In May I truly think it best... read lots of books?  That doesn't rhyme.  I have to do it right. be a robin lightly dressed, concocting soup inside my nest! Mix it once, mix it twice, mix that chicken soup with rice!

No, actually, I'm not making soup, I'm reading books.  Quite a few books, so here at the halfway point I'm doing a post.

 The Marquis' Secret, by George MacDonald:  I'm a bit of a sucker for these sort-of translated 1980s Bethany House versions of George MacDonald's very Victorian Scottish romances.  This one was originally The Marquis of Lossie, a sequel to Malcolm.  Malcolm, a poor fisher-boy, is the true heir to the estate of Lossie, but his half-sister Florimel (a definite Faerie Queene reference!) thinks she is, and so he becomes her groom in hopes of finding a way to break the news to her without ruining her life.  Confusion and hijinks ensue; Malcolm despairs of influencing his sister for good; and also he falls in love.  Can this tangle ever be straightened out?  A fun and relaxing read.  (Yes, I ought to read the real ones, but they are not quite so relaxing!)

Old Norse Women's Poetry: the Voices of Female Skalds, by Sandra Ballif Straubhaar: this is a collection, not of skaldic poetry by women as I thought it would be (I don't think anybody knows who composed the sagas), but poetry attributed to women characters in the sagas.  It was still fun to read, and ranged from real historical figures to legends, troll-women, dreams and prophecies.  Each segment contains the passage in the original Old Norse, a poetic version in English, and a literal translation into English, so the reader can get as much meaning and flavor as possible.  My favorites were a dialogue between a dead Brunhilda and a troll-woman, in which Brunhilda defends her life choices, and a piece from Njal's Saga, in which Valkyries weave and prophesy of an imminent battle.  Here's a verse from that:

The web is warped with warriors' guts.
The warp is weighted with heavy heads.
Bloody spears support the loom.
With iron-shod shuttle, with arrows for beaters
and swords for stiffeners, we shape our weaving. 

I'm counting this for Iceland, but someday I'm going to read all those sagas for reals! 

The Dire Days of Willowweep Manor, by Shaeron Garrity: This is a super-fun graphic novel and I loved it.  Haley reads way too many Gothic novels and her English teacher wants her to write about something besides Wuthering Heights (and it can't be The Castle of Otranto!).  As she stops on her way home to look at the river, Haley sees a guy struggling in the water and jumps in to save him.  When they get to shore, Haley sees...a castle?  She has arrived in a tiny 'gasket universe,' which exists to put a barrier between our universe and another one that is filled with evil bile.  The universe is run on imagination and currently takes the form of a Gothic castle inhabited by three brothers, a grumpy housekeeper, and a ghost only Haley can see or hear.  The machinery is breaking down and the bile is working its way in; will they be able to save their world -- and by extension, our entire universe?  SO fun.  Reminded me of The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, kinda -- fun with history and literature.

Death on Gokumon Island, by Seishi Yokomizo (Detective Kosuke Kindaichi): This title is set just post-war, as Japanese soldiers are filtering home, but before The Inugami Curse.  Kindaichi's war buddy died on the homecoming ship, and charged him with telling the family and protecting his three younger sisters. The friend was the oldest son of the Kitos, the leading family on tiny Gokumon Island in Japan's inland sea, and almost as soon as Kindaichi arrives, the eldest of the sisters is murdered.  The story is filled with great detail, the murders are dramatic, and the solution is strange.  I think this one is the best of the three I've read so far, and I'm looking forward to #4, The Village of Eight Graves



 The Very Secret Sex Lives of Medieval Women, by Rosalie Gilbert: Gilbert is a researcher and re-enactor of the lives of medieval European women, but she lives in Australia, and her book reflects a tongue-in-cheek humor that is very easy to hear in an Aussie accent.  She delves into the private worlds of women 500 or more years ago, explaining details of what was expected of women, what often actually happened, and how everybody coped.  There are lots of herbal recipes included, which nobody should try, and lots of advice from handbooks.  And she is quick to say that if you're thinking of chastity belts, cut it out; there wasn't any such thing.  It's a fun and informative read.




The Bat-Poet, by Randall Jerrell:  This charming short story, illustrated by Maurice Sendak, concerns a small bat who starts to awaken a little during the days, and observes the daytime life of the yard where he lives.  He greatly admires the mockingbird's beautiful songs, and though he cannot sing like that, he discovers that words can express feelings.  He becomes a bat-poet, composing poems that describe the owl, his friend the chipmunk, the mockingbird, and finally his own batty life.  Just lovely.

Expanding the Borders of Zion, by Charlie Bird:  If you're LDS and concerned with matters of LGBT inclusion in the Church, this is a must-read.  If not, it will be of no interest whatsoever.  Charlie Bird, who went anonymously viral as the dancing Cosmo mascot at BYU football games some years ago, is now a social worker and prominent voice in changing the LDS culture to include people who have often felt pushed out.  Excellent book.

Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine, by Anne Applebaum:  This book has been on my TBR list ever since it came out, which was a good 6 years ago.  In fact, Applebaum proposed the book in 2010, and was researching in 2014 when Russia invaded; it both delayed her work and intensified its importance.  This is a detailed history of the Holodomor of 1931-33, but in order to understand that, the reader needs a lot of background.  So the book is approximately 1/3 history previous to 1930, 1/3 the Holodomor itself, and 1/3 cover-up and aftermath.  

After World War I, Ukraine was in chaos as at least five armies contended for control of its fertile lands.  As the USSR gained control, famine hit the battered population and factions contended over whether Ukrainian communism could be 'national' or not.  Stalin was suspicious of Ukraine, and insistent on crash collectivization of the farms, which to the peasants -- less than 100 years from serfdom -- felt very much like re-enserfment.  They went from controlling their own land and livestock to getting day wages (usually in kind, not cash) at collective farms they'd been forced to join.  The collectivization was brutal, and kept getting more so.  The government killed or deported 'kulaks' --anybody who didn't want to be collectivized -- and forcibly took all the grain, seed grain, food, and all.  Stalin dumped it on the world market for cheap, to get hard currency and undermine capitalism.  The next year, they took everything; all the food, every bit of it.  Much of it was simply ruined and thrown away.  Having any food in a house was proof of kulak-ness.  The policy was simply to punish Ukraine's peasants and starve them to death.  Some quotations:

The Bolshevik obsession with food was no accident: The Russian empire had been struggling with food supplies ever since the outbreak of the First World War.  At the beginning of the conflict with Germany, imperial Russia centralized and nationalized its food distribution system, creating administrative chaos and shortages.... 

Year after year the Soviet leadership was surprised by the hunger and shortages that their 'confiscate and redistribute' system had created.  But because state intervention was supposed to make people richer, not poorer, and because the Bolsheviks never blamed any failure on their own policies, let alone on their rigid ideology, they instead zeroed in on the small traders...

Collectivization also meant that peasants had lost their ability to make decisions about their lives.  Like the serfs of old, they were forced to accept a special legal status, including controls on their movement: all collective farmers would eventually need to seek permission to work outside the village.  Instead of deciding when to reap, sow and sell, kolkhozniks had to follow decisions made by the local representatives of Soviet power.  They did not earn regular salaries but were paid trudodni or day wages, which often meant payment in kind...rather than cash.  They lost their ability to govern themselves too, as collective farm bosses and their entourages supplanted the traditional village councils.

Like the requisitioners of the past, they were looking for grain.  But in addition they also took fruit from trees, seeds and vegetables from kitchen gardens -- beets, pumpkins, cabbages, tomatoes -- as well as honey and beehives, butter and milk, meat and sausage.... 

As the weeks dragged on, just being alive attracted suspicion; if a family was alive, that meant it had food.  But if they had food, then they should have given it up -- and if they had failed to give it up then they were kulaks, Petliurites, Polish agents, enemies....With each passing day, demands became angrier, the language ruder: Why haven't you disappeared yet?  Why haven't you dropped dead yet?  Why are you alive at all?

[On the 1937 census, which reflected 8 million dead instead of the desired population growth] Rather than accept the result, Stalin abolished it.....By November an entirely new cadre of officials had replaced these men, every one of whom now understood that it was extremely dangerous to produce accurate numbers.  A new census was duly commissioned.


  1. I enjoyed your review of Red Famine. I learned about a subject in history I had no prior knowledge of. Well done!


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