Friday, August 30, 2019

Sixpence in Her Shoe

Sixpence in Her Shoe, by Phyllis McGinley

I don't actually know that much about the mid-century American poet Phyllis McGinley, except that she won a Pulitzer Prize.  And she wrote this book, which is about "the world's oldest profession," housewifery, specifically as practiced in modern America.  Three sections on Wife, House, and Family organize a selection of chapters/essays, many of which ran in the Ladies' Home Journal or other magazines in the 1950s, and were then collected and edited into a book in 1960.

McGinley's thesis here is that the domestic calling is an honorable one, not to be despised -- not even by intelligent and educated women -- which can be blended, or not, with a profession, as the individual woman prefers.  Every so often she is clearly rebutting Betty Friedan.

It's a fun and refreshing read.  McGinley is a witty, humorous writer, and I love reading books about housekeeping.  (I'm not quite so good at the actual housekeeping, but I'm improving!)  Essays discuss topics such as:
  • the aggravating habit some folks have of assuming that a college education is wasted on a woman who chooses to stay home and raise a family (which still crops up today!)
  • the pleasures of thrift, as opposed to cheeseparing
  • what kind of cookbook she would write
  • the fun of slow house decoration
  • why you should be a casual mother
  • manners are morals!
and many more.  The section on children was fascinating to read, because here she is in the 1950s complaining about exactly the same things that people are worried about today:  over-protected, over-scheduled children with too many toys and academic pressure put on children far too young.  My goodness, just think what she'd say now! 

Phyllis McGinley clearly liked cooking a lot more than I do.  I got a little tired in the many chapters about the fun and creative art of cooking.

I enjoyed this book, and I think I'll read more about housekeeping soon.  I've been meaning to re-read the introduction to Home Comforts, which is one of the most inspiring housekeeping pieces I've ever read.  (My time is currently curtailed by rather a lot of actual house projects; we painted the hall and bathroom, got a bad piece of ceiling and a broken pocket door fixed, and there's one more project on the way.  That pocket door fix -- between the kitchen and the laundry room -- is very exciting; it broke years ago, the track was no longer available, this is the third or fourth guy to look at it, and he actually managed to fix it!  Yippee!  Finally, I don't have to listen to my washing machine any more!)



Thursday, August 29, 2019

Summerbook #20: The Palm-Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts

The Palm-Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, by Amos Tutuola

Woohoo, I have done it!  I honestly did not think I would be able to finish 20 of the books on my list.  I added some extras, especially when I went off to Illinois and suddenly had access to new stuff, but I was hoping to get 20 from my actual list.  I finished on August 27, so about 6 days before the deadline.  Woot!  Well, on to our novel...

Amos Tutuola was born in 1920 in Nigeria; according to his account, he was a good student and had a great interest in his Yoruban culture's folktales.  He became a good storyteller in school, and so years later when he saw magazine ads for books of African tales, he realized he could do that too.  He wrote his first book, The Palm-Wine Drinkard and his Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads' Town, in a short span of time in 1946, but then wasn't sure what to do with it.  After seeing a magazine ad for a publisher that solicited manuscripts, he sent it off to them, and they (being a religious publishing house) passed it on to a more general outfit.  It was published in 1952 and quickly gained fame in the West, and mixed reviews at home.  Some thought the writing (which was in English) was embarrassingly ungrammatical and would reinforce stereotypes of primitive Africans --and some American reviews bore this out, although the first review, by Dylan Thomas, was enthusiastic and did much to promote it.  Others defended the language, pointing out that great writers mess with grammar and write in unusual styles all the time.

Amos Tutuola
The story is that the narrator, right from a young age, loves to do nothing but drink palm wine.  His father gives him a palm farm and finds him a tapster, an expert who can produce lots of palm wine.  Everything is fine until the tapster dies, and the narrator can't find another one.  He goes looking.  Soon he meets a lovely girl who has seen a 'complete gentleman' in town and followed him to see where he lived -- despite his warning.  The gentleman returns all the body parts he borrowed until he is just a Skull, and keeps the girl in his house.  Together, the drinkard and the girl escape, marry, and set out on a long journey through the bush to find the town of Deads, to try to convince the dead tapster to work for the drinkard again.  They go through incredible adventures and ordeals on the way, meeting monsters and creatures of many kinds.

Tutuola then wrote My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which I think is supposed to feature the same narrator, maybe.  Oddly, The Palm-Wine Drinkard refers to incidents in this story, even though it was written a few years later.  He must have already had this novel in his mind.  The narrator tells of his life as a little boy; his village is attacked by soldiers, and he and his brother run away.  They get separated, and he wanders off into the bush.  He then spends years meeting various kinds of ghosts, getting turned into different shapes (such as a cow, or a monster), and always trying to find his way back home.  My favorite were the smelling-ghosts, which smell horrible.

The novels are built on the basis of Yoruban cosmology, with many elements of tradition and folktale, but they are not collections of folktales retold.  They feel nightmarish and dreamlike, with odd transitions and strange events.   The language is unusual to Western ears, being like the idiomatic English spoken by young people in Nigeria in the 50s, and it's also wonderful to read, full of wit and interesting expressions. 
...I was looking for a safe place to sleep. After a few minutes I saw a large tree which was near that place and there was a huge hole in its body which could contain a person. Not knowing that this hole was the home of an armless ghost who had been expelled from his town which belonged only to all the armless ghosts. When I entered this hole I travelled to a part of it which contained me, but it still went further, so I laid down and fell asleep at the same time, because I had no chance to sleep or rest once for all the time that I spent inside that pitcher. But when it was about twelve o’clock in the midnight this armless ghost who was the owner of the hole wanted to go out, of course, I did not know that somebody was living there before I entered. 
I enjoyed reading both these novels, which are both quest stories, but based in a different kind of cosmology than I am used to.  The results are just really neat and intriguing.  The Palm-Wine Drinkard is also, of course, a landmark in African literature.



A funny note: just as I was nearly finished reading this book, I came upon a reference in an article to a 1981 album by Brian Eno and David Byrne titled "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts."  Although I like the Talking Heads, I wasn't familiar with this album.  I learned that it was innovative for featuring a lot of sampling, especially of African and Middle Eastern sounds, and I was disappointed to find that neither Eno or Byrne had actually read the novel; they just thought the title sounded great for their album.  Come on guys, you can do better than that!  I mean, really, don't you think that if you're going to name your album after a book, you ought to read the book?

Speaking of David Byrne, hearing his name always reminds me of this song, though this isn't my favorite recording of said song.  It is, however, the one available on the internet, and there isn't that much.  Check out "Northdakota Chrome" on the same album...



Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Summerbook #19: Purge

Purge, by Sofi Oksanen

This was a pretty harrowing novel, folks.  It was interesting, and well-written, but I don't think I'll be revisiting it and it should maybe come with a warning on the cover.

Aliide Truu, an old woman, lives in her farmhouse on the edge of the Estonian forest.  It's 1992, and an unknown young woman shows up in front of her house.   Zara is running from the terrifying men who captured and trafficked her, but she also has a reason for searching out this particular house.

Neither of the women want to tell their stories, but they each need to find out who the other is.  The reader, meanwhile, is given access to chapters of their histories; Aliide remembers successive waves of German and Soviet occupation, her sister's marriage to the man Aliide loved, and just what she did to survive, and to get what she wanted.  Zara grew up in Vladivostok, surrounded by her mother's and grandmother's memories and fears.  When she wanted to earn money in the West for medical school, she fell into a trap, as did countless young women like her.  What are these two going to do in order to escape their pasts?

As I said, this is a difficult novel to read.  Oksanen is not pulling her punches and there are descriptions of what Zara is put through.  It's also, however, a story about some pieces of history that aren't very distant from us, but that are not well remembered.  So you might want to try it, but know what you're getting into.




Monday, August 26, 2019

Summerbook #18: Lais of Marie de France

The Lais of Marie de France

I didn't know anything about Marie de France, and I wanted to find out, so here we go.  Marie is the earliest French woman poet we know of, and she was writing in the late 1100s.  It seems that she was born in France and then moved to England, and we do not know her real name.  She just said (in Old French) "My name is Marie, and I am from France," and that's what we've got.  Scholars have looked at several Maries of the day, but there is no certain identification.   She was almost certainly known at the court of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and her poems were popular in  aristocratic social circles.

Marie wrote "lays," that is, narrative poems of a few hundred lines each, and they were based on Breton tales.  We have twelve of these stories.  The majority of them are about knights who fall in love with ladies, or vice-versa, and how they evade one or more spouses in order to carry on affairs.  One lay tells an episode in the story of Tristram and Iseut, and two others place their knights in the court of Arthur.

There is the story of the nightingale, in which a lady spends every night at her window so she can see her lover at his window.  She tells her husband that she loves the song of the nightingale so much that she wants to listen to it all the time.  He traps and kills the nightingale.

In Milun, a knight loves a maiden, which causes a different problem; the resulting baby has to be sent to an aunt in Northumbria to be raised secretly.  Years later, Milun and his unknown son nearly kill each other in single combat before discovering their relationship and finding Mom, whose husband has just conveniently died, so they all live happily ever after.

My very favorite story, however, is a little different.  In Bisclavret, the knight becomes a wolf for a few days a week, and when his wife learns his secret, she betrays him by getting another knight to hide his clothes.  Without his clothes, poor Bisclavret is unable to change back, and his wife marries the other knight.  The wolf meets the king out hunting, and is so polite and intelligent that he becomes a beloved pet.  A few years later, the king visits the knight and his wife, and Bisclavret leaps at her and bites off her nose.  She confesses her crime, and the clothes are brought to the wolf, but he does nothing until the chamberlain points out that he must be embarrassed and they should let him transform in privacy.  Bisclavret becomes a man again, and the traitorous couple settle far away, where many of their descendants "were born without noses and lived noseless."

Here's an odd bit out of Guigemar:
The lord who ruled over the city was a very old man whose wife was a lady of high birth.  She was noble, courtly, beautiful and wise, and he was exceedingly jealous, as befitted his nature, for all old men are jealous and hate to be cuckolded.  Such is the perversity of age. 
Yes, so odd of him not to like being cheated on.  These are the problems you get when marriages are arranged without reference to the people involved...

I'm glad to have finally gotten around to reading these famous little stories.  They're not difficult or long, so they're a good introduction to medieval courtly literature.  I know romantic adultery was all the rage back in 1180, and since aristocrats didn't generally get to choose their spouses, love was not part of the deal.  But it's still not very fun to read about.  I liked the werewolf story, though.







Friday, August 23, 2019

The Opal and Other Stories

The Opal and Other Stories, by Gustav Meyrink

Here's another book I found at the university library.  I actually looked for The Green Face, because although I have that on my Kindle, I've been finding it difficult to get into.  I figured if I got started with the physical book, maybe I could then read the rest on Kindle.  Well, I didn't only find The Green Face -- right next to it was this collection of short stories that doesn't seem to be in print any more in the US (you can get it on Kindle though).  So I grabbed that and read it...and I did get enough time to read the first few chapters of Green Face as well, and my plan worked.  I'm now well into that novel.

So this is a collection of Meyrink's early short stories, written right at the beginning of the 1900s, before he wrote any novels.  (His later novel, The Golem, is what made him famous.  I've now also read Walpurgisnacht. )  At this time, he's trying and failing to make a living as a banker in Prague.  Meyrink hated Prague, and he wasn't a big fan of some other things, too.  In these stories, he really pours some venom on army officers and their 'code of honor'  (remember, this is German culture right before World War I, so these would be Prussian officers), and also upon doctors, who are lampooned as pompous quacks.  Which they probably were -- again, this is about 1900.  And one other thing -- Meyrink was very interested in Eastern religions, in the occult, pretty much anything that wasn't boring old Christianity.

The anti-officer sentiment in these stories led to their banning in 1916 in Austria.  Meyrink became the focus of nationalist attacks (in print) that sound more than a little hysterical to modern readers -- he was "blamed for lack of progress in the War" and also for attacking German womanhood.

The stories:

"Petroleum, Petroleum" is a prophetic satire that is possibly more horrifying to the modern reader than it was originally -- it was written in 1903 -- in which a mad scientist floods the oceans of Earth with a layer of crude oil.  It satirizes absolutely everybody, including telegrams:
...the verbatim telegram from along the Mexican Gulf coast, abbreviated according to the international cable code:  "EXPLOSION CALFBRAIN BERRYMUSH" which approximately translates as 'Seasurface completely covered in oil; cause unknown, everything stinks.  State governor.'
This interested the Yankees enormously, as the occurrence was without a doubt bound to make a great impression on the stock exchange and to push up the value of petroleum shares.
The solution is to dissolve the army.  Regular soldiers all have skills and can get jobs, and the useless officers can soak up the oil with blotting paper.


"The Black Ball," another prophetic horror story, features two Indian yogis who use an apparatus to focus their thoughts into semi-permanent images.  They wow the crowd, and others try:
It was in fact only the images projected by the mathematicians that were at all clear.  By contrast, the results excogitated by heads of juridical capacity were most peculiar.  General amazement and a universal shaking of heads, however, greeted the concentrated effort of that famous practitioner of Internal Medicine, Professor Mauldrescher.  Even the solemn Asiatics were amazed: an incredible jumble of small, discoloured lumps appeared in the glass, followed by a mass of blurry blobs and points.
But then an officer tries it...and creates a black hole that will, very slowly, eat the universe.

(As a matter of fact, Meyrink seems to have invented the idea of a black hole all on his own.  This was written in 1913, a few years before Einstein published.)

"Dr. Lederer" starts off with an event that terrifies the populace: a glowing disk of light appears in the sky, with the silhouette of a monster in it.
A chameleon, a chameleon! horrible.
He's poking fun at mob hysteria, but I think it comes off even sillier now than he meant it to be.  He didn't know about the Bat Signal, after all.  And I have to wonder if he really meant the cute little chameleon, or some scarier lizard?  Though I suppose in 1900 maybe chameleons looked pretty outlandish to Europeans.   And finally, for Tick fans, the whole thing can't help but evoke the Crusading Chameleon!

The Crusading Chameleon!
 In "The Automobile," an eminent physics' professor's refusal to believe that an automobile could actually work, and his mathematical arguments, actually render an automobile unworkable, which is pretty funny.  There is a story in which Prince Rupert Drops (described as pretty toys, now considered scientifically fascinating)  are used as an occult murder weapon.  And a jokester takes it very far indeed when he convinces an entire town that there are large gold deposits beneath certain houses, and that if they just demolish their houses and dig, they'll be rich.  The demolished houses spell out his initials if seen from above...

In a spooky description of a haunted church, we have:

Prayersnails!  ...mysterious outlines of women's veiled heads superimposed on cold, slimy snail bodies, with black, catholic eyes, sucking noiselessly across the chill pavement.

There are also several scattered stories featuring the evil genius Dr. Daryashkoh, who changes his victims  into horrible living machines or monsters through magic and vivisection.  I suppose he's a bit like that hokey old horror movie villain, the Reanimator, though Dr. Daryashkoh's creations are really scary.

It surprises me that these stories are not more well known and published in spooky collections along with Blackwood, Machen, James, le Fanu, and all those other early horror writers.  Some of these would fit right in.  Maybe because they weren't written in English?  Possibly the translations aren't out of copyright yet, or something.  Anyway, connoisseurs of scary stories would love these.


Wednesday, August 21, 2019

The Blue Hills

My ILL edition
The Blue Hills, by Elizabeth Goudge (also known as Henrietta's House)

This is another book in the Torminster world, which begins with City of Bells and continues with Sister of the Angels.  As far as I know, none of the Torminster books are in print, which is a great pity and somebody should fix it.  This story is another one that is almost, but not quite, a children's story, and it has the same cast of main characters, with Henrietta and Hugh Anthony in the middle of a crowd of others.  Torminster is a fictional version of Wells in Somerset.

Hugh Anthony is home for the summer, and it's his birthday.  He wants to have a picnic up in the hills, and invites all the nicer old folks that he knows, having been surrounded by other boys for too long.   Each member of the party is asked what their birthday wish is, and they mostly wish for improbable things...and yet as the members of the party all get lost on the way to the picnic, each of their wishes comes true.

Much of the story has to do with the history around the patron saint of Torminster Cathedral, Saint Hugh, who was a local swineherd with a very exciting legend around him.  (I checked; Wells' patron saint is Andrew.  Not a swineherd.)  The legend, involving robbers and monks, pigs and angels, seems very improbable and has never been proved, but some people wish to find out more.

It is an enchanting fairy tale adventure that is one of my favorite kinds of literature, and not easy to come by.  If you have a copy, you are very lucky!

(I got this book through ILL.  I was going to buy a used copy, because I'm trying to collect Goudge, but even the 1970s pocket paperback costs about $40.  Thus MY wish is for the Torminster books to come back into print!  I don't have any of them.)

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Summerbook #17: Secondhand Time

Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets: An Oral History, by Svetlana Alexievich

Wow, this book is...an achievement.  Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and it was well-deserved.  It's not a regular book of history; it's more like a monument, really.

What Alexievitch does -- has been doing for well over twenty years -- is interview people and transcribe their stories.  Mostly just ordinary people, and the stories are not edited much.  They're just set down.  The result is very immediate; you can almost see the people as they speak.

Many of the people in this book are elderly, and tell of long Soviet lives.  Others are quite young and may not even remember Soviet life.

There's a former Soviet officer, who offers the rather stunning information that a good 70% of the Soviet economy was militarized, and in his opinion that was only correct.  They weren't about to convert tank factories into factories for toasters!  They had to be ready at all times.

There's a lady who spent her infancy in the gulag, and her childhood in the orphanage down the road.  Other people who were convinced and happy Communists and can't get used to the new situation.  Lots of them wanted more freedom to read and speak, but the economic chaos of the 1990s was horrible for just about everyone.  Many people comment that they thought they'd get more books, salami, and freedom, and instead everything is about money, materialism, and bling all the time.  (I have to say, the West really screwed over the Russians with this whole 'shock therapy' thing.  What a mess.)

Sometimes she just collects random snippets, bits and pieces from the crowd on the street (as in the protests against the coup attempt against Yeltsin) or kitchen conversations at dinners, as everyone expresses different opinions.

A few quotations:

What an exciting time!  I handed out flyers in the subway...Everyone dreamt of a new life...Dreams...People dreamt that tons of salami would appear at the stores at Soviet prices and members of the Politburo would stand in line for it along with the rest of us.  Salami is a benchmark of our existence.  Our love for salami is existential...

War is a swamp, it's easy to get stuck in it and hard to get out.  Another Jewish saying: "When the wind is strong, the trash rises to the top."  [This is from a man who was a boy during the war and joined the partisans in the woods after he was left for dead in a mass Jewish grave.  The partisans were anti-Semitic too, but it was the only place he could be at all.]

The devil knows how many people were murdered, but it was our era of greatness. 

For us, communism was inextricably linked with the Terror, the gulag.  A cage.  We thought it was dead.  Gone forever.  Twenty years have passed...I go into my son's room, and what do I see but a copy of Marx's Das Kapital on his desk, and Trotsky's My Life on his bookshelf...I can't believe my eyes!  Is Marx making a comeback?  Is this a nightmare? [snip] Marxism is legal again, on trend, a brand.  They wear T-shirts with pictures of Che Guevara and Lenin on them.  [Despairingly.]  Nothing has taken root.  It was all for naught.
It's just this enormous array of different lives, placed next to each other for observation and perhaps comparison.  It's not at all an easy read; looking back at the dates on Goodreads, it took me nearly two months.  Most of the stories are harrowing in one way or another, and it's a lot to deal with.

For anybody interested in Soviet history, this is a must-read, as are Alexievitch's other books.  In fact, now she's got another book out.  She writes faster than I can deal with.  I will never catch up.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Summerbook #16: Hartmann von Aue

Arthurian Romances, Tales, and Lyric Poetry: the Complete Works of Hartmann von Aue

This is a long-held goal of mine, to read the complete works of Hartmann von Aue!  I did, some time ago, get hold of a (terrible) copy of Poor Heinrich, which is how I found out about this medieval German knight and poet.  I shall now quote my own blog post for background:
If you were here for my Arthurian literature project of 2014, you know that the mania for knightly romances and Arthurian tales spread through Western Europe in the 1100s.  I read French and German tales as well as English ones.  There were three great German poets of the courtly romance: Wolfram von Eschenbach wrote Parzival, and Gottfried von Strassburg wrote Tristan, but before them came Hartmann von Aue, who introduced the idea into Germany in the first place in the 1190s.  He has not become nearly as well-known in English as the two later poets...
This volume contains Hartmann's four narratives in presumed order of their composition: Erec, Gregorius, Poor Heinrich, and Iwein, but before that it has an early work, "The Lament," and a collection of lyrical poems.  I was really most interested in the romances, but I did read everything.

Erec and Iwein are both Arthurian tales retold from Chretien de Troyes' romances.  They were therefore familiar to me, but Hartmann put his own bits in too.

Gregorius is quite an interesting tale, an apocryphal saint's legend (like St. Christopher -- it was a very popular story, but disappointingly untrue).  Gregorius is, in fact, partially a version of Oedipus as far as I can tell.  A royal brother and sister are very fond of each other and eventually start an affair; the resulting child, Gregorius, is taken across the sea and fostered by a peasant, while the brother leaves, never to return, and the sister spends her life in penitence while she rules the kingdom.  Gregorius grows up and wishes to be a knight, and eventually ends up in his mother's castle; they fall in love and marry.  When the situation is discovered, Gregorius (who has become prideful) goes to a deserted island for his penance.  He stays on the island for 18 years, eating nothing and sustained by God.  Then some monks find him and he ends up Pope.

Thomas Mann eventually turned this story into a novel, The Good Sinner, in which Gregorius turns into a hedgehog during his time on the island.  I don't know why.

Here is my favorite quotation in the book, from Iwein, in an episode where Iwein causes a great storm to occur by pouring water on a certain rock.  This traditionally triggers a storm and a knight who comes out to defend his castle, but this time...
"...such a terrible storm that no one within the castle walls expected to survive.  Everyone was crying out, 'Damn the first settler of this land!  This suffering and disgrace is striking us at his whim.  This world has a lot of worthless places, but this is the very worst place ever to have a castle built on it.'"

So I was really happy to finally read all of Hartmann's works.  Also, I love the portrait of him on the cover, and am very tempted to put it on my wall somehow.  I just love how his eagles look like grumpy parrots and the crest on his helmet makes him look like a giant birdman on a horse.  His actual head is hard to find!  And his horse is so chipper!

Friday, August 16, 2019

Malgudi Days I

Malgudi Days: I, by R. K. Narayan

Here's another find from the great big university library.  This one just caught my eye as I was walking along; I didn't even look for it.  This shelf held several books published in India, in English.  (Actually, the library was crammed with Indian literature, but most of it wasn't in English.)  This was just a collection of the twelve Malgudi stories that had been turned into episodes of the TV series.

I'd read a couple of these stories before, but most of them were new to me.  I read the Penguin collection of Malgudi Days just a few months ago, but this was a different thing with little overlap.

I particularly remember a story about a little boy terrified to sleep away from his grandmother...and when he's forced to sleep alone, he accidentally catches a burglar and becomes a hero.   Another story features a family that promised to sacrifice their little boy's hair if he survived a dangerous...and now, twenty years later, it's about time they followed through, but the little boy isn't so little any more and he isn't thrilled with this plan!

I'd love to see the TV series made from these stories, and in fact it turns out that it's available on Amazon Prime!  So you can bet I'll be watching it.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

In Search of Lost Books

In Search of Lost Books, by Giorgio van Straten

This was just this fun little volume -- originally written in Italian -- about famous, or less-famous, lost books -- some of which might still be out there somewhere.  As, for example, the early works of Hemingway; his first wife was bringing them to him in a suitcase, and she just hopped out of the French train for a second to buy a Perrier.  When she got back, the suitcase was gone, and it was never recovered.

I was happy to see the story of Bruno Schulz, whose short stories I have read.  He was a Polish Jew, and so during World War II he hid the manuscript of his great life work novel with some Gentile friends.  Schulz was murdered by a Nazi officer who was annoyed with the Nazi officer who was keeping Schulz as a slave.  And the manuscript disappeared in the war and has never been found.

There's a chapter on Lord Byron's memoirs -- deemed too scandalous for publication, they were probably burned by the publisher.  One on Gogol's lost sequel to Dead Souls.  One on Sylvia Plath.  And there were some other authors who I was not as familiar with, but who sounds fascinating.  

And then there's the novel that van Straten got to read himself in manuscript, but didn't photocopy...but he sure wishes he had now.

What's nice is that van Straten talks quite a bit about what the books' content as well as the stories behind them.   It's just a nice, interesting, well-written little book of some lost bits of history.  So it's sad.  But intriguing, because what if that suitcase surfaces someday?




Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Summerbook #15: Paradise of the Blind

Paradise of the Blind, by Duong Thu Huong

This is truly an amazing novel; beautifully written and hard to put down.  It was also banned in Vietnam and the author imprisoned for her writing, which was -- even in a time that was supposed to be welcoming to dissent -- too directly critical for the government's pleasure.  As a young woman, Duong was part of the North Vietnamese Communist Party (she was exactly the age to be a young enthusiast during the war), but became disillusioned and spent the 1980s writing and speaking about what she had witnessed.  She was expelled from the Party and imprisoned for a while, and then released and simply not allowed to travel for years.  In 2006 she moved to Paris, where she still lives today.

Hang, a young woman living in Russia as an 'imported worker,' receives a telegram summoning her to Moscow to see her uncle, a cadre leader.  As she travels on the train, she ponders on her family's history in episodes that jump around in time, eventually giving the reader a full portrait of a family torn apart by war.

Hang's mother had married a young man very slightly wealthier than she was; his family owned a few acres of rice paddy and hired help at harvest time.  This was enough to earn the enmity of her brother Chinh, a rising young official who made it his mission to dispossess the family of their bit of land.  The young husband died, and his sister made it her life mission to amass wealth and save it all for baby Hang, in whom all her hopes resided.  Meanwhile, Mom scraped a meager living in Hanoi as a market trader, constantly subject to Chinh's harangues, and yet still supporting him with food and money.  While Aunt Tam lived only for Hang, Mom lived only for Chinh's little sons.

Hang grows up craving the love of her distracted mother, and constantly subject to her uncle Chinh's demands.  Her life -- and the lives of all around her -- is deformed by the ever-shifting, impossible demands of Communism, which visits violence and destruction on her beloved home and eventually forces her out.  Only a final help from the eccentric but loving Aunt Tam (who comes with her own demands in the form of extravagant generosity) makes it possible for her to return.


One really interesting interlude in the novel is at a huge feast given by Aunt Tam, who is by now a force in the village by virtue of her personality.  One of the women helping doesn't want to serve a village official, because he's trying to steal her relative's land (and thus livelihood).  Tam tells her not to worry, and then proceeds to stage an evening of storytelling, regaling the officials with tales of just and unjust magistrates of the past.  It's highly successful...for the moment.  But eventually, nothing can stop a corrupt government from victimizing whoever it wants.

There is a lot about food, smells, landscape, and physical environment.  It's a very tactile novel, and written by somebody who loves her home.

I really liked this novel.  Highly recommended!


Monday, August 12, 2019

The Golden Skylark

The Golden Skylark, by Elizabeth Goudge

During my week away, I was living in a great big university library, so naturally I went and hunted up books I didn't have access to at home.  Most of them were for work, but I did sneak in a few fun books for when my brain couldn't think about academic research any more!  I looked up Elizabeth Goudge in the catalog and was quite thrilled to see two or three titles I'd never read.  This was the one I picked to read.

The Golden Skylark is a collection of short stories, and the dedication -- to a girl "who loves England" -- is a clue to the theme.  All of the stories take place in Great Britain.

There are historical stories about famous people, starting with "The Golden Skylark," about the poet Shelley as a young man and the origin (I presume fictitious) of his skylark poem.  There is a story about Sir Thomas More and his children at the time of More's arrest, and another about a teenage Princess Elizabeth meeting Jane Seymour for the first time.  There's also one about Shakespeare's 'dark lady.'

Sprinkled throughout the collection are charming tales about the du Frocq family on the isle of Guernsey, in which the children get into various kinds of mischief, with interesting results.

There is also a tale about a Scottish castle and the children who belong to it, and another of two elderly ladies, their treasures, and an old rogue named Jenkins.  Oh, and one about a shopkeeping lady's two treasures and the boy and girl who wish to buy them.

It's a beguiling little collection of stories; highly recommended for Goudge fans.  Reminds me a bit of Eleanor Farjeon's stories, too; I think if you like one you'll also like the other.  Lucky me to find it in a library collection!

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I really could just live down there.  The more modern wing of the stacks had those moveable shelves that can cram almost double the books into the space, but unlike most of the moveable shelving I've seen, these had electric buttons instead of cranks.  I think the cranks are more reliable; the buttons are temperamental and getting elderly.  But, oh, the delights inside those stacks!  I found the mid-century English literature, literature from a dozen lands in their own languages, all sorts of lovely things on that floor.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Summerbook #14: Kalpa Imperial

Kalpa Imperial: The Greatest Empire That Never Was, by Angelica Gorodischer, trans. by Ursula K. Le Guin

I'd really been looking forward to this, and it did not disappoint.  Angelica Gorodischer is an Argentinian writer, and has published quite a bit, but this is her first book to be published in English.  This book was originally published in two parts, in the early 1980s.  Each part is a collection of stories.

Most of the time, the stories are told by an old storyteller -- but not always.  Some are different.  All purport to tell small parts of the extremely long history of the Empire, which has existed in various forms for thousands of years.  There are dark ages, many dynasties, and waxings and wanings of power.

The first story actually tells of the complete destruction of the Empire in what you might call prehistoric times, since all knowledge was lost for quite some time.  People lived in a new stone age until one young man ventured further into the old ruins than anybody else had, and started people building again.

Other chapters chronicle the long life of a city, or how an ordinary woman with a lot of common sense ended up advising a hemophiliac Emperor.  There is the story of a little neglected prince who is taught to hate his traitorous (and dead) father, until some workmen just happen to tell him a different version of history than the one he's been taught.

A disgraced Northern nobleman wanders into the rainforesty South and accidentally becomes the leader of a revolution, and a doctor lives in an empty mansion and tells people who to be cured.

The last story was one of my favorites, and is also one of the strangest.  A caravan is crossing the desert, and an orphan coaxes the leader into telling ancient legends -- which, it takes a while to realize, are a mishmash of our own ancient legends, stories, and films.  I enjoyed trying to tease out just what this story meant (I have no idea).

A really interesting set of stories to read, strange and dreamlike and not quite like ordinary SF/F.  I've never read a whole lot of Le Guin, but I think her fans would enjoy this too.  Also, I really love the cover.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Summerbook #13: Midnight Riot

Midnight Riot (Rivers of London), by Ben Aaronovitch

Accidentally, but appropriately, Summerbook #13 is the one with spooky magic!

I've been wanting to try this series out for a long time, but it's a British series that has not made a big appearance in the US.  So when I found a somewhat battered copy in the really neat SF/F used and new bookstore, Borderlands Books, in San Fransisco, on the evening that we went to the Chills concert (definitely one of the highlights of the year!).  Anyway, I saved it for a special fun read.

Peter Grant is a London constable, hoping to be a detective.  (We'd call him a rookie cop.)  He and his comrade Leslie start to look into a mysterious murder which seems to have been witnessed by...a ghost?  Soon Peter is swept into an unknown tiny branch of the Force that deals in supernatural crimes, headed by Inspector Nightingale, who is a wizard.  It will be Peter's job to learn magic -- lots of it -- and simultaneously negotiate with ticked-off river gods and goddesses.  And also find a ghostly serial killer who is getting more violent by the day.

This was a very fun story -- gripping, exciting, and well-planned.  I will definitely want to read more of these; Aaronovitch has built a solid basis for a series that will be half murder procedural and half wizardy magic.  CSI meets Gaiman's American Gods?  Of course, I'm quite late to the party; there are now six "Rivers of London" novels.



By the way, this is the second book by a British guy named Aaronovitch I've read this year.  I have to wonder: are they brothers?  Cousins?  Is Aaronovitch just a way more common name in the UK?  Fifteen seconds of research reveals that they are indeed brothers.  They have another brother who had a role on Coronation Street.  So, British Aaronovitches: a busy and public bunch.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Summerbook #12: The Claverings

The Claverings, by Anthony Trollope

Now that my big paper is pretty much done, I can write proper blog posts again!  I read The Claverings on the bus between Chicago and Champaign, and then on the way back again.  I finished it in O'Hare airport, waiting for my flight.  And what a lovely read it was -- so absorbing that I didn't want to put it down!

This is one of Trollope's individual novels; not part of a series.  It was written in 1864, and did not appear until 1866-67, serialized in the Cornhill Magazine. (Imagine, a novel all finished and not being written even as it was being published!)

Harry Clavering is the son of a clergyman who is cousin to a baronet -- on the edges of, but not part of, the nobility.  Harry has been brought up to be a rich, idle clergyman too, but he decides to buck authority and become an engineer, building bridges and railroads.  He also wants to marry the lovely Julia Brabazon, sister to the baronet's wife; but Julia, though she loves Harry, has different ideas about how her career should go.  Marriage being the only career open to women, Julia has decided to do the thing "sensibly," in cold blood, and is going to marry an extremely rich, extremely dissipated earl.  Harry vows never to love again.

Over a year later, Harry is an apprentice engineer and has gradually fallen in love with his employer's daughter, Florence Burton.  She is not beautiful, but she is lovely in character, intelligent, and generally the flower of middle-class England.  Harry tends to despise her hard-working family just a bit.  And Julia is back, having nursed her awful husband through his death -- and his spiteful efforts to sully her name.  She is rich, but friendless.  Harry helps her a bit, and then finds himself re-enchanted by a still lovely, and now wronged, Julia.

So here is the problem of the novel: Harry has let himself drift into a serious problem.  Julia didn't know he was engaged and now hopes to reclaim her lost love.  Florence is honestly in love with him and trusts him completely.  And Harry doesn't have the faintest idea of what he should do: lose his honor and his job, and become Julia's rich husband?  Or stay true to Florence, and leave poor Julia in the cold?  Julia is prepared to fight for what she wants; Florence is not -- she's not going to beg.

Meanwhile there is lots of other family drama going on!  A sneaky Polish-French brother-sister duo have latched on to Julia.  The baronet is horrible to his poor wife.  The penniless curate wants to get married and doesn't seem to realize that he would need some income for that.  The baronet's doofy brother thinks it would be a good plan to marry Julia...

Oh, it's all such a good story.  Great stuff.  And throughout, Trollope is quietly showing Florence's middle-class family as the best England has got, and the nobility as...well, kind of second-rate.  Harry doesn't really quite deserve Florence.

Florence, on the other hand, is hard to get to know.  She's such a paragon: intelligent, self-respecting, calm, virtuous, etc. that the more turbulent Julia steals the stage.  I'd rather be friends with Florence -- I'd rather BE Florence -- but she didn't get enough time to herself.

It did feel kind of like Trollope painted himself into a corner by producing this difficult scenario with the baronet and his brother, and then had to figure out how to fix it!

I really did love this novel.  Trollope is so great, and fellow fans will enjoy this story.  I think I'll re-read this one someday!
 


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I'm not sure how I can possibly finish my list of 20 books by September 3.  Things have just been so busy.  But I'm in the middle of Kalpa Imperial now, and I'm loving it!

Friday, August 2, 2019

The Mystery Trip Revealed

Where did I go, what did I do, and how could it possibly have anything to do with women in translation??  Well, it's a little tricky to explain, but several months ago I applied for a "summer lab" on internationalization in community colleges.  I was not at all sure what I was getting into, but it seemed like it might be fun, so why not?  I'd figure it out as I went along, right?

The lab was at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which I mostly knew as the premier school for librarians.  It is in fact a huge university where a lot of research happens, and the International and Area Studies folks wanted to foster internationalization in community colleges.  (Internationalization, which my husband usefully pointed out to be can be abbreviated i18n, is the rather common-sensical idea that it's a good thing for students to get some amount of global perspective in their educations.  Also, yay study abroad.)  So the theme was to come up with some sort of internationalization project you could carry out at your college, and research how to do it for a week at Urbana-Champaign.  The price for getting to live in the library for a week is to produce some sort of paper, syllabus, or plan afterwards.

So off I went to Illinois, where I have never been.  They put me up in a dorm apartment, which was by far the fanciest apartment I've ever lived in (washer and dryer!  dishwasher!), and which surprisingly had a castle door in the second floor stairs that led to a dining hall that looked like a castle hall, or maybe chapel.  Every day for six days I would walk over to the main library and read as much academic verbiage as I could stand, saving the rest for later perusal.  For a break, I would give myself the treat of going into the main stacks and wandering around happily.  On Friday, there was a day-long workshop.

Stacks: the librarian's favorite hideout
I include here a photo of elevator buttons because all the elevators were different, hard to find, strangely labeled, and led odd places.  Like to floor 3.5, where I found a nice bundle of Elizabeth Goudge books. 


I met lots of lovely people and had a glorious time when I wasn't digging through academic verbiage.  In the evening, I went and found fireflies!  I'd never seen fireflies before.  I got two roommates, who were great.  I found a few fun books to read when my brain was worn out.

Right before firefly time

And now I'm home, writing this paper.  The kids are gone, so it's a perfect time, but...it's killing me.  I have ideas, I can write them down, but the part where I need to quote and cite all the research....well, it's not like I can't do it, I did after all write my library's APA guide, but it's horrible work.  I'm so glad I'm not a real academic.  I can't let myself do anything else -- clean the house, put the pictures on the walls after painting (that was two weeks ago), have fun.  Must write paper.  I'm only writing this post because there is other stuff going on right now.

And how could this connect to WIT month?  Well, advocating for more literature in translation is right in there, isn't it?  If I were a literature instructor, I could attend the summer lab and put together a syllabus for a "Women in Translation" class -- except I'd need a better title.  Sadly, as a librarian, my options seemed to be a little more limited than the instructors, who could pick anything to study.  I'd much rather be a librarian, though.

But if you work or teach at a community college, think about attending the International Studies Research Lab!  Everybody is great and I learned a lot.