Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Books by Clarence Day

God and My Father
Life With Father
Life With Mother, by Clarence Day

A few weeks ago, somebody posted about God and My Father, a sort of memoir about the time Dad turned out not to be baptized.  It was made into a film and everything.  So I wondered if I could get it, and the library obliged with a collection by Clarence Day of his family memories.

Clarence Day grew up in upper-middle class New York City in the late 1800s; his family was well-off, but not really wealthy.  Day started off in business like his father, but crippling arthritis forced him into a much quieter life and he did a lot of writing, frequently for magazines, but books too.  These books are really funny, written with great affection and understanding.

God and My Father is a real memoir with a plot; it's a comedic story about his father's religious opinions and the family battle over baptism.  Mr. Day was a conventional man who insisted on church attendance, but for the rest he preferred to be left alone to conduct his business as he saw fit.  He was surprised and displeased to discover that his free-thinking father had not allowed him to be baptized, but he certainly wasn't going to do it now!

Life With Father is more a collection of vignettes, possibly written over years for magazine columns.  They detail Day's growing-up years and are just really fun to read.  Life With Mother is just like Life With Father, except that it contains more analysis of Mrs. Day's character and tends to cover later years.  Mr. and Mrs. Day were a very loving couple, each with strong opinions and tempers of their own, and life was never dull under their roof--especially with four boys around.

These were so fun!  I just dipped into the book for a few stories at a time, and it was great; refreshing and amusing, with lots of nice details about life 100 years ago.  I really enjoyed reading these.

Young Clarence--tonedeaf--tries to learn violin

Clarence Day is now most known for writing this:
The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men's hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead.
Pretty good, huh?

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Big Green Tent

The Big Green Tent, by Ludmila Ulitskaya

Phew, I wanted to get this very long novel finished in time for the end of Women in Translation month, and I did!  AND this is the second time I've written this post, because Blogger ate the first one.  I hope I can remember what I said.

Three schoolboys become friends in post-Stalinist Russia; so do three girls, in a different class.  Their lives are the lattice for the intertwinings of many characters over four decades.  Many of them are involved with underground activities, the samizdat network or political advocacy.  The story moves around in time, following people through years or decades and then turning back again to other stories.

Although the book cover's blurb focuses on the three boys, I really felt that Olga's story is the center of the novel; although she does not appear in the beginning or the end, she dominates half the book, to the point that parts of her story are told twice or even three times, with different emphases.  You could make a really interesting tapestry by mapping out the appearances of various people.

Most of the main characters are involved in literature, art, or music, but we meet all kinds of people: elderly peasants, wise grandmothers, Party hacks and spies, oppressed Tatars and old soldiers.  Ulitskaya is very skilled at handling the transitions from one person to another, and I sometimes didn't even notice for a while that she'd done it and I was immersed in a different life.  The result is one of those sprawling, complex novels that contains a tremendous amount and which I really enjoyed.  It reminded me of A Suitable Boy or In the First Circle.

What is the big green tent, you ask?  It is only mentioned once, in a dream, but its shadow lies over the whole novel.

I really like the cover, by the way.  It's nice that it's not red, for once (even the little Soviet flag!), and the patterns are kind of quilty, which I like.  (It even makes me happy that nobody tried to make the font extra-Russian by reversing the R or anything.  I wouldn't have expected that, since this is not an 80s movie about the Cold War, but it's still something I appreciate.)

Hey, I know, I'll give you a bonus song!  As long as I'm in a Russian mood--a while back I watched this fun little children's series made in about 1985, called Visitor From the Future.  It was hugely popular at the time, and it's a neat piece of history to watch now.  It's fun, kind of goofy in spots, and very sweet.  This is the theme song with classroom scenes that don't give you spoilers.  Watch it sometime if you get a chance!

Revolutionary Days

Revolutionary Days, by Julia Cantacuzene

I have been reading a lot of Russian stuff lately, so get ready!  This is a book I picked up at the used bookstore, largely because it is part of the Lakeside Classics, which is this odd little series that publishes one volume per year, always a non-fiction title with some connection to American history.  I only have two, and the other one is the Life of Olaudah Equiano.  As soon as I figured out what this one was about, I had to have it!

Julia Grant was a granddaughter of President Ulysses S. Grant.  Her father was also an eminent soldier, and later became an ambassador in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Julia grew up quite privileged and spent her late teenage years in Vienna.  There she met a handsome young Russian prince, Michael Cantacuzene (a direct descendant of the Byzantine emperor and a junior branch, so not in the line of succession at all), and married him in 1899.

For nearly twenty years, Julia lived the life of a Russian princess.  Her husband did state work and ran the family concerns.  They had a country estate and properties in St. Petersburg and on the Black Sea.  She had three children, and her son attended the posh military academy for young nobles.  They traveled to America to visit grandparents, and generally lived a lifestyle of untold wealth and the responsibility to care for and pass down their estates.

Then the Great War came, and things weren't going so well.  Prince Michael was an eager soldier and all that, but the government started to totter and Tsar Nicholas II was worryingly reclusive and pliant.  The government fell, Kerensky came to power, and finally the Bolsheviks took over.  The family was very fortunate and escaped to America.  That's the ground covered by Princess Julia's memoir.

It's a fascinating first-person account of pre-Revolutionary Russian society through the eyes of an American.  Of course, Julia is always complimentary of her adopted country and her Russian family and friends.  She would never dream of criticizing in public, so don't expect that--and I don't mean to imply that she should. 

That's not to say that she doesn't have any strong opinions!  Julia has quite a lot to say on the topic of Madame Vrybova and the circle surrounding the Tsarina (including Rasputin), and their dreadful influence on the Tsar.  She (and, she implies, most of the Russian nobility) believed that the Russian government must liberalize or die, and laments how Tsar Nicholas II would agree to sensible measures with his advisors, and then be persuaded by the Tsarina that autocracy was the only proper way to go.  The direct result was the fall of the royal house.

One really interesting point was that once the royal house did fall, Julia says that most people felt very hopeful about the Kerensky government.  They figured that sure, things would be tricky for a while, but it would calm down, and on the whole everything would be fine and the country would modernize in a liberal, fairly calm way.  The nobility were prepared to acclimatize and go along with the new government, because they already realized that the old autocracy couldn't continue.  But the Kerensky government made some serious errors, and meanwhile the German-funded Bolsheviki were infiltrating and causing all sorts of trouble.  (Julia believed that the Germans planned to destabilize Russia and end their participation in the war by funding the Bolsheviks.  I do not know whether she was right, maybe somebody can tell me?)

This is an engaging memoir; if you're interested in Russian history, it's well worth a read.


And to finish off, here is a poem just for you about John Cantacuzene, Byzantine emperor and ancestor of Julia's husband, by John Bellairs:

John Cantacuzene
Swaddled in Byzantine
Pearl-seeded robes

Put out the eyes of his
Prelate, for piercing his
Priestly ear-lobes.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Classics Club: August Meme

Every month, the Classics Club blog posts a question for us to answer, and I just about never get around to it.  Memes in general, I am not good at them.  But today I think I will do it!
What classic piece of literature most intimidates you, and why? (Or, are you intimidated by the classics, and why? And has your view changed at all since you joined our club?)

I have gotten a lot less intimidated, that is for sure.  The CC has helped me focus my reading and discover that I can tackle scary books!  But there are still a couple of areas that really make me nervous:

French literature.  Nothing is scarier.  Zola?  Balzac?  Hugo?  Proust?  Eeeek, save me! I feel quite proud of the fact that I have now read The Count of Monte Cristo (1000 pages of adventure and melodrama) and Madame Bovary (fabulous novel which required a readalong to give me courage).   Now that I'm getting to the end of my CC list, though, I'm thinking I'll need to put Hugo on the next one.  I still don't know about those other guys. The thought of reading Zola makes me shrink and quiver.  But perhaps, someday, French literature will be my pale green pants with nobody inside them.

Anything heavily philosophical.  I tried to read Aristotle's Ethics.  Bleh.  I took one look at William James' Varieties of Religious Experience and felt faint.  I can deal with Plato and Socrates just fine, but anything else....well, I dunno.

Moby Dick.  I have no plans ever to read Moby Dick.  I cannot see why I should!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Scholar Adventurers

The Scholar Adventurers, by Richard Altick

I came across this intriguing title while weeding.  At first it didn't look too prepossessing, but the description--"Altick's classic portrayal of scholars on the prowl"--looked kind of fun, so I took it home.

Altick describes the travails of the literary scholar (pre-Internet!) who wishes to track down the unpublished, unknown bits and pieces of information.  He starts off with the papers of James Boswell, whose debauched reputation led his Victorian relatives to suppress the masses of letters, diaries, and other writings he had left behind.  The tale of how batches of Boswell papers eventually saw the light of day is a fascinating one!

Other chapters ask who Sir Thomas Malory really was, or describe quests for lost papers of Byron or Shelley.  Altick also describes literary forgeries, texts in cipher, and all sorts of fun things.  What has happened when science teamed up with literature to the benefit of both?

Since the chapters aren't closely related, it's a great book for dipping into.  It's just full of fun stories.  I'm glad I found it!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog

Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog, by Boris Akunin

I like Russian stories, and I like mysteries, so I should have started reading Akunin years ago.  I did start this one several years back, but I made the mistake of trying to read it on a BART train, and when I failed to get into it, I put it aside and meant to try again sometime.  I finally did, and it was an enjoyable read!

Bishop Mitrofanii, spiritual leader of a country province, has a reputation for solving tricky mysteries.  In fact, it's the unobtrusive Sister Pelagia who does the detecting, and when the bishop's elderly aunt writes to him about the violent killing of her beloved white bulldog, he sends Pelagia off to deal with the problem.  It doesn't seem too important, but Pelagia meets a motley and unusual group of residents at the aunt's estate, and soon realizes that there is a lot at stake.  More dogs are killed, and then people. 

The nineteenth-century setting is wonderful.  Akunin excels at creating a vanished world, illustrating a whole social order, and linking it to our own.  He has also done it with his much larger series about Erast Fandorin, a Moscow diplomat and detective.  I'll certainly have to seek out more of his books--especially the next Pelagia title, which involves a haunting by a black monk.  Shades of Chekhov!

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Death of Vishnu

The Death of Vishnu, by Manil Suri

For some reason, I thought this was a post-apocalyptic SF novel.  It is absolutely not.  It is the first in Suri's "Hindu Myths" series, which so far has three volumes; they are unconnected except that they use mythology as their inspiration and symbolic language.

Vishnu is the errand ganga for a block of apartments; he therefore sleeps on the stair landing and lives on a system of tips and perks, but now he is dying.  As he lies there, waiting to die, he (mentally?  symbolically?) ascends the stairs, considering the life stories of each tenant, and possibly attaining godhood along the way.

We get to know each family and personal drama.  The Pathaks and the Asranis constantly quarrel over every little thing, especially over who should pay for Vishnu's ambulance.  Kavita plans to elope with her upstairs neighbor, Salim, but really she just wants to live in a Bollywood movie--her feelings have very little to do with Salim.  Mr. Jalal (Salim's father) has been a trial to his devout wife for years because of his determined disbelief, but now he's obsessively looking for enlightenment.  Vinod lives in the past, reliving his happy years with his wife.  And the radio-wallah has gone a bit mad.  Vishnu also remembers his childhood and his years pursuing Padmini, a prostitute.

It was an interesting novel, and made quite a splash when it was published in 2010, but I didn't love it.  I'm not all that much of a modern literature person and this wasn't really my taste, except that I like books about India!  I may well pick up the next Suri book, The City of Devi, because it actually is sort of an apocalyptic novel, but I may not.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings

Hey everyone!  We've been starting school and such, so I haven't written much in the last week.  And it's only going to get busier from here, as I start back to work, but I've got some great books to tell you about, so stay tuned.  Meanwhile, we went to see a fantastic movie this weekend, and I want to tell you about it, because it's not getting nearly as much attention as it deserves!

Kubo and the Two Strings is a Laika production; they do stop-motion animation, and you might remember Coraline, which was also fantastic. The 3D they do is some of the best we have seen (and for once, doesn't hurt my eyes). Kubo is an original story, inspired by Japanese mythology....look, just watch the trailer:

It's gorgeous, it's a great story, it's an amazing, creative, unusual movie, it's...not produced by a big studio, and so it's just not getting the attention.  I'm telling you now, it's worth every penny and minute, and I hope you'll go see it too.  Go quickly!

Monday, August 15, 2016

Last Tales

Last Tales, by Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen

I always enjoy reading Isak Dinesen, and I have just about everything on the bookshelf because I took a course in college that was almost nothing but Dinesen (I did a good bit of Scandinavian literature).  She was an odd duck in her day, and reading her now is almost surreal; the stories are so strange to our sensibilities, especially in this last collection.  She did her level best to write as though she lived in the 18th century, or possibly earlier, and nobody thought more of aristocracy, nobility, or the mysterious power of femininity than she did.

I remember once my instructor showed us a photo of her standing on a stage with Betty Friedan.  Two more dissimilar women could hardly be imagined, and I have to wonder if they'd ever read each other's works (probably not) or if they could possibly have had anything to say to one another.  Karen Blixen was tall, slim, elderly, elegant and proud.  She'd probably put belladonna in her eyes for the occasion.  Betty Friedan was a good deal younger, short and stout in a shapeless dress that emphasized her scorn of fripperies.  The mutual disdain almost radiated from the photo, and I sure wish I could find a copy online for you to see!

Dinesen in her later years
Last Tales was originally published in Danish and my copy is listed as a translation, so I'm counting it for Women in Translation month.  Dinesen mostly wrote in English and then translated into her native Danish, so I wasn't at all sure about this title, but they were her last works so maybe she just went with the Danish.  The first several stories were for a novel that was never written.  Then there are two "New Gothic Tales," one of which is unfinished, and three "New Winter's Tales."

The unwritten novel was going to be called Albondocani and the tales belonging to it have an Italian flair, with cardinals and sculptors and intrigues.  (In fact, a cardinal tells two of the stories, which are titled the First and Third--there is no Second Cardinal's Tale.)  Characters frequently say things like:
For the entire being of a woman is a secret, which should be kept.  And one more deep secret to her becomes part of it, one charm more, a hidden treasure...
...as to the shedding of blood, this to our shepherdess--as to any lady--is a high privilege and is inseperably united with the sublimest moments of existence, with promotion and beatification.  What little girl will not joyously shed her blood to become a virgin, what bride not hers in order to become a wife, what young wife not hers to become a mother?
 The final tale in this section, "The Blank Page," is a bizarre little story on the power of silence.  (I told my husband the storyline and he was really pretty horrified.)  I don't want to spoil it for you, but it's so short that I thought I could probably find it in full, and so here it is--click and read.

I wondered what Albondocani meant, and the Danish Wikipedia page on Last Tales says it was one of the names of Caliph Haroun al-Rashid in The Thousand and One Nights, which sounds about like something Dinesen would choose, but I can't find any mention of the name connected to Haroun al-Rashid or The Thousand and One Nights otherwise (perhaps it's usually spelled differently?).  Instead, the only other mention of "Albondocani" is a tiny private press, mostly known as a publisher of Edward Gorey's works.  So there's your mystery coincidence of the day for you...and if you know anything about it, tell me!

After that are two "Gothic Tales," which doesn't mean that they have ghosts and bleeding nuns--it means more elaborate and Romantic in the German style, though "Echoes" is about an Italian opera singer hiding out in an Italian village.  "The Caryatids" is unfinished but travels as far as Canada.  Women are the caryatids of the story:
We did not forget our honor, or the honor of our houses, when you went away.  There is not one, no not one, of the women of Haut-Mesnil, who has disgraced her name, the name of our father.  Is it forever, then, the task of the women to hold up the houses, like those stone figures which they call caryatids?  And are you now, Lord of Haut-Mesnil, going to pull down all the stones of our great house, upon your own head, and upon mine, and the heads of all of us?
Like the "Winter's Tales" collected together, the new Winter's Tales are more domestic and set in Denmark, but they are still pretty obsessed with the honor or nobility of old families.  In one, a young squire discovers that he may--or may not--be the son of his old nurse instead of the lord he thinks himself, but perhaps that is only fair.  In another, a young commoner loves his cousin, a countess, and so he despairs.  And in the last, a poet, a prostitute, and a king sit together and converse all night.

It was neat to revisit these stories that I hadn't read in years, and to remember the class discussions we had about them.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Grave Goods

Grave Goods: Essays of a Peculiar Nature, by John P. O'Grady

This is an odd little collection of essays on topics that literary academics don't write essays on.  Some of the stories have ghosts, or witches, or strange happenings. 

There's a lady who makes and sells magic mirrors, and another one who is a psychic consulted by police (really?  I am skeptical).  In one essay, a country beekeeper announces that the bees are gone because he didn't give them the news properly--this is an old belief, that you have to give the bees the news respectfully--and so they go on a bee hunt and instead find a stone marker of Rip Van Winkle's sleeping spot.  Things like that.

The essays are all about events within the United States, and they often feature natural settings--O'Grady is an environmental writer.  They're things he says happened to him, or to friends of his, or at least that he knows of.

The last essay features a guy who was the night watchman at a San Francisco cemetery that was being dismantled and moved to Colma.  He also wrote poetry.  An elderly lady shows up in the middle of the night and gets him to help her dig up a manzanita plant; she claims it's the last wild manzanita around and so she's going to take care of it before it gets bulldozed.  This puzzled me, since manzanita is a common wild shrub/tree all over California, but then I thought maybe it was some special subspecies--manzanita usually grows in dry climates, not cold, damp San Francisco.  The species is given, so I looked it up, and sure enough, there's a special one native to the area, which is endangered.  (Manzanita is notable for its very smooth reddish bark, which peels off in curls.)

It's a pretty interesting book of essays.  Not especially fabulous, but not a waste of time.