Saturday, June 29, 2019

Summerbook #5: Four Birds of Noah's Ark

Four Birds of Noah's Ark: A Prayer Book From the Time of Shakespeare, by Thomas Dekker

I've never been a big Thomas Dekker fan, because the first thing I read by Dekker was his version of Patient Griselda, which is about as calculated to offend modern sensibilities as it could possibly be, and while I am pretty easygoing about historical perspectives, I would have been just as happy if the Patient Griselda story had never been invented.  Apparently I should really read some of his other, less horrifying plays.

By all accounts, Dekker was not a particularly religious man, but he did live and breathe in an atmosphere more saturated with religion than we can easily imagine, and he spoke the language of devotion fluently.  And in 1608, when plague was ravaging London, he wrote a book of prayer-poems for the people of England.  There is something for everyone here.

The book is divided into four parts, named after four birds.  First, the Dove presents poems for ordinary people with ordinary difficulties -- the humble and the hard-working and the poor.  Here we find prayers for schoolboys, wives, laborers, sailors, and maids.

The Eagle has prayers for those in power, or with stewardship over others, starting with Queen Elizabeth herself (who was gone by 1608 but got a prayer anyway), every station of royalty and government, clergymen, magistrates, and so on.  Then there are prayers for the country as a whole for times of pestilence, war, and disaster.

The Pelican, as a symbol of Christ's self-sacrifice for the benefit of humanity, presents prayers that ask for defense from the seven deadly sins -- one prayer each! -- and from temptation in general.

The Phoenix is a symbol of Christ's death and resurrection, so these are prayers of thanksgiving for various aspects of the Atonement.

They are lovely poems, and quite enjoyable to read, though I'm not very good at poetry.  This edition has been a bit modernized; the spelling is modern and I think the editor probably made the language just a little easier, because it really is meant as a devotional book for people to understand and meditate upon.  It's also a pleasure to look at, with nice printing and art.  A nice reading experience for me.

Friday, June 28, 2019


Most embarrassing cover ever

Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees

Chris at Calmgrove posted about this very interesting early fantasy book a while back, and I got it on Kindle to read.  Hope Mirrlees wrote just one book, in 1926, and it is excellent and odd.  It's one of those fantasy books written before the genre gelled into particular templates, and so it still reads as original and strange today.

The Free State of Dorimare lies on the coast where two rivers meet, and the capital, Lud-in-the-Mist, is a prosperous port town.  Generations ago, the Duke Aubrey was banished from Dorimare into neighboring Fairyland -- just over the Debatable Hills -- and there has never been any commerce with Fairyland since.   Dorimites live right next to the one place they strenuously ignore and cannot completely forget.

Nathaniel Chanticleer is like all the sensible men of the city, but his little son Ranulph has been talking a lot about azure cows and other difficult subjects, and now he claims to have eaten fairy fruit.  Everyone knows that to eat fairy fruit results in madness, and Nathaniel is in despair.  Curing Ranulph, and finding out how to stop the smuggling of fairy fruit, becomes his obsession.

This is more like it
 Read Chris' review, which is much more insightful than mine, but even better, read the book.  It's just a delight to read; the writing is wonderful, the story is strange, and the whole is unusual and refreshing.

The top cover there is on the cheap Kindle edition I got.  It reminds me horribly of the Serendipity line of books I hated as a child.  I thought they were sappy.  The very word Bangalee makes my teeth grit involuntarily.   I would much prefer this quite attractive British edition that is not particularly available in the US.


Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Summerbook #4: Ganga

Ganga: A Journey Down the Ganges River, by Julian Crandall Hollick

This guy Hollick, who has spent much of his career in radio explaining India to the English-speaking world, as far as I can tell, decided to take a trip down the Ganges to look at the river as a whole.  Except you can't actually do that; it's impossible to just start at the top and go all the way to the sea, for several reasons*, so he just did his very best to travel the length of the river in a few stints.  On the way, he describes the cultural and religious importance of Ganga, and studies some of its many difficulties -- environmental, industrial, and biological.

There are some problems specific to Ganga that are very difficult to solve.  India's massive appetite for power means that flow is frequently diverted to generate electricity, to the point that the river gets too small in places (happily constantly refreshed by new flow from tributaries).  Irrigation takes even more, and then there's the pollution.  Massive amounts of raw sewage and industrial effluvia are dumped in, and waste treatments plants are often in disrepair or rendered ineffective by improper treatment.

The amazing thing is that Ganga is as healthy as it is.  It doesn't seem possible, and yet the river actually does end up cleaner than it ought to be.  One key seems to be bacteriophages, and there's a large section on that.

Still, the demands on the river are unsustainable.  The Ganges river dolphin is endangered, there are dams and barrages in places that don't work and end up exacerbating the flooding they're meant to control, and too much water is taken out.  Hollick tries to be optimistic, but it's not easy.  Since the book is a little over ten years old, I really would like to know what's going on today in some of these spots.

A more enjoyable aspect of the book is the description of the beliefs and practices surrounding the river.  Hollick records stories about Ganga from as many people as he can get to talk with him, and it's enthralling.  I would have liked a bit more about that, but in fact there was plenty.  (The day after I finished the book, I was listening to a podcast by a British woman who asserted that the Thames is the most storied river in the world.  No, it very definitely is not.  That would be Ganga, and probably the Nile after that.)

A very interesting book about an important topic.  I only wish it was less than ten years old.

*Such as: by the time the ice is melted in the mountains, the plains are scorching hot, and also the Ganges is impassable or almost gone in spots.

WWW Wednesday #2

Dude, is it Wednesday already?  I nearly forgot, but since I remembered, here it is, the meme hosted by Sam at A World of Words.  Very simple, just answer me these questions three, ere the other side you see:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

What are you currently reading?
Secondhand Time, by Svetlana Alexievich.  Memories of the 1990s and the end of the USSR, from former Soviets.  Fascinating, very long, often quite nostalgic for the glories of the Revolution, or alternatively for the glories of the days when freedom seemed right around the corner.  Instead they got rampant commercialism, oligarchy, and a new dictator, which is not what democracy or even capitalism is about.  Russians really got the shaft with that 'shock therapy' idea where they just gave away entire industries to various moguls.
I started Hartmann von Aue all right, but I haven't gotten far at all.  I keep falling asleep, so I've moved it out of the bedtime reading spot to the coffee table.

What did you recently finish reading?
Just finished The Adventures of Roderick Random.  All the good guys end up filthy rich, and all the baddies end up poor, in the best approved Georgian fashion.  You have to love their straightforward interest in money!
I also finished an Angolan novel, The Book of Chameleons, by Jose Eduardo Agualusa.  There are no actual, non-metaphorical chameleons, but there is a gecko.
What do you think you’ll read next?
I'm planning to start The Wanderer, a collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry and riddles.  And I think I'll read Daphne du Maurier's Jamaica Inn; I don't quite want to start either the Trollope or the Camus quite yet.  I'll read something just for fun first.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Summerbook #3: Cat's Cradle

Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut

Funny that I should read two books practically at the same time that use the cat's cradle game as a theme.  I wound up getting out this old Dover book I have about 'string games around the world' only I can't find the yarn to try them out.  I'm sure there is yarn around here someplace...

Anyway.  Cat's Cradle is a nice read.  The narrator tells his story, starting with his project of writing a book about what was happening in America on the day that the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.   But now he's a Bokonist, and he's had some adventures with his friend Newt, whose father was one of the major physicists working on the bomb.  That father also invented ice-nine, and Newt and his siblings have some.

Bokonism is, I think, the famous part of this novel, and it's where the notion of a karass comes from.  The novel I'd read before made me think a karass was just your band of mates, but it's not; it's the other people chosen to do the same job as you on earth, in an ineffable sort of way.  You don't have to like them, or know them in person.

The other famous part is ice-nine, which my husband knew about although he's never read Cat's Cradle.  That was a pretty good bit, but I wouldn't want to spoil it.  In fact I'm having trouble writing this post without telling the whole plot, so this isn't turning out to make much sense.

Still, I enjoyed the book a lot and I shall perhaps read another few Vonnegut books soon.  I've never read anything besides the standard Slaughterhouse-five and Harrison Bergeron before.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Sorrow's Knot

Sorrow's Knot, by Erin Bow

I have yet to meet an Erin Bow novel that isn't really well done.  This one is set in an imagined fantasy world that is clearly based on the native cultures of Northwest America, in contrast to Bow's first novel with a fantasy Slavic setting.

Otter lives in a tiny village at the very end of the human world, where her talent of binding is all-important and keeps everyone safe -- for the dead are always at the edges, trying to get in. Together with her two best friends, Kestrel and Cricket, she works and prepares for adulthood, when she assumes she'll become a binder like her mother, tying special knots to ward off danger.  (It sounds exactly like cat's-cradle.)  But then her mother goes mad and rejects Otter as the next binder, and there is something wrong with the knots.  Otter, Kestrel, and Cricket have to leave the safety of the village to find their own people's history and learn what went wrong.

Eh, that's not a very good summary, but Sorrow's Knot is very good, pretty tragic, and altogether a worthy YA read. 

Friday, June 21, 2019

Summerbook #2: Walls of Jericho

Walls of Jericho, by Rudolph Fisher

A few years back I really enjoyed The Conjure-Man Dies, a 1932 mystery by Harlem Renaissance writer Rudolph Fisher.  This novel was written a few years earlier; it was published in 1928.  Fisher paints a portrait of a Harlem preoccupied with both race and class.

Fisher has a cast of characters that are enormously disparate, but that intertwine in intriguing ways.  We have a team of moving men, led by Shine, an Ajax of a man; Ralph Merritt, a successful lawyer; Linda, an ambitious working girl, and several others.

Merritt is buying a home just outside the edge of Harlem in a white neighborhood -- mostly to annoy his neighbors.  At first, the story might seem to be about the 'walls of Jericho' of white society, but there are other walls that turn out to be more central.  Shine (whose actual name is Joshua) comes to realize that in order to have the life he wants, he must tear down his own inner walls, and the same is true of everyone.  And when Merritt's house is attacked, it's a lot more complicated than it looks.

That makes it sound like a psychological novel, which it isn't.  It's a braid of the experiences of several people, and it's quite fun to read.  Fisher pokes satirical holes in the society he knows, and he provides a little puzzle to solve too.  (I like his penchant for mysteries!)  Since he uses Harlem slang of the late 1920's, he considerately provided a glossary at the back, which is helpful at times -- though a good bit of the slang is still familiar today.  This was a replica of the original edition, so that was nice too.

I didn't really know anything about Rudolph Fisher, so I took a quick look around.  His main vocation was medicine; he was a doctor and early radiologist.  He had a private practice on Long Island, and then became the superintendent at a Harlem hospital.  He was also a lover of jazz, a musician, and an orator.  He wrote quite a few short stories and two novels.   Sadly, Fisher died too young, at 37, from cancer that was quite possibly the result of the radiology; he was experimenting with X-rays.  What an impressive legacy he left.

All of Fisher's works are in print, but I must say I think he deserves a Library of America volume.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Winconsin Death Trip

Winconsin Death Trip, by Michael Lesy

I first heard of this book when I started listening to a podcast called Medieval Death Trip, named in homage to this...cult classic?  I'm not sure what to call it.  It started off as a very unusual PhD dissertation in 1973, but it's sort of an experiment in immersive history.

Lesy found all these photographic plates taken by a photographer in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, between 1890 and 1910 -- just piles of them.  Many were ruined by time, but he salvaged a whole lot and put the most interesting ones together for this collection.  Quite a few have been slightly altered -- trimmed, mirrored, framed or something.  There are trends: photos of incredibly elderly people in one section, little girls in dance classes in another, buddy photos and sets of girlfriends, families, and one photograph of a fellow without a stitch on showing off his physique -- from the back, thank goodness. 

Interspersed with these photos are snippets from the local newspaper, usually (but not always) about deaths.  There are also snips from the insane asylum's record book, some reminisces from a "town gossip," and excerpts of prose fiction.  It piles up rather; between the accounts of people admitted to the asylum and the suicides and accidents from the paper, it gets to weigh on the reader.
Up the road were Al and Aggie Sermon.  They had a great big family, but years before it was different.  They'd got married when she was 14 or 15 and gone up to the North Woods of Minnesota, way out alone up there, and she got shack-wacky.  That's why they came back here.  She had some kind of nervous breakdown or something from being alone.  Not that she was the only one.  It happened to an awful lot of women.  [Town Gossip]
It makes me grateful to live in modern times, without the all the diphtheria and freezing to death and outright starvation.  It's also almost relentlessly depressing, so I don't recommend it if you're in need of cheering up.  Since nearly all the excerpts are unhappy ones, it eventually starts to feel like Wisconsin is the scene of doom and despair, with nobody going about their daily business.  People just wail in the streets and wander desolately.

It's a really interesting book, and as an experiment in immersive history it was a groundbreaker.  But it's a little one-sided too.

New-to-me Meme: WWW Wednesdays

Erica at The Broken Spine introduced me to a meme I didn't know about: WWW Wednesdays, hosted by Sam at A World of Words.  I can't do this every week, but it would be fun to do it every so often!

It couldn't be simpler; you just answer three questions.

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

What are you currently reading?

I'm working on one of my major Summer Books, The Adventures of Roderick Random by Tobias Smollett.  It is very long and has 69 shortish chapters, so I figured I'd read 3 chapters per day.  Today I will read chapters 52 - 54. 

Roderick Random reminds me of nothing so much as a bro slapstick comedy movie written in 18th-century novel format.

I'm also reading Ganga, a book about the Ganges river, and will probably finish it today.

What did you recently finish reading?

Rudolph Fisher's Walls of Jericho, a Harlem Renaissance novel published in 1928.  It was very good and I'm writing up a post for it.

I just now finished Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, which I quite liked.

What do you think you’ll read next?

I'm thinking Hartmann von Aue's Arthurian stories (and also poems and whatnot).  I read his Poor Heinrich a couple years back and have been wanting to read the rest of his works.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Voodoo Histories

I love this cover
Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History, by David Aaronovitch

This was such an interesting book!  I'm very glad I picked it up at Moe's last year.  (In fact, there are a couple others I wish I'd gotten too!)

Aaronovitch covers the histories of several conspiracy theories, in detail.  It's fascinating, and also important, because they've had such an influence in modern history and we all -- no matter how skeptical or well-informed we are -- have a few stray thoughts that originated with a conspiracy theory.

We start off with the grand-daddy of them all: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  I was already semi-aware of the history of this anti-Semitic forgery, but Aaronovitch provides a lot of information that I'd never heard.  I knew it had been written by a Russian nobleman, but it turns out that it was discovered as a forgery within a decade or so.  (I forget exactly how long and my kid nicked the book.)  Not only that, most of it turned out to be directly plagiarized from a French novel satirizing Napoleon III...which was much older than the date of the supposed meeting it records.  The Protocols has been known to be a forgery for over 100 years now, and yet it's still a tremendously popular 'source.'

From there, we move to Stalin's fake trials and obsession with Trotsky, and then some very complex American history that winds up taking in the New Deal, America First, the idea that "Roosevelt knew" about the attack on Pearl Harbor, and eventually the McCarthy era.  And there's a lovely chapter about JFK's assassination, and even Marilyn Monroe gets a look-in.

One really interesting thing about this book was that Aaronovitch is British, and so he features several British conspiracy theories, some of which I'd never heard of.  He covers not only the famous theories about Princess Diana's death (which would in fact have been pretty well impossible to orchestrate), but also the murder of an elderly lady involved in anti-nuclear protests and the suicide of a man caught up in a leak scandal.

One of my very favorite chapters, though, was about the development of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, hoaxes about the Priory of Sion (an admitted forgery), and all sorts of weirdness that eventually made its way into The Da Vinci Code, much to the exasperation of wearied tour guides all over Europe.  And then the HBHG authors sued Dan Brown for plagiarism while simultaneously claiming their guff was history!   It's a fairly astounding chapter.

He does not talk about moon landing hoaxes, though, or the anti-vaccine folks, or plenty of other things.  Nobody could cover it all!

I was quite surprised to find out that Gore Vidal was an enthusiastic supporter of conspiracy theories.  Who knew?  Also, it's important, and difficult, and pretty disturbing, to tease out the threads of anti-Semitism that run through so many conspiracy theories.  You can still see them today, and in fact they're getting more obvious. 

Great book, I learned a lot, definitely a favorite of 2019.  I can't exactly call this litany of lies, hoaxes, and delusions entertaining, but Aaronovitch does provide nice doses of wit and humor to keep the reader going through the swamp.

Friday, June 14, 2019

One Night @ the Call Center

My copy features the movie poster
One Night @ the Call Center, by Chetan Bhagat

A couple of novels by Chetan Bhagat came across the donation table, and I took them home to see what they were about.  Bhagat is a popular young Indian author who, I gather, writes about the problems of young Indians.  This is only his second novel, written in 2005.  Bhagat writes in English, but a very Indian version of English, which I liked.

Shyam, like a zillion other young adults in India, works in a call center.  They do a lot of computer support, but Shayam's department deals with appliances.  All night, he and his five team members take calls from Americans having trouble with their ovens or vacuums, which doesn't give them a wonderful opinion of American intelligence.  Shyam wants desperately to move up in the company; he and his co-worker Vroom built a webpage that deals with a lot of customer problems, but his manager just keeps spouting business cliches and telling him he needs to develop his skills.

On the team, we have Vroom, who loves cars; Esha, budding model; Radhika, young wife; Priyanka, who is saving up for college, and Military Uncle, who is much older and kind of grumpy.  During one night -- which is Thanksgiving in the US, and thus involves a lot of calls about turkeys -- they're going to find out some truths about each other.  And eventually, they'll get a phone call from God.

It's a fairly light novel that is obviously hoping to be made into a movie, which it was (Hello, with Salman Khan, and I gather it was a flop).  It's not terrible, but it's not great; it's a standard formula story -- much like The Breakfast Club, say.  But, you know I'm always up for a fun Indian novel.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Summerbook #1: The Pendulum

The Pendulum: A Granddaughter's Search for Her Family's Forbidden Nazi Past, by Julie Lindahl

Not so long ago, I read Belonging by Nora Krug, about a German woman's search for her family's past and her fears about what she might find.  Krug's journey ended in a bit of relief; for the most part, her grandparents hadn't done anything much.  Julie Lindahl, however, found some really terrible things in her family's history, and this is her memoir.

Julie Lindahl, who is just a few years older than I am, was born in Brazil to a German family.  That fact in itself contains a lot of information, but Lindahl grew up -- mostly in Europe -- without knowledge of what it might mean.  Her family's silence about the past was complete, even as it warped all their relationships; they thought they should not burden the future.  It didn't work.  Little Julie, even as a tiny child, felt that she herself must be somehow guilty of the worst crimes, though she did not know what they could be.

As a young woman in her 20s, Lindahl started to realize that her grandparents must have done something during World War II.  It took many years to unearth the truth; her grandfather had died in Brazil, and her grandmother maintained a steadfast refusal to acknowledge the past as it had actually occurred.  She would reminisce about their lovely estate in Poland without admitting what had happened -- though her ongoing nightmares and nervous tics told their own story.  Everyone told Lindahl never to ask.

So Lindahl had to find out almost everything on her own, through government records and historical sources, finding the other people who knew the history and were willing to take her to the sites.  Visits in Poland and Germany eventually turned into trips to Brazil -- Lindahl even found her uncle, who was not dead at all.  Facing the past brought Lindahl a lot of pain, but also healing -- sometimes of her family relationships, but also new family to love and understand, friends who helped, and many kindnesses.

This isn't just a fascinating story of tracking down history.  It's also a meditation on oppression and cruelty, forgiveness and healing -- how to face the past and deal with it, so it informs the future without burdening it unduly.  I'm very glad I could read it.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Elizabeth and her German Garden

Elizabeth and her German Garden, by Elizabeth von Arnim

Elizabeth von Arnim is most famous as the author of The Enchanted April, a novel I am very fond of.  I think I would like to re-read it now.  This is actually her first book, which reads as a memoir but is really a novel I think.   She published it, anonymously, in 1898 and it turned out a huge best-seller.  From then on, her many books were billed as "by the author of Elizabeth of Her German Garden," or just "by Elizabeth."  However, debts forced her and her husband to sell the estate memorialized in the novel and move to England, and then the husband died in 1910.  Elizabeth moved to a chateau in Switzerland, had an affair with H. G. Wells, and hung out with clever people.  A disastrous second marriage (to Bertrand Russell's brother Francis) ended in separation, as she fled to America in 1919.  She spent the next two decades in various parts of Europe, until she moved to America and lived there for the last couple years of her life, dying in 1941.

As I said, this reads like a memoir.  It's just Elizabeth's narrative of her life in this rather isolated German estate; she goes ahead of the rest of the family, to put the house in order, but regards the house as very secondary to the garden, for which she has plans and ambitions.  If at all possible, she will spend the whole day in the garden, hoping nobody will bother her.  As the family arrives, she often has her three small daughters (the April, May, and June babies, as she calls them) with her.  People visit; one is her best friend and enjoyable, others are foisted upon her and provide exasperation or entertainment.  (The solution for truly exasperating people is to take them on a summer picnic at the Baltic coast -- which is incredibly beautiful, but also overrun with mosquitoes.)

It's a lovely, pleasurable, and relaxing read, with the exception of the husband, who I hope was nicer in real life than she let him be in the story.  It's an odd portrayal, which mixes affection and annoyance...but he doesn't come off all that well.  Maybe it worked better in 1898?

I can't decide whether this is English or German literature.  It's both and neither.  Von Arnim is an Englishwoman living in Germany, and while she likes it that way, she's kind of prickly about both lands.  She portrays herself as not very good at enjoying company or other people all that much.

I could really see the roots of The Enchanted April, so that was interesting too.  I did enjoy this one a lot, but there was a fly in the ointment.

My copy is a slightly elderly Virago paperback.  I can't find a link to a decent real-life edition on Amazon, but the Kindle version is free.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan

Hello summer!  I finished my semester at work about 10 days ago, and I thought I would relax and take it easy for a few days, but the universe had other plans and dumped a bunch of random stuff in my lap.  I can't even remember what, but it sure kept me busy.  Now $20booksofsummer has started, and I have six books waiting to be blogged about, all of which I started before June 1st.  So I'm going to play a bit of catchup here...

My neighborhood has a Little Free Library, and I found this novel in there one morning.  I was skeptical that it would be any good -- novels about bookstores abound, after all -- but I didn't quite want to not read it.  The book startled me quite a bit by glowing at me in the dark after I'd gone to bed; all the books on the cover are printed in glow-in-the-dark ink, on the spine and the back and everything.  And once I got into it, I found that I was pleasantly surprised by this very fun, beguiling novel.

Clay is an up-and-coming young designer in the Bay Area until the 2008 recession hits him hard and the startup he's been working for* fails.  Desperate for work, he lands a spot as night clerk at this 24-hour bookstore, where almost nobody buys books.  Instead, odd people come in and borrow mysterious books from the back room.  The books are encoded; what are these people up to?

Clay ends up with a team of friends -- Kat, the Google genius he loves, his roommate the model builder, his best friend and software millionaire Neel, and eventually Mr. Penumbra himself -- working on solving the antique riddle set by Aldus Manutius himself.  Kat figures the power of the internet can solve anything!

This was such a fun scavenger hunt novel.  Also it's much better written than The Da Vinci Code, which apparently it has been compared to.  Yes, there is an old puzzle and a scavenger hunt, but those are the only resemblances.  Sloan deliberately occupies a space at the intersection of technology and antiquity, and he has a great time doing it.  I would have expected him to do it really badly, but no!  it's so entertaining and witty!

There were some really good jokes and descriptions of the techie life.  I insisted that my husband sit and listen to me read him a description of various coding languages (C, Ruby, etc.).  Here are some other favorite bits:

Neel made his millions in middleware....He sells tools they cannot do without -- tools they will pay top dollar for.  I'll cut to the chase:  Neel Shah is the world's leading expert on boob physics.

Neel takes a sharp breath and I know exactly what that means.  It means: I have waited my whole life to walk through a secret passage built into a bookshelf.**

Kate gushes about Google's projects, all revealed to her now.  They are making a 3-D web browser.  They are making a car that drives itself.  They are making a sushi search help people find fish that is sustainable and mercury-free.  They are building a time machine.  They are developing a form of renewable energy that runs on hubris.

You know, I'm really starting to think the whole world is just a patchwork quilt of crazy little cults, all with their own secret spaces, their own records, their own rules.

Also, I suspect that the Emeryville-based "California Museum of Knitting Arts and Embroidery Sciences" is a jokey expansion of Lacis in Berkeley?

So, just a giddy romp through the meadows of bibliomania and techie dreams, and great fun.  Oh, and guess what, there's a novella prequel as well, easiest to get on Kindle for a couple bucks.  I just got it.

*NewBagel, which produces robotically perfect and uniform bagels and sounds positively Pinkwateresque.

**We all have, Neel.  We know exactly how you feel.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019


Kappa, by Akutagawa Ryonosuke

The poet Akutagawa, who suffered from mental illness or depression for most of his life, wrote this novella in 1927 at top speed, in just a couple of weeks.  He did this right after his sister's husband committed suicide, leaving him to straighten out a terrible financial mess.  The story was written out of his disgust with life, the world, and most of all with himself.

This is the narrative of patient #23 in a mental hospital: he met a kappa one day and chased it, falling into Kappaland.  He had to join Kappa society, learn to speak, and make friends.  After a year or so, he became disenchanted with Kappa life and found a way back home, but now he wants only to return, and he describes his friends and Kappa society to anyone who will listen.

When a Kappa is about to be born, the father yells in to it and asks if it really wants to be born and exist, warning it to think carefully.  The child in the story answers:  "I do not wish to be born.  In the first place, it makes me shudder to think of all the things that I shall inherit from my father -- the insanity alone is bad enough.  And an additional factor is that I maintain that a Kappa's existence is evil."

Antique Kappa classifications

The poet Tok is Akutagawa's self-portrait -- he has strong views about art and considers himself a super-Kappa (just as every Kappa artist does; they all like Nietzsche I guess)  He kills himself and haunts his house, wanting only to know if his work is now admired as it ought to be.

In Kappaland, the ladies do all the pursuing and the men run away as much as possible.  Books are published from a ground grey powder, and workers who lose their jobs are eaten.  While this story is something of a fable, it's also very obviously a vicious satire of ordinary Japanese life. 

It's an absorbing little novel, and very very short -- I actually read the whole thing while sitting at the airport waiting for my flight.  Give it a try!