Thursday, January 19, 2017

When Books Went to War

When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II, by Molly Guptill Manning

I enjoyed this book so much!  I hadn't heard of it, but luckily Maphead reviewed it a few weeks ago, and it turned out to be at my library.  I promptly devoured it, but I didn't get around to reviewing it right away.

Manning starts off by describing Nazi Germany's hatred of books that didn't espouse the proper ideas.  I had known that there were book burnings, but I had not realized that they were quite as popular as all that.  Anti-Nazi German writers even collected the disapproved books to save them, sending them to a library in France.

Meanwhile, the American government was preparing for the expected eventual entrance into the war.   They needed recreational materials for the soldiers, who universally found books to be an uplifting and relaxing escape and reminder of normal life, and so the military asked for book donations.  The American Library Association got involved, and massive book drives helped to get reading material to soldiers in training camps.  As hard as the volunteers worked, it was nowhere near enough, and the books were mostly heavy hardcovers and often not suitable in subject.

The military soon contracted with publishers to produce special editions of books for soldiers.  These were compact, light, durable paperbacks (stapled instead of glued, since tropical insects liked the glue).  Every month, a new set of books was published: novels, history and culture, practical subjects, and classics.  They were distributed and traded around as more precious than candy.  The soldiers couldn't get enough; far from home, living rough, and frequently stuck for long periods of time with nothing much to do, books gave them solace, education, and often healing. Men who had never read much before became avid readers, which helped them take advantage of GI Bill education after the war.

The entire story is fascinating!  There are all these different sides to it and Manning gives some time to them all.  It was just so great.  Thanks, Maphead!

The most popular title of them all

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, by Douglas Adams

The Brits did a TV show based on this book, so of course I had to re-read it before I watch!  This doesn't count as a vintage SF title, but I read it in January anyway.  It is so long since I read Dirk Gently that I had forgotten pretty well everything, except the Electric Monk was slightly familiar.  And there was a bonus!

Richard, computer programmer and basic hapless fellow (in the tradition of Arthur Dent) gets caught up in some really strange events; a horse is in his old professor's bathroom, he finds himself climbing a dangerous wall for no particular reason, and his boss is found dead -- extra dead, in fact.  Richard turns to his old sketchy college acquaintance, currently known as Dirk Gently, holistic detective.  Through a long series of very odd occurrences, Dirk figures out what's going on.

It's all very fun and Adamsy, and I had a good time re-reading it.  Since I am now a good deal older and more widely-read than I was last time, I discovered an Easter egg bonus on this round.  Adams lifted his own old Doctor Who storylines for this novel; there is some of City of Death, and some of Shada.  Everybody knows this but me, so it's not exactly a great discovery; in fact, soon after I finished the book I started noticing ads all over Facebook for a free streaming of City of Death to go with the new Dirk Gently TV show.

Adams was a bit ahead of his time with the 'holistic' thing; at least, it seems to me that holistic wasn't a trendy word back then, but it sure got to be one about 15 or 20 years later!  I'm sure it was current in some circles back then, though.  Nowadays we have holistic approaches to health and all sorts of things.  A couple of years ago in the car, my older daughter asked me what holistic meant and I tried to explain, but it didn't make any sense to her because she was looking at a shop that sold 'holistic water.'  We had to go home and look it up, and found out that holistic water is very, very pricey water with maybe some extra minerals thrown in.  It makes some really wild claims, but they're all expensive nonsense.  Ever since, she's been dying to go into the holistic water store and argue with the people there.

If you've never read Dirk Gently, it really is fun and you should.  I still haven't watched the show, so I hope it's pretty good too.

Twitter tag: #readingallaround

Hey folks, if you're in for the Reading All Around the World adventure, use the hashtag #readingallaround on Twitter and Facebook!  We can share book titles and such.

It's dang hard to find a hashtag that isn't already the name of a project!

The Underdogs

Los de abajo -- The Underdogs, by Mariano Azuela

It's my very first official Reading Around the World title, and I chose to go next door to Mexico. The Underdogs (literally, those from underneath) is a short novel about the Mexican Revolution written in 1915; Azuela served as a doctor during the fighting.  I've got the Norton Critical Edition (and if you're going to read it, you should too, unless you know a lot more about the Mexican Revolution than I do), and the translator says not only that it's the best novel about the revolution, but in his opinion "may actually be the best Mexican novel ever."

Demetrio Macías is a tough peasant rancher in the sierra.  When he offends some local official, the Federales burn his home and he becomes the leader of a ratty bunch of rebels.  They move around, doing some fighting and some looting, and when Demetrio is injured, they spend a lot of time in one village.  A literate journalist, Luis Cervantes, joins them; he used to make a living writing articles criticizing the bandidos, but now wants to join the glorious cause.  He is quieter and more intelligent than the others (who kind of despise him and call him curro), and he helps out with his superior medical and political knowledge, but he also kind of preys on them, giving them drinking money in exchange for the smaller, more portable valuables they loot.  Camila, a sweet, plain peasant girl, has a crush on him but he deceives her into Demetrio's arms.   In the end, most of Demetrio's followers get killed (not Luis, who goes off to medical school in the US with his gains), and Macías goes home, unsatisfied and hopeless, before one last battle.

Azuela is not portraying these guys as romantic heroes fighting the oppressor.  He shows them, without a smidgen of sentiment, as rough, angry, and none too sure about where they're going or what they're doing.  Mostly they want to loot, dominate, and wreck, and they're perfectly willing to kill over nothing much (though they brag about it a lot more than they do it).  They hang around small villages, forcing their fellow peasants to feed and house them, and then go looking for somebody to fight.  They hope to get into power after the Federales are defeated, and then they plan to act just like their oppressors did.  I'm not sure Macías and his guys are the underdogs as much as the rest of the peasants of Mexico are -- they pay the same price regardless of who is in power.

It's not exactly the sort of novel you enjoy while curled up under a blanket -- it's mostly a rough and ugly picture of a rough and ugly time -- but it's an important one in Mexican literature that seems to offer an honest portrayal.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Shaggy Planet

Shaggy Planet, by Ron Goulart (1973)

This is the first vintage SF novel I've read for the January event that is really a stinker.  I found it on our SF bookshelf and haven't the faintest idea where it came from, nor does my husband, and it turns out we've been giving this thing shelf space under the misguided idea that somebody got it on purpose.  This is just a dumb story and you should not read it.  It's supposed to be funny, but mostly it's clunky.  I wouldn't have bothered to finish it or to blog about it, but I found out some interesting things so I'll talk about those in a bit.

The plot is that this mercenary guy is hired to find a businessman who has gone missing on a mess of a planet called Murdstone, part of the Barnum system.  He's got a reporter girlfriend who wants an interview with a guerrilla leader, there's a famine and an opera and some rioting, and these weird shaggy animals they call hummels are suddenly all over town.  Mercenary guy follows the trail of the missing guy through six landscapes and a lot of escapades before he figures out what's going on.

It wasn't much.  There were a lot of androids going wrong.  The writing was desperately clunky in places, especially when describing people; a dialogue would have every other sentence ending in some permutation of "said the small, slightly plump blonde."  Or "the lovely slim young redhead."  Or "the tall narrow black man."  Over and over and over, like I was going to forget that the girl is slim and redheaded.

But let's talk about Ron Goulart for a moment, or at least, reel off a collection of fun facts that can be vaguely connected to him.  He's still around, aged about 85, and he wrote a ton of comedic SF and comics and various things.  He ghostwrote the TekWar books for William Shatner, and he's originally from Berkeley, one of my personal favorite places.  He went to Cal and wrote for the Pelican, which was the student humor newspaper -- it lasted about 80 years and folded in 1983, and it actually had its own building on campus with a pelican statue in front.  (The guy who founded the Pelican in 1903, Earle Anthony, had a lot of money and so could pay for Anthony Hall, which now houses the grad student association.)  Rube Goldberg drew artwork for the Pelican!  In my own day at Cal, a humor newspaper was finally re-started -- the Heuristic Squelch -- and it's still running.  It was frequently quite tasteless then, and probably still is, but that is after all the entire point of student humor newspapers.  The Pelican, also tastelessly, was apparently partly named because it was an uncomplimentary term for women students.  Since Cal was co-ed from 1871, three years after its founding and before it even had a real location, you would think that they'd have been used to the presence of female students...

Don't bother with Shaggy Planet.  It's terrible.  But now you know that Rube Goldberg drew cartoons at Cal, and that's kind of worth knowing.

Monday, January 16, 2017


Deathless, by Catherynne M. Valente

Is this a fabulous cover or what?  As soon as I saw this book and read the premise, I had to read it.  It's a fairy tale retelling with Koschei the Deathless and Marya, daughter of the Revolution.  (I maintain that "Koschei the Deathless" is the most fantastic name ever.)

As a little girl, Marya Morevna saw birds transform into husbands for her older sisters.  She waited for her own bird groom too, but The Russian Revolution changed all that and instead she became a revolutionary with a red neckerchief.  The tales she knew to be true got buried, until Koschei came to the door and whisked her away to a new life -- a life no less cruel than the old, but one where her best friends are a vila, a leshy, and a vintovnik.  She talks with domovoi and hunts firebirds, but Koschei is immersed in his war.  Marya clashes with Baba Yaga, who shows her the price paid by Koschei's many former wives when they, inevitably, ran off with their fairy-tale Ivans.  Marya manages to complete the impossible tasks set for her, but someday an Ivan will come for her too, and she will have to choose between two possible lives, each of which exacts its payment.

Valente intertwines the Russian folklore with Russian communism up through the war; St. Petersburg/Leningrad plays as large a part as the world of magic.  Marya spends time in a fairy war and in the siege of Leningrad; house elves hold soviet meetings, and Ivan, the youngest of three brothers, can be a soldier instead of a woodcutter.

This story is beautifully written, bizarre and strange, and fascinating to read.  Valente's husband is Russian and his family's heritage and tales served as the inspiration for this novel.  On the whole, I really enjoyed it, although, truth be told, it was a little much in the blood and sex department for my taste.  This is very much a fairy-tale retelling in the Angela Carter mode, though I think Valente did it quite a bit better and with more complexity and ambiguity.  If you're into fairy-tale retellings, this one is a must-read.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Tunnel in the Sky

Tunnel in the Sky, by Robert A. Heinlein

Rod Walker, high school student, has been taking a higher-level class in advanced survival.  His ambition is to someday see the other worlds humanity is colonizing, and survival skills are of the first importance.  The final exam is a field test; Rod and his classmates will be dropped on an unknown planet for anywhere from two to ten days.  They can take whatever equipment they wish.  Rod is surprised to find himself alone on the other end of the gate -- they've dropped the students far apart instead of in a group -- and he does all right for the first couple of days.  But the exit gate never opens, and Rod and his classmates have to build a surviving society of their own, without knowing if anyone will ever come to get them.

This was a great read!  My 16-year-old daughter loved it too, and says it was what she hoped Lord of the Flies would be, before she read it and was disappointed.  (She really likes survival stories, and as a kid informed me that Robinson Crusoe was a big cheater, taking all that stuff off the wrecked ship.)   It's a great story, with strong characters -- including a good few women.  The first half is focused on the survival stuff, and the second half on building a working society from scratch. 

Now, the setup is a very Malthusian future, so there is a massive population of humans but no more food than before.  Thus, thanks to a handy gate technology, people are constantly emigrating to new, empty planets, and Earth people live mostly underground, leaving the topsoil for wilderness and farming.  It's kind of funny to see Heinlein insisting that everybody in an overcrowded future will still have six children each (when now, world fertility rates have plummeted, so that we will have a future full of old people and relatively few youngsters) and that you can't grow more food on the same amount of land (in fact, we now grow more food on less land, allowing for reforestation in some places).

Anyway, it was all very fun; this is a good pick if you're looking to read a Heinlein title.  I read it in a three-pack called Infinite Possibilities, but it's available on its own too.

German edition, featuring a wagon train to the stars!


Shakuntala (The Recognition of Shakuntala), by Kālidāsa

Some time ago I read The Cloud Messenger, a longish poem by the Sanskrit poet Kālidāsa, who lived about 1500 years ago apparently.  I thought I would like to read his play, too.  The introduction of this book says that ancient Sanskrit drama was considered divine, a fifth Veda that was supposed to instruct through pleasure.  All could understand it (unlike the four Vedas), and it should represent the world, give good advice, and "bring peace of mind to those afflicted with the ills of the world" (such as kings).  Drama is not particular and individual, but shows a generalized picture and should produce "the aesthetic emotion" called rasa by building impressions through the words, music, and art.  The story therefore reads like a legend or fairy tale.

Shakuntala is a lovely, sheltered girl living in a holy enclave with her adopted father, the sage Kanva.  Other holy disciples and girls live there as well; it's a small community in the wilderness.  The king, Duhsanta, happens upon the hermitage during a hunt and stops to pay his respects to the sage.  There he meets Shakuntala, and they immediately fall in love, but Sage Kanva is temporarily absent, unable to give his consent.  Duhsanta determines that Shakuntala is an appropriate bride for him and talks her into an immediate marriage by declaration.  He then takes his leave, promising to send for her, but, naturally, there is a barrier to their love that must be conquered.

It's a lovely, poetic story that must have enchanted the court that saw it.  I'm sure the English version doesn't measure up to the original, so I can't appreciate it properly, but it was neat to read and it would be fun to see it performed.  It's not at all difficult to read, except that a glossary and cultural footnotes come in pretty handy, so the Penguin edition is a good one for those not familiar with ancient Indian literature and culture.  The Loom of Time collects two poems and this play.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Star Trek 7

Star Trek 7, by James Blish

Somebody besides me must remember these fun paperbacks.  When I was a kid, my library had a whole bunch of these and I remember reading a lot of them -- although I don't actually remember the stories, unless they're really famous episodes.  What they really are is short story versions of old Star Trek episodes.  As far as I can tell, they are nearly the same, but Blish filled them out a little.

Volume seven starts off with its strongest pieces, putting "Who Mourns for Adonais?" first (that's the one where they run into Apollo), and then the Nomad story, "The Changeling."  After reading that, I had to watch it, so we all saw it together.  The other four stories are less memorable, but there's the one where they find a planet of Native Americans (and Kirk marries a girl!), the one where they all get old, the one with Zefram Cochrane and the electric cloud that loves him, and the one with a barbarian princess who enslaves men with her tears.

Some of the moments in these stories make me do a double take when I think about them.  I've seen Star Trek so many times that it doesn't surprise me when a beautiful ex-girlfriend shows up and allures Kirk, but it gets a little egregious in the getting-old one.  It turns out that they had a relationship 6 years ago but had to break up for the sake of their careers, so she married a man in her own field, and now she's a widow, so when she shows up she promptly announces that while she respected her husband, she always loved Kirk and throws herself at him almost as soon as they say hello.  Really?  I mean, good golly.

Another funny moment is when Zefram Cochrane realizes his electric cloud is in love with him, and reacts with utter horror to this inter-species romance while the more cosmopolitan Enterprise crew think it's no big deal.  Cochrane changes his mind when the cloud takes up residence in the dying diplomat lady's body, which I think is the weird part, but nobody seems to mind since she was dying anyway, and now she gets to have a romance.  That's kinda odd, I think.

Anybody else remember these, with their psychedelic covers and giant stylized numbers?  My kid actually didn't recognize the seven as a number; she thought it was a blob.  I guess she hasn't been exposed much to that 70s font.

Awesome old covers for the series -- there were 13

They Walked Like Men

They Walked Like Men, by Clifford D. Simak (1962)

I always love Vintage Sci-Fi January, and I jumped right in with a nice Simak title that has been on the shelf for years.  It turned out to be a really fun read!  This is a great one.  (Then I took about a week off blogging for no reason except that I was finishing a quilt and cleaning a lot! I'm now on my fourth vintage SF read.)

Parker Graves, a newspaper reporter, comes home one night a bit tipsy, but that saves his life when he spots a strange trap in front of his door.  Then the trap melts and rolls away.  When more odd things happen around town -- most especially, there's a sudden massive housing shortage -- he realizes that an alien invasion is under way.  Who will believe him?  And why do the aliens look like....bowling balls?

It's just a funny, well written story that perpetrates an impossible situation, so I was really wondering how it could be solved.  And the aliens believe that they are doing their takeover in a perfectly legal and businesslike manner, which is a fun take on the alien invasion theme.  I recommend this one.