Friday, May 29, 2020

The Mysteries of Udolpho Readalong!

When I found out that a few people (including Cleo) were planning a summer read-along of The Mysteries of Udolpho, I begged to be allowed into the club.  So here we are!  I even made a badge in GIMP -- this was my first one, and it's pretty dang amateur but I had fun and learned skills.  Cleo made one at the same time and it's a good deal prettier.  So I'll alternate!

This is the most casual of read-alongs.  Check out Cleo's post for details, but here's the schedule:

June 1 – 7                Chapters I – IV (Volume I)

June 8 – 14               Chapters V – XIII

June 15 – 21             Chapters IX – XIII

June 22 – 28             Chapters I – III (Volume II)

June 29 – July 5        Chapters IV – VI

July 6 – 12                 Chapters VII – IX

July 13 – 19               Chapters X – XII

July 20 – 26               Chapters I – VI (Volume III)

July 27 – Aug 2          Chapters VII – IX

Aug 3 – 9                   Chapters X – XIII

Aug 10 – 16               Chapters I – VII (Volume IV)

Aug 17 – 23               Chapters VIII – XII

Aug 24 – 31               Chapters XIII – XIX (end)

I don't have a physical copy of Udolpho, but I have a Kindle collection of the Horrid Novels, which includes Udolpho and The Italian as bonus content.  (I read one of the Horrid Novels, The Castle of Wolfenbach, a while ago for RIP XII and it was a lot of fun.)  So I'll be reading on my tablet.  I did read this novel once, long ago in college, for fun over a break.  I got a copy from the university library, which turned out to be from about 1850 and they still let me take it out of the building.  I read it and C. S. Lewis' The Discarded Image at the same time and ended up with some very odd dreams.  Anyway, I can't remember a thing about Udolpho, except what Isabella and Catherine talk about in Northanger Abbey -- what could be behind the horrid black veil??

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Bards of Bone Plain

I do think this is an awfully good title.  It just begs to be picked up and read!  This is only the second Patricia McKillip book I've read in my life (the other one was The Bell at Sealey Head), and I've liked both pretty well.  I do find the cover a bit amusing; a lot of McKillip books have this kind of cover and it's very pretty.  It's also a little much, though, and a bit ironic for this book given that the heroine spends all her time in working clothes.  It's sure pretty though!

Belden is a modernizing kingdom -- I imagine it rather Edwardian -- and the capital contains the ancient and prestigious bardic college.  It's also got an active archaeology program!  Phelan, a talented but unenthusiastic student, is about to graduate, but he has to write a final paper.  Beatrice, the youngest daughter of the king, is a very enthusiastic archaeology student under Phelan's talented but very eccentric father, Jonah.  A suspiciously charismatic bard shows up, and triggers a contest for the next royal bard...

Meanwhile, in alternating chapters, we go back in time to the earliest days of the bardic college and even earlier, to the runaway pig-keeper Nairn, who wants to learn all the music in the world -- but gets drafted into a war instead.  After the war, he tries to avoid the new college, but eventually ends up there, and a mysterious bard shows up and triggers a contest for the next royal bard...

The stories intertwine, and eventually Phelan and Beatrice, along with some friends, solve the mystery.  I was expecting something different, so that was fun.  I really enjoyed this one, and will be reading more McKillip.

Monday, May 25, 2020

The Castle on the Hill

The Castle on the Hill, by Elizabeth Goudge

I acquired this book sometime last year and saved it for a special treat.  Or for Elizabeth Goudge Day, but I wasn't very good at that event, and the publisher moved its interest to Instagram, and I wound up skipping it.  (Am still up for next year, maybe?)  Anyway, a global pandemic seemed like a good time to enjoy a new-to-me Goudge title.  This one was published in 1942, in the middle of the war, and probably everybody needed a nice uplifting read right then.

It's 1940, and Miss Brown is homeless and jobless, at her wits' end to find a solution.  She's not wanted for war work, and all she's ever done is run a boarding house -- and there are a lot of people looking for jobs as housekeepers.  A train journey gone wrong brings her to Torhaven, in the West Country, where several mismatched people have been washed up by the war: a destitute Jewish refugee; a daring pilot and his brother, a dedicated pacifist; and two evacuee children.*  These strangers all find a haven at the castle on the hill run by the lonely, elderly Mr. Birley. 

It's a lovely story, though it stretches coincidence much too far and is not in the least probable.  Doesn't matter.  There's a romance and several tragedies and plenty more.  While I wouldn't put it on par with Goudge's best work, it's a good book to nestle up with and live in for a while.  I got to about page two and realized that my friend (the one I sent Coronation Summer to) would probably love it, so I ordered a copy and am going to convert her to Elizabeth Goudge.


*As my mom wryly commented, round up the usual suspects for a war novel!

Thursday, May 21, 2020

A Strange Stirring

A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, by Stephanie Coontz

I've meant to read The Feminine Mystique for years, since it was so influential back in the day, but it's huge and I figured it would be boring.  When I spotted this analysis of the book, it took me a while to decide to read it without reading Feminine Mystique first.  But I'm pretty happy that I did, because Coontz is interesting and also not 800 pages long.

Coontz offers up a capsule description of the book itself, the context it was written in, the impact it made, and the book's strong and weak points -- as well as some things Friedan wasn't necessarily entirely truthful about.  It makes for pretty good reading!

She also tries to blow up some myths about Feminine Mystique.  People have often described it as a book that encouraged women to ignore husband, children, and home in favor of focusing on a full-time career, which apparently is not really accurate.  Friedan felt that the social roles women had been boxed into after WWII cheated both men and women of deeper relationships, and suggested that it would be fine if women had a range of options.   Women might like to stay home with small children, but work once they got older.

There are complaints, too, that Friedan focused on middle-class white women to the exclusion of everybody else, and seemed not to even realize that most working women were not going to have a creatively fulfilling career.  While Friedan didn't leave out everybody else entirely, she did aim the book squarely at middle-class white women for a reason, and left out any mention of her earlier, pre-war work that was all about poor and working-class people.  Friedan also painted with a very broad brush and ignored cultural elements that contradicted her thesis.

It was really fascinating, though, to read about the cultural zeitgeist of the 1950s.  While, sure, plenty of women worked, the universal ideal seems to have been for a woman to stay at home and submerge herself in her family's interests.  The kicker was that wanting anything else was, conventional wisdom said, abnormal.  Probably a neurosis.  On the other hand, American society was in terrible shape because of the scourge of over-involved mothers, who feminized their husbands and children.  That was a neurosis too.   (If you were a cold mother, that would cause autism.  Too much mothering led to homosexuality.  And mixed messages caused schizophrenia.)  So it was a double-bind -- a wonderful example of the favorite American pastime of blaming moms for pretty much everything.

The women who responded to Feminine Mystique usually felt guilty for being unhappy.  They loved their husbands and children, they had more material prosperity than their mothers had, they had easy lives, and yet they were mysteriously unhappy and couldn't explain why.  So they felt ungrateful and like something must be intrinsically wrong with them.  They knew they were privileged compared to a lot of other people, and so they blamed themselves, or thought maybe an affair was the answer?  What Friedan was telling them was that 'it's not just you; there is something wrong with these expectations.'

Some quotations:
The assignment of women to a passive, secondary role in social life, which had once been ascribed to duty, social custom, God's will, or innate differences in ability, was now declared to be a woman's only route to personal fulfillment.  Psychiatrist Helene Deutsch declared that the modern woman renounced 'originality' and personal aspiration not out of coercion but 'out of her own needs,' which were best met by identifying with her husband's achievement...

Farnham put it succinctly...Boys could not develop into successful men nor girls into fulfilled women if society made the mistake of regarding its citizens 'not primarily as male and female, but as people.'  [reminds me of Dorothy Sayers, with her essay "Are Women Human?"]

Prior to the 1940s and 1950s, a woman was condemned if she did not do what was expected of her.  In the 1950s, she was pitied if she did not want what was expected of her.

Other mixed messages abounded.  A woman was told that she should put nothing above her dovotion to her children, her love for her husband, and her delight in her home, but she was sternly warned against devoting so much attention to her family that she smothered her children and emasculated her husband.

Janice K. was 36 and the mother of ten-year-old twins when a friend sent her Feminine Mystique in 1963.  The year before, she had seen a psychiatrist for eight months without ever getting to the bottom of her 'troubles.'  She became so indignant when she read the book that she sent a copy to her therapist 'with a note saying he should read it before he ever again told a woman that all she needed to do was to come to terms with her 'feminine nature.''

Friedan actively encouraged the belief that she was writing from her own middle-class experience, speaking to the largely apolitical, white, middle-class, suburban woman because she had been one herself.

Women who attended college in the 1950s were especially likely to have been taught the 'scientific' findings of Freudian psychiatrists and functionalist sociologists that any woman who wanted more meaning in her life than she found in the kitchen and nursery suffered from psychological maladjustment...

It was a very interesting analysis, and now I feel like I'm not really obligated to read Feminine Mystique in its entirety.  Maybe one of these days.  But I hope I got a reasonable idea of it from this very interesting contextualization, which was also much shorter.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

A Read-Aloud Story!

This is something my mom and I have been working on during this lockdown.  I've probably mentioned before that my mom is enthusiastic about local history, and some years ago she wrote a much-needed book about the founder of our town, John Bidwell.  All the local schools study the Bidwells, but there were no kid-level books about them.  That was a 10-chapter biography aimed at 4th grade and up.  Then the 3rd-grade teachers, who also teach local history, asked for a picture book that 8-year-olds would enjoy, and so she wrote that, and then two other picture books.  You can see all of them at her website/blog, Goldfields Books, where she writes regular posts about California history.

Well, now that school is done from home, the teachers can't read the picture book to their students.  My neighbor down the street mentioned to me that teachers would be thrilled if we made a video of the book, so they could have their students watch it.  This was obviously a brilliant idea!  I've just been learning to edit videos, so I could actually do the job.  So we made the video, set up a YouTube channel, and plan to make a couple more.

So here it is: a read-aloud of "John and Annie Bidwell: The Long and the Short of It," by Nancy Leek.  It's about 20 minutes long.  Maybe you know somebody who would enjoy a pioneer story.

Monday, May 18, 2020

The Golden Bough Readalong: Part the First

I'm going to try out doing Golden Bough posts every couple of weeks, and I think I'm going to do a quick outline format just to keep track.  I'm finding that Frazer likes to pile on the evidence "evidence."

Frazer's goal is to investigate the origins of religion and magic.  He figures there was a sort of Ur-practice back in ancient days, and that world religions (at least, I think he's implying this) developed from this pre-historic practice, which involved -- so far -- a king who was killed and then symbolically reborn as a kind of fertility rite.  But, since he doesn't really lay his argument out in the way we would expect from a modern author, it's hard to follow.  Instead, he meanders around, poking into this or that aspect of magic or religion.  Any folk-magic practice or religious belief that he likes, he'll throw in as a piece of evidence for his theory -- which seems like obvious cherry-picking of data -- and apparently he wasn't above changing the evidence to suit his theory. 

I should explain that while Frazer was an enthusiastic early anthropologist and did much to foster anthropology as a discipline, even he knew that he would soon be superseded.  Nowadays, we would call him an 'armchair anthropologist' and look upon his methods with horror.  But to be fair to him, people had to invent all those methods and standards, and he helped with that process.  As far as I can tell, while some of his stuff is well enough, his overarching theory (of this Ur-practice) was utterly wrong and he tried too hard to fit his facts to his theory, rather than the other way round. 

And of course, Frazer suffered from the endemic prejudices of his day, assuming that societies could be ranked in higher or lower order, with his own at the top and most other groups as 'savages.'  He did not at all seem to mean that 'savages' are uncivilized or vicious (though they might be!), but more unsophisticated.   He certainly applied the term liberally, however, and the result is strange.  He'd say that belief in magic is the belief of a 'savage,' and then he'd describe magic practices in Germany, France, Scotland, and even England itself.  You end up with the impression that anyone who wasn't educated at Oxford qualifies for the definition.   So I'm inclined to think that folk-magic is not only a nicer term, but a far more accurate one -- even by his own ideas.

Every time Frazer made an assertion (say, that magic has a contagious aspect) he would produce a pile of evidence.  "Among the Galelareese...." "In Shropshire until just 50 years ago..."  This ends up being rather confusing, as the reader loses track of just what it is we're learning about.  And since it's just a sentence or two about each one, you don't necessarily gain real understanding -- and I'm not sure he had it either.  I came upon a short description of an Australian totemic practice, and wound up looking up a bit about it.  I doubt very much that Frazer always, or even often, had a deep understanding of the practices he wrote about; he decided what they meant.
OK, on with the outline:

I. The King of the Wood
1. Diana and Virbius: the original question, about Diana worship at Nemi, where a priest-king rules in a grove and watches out for his murderer
2. Artemis and Hippolytus: worship of Hippolytus.  A pattern emerges!
3. Recapitulation: Diana/Artemis as fertility goddess, and sacrificed man her consort.

II.  Priestly Kings: the combination of kingship with priestly duties is an ancient one; kings are supposed to embody the land

III. Sympathetic Magic
1. Principles of Magic: magic falls into two broad categories
2. Homeopathic or Imitative Magic: if two things look alike, they can influence each other.  Thus a wax image of a person may be used to inflict injury on him.  (Soooo many examples.)
3. Contagious Magic: if two things have been connected, they can influence each other.  Thus someone's hair may be used to inflict injury.
4. The Magician's Progress: thoughts on the social utility of magic.  Talented and unscrupulous people in ancient settings would have used magic as a tool of power, and perhaps caused social progress along the way.  (I couldn't agree with some of his assertions.)

IV. Magic and Religion: differences.  Pure magic is like science, except mistaken; it believes in cause and effect, that the spell done correctly will always have the same result because that's how nature works.  While religion consists of a plea to a conscious being who may or may not grant the request.  In practice these get mixed together.  Magic develops first in evolution, and so there was an age of magic before religion was invented.  Science comes after that.

V.  The Magical Control of the Weather
1. The Public Magician: You might do magic just for yourself, or for the good of the town, as with the weather.
2. Rain: The most important one!  Lots of examples here, even my favorite of dressing up a girl as a bush and pouring water all over her.  Also, if no rain comes, people might punish their god or magician.
3. Sun: Fewer examples.
4. Wind: Sailors like this one.

VI.  Magicians as Kings: A good magician might well rise to become a king.  This chapter is odd; Frazer has the fixed idea that a society without a king or despot, that is run on some form of democracy or with a council of elders, is not as advanced as a society with a king.  Having a tyrant is an advance in his book, and a sure sign of a higher level of civilization.  On another note, he mentions the California Maidu, which is the Native American people local to my area, so that was fun.

My own thoughts:

Oddly, Frazer's theories about the development of magic before religion lead to an entire section (too long to quote) in which he poetically describes Neolithic people as believing that they controlled all of the world -- they called the sun to rise and set, the rains to fall, and the plants to grow, and they must have felt quite powerful until they realized that their rituals weren't that effective, and so turned to religion and a recognition of their dependence on outside factors.  This strikes me as preposterous.  I would bet that Neolithic peoples did not feel in control of anything very much!

For a guy who thought that kingship was important to the development of civilization, Frazer sure didn't have a lot of respect for actual kings.  He called George III "an honest dullard," and take a look at the last quotation for his opinion of Queen Anne!

Frazer's big 12-volume work did include at least one chapter on the Christian religion, but that scandalized everybody, and I guess he had to take it out again.  I'm sure that it would seem utterly mundane to us, 100 years later!  I can't see that my copy has it in there, but who knows -- maybe I'll run into it, or if not I can probably find it online somewhere. 

Some quotations (I'm doing this so you don't have to?):
If my analysis of the magician's logic is correct, its two great principles turn out to be merely two different misapplications of the association of ideas.  Homeopathic magic is founded on the association of ideas by similarity: contagious magic is founded on the association of ideas by contiguity.  Homeopathic magic commits the mistake of assuming that things which resemble each other are the same: contagions magic commits the mistake of assuming that things which have once been in contact with each other are always in contact.

The magic virtue of a pregnant woman to communicate fertility is known to Bavarian and Austrian peasants, who think that if you give the first fruit of a tree to a woman with child to eat, the tree will bring forth abundantly next year.

So far, therefore, as the public profession of magic has been one of the roads by which the ablest men have passed to supreme power, it has contributed to emancipate mankind from the thraldom of tradition and to elevate them into a larger, freer life, with a broader outlook on the world.   This is no small service rendered to humanity.  And when we remember further that in another direction magic has paged the way for science, we are forced to admit that if the black art has done much evil, it has also been the source of much good; that if it is the child of error, it has yet been the mother of freedom and truth.

...if magic be deduced immediately from elementary processes of reasoning, and be, in fact, an error into which the mind falls almost spontaneously, while religion rests on conceptions which the merely animal intelligence can hardly be supposed to have yet attained to, it becomes probably that magic arose before religion in the evolution of our race...

...however justly we may reject the extravagant pretensions of magicians and condemn the deceptions which they have practiced on mankind, the original institution of this class of men has, take it all in all, been productive of incalculable good to humanity. They were the direct predecessors, not merely of our physicians and surgeons, but of our investigators and discoverers in every branch of natural science. They began the work which has since been carried to such glorious and beneficent issues by their successors in after ages; and if the beginning was poor and feeble, this is to be imputed to the inevitable difficulties which beset the path of knowledge rather than to the natural incapacity or wilful fraud of the men themselves.

[on the practice of curing scrofula with the king's touch in England]....Charles the First cured a hundred patients at one swoop in the chapel royal at Holyrood. But it was under his son Charles the Second that the practice seems to have attained its highest vogue. It is said that in the course of his reign Charles the Second touched near a hundred thousand persons for scrofula....The cool-headed William the Third contemptuously refused to lend himself to the hocus pocus... However, the practice was continued, as might have been expected, by the dull bigot James the Second and his dull daughter Queen Anne.
So, I'm going to declare my first two weeks a success.  Frazer is often horrifying, but also entertaining, and I'm glad to finally be reading this very influential work.

Friday, May 15, 2020

It's Almost Time For 20 Books of Summer! (Plus Bonus Update)

Despite the fact that time has slowed to a crawl under lockdown, I'm still capable of being surprised that June is in a couple of weeks and it's time for Cathy's 20 Books of Summer event.    As usual, it runs from the first of June through the first of September, and the hashtag this year (which I will forget to use) is #20booksofsummer20

My preference is to pick 20 books and put them in a pile -- Cathy has no serious rules.  This year, I have two summer readalongs of giant tomes, so those count in the list.  And I gave myself a couple of alternates, in case.  So here are my titles -- some fun, some classics, some challenge titles, all from my two TBR piles since new books aren't really a thing right now:

  1. The Golden Bough, by Sir James Frazer
  2. The Mysteries of Udolpho, by Mrs. Radcliffe (readalong #2)
  3. The View From the Cheap Seats, by Neil Gaiman
  4. The Spy and the Traitor, by Ben McIntyre
  5. Edward Lear biography, by Vivien Noakes
  6. Age of Anger, by Pankaj Mishra
  7. The Forest of Enchantment, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
  8. Thames, by Peter Ackroyd
  9. Beside the Ocean of Time, by George McKay Brown
  10. The Children of Hurin, by JRR Tolkien
  11. The Inland Sea, by Donald Richie
  12. Crossings, by Melissa Inouye
  13. White Guard, by Mikhail Bulgakov
  14. Forest of a Thousand Daemons, by D. O. Fagunwa
  15. Seeing Red, by Lina Meruane
  16. Oroonoko, by Aphra Behn
  17. Black Renaissance, by Miklos Szentkuthy
  18. The Return, by Walter de la Mare
  19. The Anvil of the World, by Kage Baker
  20. Uncommon Traveller, by Charles Dickens
  1. The Scapegoat, by Sophia Nikolaidou
  2. Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, by Kiran Desai
Join us!  It's a fun, low-stress event.

In other news, I finished this quilt!  I've been having a good deal of fun sewing.  I've done a bunch of masks for the local hospital too, don't worry, but I can't always sew masks.  I've had this top sitting around for a while and somehow didn't get around to quilting it, so I decided to do that.  I'm really pleased with how it came out and I think I might enter it for judging in the 2021 quilt show.

Everything else is pretty much the same.  We're all working from home, my poor teenager can only see her friends on Zoom and is undoubtedly sick to death of her parents, and I take a lot of walks.  Our county has actually been very quiet, with not very many known cases...but then, testing hasn't been all that available either.  The county got approval to open back up a bit, so we'll see how it goes.

The schools certainly aren't planning to get back to old ways anytime soon.  The colleges (mine too) are planning to be almost entirely online in the fall, except for things like welding where students have to do some work in person.  The high school is still thinking about it.

I have been learning to use video editing software to make videos about librarianly things like accessing ebooks and getting citations from databases.  It's kind of fun, and I'm using my new skills to make my mom's picture book about local history into a read-aloud video for the 3rd and 4th grade teachers.  I'd better hurry up and finish it, or school will be over!

That's my news.  Would love to hear how you all are doing ....

Classics Club Monthly Meme: Preferred Classics

I haven't done the Classics Club's monthly memes in a long time; usually I can't think of much to say that wouldn't sound utterly trite and vapid, so I leave it to people like Lory and Cleo, who can think of insightful things to say.  This one, though, I can get behind!  The question is:

What Kinds of Classic Books Do You Prefer?
Last month’s discussion about what a classic book was very interesting and provoked a lot of response, I thought, so I figured I would suggest another topic, this one much more subjective.
When you read classic literature, what’s your preference, or will you read anything? Do you prefer the “literary” authors, like Dickens, Hugo, Austen, Eliot, or Thackeray, or do you like swashbuckling adventures, historical fiction , science fiction, mysteries, children’s literature? Or do you prefer nonfiction? Are you interested in reading books from many different parts of the world, or are you more interested in books from a particular area of the world?

And who are your favorite authors in those genres?

What types of classic books do you prefer, and who are your favorite authors?
 Quite an all-encompassing question, then!

I will read most things.  I'm not a huge Dickens fan, I'm terrified to read Hugo but plan to do it someday, and of course I love Austen.  I enjoy most English literature except the long-winded Georgians (and I'm pretty weak on poetry in general).  Of the Victorians, I think I like Trollope best, and I don't really care for on the Bloomsbury set or ultra-moderns.  French literature scares me the most, though I have learned to like Dumas some.  Russian literature is indeed kind of intimidating but I want to read a lot of it and usually like it.  And I'm very fond of medieval literature, except the Romance of the Rose.

I like several genres -- adventure, SF/F, mysteries, and children's literature, I love all of those.  I've never been much on historical fiction as a genre, but obviously Rosemary Sutcliff is amazing.

I like non-fiction a lot too, so I'm more than willing to read classic non-fiction.  For example, our current readalong of Frazer's Golden Bough!  (Look for my post on Monday on the first 6 chapters!)

And lastly, I am indeed interested in reading books from many different parts of the world.  I do have a few favorite areas, but pretty much anytime I hear about a classic of any country's literature, I am tempted to read it.  In fact, I have my long-term ongoing project, Reading All Around the World, and just hit country #59 (which was Turkmenistan).  I really am hoping to read something from every country, although it might not be possible to get every single tiny island nation.  I can try!

Hilarious image by Susanne Jutzeler, from Pixabay

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

The Unwomanly Face of War

The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II, by Svetlana Alexievich

This book was originally published in 1985, and was first translated into English a few years later, but I don't think it became very well-known at the time.  This is a new translation on the heels of Alexievich's winning the Nobel Prize and becoming well-known for her collections of oral histories. 

Alexievich spent, as far as I can figure, at least a couple of years collection the material for this project.  She visited places all over the USSR, and interviewed thousands of women who had served in the war, but who had never been asked about their experiences or set down their memories.  After the war, the USSR preferred to focus on the great victory rather than the incredible hardships it took to get there, and people tended to assume that it was exclusively a men's victory.  So I am very grateful that Alexievich worked so hard to get all these women's stories!  They are amazing.  Amazingly harrowing, and heroic, and tragic.

Two things all these women seem to have had in common strike the reader.  First, their incredible youth, and also their zeal.  Over and over, they talk about running off to join the war at the ages of 15 and 16, of having their long braids cut off, of being too small to carry a heavy rifle or a wounded man (but doing it anyway), of growing during the war and coming home inches taller.  And they talk about their dedication to the cause, their absolute commitment to the Motherland.

Some quotations, first from Alexievich herself:
We didn't know a world without war; the world of war was the only one familiar to us, and the people of war were the only people we knew.  Even now I don't know any other world and any other people.  Did they ever exist?

When women speak, they have nothing or almost nothing of what we are used to reading and hearing about: How certain people heroically killed other people and won.  Or lost.  What equipment there was and which generals.  Women's stories are different and about different thing.  "Women's" war has its own colors, its own smells, its own lighting, and its own range of feelings.  Its own words.  There are no hereoes and incredible feats, there are simply people who are busy doing inhumanly human things.  And it is not only they (people!) who suffer, but the earth, the birds, the trees.
And from the veterans:
---The bring the wounded...They're crying...Crying not from pain, but from impotence.  It was their first day at the front; some of them hadn't fired a single shot.  They weren't given any rifles, because in the first year of the war weapons cost their weight in gold.  And the Germans had tanks, mortars, airplanes.  Their comrades fell, they picked up their rifles.  Grenades.  They went into combat bare-handed...Like into a fistfight...And ran straight into tanks...

---The Germans didn't take women soldiers prisoner...They shot them at once.  Or led them before their lined-up soldiers and showed them off: look, they're not women, they're monsters.  We always kept two bullets for ourselves, two -- in case one misfired.

---Finally, we were on their land...The first thing that struck us was the good roads.  The big farmhouses...Flowerpots, pretty curtains in the windows, even in the barns.  White tablecloths in the houses.  Expensive tableware.  Porcelain.  There I saw a washing machine for the first time...We couldn't understand why they had to fight if they lived so well.  our people huddled in dugouts, while they had white tablecloths.  Coffee in small cups...I had only seen them in the museum.  Those small cups...I forgot to tell you about one shocking thing, we were all shocked...We were attacking, and took the first German trenches...We jumped in, and there was still warm coffee in thermos bottles.  The smell of coffee...Biscuits.  White sheets.  Clean towels.  Toilet paper...We didn't have any of that.  What sheets?  We slept on straw, on sticks.  Other times we went for two or three days without warm food....It was hard for us to understand where their hatred came from.  Ours was understandable.  But theirs?
I'd say that this is a must-read for anyone interested in WWII or Soviet history.  How fortunate we are to have these records.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Death of the Snakecatcher

Death of the Snakecatcher, by Ak Welsapar

I'm always tempted by Glagoslav titles, but the trouble is they're mostly in Europe, and not that much in the US.  Anyway, I wanted to read something by Ak Welsapar, and this title is pretty tempting, don't you agree?  It's a collection of short stories, written over the decades of Welsapar's career.

That career has been a long and difficult one, because Welsapar's homeland of Turkmenistan is one of the most repressive governments in the world.  (Currently, for example, they're one of two countries claiming not to have any Covid cases.)  In the early 90s, the government -- which was newly independent from the old USSR -- objected to a novel that criticized communism.  Suddenly Welsapar's books were no longer for sale, his wife lost her job, and they had to leave for Sweden.  Given that Welsapar writes in Turkmen, it was a worrying thing to do, but instead of losing his audience, he gained a wider one.  This is only his second book to be translated into English, but I hope for more.

The short stories are all quite good, each catching a slice of a person's life, but usually without a lot of 'local color' detail -- just some every so often, focusing on the universal experience of exile rather than the Turkmen character of Welsapar's own exile.  Several of the stories are very nearly fairy tales or fables, and one is a fairy tale  -- one I'm sure I've read a version of before; perhaps his personal take on a tale that is generally told?  It's about a young man who is very close with his widowed mother, and when he falls in love with a girl, she demands the 'still-beating' heart of his mother as the condition of loving her.  When he finally gives in and kills his mother, he falls on the road and the heart asks anxiously whether he has hurt himself.

I particularly liked "One of the Seven is a Scoundrel,"  about seven working men who are bringing home a harvest.  Jummi, the leader, thinks of the old proverb (the story title), worrying that a little joking chat will be reported.  Then their truck crosses the path of an NKVD transport carrying prisoners, and the officers demand one of the seven to make up their numbers.  (Surely one of them is a traitor of some kind!)  Jummi makes excuses for each of the others, but indeed one of the seven is a scoundrel, and turns in one of the group to whom he owes money.  He spends the rest of the journey justifying his actions to himself, but it's not working.

All good stories -- this is a collection worth looking for if you can.  And, a final word from Welsapar:
People should never forget that we are only part of a great life, a cosmos, and it does not become a person to take living space from other living creatures.  Only the weak strive to destroy on another.  The strong learn to coexist.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Alberic the Wise, and The Peasant Girl's Dream

Alberic the Wise and Other Journeys, by Norton Juster

Norton Juster is most famous for The Phantom Tollbooth, which I read a lot as a kid, but I don't think I ever read anything else by him, so when I saw this little volume of three fairy tales, I put it on my TBR shelf.  They're for a middle-grade audience, but anybody else could enjoy them too.  I did. 

"Alberic the Wise" is about a young farmer who hears of the wide world and goes to learn about it.  He learns many trades, but never quite becomes a master, and, now an old man, arrives in a town and starts telling stories about his journeyings.  He is acclaimed as a wise man, but soon realizes that he isn't wise at all, so what to do now?

"She Cries No More" is a fascinating little story about Claude, who (like Pierre) doesn't care.  But he becomes fascinated with a little painting in the museum, and then he actually enters it and meets the sad young lady in the picture...

And, "Two Kings" shows a very poor king of a very poor kingdom, who needs to make sure that he really is the most miserable of men.  Meanwhile, the richest king around wants to make sure that he is the most fortunate.  They never meet, but they visit each others' lands...

Just a nice little book of memorable tales.

So very 80s
The Peasant Girl's Dream, by George MacDonald  (originally Heather and Snow)

I have a secret fondness for George MacDonald's romance novels.  This one was part of a series reissued in the mid-80s, with matching titles, and kind of re-written to make it comprehensible to the American teens and adults it was marketed to -- because MacDonald's Scottish novels are all written in a heavy-duty Scots accent.  Here, for example, is a piece of dialogue from early in the story, first in the edited version, and then in the 1893 original:
"What for are ye scoffin' at me?" retorted the boy, rising and looking down on her in displeasure.  "A body canna let his thoughts go but ye're doon upon them like birds upon corn!"
"I wouldna be scoffin' at ye, Francie, but that I care too muckle about ye to let ye think I hold the same opinion o' ye that he hae o' yersel'," answered the girl, who went on with her knitting. 

'Ye do naething ither!' retorted the boy, rising, and looking down on her in displeasure. 'What for are ye aye girdin at me? A body canna lat his thouchts gang, but ye're doon upo them, like doos upo corn!'
'I wadna be girdin at ye, Francie, but that I care ower muckle aboot ye to lat ye think I haud the same opingon o' ye 'at ye hae o' yersel,' answered the girl, who went on with her knitting as she spoke. 
 So you can see why the publisher felt it necessary to do some translating so that 15-year-olds in Iowa would want to read it in 1988!

Kirsty is the protagonist, a poor peasant girl who spends most of her time keeping an eye on her older brother, who has some sort of mental disability.  He cannot bear to be indoors very much, so Kirsty takes her book or her knitting along and they spend their time on the hills.  The laird's son, Francis, is rather spoiled and is always looking for fame without work.  The story spans a good ten years, and yet manages to involve an incredibly small number of people, because Kirsty lives in such an isolated spot.  There are other people, though, and the story is fun to read and not very sentimental.  Indeed, Kirsty is a no-nonsense kind of a girl!   I had fun reading this nice story with a bit of a romance to it.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

"Dilemmas of a Book Nerd" Tag

Some time ago, Ruth at A Great Book Study posted this Dilemmas of a Book Nerd "Tag."  It turned out to be something that started in the book vlogging world, of which I know nothing, but here you go: the video! by Lindsey's Little Library.

I wrote most of this post back then, and then I forgot about it for a while.  Here it is, updated for Covid-19....why not write your own version and let me know?

   Storage: How do you store and organize your books?

I have a lot of bookcases.

In the office/Room 4 as we sometimes call it, I have the largest set of bookcases, which hold literature, history, science, and various smaller categories like medieval lit, mythology, chess, housekeeping, classical ed, and so on.  Fancy sets live here too, like my Yale Shakespeare and Durants' Story of Civilization (which I am totally going to read someday, for reals).

The living room has only one large bookshelf, which holds religion, older children's literature, and a whole lot of library books.  I have two laden shelves for my library TBR.  (This is what happens with faculty privileges.)

My bedroom has only one large bookcase, for SF/F, mysteries, various random things, and the shelves of TBR books.  It's a very full bookcase.

Oldest child's room contains three and bookshelves of children's and YA with a good deal of SF/F mixed in, plus my sewing/embroidery books next to my machine, in my new sewing area that I fixed up in January.

Younger child's room contains three bookshelves, for more children's and YA of her own choice.

We've all seen this photo lately! 
Poll: do you think some of the covers have been Photoshopped? 
Because I rather suspect they have.

    Tracking: How do you keep track of what books you read and what books you own?

What books I read: I keep a list on Goodreads of what I'm reading.  I like that yearly reading goal; I was pretty late to it but I've done it since 2015.  My want-to-read list is really not on Goodreads, though; I have a wishlist on Amazon, and also a spreadsheet at work that is really a list of books I've ordered for the library, but there's an extra column marking which ones of those I'd like to read.  Plus there's my Classics Club list.  None of these three lists have a whole lot of overlap; my want-to-read list can charitably be described as messy.

What books I own are tracked by my rather unreliable brain.  I cannot face the amount of work it would take to scan (or worse, type) them in to any app or spreadsheet, and that will never ever happen.  It would be far too much work for a fairly small return and I can't see the point, especially since quite a few predate barcodes on the back cover.

    Borrow: Do you lend your books out?

Sometimes; it depends on the book and the borrower.  Quite often, I don't care if I get the book back or not, so I don't mind.  But there are plenty of books I wouldn't lend out at all.  You pretty much can't ever count on getting a book back, and I've usually been sorry when I've lent a book I wanted to keep. 

    Buying: How do you buy or acquire your books?

I'm a librarian, so I believe in using the library!  I try to only purchase books I want to keep forever, or that I cannot get any other way (with the joys of ILL, that's not very many books).  I would say that most of the books I read come from the library, one way or another.  Since I work at a community college library, I can and do check out as many books as I want.  I also use my friendly neighborhood public library quite a lot.

I purchase some books for myself, frequently used.  I've been purchasing favorite kids'/YA authors lately; they're so inexpensive on Abebooks, and they're disappearing from the libraries, so I need to have them.  These are authors like William Sleator, Alex Garner, and Joan Aiken, as well as quite nerdy things like the Red Dwarf books.  I got all the Garner books I wanted for something like $10 total, so why not make that investment?

I try not to buy new very often, but it happens sometimes.  Usually from Amazon, because we only have a B&N and they practically never have what I want; I hardly ever want the latest bestseller or the kind of thing they stock -- sometimes there's good stuff in the history section.   So there's no local independent bookseller to support or order from when it comes to new books.  I do enjoy the local independent used bookstore, which is a great place to go and everybody should support it, especially right now.  They're now offering online shopping; check out their Facebook page.

In normal times, I get quite a few books from the donation table at the public library; I have a volunteer gig sorting the books once a week, and we can take home whatever we like within reason.  If something is valuable, we pay for it.  Most of the time, I take the donation books back when I'm done with them, but I keep a few.  I couldn't possibly keep them all; we already have too many books!  Right now, of course, I'm reading through the pile I've collected...

    How do you respond to "How do you read so much" and other similar comments?

"I read while I work around the house, while I cook, while I eat my lunch, and while I brush my teeth."    This is delivered completely straight.  So, I just tell the truth and they can deal, heh.

My friend got a laugh the day she drove by my house and spotted me taking the trash out to the bin while also reading a book.  She has never quite let me forget that one, but how else could I get anything read?

What my house will look like soon if I'm not careful

    Next book: How do you choose your next read?

80% whim, 20% "here is the next book I need to read."  The whim is mostly within the piles of books waiting for me, but certainly not always.

    Travel: How do you pick which book to take on vacay with you?

I usually pack at least four books: a fluffy, fun one; a more serious one, a non-fiction, etc.  Plus I have a zillion books on my tablet and phone.   It would be terrible to be caught with only one book; what if I'm not in the mood for that one??   I do have a rule that I can't take library books on trips, so I leave those behind.

    Annotate: Do you write in or mark up your books in any way?

Never.  I use those little post-it-esque tabs if I want to go back to something or quote it.

    New or back list: Which do you prefer?

Mostly older books.  By the time I get to a newer book, it's on the backlist!

    Sequels: Do you read books as they are released or do you wait for an entire series to be released?

As above, by the time I get to a new series it usually already has at least a few books in it.  For example, I really like the Invisible Library books by Genevieve Cogman.  By the time I read it, it had two volumes.  I was happy when the third was published soon afterwards, and then I forgot all about it until 4 and 5 were out.  Then I did it again until I realized 6 was out.

I don't wait for a whole series to be done; I'd just forget it existed.  And what if I spent five years waiting to read a series, only to find that I didn't care for it anyway?

Monday, May 4, 2020

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, by Capt. Ted W. Lawson

A while back, a very elderly copy of this famous book came across the donation table, and my mom mentioned that the author, Ted Lawson, lived here in our town in his later years, and is buried here.  So I figured I'd better read it!  I honestly did not know anything about this book or the events he describes -- meanwhile, my husband said "Oh yeah, that's about the Doolittle raid, right?"  Maybe!  Let's find out!  (What's the Doolittle raid?)

Lawson wanted to go into aeronautical research, and in 1940 he figured one step would be to join the Air Force to gain more hands-on experience.  So he became a pilot and flew a B-25 bomber.  He and the rest of his class volunteered for a "dangerous, important, and interesting" mission that they weren't allowed to know anything about until they were already underway.  After strenuous training, they got on to the aircraft carrier USS Hornet and were told that they would be bombing strategic targets in Japan as an answer to the Pearl Harbor bombing; the Japanese leaders were completely confident that Japan could not be bombed, because nobody could reach them, and the plan was to prove otherwise.  Since the mission was led by Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle, it's known as the Doolittle Raid.

A B-25 plane
They had to study and memorize all the geography and make sure their planes were in perfect condition.  The careful planning was stymied when the fleet met a Japanese patrol craft, forcing the raid to start as soon as possible.  As a result, the planes were low on fuel.  They were to fly west to China and land at airfields outside of Japanese control, but Lawson's plane, the "Ruptured Duck," crashed on the Chinese shore.  The crew members were badly injured.
Local fishermen found and cared for the airmen, but Japanese troops were close by and searching for them.  The airmen had to be carried to help, and the trip took several days.  Lawson was close to death by the time they reached a missionary outpost and a local doctor, and eventually his leg had to be taken off.  As the Japanese troops moved ever closer, another long trek began -- they had to find an airfield that had not yet been destroyed or taken over.  It took months to get from the crash site to a safe haven and out of China, and then Lawson needed a lot more surgery and medical care.

Fully half the memoir is the story of moving through China with the help of innumerable locals, many of whom paid a heavy price to the Japanese invaders.  The 'thirty seconds over Tokyo' to drop just four bombs took months of training and more months of recovery, and not everyone made it back.

I really enjoyed Lawson's voice; he is just really likeable and fun to read, and reminded me of old stories I used to read at my grandmother's house -- she had books of old Bill Mauldin cartoons and whatnot.  At the beginning, Lawson has a lot of good stories, and by the end, he just keeps trying to express his gratitude to his fellow soldiers and for the people who so selflessly cared for him.

Here's a bit about his buddy's plane; the left brake failed upon landing and Bob nearly hit Lawson's own plane:
...those B-25's like to roll on forever.  He was rolling much too fast to turn to the left, for that would have rolled off his tired and tipped him over.  Finally his right tire blew out from the uneven pressure put on it.  The B-25 swung around, just short of my hemmed-in plane, and simply fell to pieces.  You should have seen those fellows pouring out of it!

My copy of this memoir was printed in 1944, and it's quite possible that newer editions have been slightly edited for language, since Lawson, of course, uses a few terms that we wouldn't now.  I'd be curious to know.  My copy doesn't have a dustcover any more, but as far as I can tell, the cover image I've put at the top is the one that it used to have.

As I said above, Lawson is buried here in our town.  Maybe I'll go visit!

Sunday, May 3, 2020

A Surprise Readalong!

The other day when I posted about The Golden Thread, Cleo (who blogs over at Classical Carousel) said she had at first thought it was The Golden Bough and gotten all excited.  It turns out that both of us have wanted to read it for a long time, so we decided to have a readalong, and why not start right away?  So here it is, the Spontaneous Golden Bough Readalong, and anybody is welcome to join us, should they wish to read 800+ pages of  highly dodgy but entertaining anthropology.

We've decided on a schedule of 2-3 chapters a week; a chapter per day is too much, because some of them are very long.  So we've got some elasticity in case we run into some heavy-duty sections.  My copy has 69 chapters, which makes for some months of reading.  This is a pretty relaxed deal, and we aren't sure yet how often either of us will post.  I might go for every two weeks, if I have enough to say about it.  And my husband made an image for me, because I like images.

If you're not familiar with The Golden Bough, it's a very early work of armchair anthropology in which Frazer compared mythologies from all over the world and postulated that all religions spring from a common root of belief in a fertility solar god who dies and is reborn.  Everybody thought it was fabulous for a little while, it was a huge hit, but as anthropology matured, Frazer's theories were quickly shown to be speculative and not terribly relevant to reality.  However, The Golden Bough had an absolutely enormous influence on the literary and artistic world and is still worth reading today -- just not for learning about actual history and religion.  Check out the Wikipedia article for more details.

One result of Frazer's work was that Robert Graves took his theories and ran with them -- and wrote The White Goddess, which I read and posted on a few years ago. 

The original edition of The Golden Bough eventually ballooned to 12 volumes.  I don't think anybody ever reads it.  My copy is abridged, which makes it well over 800 pages, and is an American edition printed in 1951, with the actual copyright in 1922.  I think it's probably the one everybody does read.

I'm excited to have some accountability for this, because I've tried to read it before, but lost momentum.  But I really want to read it, so this is great.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Russian Tattoo

Russian Tattoo: A Memoir, by Elena Gorokhova

In 1980, Elena Gorokova, a scholar of the English language, married an American academic and moved from Leningrad (now back to being St. Petersburg) to the United States, first Texas and then New Jersey.  When her daughter was born, her mother arrived and never left -- and much of this is the story of three intertwined lives.

Gorokhova is an expressive writer, and her story is gripping.  Having escaped the crumbling Soviet Union, she doesn't know how to acclimate to the US, and feels that she has little help.  The marriage falls apart, but Elena finds new understanding and happiness in New Jersey, and slowly adapts to American life, while always missing the Russian life that formed her.  When she has a baby daughter, her mother moves in (in fact, she has old friends all over the place, and her sister comes too). 

Elena's reaction to her mother -- one of the main strands of the memoir -- is one of mingled exasperation and love.  Her mother is a doctor and a veteran of the war, a formidable person, but Elena finds her suffocating too.  She left in order to get away, but it has all followed her. 

Of course, there's also a lot about history and events in the USSR, which I liked a lot.  Many ponderings on the Russian soul, memories, and feelings.  Her relationship with her daughter, Sasha, becomes very fraught as Sasha rebels and drops out of college to protest for animal rights.  (My favorite part is when Sasha tells her that she has bought a gun.  Her mom is not happy, and is really not happy when Sasha admits that it's an AK-47.) 

I enjoyed this memoir quite a bit.  A nice addition to my list of Russian/Eastern European books.

I'll leave you with a bit I found funny, when a group of friends goes to a comedic performance by none other than Yakov Smirnoff:
He was about my age, and I suspected his accent was nothing but a stage prop because even my sister Marina, who has ever studied English, delivers her broken sentences with less phonetic mangling than I heard from the Concord stage.  "In America you break law.  In Russia, law breaks you!" said Yakov Smirnoff, and I realized he was cleverly capitalizing on the fact that Russians ignore articles because our native language doesn't have them.  "In America you assassinate presidents.  In Russia, presidents assassinate you."  Artie looked at me to confirm that what the comedian said was true; I was, after all, an expert on all things Russian.  I nodded, since his statement, I had to agree, was the essence of what my Motherland believed in.