Wednesday, September 30, 2020

CCSpin #24: Resurrection

 Resurrection, by Lev Tolstoy

Wow, what a novel this is.  It was published in 1899, Tolstoy's last great work, and also his first novel in over 20 years.  He had come to believe that art had to have a purpose and that he should no longer write novels, but when the Dukhobor sect needed money to emigrate to Canada, he wrote this as a fundraiser, and to express the views he had come to hold.

Prince Nekhlyudov is your average dissipated rich nobleman; having gone to school and served in the military, and now living in society, he has been well trained in manners, dress, extravagance,  overindulgence in drink, and affairs with women.  He probably ought to settle down and is looking for a society wife.  Called to serve on a jury, he is astounded to recognize one of the defendants in a murder case; it's Katusha, the servant girl he once loved, and then seduced and abandoned.  Realizing that her entire sad life is his fault, he decides that he needs to atone -- and so he appeals her case (she is innocent and wrongly sentenced) and determines to either marry her or follow her to Siberia.

Katusha is less than thrilled with this idea.  She can hardly stand to think about Nekhlyudov at first; she had been truly in love with him and was stunned by his callous abandonment.  Since then she has done her best to shove her memories as far down as she can, and now she can see that as once he made use of her body, now he kind of wants to make use of her soul.  She doesn't want to marry him, but does ask that he intervene in another prisoner's case. 

Nekhlyudov gets to know a lot of prisoners well, and is horrified by the conditions he sees, and the many innocent people sent to prison.  He starts interceding for them with the officials, and follows the prison convoy on its three-month trip to Siberia (most of the prisoners have to walk).

So the prince has a spiritual awakening, in which he realizes (just like Tolstoy!) how corrupt his entire society is, and how oppressed most of the Russian people are.  He learns, like Tolstoy, that private ownership of land is a ridiculous idea, that it is barbarous to force millions of serfs to labor all their lives in order to make a few people's lives extravagantly luxurious, and that the entire justice system exists to enact oppression.  And that the Orthodox Church is entirely corrupt.  (Tolstoy hated the Russian church establishment, and attacks it at length here, but also he didn't know as much about it as he thought he did, so he gets a bunch of things wrong.)  If only everybody would live simply and wholesomely, according to the Gospels, everything would be much better, and Nekhlyudov wants to make it happen.

What's interesting is the progress of Nekhlyudov's awakening, which takes the whole book (and then some).  At first, he's full of good intentions, and also very pleased with himself.  He thinks himself a very wonderful fellow, which he is not.  He goes through stages like this -- a realization, an idea of what he should do, pride in himself, and then a reality check.  He gets to know a huge variety of people and finds that they are all interesting, and the more he looks outside himself, the more tolerable he becomes.  But he never really gets to know Katusha all that well; she intelligently shields herself.   She doesn't trust in his reform, which she is quite correct to do.  It's impossible to tell where Nekhlyudov is going to jump next.

Tolstoy makes it clear that Nekhlyudov is not the hero he sometimes thinks himself to be.  And yet, the reader also gets the impression that Tolstoy is writing a character that even he doesn't fully understand; that because Nekhlyudov is really a version of Tolstoy himself, that he thinks better of his prince than he really ought to.  It's fascinating.

This really is a great Tolstoy novel; it ought to be just as famous as the other two, and it has, I think, more variety of life, even though the cast of characters is smaller; we stick with Nekhlyudov through the entire story and don't change perspectives as with War and Peace..  We truly meet all classes and types here.  Tolstoy's ideas about how the world should be arranged are, I think, better integrated into the story than is true with War and Peace or Anna Karenina; at least, there isn't 50+ pages of political philosophy at the end.  But we certainly get a good idea of what he wants...although quite a bit of it sounds on the impossible side.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Ivory Apples

 Ivory Apples, by Lisa Goldstein

 I think it was Jenny who loved this book a while back, and I've meant to read it ever since.  RIP finally stirred me to it.  Wow.  It is a great story, and also takes some very unexpected turns.

Every couple of months, Ivy's dad, Philip, takes her and her three sisters to go visit their Great-Aunt Maeve, who lives way out in the country.  Philip takes care of her mail and business, and the girls are never supposed to tell anyone that Maeve Reynolds is actually Adela Madden, author of the beloved fantasy novel Ivory Apples.  Maeve can't, and won't, handle the publicity and the fans.

At the park, the sisters meet Kate Burden, a remarkably friendly young woman who insinuates herself into the family's life.  She is an obsessive fan of  Ivory Apples, and in fact she wants what Adela Madden had in order to write the story, which is not something easy to come by.  She is willing to destroy the entire family in order to get what she wants, and she sets out to do just that.

This is a novel that pushes past the usual boundaries for a fantasy novel like this, and it took me by surprise.  They don't all live to the end, and they don't all get healed.  Ivy herself is an unusual protagonist.  I think it is all more realistic -- it's just not according to the conventions.  Kate Burden is a very disturbing and frightening adversary.

It's fascinating, because there are all these threads: What inspires us to write stories, and is it possible to become a genius storyteller if you aren't?  What are the boundaries of fandom; should an author have to accept a public life as the price of writing a good story?   Ivy feels the need to protect her sisters, but the way she tries to do that is experienced as abandonment.  On the other hand, she was 13 and not exactly well-equipped for the job.  Is it her job to heal her family, and if so, how?   And, finally -- do we have the right to demand what we want from life?  Or does the key sit in a different lock?

It's an excellently-written novel, and I did enjoy it; it's no wonder it won an award!  It was also a little bit of a shock.  But I suppose that is salutary now and then.  If you like fantasy -- especially the modern varieties -- well, then you've probably already read and loved Ivory Apples.  But if you haven't, grab a copy!

Friday, September 25, 2020

Twilight of Democracy

Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism, by Anne Applebaum

I admire Anne Applebaum a lot!  So I actually bought this.  Be impressed.  It's a short, and very personal, book that meditates on recent history and the dangers of authoritarianism.  Why is it attractive to so many?  How long can you hold on to a relationship when the other person espouses beliefs you can't agree with?

Applebaum starts with an engaging story -- a New Year's Eve party, 1999, in Poland -- a gathering of writers, thinkers, and dissidents.  Communism is defeated, and surely liberal democracy is the future.  But now, 20 years later, the group of former friends is split.  Many are involved in Poland's new authoritarian government.

A large part of the book is dedicated to how Poland got where it is now -- a history that includes conspiracy theory used as a tool by the power-hungry, and which uses the same old familiar weapons of nationalism, violence, fear, and anti-Semitism.  (Polish and Hungarian nationalists have also tried to use anti-Islamic/immigration sentiments to gain power, but since no Muslims want to emigrate to Poland or Hungary, they had to find other issues.)

Similar movements have started all over Europe, and Applebaum talks about several of them.  She also covers the UK's Brexit vote, and it's all fascinating.  (Apparently nobody was at all prepared for Brexit to actually pass.)

We then move to the power of online disinformation, and Americans' naiveté about the attractions of authoritarianism.  Applebaum posits that authoritarianism appeals to our desires for simple solutions to uncomfortable, complex times.  Swift societal change makes us nervous and willing to grab at 'strong leaders' promising those simple solutions.  But there is no easy map to a successful society, and when we try to impose one on reality, we end up with disaster.  We end with the very relevant story of the Dreyfus Affair in France, which has some pertinent lessons for us; I never even understood exactly what the deal was with Dreyfus, but we could all profit from studying it.

In a recent post, I quoted an author about loving people through differences.  Applebaum looks at the limits of that ability; having had many people she once considered close friends travel different paths, to the point of becoming viciously anti-Semitic or otherwise caught up in ugly political movements, she ponders the loss of these relationships. 

It's a wonderful book with astute analysis of recent history, and it's not totally pessimistic about the future.  Rather, Applebaum reminds us that constitutional democracy is not a system that comes with guarantees, and it requires each of us to do our best to keep it.  Seriously, you should read this book.  It's officially on my list of books everyone should read.


Some quotations:

There is no single explanation, and I will not offer either a grand theory or a universal solution.  But there is a theme: Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all societies eventually will.

Not long ago, at a fish restaurant in an ugly square on a beautiful night in Athens, I described my 1999 New Year’s Eve party to a Greek political scientist. Quietly, he laughed at me. Or rather, he laughed with me; he didn’t mean to be rude. But this thing I was calling polarization was nothing new. “The post-1989 liberal moment—this was the exception,” Stathis Kalyvas told me. Polarization is normal. More to the point, I would add, skepticism about liberal democracy is also normal. And the appeal of authoritarianism is eternal.

Until very recently, the leaders of "far-right" nationalist or nativist parties in Europe rarely worked together.  Unlike center-right Christian Democrats, whose collaboration created the EU, nationalist parties are rooted in their own particular histories.  The modern French radical right has distant origins in the Vichy era.  The Italian nationalist right has long featured the intellectual descendants of dictator Benito Mussolini, not to mention his actual granddaughter.  Law and Justice (Poland) has its links to the Smolensk place crash and its own historical obsessions...

...optimism about the possibilities of government has been coded into our political culture since 1776. In that year it was not at all “self-evident,” in most of the world, that all men were created equal. Nor was it obvious, in 1789, that “we the people” were capable of forming a “more perfect union,” or even that “we the people” were capable of governing ourselves at all. Nevertheless, a small group of men clustered on the eastern seaboard of what was then a wild continent wrote those words and then built a set of institutions designed to make them come true. They were sanguine about human nature, which they did not believe could be perfected. Instead, they sought to create a system, stuffed with checks and balances, that would encourage people to behave better. Neither then nor later did their lofty words always reflect reality. Neither then nor later did their institutions always function as intended. But over time, the words proved powerful enough and the institutions flexible enough to encompass ever larger circles of fully vested citizens, eventually including not just men but women, people without property or wealth, former slaves, and immigrants from every culture.  When the institutions failed, as they sometimes did, the words were recited and repeated in order to persuade people to try again. Abraham Lincoln spoke of America as the “last, best hope of earth.” Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed that “one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.’ ”

This way of speaking—“Putin is a killer, but so are we all”—mirrors Putin’s own propaganda, which often states, in so many words, “Okay, Russia is corrupt, but so is everyone else.” It is an argument for moral equivalence, an argument that undermines faith, hope, and the belief that we can live up to the language of our Constitution....This form of moral equivalence—the belief that democracy is no different, at base, from autocracy—is a familiar argument, and one long used by authoritarians.

[Anti-Dreyfusards] clung to their beliefs in Dreyfus' guilt -- and their absolute loyalty to the nation -- even when the fakery [of Dreyfus' framing] was revealed.  To persuade them to maintain this loyalty, a whole claque of 19th-century clercs had to drop their commitment to objective truth.  Dreyfus was not a spy.  To prove that he was, the anti-Dreyfusards had to disparage evidence, law, justice, and even rational thought....they eventually attacked science itself, because it was modern and universal, and because it came into conflict with the emotional cult of ancestry and place.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Heap House

 Heap House (Iremonger Trilogy #1), by Edward Carey 

This is one of the strangest, most bizarre middle grade/YA books I have ever read in my entire life.  I picked it up on a whim from the donation table, and it looked like a proper read for RIP, but I was not expecting the complete outlandishness of this story.  I'm not even sure how to describe it.

In an alternate Victorian London, the Iremonger family rules the realm of trash.  They're bailiffs (in US terms, repo men) and they also do salvage.  Over the last hundred years or so, they've amassed miles of land near London, all of which is covered by the heaps (of trash).  Their mansion stands in the middle of the heaps, and is a conglomeration of an incredible number of buildings they've repossessed and fastened on.  The people of an entire town work in the heaps, searching for goods to be salvaged, but the heaps are very dangerous -- they even have their own weather.

Young Clod Iremonger is one of many Iremongers all living in the gigantic house.  They are expected to marry one another and carry on the proud tradition.  Each Iremonger is given a birth object, which they must have with them at all times (Clod's is a bath plug), but Clod has a strange talent: he can hear the objects speak.  There's also a girl, Lucy, who is brought in to be a servant.  She's stubbornly determined to stay herself and not melt in with the others, who seem to have forgotten their names.   Against the rules, they become friends and allies, and start to discover the terrible secrets of Heap House.

The writing style is odd, with long, involved sentences that use lists and synonyms to create an atmosphere.   The book feels crowded with stuff and with filth, just like the house.  There is a lot of strange wordplay, too -- for one thing, Iremongers' names are twisted versions of ordinary names.

The Iremongers are the ultimate hoarders, and the dirt is unconquerable.  The house is filled not only with people, but with critters.  And truly bizarre things happen -- people and objects trade places, and everything is very isolated and closed-off.  Only a few Iremongers ever leave the house, and the family treats things like people, and people like things.  

Carey has obviously read Gorey -- from the first sentence, I thought he was doing callbacks to titles like The Helpless Doorknob.  I suppose if your name is Edward Carey and you like to write and draw the macabre, you'd have to hang a lampshade on it.  I also suspected him of reading Diana Wynne Jones, and indeed in this interview he puts her at the front of a list of "absolutely inspiring" modern children's writers.   Her first published children's book, Wilkin's Tooth/Witch's Business, features a witch named Biddy Iremonger, and Iremonger is indeed a wonderful name for a family of miserable hoarders.

I didn't really like this story, though.  It wasn't pleasant in any way, except that Clod and Lucy start to become friends.  I don't really want to read the other books and find out what happens, and I don't want to read any more about cockroaches and rats either.  Even the bats are not fun.

Monday, September 21, 2020

The Golden Bough Readalong, Part the Ninth

 OK, so the whole 'readalong' thing is maybe not quite true any more, but no matter.  I'm keeping the post series title anyway.  I did, in fact, take a little extra time off and only got back on the wagon in this last couple of weeks.  It's not easy to keep the momentum going for this long!  But I'm now over 600 pages along; only 200ish more to go.  Stay on target!

Some of these were very long chapters filled with accounts of various religious practices.  He got very long-winded and I couldn't always see the point (besides anthropological interest, but he was explaining these in much more detail than usual).  The general theme was practices around animals, and it's a bit of a hodgepodge honestly.  Frazer could get any meaning he wanted out of this stuff.

XLIX.  Ancient Deities of Vegetation as Animals.

  1. Dionysus, the Goat and the Bull: Certain animals were generally sacred to particular deities, and the corn-spirit is often represented as an animal too.  Probably these things are connected.  Dionysis, of course, was closely associated with goats (wood-spirits!).  Oxen were also used in sacrificing to Dionysus.
  2. Demeter, the Pig and the Horse: the pig was associated with Demeter, and in Europe pigs are often shown as corn-spirits.  Is the pig Demeter's enemy (because pigs destroy crops), or an earlier animal form of the goddess herself?  Horses went with her too.
  3. Attis, Adonis, and the Pig: An animal which is sacred is often not eaten, and Attis-worshipers avoided eating pigs.  So maybe the pig was Attis' original form.  In which case maybe ancient Israelites also worshiped pigs!  (He's having it both ways here: a sacred animal isn't eaten, except maybe during sacramental rituals, unless it is eaten, which also happens.  Frazer wins either way.)
  4. Osiris, the Pig and the Bull: Egyptians didn't like pigs and considered them unclean, but that could also mean it's sacred, since they sacrificed pigs to Osiris once a year and ate their flesh then.  Perhaps pigs were so powerful in their magical power that to touch them would injure you.  Thus unclean animals could be sacred, too.  (Frazer here cites the capiai of Surinam, which he describes as being like a pig; a capiai is a capybara, a giant rodent.)
  5. Virbius and the Horse: Now that we've talked about all these animal sacrifices and practices, we can talk about Virbius, the King of the Wood.  Corn-spirits are often represented as horses too, so perhaps the horses that were supposed to have killed Virbius were really early versions of him as a spirit of vegetation.  

L.  Eating the God.

  1. The Sacrament of First-Fruits: Endless examples of various peoples' harvest rituals.
  2. Eating the God Among the Aztecs: Ancient Aztecs did it too! 
  3. Many Manii at Aricia: Description of Roman practices.

LI.  Homoeopathic Magic of a Flesh Diet: Many peoples have believed in eating certain parts of a strong animal in order to absorb its strength, or swiftness, etc.  You could even do this with a human enemy (zillion examples here).  So killing and eating the corn-spirit would also transfer the power. 

LII.  Killing the Divine Animal.  (So many examples, I'm going to skim.)

  1. Killing the Sacred Buzzard: I don't know why he starts with California Natives, but he does, and describes one tribe's former ritual practices.  I looked it up, and what Frazer describes as "the great buzzard" is the California condor; which is indeed a type of vulture, albeit one with a 10-foot wingspan.  It was practically extinct when I was a kid (due to a mix of hunting and environmental factors), but through massive conservation efforts is now making something of a comeback.
  2. ....Ram
  3. ...Serpent
  4. ...Turtles
  5. ...Bear: Fifteen solid pages of bear worship and sacrifice among various peoples.

LIII.  The Propitiation of Wild Animals by Hunters:  Quite a long piece describing various practices around the world, illustrating beliefs about apologizing to animals for killing them, reverence for animals, and totemic beliefs about being related to a particular animal.

LIV. Types of Animal Sacrament.

  1. The Egyptian and the Aino Types of Sacrament:  Frazer finally gets around to producing a sort of thesis out this hodgepodge of material, involving two types of worship: "On the one hand, animals are worshipped, and are therefore neither killed nor eaten. On the other hand, animals are worshipped because they are habitually killed and eaten. In both types of worship the animal is revered on account of some benefit, positive or negative...In the former worship the benefit comes either in the positive shape of protection, advice, and help which the animal affords the man, or in the negative shape of abstinence from injuries which it is in the power of the animal to inflict. In the latter worship the benefit takes the material form of the animal’s flesh and skin. The two types of worship are in some measure antithetical: in the one, the animal is not eaten because it is revered; in the other, it is revered because it is eaten. But both may be practised by the same people..."    Then he talk about the Egyptians and the Ainu.
  2. Processions With Sacred Animals: People may parade an animal around the village, so that each house can be blessed.  Examples, then a discourse on the hunting of the wren (Brittany, Isle of Man, and Ireland).

Some quotations:

We have now seen that the corn-spirit is represented sometimes in human, sometimes in animal form, and that in both cases he is killed in the person of his representative and eaten sacramentally. To find examples of actually killing the human representative of the corn-spirit we had naturally to go [back]; but the harvest-suppers of our European peasants have furnished unmistakable examples of the sacramental eating of animals as representatives of the corn-spirit. But further, as might have been anticipated, the new corn is itself eaten sacramentally, that is, as the body of the corn-spirit. In Wermland, Sweden, the farmer’s wife uses the grain of the last sheaf to bake a loaf in the shape of a little girl; this loaf is divided amongst the whole household and eaten by them. Here the loaf represents the corn-spirit conceived as a maiden; just as in Scotland the corn-spirit is similarly conceived and represented by the last sheaf made up in the form of a woman and bearing the name of the Maiden. As usual, the corn-spirit is believed to reside in the last sheaf; and to eat a loaf made from the last sheaf is, therefore, to eat the corn-spirit itself. 

[On tigers]  The Miris of Assam prize tiger’s flesh as food for men; it gives them strength and courage. But “it is not suited for women; it would make them too strong-minded.” In Corea the bones of tigers fetch a higher price than those of leopards as a means of inspiring courage. A Chinaman in Seoul bought and ate a whole tiger to make himself brave and fierce.  [This just reminded me of the modern superstitions that still exist around certain animals, especially the tiger and rhinoceros, and the tragic devastation wrought upon the species thereby.]

The people of X think that the liver is the seat of the soul, and that a man may enlarge his soul by eating the liver of an animal. “Whenever an animal is killed its liver is taken out and eaten, but the people are most careful not to touch it with their hands, as it is considered sacred; it is cut up in small pieces and eaten raw, the bits being conveyed to the mouth on the point of a knife, or the sharp point of a stick. Any one who may accidentally touch the liver is strictly forbidden to partake of it, which prohibition is regarded as a great misfortune for him.” Women are not allowed to eat liver, because they have no soul.  [Thanks guys.]

It is now easy to understand why a [person] should desire to partake of the flesh of an animal or man whom he regards as divine. By eating the body of the god he shares in the god’s attributes and powers. And when the god is a corn-god, the corn is his proper body; when he is a vine-god, the juice of the grape is his blood; and so by eating the bread and drinking the wine the worshipper partakes of the real body and blood of his god. Thus the drinking of wine in the rites of a vine-god like Dionysus is not an act of revelry, it is a solemn sacrament. Yet a time comes when reasonable men find it hard to understand how any one in his senses can suppose that by eating bread or drinking wine he consumes the body or blood of a deity. “When we call corn Ceres and wine Bacchus,” says Cicero, “we use a common figure of speech; but do you imagine that anybody is so insane as to believe that the thing he feeds upon is a god?”  [Another point where some Christians might not have been too happy with Frazer.]

So that was all fine, but it does seem to me that, while Frazer has a point, he's also able to take whatever he wants out of all this.  Also, these chapters are unconscionably long!

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

After London

 After London, or, Wild England, by Richard Jefferies

I've been reading this forever on my phone.  (Since I hardly ever read on my phone, it took a long time!  But it was nice to have a 'phone book.')  My brother recommended it to me and he was right; it was a very interesting thing to read.

Jefferies published his story in 1885.  People would have thought of it as romance at the time, as in an improbable adventure.  We'd call it something like post-eco-apocalypse; the story is set hundreds of years in the future, long after some mysterious disaster has killed most of the population of England and presumably the rest of the world.  Water levels have risen, and the formerly great cities are submerged, exuding unknown poisons into the water.  The Thames Valley is now a gigantic lake, and petty kings exert power over small, feudal populations (the story is pretty much confined to the Thames Valley and maybe a bit north).

The first part of the novel is a 'history' written by a monk, describing what is known of the disaster and its aftereffects -- everything has become overgrown, the forest has returned, and while there are many animals, there are few people.  Jefferies was mostly a nature writer, and he's pretty happy to describe a beautiful, back-to-the-wild England.

The second, larger part is the story of Felix of the Aquila family; his father is a king, but an extremely minor one, and nobody is very impressed with Felix, who is good with his bow but otherwise a bookish dreamy type -- only there are hardly any books.  Oliver, the older son, is the popular one.  Felix is in love with the daughter of a much more prominent king (who loves him back!) but his chances for winning her father's approval are dismal.  Therefore Felix decides to build a small boat and explore the great waters -- maybe he can win his fortune and come back in triumph to claim Aurora.

Felix observes a lot of nature, experiences war in another society, and dreams of establishing his own fort.  He's clever, and a good site never fails to set him planning.  He finds London -- what's left of it -- and those chapters are bizarre and surreal, very apocalyptic indeed.  Like Roadside Picnic.

It's an odd, experimental novel, and it stops short with Felix still in the middle of his adventure.  I want a sequel!  I loved all the details of life in this strange world, where glass and porcelain are highly prized because nobody can make them any more, and having a glass window is a mark of enormous wealth.  It seems strange to me that the characters have Latin names -- you'd think the kings would bear the proud and ancient names of Robinson and Jones -- but Jefferies, being a Victorian, seems to have felt it natural for people to use Latin as a mark of royalty.

I really, really wish there was a map of this future England and Felix's journey.  But I don't know if Jefferies was being that exact.

Very interesting read for fans of early speculative fiction -- and it turns out that William Morris loved it and it was part of the inspiration for News From Nowhere, so I guess I'd better read that soon.  (It's not like Jefferies describes a Fabian utopia.  Life for humans is nasty, brutish, and short.  It must have been the nature part Morris liked.)

Monday, September 14, 2020

Castle Hangnail and An Enemy at Green Knowe

 Castle Hangnail, by Ursula Vernon

I don't know why it took me so long to get around to this charming and funny story!  People recommended it to me, and even my youngest said it was great (she is picky).  RIP finally got it done.

Castle Hangnail has been without a Master for quite some time, and the minions are very worried that the Board of Magic will shut them down and decommission the castle.  Even so, the guardian is skeptical when a 12-year-old girl shows up and announces that she is their new Wicked Witch.  She's awfully short and frizzy, and she doesn't look impressive or demand impossible tasks, as a proper Master should.  But she takes on the proper Tasks to make the castle hers, and the minions start to like Eudamonia, who prefers to go by Molly ...until, that is, her secrets are found out.

This was so much fun!  It's got clever plot, lovable characters, and great atmosphere.  Molly makes friends with the bats in the attic, and they send Bugbane, who is distressingly day-oriented, to be her assistant (Bugbane is probably my favorite, unless it's Pins, who does the sewing and decorating).  The cook is a Romanian minotaur.  It's all just wonderful and funny.

Yep, this was a good one.

I also decided to re-read the creepiest Green Knowe book: An Enemy at Green Knowe.  It's summer, and Tolly and Ping are just back from camp and thrilled to be home.  Granny gives them a new story about the house in the 1630s, featuring Roger and his tutor.  Dr. Vogel, like many a Jacobean scholar, was into alchemy...and some other pretty dodgy arts.   He came to a bad end, but now his history is being raked up again by a new neighbor, a lady who claims to be studying the era and wants to have a look round in case any books are left.  She is creepy, and pretty soon Ping, Tolly, and Granny are pulled into in a covert war in defense of their home.

This one really is a frightening story, in terms of children's literature.  It probably gave me nightmares when I was a kid.

So that's two great juvenile reads for RIPXV.  I've got some other good things going too!

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Queen of the Sea

Queen of the Sea, by Dylan Meconis

My mom handed me this long graphic novel and said I'd like it, and so I did!  I thought this was a really unusual, and lovely, story.  It's kind of if you had the Tudors in an alternate universe.

Margaret has always lived on the island with the nuns.  It's a very remote island, and the convent is there to pray for and take care of sailors.  Margaret arrived as an infant and doesn't know who her parents are, and she's the only child on the island, until a lady comes with her son, William.  And then Eleanor arrives -- a deposed queen whose half-sister Catherine has taken over the throne.  Margaret is interested in Eleanor, but Eleanor is angry and suspicious...

Pretty much, it's got an alternate version of Henry VIII with just two daughters, and when the younger sister becomes queen, the older one rallies her supporters and attacks.  Everything happens on the island (I think it's a version of St. Kilda), and through Margaret's eyes, and she doesn't understand very much.  So it's really interesting.

The whole thing is done as a sort of diary or notebook.  The style -- of a young girl explaining herself and her story -- sometimes reminded me very strongly of the Amelia's Notebook series of graphic novels by Marissa Moss, which was fun.  Margaret often stops to explain things, such as the various kinds of nuns, how to play chess, or what relics are.  She's a great character with imagination and humor; you want to be friends with her.  And, what is unusual in a historical fiction story, she's not an obvious 21st century girl plopped down in the 16th century, ready to fight the patriarchy and teach all those benighted nuns a lesson or three.  

I enjoyed this graphic novel so much!  I read the whole thing at one go and laughed quite a bit, but it's also an exciting adventure story that's hard to put down, and very well researched; the details of everyday life are perfect.  Tudor fans will be especially happy with this one, but anybody could enjoy it.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Women's Work

Women's Work: A Reckoning With Work and Home, by Megan K. Stack

I had no idea this book would be so absorbing, but after all, I'm always interested in reading about the issues around family, motherhood, and housekeeping!  This hit a lot of my buttons, and as with the Divakaruni book I wrote about a few weeks ago, I'm only sorry that for the most part, only women will read this and men won't be inclined to pick it up -- because although the title is about women, the actual subject matter is about families, work, and how we structure society.  Stack structures her book as a sort of memoir and sort of meditation on how we patch work and family together with money...or not.

Megan Stack used to be a correspondence reporter, traveling the world's more dangerous spots after news stories.  Her husband, Tom, was the same, and eventually they decided to settle down in Beijing, where Stack planned to have a baby and write the novel she's been planning.  Seems easy enough, but nobody had ever mentioned how much a baby changes your life, and birth and the subsequent year with a baby who didn't know what sleep was sent her into a vortex of depression and fear.  (She turned out to be sleep-deprived to past the edge of sanity, so things improved a lot once the baby learned to sleep.)  The nanny/housekeeper they hired kept the house going, cooked, and cared for baby Max, and with two women working all the time, Stack's husband wondered what they did all day that the book wasn't making much progress and his wife was clearly a basket case.

Stack's dependence on her hired help, Xiao Li, bothered her.  Xiao Li had a daughter of her own, who was being raised by grandparents in a village, and who got sick.  Xiao Li had to keep her feelings to herself, while Stack's feelings were all over the house; they spent all their time together, yet it was money that dictated the relationship.  The family was going to relocate to New Delhi, and Xiao Li would be gone from their lives, and Max would be bereft, and Mom was going to have another baby.

New Delhi started with a long stint in a hotel, as they searched for an apartment.  (There's a fascinating interim here, because the hotel is next to a large surrogacy clinic, from which wealthy westerners pay for an Indian woman to have a baby for them -- a topic well worth pondering.)  This time, the family hires two helpers, a cook/housekeeper, and a nanny.  Both are mothers who didn't get to raise their children in person, though their stories are very different.

As Stack takes care of her family and works on her long-postponed novel, she is constantly confronted with the difficulties of the whole enterprise.  As Mom, she's the one who runs things and the one whose time is considered disposable, even though she's usually desperate for writing time.  She herself is not willing to put her work before the children; that's not what she wants, but it seems like a major problem that everything (not just her, everything!) runs on the backs of poor women who leave their children in order to make money, often by caring for other children so their moms can work.

And then there's Stack's husband, who is clearly a good man working hard for his family; his work keeps them all afloat.  But he also becomes a bit of a stranger in this house full of women and babies, and he doesn't, perhaps can't, see all the realities underneath the system (of course, neither can Stack, as she often points out as well) -- even as he writes about other ugly realities for his work.  It's difficult to separate out the strands of their lives, and nobody is blameless, but she thinks about it a lot.  And she works hard to be honest, to point out how impossible she was to live with for a while there.

Stack's not exactly offering a lot of solutions here.  She wants to point things out, to ponder them, to make sure we all notice how this system works, to just say that this seems like an impossible knot of issues with no solution, except for people besides moms to do household and care work too.

It's a book that is viscerally gripping, if you are a mom.  I don't know what anybody else would think.  But it would be nice if some people who are not moms would read it too, and if we could all talk about this stuff.

It felt a little more direct to me, too, given the thing I have just done, which is to hire somebody to come and clean the house every couple of weeks.  She's not a poor woman who had to leave her children behind in a different city; her mostly-grown kids are all right here.  But it's the first time I've ever hired help.  I've never been a great housekeeper, but I've been improving (for one thing, I work part-time and only have one kid left at home, and haven't been able to go anywhere for the last six months), and I finally got to the point where I felt like maybe I could hire cleaning help and focus more on the non-cleaning stuff.  She is amazing, by the way.

So, obviously since I practically wrote a book for this post, I found a lot to think about in this book.  To finish off, here are some quotations:

My time had been used as capital.  It had been invested in the family future to improve our collective position.  Well, fair enough.  That's the sort of thing we do in families.  I paid slices of time; I paid life; maybe I paid brain cells, or a book or two.  I paid and it's gone.  My babies are beautiful; my heart is whole; I'm not asking for a refund.  Still it does not escape my attention that I paid in time. There is a lingering expectation that men will pay in money. But when it comes to time, it is almost always the woman who pays. And money is one thing, but time is life, and life is more. 

There is no quick fix, so you might as well punt.  I should think about it later, when my children are grown and I have more time and I won't risk collapsing my family by trying to force my husband to stay home so I can hold a job I don't even want.  When at last I have nothing to lose, it will be safe to think honestly.

I floundered and scrambled in my mind, contemplating the filthy glorious mysteries of luck, of being born with things, the meaning of money, murder by poverty. It was immoral to have and pointless to give. I could give away everything and it would be nothing. The money would dry like dew, and we would join the impoverished masses, my children sleeping in dirt and begging from cars, waiting miserably for the hour of a death that would deliver us. And yet if I did nothing I was complicit. My soft life was an obscenity.

I'd been shocked at the divergence of our fates after we became parents, but in truth, the gender discrepancy between us had started long before that.  I'd experienced secual harassment in countless cultural forms while Tom wandered unscathed.  He inevitably felt compelled to intervene manfully when he happened to be present, but otherwise he was largely oblivious....But now it all slid through my mind: The years of come-ons from sources and colleagues. The news organizations I'd roped off in my mind as no-gos because I'd sexually rejected some man who'd since become powerful, and didn't want to risk getting undercut and blackballed. The times I thought I was about to get raped. All the things that had been said to me, or said about other women in front of me, to be sure I didn't misunderstand my position as an amusing but ultimately inferior presence. We were welcome as long as we were young and beddable, and then we were supposed to do what self-respecting women did: disappear into a household somewhere. Tom had faced none of that. Tom had been free to move through his career; there had been so little for him to navigate. And I'd never explained it to him. I'd assumed he just knew, because I thought it was obvious. I'd been treated like an accessory. I'd been groped, and pawed and cornered. I'd let sly remarks slide off my back. It was all in the game, and I'd been eager to play.
But now he looked at me blankly, as if I were not part of it, and it occurred to me that he had no idea. Did he really think his wife had been clever enough to be a woman in the world without being a woman in the world?
There was so much to say I couldn't stand to start.

I'd been all around the world, and I've never yet found a place where women aren't hit and exploited and hated. Men needed us, but God, they hated us, too. Deeply, chronically hated us.

In the end, the answer is the men. They have to do the work. They have to do the damn work!  Why do we tie ourselves in knots to avoid saying this one simple truth? It's a daily and repetitive and eternal truth, and it's a dangerous truth, because if we press this point we can blow our households to pieces, we can take our families apart, we can spoil our great love affairs. This demand is enough to destroy almost everything we hold dear. So we shut up and do the work.
No single task is ever worth the argument. Scrub a toilet, wash a few dishes, respond to the note from the teacher, talk to another mother, buy the supplies. Don't make a big deal out of everything. Don't make a big deal out of anything. Never mind that, writ large, all these minor chores are the reason we remain stuck in this depressing hole of pointless conversations and stifled accomplishment. Never mind that we are still, after all these waves of feminism and intramural arguments among the various strains of womanhood, treated like a natural resource that can be guiltlessly plundered. Never mind that the kids are watching. If you mind you might go crazy.
Cooking and cleaning and childcare are everything. They are the ultimate truth. They underpin and enable everything we do. The perpetual allocation of this most crucial and inevitable work along gender lines sets women up for failure and men for success. It saps the energy and burdens the brains of half the population.
And yet honest discussion of housework is still treated as taboo.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Deja vu all over again...

 I was going to write about books today but it's pretty hard to concentrate, and I'm just going to put up a little update.  Most readers know that California has been on fire for the last few weeks, and it's been awful.  Our little part of the state has been smoky and unpleasant, but now it's much worse; a wildfire near Oroville (about 20 miles away, in the foothills -- where the dam made the news about 3 years ago) exploded overnight into a quarter-million acres.  We woke up to ashy, orange darkness -- again.  It's very much like the day after the Camp Fire up in Paradise, and I'm sure a lot of folks are having a horrible day filled with terrible memories.  Quite a few people who used to live in Paradise live in Oroville now and are evacuated.

This is the view near my house this morning, an hour after sunrise.  The first photo faces east, and then goes in a counter-clockwise circle to the north, west, and south, ending in the southeast.  I'm just saving these for posterity...

The sun should be in this area.

Nobody needs to worry about my safety, but any good vibes or prayers you can send to the firefighters and the people threatened by the fire are nice.

I can't say this puts me in a mood to read RIP titles.  I think The Enchanted April sounds like a good choice...

Monday, September 7, 2020

RIPXV is here!

 It's time for Readers Imbibing Peril XV!  As with so much these days, everybody is taking a step back and this is a simplified event for fraught times.  No levels or sign-ups, just join in and read a book or three, and post on your Twitter or Instagram or blog -- for those of us dinosaurs still writing blogs.

So I happily went and gathered a pile of books, and here they are.  I don't know which ones I'll read when; this is just a pile to pick from.  Are you going to join up with RIPXV? 

Friday, September 4, 2020

Summerbook #19: The Anvil of the World

 The Anvil of the World, by Kage Baker


#20booksofsummer note: I guess I'm a day late and a dollar short, but no worries.  I finished this on September 1, and The Golden Bough is book #20, so I'm calling it good!

I have really loved Kage Baker's Company series, and this was her first dive into fantasy instead of SF.  (Do you know, she only published for about 13 years before she died too young in 2010?  She produced an incredible number of books in that time!)

Smith just wants a quiet life and a steady job that doesn't involve killing people -- which is his major talent.  He takes a job leading a caravan from the breadbasket city of Troon to the sea port Salish, carrying lots of cargo, several odd passengers, and a good crew.  After the caravan is attacked three times, Smith figures something might be up with these passengers...

The world has several species: Smith is of the Children of the Sun, a prolific people given to building, blood feuds, and a total lack of thought for the environment.  Then there are the pacifist, forest-dwelling Yendri, and the two races don't get along that well.  Also there are demons!  

Baker packs a stunning amount of plot into a 350-page story.  I thought we were setting up for a trilogy, but she gets a trilogy-worth into one volume.  There are other stories set on the same world, though, so I'd like to get hold of The House of the Stag next, which features the history of the Yendri.

This novel is quite a lot of fun.  It doesn't take itself very seriously -- though there are some heavy moments too -- and it was a nice relaxing read, great for a summer escape from all the mess that is the world right now.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Summerbook #18: White Guard

 White Guard, by Mikhail Bulgakov

This is Mikhail Bulgakov's first novel, written in 1921 and published serially -- except that the magazine shut down and the last part of the novel was not published at the time.  Instead, it was turned into a play, The Days of the Turbins, and the play was such a smash hit that the novel was kind of ignored.  Bulgakov didn't finish it for several years.

It is 1918, and the Turbins of Kiev are a family of three siblings: Elena, whose husband has been working for the German hetman, Alexei, a doctor with the Russian (White) army, and Nikolka, just 17.  They belong to the Russian-based urban/military class.  Ukraine has been pulled nearly to pieces in the complicated war; at the start of the novel, the Germans had installed a hetman to run the country for them, but now they are pulling out.  Elena's husband heads out with them.  Now there are three sides to the war: the Russian military trying to restore the Empire, Petlyura, the leader of a Ukrainian nationalist party for an independent country, and the Red Army, intent on liberating Ukraine into the Soviet Union.   Petlyura is taking over Kiev and Russians of any kind, but especially military Russians, will be killed on sight.  So Alexei and all other officers have to rip the epaulets and insignia from their uniforms, since they'll be recognized instantly.

For the moment, Ukrainians are on the rise and Russians are not, but Kiev is heavily populated with Russians.  The countryside is all Ukrainians, and there is a sense of being besieged on all sides.  At any moment, there might be a knock on the door and their home may be searched by soldiers -- or just by street thugs.  Everything is chaos.

The Turbins are loyal to their lost cause, but it's truly a pointless one.  The military headquarters, like the entire Russian government, is staffed by incompetent men who have no regard for the people they order to absurd and meaningless deaths.  So people survive by romanticizing and daydreaming about their beautiful legends and their honor, because real life is impossible to understand or witness; it's too terrible.  As always, the Russian state cares nothing for freedom, or for the value of the individual -- the new won't do any better than the old.

It's a great novel.  It's also quite difficult to keep everything straight, what with the four different sides fighting over Ukraine -- I tried to read a bit about it but the whole thing was incredibly complex -- and the large cast of characters.  I'll probably need to read it again someday and try to understand it better, but I'm really happy I read it, and I plan to read more Bulgakov in future.

By the way, I love this book cover.  It made me happy even before I figured out what it is supposed to be.  But here's an explanation for you, too.  This is the statue of St. Vladimir that presides over the city of Kiev, on the river Dnieper.  It's a famous symbol of Kiev, and the statue is described at a couple of points in the novel.  I like the absurdity of the statue flying over the river, presumably to protect his city and people.

By Okosmin - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

By Sergiy Klymenko, CC BY-SA 3.0

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Summerbook #17: The Inland Sea

 The Inland Sea, by Donald Richie

This account is touted as a classic of travel literature, so I was very excited to read it; I love travel literature!  In this case, I was somewhat disappointed.  The travel parts are wonderful, but Richie talks a lot about himself, and...I don't like him very much.  He also talks a lot about the Japanese character, and it feels strange.  So, while I liked parts of it, on the whole...meh.

Richie lived in Japan for all of his adult life, and this book was written in the late 60s from his journals of a trip taken in 1961 -- and somewhat streamlined.  The important thing about it is that he's describing an area of Japan that at the time was still very isolated from urban culture, and many of the people were still living a way of life that modernity had not yet taken over.  It's mostly tiny fishing villages and little puttering boats that go from island to island, and Richie is very aware that most likely, pretty soon it will all be covered in large cities and factories.  (And yes, when I looked up some of the places on a modern map, places that had been villages are now completely urban.)

I especially liked the stories of the very old people Richie met -- people who remembered the Meiji era (which ended in 1912).  A particularly amazing bit is the story of one old man who says...

...they used to have great sport out here with the octopus, which grows to great size in these shallow seas.  They would catch a large one and bring it into the boat.  Then they would put it on the back of one of the boys, like a knapsack, the large, snakelike tentacles wrapped around his chest, the monster first struggling, then holding like a python.  With it on his back, the boy would dive into the sea.  Though the octopus was free to escape, it never did.  It was too used to holding onto things; once onto something, it would never let go.  Since it was back in the sea, however, it swam in its own fashion, shooting water out behind while firmly attached to the boy's back, and he could half-guide it, much as one directs a stubborn donkey.  In this way to youngster could enjoy an exhilarating ride, held up by the half-submerged octopus, propelled at a great rate, diving, gradually turning around and being propelled back to the boat...

After that, of course, the octopus became dinner.

There's also quite a bit about Japanese night life, traditional and modern, and various other people he meets.  But those parts were mostly not as interesting or pleasant.

I suppose it's a bit of a must-read if you're very interested in Japan, but I would have liked it better if about half of the material had been left out.

The Inland Sea: in the middle there

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Summerbook #16: The Mysteries of Udolpho

I've done it!  I finished!  That was fun, despite Emily's inability to make it across a room without leaning on every available piece of furniture for support.  That girl needs a stronger spine or something.

So, Emily believes Valancourt to have gotten into some very bad habits, including heavy gambling and being a gigolo.  Valancourt admits his lack of worthiness, and they're both very sad.  A lot of this volume involves Emily meeting Valancourt -- by his request or accidentally -- whereupon they both get very upset and leave each other again, and Emily writes melancholy poetry.  Emily is staying with her friend Blanche, and an elderly servantwoman won't stop commenting on how much Emily resembles the late Marchioness, who died tragically young.  Emily, remembering her father's mysterious papers, begs for the story.  (Meanwhile, back at Udolpho, Montoni is captured!)

The Marchioness was a lovely and good woman who was badly treated by her husband, and went into a mysterious decline before dying.  Her rooms have been locked up ever since and Dorothee takes Emily to have a look at them.*  But!  Are the rooms haunted or something?  A specter in the bed scares them both, and they flee.  The whole staff decides the rooms must be haunted, so Ludovico says he'll spend the night.  He takes food and a book, and reads an interesting story...and in the morning, he's gone.

Also, Valancourt has disappeared and was probably shot when he was mooning around the estate; somebody thought he was a robber.  Wounded?  Dead?  Emily is worried sick.  And it turns out he's been doing good deeds in secret.

Well, everybody but Emily goes on a trip to look at wild mountain scenery, but they get lost and try to take shelter in an old ruined fortress, where now shepherds and hunters sometimes stay.  These hunters, however, turn out to be banditti!  (Banditti must have been a deliciously scary word to the English.)  They're planning to murder and rob everybody, but in the battle, the good guys win with the unexpected help of...Ludovico??  Turns out he was kidnapped by the banditti, who have been using the secret passages and caves under the chateau as storage for years, and didn't want anybody else living there, so have been 'haunting' the place.  They all head off to Emily's place.

Emily, still at home, is happy to see Ludovico alive, and also finds Valancourt, who is not dead, but she still can't love him. 

The nunnery sends for Emily to come back, because Sister Agnes is ill and keeps asking for her (Agnes has some mysterious mental disturbance).  We discover the story of Agnes, who once owned Udolpho -- she is the mysterious lady who disappeared 20 years ago!  Everybody thought Montoni murdered her, but no.  She was the mistress of the former Marquis who treated his nice wife so badly, and it was she who inflamed his jealousy and encouraged him to poison his own wife.  She then realized her crimes and spent the rest of her life in torment.  The Marchioness was Emily's aunt, which is why her father mourned her so.  That's the big mystery.

And now it turns out that Valancourt wasn't as bad as Emily thought!  He did get into gambling and debtors' prison, but then he repented, and did good works of charity instead, and he was never a gigolo.  So, phew, they can get back together.  (Here we see a prime example of a plot device that drives my husband absolutely mad: when people don't explain things and spend all their time misunderstanding each other -- which is also what Emily's father did.)  So, hooray, there are some weddings, and the abbess ties up all the loose ends by explaining a lot of things, like just what was behind the horrid black veil.

The end!  Well, I must say I didn't expect Mrs. Radcliffe to finish up by just explaining everything through the abbess.  Still, this is mostly a fun read, and is of course the premier example of Gothic literature.  You can't pretend to know anything much about the history and development of Gothic lit if you don't know about the horrid black veil.  Thanks so much to Cleo and company for this fun read-along!  I feel ready for fall now!


*I had no idea how much Jane Austen was doing a send-up of this scene in Northanger Abbey.  It's a direct parody.