Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Summerbook #11: The Plague

The Plague, by Albert Camus

I've been meaning to read this book for something like 20+ years, and I finally got around to it, and it's about...the plague.  A real honest-to-goodness episode of bubonic plague.  Which is great!  But I had somehow developed the impression that it was a metaphorical, not-actual plague, so I was surprised when it really was plague.

In Oran, a largeish North African port city, in the 1940s, rats start staggering out into the street and dying -- by the thousands.  Nobody quite knows what this could mean, but pretty soon there are a few sick people...and then a lot of sick people. 

The story is told by four or five men, but primarily from the perspective of Dr. Rieux.  He sends his wife off to a TB sanatorium just before the outbreak, and he is the first to realize that the mystery illness is plague, and urges quarantine measures and closing the city to reluctant city councilors.  Throughout the epidemic, he works himself to exhaustion, knowing that hardly any of his patients will survive.

We also have:
  • Rambert, a young journalist visiting the city for a story.  Trapped by the quarantine, he is willing to do almost anything in order to escape the city and get back to his girlfriend; he feels it unjust that he should have to stay in a city he has no connection with.  Eventually he changes his mind and joins the work teams fighting the plague.
  • Tarrou is the developer of the work teams; a newcomer to Oran, he is a bit mysterious and says that he in interested in becoming a saint, despite his lack of belief in God.  His entire life has been driven by his hatred of capital punishment.
  • Grand, who wants to be a writer but can't get past his obsession with the first sentence of his novel.  He quietly perseveres with help during the whole epidemic, eventually becomes ill, but is one of the few to recover.
  • Cottard, an eccentric who has just tried to kill himself but finds the atmosphere of epidemic to be stimulating.  He's much happier, until the plague is over.
Through these five men, we see the entire course of about nine months of plague, until the epidemic runs its course and the city is re-opened.  It's all very realist and detailed about how people respond to dire circumstances.

I did not exactly find it an easy read, but it was interesting and I'm glad I finally got around to reading it.  It also has references to both Kafka's novel The Trial and to Camus' own earlier novel, The Stranger, so that was fun.  Very well worth reading.

Monday, July 29, 2019

It's almost WIT Month!

And I'm back, just in time!

Every August, Meytal hosts Women in Translation Month at Bibliobio.  There is always tons of good information, stuff to think about, and great suggestions for books.  And this year there's a variety of images, too!  I like this one because I like purple and green together.

I put three books aside on my 20 Books of Summer list for August.  Since I haven't read them yet, I've lifted the book descriptions:

Purge by Sofi Oksanen: Oksanen is a Finnish-Estonian writer, and this novel is written in Finnish but set in Estonia (the languages are related).  It's all about Soviet-occupied Estonia and survival, and I'm really looking forward to it.  A disheveled girl arrives on an older woman's doorstep, and "as their stories come to light, they reveal a tragic family drama of rivalry, lust, and loss that played out during the worst years of Estonia’s Soviet occupation."

Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong: Banned in Vietnam!  The first Vietnamese novel published in the United States!  Plus, it's "an exquisite portrait of three Vietnamese women struggling to survive in a society where subservience to men is expected and Communist corruption crushes every dream."  This has been on my pile for some time.

Kalpa Imperial by Angélica Gorodischer. Translated from the Spanish by none other than Ursula K. Le Guin, in this fascinating-sounding book, "multiple storytellers relate the story of a fabled nameless empire which has risen and fallen innumerable times. Fairy tales, oral histories and political commentaries are all woven tapestry-style into Kalpa Imperial: beggars become emperors, democracies become dictatorships, and history becomes legends and stories."  I've been dying to read it since the first minute I heard about it.

I've got plenty to tell you about my trip, but I also have a lot of work to do because of the trip, so blogging will still have to be a bit skimpy until I get that done. I'm just taking a break from the job to pop in with a quick post.  Besides, I can't ignore one of my favorite summer events!

Come to think of it, my trip and the ensuing job have a connection to WIT.  Stay tuned to have that mystery revealed!

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

At Large and At Small

At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays by Anne Fadiman

Anne Fadiman is always good for essays.  This is just kind of a random collection, and they're very enjoyable.  I liked the one about ice cream, and the one about mail, and "Coleridge the Runaway" did not exactly endear Coleridge to me, but it did make me want to read the biography she mentions: is impossible to read this book without imagining what it would be like to talk with Coleridge (dazzling), have him as a houseguest (arduous), walk with him in the Lake Country (fun for the first forty miles), lie with him in a field to study the moonlight (damp).

You can't have a Fadiman collection without mention of the Arctic, and this essay, "The Arctic Hedonist," is great.  Whereas "Under Water" will deliver a gut-punch.  And "Procrustes and the Culture Wars" is just as relevant now as when it was written.
"Anger and fury," observed Swift, "though they add strength to the sinews of the body, yet are found to relax those of the mind."
I enjoyed these essays, which I always do when they're written by Anne Fadiman.

In other news, this summer has been absolutely nutso, and is heading towards a zenith of chaos.  I've got a 19-yo prepping to move out (Sunday is the day), a 16-yo prepping for back-to-back trips (leaving Thursday), and I'm going on a trip on Sunday for a week.  So naturally we decided to paint a bathroom and the hall right beforehand!  I've been spackling and TSPing and paint-buying.  Wish me luck.  And I don't think I'll be posting for a couple of weeks....

Monday, July 15, 2019

Summerbook #10: The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge

The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, by M. T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin

This was such a cool book!  I really enjoyed it.  It's very unusual.

For centuries, the elves and the goblins have been at war with each other, on and off -- mostly on.  Now, the elves are sending a gift to the goblin King as a peace offering -- an ancient carved jewel that they found buried, and that seems to depict a goblin battle.  The emissary is a scholar, Brangwain Spurge, who has studied elf and goblin history.  His goblin host is another scholar, the archivist Werfel; he will show Spurge around town while they wait for an audience with the King, Ghohg the Outworlder.  Werfel is eager to show Spurge his beloved goblin culture and anticipates wonderful scholarly discussions, but it doesn't turn out that way.

This story is actually told from three viewpoints.  Most of the text is Werfel's story from his point of view.  Then, Spurge is sending telepathic visual reports of his experiences back to the elven lands, and we see the print-outs of the images he transmits as chapters of consecutive images.  (These illustrations are very well-done, but they are not printed as clearly as they could be.  At first I thought it was just a disappointing printing job, but when I understood that they were supposed to be print-outs of telepathic images, I realized that they were printed like that on purpose.)  And every so often, we see a letter from the elf official who chose Spurge as the emissary, reporting on the progress of the elves' plan -- not all of which is known to Spurge.

The result is pretty fantastic.  Each character has a limited point of view and is seeing events through his own interpretation, so that it becomes not only an exciting spy/adventure story, but also an exploration of culture shock and the limited perspective with which we all see the world.  (When I was an exchange student, the materials talked about this in terms of sunglasses, as though, say, I come from a place where everyone wears blue glasses, and have arrived in a place where everyone wears yellow.  My glasses will never change completely to yellow, but will eventually become green, and never again will they be all blue.  There must be a pithy phrase for this, but I sure can't think of it right now.)

Also, giant pieces of armor, like in The Castle of Otranto!  And it was a finalist in the National Book Award in the Young People's category last year.  Here is a fun book trailer video:

Really neat story, give it a try. 

Friday, July 12, 2019

Summerbook #9: The Wanderer

The Wanderer: Elegies, Epics, Riddles, by unknown Anglo-Saxons

I sure wish I could read Anglo-Saxon.  Alas, I cannot, and if I ever get enough time to study it I'll probably be too old to learn it very easily.  (I probably already am; it was easy to learn the Russian alphabet at 19, but I cannot seem to learn the Greek alphabet now.  Maybe I just need to try harder.)  Anyway, we don't have a lot of Anglo-Saxon literature; you can fit it all into one good-sized book.  This is a collection of pieces, some from the Exeter Book, some from other sources, that I suppose is meant to serve as an introduction to Anglo-Saxon literature that isn't too difficult to enjoy.

Some of the pieces should be familiar to anyone who has taken a little bit of English literature: Caedmon's Hymn, the Dream of the Rood, a few short selections from Beowulf (why?).  But this collection is interesting because it features a lot of material that isn't as familiar.  I was happy to finally read The Battle of Maldon and some other pieces I'd heard of.

There is quite a bit of short poetry: a description of a ruined Roman city, the lament of an exiled wife, some heroic poems.  The Wanderer and the Seafarer are both poems about the life of a man in exile, who has lost his lord and his fellows in battle.  Loyalty to one's lord and the despair of the man who has lost his are very common themes.

Then there is a selection of riddles, the kind that describe an object in obscure terms.  I am terrible at these, but they're fun to read.

The one disappointment is that there is a very short selection from The Phoenix, a poem that describes the life of Christ allegorized as the life of a phoenix.  I would happily read this poem if I could find a modern translation, but so far I haven't been able to (I haven't exactly made it my quest or anything).  Every time I find a copy, it's just in the original Old English.  I find this puzzling.

This collection is a Penguin edition that has been around for fifty years or so.  Penguin re-issued it a few years ago in a fancy cover along with other "Legends from the Ancient North" with a sticker that says "Classics that inspired J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit."  I appreciate their efforts to attract new readers of classics through marketing to movie fans, I guess?

It really is a good short and easy introduction to Anglo-Saxon literature.  It gives a nice variety and nothing is very long, so readers don't have to be able to absorb a lot at once.  It's mostly poetry, and has been translated to still conform to the format as much as possible, so it gives a good flavor and doesn't just read as an essay or story.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Slightly Chipped

Slightly Chipped*: *Footnotes in Booklore, by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone

This is one of those fun books about the joys of antiquarian book-collecting.  The Goldstones find their entertainment in going on day trips to book dealers or book fairs, and buying beautiful first editions that they just can't resist.  They are not wealthy, but they do give the impression of having boundless leisure for browsing in bookshops.

There are humorous descriptions of book dealers and book sales, a section on mysteries, and a fascinating story about Cudjo, a Jamaican rebel hero.  Just a nice mix of stories like that.

Because the copy I read was a hardback in brand-new condition, I thought this was a pretty recent book, but it turned out to have been published in 1999.  It has an extensive chapter on the brand-new phenomenon of online book dealing, and how to enter this new world.  Why would anybody want to buy a book without inspecting it first?  Will Amazon take over the used-book world and jack prices up?  And so on.

There is an odd chapter about the auction of the effects of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor -- that is, the ex-King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson -- billed as the greatest love story of the 20th century (!), but still not staged in London because the British haven't quite forgiven them yet.  Anyway, I learned fun new-to-me facts like that Mohammed Al-Fayed (father of Dodi, who was boyfriend to Princess Diana) owned all this stuff, having bought it up the first time it was sold off.  Weird.

I wondered if the Goldstones had written more books, and it looks like they wrote three of these 'joys of book-finding' books.  More recently, Nancy Goldstone has written several books of medieval history, most of which were already on my wishlist.

A fun read, quite light, which makes book-collecting attractive -- though not to me personally.  I have no ambitions to own first editions.  But I'm glad somebody appreciates them.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Summerbook #8: Jamaica Inn

Jamaica Inn, by Daphne du Maurier

It was a dark and stormy night!  No, really, that's how it starts.  Mary Yellan is traveling to the Jamaica Inn; her mother's dying wish was that Mary go to live with her aunt at the inn.  Uncle Joss, however, turns out to be a terrifying tyrant who is clearly up to some really bad things.  At first, Mary thinks it must be smuggling, but it's much worse.  Mary has few friends to turn to.  There's the quiet-spoken but strange vicar a few miles away, and Jem, Joss' younger brother -- a horse-stealer and a rogue -- and Mary has little chance of saving her aunt on her own.

It's a classic Gothic story, with lots of foreboding, lonely moors, and storms, set...sometime in the 19th century, but it's hard to know when.  I'd guess earlier rather than later.  Mary is a tough, likable heroine.

I must say I didn't love the ending.  It was not a surprise, but it was a bit of a let-down. 

This is the second time in less than a month that I've read a novel featuring an albino person as a character.  I've never met anybody in real life with albinism, but it sure is a popular literary trope.

It was an exciting, entertaining novel.  Not my favorite of my du Maurier reads, but pretty good.

Friday, July 5, 2019


Brona posted this fun meme on her blog -- I don't know where she got it from -- and I thought I'd join in.  For one thing, I love the image!

Just post a list of A-Z, and fit a title to each one!  Brona very impressively had a title for each letter, even X.  I bet I cannot do that well.  However, that's at least partly because I keep a lot of my book wishlist on the shelves at work.  I keep track of the books I purchase on a spreadsheet so I know when they've arrived.  It's easy to add a field that marks the books I want to read.  Of course, I also want to read books that I didn't purchase...I keep a mental list of those, or check them out when I spot them, so I don't forget.  Anyway, here we go:

A -- Ancilla to Classical Reading, by Moses Hadas
B -- Black Renaissance, by Miklos Szentkuthy
C -- Coming Up for Air, by George Orwell
D -- Douglass: Autobiographies
E --  Extraordinary Delusions and the Popular Madness of Crowds, by Charles Mackay
F -- The Future is History, by Masha Gessen
G -- Getting at the Truth, by Robert Millet
H -- The High Book of the Grail (Perlesvaus)
I -- The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis
J --  Jill Kerr Conway, The Road to Coorain and True North
K -- Krakatoa, by Simon Winchester
L -- Lorna Doone, by Blackmore
M -- Medieval Mysteries, Moralities, and Interludes, ed. by Vincent Hopper
N -- A Novel Bookstore, by Laurence Cosse
O -- On Foot to the Golden Horn, by Jason Goodwin
P -- The Parthenon Enigma, by Joan Breton Connelly
Q --       O_O
R -- Russian Tattoo: A Memoir, by Elena Gorokhova
S --  Sixpence in Her Shoe, by Phyllis McGinley
T -- The Thirty Years' War, by C. V. Wedgwood
U -- The Uncommercial Traveller, by Charles Dickens
V -- The View from the Cheap Seats, by Neil Gaiman

W -- When the World Spoke French, by Marc Fumaroli
X -- Xenophon's Hellenika
Y -- The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, by Anderson and Yelchin
Z -- Why Democracies Die, by Levitsky and Ziblatt

So as we see, I had to cheat a little bit on J, X, Y and Z and use author's names.  And I couldn't find a Q at all, unless we count a book by one Nick Joaquin.  Does that mean I need more books?  Probably not -- I have too many already!

Anyway, this was fun and I hope to see others do it too!

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Summerbook #7: The Book of Chameleons

The Book of Chameleons, by Jose Eduardo Agualusa

This is an Angolan novel, originally written in Portuguese.  I was intrigued by the premise, and also I like chameleons, but there are no actual chameleons in this story.  There's a gecko though, and I also like geckos.

Félix Ventura sells genealogy.  If you have some money, but no family background, Ventura will fix up a nice respectable -- even illustrious -- family history for you.  His story is narrated by the gecko who lives on his walls (who is also the reincarnation of Jorge Luis Borges).  Ventura has sold quite a few new histories, and a couple of them are going to meet in interesting new ways to illuminate a murder mystery gone cold, while the gecko gains the name of Eulalio and has visionary dreams.

I liked this novel pretty well, though I won't claim to have understood the whole thing.  It seemed very dreamlike to me, even the parts that were not dreams.  It's also very short.  I would read another Agualusa if I came upon one that looked interesting.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Summerbook #6: Roderick Random

The Adventures of Roderick Random, by Tobias Smollett

Why on earth would I read a very long 18th-century picaresque comedy-drama that is practically unreadable by modern standards?  Well, as with so many things, it's John Bellairs' fault.  I am a big fan of his books, and like many of the more obsessive Bellairs fans, I think it's neat to do things connected with them.*  In one of the later books, Professor Childermass informs Johnny that the reason his brother Perry's proper name is, preposterously, Peregrine Pickle, is that their father was a fan of Tobias Smollett.  The professor himself is named Roderick Random.  So why not see what ol' Dad Childermass admired so much?

Roderick Random was Smollett's first, and most famous, novel, published in 1748.   After that come Peregrine Pickle and Humphry Clinker, and I do have both, but who knows if I'll read them.  Smollett was in the same London as so many other famous Georgian writers, but he mostly thought they were idiots or jerks, and they thought the same of him.  So he was not a friend of Johnson's or anything.  The story is partly autobiographical, especially the bits in the British Navy, which were considered strikingly true to life.

Roderick Random, born nearly an orphan and brought up by unloving relatives, does manage to scrape an education -- he can read the classics, and studies medicine.  This should allow him to establish himself as a surgeon and live in a reasonably prosperous manner, but instead his life is one long series of adventure, misfortune, and accident.  He is an apprentice, a Navy surgeon, an indigent, a servant, a gambler, and a soldier, among many other things.

Roderick and his best friend/servant Strap are a comedic buddy duo.  I have never seen Dumb and Dumber, but I suspect that it's a distant cousin to this novel, which must be one of the original  slapstick bro comedies.  Chamberpots and their contents feature largely, as do fights and beatings, stolen clothing, drunken adventures, and escapades with ladies of doubtful virtue.

There are plenty of fortuitous meetings and recognitions, too.  You would think there were only about fifty people in the British Navy, and not many more in England -- or the rest of the world for that matter.  And of course, in the most approved Georgian manner, all the good people end up ridiculously wealthy, and all the bad ones are reduced to penury.

It's quite an interesting read as a historical artifact.  The modern reader won't enjoy it so much as a story, but it's not terrible.  I prefer Evelina, but the preachier or more repetitious parts of Pamela are much harder to endure.  Tom Jones is probably better but I haven't read that for 20 years so cannot judge.  If you're looking for an 18th century read, you could do worse than pick up Roderick Random.

* Just recently we were excited to obtain a silver US 3-cent piece for pretty much no other reason than that it features in The Figure in the Shadows.  It's teeny!