Friday, February 28, 2020

Akenfield

Akenfield: Portrait of a Country Village, by Ronald Blythe

In 1966 - 67, Ronald Blythe set out to collect oral histories from the older people in and around his home village (which is actually Charsfield and environs) in Suffolk.  Suffolk people being famously taciturn and private, it took a familiar person to get these interviews.  Mostly what Blythe did was to listen to whatever the people had to say about their lives; he presents them with a description of the person, but little commentary from his own point of view.  The result was a stunningly vivid collection of people's thoughts about their own lives and experiences.  It was hailed as a modern classic upon publication in 1969. 

At the time, it was an unusual sort of book; now, of course, we collect oral histories regularly, and Svetlana Alexievich has brought the form to new heights.  But in 1969, while people thought Akenfield was wonderful, they weren't sure what to call it.

We find portraits here of all sorts of people, though they are chiefly in agriculture of some kind.  The blacksmith, the schoolteacher, the magistrate and all sorts are also represented.  Laborers and owners, veterans of WWI and II...it's a wide variety.  Nearly all of them have experience of grinding poverty and endless hard work.  They talk about their love of farming, or of the relative merits of sheep, cows, and pigs.

There are remarkably few women featured in the book, and yet their stories are some of the most fascinating.  I really wished that Blythe had talked to a lot more women (yay 60s sexism?).  My favorite was certainly the retired district nurse, who had started working in the village in 1925 and knew everyone inside and out.
Certainly people were more neighborly then.  They went in and out of each other's houses to help with what was needed, and thought themselves well-paid with a cup of tea, yet it wasn't better than it is now.  It was worse, much, much worse.
Children have never been as beautiful as they are now...The old people were not taken care of...Things were more or less hidden -- all life was hidden -- and then, of course, it was difficult to move the doctors.  They didn't bother too much....People weren't worried about these conditions because they were the only ones they knew.  They were natural but bad.
 This is a theme that runs through the entire book, actually, but the nurse expresses it best.  All the older folks agree that even with the disadvantages that come with modern life, everything is much, much better than the old days, and nostalgia is just willful blindness.

The strangest thing about the interviews is that some things that we would find utterly horrifying are, while disapproved of, taken for granted a bit and not thought to be as harmful as we would consider them to be.  The book's introduction calls some of this "disturbingly frank," which about covers it.

It's a truly captivating read, a peek into another world -- other people's lives, and ways of life which are now gone.  It makes an excellent bedside book, since each interview is several pages, but there's not much continuity between each one, and so it's good for dipping into.  I'm so glad I found a copy of this book describing a little corner of the world.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

The Cuckoo's Calling

The Cuckoo's Calling, by Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling)

I've always kind of meant to give Rowling's mysteries a try.  After all, I love mysteries, and I enjoyed Harry Potter just fine, and everybody seems to like the Galbraith series.  So I finally picked up a copy and read this, the first in a series about private detective Cormoran Strike.  I'm probably the last person on earth to get around to it!

Cormoran Strike's life is pretty much a garbage fire.  The private detective agency business he founded is on the brink of insolvency, he's just broken up with his fianceé (for good this time, he's sure), and that makes him homeless so he has to sleep in his office.  The temp agency has sent over a new secretary, Robin, and he can't even afford that....and then John Bristow walks in and offers Strike a whole lot of money if he will investigate his sister's death.  Lula Landry was the biggest supermodel in the UK, and her fall from her apartment balcony was ruled a suicide, but Bristow is sure she was murdered.  Strike thinks Bristow is completely wrong, but he agrees to look at the case anyway, and while murder seems impossible, there are just a few tiny indications that it might not have been a suicide after all.

Strike follows Lula's elusive trail through paparazzi, the rich and famous, rehab and a homeless shelter.  There is a lot about designer clothes and other accessories (both good and bad) of life as a supermodel.  It helps to be interested in clothes, though there is some humor as Strike finds it all hideously ugly.

I did enjoy this mystery pretty well, but I also felt it was too long.  The story could usefully have been condensed by a good hundred pages.  450 pages is quite long for a mystery, and I did feel that this one lagged.  I was frustrated with how long everything took, and while I'm interested in what happens to Strike and Robin, I'm not sure I want to invest so much time in them.  In fact, I just looked at the other three books in the series, and each is longer than the last.  The fourth is over 600 pages (!!).  I felt that Rowling needed a stern editor in the last couple of Harry Potter books, and I think that applies here too!

To be fair, this isn't really a traditional "mystery" as usually defined in the genre.  Strictly speaking, a mystery is supposed to play fair by the reader, giving enough clues to solve the puzzle and not letting the detective have a bunch of secret information that's crucial to the case.  Strike knows several things the reader does not, and I don't think it would really be possible to figure out the puzzle.  So this is more like a novel that's a thriller or a character study of a detective, not quite a mystery in the usual sense.  (This isn't something I worry about for myself; I enjoy going with the flow of the story and not worrying about solving the puzzle before the end.  I just thought it was worth noting.)

It was fine, but I didn't think it was great.


Monday, February 24, 2020

The Secret Chapter

The Secret Chapter, by Genevieve Cogman

I've enjoyed the whole Invisible Library series.  This one is #6, and for some reason I felt like it was going to be a wrap-up volume.  I was very wrong!

Irene, librarian, has brokered a sort of peace treaty between the dragons and the Fae, but it's not complete quite yet.  She also has a new assignment: the world she spent her school years in is veering towards being more chaotic and in control of the Fae.  To stabilize her former home, she'll have to collect a book from that world -- a unique version of an ancient Egyptian folktale -- which is in the possession of Mr. Nemo, a very powerful Fae who has not signed on to the peace treaty at all. 

Mr. Nemo lives out the archetype of a super-criminal boss; think James Bond villains, elaborate hidden lairs, and infinite resources with which to carry out complicated heists.  He offers Irene a deal.  If she and her dragon partner, Kai, join a team to steal a painting from a museum, she can choose her reward.  The rest of the team consists of various Fae criminal types...and a dragon.

The action and intrigue is non-stop, and the really nice thing about this story is how it opens up possibilities at the end.  Instead of winding down the story, this volume cracked it wide open, and I'm going to be really excited to see what happens next!  Unfortunately for me, this volume was only just published, and I'm going to have to wait a while.

The Invisible Library series is well worth reading if you like complicated parallel worlds, bookish themes, and lots of adventure and scheming.

Friday, February 21, 2020

The Rivers of London series

Rivers of London series, by Ben Aaronovitch


Last summer, I posted about Midnight Riot, the first in the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch.  Since then I've been getting the other books in the series through the magic of ILL, and sometimes a small Kindle purchase.  I'm finding that they're not that easy to come by in the US, but they are so much fun, it's worth it to pursue them.

Peter Grant is just a regular London copper until he and his partner run into a murder witnessed only by a ghost.  Constable Grant is then launched on a strange career in the small and unpopular department known as "Falcon," which handles the weird stuff -- anything having to do with the minor gods, Fae, and various supernatural phenomena -- and involves training as a wizard. The head wizard is Nightingale, the only practising wizard left in the UK...or so he thought.  Turns out that not only is magic increasing, it never went away and there are some very bad practitioners out there.

Constable Grant deals, through several novels, a couple of novellas, and a whole parallel series of graphic novels, with ghosts, haunted BMWs, invisible unicorns, and more mundane events such as kidnappings and drug overdoses.  Not to mention pressure from Lady Tyburn (a river goddess), the exasperation of all his colleagues, and a betrayal or two.

So far I've read up to #6 of the main novels, The Hanging Tree.  The next story, "A Rare Book of Cunning Device," is a short story only available on audio, but well worth getting, because it's set in the British Library.   I hope to get hold of #7 soon, and #8 is supposed to come out later this year.  I also got hold of the first graphic novel, Body Work, and that's very good too.  The story works really well as a graphic novel.  I don't know that I'll read all of those, just because graphic novels aren't cheap, and I am.

I'm enjoying these a lot, so I do recommend them if you like both fantasy and mysteries.  They're like a cross between CSI and Harry Potter, as if you had an Auror embedded in the London Metropolitan Police.  Lots of fun.


Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The Ultimate Tragedy

The Ultimate Tragedy, by Abdulai Sila

This novel is from the West African country of Guinea Bissau.  Written in Portuguese, it's the first to be translated into English from that country.   Guinea Bissau used to be known as Portuguese Guinea until its independence in 1973, and this novel is set during that colonial period, but I'm not sure exactly when.  I was imagining sometime in the 1950s or 60s.

Ndani needs to leave her village; the djambakus (a religious leader) decided that she has an evil fate hanging over her, and she is blamed for anything that goes wrong.  So her beloved stepmother advises her to go look for work as a housemaid in the city, so she can get away.  Ndani spends a few years working for Dona Linda, who eventually develops ambitions to be a leader in local religious affairs.  Her husband, however, has different ideas.

Ndani leaves and ends up in a nearby village, where the chief plans to make her his sixth wife.  Instead, she meets the local teacher, and for a short time they find great happiness together, but it can't last.  The times just won't allow it.

This is an unusual novel, in that it jumps between viewpoints with no warning, and in large chunks.  The first part is Ndani's story, and it jumps to the village chief just when you least expect it.  Then it jumps again to the teacher, again at an unexpected point.  So the reader has to figure things out a bit.  It's a really good novel and I'm very glad I read it; I found it difficult to put down and read it in just a couple of days. 

Monday, February 17, 2020

March Magics is coming!

I am so happy that Kristen is hosting March Magics again this year!  It's been tough times lately, so we're taking it easy.  Kristen says:
As I am a bit scattered, stressed, demoralized, and a host of other not-fun emotions at the moment, and since I know some of you are feeling the same, I wanted to continue with last year's theme and have this event really be about the joy you find while you spend time with these two authors. Simply pick up your absolute favorites, dive into them, and lose yourself for a few hours. Afterwards, share that love with others. If you want to host a readalong or a giveaway, DO IT! If you want to write a blog post, share on social media, or even read with your kids--PERFECT! If you want to pick up that last book you have been saving with a heavy heart, this is the time.


Yep, this is an event I can really get on board with.  Diving into an alternate reality (or several) and finding some joy there seems like an excellent plan.  I haven't thought too hard about plans yet, but...

I recently had a nice couple of Discworld novels fall into my hands: Interesting Times (how apropos) and Unseen Academicals.  Of course I've read them before, but it's been a long time.  Perhaps I will also show you my lovely collection of Discworld stamps!  I really need to frame and display them somehow; they are so fun.

As for my beloved DWJ, I think I'll have to revisit Archer's Goon, which I adore.  Perhaps I'll read the two Dalemark books I didn't read during Witch Week (that would be Spellcoats and Crown of Dalemark).  Kristen says she'll be reading Hexwood, and I can always use a re-read of that very complex and confusing book.  And it's been a long time since I last read Castle in the Air...I don't have any DWJ stamps, but I did start a DWJ embroidery project once, which fell by the wayside; I wish I'd used a backing fabric, which makes me want to start over, but usually when I actually look at it, I realize it's fine.  Perhaps I'll get it out and take a look.

Hooray for March Magics!  Are you going to join in?


Friday, February 14, 2020

Subtly Worded

Subtly Worded, by Teffi

I didn't know anything about Teffi, and that turned out to be a real shame, so I'm going to give you a quick rundown.  Teffi is a Russian author not to be missed!

Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya, married name Buchinskaya, lived ~1872 - 1952.   She became an established writer of great popularity in the early 1900s -- everybody liked Teffi, from Tsar Nicholas II to Lenin.  Teffi mostly wrote short stories, sparkling satires and tragicomedies that often seem like comedy until you look again.  Some of her works were not very friendly to the tsarist government, and in 1917, she was a supporter of the October Revolution.  She soon realized that the Bolsheviks were not what she hoped, and escaped to Istanbul and then Paris, where she spent the rest of her days, along with so many other Russian émigrés.  She continued to write her short stories until the end of her life.

Subtly Worded is a survey of Teffi's short works, including selections from every period.  I think it was an ideal introduction to her.  The pre-Revolution stories show little vignettes of everyday life, from a little girl whose world is crumbling along with her parents' marriage to a young lady enamored of her new blue hat.  There are also a couple of notable pieces that are not fiction, but  accounts of Teffi's encounters with Tolstoy and Rasputin. 

Stories from 1920s and 30s Paris satirize the lives of the many émigrés, and the title story, "Subtly Worded," is a darkly comedic primer in how to write letters to old friends still in Russia.  The final stories come to terms with life, and imminent death.

I will definitely be reading more of Teffi, who deserves wider fame than she already has.  These stories are wonderful.



Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The Murderbot Diaries, 2-4

The Murderbot Diaries, by Martha Wells:
Artificial Condition
Rogue Protocol
Exit Strategy


I read All Systems Red a while ago, and I thought it was pretty good.  So when I saw the other three Murderbot Diaries volumes at the library, I snapped them up and read one per day.  They were great!  This is a highly recommended SF series.

When last we saw Murderbot, a Security Unit who is an amalgam of cyber and organic programmed as a bodyguard and soldier, the dire situation had been resolved and Dr. Mensah had bought Murderbot with the plan of letting it live free and learn.  Murderbot promptly learned to leave.  It wants to find out just what the deal was in its terrible past, and find out some crucial information for Dr. Mensah as well.  Navigating a society filled with artificial intelligences, humans, various blends of the two, and cutthroat corporations, Murderbot has a lot to learn -- about itself and everything else.

The story is filled with themes of free will, choice, and what it means to be not-human.  Murderbot, unlike so many stereotypical androids, has no desire whatsoever to be human, but it has all these terrible emotions pressing in, and just what does it mean to be a free SecUnit?   Figuring out these feelings, learning what it means to have choices, to have one's autonomy respected, and maybe even what it means to have...friends?  a team?  something like that?  is Murderbot's emotional journey, all while having a physical journey filled with a lot of intrigue, shooting, and various bots even scarier than a SecUnit.

Loved them, and barely put them down while I was reading.  I was excited to see that there's a real novel coming out later this year.  These four stories are all novellas, and could usefully be printed in one paperback volume.  The one thing I found really irritating about these was that each novella costs very nearly as much as a 400-page novel would, thus maximizing the money you have to spend.  But they're great stories! 




Monday, February 10, 2020

Tales of the Marvelous and News of the Strange

Tales of the Marvelous and News of the Strange: The First English Translation of a Medieval Arab Fantasy Collection

This is kind of a neat collection of tales.  They're not from the 1001 Nights, though they may not be a whole lot different.  These stories are from a medieval Arabic manuscript that has lost its original title, but contains the "tales of the marvelous and news of the strange" description on the first extant page.  Penguin made a very nice effort with the book, which is hardbound with a pretty gold stamped design on the cover and matching endpapers.

In these stories, young warriors go on quests and kill lots of other warriors.  Beautiful maidens (who are also very well-educated) fall in love and either waste away or emerge triumphant.  Everybody recites poetry a lot.  People end up in prison, or are given lavish gifts, or meet magic animals.

It did take me a long time to read this collection, because the stories do get a bit repetitive in their themes.  They're fun to read, though.  And I still think the title is pretty irresistible.


Friday, February 7, 2020

Passing

Passing, by Nella Larsen

It took me a while to get to one of the great Harlem Renaissance women writers, and I got there kind of backwards, but here I am at last.  Nella Larsen was born in the US, but her mother was Danish and her father was from the Danish Virgin Islands (Denmark had a colony there from 1754 - 1917, at which point it sold out to the US).  She worked as a librarian (yay!) and then as a nurse, and also wrote works which weren't as appreciated at the time as they are now.  She's now considered one of the major writers of the Harlem Renaissance (or so says my book).

I first heard of Larsen because she was the person who circulated a copy of the Danish author J. P. Jacobsen's first novel, Marie Grubbe, around her literary circle, which wound up sparking a truly great novel.  (See my post for details on the story, which I think is really neat.)   And so I've been wanting to read Larsen's own work for a while.  Passing has been on my TBR shelf for nearly a year.

This is a novella, and worth reading in just one sitting, as I did.  It's divided into three parts, rather like a drama.  There are also three women involved (though one is more of a minor character).  And it's set in the 1920s, at a time when the color line was very clearly marked...or was it?

Irene Redfield is out shopping and decides to eat in a fancy restaurant; she can pass as white, though she doesn't often -- at home, she lives embedded in the black middle class, with an ambitious doctor husband, sons, and many social duties.  At the restaurant she meets an old childhood friend, Clare, who disappeared in her late teens.  Clare is ravishingly beautiful, and confides that she has been passing for years.  She is married to a man who doesn't know her family background; it would be dangerous for him to find out.  But Clare has been so homesick for her old neighborhood that she came to town in hopes of meeting someone to hear the news.

Irene is reluctant to get involved with Clare, but the women become deeply entangled.  Over a few years, Clare visits often, carelessly courting danger.  Irene, meanwhile, is holding her home together by force of will and denial.  None of this can last.


This is a powerful and absorbing novel, with wonderful characterization.  Larsen explores many different angles of passing, as well as other aspects of racial issues in the 1920s.  The end comes as a shock, and apparently people argue over exactly what it means and what happened.  I have a definite opinion about that (in fact, it seems quite clear to me).  On the other hand, apparently people also argue over whether there are themes of bisexuality embedded in the story, and I didn't see any.  Erica kindly informs me that Larsen is said to have struggled with her own sexuality, which was handy since my book did not tell me so.

It's a classic of the Harlem Renaissance and a wonderful novel, so put it on your list.


Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Women Without Men

Women Without Men, by Shahrnush Parsipur

It's 1953 in Iran, and it's dangerous out there.  But that's only the backdrop to the stories of five women from Tehran who all wind up in the same villa, in a pretty little town next to a river, where very unusual things happen.  This is a magical realism kind of novel, in fact.  And it also became a famous film.

Mahdokht used to be a teacher, but now she just wants everything to be in harmony, so she plants herself in the villa's garden and waits to bloom.

Fa'iza goes to see her friend Munis, who she doesn't actually like very much.  (She's hoping that Munis' brother will notice her.)  The two women's lives become intertwined, even though Munis has died a couple of times and can now hear the thoughts of others...they end up together at the villa.

Farrokhlaqa, middle-aged housewife, is now a widow with ambitions in local politics.  She lets the others live with her in her new villa, and tries to write poetry.

Zarrinkolah, forced into prostitution as a girl, is now in her mid-20s and is worried by the fact that for the past six months, none of the men she has seen have had any heads.  She finally runs away and fetches up at the villa, where she meets the Kind Gardener; it's a great relief that he has a head, even if he doesn't have a name.

Now that everyone is living at this villa, things are more peaceful for them, but everything just gets more strange.  The women do not settle into a harmonious, idyllic existence or anything like that.

It's a very interesting novel, and I read it all in one evening, because it's also quite short.  I liked it.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Amrita

Amrita, by Banana Yoshimoto

Banana Yoshimoto is just so darn famous that I'd really been meaning to read one of her works, so I've had Amrita sitting around the house for a while.  And I did it!  I liked this novel, but I'm finding it hard to describe.

Sakumi is just a 90s girl in Tokyo, a young adult.  Her sister, Mayu, was a famous movie star whose life ended in a tragic suicide, and Sakumi herself is recovering from a severe accidental head injury; she's lost large chunks of her memory.  Through the novel, she takes her younger brother (who has some sort of ESP) and her sister's former boyfriend along on her journey through her dreams, thoughts, and grief, making some new friends along the way.

This is not a novel that is packed with action.  Things happen, and they are carefully savored.  Other people -- their appearances, reactions, and feelings -- are described at length.  Memories and emotions are noticed and saved for later.  Much of the trip is through Sakumi's own mind and feelings.  It's beautifully written, and also kind of strange.  I liked it, but I'm not sure what to say about it.