Friday, April 10, 2015


Sanaaq, by Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk

This book is one of the perks of my job.  Now that I get to buy literature, I can spend time searching for books from all over the world, and I can find neat stuff like this!

Sanaaq is an Inuit novel, the first written in the language.  It started off as a vocabulary exercise.  In the early 1950s, a priest studying Inuttitut asked 22-year-old Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk, a respected member of the community, to write down some phrases for him to learn.  Instead of making a vocabulary list, Mitiarjuk starting writing little vignettes about Inuit life.  She invented characters, gave them a story, and over a period of years wrote an entire novel--without ever having read a novel in her life.  She re-invented the novel, in fact.

This is the story of the young widow Sanaaq, her young daughter Qumaq, and the people around them.  They go about their everyday lives, hunting, building, and producing just about everything they use.   There are accidents, marriages, good days and bad, and every so often the changing background of Inuit life shows up in encounters with the qallunaat (white people, literally Big Eyebrows, which is an excellent name)--missionaries, hospitals, and work away from home.

Nappaaluk's writing is economical and energetic, with a lot of dialogue.  There is not a lot of dwelling on emotional development or deep thoughts; it's there, but she puts it into a sentence or two instead of a whole page.  All the Inuit terms for objects and relationships are left in--that was the original point, after all, and is an integral part of the novel--so be prepared to look up a lot of words in the handy glossary.

It's a very cool read.  I enjoyed it a lot and recommend it.  Besides, can you resist that cover?  No, you can't.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Between the Woods and the Water

Between the Woods and the Water, by Patrick Leigh Fermor

I've been putting this book off for a while.  I loved the first book of the three, A Time of Gifts, so much, but it also filled me with longings for travel (in Europe, in the 30s); so I was really looking forward to this one, but also saving it for a treat.  And it really was a treat.  It was a lovely vacation of a book.

Fermor spends the whole book in Hungary and Romania.  It's summer and he spends weeks at Hungarian manors, soaking up history, friendship, language, and fun.  Sadly, at 19 he felt that this was kind of cheating on his trip's rules, and he didn't keep his journal as assiduously as he should have, but he recreates a beautiful summer with lovely and interesting people.  All the while, the reader knows that within a very few years, Hungary will be conquered and all of this ruthlessly stamped out.

In Romania, Fermor tramps through endless forests, meeting all sorts of people and thinking about ancient Romans, Crusaders, and other historical figures.  This is just as wonderful-sounding as Hungary, in a different way. He ends by seeing some cities by boat and then traveling down the Danube to the Iron Gates, which are these huge stone cliffs on either side of the river.  All the wilderness he saw there is now drowned under a water reservoir built for Yugoslavia, though.  And Bulgaria is where he'll go next.

Romania, Iron Gates
 He's always describing all the different people he meets, who belong to all these different groups and religious sects and races.  And there's a lot of history, just sketched in so you know a bit of what's happened in the past.  It's all so beautifully rendered and sounds so wonderful.  You want to go and see it, and at the same time you feel terrible for all the awful things that have happened since.  Much of it just isn't there anymore.  But it's good to read about what once was and know.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The White Goddess

My 14yo asked me to hide the cover
The White Goddess: a Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, by Robert Graves

Oh, wow.  I could talk about this fabulously nutty book all day!  I had no idea when I picked it up what I was getting into.

The short version: Graves was looking for evidence of a European-wide goddess-worshiping  Ur-religion that he believed existed before all that male god patriarchy stuff came along.  He found his material in myth and poetry, and claimed that bards and poets disguised their lore by deliberately mixing it up.  All true poetry is based on the Triple White Goddess as Muse, and no monotheist can be a true poet.  Graves, being a true poet, realized all this through poetic intuition.

Now the long version: This is 500 extremely dense pages of speculation about myth, poetry, and ancient tribal movements, presented as plain fact deduced by intuition and research.  It's from the same school The Golden Bough, but Graves felt that Frazer hadn't gone nearly far enough.  And he goes very far indeed.  I'm not learned enough to be able to poke holes in the gigantic concoction of myth and cuckoo theory that Graves pours down on the reader's head, but from what I can find out, he was making most of it up.

The basis for much of this book is Graves' reading of early medieval Welsh poetry by Gwion/Taliesin in the Red Book of Hergest. Mind you, Graves cannot read Welsh; he is depending on a mid-Victorian translation that is admittedly a bit fuzzy. He then assumes that the poem is encoded to hide sacred mysteries, rearranges it, and finds what he wants to find. His authority to do this is that he is also a poet.  Out of this poem he digs a tree-alphabet and calendar, coordinated so that each month has a sacred tree, color, animal, letter, and number which can be arranged in a diagram around the entrance of a dolmen.  He does the same for the Middle East, sort of, switching trees to suit the climate.

One version of the diagram
As he does all this, he merges all the goddesses you've ever heard of into innumerable aspects of the Triple Goddess, who is the moon.  She is also five-fold and nine-fold--in fact there are few numbers and fewer animals that are not sacred to her and symbolic of some aspect of her.  Gods get the same treatment: Bran is Saturn (but not Cronos!), Arawn is Mercury, and so on, but eventually they are all condensed down into a twin-god that is the Goddess' lover and child.

Graves came right out and said that all his insight, the whole book, came from...poetic inspiration and intuition. He knows he's right about all of it because it all fits together, and also he set himself a riddle (the 666 one from Revelation) and solved it in a whole new way. Then he narrated a dream-vision he had in which two ancient Greco-Romans conversed about the meaning of the Pelops myth, Pallas Athena, and the Christian fish symbol.

That's the thesis, pretty much, of the book.  Graves wanders all over the place for his material, so it's a very diffuse book and I found it difficult to pick a clear argument out of all the stuff.   And just about everyone* read this book--a lot of them thought it was fabulous.  There are clear echoes of Graves'  White Goddess theories in a lot of 20th-century fantasy, and he was hugely influential in the whole area of Celtic lore.  Susan Cooper outright lifted some of the poetry for her Dark is Rising sequence.

Now, do not think that Graves thinks that the days of Goddess-worship were all peaceful and lovely.  No.  There was a lot of blood and killing.   But Goddess-worship is way better anyway, and Europeans, having some sort of genetic or cultural memory that has lasted millennia, will never be happy or satisfied until they go back to it.

Oh, and he's very irritating about quotations and attributions.  He tosses off all these statements but gives no proper attributions, so you can't  track them down.  Somewhere near the beginning, he quoted Giraldus Cambrensis' book on Wales--the one I just read--and the passage was familiar to me, but I couldn't find it without practically re-reading the whole book--and I knew which book it was!  Graves certainly didn't tell.  There are no footnotes whatsoever (a point of pride for Graves) and you're on your own if you want to find anything.

There are so many quotations that are just gold (often comedy gold), I can't put them all in.  You should see all the little sticky marks sticking out of my copy.  Here are a few:

It will be objected that man has as valid a claim to divinity as woman. That is true only in a sense; he is divine not in his singular person, but only in his twinhood. As Osiris, the Spirit of the Waxing Year he is always jealous of his weird, Set, the Spirit of the Waning Year, and vice-versa; he cannot be both of them at once except by an intellectual effort that destroys his humanity...and this is the fundamental defect of the Apollonian or Jehovistic cult. Man is a demi-god: he always has either one foot or the other in the grave; woman is divine because she can keep both her feet always in the same place, whether in the sky, in the underworld, or on this earth. Man envies her and tells himself lies about his own completeness, and thereby makes himself miserable; because if he is divine she is not even a demi-goddess -- she is a mere nymph and his love for her turns to scorn and hate.
Woman worships the male infant, not the grown man: it is evidence of her deity, of man's dependence on her for life. She is passionately interested in grown men, however, because the love-hate that Osiris and Set feel for each other on her account is a tribute to her divinity. She tries to satisfy both, but can only do so by alternate murder, and man tries to regard this as evidence of her fundamental falsity, not of his own irreconcilable demands on her.

 The result of the test [666 riddle] satisfied me, and I hope will satisfy others, that I had not slid into certifiable paranoia.
The revolutionary institution of fatherhood, imported into Europe from the East, brought with it the institution of individual marriage. Hitherto there had been only group marriages of all female members of a particular totem society with all members of another; every child's maternity was certain, but its paternity debatable and irrelevant. Once this revolution had occurred, the social status of woman altered: man took over many of the sacred practices from which his sex had debarred him, and finally declared himself head of the household, though much property still passed from mother to daughter. This second stage, the Olympian stage, necessitated a change in mythology.

 Hymns addressed to the Thunder-God [any male god], however lavishly they may gild him in Sun-god style--even Skelton's magnificent Hymn to God the Father--fail as poems, because to credit him with illimitable and unrestrained power denies the poet's inalienable allegiance to the Muse; and because though the Thunder-god has been a jurist, logician, declamator and prose-stylist, he has never been a poet or had the least understanding of true poems since he escaped from his Mother's tutelage.
...true poets do not find it consistent with their integrity to follow Virgil's example.

..woman is not a poet; she is either a Muse or she is nothing. This is not to say that a woman should refrain from writing poems; only, that she should write as a woman, not as if she were an honorary man...[she] should, I believe, either be a silent Muse and inspire the poets by her womanly presence...or she should be in turn Arianrhod, Blodeuwedd, and the Old Sow who eats her farrow...
The religious concept of free choice between good and evil, which is common to Pythagorean philosophy and prophetic Judaism, developed from a manipulation of the tree-alphabet. In the primitive cult of the Universal Goddess, to which the tree-alphabet is the guide, there was no room for choice...

*I do mean everyone, including the Doctor, since Graves calls time "an unaccountable wibble-wobble" !

Monday, April 6, 2015

R. U. R.

R. U. R. by Karel Capek

I was really looking forward to reading this play.  I have a collection of four Capek plays here and plan to read them all; they sound intriguing.  I first got hooked by R. U. R., when I found out that not only did it introduce the word and concept of robot* to the world, it also invented the robot apocalypse!

The story is that Reason's Universal Robots is a successful company that produces robots--mostly-organic workers with limited intellect and no will or emotion who are grown and constructed.  The owner dreams of a day when there will be such abundance in the world that there will be no poor and no-one will have to work hard for a living--the robots will do it all.

Lady Helen, young and elegant, comes to visit on an ideological crusade to educate the robots; she feels certain that if they are treated well and taught, they will be people.  She is disappointed to find that the robots are totally unresponsive to emotional persuasion and don't understand what she wants.  But she stays to marry one of the directors.

Years later, there are robots all over the earth, but the consequences for people aren't as idyllic as hoped.  And a change has been introduced into the robots' design...

It's a neat play and I'd love to see it performed.  Nearly a hundred years after Capek wrote it, R. U. R. is still an interesting meditation on the purpose of life and the implications of technology.

*In case anybody ever needs you to know this, it wasn't Karel who invented the word; it was his brother Josef, who often wrote with him.  Robot comes from the Russian for work, which is pronounced rabotaRabotnik would be 'worker.'

The Classics Club Spin Number...

Is 2!

Therefore, I shall be reading Chaim Potok's My Name is Asher Lev.  I'm very excited!  I have no real idea what the novel is about, besides the obvious, but I enjoyed The Chosen very much and have been wanting to read more Potok. 

I suppose it's a little ironic that I loaded my slate up with long, difficult books and got the one title that will probably be a relatively fast read. 

Hope the rest of you Spinners got a good one too!

It was a good thing I checked for the Spin result fairly early this morning.  Just afterwards, the power went out...for hours.  An insulator at a large power station blew and the whole county went dark.  All is now well, but I'm glad I remembered to check before that happened!

Meanwhile, in other news, I've chosen to read Dr. Wortle's School for Anthony Trollope's 200th anniversary.  I also have the first Palliser novel, in case I suddenly get loads of time.  Dr. Wortle's School is in fact going very quickly and I'm loving it so it could happen.

I've also been trying to pick out some Romantic literature for Fanda's challenge.  I took a look through my Norton's and thought I'd read...some Blake that isn't Songs of Innocence and Experience, and a short story by Sir Walter Scott, and maybe some other things.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Essay on Man

Alexander Pope
The Essay on Man, by Alexander Pope

For Fanda's Literary Movements challenges, I wanted to read something else Enlightenment-style before moving on to the Romantics.  I decided to read Alexander Pope's poem, The Essay on Man.

Pope was known as a writer, but the Essay established him as a philosophical poet as well.  He wanted to express his theory of Man's place in the universe.  This is a long poem, divided into four parts, each tackling a different side of the question, and of course it is written in Pope's trademark heroic couplets.  (I'm always amazed at how much the poets of this period managed to produce in just one poetic form.  Then everybody got completely and utterly sick of heroic couplets and we hardly ever see them again, except in bad amateur schmaltzy poetry.)  It was to have been quite a bit longer and cover more material, but that never happened.

The first epistle is the most famous and makes the argument that God and the universe are good, that Man's place in it is the right one, and that "whatever IS, is RIGHT."  Human beings are not clever enough to be able to design a better universe, but are prideful and foolish enough to think they could.  There are a lot of lines in here that are generally familiar, including my favorite joke of the piece:
Why has not man a microscopic eye?
For this plain reason, man is not a fly.
And ending the epistle with
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled;
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!
The second epistle asserts that man can attain a virtuous life if Reason controls the passions, and contains a passage still quoted today:
Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
As, to be hated, needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.
The third deals with man in society, and the fourth with happiness and virtue.

Pope's optimistic philosophic poem was very popular all over Europe.  The ideas in the poem were not original; they were all current and popular in Enlightenment thought.  Voltaire, Rousseau, and Kant all thought it was great. Voltaire later changed his mind and wrote his satire Candide to counter these optimistic arguments, putting a rather mindless version of them into the mouth of Pangloss. 

It's probably easy to dismiss this optimism stuff as clueless blundering, but considering Pope's extremely difficult personal circumstances, I think it's pretty impressive that he thought so well of the universe.  Pope was no stranger to suffering, and he was no pampered aristocrat.  He was Catholic in England at a time when Catholics had few rights, and he was of middle-class origins--he became wealthy through his writing.  Having suffered tuberculosis of the spine as a child, he was less than five feet tall and had severe skeletal malformations along with many lifelong health problems.  In this state, he found it difficult to be taken seriously or to attract women.  That would be enough to embitter anyone, and certainly he had a fund of bitterness; but he also espoused this philosophy of optimism and became famous all over Europe for his work.

I enjoyed the Essay years ago when it was required reading in college, and I thought it would be fun to revisit it.  I had forgotten that I'd only read the first book and part of the second (oh, Norton anthology, how much you have to answer for), so I downloaded the whole thing and made sure to read all of it this time.  I enjoyed it again, and it put me in the mood to read all sorts of other things in my anthology...but then life intervened and I was lucky to get to read the whole Essay.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Upcoming events: a bunch of cool stuff!

There are some fun things coming up in April and May....

Lory at Emerald City Book Review had the brilliant idea of hosting an Elizabeth Goudge Reading Week!  This is fabulous news to Goudge fans like me.  I don't know whether to re-read an old favorite, or track down one I haven't read yet, or why not do...both?  Head on over to Lory's place and see if you can find an Elizabeth Goudge title to enjoy!

And all of April will be Anthony Trollope Month, for Karen at Books and Chocolate is hosting a 200th birthday party for him!  I love Trollope and would very much like to be in on this event, but I've also discovered that I may have a little trouble getting the book I want in time.  I've put a hold on it though, so wish me luck.

In May, Cleo at Classical Carousel will be hosting a month-long readalong of Beowulf This will give us all plenty of time to read it carefully--it's not that long--and I think I will read the new Tolkien prose edition, which has been waiting patiently by my bedside for me.  I've read the Heaney version a couple of times already, and I may do it again, but I also have a different poetic translation around here that I might try.  Because, why not enjoy ALL the Beowulf

I certainly hope I can participate in all of these.  Because they are all fantastic.  Yay for book bloggers!

The Zhivago Affair

The Zhivago Affair: the Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book, by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee

The novel Dr. Zhivago has an amazing history!  Boris Pasternak was a beloved Russian poet, and he had this tendency to slither out of committing himself to Soviet demands.  He would fail to sign denunciations and so on, but Stalin kind of liked him anyway so he was relatively safe for a long time.  When Pasternak decided to write a novel about the civil war after the Bolshevik revolution, though, and he was putting in all this stuff about the value of the individual, Soviet authorities decided that they were not going to publish anything like that.  As a result, this highly-anticipated masterwork was smuggled out of the USSR (in a move of incredible slickness and luck) and published abroad.  And then the CIA decided to publish it too!

This is a really interesting history, covering Pasternak's life (and many loves), reactions to Dr. Zhivago, the Nobel Prize that sort of wasn't, and the consequences inflicted on Pasternak and his loved ones.  It's good stuff.

 Pasternak himself is quite a character, though he must have been pretty awful to live with.  Apparently he was incredibly charming, but on the other hand, he went through two wives and a mistress, and he was a little too assured of his own genius for that to be very charming. 

I had no idea of the stuff the CIA got up to during the Cold War.  That was fascinating reading, and worth reading all on its own.  They had figured out that they couldn't do anything terribly overt (like, say, saving oppressed Hungarians) without sparking a nuclear war, so they put an incredible amount of energy into...spreading ideas.  The CIA printed and smuggled as many books behind the Iron Curtain as they could--classic and modern literary works--because Soviet citizens were avid for them, and because the CIA wanted to spread ideas around.  Any ideas that involved the possibility for people to disagree and yet live together.  It also sponsored cultural events of all kinds, and ran Radio Free Europe and so on.  (I'm sure there was plenty of spying too, but this was focused on cultural stuff.)

I enjoyed reading this a lot.  And to finish, my favorite line:
...the conversation seemed to achieve the remarkable feat of leaving Trotsky a little flabbergasted.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Classics Spin #9!

Hooray, it's time for another Classics Spin!  Head on over and take a look at the rules.  The goal is to read the chosen title by May 15.  And...this time I decided to stuff my list with the giant scary chunksters.  Not all of them are giant and scary, but really quite a lot of them are. This does mean that there's a good chance I won't be able to finish my title by the deadline, but what is life without a little danger?
  1. Henry James, 1902, The Wings of the Dove.
  2.  Chaim Potok, 1972, My Name is Asher Lev.
  3. Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made.  
  4. Venerable Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
  5. On the Origin of Species, Darwin (1859)
  6. Elizabeth Gaskell, Ruth.  
  7. Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks
  8. Thomas Mann, Germany, 1924. The Magic Mountain.
  9. Gunter Grass, The Tin Drum
  10. Grimmelhausen, Simplicissimus
  11. Feodor Dostoevsky, Russia, Brothers Karamazov
  12. Junichio Tanizaki, Japan, 1943. The Makioka Sisters
  13. VS Naipul, Trinidad, 1979. A Bend in the River 
  14. Mario Vargas Llosa, The Time of the Hero
  15. Ibn Khaldun, Tunis, 1375. Muqaddimah.
  16. Murasaki Shikubu, Japan, ca. 990.The Tale of Genji (abridged). 
  17. Thomas Mokopu Mofolo, Chaka
  18. Solzhenitsyn, 1974, The Gulag Archipelago. (abridged)
  19. Anthony Trollope, 1865, Can You Forgive Her?
  20. “Why We Can’t Wait,” Martin Luther King Jr.       
Some of these are also on my TBR 2015 list.  Some are just sitting on my shelf, waiting to be read, without an official TBR challenge status.  And with one or two, I'm not quite sure yet how I'll get them....

Roll those dice!

DWJ March Wrapup Post

I can't believe March is over, and with it our lovely DWJ event, and I've hardly participated at all.  I've had pretty good reasons for falling off the face of the earth lately, and I'm not sure I'll be posting a ton anytime soon, but I do have a huge pile of books to talk about!  And I happily read several DWJ titles in March:

Cart and Cwidder

Black Maria

The Islands of Chaldea

Conrad's Fate


I'm kind of sad that I didn't talk about all of these as much as I would have liked to, but there you go, that's life.  Instead of regretting what I couldn't do, I'll look forward to next March!