Monday, April 23, 2018

The Binti Trilogy

Binti: Home
Binti: The Night Masquerade
by Nnedi Okorafor

 Centuries in the future, Binti is a member of the tiny Himba tribe: mathematical geniuses who specialize in producing advanced electronics, hemmed in by the much more populous and disdainful Khoush warriors.  Himba never leave home, but Binti's sole ambition is to attend Oomza University, the galactic center of learning where humans are relative new-comers.  She has little time to dwell on the risk she is taking as the ship carrying her to Oomza is attacked by the Meduse, a jellyfish-like race locked in war with the Khoush.

Through three books, Binti tries to make sense of her situation, which gets ever more complex, as the Meduse, Khoush, Himba and Desert People converge.  Binti may be able to play peacemaker...or she may be overwhelmed by the forces of war.

These three short novellas came out about a year apart.  Together they would make up a good-sized SF novel, and I'd recommend reading them all at once now that they're all published.  I enjoyed them a lot!

You sometimes see an argument around the bookly Internet over whether non-English words should be italicized (thus sticking out as foreign) or incorporated more closely into the text (thus accepted as ordinary).  I never cared much, really, but I now cast my vote for not italicizing.  The one thing that got annoying about Binti was that Binti uses otjize, a local clay mixed with oils, all the time.  The word is italicized, and it's used so often that it becomes grating to have it highlighted every single time.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Upcoming: Elizabeth Goudge Day!

I'm excited to host Elizabeth Goudge Day on Tuesday!  Are you planning anything special to read?   Will you perhaps join a readalong of Towers in the Mist, or enter the giveaway for The Dean's Watch?  I hope to see you Tuesday!

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Reading All Around the World: Badges!!

Fellow travelers on the road to reading all around the world -- we now have badges!  The fantastic Esther of Chapter Adventures, who has been quite busy accomplishing an international move, also designed these images for us to use.  I just love 'em, but that might be the former Girl Scout in me.  Badges are the best.  Here you go:


I'll put them up on the Reading All Around the World project page, where you can get them any time.  As you finish reading a continent, put your badge up on your blog -- on the project page or even on your sidebar.  Anybody who finishes the entire thing should definitely put the 100% badge on a sidebar where it can be duly admired!

Thanks so much to Esther for making the images!  What do you think, folks?

Thursday, April 12, 2018


The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, by Samuel Johnson

In 1759, Doctor Johnson spent a week writing Rasselas in order to pay for his mother's funeral.  It's not really a novel; it's a meditation on whether human beings can attain happiness, in story form.  I guess that makes it a fable.  It's sometimes compared with Voltaire's Candide, which was published in the same year, because they both ask questions about the human condition.  But Candide is an angry satire about the problems of evil and suffering, so while the two works are wandering around the same neighborhood, they don't quite meet.

In Abyssinia (Ethiopia), all the children of the royal house live in the Happy Valley until such time as they are called upon to rule the country.  Rasselas the prince and his sister Nekayah have thus never seen ordinary human society; they've spent their lives in this lush valley, where luxury and constant entertainment are the rule.  Rasselas finds himself inexplicably discontented with his life, and plots with a poet/engineer/courtier, Imlac, to escape.  Nekayah and her favorite maid Pekuah insist on coming too, and so they venture out (with plenty of jewels on hand) to see the world.  Arriving in Cairo, they inspect every form of living that they can, looking for a method that will produce happiness.

Rasselas tries out philosophy (cold comfort when tragedy arrives) and dissipation.  Nekayah studies domestic family life.  They visit a hermit.  No method seems to answer.  They decide to travel and learn, which leads to Pekuah's abduction by brigands, and she has an adventure too.  At last they meet an astronomer who seems very happy -- he gets to study and everything -- but he turns out to suffer from a delusion.  Is benign madness the only happiness??  The ladies' society helps him to improve, and he then advises them of his own regrets in life.  Rasselas and his sister never do figure out how to be happy all the time.  I guess that's just not in the cards of this mortal life.

Johnson was going along a little bit with the fashion of the time for Oriental tales, but really, it's a fable that might as well be set in Illyria or Guilder.  It's not an Orientalist tale and fortunately contains almost nothing about the Mystic East.

This is such an interesting little fable, though, and it's really not long at all.  My copy is 95 pages, and so I'm wondering what the deal could be with the scan I saw of an early edition in two volumes.  They must be very, very slim volumes!  It's such an easy read that I would recommend it to anyone looking for a taste of Johnson.  I disagree with the guy in The Moving Toyshop who nominates it as an Unreadable Book:
“Let’s play ‘Unreadable Books.’”
 “All right. ‘Ulysses.’”
 “Yes. ‘Rabelais.’”
 “Yes. ‘Tristram Shandy.’”
“Yes. ‘The Golden Bowl.’” 

“Yes. ‘Rasselas.’”
 “No, I like that.”
 “Good God. ‘Clarissa,’ then.”

"Yes.  'Titus--"
"Shut up a minute.  I think I can hear someone coming." 
--The Moving Toyshop

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

I Grew Up in Latvia

I Grew Up in Latvia, by Zigrid Vidners

A while back, I was at the public library and saw this book in a display of local authors.  "I could use a Latvia book for the Read Around the Whole World project!" I thought, and so here I am with a nice memoir.  It's the first of two, and covers Zigrid Vidners' life until 1944, when at the age of 18 she had to leave her Latvian homeland.  The next one talks about her subsequent experiences in a German village, refugee camp, and then England and America.  Vidners retired to my own town, which is how I know about the books at all.

Vidners describes her early childhood and surroundings with a lot of love.  She lived in Riga much of the time, with her father an officer in the Latvian army, but his real dream was to run the family farm where grandparents already lived, so summers were spent there and after a while they lived there full-time.  After the move, Vidners would go to live with an aunt during the school year.

Mother Latvia!
During her childhood years, Latvia had at last achieved independence and was thrilled about it, having spent more years in empires than it had been independent.  There were statues of Mother Latvia, and folksongs and folk art were a treasured cultural heritage.  Then the Russians invaded and simply took over, imposing communism on an unwilling populace.  Vidners writes nostalgically about the naive and stubborn resistance she and her school friends showed; they were at the perfect age to think of it as both a real way to fight a little bit, and as a game.  They soon learned that the game had serious rules, though, and Vidners' own family was in danger, as being both military and a bit bourgeois.  They were due to disappear, except the Germans invaded instead.

The Germans were almost welcome as deliverers from the Russians, and some Latvians were willing to enlist in the German army in hopes of keeping the Russians at bay.  All of the men and boys were drafted soon enough anyway, and pretty soon they found out that the Germans were using them as cannon fodder.  Vidners did not know it at the time and it isn't mentioned, but the Germans planned to cut the Latvian population in half.  She also never mentions the Latvian Jewish population -- by then she was at the farm full time and may not have known -- but they were all taken away.

Despite living through both Russian and German occupation, this is a memoir largely dedicated to life on a farm and a love of nature and solitude.  Vidners was fortunate to live on a fairly remote farm, thus escaping many of the hardships of the war, but I think she also downplays the dangers she experienced.  She is just matter-of-fact and undramatic about them.

Once the Russians started winning, Vidners' family had a lot to worry about.  Just as she was finding first love with a neighbor boy and becoming an independent young woman, it became imperative to flee.  The elderly grandparents refused to go; her father, older brother, and young man were in the army; so she, her mother, and her baby brother hopped a ship to Germany to become refugees.  As far as I can tell, none of the men made it out. 

The story ends with her leaving Latvia and continues in the next book, A Branch Without a Tree, which I now have from the library.  It's quite long though, and I'm not sure I'll have time to read it.  I really want to know what happens, though...

Monday, April 9, 2018

Announcing Elizabeth Goudge Day!

Elizabeth Goudge was born on April 24th, 1900, and for her birthday, we are going to celebrate her many lovely books!  Jorie at Jorie Loves a Story and I will be co-hosting this event.  If you've never read one of Goudge's novels, I do hope you'll pick one up and give her a try.  She's a real favorite of mine, and wrote lovely children's books as well as adult novels.  (Her Little White Horse was famously a childhood favorite of J. K. Rowling's, and it does make a great place to start!)

Jorie will be hosting a readalong of the historical novel Towers in the Mist, set in the late sixteenth century.  We've been saving our copies for this and we hope you can track one down too!

I will be hosting a giveaway of The Dean's Watch, generously donated by Hendrickson Publishers.  I also hope you'll share your reading and favorite Goudge books with us!

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Mount TBR Checkpoint #1!

 It's time for the first checkpoint for Bev's Mount TBR Challenge!  Bev always asks for some information:

1. Tell us how many miles you've made it up your mountain (# of books read).  If you're really ambitious, you can do some intricate math and figure out how the number of books you've read correlates to actual miles up Pike's Peak, Mt. Ararat, etc. And feel free to tell us about any particularly exciting adventures you've had along the way.
I have read 8 of my proposed 24 titles and am thus 1/3 through.  However, I read a bunch of easy old SF early in the year, which bulked it up, and I can't expect to keep up that pace, so I'd better get going.

Titles read:
  1.  Early Christian Writings (a collection)
  2. The Age of Bede 
  3. The Ginger Star, by Leigh Brackett
  4. The Hounds of Skaith, by Leigh Brackett
  5. The Reavers of Skaith, by Leigh Brackett
  6. Crashing Suns
  7. Danubia, by Simon Winder
  8. The Story of Science, by Susan Wise Bauer (my guru!)

2. Complete ONE (or more if you like) of the following:
 A. Post a picture of your favorite cover so far.  
Danubia wins, hands down.  I love all the little candy-like doodles, plus it reminds me of a board game.

 B. Who has been your favorite character so far? And tell us why, if you like.
I've mostly read non-fiction!  So I pick St. Brendan, who sailed across the north Atlantic in a coracle and visited the island of Paradise in The Age of Bede.

 C. Have any of the books you read surprised you--if so, in what way (not as good as anticipated? unexpected ending? Best thing you've read ever? Etc.)

Crashing Suns surprised me by producing the exact same plot line 5 times, and by having such amazingly purple prose, and by its fanciful science that no one would ever write today because we know so much more about outer space, which is good, but does cut down on the opportunities to imagine nebulae as made of incredibly hot and flaming gases.

Monday, April 2, 2018

The Story of Western Science

The Story of Western Science: From Aristotle to the Big Bang Theory, by Susan Wise Bauer

Did you ever want to thoroughly educate yourself in the history of science?  Well, this is your book!  Some years ago, my guru SWB wrote a how-to book, The Well-Educated Mind, about giving yourself a classical education in the humanities, with chronological sections on drama, poetry, history, autobiography, and fiction.  This is a similar book, except it takes you through the history of science.

We start with the ancient Greeks and other early thinkers, move forward to the development of the scientific method, and then into sections that concentrate on the development of (respectively) geology, biology, and cosmology.  Each section is broken into chapters that explain the ideas and the thinkers, and end with recommendations on what to read.  This is a historical perspective, so she's recommending Aristotle's Physics and History of Animals, Ptolemy's Almagest, and so on right through James Gleick on chaos theory.  If you quail at the thought of reading all of Copernicus' Commentariolus, she'll point you to the most salient sections, and she has links to all the difficult-to-find (but copyright-free) texts.

Where SWB is really, really good is in taking some massive chunk of history and distilling it down to a coherent narrative, in which she highlights important developments and explains their significance.  She is a brilliant synthesizer, which is probably why CNN asked her to appear on their new series about the Pope.  There are not a lot of historians like that around right now, and she really stands out as an unusual writer and historian.

I actually had a wonderful opportunity recently to meet my guru!  She doesn't do a lot of speaking at conferences these days, but she has been doing some visits for her new book, Rethinking School, and somebody got her to Sacramento.  I took the day off work and drove down.  The first talk was her basic talk on classical education, which I know pretty much by heart, having listened to it many times on CD, and the second one was about Rethinking School and it was fantastic; everybody should listen to it.  (If your kid is having difficulty fitting into the school system, this is the book for you.  Read it now.)  So I got to meet her, be embarrassingly fangirly, and ask some questions!  Eeek!  It was great.  She was lovely.

Friday, March 30, 2018


Isis: a play by Nawal El Saadawi

Nawal El Saadawi is an Egyptian writer (and physician too) who has been fairly prolific over her long career.  She has focused a lot on women's issues -- FGM in particular -- and has been imprisoned and exiled for her anti-religious and feminist writing.  Until I started writing this post just now, I was under the impression that I had read one of her novels in the early days of this blog, but it seems our library did not own her works at that time and I didn't read it after I'm a newcomer.

Isis is the earliest of El Saadawi's seven plays and was written in 1986 in Egypt.  El Saadawi seems to identify a good deal with the ancient Egyptian goddess; she titled her memoir A Daughter of Isis (as in, she considered her actual mother to be Isis-like), and calls her a "personal muse."

In the play, Ra has taken over all of creation and thrown out Geb (god of earth) and Nut (the sky goddess).  Ra insists that he is the only person anybody may worship, and he uses Seth as his lieutenant and enforcer, making him king of the earth.  Seth is gleeful about his rise to power, but what he really wants is Isis -- and she's what he can't have.  Seth murders her husband Osiris, but instead of submitting, she flees with her friend, the goddess Maat.  They meet a sailor who is maybe the reincarnation of Osiris? and Isis has a son, Horus, with him.  They all live together in a village, teaching wisdom, love, and harmony.

Until Seth finds them.  Isis stands up to him, though he destroys everything again, and then she puts him on trial, insisting on the value of love, mercy, and so on.

It's an interesting play, only translated into English fairly recently, and I don't know that it has ever actually been performed in English.  El Saadawi is trying to bring Isis back into prominence in a way that she feels is more true to how ancient Egyptians saw her, rather than how history has treated her -- mostly as Osiris' wife with no real presence of her own (or at least, this seems to be how El Saadawi sees it; I'm not at all sure that I agree about historical disregard of Isis). 

But I think there's a weakness in the play; or perhaps it's just a function of writing a play that features deities as characters.  Isis is the heroine, and she is completely good.  She is just about the only good character, since Ra and Seth are evil villains, Osiris is a passive foil with little presence, and Maat and Horus are minor supporters  (Maat is kind but fearful; Horus mostly a vengeful son).  There are humans too, and of course they are a little more nuanced, being mostly weak, vicious, or vulnerable.  The result is, I feel, a little flat.  Perhaps that is inevitable with all the gods around.

Isis is clearly an enormously important archetypal figure for El Saadawi, that embodies all that women are able to do, but have so often been denied (perhaps especially in El Saadawi's own experience).  She is a creation goddess, standing for everything from justice and wisdom to art and music.

Now that I've discovered that I haven't read El Saadawi before, perhaps I'll have to read more!

Thursday, March 29, 2018


Danubia, by Simon Winder

Last year I read and loved Germania, Winder's book about all the things he likes about Germany and its history.  That book led to this one, in which he tackles the absurdly impossible task of explaining the Habsburgs -- the European dynasty that ruled huge (and varying) swathes of Europe for centuries, from Rudolf I in 1282 to the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I.  Luckily for all of us, Winder does not even try to cover everything; this is an "interesting bits" selection.  It's still 500 pages long, and I ran out of steam about halfway through and left it alone for a little while before picking it back up again, but it's a highly entertaining 500 pages and just as good as Germania.

(Note: This kind of stuff is right up my alley, and Simon Winder, if you ever read this, I would like to volunteer for a job as, say, secretary.  I would happily wander around Brno looking at old churches and residential neighborhoods if anybody wanted to pay for my trip.  Just a thought.)

After an introduction, Winder sticks mainly to a chronological telling, and he pretty much just romps around visiting castles, inspecting weird curiosities, and talking about the Ottoman Empire.  It's impossible to really wrap your mind around all this stuff, so it's best to just relax and enjoy the scenery while you're carried along.

I've said before that Winder writes a style similar to Bill Bryson's except much, much better, more fun, and without the complaining, whinging, or endless beer-swilling.  This is still true, and what's more, he's very entertaining, with a gift for phraseology that regularly has me laughing, collaring passing family members to force them to listen to choice paragraphs, or, equally, pondering the pitfalls of nationalism.

The pitfalls of nationalism are really the underlying theme of the book, or at least the second half of it (the first half being mostly given over to a lot of fighting and killing).  Over and over in the 19th century, we see small(ish) and nervous ethnic groups, afraid that they'll be overwhelmed and crushed by massive waves of Germans and Slavs, turn to their histories to look for noble origins to be proud of, folk designs and costumes to use, and music or literature to assert their identities with.  It all seems quite harmless, laudable, and pleasant at first.  I'm all for folk embroidery and literature and Bartok, and it seems sort of undeniable that slicing Poland into three parts was a rotten thing to do.  From an American perspective, it's interesting and fun to read dubious legends about Magyar descent from the Huns.  All too easily, however, all this folklore and poetry and longing for the beautiful motherland tips into ethnic rivalry and calls for national autonomy (and of course, the obligatory anti-Semitism).  And incredibly soon, that turns into war, pogroms, ethnic cleansing, and genocide.

Winder shows us these knotty problems, but can offer no solutions.  I don't think there are any.  The Austro-Hungarian Empire was one attempt at a solution of sorts -- it was a good deal more tolerant than its neighbors, even to the Jewish people -- but nobody liked that either.  You'd think the entire 20th century would teach us not to do this, but we're seeing exactly the same sort of thing happening again now.  Yes, it's happening across Europe, but America is seeing a rise in what we now call identity politics too.  To some extent, it's good and laudable to take pleasure in your roots or your identity; but it's also dangerously easy to take it too far.  I think we can see some parallels between late 19th century Austro-Hungary and our current American climate.  Maybe we ought to be more careful about that.

The nationalism theme has piqued my interest, and so I started reading a Polish national epic sort of thing that was also living on my TBR shelf.  We'll see how that goes.  And a memoir I'm almost finished with has strains of it as well....

On a more cheerful note, let's have some quotations.  I marked so many that I'll have to pick only a few:
[From the introduction]  This hunt for origins became obsessive in the nineteenth century as a literate and aggressive language-nationalism came to dominate Central Europe.  Town squares filled up with statues of heroic, shaggy forebears and town halls became oppressively decorated with murals of the same forebears engaged in i) frowningly breasting a hill and looking down on the promised land; ii) engaging in some ceremony with a flag or sword to found a town; and iii) successfully killing everybody who was there already.  Schools rang to the sounds of children reciting heroic epics.  This was at the same time a great efflorescence of European culture and a disaster as the twentieth century played out these early medieval fantasies using modern weapons.

According to an ancient story, the deeply pious Leopold’s new bride’s veil was blown away and he swore to build an abbey wherever it was found. Years later, while out hunting, he discovered the veil on an elderberry bush and building began. This story features in innumerable carvings and miniatures and can never surmount the problem that a piece of cloth on a bush is hard to represent in an engaging way, a problem generally solved by showing the extra pointer of the Virgin Mary and tons of angels blazing away in the sky above the bush.

In Italian it is called Castel Roncolo, which implies a pretty turfed courtyard with maidens in gauzy outfits skipping about to tambourines and lutes with weedy youths in coloured tights looking on. In German it is called Schloss Runkelstein, which implies a brandy-deranged old soldier-baron with a purple face and leg-iron lurching around darkened dank corridors, beating a servant to death with his crutch.

Venice's quite separate political development from the rest of Italy gave it a certain resistance to Italian nationalism, but this did not for a second imply anything other than loathing for the Austrians.

The Metropolitan Palace, as it gradually took shape in the 1870s, seems to have got completely out of control, the building equivalent of the sorcerer's apprentice unable to stop the spell he has unleashed.  The result is a Burgundo-Hanseatic-Grenadan-Hutsul-Byzantine mishmash of a heroic kind, and a classic piece of Habsburg collaboration: with a patently insane Czech architect, Josef Hlavka, armies of medievally inspired German and local decorators and specialists and seemingly no one doing the budgeting.

I enjoyed this book so much.