Monday, March 30, 2020

A quick update

This was going to be a book post, but my 'quick update' -- which is probably mostly for posterity anyway -- wound up six paragraphs long, so I guess it gets its own post now.  I'll write the book posts after this... and I'd love to know how everybody else is doing, too!

We wandered around here about 10 days ago, lots of space!
Like everybody else, we are staying at home a lot.  I work from home now, and I don't like it one bit, but I'm fortunate to be able to earn a paycheck.  Husband is also working from home, and 16yo is doing school here at home.  I think she's starting to rethink her nostalgic yearning for homeschooling -- but then, when we homeschooled, we went a lot of places.  Luckily we each have a computer, so we can work at the same time, but meetings are a little trickier.  This morning we each had a Zoom conference at just about the same time, and my plan to use my tablet in my bedroom didn't work (too far from the wi-fi), so I wound up sitting on the floor in the corner of 16yo's bedroom.

My oldest is still working and college-online-schooling away from us, which I am less than thrilled with, but Oldest feels lucky to still have a job, even if it is with the public at a grocery store.  We have a plan for coming home in case of illness.  This over-protective mom wants everybody HOME, and is a mite jealous of everybody else who has their college kids at home where they can see them, but such is not the case right now.  So I sewed some fabric masks for Oldest to wear at work...

16yo will be 17 this week, and our birthday plans have narrowed down to watching a movie on Discord with a cousin, and having pie, instead of the piñata party with friends we'd been planning.  Instead we'll have a post-quarantine piñata party?

I've also gotten WAY behind on my blog posting and reading; I have something like 300 posts in my reader.  I spend so much time staring at the screen while working that I don't seem to have time for other screen-stuff.  Somehow we are watching LESS TV, I don't even know how that works.  I think 16yo is so sick of parental faces by the end of the day that all she wants to do is go draw in her room.

For a data point, while the stores here have had all the TP bought, and the flour is gone and so is the deli meat, I would say that for the most part it hasn't been too bad here.  The stores have not been entirely denuded as in some of the photos I've seen, and have mostly been able to restock fairly well.  I think this is probably because we're a smaller city and also we had the fire just 18 months ago, so maybe we're jaded.  The shelves of bottled water are half-empty, but they're not totally empty.  (When I commented to Oldest that this isn't cholera and we all have perfectly good tap water, I was told: "When scary things happen, people buy water.  It's a fundamental law of grocery.")

I take a lot of walks, sometimes 3 per day.  Luckily I like walking!  So we are doing okay.  We struggle with the quarantine blahs, but we are very fortunate to be here in our town, and employed, and healthy so far.  I hope you are too.

Archer's Goon

Archer's Goon, by Diana Wynne Jones

What with everything going on this month, I've pretty much fallen back on old favorite DWJ titles, of which Archer's Goon is a prominent member.  I love the humor in this book, the family -- this must be one of the very few DWJ titles that features a family that isn't completely, totally dysfunctional, though it is certainly eccentric! -- and the sheer chaos of this really pretty strange story.

Howard, age 13, has an ordinary boring life until a Goon shows up in the family kitchen, demanding "two thousand" from Howard's dad Quentin.  Howard finds out about who really runs his town -- seven powerful siblings who have been stuck there for years, and aren't very happy about it.  The siblings figure that Quentin's words must be what's keeping them trapped, and they're determined to force him to write more words for them.

This is one of those stories where everything gets turned upside-down, and it's Howard's job to put everything back in order -- only better this time.  Here, the siblings are the dysfunctional family, and in comparison, the Sykes offer a loving home where everyone rubs along in a comfortably imperfect and forgiving way. 

It's also a meditation on various forms of power, and the corruption thereof.  Archer relies on money and charm; Dillian is manipulative and not above using force; Shine is violent.  Torquil and Awful both have difficult tempers that they need to learn to control, and Howard knows that he could easily become as selfish as he was as Venturus.

Also, I don't think Archer's Goon has ever had a decent cover.  It's a favorite of mine but all the covers are...awful.  This one is the ancient paperback I have, which gives the Goon too much hair and makes him look like he has pointy ears. 

I've been meaning to watch the 1992 TV adaptation of Archer's Goon for years.  I watched the first couple of episodes a while back, but didn't continue; I never seem to have much time for TV.  Well, I sure have time now!  So I watched all six episodes.  They really are pretty dreadful, but that's largely because of the extremely low production values and the bad over-acting.  It comes off as very amateurish.  Several of the actors went on to have long careers, but you wouldn't know it from this show.  It is fun to see how they translated it to a film medium, they stick close to the original story, and it's nice to hear a good deal of the dialogue straight from the book.  But it's terrible.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

A Tempest

A Tempest, by Aimé Césaire 

Aimé Césaire, born 1913 in Martinique (which is still officially French), became a world-renowned dramatist and poet; he, along with his friend the poet Damas, established the idea of "Negritude," that black people did not need to assimilate into European culture, but had valuable cultures of their own to contribute to the world.  Leopold Senghor was the leader of this movement; I read some of his poetry in 2014.  This was an anti-colonialism black pride movement, largely in the areas that had been colonized by France, in the 1930s - 1950s.  A Tempest was published in 1969.

Césaire's play is an adaptation of Shakespeare's Tempest which casts Ariel as mulatto, and Caliban as black, both enslaved by Prospero, who has arrived on their island and taken illegitimate possession of it.  Ariel works hard for Prospero, always hoping for his long-promised freedom and trying to appeal to Prospero's conscience, while Caliban has given up waiting for Prospero to act rightly and has turned to rebellion and violence for his hope.  He has seen through Prospero's claims to superiority and scorns them.  The two argue their cases with each other, but neither can convince the other.

As the regular action of the Tempest plays out, this second drama fits into the spaces.  European society is revealed as corrupt and decrepit, and when everyone (including the happy young lovers) prepares to leave, Prospero frees Ariel but chooses to stay on the island in order to impose civilization upon it and Caliban, whom he will not leave alone.  He would rather continue in his futile project than go home.

A fascinating commentary on colonialism and the damage it inflicts on all sides.  I'm sure I didn't come anywhere near plumbing the depths of this play.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Bellman and Black

Bellman and Black, by Diane Setterfield

This novel was recommended to me by a rare-book expert I know; we have some similar tastes and she said this was a favorite of hers.  I actually wouldn't have chosen it, just because there is a Victorian dress on the cover, and I'm a little tired of the kind of books that feature fancy dresses on the covers.  But!  It turned out that the dress was actually meaningful to the plot, and it wasn't at all a 'ballgown' kind of novel.  (I should have realized that just from the person who recommended it!)

A village in mid-Victorian England:  four boys are out playing, and William Bellman, in a moment of showing off, aims his slingshot at a young rook and kills it.  And then he forgets -- but the rooks don't forget, not at all.

As a young man, William joins his uncle at the wool mill.  He's bright and practical-minded, and soon he's risen to manager.  The entire first half of the novel is given to William's life at the mill, and eventually his family.  It's actually a lovely read and I would have been perfectly happy to read an entire historical novel just about a clever and ambitious man's life in a fascinating business, and his nice family -- Setterfield makes this story completely absorbing.  But that is not what this is.

Instead, tragedy hits the village and William loses so much.  He also meets a man who both frightens and fascinates him, and who gives him the idea of a new business venture.  Bellman & Black becomes William's new obsession, and it's a great success; but will there be a price? 

The ending isn't what I expected, either.  All through, this novel doesn't act as expected.  It's rather spooky, and also subtle, so that nothing is obvious or clear.  I enjoyed it very much, and was pleasantly surprised several times.  It's an unusual kind of story.

This novel made me realize that I did not actually know what a rook was, besides being kind of like a crow.  (I had a vague idea that they might be the same thing.)  So I looked it up, and found this excellent video that explains the differences between five British corvids. Rooks are a lot like crows, but they're way more social and like to hang out in groups, they're shaggier, and most obviously, adults have greyish-white beaks and bare patches on the face.

This is a rook.

Friday, March 20, 2020

The Dark Side of the Sun

Kirby cover!
The Dark Side of the Sun, by Terry Pratchett

--I've put a short update at the bottom if you're interested.

I've had this book sitting around for a while, but had never read it, so this was a perfect opportunity.  This is Pterry's first 'adult' novel (as opposed to the juvenile fiction he'd written previously), from 1976, and pre-dates the Discworld books.  It's science fiction, very short, plays with some intriguing ideas, and is a lot of fun.

In the far future, humanity has spread over several worlds, sometimes in cooperation with others of the 52 known sentient species.  All of them developed within a fairly small section of the galaxy, the rest of which appears to be sterile.  And there are artifacts left from the Jokers -- a super-intelligent, utterly mysterious, vanished race.

Dom is the heir to the massive corporation and planet of Widdershins, a world that is nearly all swamp but that produces two incredible materials.  Widdershine humans live in cooperation with the phnobes, another sentient race.  Dom's father was expert in probability math, and predicted that his son would be assassinated on the day of his investiture as Chairman.  And so he is...but when he survives the assassination, a whole new set of probabilities come into play, and Dom (now greenish) sets off with his ragtag crew to find the Jokers' world.  To get there he'll have to avoid a lot of assassinations.

Lots of fun, and a wonderfully populated galaxy full of interesting creatures. The probability math contains definite shades of Hari Seldon, but only in the most glancing way.  It's entertaining to spot little things that will eventually end up in the Discworld books; Widdershine celebrate Hogswatch, and there are other things -- sometimes just a characteristic phrase or sentence.

Three races walked like men. One of them was Man. Taller than men, but generally lighter, were the phnobes. Much smaller than men, but built more on cuboid lines so that they looked like heavy-gravity chimpanzees on a steroid diet, were drosks. 
Phnobes came in three sexes. They had a secondary, vestigial brain. They evolved on a world with no readily available metal. In cerebral matters they were supreme. A world where most of the higher animals were adapted to a tri-sexual system needed a race with brains. 
Drosks came in two sexes, eventually. It made sense on a harsh, bitter world. The young males evolved into mature, strong-minded females after about the first third of their life. Their social system was intricate but was surpassed in complexity by their religion, a fiery edifice involving the double star and three large moons in their system. Drosks were cannibals, it was part of the religion. Drosks found it difficult to conceive of a number greater than seven. Drosks periodically built up a machine-age civilization then, for no well-understood reason, carefully dismantled it and reverted to barbarism. 
Compared to all the other fifty-two races known, drosks, phnobes and men were like brothers.

There had been a thousand years of colonization. Now the sinistrals of Widdershins had night-black skin, no body hair, a resistance to skin cancers and UV-tolerant eyes. By mere chance, too, half of them were left-handed. On Terra Novae men were stocky and had two hearts. Pineals had more in common with phnobes than other men. The men of Whole Erse lived in a permanent war.Eggplanters were simply strange, and edgy, and vegetarians green in tooth and thorn.

For a few thousand years the planet glooped and woobled its watery path between the stars, trailing behind it across the galactic sky a shimmering rainbow of steam that photon pressure sculptured into vast ghosts. Then it exploded.
If you've never read this early work, put it on your list.  Don't miss it.

"Make Your Own Magic" has certainly turned out to be an appropriate theme for March 2020, hasn't it?  We've been mostly staying home all week, and last night our state governor ordered all 40 million Californians to stay home if possible, only going out for things like food, medicine, and exercise that isn't too close to other folks.  My husband is working from home, which it looks like I'll be doing too (how???), and my 16yo will be doing school at home for at least a month.  This overprotective mom is not thrilled about the oldest living down in Sacramento, but there's nothing to be done about that.

What have you been doing with all your time at home?  I've done these things:

  • Walks in the neighborhood (on Tuesday, a neighbor played the bagpipes for anybody who wanted to show up!  Which we did).
  • Working on various sewing projects
  • Watching Stargate with 16yo
  • Quite a bit of cleaning
  • Too many quarantine snacks, but cooked a great St. Patrick's dinner
  • Reading some books!  Good thing I already have a bunch checked out from work.  Ha ha, my greed will finally pay off.
  • Texting, emailing, or phone-talking with friends and family.
  • Too much FB scrolling.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020


Hexwood, by Diana Wynne Jones

I love Hexwood so much.  It starts off with two stories: a girl in an English village, who has been ill and is therefore bored stiff, and an administrator of a lowly bureaucratic department of a galactic corporation/empire who is dismayed to receive a report of a problem on a backwater planet.  The two stories of a village girl and a galactic empire turn out to be in fact the same tale, and this tale is being told by the Bannus, an extremely intelligent machine that can run scenarios in order to predict the consequences of decisions.  It has co-opted a whole lot of people into the story it is enacting, and all of it with the goal of bringing down the cruel Reigners who have run the galaxy for a thousand years or more.

I'm not very satisfied with that description, actually, because it doesn't give the least hint of the mystery, adventure, puzzle, intrigue, and tragedy (as well as comedy) of Hexwood.  But I wanted to bring out the how the Bannus is manipulating everyone.  The characters have double (or triple) lives, with the action centered on a small wood next to a village and an old farm -- which somehow becomes a forest containing a river, a camp, a castle with knights and ladies, an entire band of outlaws, and even wolves.

As a result, the story is very difficult to keep straight, and even though I've read it many times, I can't remember everything.  The various main characters each have at least two identities, often more.  I just about need a chart for the Prisoner, the King, and the Boy, so I've written it out:

The Prisoner is also Martellian, a former Reigner who warred against Reigner One (Orm Pender, his own half-brother, whose mother was a witch from Lind) and was put in stasis for a thousand years.  On Earth he was known as Merlin, imprisoned in a cave.  And in the story he is the boy Hume.

Martellian had descendants he bred for fighting dragons (aka Reigner One), and one was Fitela Wolfson, also knows as the Boy, and Martin in the story.  Fitela appears in Beowulf, and is known as Sinfjötli in the Song of the Völsungs -- he is Sigurd's brother and the son of Seigmund.  (All the Sig's invariably give me a headache.)

The King is Sir Artegal in the story, and he turns out to be King Arthur, another fighter against the Reigners who was put in stasis, and entered legend as a more local leader.  Remember, also, that Sir Artegall is a character in the Faerie Queene, who embodies justice and is destined to be the progenitor of the British line of kings (though not Arthur, who is a friend of his).

Mordion is easier to get a handle on.   But I think he is the most tragic DWJ character of all time, even more so than Jamie in Homeward Bounders.  (Which I'm going to read next.)

Hexwood was dedicated to Neil Gaiman, and in the process of writing this post I ended up at his blog post memorializing Diana Wynne Jones from March of 2011.  It was good to re-read it.  "As an author she was astonishing."  Yes, she was, and I'm sure Gaiman knows it much better than I do.

 So, this is one of my favorites.  I have a lot of favorites, it's true, but this one I love for its complexity, depth, and tragedy.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Return to Labyrinth

Before I get to the book part, just a quick note about the thing on everybody's minds.  Like so many folks, we are semi-battened down.  Our county has no confirmed cases yet, but then they have only done a few tests, so the true state of affairs is unknown.  (Couldn't resist a DWJ reference, ha.)  The reaction has been slow here, but school admins have the advantage that this week is spring break.  Things are changing fast, but at the moment K-12 is off for two weeks instead of just one (I think that will change), the university has gone online until the end of April, and the community college I work for is preparing to go online but so far, will still hold classes after a couple of extra days off.  We have some students with no internet access at home, and some instructors who have not chosen to become familiar with online education, so it's a bit tricky and I'm hoping our library and the tutoring center can stay open to serve those who need support.  This is the third semester in the last four that has featured a major shutdown, and each one has been different.  We're too jaded to panic, though...

Speaking of which, the runs on groceries have only just started here.  Only TP and hand sanitizer are gone, there's plenty of everything else. 

So for at least the next week, my 16-year-old and I will be home together a whole lot.  We have all the time in the world to read, sew, watch movies/TV, go for walks, and cook a massive St. Patrick's Day dinner, and my glasses won't break!  (Or if they do, I have a backup pair.)  My husband may well end up working from home too.  Our 19-year-old is at college/work, but the school is now online so I would be happy for a a little visit if possible.

I'd love to know how all of you are doing.  I presume we'll be swapping stories on our blogs.  Or comment here!  And now, on with the book...

The covers are a bit overblown IMO
Return to Labyrinth (4-volume graphic novel), by Jake Forbes and Chris Lie

My 16-year-old has been on something of a Labyrinth kick lately.  The kids and I love almost anything that Jim Henson ever touched, but Labyrinth is definitely one of our favorite things, and in the last couple of weeks we've been humming the songs after the 16-year-old invited a friend over to watch the film.  Then I found a couple of Labyrinth cross-stitch patterns on Etsy, and now she and I are doing them together, which is a lot of fun.  So when my co-worker started working on a display of fantasy titles and happened to grab this manga graphic novel, I knew I had to take it home for my kid to read.  Her reaction to the first volume was that it was very very strange, and what the heck is going on??  She isn't much into manga, and thought the style didn't really suit the story, but that's a matter of taste I suppose.  I've now read all four.

The covers, by the way, are by a different artist than the actual story, which has fewer swirls and not as much hair.

The story is that Toby is now 16 years old, and Jareth has been watching him this whole time, granting his wishes (usually to disastrous effect), and planning to make Toby his heir.  A very confused Toby arrives at the Labyrinth and tries to figure out what's going on.  Should he try out this kinging gig?  At the same time, Sarah, in the regular world, is now a teacher who at some point lost her originality and imagination.  What happened, and will Toby survive long enough to decide whether to be a Goblin King?

Toby wants to give it a shot, and a queen from a neighboring kingdom does her best to thwart him. It's all extremely complicated, and Jareth is still trying to manipulate events from the background.  There are several intertwining plotlines, but it does all become clear by the end...

It's a pretty weird story, and I wouldn't say it's perfect.  The world of Labyrinth was not necessarily designed to be explained or continued in the first place, which I think makes extending that world a little tricky.  Toby doesn't have a lot of depth to him, but that's his problem; he's been coasting through life.  It's an imaginative and entertaining story that is fun to read and has a lot of really weird detail, plus appearances of all our favorite characters.  Fans would have fun with it, especially if they don't take it too seriously.

Now I find out that there is also a trilogy graphic novel about the backstory to the film -- how Jareth became the Goblin King in the first place.  I may die if I can't read them!

Friday, March 13, 2020

Castle in the Air

My very old copy, from the UK
Castle in the Air, by Diana Wynne Jones

Happy Friday the 13th!  Somehow that seems appropriate for a story that features bad luck and black cats pretty largely.

I chose to read Castle in the Air partly because it's never been one of my favorites, so it's been a while since I read it, but I still like it enough to revisit it every once in a while.  This is the second book in the moving castle trilogy with Sophie, Howl, and Calcifer, but you can't tell for quite a while.

If you're unfamiliar with the story, it starts with the carpet merchant Abdullah, who escapes the nagging of his extended family members by daydreaming, until he purchases a magic carpet that takes him on some unexpected adventures involving a genie in a bottle, a legendary bandit, adorable (and scary) cats, a couple of djinns, and an actual castle in the air.  And of course a princess, who is both lovely and whip-smart.  Actually there are a lot of princesses, of all kinds!

I love that this story takes its title literally and has so much of the DWJ theme of having things come true and hit you.  The genie's goal is outright to make any wishes he grants go horribly wrong for the wisher.   Abdullah has ridiculous, fanciful daydreams, and is dismayed by having to live them out in reality.  Even the djinn finds out that his dream of kidnapping a hundred-plus princesses is no picnic.  (If you're new to DWJ, she said that it sometimes actually did happen that something she'd written would come true at her.)

There are things I don't love about this story, though.  It just doesn't feel as ....real?  gripping?  as most DWJ stories.  It doesn't seem to have the depth, somehow.  And, this is the story where her dislike of pudginess comes through most clearly.  It strikes a sour note.  Still, I'm pretty happy to read it every so often, and I do enjoy the antics of Calcifer and Howl, as well as Morgan's utter outrage at being a baby.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Jazz and Palm Wine

Jazz and Palm Wine, by Emmanuel Dongala

Emmanuel Dongala was born in the Congo (then a French colony) in 1941.  He studied in US universities during the 1960s, returned to an independent Congo as a professor in the 70s, moved back to the US during the time of civil war in the 90s.  He has written novels, poetry, and short stories -- as far as I can tell, in French.  This collection of short stories was first published in 1982, in France, but they had been written at different times before that, not all in the early 80s.  Dongala's life split between Congo and the US has given him a dual lens -- and a great love of jazz music.

The short stories all show a piece of ordinary life for ordinary people caught up in the changing world of post-colonial Congo, and the frustrations thereof.  Having shed the French colonial power, they look for a bright future of freedom, and find instead bureaucratic paralysis, Marxist rhetoric that fails to disguise the same old oppression in a new form, and an expectation that traditional beliefs will give way to a 'scientific' worldview imposed by those in power.

I particularly liked "Old Likibi's Trial," in which a village suffering from drought puts their traditional magic practitioner on trial, using scientific logic to prove that he must have used his magic to stop the rain.  "The Astonishing and Dialectical Downfall of Comrade Kali Tchikati" was also really good, and "The Ceremony" features a young militant wishing to rise in the world, explaining his situation -- which serves to show his struggle to even understand all this Marxist speech he has to use.  The last couple of stories are more about John Coltrane and jazz, in the US.

It's a very good collection; I enjoyed Dongala's wit and feeling for the people he portrays.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Interesting Times

A classic Kirby cover!
Interesting Times, by Terry Pratchett

It has been so long since I read Interesting Times that I only remembered the curse: May you live in interesting times.  Nothing else.  So I thought it might be good to revisit it, and the title seemed quite apropos to our own interesting times, after all!  It turned out to be a Rincewind story, and it's quite a long time since I read any Rincewind story at all.

Rincewind has been dodging around the Discworld, running away from various imminent deaths, for quite a long time now.  Somehow he has wound up on a desert island (with, of course, his trusty and terrifying Luggage), but he is unexpectedly transported home to Unseen University by the wizards, who want him to go to the Counterweight Continent on the other side of the Disc.  He's been summoned by...somebody.

The Counterweight Continent is an Empire run by five major families, who are constantly at each other's throats in a battle for power.  The Emperor is dying, so they're gathering their forces.  There's also a rebellion of idealistic revolutionaries, who plan to bring freedom to the masses.  AND Cohen the Barbarian, with his geriatric Horde, is in town, planning to loot the Empire -- possibly by means of becoming the Emperor himself.

Rincewind, dumped in the middle of this mess, finds himself trying to help the revolutionaries survive the manipulations of whoever is using them for his own ends, as Genghiz Cohen infiltrates the palace and, back at the University, Hex gets steadily more worryingly mysterious.  In the chaos, we find as always, lots of great wit and sly commentary.

It's been too long since I read this one, so I'm glad I picked it up.
..."we are fighting for the peasants," said Butterfly.  She'd backed away.  Rincewind's anger was coming off him like steam.
"Oh?  Have you ever met them?"
"I -- have seen them."
"Oh, good!  And what is it you want to achieve?"
"A better life for the people," said Butterfly coldly.
"You think you having some uprising and hanging a few people will do it?  Well, I come from Ankh-Morpork and we've had more rebellions and civil wars that you've had...lukewarm ducks' feet, and you know what?  The rulers are still in charge!  They always are!"
“Look,” he said, rubbing his forehead. “All those people out in the fields, the water buffalo people… If you have a revolution it’ll all be better for them, will it?” 
“Of course,” said Butterfly. “They will no longer be subject to the cruel and capricious whims of the Forbidden City.” 
“Oh, that’s good,” said Rincewind. “So they’ll sort of be in charge of themselves, will they?” 
“Indeed,” said Lotus Blossom.
“By means of the People’s Committee,” said Butterfly. 
Rincewind pressed both hands to his head. “My word,” he said. “I don’t know why, but I had this predictive flash!” They looked impressed. “I had this sudden feeling,” he went on, “that there won’t be all that many water buffalo string holders on the People’s Committee. In fact… I get this kind of … voice telling me that a lot of the People’s Committee, correct me if I’m wrong, are standing in front of me right now?”
 “Initially, of course,” said Butterfly. “The peasants can’t even read and write.” 
“I expect they don’t even know how to farm properly,” said Rincewind, gloomily. “Not after doing it for only three or four thousand years.” 
“We certainly believe that there are many improvements that could be made, yes,” said Butterfly. “If we act collectively.” 
“I bet they’ll be really glad when you show them,” said Rincewind.”

Friday, March 6, 2020

Red Cavalry

Red Cavalry, by Isaac Babel

First off, I just have to say that visually speaking, this is one of the most awesome book covers in the history of the world and I love it.  Of course, what it actually depicts is terrible; it's a Soviet propaganda poster showing a map of Eastern Europe/Russia, with a giant Red soldier stomping on his neighbors -- specifically Poland -- and the neighbors are mostly depicted as bloated plutocrats and outdated military officers.  So it's not that I like the subject matter; it's just an amazing poster showing the official Soviet message -- an arresting primary source and window into this time.

This time is 1919 -1920, when the newly-established Soviet Russia and Ukraine are involved in a war with Poland.  The whole thing is complicated enough that I'm just going to direct you to the Wikipedia page on the conflict, but the very short version is that Poland wanted to extend its territory east, and invaded Ukraine, and the Soviets wanted to...liberate Europe from the shackles of capitalism by speeding the world revolution that they knew would come soon.  Yeah, that's the ticket.  So they invaded right back, with the intention of getting all the way west.

Isaac Babel was in his mid-20s, and was attached to the First Cavalry Army as a journalist.  He kept a diary, of which the first 24 pages have been lost.  From that, he wrote quite a few short stories and vignettes that showed the war in all its brutality and misery.  They were mostly published (1920's Soviet literature was somewhat freer than it became later, and the stories were withdrawn in 1933) and gave the public its first glimpse into the realities of the glorious Red Cavalry riding forth to free the Polish proletariat.  The whole collection is called the Red Cavalry cycle.  This volume also includes unpublished stories, Babel's journal of the war, and his notes.

Babel narrates the stories from the point of view of Kiril Lyutov, a Russian Jewish character somewhat like himself but not the same.  These are often very short scenes, and they are beautifully, even exquisitely written, with strange and arresting imagery.   They are also explicit in their depictions of the violence and careless cruelty of the soldiers -- Cossacks with only the barest veneer of Communist ideology -- they're interested in their horses and in eating, looting, and stealing whatever they can, and worse.  Officially, they're liberating the Polish peasants from their oppressors, bringing a new and more prosperous way of life, and definitely not destroying anybody's houses; in reality, they're ravaging the country, murdering, raping, and pillaging their way along.  What they don't eat or steal, they often wreck and burn.
The buglers sounded the alarm.  The squadrons lined up in a column.  A wounded man crawled out of a ditch and, shading his eyes with his hand, said to Vytyagaichenko, "Taras Grigorevich, I represent the others here.  It looks like you're leaving us behind."
"Don't worry, you'll manage to fight them off," Vytyagaichenko muttered, and reared his horse.
"We sort of think we won't be able to fight them off, Taras Grigorevich," the wounded man called after Vytyagaichenko as he rode off.
Vytyagaichenko turned back his horse.  "Stop whimpering!  Of course I won't leave you!"  And he ordered the carts to be harnessed.

I mourn for the bees.  They have been destroyed by warring armies.  There are no longer any bees in Volhynia.  We desecrated the hives.  We fumigated them with sulfur and detonated them with gunpowder.  Smoldering rags have spread a foul stench over the holy republics of the bees.  Dying, they flew slowly, their buzzing barely audible.  Deprived of bread, we procured honey with our sabers.  There are no longer any bees in Volhynia.

"Let's go for it, Spirka!" I shout.  "Either way, I'm going to hurl some mud at their chasubles!  Let's go die for a pickle and World Revolution!"

...when we cross into Galicia -- it will be the first time that Soviet troops will cross the border -- we are to treat the population well.  We are not entering a conquered nation, the nation belongs to the workers and peasants of Galicia, and to them alone, we are only there to help them set up a Soviet power.  The order is important and sensible -- will the rag-looters stick to it?  No...
...everything repeats itself, once again the same story of Poles, Cossacks, Jews is repeating itself with striking exactness, what is new is Communism. 

A quiet evening in the synagogue, this always has an irresistible effect on me...No decoration at all in the building, everything is white and plain to the point of asceticism, everything is incorporeal and bloodless to a monstrous degree, to grasp it fully you have to have the soul of a Jew.  But what does this soul consist of?  Is it not bound to be our century in which they will perish?

Through all these days the old man was in the clutches of a sudden, stormy, vague hope, and, in order not to let anything darken his happiness, he did his best to overlook the foppish bloodthirstiness and loudmouthed simplicity with which in those days we solved all the problems of the world.
Well, with writing like that, Babel couldn't last long in the good graces of the USSR.  He was allowed to travel between Paris and Russia -- he left his wife and child in Paris, but felt that he was bound to live and write in Russia even though it would lead to disaster; he simply couldn't do anything else.  His good friend Gorky protected him, but Gorky died in 1936.  In May 1939, Babel was arrested, his papers and manuscripts confiscated, and neither he nor they were ever seen again.  There was no word of him until 1954, at which point there was a short declaration that Babel's sentence, given in January 1940, was revoked.  It was stated that he had died of unknown circumstances in March of 1941, which was entirely false.  It was not until the 1990s that it was confirmed that he had been executed in January 1940, the day after his 20-minute trial and sentence.

These stories are truly great literature.  I don't know that Babel is well-known outside of the true devotees of Russian literature -- being a mere dilettante, I only heard of him fairly recently myself.  He deserves more fame.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

The Dark Child

The Dark Child: The Autobiography of an African Boy, by Camara Laye

I'm happy I found this memoir, because it's a really lovely and heartfelt story.  Camara Laye was born in Guinea (at the time French Guinea) in 1928, and wrote this, his first book, in 1953 while he was studying in France.  It won the Prix Charles Veillon.*  He wrote three more novels** during his lifetime.  After his French studies, he went back to Africa, though not immediately to Guinea.  He worked for the new independent government of Guinea, but had to leave in 1965 due to politics, and spent the rest of his life in Senegal, where he died in 1980.

The memoir tells of Laye's childhood in the town of Kouroussa in upper Guinea, where his father worked as a black- and goldsmith.  His parents were very respected, and had spiritual powers -- Laye describes these in a very interesting way, because he's a modern educated man who doesn't believe in powers....except that he does, because he saw his parents.  So he has to just leave it there as something he can't explain.

Young Camara started school and seems to have done very well there, but you can't tell from the text; he's much more interested in describing the town, the people, his family and friends, his mother's village, and special events in his life, such as the traditional initiations into manhood.  He only ever describes himself as young and ignorant.  But at 15, he left home for his uncle's house in the large city of Conakry to study mechanics and engineering.  Four years later he was off to France, and the story ends there.

Laye describes his life and family with so much feeling and depth.  It's truly lovely, and makes reading his story a joy.  Here are a couple of interesting bits:

I realize that my mother's authoritarian attitudes may appear surprising; generally the role of the African woman is thought to be a ridiculously humble one...but Africa is vast, with a diversity equal to its vastness.  The woman's role in our country is one of fundamental independence, of great inner pride.  We despise only those who allow themselves to be despised; and our women very seldom give cause for that.  My father would never have dreamed of despising anyone, least of all my mother.   He had the greatest respect for her too, and so did our friends and neighbors.  That was due, I am sure, to my mother's character, which was impressive; it was due also to the strange powers she possessed.

...we were entrusted with the herd of cattle which belonged to the school.  This last task was no sinecure.  The herd we tended was famous for miles around.  Did a farmer have a vicious cow, it inevitably ended up in our herd.  There was a good reason for this; the farmer, desperate to be rid of the beast, would accept almost any price, and the school authorities were only too anxious to take advantage of such a windfall....the result was that our school owned the most complete collection of sly, ornery creatures in existence.  When we cried out "Right!" is was just natural for them to turn left. 
This would be a great choice for anyone looking for a slightly lesser-known, but important, African writer.  I look forward to reading more of Camara Laye.


*The Prix Charles Veillon was an international literary prize, awarded to novels in the three languages of Switzerland.  It's now the European Essay Prize.

** The Radiance of the King (1954/5?) is the one I plan to read.  A Dream of Africa (1978) and The Guardian of the Word (1978) are the other two, and I might want to read that last one too.  It's about Sundiata.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Happy March!

So many things going on!  Around here, spring is well under way after a winter that was not nearly cold or wet enough.  Everything is in bloom, and hayfever has hit with a vengeance.  It's beautiful, but also worrying.  We need rain!

Almonds in bloom
 As for March in a literary sense, there is too much to do.  My favorite event of the year, March Magics, starts today and I am enjoying Interesting Times, which is a Rincewind story -- I don't think I've read a Rincewind story in ages.  I have a nice pile of Pterry and DWJ on my dresser, which makes me happy.

It's also Reading Ireland Month at Cathy's 746 Books blog.  She's got a weekly theme, and giveaways!  I have no idea what Irish thing I could read this month.  Oh wait, I'm pretty sure I have a James Stephens story on my TBR shelf.  I'll see what I can do.

AND it's Dewithon, the Wales Readathon at Book Jotter.  Since today is St. David's Day, it's of course entirely appropriate to spend March reading Welsh writers.  I have no idea what to do about this one, but I would love to read something Welsh.

I haven't mentioned it before, but have you seen the Unread Bookshelf blog, with its reading project 2020?  Every month it proposes a challenge to get a book off your TBR shelf.  It's kind of fun, so I've been doing it without saying so.  This month's challenge is to find the book on your shelf that has been there the longest.  I looked this morning and it was a volume of pre-Shakespearean drama I bought in Berkeley in 1995, which had been discarded from the undergraduate library.  It's packed with medieval religious plays and Robin Hood dramas, so I'm actually quite excited to read it, but I think I'm going to go with a selection of plays rather than all 40 or whatever it is.  Nobody can read 40 mystery plays all at once.

Obviously I can't do all of this, and it would not be fun to force myself to.  I'm going to do what is fun and interesting, and I hope you'll find some fun and interesting things to do too.

Finally, for your entertainment, I will post the video I always post on St. David's Day: the "leekspin" video!  Most people go for daffodils, but while I like daffodils a lot, I'm particularly fond of the leeks.  So that's what you get.