavery, whose single goal in life is to become free and bequeath that freedom to his children.  He becomes a junior accountant for the Pharaoh Huni and becomes free while still a young man.  Surviving the intricacies of Pharaoh's court is tricky even for a junior accountant, but Sedum rises during Snefru's reign, even becoming a tutor to the Pharaoh's young sons, Kennefer and Cheops.*  Then it's back to accounting, but this time Sedum is in charge of the accounts for building pyramids, a very difficult job indeed.  Powerful officials around the king are finding Sedum inconvenient, and he may not be able to survive.

I wondered how much of this story was based on known history, and the answer was that we know almost nothing about the three Pharaohs featured in the novel; we don't even know how they were related.  So, by necessity, the details are all speculation, but it's pretty interesting and it's reasonable enough as a story, and the historical background provided is very well researched (a pleasant surprise for me, since I tend to be overly critical of historical fiction).   I did not love the somewhat graphic (and not very well-written -- possibly translation difficulties there) sex scenes.  I prefer not to have those in my fiction.

Amid Sedum's cautious navigation of court problems, which brings up issues of honesty, tact, and greed, there is also a strong thread of...not exactly mysticism, and not exactly philosophy, but what are billed as principles of the universe.  Seven are collected at the end of the book, and Salvadó says there is an eighth principle hidden in the text; if you find it, you should contact him directly and tell him about it.

It's a reasonably interesting story; I enjoyed it pretty well, and it works as historical fiction.

*Cheops is more widely known as Khufu in English these days; he built the Great Pyramid.

Friday, January 4, 2019


Earthworks, by Brian Aldiss

Here's my first Vintage Sci-Fi book for January!  Brian Aldiss started writing in the mid-50s, so this isn't quite an early novel, but it is fairly early on in his decades-long career.  It was published in 1965.

A couple hundred years in the future, Earth is living a Malthusian nightmare.  The population is 24 billion, nearly everyone is desperately poor and malnourished, and practically all the land is turned over to farming in the poisoned and depleted soil, so everything is massively toxic.  Synthetic, poisonous food is routine, and the whole world is a police state.  Robots are more valuable than people and do most of the work.  African nations now lead the globe, and their unifying president is the only person who can hold the whole thing together.

Against this background, Knowle Noland chronicles his life.  He is one of the few literate people in the world, and he used to be the captain of the Trieste Star, a practically-unmanned freight ship that he beached in a hallucinatory frenzy.  (Knowle hallucinates a lot.)  The story is somewhat disjointed, but he tells about his past and then wanders around the new coastal city of Walvis Bay, captured by a fanatic pair who plan to assassinate the African president in order to start a giant war that will mercifully kill everybody off.

I wasn't too wild about this story; I just didn't enjoy it much at all.  It wasn't entertaining or compelling or fun.   There's a lot about overpopulation and how everybody keeps having children because they don't know any better.  At the same time, there are only two women in the whole book; one is a fanatic who thinks having children is a crime, and the other an elderly housekeeper who had 15.  The men pretty much never meet any women, and nobody except the housekeeper has any children.  Anyway, this is a world where high-yield crops were never developed and birth control never caught on.  Maybe 50 years ago that was a more persuasive storyline.  Now, we're set to have world population start falling steeply in about 30 years, and we've massively increased crop yields and virtually stopped increasing acres under cultivation.

So, meh. 

Jim at the Corner

Jim at the Corner, by Eleanor Farjeon

Just a little post to tell you about the lovely storybook I got for Christmas.  I've always been a dedicated Eleanor Farjeon fan, and wore out the copy of The Little Bookroom I had when I was a kid.  I only got to read her other works after I was grown up and could use the power of the internet to buy used books!  Happily for me and for many children, the New York Review re-published The Little Bookroom and another Farjeon title I'd never seen before -- Jim at the Corner.  It's not a long book at all.

On the corner of Derry's street, a retired sailor spends his days sitting on an old orange box.  The people on the street take care of Jim, and the children crowd around him to hear his stories of when he was a youngster sailing as mate on the good ship Rocking-horse.  Each chapter has a tale taller than the last -- the time Jim's ship was stuck fast in the ice in Antarctica for three months, and made friends with the penguins, or the time they were becalmed and the fog was so thick that Jim swam right through it to the Isle of Plenty.  Or what about the time Jim caught a kittenfish, which was green and became the ship's cat, but eventually had to be given back to the Queen of the Catfish, who held Jim hostage under the sea until she got her kitten back?

This is a really nice little collection of fun tales and would be a perfect nightly read-aloud for a lucky 5-7 year old.  I wish it had been in print when my kids were that age!  Plus, it's illustrated by Ardizzone, which always fits so nicely with Farjeon's writing. 

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Mount TBR 2018 Wrapup

Time for the final wrap-up post with Bev of My Reader's Block's Mount TBR Challenge!  There are rules here.  Bev says:
For those who would like to participate in this checkpoint post, I'd like you to at least complete the first of these two things.  And if you feel particularly inspired, then please do both.

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!).   

I signed up for 24 titles, and hit a record number of 34!  Now, two of these I have not yet blogged about, but I DID finish them before year's end.

  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
  23. The Sibyl, by Par Lagerkvist
  24. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, by Caitlin Doughty
  25. Confronting the Classics, by Mary Beard 
  26. The Romance of the Forest, by Ann Radcliffe 
  27. Jurgen, by James Branch Cabell
  28.  Greenmantle, by John Buchan
  29. Memoirs of the Crusades
  30. True Grit, by Charles Portis
  31. The Child From the Sea, by Elizabeth Goudge
  32. Crime and Punishment, by Dostoevsky
  33. Letters: Parents and Children  
  34. The Miracle of Language, by Richard Lederer

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] Crashing Suns
Don't count your chickens...[before] Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
A penny saved is.... (a) yeah I got nothing here.  Just nil.
All good things must come to...The Child From the Sea 
When in Rome... [you'll be] Confronting the Classics
All that glitters is not...[a] Romance of the Forest 
A picture is worth a...Fire in the Bones  (I mean, if it was a really great picture...?)
When the going gets tough, the tough get... True Grit
Two wrongs don't make (a)... Story of Science 
The pen is mightier than....Crime and Punishment
The squeaky wheel gets...Lectures on Russian Literature
Hope for the best, but prepare for...800 Years of Women's Letters  (hee hee) 
Birds of a feather flock... [in] The Market Square

Looking forward to new heights in 2019...

Annie John

Annie John, by Jamaica Kincaid

Happy new year!  All of a sudden I have seven books sitting here to write about and how did that happen?  Not sure.  I might wind up doing another riffle post, who knows. 

Annie tells the story of her life -- her childhood -- in Antigua, first as a much-beloved little girl.  She is an only child of her young mother and much older father (who has ex-girlfriends sprinkled all over the place).  She and her mother are always together and Annie basks in her mother's love.  As she grows older, though, the relationship becomes fraught and difficult.  Annie never comes to understand why her mother has become so cold and prickly.  She is used to being special, both at home and at school, and then she isn't any more.  Annie becomes desperate to leave the island and plans never to return, but her relationship with her mother still takes up a large space in her life.

...I could not be sure whether for the rest of my life I would be able to tell when it was really my mother and when it was really her shadow standing between me and the rest of the world.
I was unfamiliar with Jamaica Kincaid before reading this short novel, and I'm going to need to read more.  I just went and looked up her biography, and it seems clear to me that Annie John is in many ways a personal autobiography of her childhood, though an emotional one rather than a factual account.  It was published in 1983, about ten years after Kincaid started her writing career -- after leaving Antigua, she worked as an au pair, attended a community college, and then just kept going; now she's at Harvard.

The novel is wonderfully written.  Just so good, people.  I never know how to describe these things properly but wow.  Pick up some Jamaica Kincaid sometime.