Tuesday, September 27, 2016

King Stakh's Wild Hunt

King Stakh's Wild Hunt, by Uladzimir Karatkevich

I have no real idea of where I heard of this title.  It's been on my wishlist for a while and when I went on an ILL binge, I included it.  My copy came all the way from Florida!  It's a really nice copy, too, a hardback printed in 2012 by Glagoslav, a publishing outfit that specializes in Slavic books.

Uladzimir Karatkevich was a Belarussian author, a pretty famous one, and he published this novel in 1974.  It's supposed to be something of a modern classic, or so they say.  I liked it.  It's very Gothic!  Appropriate to the fall season, and it could have been an RIP title if I had joined RIP this year, which I forgot to do.

Belaretsky is an ethnographer who travels around his beloved Belarus, collecting old folktales and songs.  Upon arrival in a remote country district, he meets a girl--Nadzeya Yanovsky, the last of her line, living in a near-derelict manor, who expects to die under the family curse.  She's got ghosts in the house and the Wild Hunt after her; everyone knows that her long-ago ancestor killed King Stakh, and he cursed the family for twelve generations.  The Hunt came after her father, and now it's going to get her.

Of course, as a rational modern man, Belaretsky doesn't believe in ghosts or Wild Hunts or family curses.  He's sure it's swamp gas or a hallucination or something--at least, until the Hunt very nearly gets him.  Belaretsky is determined to figure out just what the Hunt is and save Nadzeya from a cruel death.

So it's a patriotic Belarussian Gothic novel!  Very fun.  I enjoyed the writing and the atmosphere

It is completely impossible to figure out just when this story is supposed to be set--for me, anyway.  It could be any time between the 1860s to about 1910--all I could tell was that World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution hadn't happened yet.  That is, until the end, when he mentions 1902 as post-dating the story, but he's narrating it as a very old man, so that doesn't really help all that much.



Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Shuttle

The Shuttle, by Frances Hodgson Burnett

 Somebody posted a really nice piece about this novel a few months ago, and I put it on my tablet to read later.  Once I got started, I hardly put it down.  I enjoyed it a lot!  This is a novel aimed at adults, not children, but you can see many of the same strains of thought as you find in The Secret Garden or Little Lord Fauntleroy.  It was written in 1907, and you can tell; it's very Edwardian in tone, especially in the description of Betty.

This is the story of two sisters--the famous Vanderpoel sisters of New York, wealthy beyond imagining (think Vanderbilt).  Rosalie, small, affectionate, and not overly brainy, marries an English lord and sails away...and is cut off from her family.  Sir Nigel turns out to be debauched, penniless, and angry, and he wants control of his wife's money.  To get it, he manipulates and bullies Rosy, and makes her family believe that she does not desire visitors.  Betty is only a child, but she is very intelligent and is sure that her beloved Rosy needs help.  She spends her time getting an education and planning to rescue her sister as soon as possible.  When that day comes, she arrives and not only helps her sister and nephew--she starts whipping the manor house, the garden, and the village into shape. (Sir Nigel, having gained control of the money, spends most of his time away with mistresses.)  She also gets to know a neighbor, owner of an equally run-down manor, but he scorns to marry money.  When Sir Nigel returns, he is displeased--but he's cunning enough to start plotting instead of staging a scene.  Will he succeed in wreaking a revenge on everyone around him?

Burnett is asking a lot of moral questions.  She discusses the phenomenon of impoverished English lords marrying wealthy American girls--what should the 'rules' be?  If you are rich, what is your moral obligation?  What should you do with all that money?  If you are the penniless owner of a manor, what is the virtuous course of action?  How to discharge your hereditary duties with no money?  She never does manage to answer that one, but the moral obligation of the rich is clear.  It is to provide honest work to others, and pay them fairly.  That doesn't mean you can't buy nice clothes--seamstresses need work too--but it does mean you can't keep mistresses on the Riviera when you should be fixing the roof and keeping a beautiful garden that will heal souls (this is Burnett, after all!).

What surprised me about the book--and kept surprising me, though you'd think I'd get used to it--is how vocally and persistently pro-American Burnett is.  She goes on and on, criticizing British aristocratic habits or prejudices by comparing them to American ideas.  She is scathing about titled men who expect to marry a rich American girl and take control of her money, and talks about American men who would feel ashamed to take money from a woman, and who expect to earn a living.  She approves of American romantic notions about marriage.  She doesn't think much of European disdain for Americans, and praises American initiative, courage, and general can-do-itiveness.  She even puts in a can-do young New York salesman so she can praise American working folks.   It's a positive avalanche of praise for Americans, and Betty is the perfect embodiment of American womanhood--though she's happiest living in an English village!  (Burnett is also very pro English-village, patriarchy, and lord of the manor--it just has to be a good lord and she's all for it.  There are plenty of good landed gentry; it's the bad ones that get on her nerves.)

I had such a good time reading this; at first, I was going to read it pretty slowly, but once I got about a third of the way in, I could hardly put it down. It's long, and it's fun to read Burnett's opinions the whole time.

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years

The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years, by Chingiz Aitmatov

Trains in these parts went from East to West, and from West to East . . .
On either side of the railway lines lay the great wide spaces of the desert — Sary-Ozeki, the Middle lands of the yellow steppes.
In these parts any distance was measured in relation to the railway, as if from the Greenwich meridian . . .
And the trains went from East to West, and from West to East . . . 


This is the recurring refrain in this novel about the Kazakh steppe.  Yedigei has worked at the desolate railroad station for over 20 years, and his best friend Kazangap has just died.  Yedigei is in charge of the funeral, and he insists that it be done properly and that Kazangap be buried at the traditional graveyard.  A few tractors set out on the trip, and Yedigei leads the way on his giant camel, Burannyi Karanar.  As he travels, he remembers his life--how he got to the station and what happened there.  Most of the novel is long flashbacks, punctuated with interludes of the funeral trip.

We slowly get to know the world of the Saryozek steppe, the railroad, and the tiny groups of people strung out along it.  Yedigei is a veteran of the war; he had severe shell shock afterwards and couldn't go back to his home on the Aral Sea, so wound up on the railroad with his loyal wife.  Kazangap was like a father to him, and another friend, Abutalip, was like a brother.  His arrest in Stalin's purges was a terrible ordeal for everyone at Boranli-Burranyi.

Aitmatov shows the enormous, shocking contrast between the traditional Central Asian tribal lifestyle and the new Soviet rules.  Camels are still a major form of wealth out on the steppe and Karanar is Yedigei's pride; he is one of the last of the old breed of camels, and he is tremendously strong and difficult to control.  Karanar is a central symbol in the novel as well as a central part of Yedigei's life, and Yedigei sees Karanar as both an extension of himself and as possessing ancient freedom no longer available to modern people.

This contrast is further highlighted by the nearby rocket installation.  Yedigei actually lives fairly close to some kind of astronomical study site or rocket base (it might be both).  I think it's supposed to be something like Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.  It's completely cut off from the ordinary world, so although Yedigei is nearby, he's never seen anyone from there.  The rocket base is, however, expanding and will soon be disrupting more than he realizes.

In fact, there's an odd little secondary plot to this novel that is entirely about the space program.  In a secret cooperative space station, Americans and Russians share a study space that is strictly even between the two powers--and the cosmonauts have contacted alien life.  As they shoot off into an unimaginable future, officials on Earth scramble to deal with the situation.

Yedigei doesn't know any of this, though, and he spends a lot of thought on the importance of his traditions.  In his memory, he tells important legends, remembers songs, and laments the shrinking of his beautiful Aral Sea home (which is now gone, victim of Soviet environmental destruction).


When this novel was published in the Brezhnev era, it was a pretty big hit with intellectuals who considered it a wonderful example of socialist realism.  This is somewhat surprising to the modern reader, who sees a paean to Kazakh tribal life and one character unjustly arrested, but apparently it said something a bit different to the Soviet intellectual of the 1970s.  (For one thing, Stalinist purges were out of fashion.)  I guess it's both.

It's a really good novel.  I liked it.

Wherever you go, you won't get away from your troubles; they'll be with you always.  No, Yedigei, if you're a dzhigit, you'll try to master yourself here.  To go away--there's no bravery in that.  Any fool can run away.  But not everyone can master himself.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Banned Books Week is coming up!

Hey everyone, I've really missed being here lately!  I have a pile of books to review, but my arms are giving me trouble again and so I might go back to dictating posts again for a bit.  Which I find really difficult.  Anyway, I've also been in a frenzy of preparation for...

Banned Books Week, which starts Sunday, September 25 and goes through October 1.  I never really talk about it here much--it's a work thing and doesn't seem to get to the blog.  I've been collecting news stories, ordering bookmarks and making buttons (well, actually the student workers make the buttons!), and all sorts of things.  We usually have a writing contest, and this year the ALA came out with some fun writing prompts (and other good stuff), so we're using those to change things up from the questions we've used for two years.

Are you planning anything for Banned Books Week?  Have any books picked out?  (This year's hot title: the Bible.  It's #6!)  I hope to be posting more soon; I've got plenty to tell you.

Gentian Hill

Gentian Hill, by Elizabeth Goudge

A while back I bought a couple of Elizabeth Goudge novels and this one has been waiting for quite a time.  It turned out to be a lovely read--as I would expect!  It's a historical fiction novel set during the Napoleonic wars, and some of it is based on actual events in the neighborhood of Torquay.

Anthony O'Connell is a very young midshipman in the Royal Navy, but he is on a bad ship, and after a particularly brutal punishment, he deserts to wander the countryside near Torquay--and changes his name to Zachary.  Stella Sprigg is a little farm girl and an orphan; as an infant, she survived an explosion onboard a ship in harbor that killed her mother, and her origins are unknown.  When she meets Zachary and feeds him, they become the best of friends.  Zachary finds shelter with the local doctor and healing for his troubles, and finds work on Stella's farm.

Eventually Zachary has to face his worst fears and go back to the Navy, where he matures and truly redeems himself.  He plays no important part in the war, but he is present at Trafalgar (and Goudge really shows how and why Nelson was so beloved).  He and Stella are parted for years, but both are learning and maturing in their own paths.

Many others play a part in Stella and Zachary's stories, especially the doctor, a Catholic scholar-priest, an elderly lady of the town, and of course Stella's foster parents and their farm hands.   In the leisurely development of the novel, we learn many of their stories, and eventually discover Stella's parentage.

I'm making this sound like Zachary is the only protagonist of this novel, and he isn't.  This is a double story, and Stella is just as important a protagonist as Zachary is; she is the heart of the novel, really.  And the entire story is built around the legend of St. Michael's Chapel, a 13th-century church at Torquay which was a pilgrimage spot for Catholic sailors until the 19th century.

Fear, and the overcoming of it, is Goudge's main theme.  Zachary is not the only one who has to face his fears and work through them, but his ordeal takes the foreground.  He is terrified of physical pain, and his return to the Navy is no fun at all; he hates almost everything, but learns to take it all in the right way and grow from it, and so reaps his reward.

He tried to do it well and willingly, since he had to do it, and achieved an outward show of zeal and cheerfulness that he found, to his astonishment, as useful to him as a suit of armour. Upon his first ship his only weapon had been his obstinacy, which had deceived no one as to the true state of his craven mind; he had been like a tortoise on its back, immovable but vulnerable, and inviting prodding. Now he was the right way up, and no one had any idea how vulnerable he really was.

At that moment he believed it was worth it. This moment of supreme beauty was worth all the wretchedness of the journey. It was always worth it. "For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory." It was the central truth of existence, and all men knew it, though they might not know that they knew it. Each man followed his own star through so much pain because he knew it, and at  journeys end all the innumerable lights would glow into one.

His longing to get away was simply the coward's craving to escape from a particular bit of suffering without enduring it right through to its appointed end, and that was a thing that a man could not do.

Wisdom never quite died upon the earth. There had never yet been a day without, somewhere, birds' wings flashing in the sun and water lapping on a quiet shore. Eternity was a fact. Intellectually he had always known it, coldly and without conviction, but now the dry bones of fact seemed slowly to clothe themselves with flesh. Love was not just an emotion to be experienced or an abstraction to be argued about, but the actual stuff of eternal life...

Men, women, and children came and went seeking the doctor's help, and though the Abbe saw little of them, he realized with reverence and admiration how great is the power of a man whose good will is not bounded by creed or class.

Nobody is quite like Elizabeth Goudge.  It's no easy feat to write a book infused with faith that doesn't come off as overly sentimental or preachy or saccharine.  I liked this novel a lot; I think more than Green Dolphin Street.  Gentian Hill doesn't seem to be in print just now, but you can get it on Kindle for just a few bucks! I wonder if it's on sale right now; all the other Goudge titles are expensive.


Friday, September 16, 2016

Strongholds

No cover image, but this is a good representation
Strongholds, by L. M. Boston

I've already talked quite a bit about my thing for L. M. Boston and our visit to her home during our UK trip, so let's consider that part as read (follow links for info!) and get right to the bit where I got a copy of one of Boston's lesser-known works through ILL.  Strongholds is a novel for adults and was published in 1969.  It has also appeared under the title Persephone--that's the protagonist's name, though she usually goes by Persie or Zephy. 

The short version: this would make a great selection for Persephone Books to publish.  I think they should, and I emailed them to suggest it, though obviously it will never happen.  But it should!  It's a lovely novel, kind of odd, and it's just about been forgotten.

Persie is a country girl, illegitimate and quite poor, and at fifteen she is perfectly happy as long as she can be outside and work on the local farm.  A horrifying (to her) incident precipitates her sudden departure, and she fetches up, shocked and ill, on a doctor's doorstep.  From there she travels an odd road to maturity, finding strongholds along the way until she reaches an unexpected home.

It's a romance, but I don't mean either that it's a love story or a Gothic novel.  There are elements of both, plus a large dose of Bostonian unexpectedness.  I don't know of a lot of authors that would put a character into a perfectly realistic convent or mental hospital.

It's a Master and Margarita Readalong!

Reading Rambo has been meaning to host a readalong of Mikhail Bulgakov's bizarre novel for at least a year, I'm pretty sure.  Now, the moment has arrived!  It's the Master and Margareadalong in October, and you should join me.  Reading Rambo usually does a bunch of gifs in her posts, and encourages everyone else to as well, but I am no good at that so I abstain--though I do have fun reading them!

I have read M&M twice before; my old copy, which I'm very fond of, is the translation by Glenny, but I just got the Pevear/Volokhonsky edition from my brother, and I'm looking forward to seeing what a different edition is like.  


Schedule:


October 3rd: Chapters 1-8
October 10th: Chapters 9-16
October 17th: Chapters 17-22
October 24th: Chapters 23-26
October 31st: Chapters 27 to end

So what are you waiting for?  The devil is coming to Moscow, and the party will start with or without you.  Everybody's coming, leave your body at the door!

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Our Town

Our Town, by Thornton Wilder

The introduction to Our Town says that a lot of students read, or see, the play when they're younger--in junior high--and they tend to think it's schmaltzy.  I was lucky, I guess; I've never seen or read Our Town at all, and so only got to read it as an adult.  It made me think of that song from Fiddler on the Roof, "Sunrise, Sunset."  When I was a kid I thought that was the dumbest, sappiest song on earth.  Now I cry every time I hear it, because some things you only get when you've been around for a little while.

Our Town is a simple, stripped-down play, set in a small town in around 1900.  The three acts take place years apart.  A narrator comments on events, pointing out the daily routines in the background, and the events going on all the time.  Emily, who emerges as the main character, appears as a child, a teen, and a young bride.  In the third act, she has died, and she meets all the other dead folks in the graveyard.  They've let go of life, and Emily doesn't understand why until she visits her own 12th birthday.  The sight of everyone going about their lives, blind to the amazing and fleeting gift of just being together in the world, is more than she can stand.
"Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, fourteen years have gone by. I'm dead. You're a grandmother, Mama. I married George Gibbs, Mama. Wally's dead, too. Mama, his appendix burst on a camping trip to North Conway. We felt just terrible about it - don't you remember? But, just for a moment now we're all together. Mama, just for a moment we're happy. Let's look at one another."
Wilder reminds us--often starkly--of how short life is, and how suddenly it can be taken away.  It's funny how often human beings need to be reminded of such an obvious thing, and yet we do.

This was a revolutionary play for American theater when it debuted.  The lack of sets, the characters who are also archetypes, the simple, direct language--the refusal of decoration or euphemism--were radically modern stuff in 1937.  Wilder's idea was "to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life."  So Emily dwells on the joy of sunflowers and ironed dresses, and we feel the importance of everything.  At the same time, Wilder points out tragedy--the alcoholic choirmaster's suicide, the death of Joe on the battlefields of France--and he does it cruelly, without prettying it up one bit.

I had no idea what I was getting into when I started reading.  I'll have to see the play properly someday.  And if you had to read it in 7th grade and thought it was sappy, go back and take a second look.


Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Brat Farrar

Brat Farrar, by Josephine Tey

After the UK trip, I went looking for my copy of The Daughter of Time to give to my kid, who was curious about the Richard III question.  I couldn't find it, but I did find Brat Farrar, so I decided to read that myself.  Tey wrote unusual mysteries--not the usual kind of formula--and they're good to revisit.  This one is odd in that we know from the first that there's an impersonation going on...so what is the mystery?

Brat Farrar is going to pose as the long-lost (thought dead) Patrick, heir to the Ashby estate.  He's well-coached, he looks just right, and he's going to arrive just as Patrick's twin, Simon, is about to come of age.  Brat immediately feels at home with the Ashbys--in fact, he feels that he's doing this for Patrick in a way.  As he becomes ever more comfortable in his new role, he also starts to suspect that Patrick did not commit suicide eight years ago. 

One of the neat things about this story is how much we sympathize with Brat.  He's committing massive fraud, and his motives are very mixed--he isn't a bad person at all, and yet here he is, about to steal a fortune.  We get involved with all the characters and sympathize with them too.  Pretty soon Brat is in quite a mess, and seeing how it turns out is much of the fun.




Monday, September 5, 2016

My Apprenticeship

My Apprenticeship, by Maxim Gorky

To round out my month or so of Slavic reading--well, who's to say I'm done yet?--I've been reading the second volume of Gorky's autobiography.  I covered the first volume, My Childhood, back in January, and the third is on my TBR pile.  Let us also recall that Gorky's real name was Alexei Maximovich Peshkov, but he used his father's first name and Gorky, 'bitter,' for writing.  He was a major Soviet writer, so there are a bazillion things named after him.  There is a lot I don't understand yet about his character, so I need to do a lot more reading.

This book picks up right where Childhood left off, at age eleven when his grandfather throws him out to earn his own living.  Little Maxim goes through a whole series of jobs--a shoe store, cabin boy on a river barge, apprentice to an architect (where he mostly sweeps floors), an ikon workshop, and more.  Sometimes he goes home to his grandparents.  Life is always difficult and brutal, but he meets many interesting characters and sometimes develops important friendships.  Most crucially, he discovers books.

Books are Maxim's major preoccupation throughout this time: how to get them, how to find solitary time to read, and what he might be able to get next.  Books are usually difficult to come by, and so his reading is pretty random, but he manages to get quite a bit of real literature.  He's frequently scolded or beaten for reading, but it's his only solace.

He is also preoccupied with trying to understand why most of the people he sees are so horrible to each other.  He hates the casual violence that he sees all around him, yet when he gets angry he is just about as violent, and it's confusing.  He's an idealistic boy who venerates women, yet most of the men he knows are extremely abusive to women.

Some bits:
The animal enthusiasm of that herd of people made me want to throw myself at them and beat their filthy heads in with a log.
...one could not even begin to understand what people were really like, whether they were wicked or good, law-abiding or trouble-makers.  I used to ask the cook why this was so but he would only envelop his face in cigarette smoke and often he would say in an annoyed voice, "What's eating you?  People...well, are just people.  One's clever, the next's a fool  Don't talk so much and stick to your books...."
All that my master and mistress knew was how to take a superior attitude towards people and always find fault with them.  But if those people had in fact started living and thinking and feeling exactly as they themselves did, then it would not have made the slightest difference and they would still have found something to criticize in the.  That's the kind of people they were.
Nothing mutilates a man so horribly, destroys his capacity for suffering, as when he is subjected to conditions over which he has no control. [Jean says: I think I disagree with you.]

What I don't get about Gorky is how offended he is by violence and force, and then he turned around and supported the Soviet gulag system.  People told him about it; he knew, and they thought he would object.  But he didn't.  So I want to find out about that.