Sic transit fabulae :(

One of my favorite childhood legends is the story of Jews who wanted to make the world feel the pain of Holocaust viscerally, and so planned to poison a small German town, but gave up this plan because they would not become murderers of children.

Turns out it’s not true. Nakam (Vengeance) did exist, but their goal was not education, and they did plan to poison the water of Nuremberg which is not quite a small town, and most importantly they were stopped by the British, and some of them kept working towards revenge for years afterward, which, of course, is not quite a lofty ethical decision to restrain from murder.

It’s bitterly ironic that the best poem I can think of today on the subject is by Taha Muhammad Ali. And no, I’m not setting up an equivalence of acts, but assuming a similarity of feeling.

Rachel Neumeier

Just finished Winter of Ice and Iron and four books in the Tuyo series – Tuyo, Tarashana, Keraunani, and Tasmakat and can now say that I know enough about this author to not read her books again. Her world-building is really good, and she answers all the more obvious questions that occur to one when reading, but her plots have a few too many author ex machina episodes and her character building relies on submission, punishment acceptance, rape threats, and quivering helplessness a bit more than I like in adventure stories.

Take, for instance Winter of Ice and Iron. Within a very interestingly conceived system of magic, in the high, cold, dark mountains lives the Wolf Duke.

The Wolf Duke is tall and dark. He wears black. He rides a black horse. He had a tragic childhood and did not know a mother’s love. He commands wolves. He is indifferent to personal danger. He is feared and admired by his vassals. He protects his land and his people from an Evil Mad King. He exercises great restraint to never torture or rape women or loyal retainers.

His repeated interaction with loyal retainers is to make them kneel, allow his eyes to linger all over their desirable rough-hewn masculinity, caress their manly throats, cup their soldierly faces full of strong character, smile coldly and give them permission to leave. Unless, of course, they prefer to stay and be commanded, which for some reason they never do.

I feel this would be a better book if they stayed, and possibly an even better movie, but instead the Wolf Duke makes do with criminals and enemy soldiers until he’s saved by the Love of a Good Woman. At her demand he quickly kills the prisoner he’s been raping and torturing, gets dressed, writes a poem, and submits to her brother, the Good Intellectual King.

This allows them to quickly defeat the Evil Mad King and his horror magic that’s been threatening to destroy the world. To make the ending completely happy the Intellectual King generously decides not to kill the Duke after the battle because his sister (the Good Woman) confesses her abiding love for her husband.

The sentence

Just finished The Sentence by Louise Erdrich. Despite some reviews it’s not “a love letter to readers and booksellers” (or anyone else) nor “a wickedly funny ghost story” or any other kind of funny.

It’s An Important Book, the kind high school teachers tend to assign when they want their students to Consider And Discuss Social Issues. If I were to teach English in 2050 (highly unlikely) I’d assign it. If I was a Modern History teacher I would probably assign it as well – it’s A Mirror of Our Time.

Sure, none of that makes a good sales pitch, but that’s ok. It really is the real thing, a book one may want to re-read even again and again even though it’s not fun, a book to think about and to change one’s views. I really wish I could discuss this book in a high school classroom – sit in a circle, be angry, exclaim my opinion, debate the opinions of others. Book clubs are not the same – one is an adult, constrained by convention, politeness, wariness, kindness. This book is steak and potatoes – good heavy food that takes some tasting. I got used to chocolate cake and sushi and internalizing the Sentence feels odd, like remembering an old skill.

It’s not really even about ghosts. There is a ghost, and multiple stories of other ghosts, but it’s really just there for the plot. There are also Events – will Tookie forgive her husband? Will her husband survive? Will her daughter like her, ever? What will happen with the baby’s father? Who wins the elections in 2020? and those aren’t important either, although the plot is good, and tight, and unpredictable.

Mostly the Sentence is about living in the world where your ancestors lost. One could say it’s the opposite of the modern Jewish experience – after all, we’d reached the semi-finals. Maybe Josephus, who failed to commit suicide, and passed to his children the name Flavius, and persistently married Jewish women would have understood Tookie (main character) better than I do (they would hate each other). Everyone in the book lives with raw places, constant reminders of their loss, constant insults – in lack of thought and even worse in thoughtless kindness.

It’s also about what 2019 and 2020 were like – with the pandemic, and the riots, and the bitter sense of something broken. Not for me, of course – if it was maybe I wouldn’t have wanted to read about it, but for many who aren’t me. Checking my privilege – it’s still right here, uff.

My pandemic experience was not like Tookie’s. It was almost lovely – we were prepared, together, in the best place possible and while I’m good at being anxious I’m terrible at being afraid. I felt useful. There was that feeling of floating in amber, every day much like another, but none actually bad. I joked (mainly to myself) that I’d have been perfectly happy to have this continue forever if only people weren’t dying all the time. Tookie was rightly horrified. Her world caved in. I know that most other people were horrified as well, but a good book is much more real than all the newspaper articles.

My riot time passed almost unnoticed – I was busy handling the pandemic. I was outraged, and cynical, and hated myself for being cynical because of how un-American that cynicism feels, especially when one considers it as realism. I felt the cracks in my American Dream, but it was not as important as staying indoors right now and making sure the basement was stocked up. Tookie never had an American dream at all, for her George Floyd’s murder was just that thing that always happens and always hurts. She was also much closer to the tear gas. Her riots were real and right there.

This book was important and good for me to read because it’s as much Not About Me as it’s possible for a novel about a middle-class woman my age living as an ordinary good person in America to be. It’s much more a different world from mine than most fantasy I read, but it’s real and it’s around me.

The Sentence does have likeable, interesting, and believable characters. And a good, well-twisted plot. And well crafted writing. And just enough throw-away side stories that leave one wanting to know more. These will probably contribute to my re-reading the Sentence, but mainly it’ll be about the alienness and the needing to stop and think through my emotional response to the characters’ view. I like books that make me do this.

Новогодние привидения

I always have trouble finding this post by Anna Kozlova, so I’m putting it here. It’s one of those “more true than reality” things and always makes me cry. Of course, it’s not just NY cooking – the ghosts are always with us, and we do so many other things because of them.

“Не в Хэллоуин в прекрасной нашей Родине духи мертвых выходят из могил, а в Новый год.

Зла в них нет, но присутствует та зловещая иррациональность, которая вдруг бросает неглупую, очень занятую городскую женщину около сорока к плите вечером 30 декабря.

И пусть думает, глупышка, что в новогоднюю ночь с ней только муж и дети, и парочка близких друзей, но на самом деле в гостиной будет не протолкнуться.

Зачем ты, женщина, ставишь на плиту пятилитровую кастрюлю с картошкой на оливье? Кто сожрет столько оливье? Ты? Твой муж? Да вы не помните, когда последний раз чипсы ели, весь год на рисе и курятине, салатике из огурца и сельдерея! Какой оливье, опомнись!

Но это ведь мертвая прабабушка, Полина Дормидонтовна, стоит у тебя за плечом и шепчет: еще клади, милая, еще картошки, много картошки – хорошо, люблю картошечку!

Этот шепот вводит в транс, за ним – голод, мрак, война. Дай же прабабушке картошечки, не жалей ее, пятьдесят рублей килограмм стоит, не семнадцатый, чай, год.

А что ж, думает женщина, только оливье и селедка под шубой из азбуки вкуса?..

Качают мертвыми головами предки, озадаченные таким неласковым приемом.

И пробивается сквозь толпу, занявшую всю кухню, прабабушка с другой стороны, Цицилия Иосифовна, сгинувшая в лагере.

Может, курочки? – спрашивает тихо.

Да почему же и нет?! – бедная женщина бросается в инстаграм, прямо в омут видеоблогов кавказских жен, которые меньше, чем на тридцать человек, в принципе не готовят.

И пожалуйста вам, Цицилия Иосифовна!

Гуся не желаете, а?

Или утку в апельсиновой глазури с карамелизированным яблоком джанаголд в попке? После оливье-то как пойдет!

И картошечки к ней! – намекает осмелевшая уже Полина Дормидонтовна.

Коварен инстаграм, ведь сразу за уткой и джанаголдом от Мадины-нальчик следует полуметровой высоты наполеон, с любовью приготовленный мамой Этери: всех с наступающим, девочки, делайте, не пожалеете, а мне не забудьте подарить сердечко!

Ох, наполеончика бы… – вздыхает дедушкин братик, умерший в блокаду.

А как не накормить ребенка?! Как не броситься в круглосуточный магазин за килограммом масла, чтобы щедро приготовить, от души, чтобы в полтретьего ночи внести наполеончик в комнату к счастливцам, уже отведавшим оливье, селедку под шубой и утку от Мадины?

Ну, а дальше все – беспамятство, темная ночь, петушиные крики.

Тарталетки с муссом из красной рыбы и сливочного сыра!

Язык!

Хрен!

Икра, как можно было забыть!

И вот когда икра, расталкивает, наконец, всех этих обжорок прадедушка с Дона.

Рубанув рукой горячий от утки воздух, сообщает: водки!

Нету водки! – в ужасе понимает женщина.

Нету водки, последний раз водку-то в шестнадцать пила, в подъезде, с кокаколой.

Но старик крепок, он не пойдет на ламбруско и шардоне со льдом, это женщине совершенно понятно, и она хватает телефон, звонит мужу и говорит: знаешь, я тут подумала, надо все-таки водки купить.

А муж, что пробивается по пробкам из Ашана, и в машине у него расположились тетя из Элисты, дедушка-поляк и двоюродный дядя Рубен, добродушно ей говорит: а я купил, знаешь… вот как будто торкнуло что-то у витрины с водкой, две бутылки взял, всем хватит!”

Naked emperors

Victoria Goddard’s new novellette, Game of Courts, is about Cavalier Conju enazo Argellian an Vilius, the Emperor’s chief personal attendant. It is lovely and sensitive and his viewpoint is extremely distinct from Cliopher s. Mdang’s – a hard thing to do for any author, let alone an author with a strong and beloved character right there in the same book.

Conju is in love (explicitly) with the Emperor. Cliopher is in love (to his own surprise, he thought it was a whole lot of other things) with the Emperor. So is the Moon and a lot of other minor characters.

Of course this makes me think about why an admired leader must also be a desired person.

Vespasian: Sacellum Augustali
Naked Vespasian

Of course there are half-naked pictures of Putin and Trump, as well, but Vespasian is somewhat less ugly. And yes, I know that Vespasian’s nakedness is supposed to be heroic, not sexual, but the sexiness is definitely there. I think the viewer is very much supposed to realize that kneeling to the Might of Rome may not be all that bad.

The funny thing is that I can’t remember any naked Great Leaders in Europe between Rome and Putin (except Napoleon, see update). Both Hitler and Stalin appeared fully clothed in every portrait I’ve ever seen, so did the British and Russian monarchs. In fact, the only Western Naked Great Leader I can think of is Washington.

His statues, of course, appeal to the Romans and bypass the centuries of Christianity. Perhaps the conclusion one may draw from seeing Trump’s and Putin’s nipples is that they are post-Christian.

Update: I am wrong, and badly wrong. Of course there was a Great Naked Leader in Europe, and it was Napoleon.

This is Napoleon as Mars the Peacekeeper by Canova, 3.5 meters tall and very impressive. This photo is of a copy from his Napoleon’s mother’s house in Rome. The original was sold by the reinstated French monarchy to the British, who gave it to Wellington as a gift. Wellington put it (all 3.45m) under the stairs in his house and used it as an umbrella stand.

Shortly afterward a group of English women commissioned a statue of Wellington a full meter higher, which I sincerely look forward to seeing when I’m in Hyde Park. Wellington, however, was not a ruler and so does not really fit into the theme of this post.

The Mysteries

Finally read Bill Watterson’s and John Kascht’s new book. I can see why it took them years – it’s beautifully drawn in a Breigel/German fashion. On the same page some things (e. g. the background) can feel like a misty watercolor, others like a still shot from a plasticine cartoon, and others like a photograph. It’s unsettling, dark, and hopeless – again like German’s Hard To Be A God.

It’s very good, but I wish it had been very different, and I wish Bill Watterson was happy enough to make a different book. Unfortunately, he seems to be a realist.

Quote of the day

I remind you, oh my son William, beautiful and adorable, that among your mundane concerns of this world, you take care lest you fail to acquire a great number of books

Dhuoda of Uzès with thanks to Dr. Bret C. Devereaux  whose blog is absolutely fascinating

Stranger Times

Reading CK McDonnell’s Stranger Times short stories “In Other News” because I love this guy’s writing more than I hate stories about vampires. So far there’s been one Pratchett reference per story, but maybe I’m missing some.

TIL Benét

Apparently Stephen Vincent Benét (of the David and Daniel Webster) was freaking prescient. He published Into Egypt in 1929 and it reads like something published in 1943 at the earliest, more like 1946+.

Washington, DC 7

As much as National Children’s Museum was a disappointment Planet Word was an unexpected delight. My expectations of it were low, 3/5 – but Younger Kid put it as a 5 and Older Kid as a 4, besides it was two blocks away from the hotel. I feel very lucky that we went there and will come back again if I can. Planet Word is a museum dedicated to words and language, and it’s absolutely beautiful inside and outside.

One enters through a courtyard with a lit tree and a statue of someone that seems to be trying to pull themselves together out of letters. I’m not sure whether this is what the sculptor intended, but it’s an image that I can really identify with (yes, the dangling participle just here is ironic).

The tree was not lit when we came, but as we were leaving we saw the first few lamps turned on.

Inside there are three floors and one starts at the top. The first room contains a lit globe surrounded by tablets, each containing short videos by language carriers about their language. I must have been very tired, because I became a bit teary-eyed at the explanation of how to say some simple thing in Amharic.

The most interesting things I learned are that Miriwoong (one of the 250ish Native Australian languages) has not words for hello and good bye, but only “How are you”, that Wolof speakers in Senegal do not refer to anything as “mine” if they can plausibly call it “ours”, and that Senegalese in general are so reluctant to talk about their accomplishments that each family has a designated praise giver, whose job it is to bring up the achievements of family members as needed.

Next is an interactive video played against a wall of 1,000 most common English words, talking about where they came from (1/3 each Saxon, Norman, and borrowed apparently, I assume not enough remains of the Celtic languages to count). An interesting factoid from the video is that teenage girls have been the most active new word inventors since the 15th century at least, and are responsible for introducing “you” instead of “thou” and “does” instead of “doth”. It’s a relatively simple video – a disembodied voice talks, audience shouts answers into microphones, the voice either says “yes, the answer is” or “no, the answer is”, visuals are spare (fire, water, animal silhouettes) but the whole is very beautiful. In fact “simple and beautiful” really defines Planet Word.

Another fun fact – apparently there’s no agreement on how many words English has, because there’s no agreement on how to count words like “run”, which has 345ish definitions

The second floor is where I’d stay forever. It starts with a quiet library – color-coordinated books, mirrors in the ceiling, a table for coloring and a center table on which one can place a book from the shelf and see played out on top of it a short video explaining the book or telling some interesting story about how it came to be written. One of the library walls is actually a secret door, leading to a small quiet room with a couch where one can sit and listen to poetry being read out loud and shown on a screen. Here is that door seen from the inside.

Walls of the library are inset with large mirrors in gilded frames. Underneath each one is a quote from a book that, when said out loud by someone without an accent (I drafted Younger Kid) temporarily transforms the mirror into a diorama from the book while another disembodied voice continues the quote. Each diorama is in a different style and range of material (e. g. The Little Prince is an all-white globe with paper cut-outs inside), all are remarkably beautiful, and many quite realistic, but it’s very hard to make a good photograph of a mirror, so, unfortunately, I can only show two.

Besides the beautiful library there is a purple room devoted to karaoke, a yellow room (I want a yellow room. Preferably one where I can drink tea in the morning) all about jokes and how to tell them, and a green room in which kids can dip brushes into adjective pails and alter a virtual landscape on the wall by painting over it. For instance “autumnal” turned the leaves yellow and “crepuscular” introduced twilight.

The bottom floor had a spiral exhibition on ads and the techniques they use, stories of language and a room to record one’s own story, and a gift shop where I was surprised to learn that Older Kid prefers Wizard of Oz to Harry Potter (yes, that same HP that they’ve been reading non-stop for the last 4 years), and the Phantom Tollbooth to both. I read the Phantom Tollbooth in either Odessa or Moscow as a kid, and remember almost nothing except that I liked it and the word “cacophony”. Will have to re-read.

Younger Kid requested and received a manual on writing jokes for kids and a book about the history of punctuation marks. Can’t wait to see whether he’ll read these. Right now he’s reading a biography of Michael Jordan, acquired as part of his search for gifts for Older Kid (they got a cupcake cookbook in that particular store).

Books Read

  1. Emma – Emotional Load and Mental Load. These two books were exactly as I expected based on reading the comics online – unpleasantly on-point when it comes to gender and disturbingly at variance with my assumptions and beliefs when it comes to economics (she’s very socialist). That, of course, makes them very worth reading and thinking about. The biggest surprise was that Youngest Kid read both with apparent interest, which is not what one would expect of a boy his age. My future DIL has much to be grateful for (not that I’d tell her, of course). Here’s Emma’s best-known comic
  2. Chinelo Anyadiegwu – Igbo Mythology For Kids. Probably the nicest mythology book I’ve ever read and the only one that can be given to children without parental supervision. The author believes that mythology is alive and that telling it in their own way is ok. I don’t really believe that traditional Igbo mythology is all that tolerant towards non-cis-hetero people, but it’s nice to have a mythology book that is. Mythology books don’t normally have parents that are good within my definition of good parenting – it’s nice to have one that does. It’s also nice to have a mythology book that successfully tries to give an idea of the society to which the myths belong. For instance, the characters don’t just “go to market” – they start at a specific time for an explained reason, walk along a specific path with an explained group of other people, see detailed and explained things along the way… my favorite! I wouldn’t say I know anything about life in Southeastern Nigeria based on this book, but I know slightly less nothing, and there’s a solid basis there for enriching exploration. I’m really happy I bought this and signed up for author alerts.
  3. Dave Eggers – Eyes and the Impossible. Another lovely book. Can be given to kids with no supervision, can be used as relaxation reading, can just be held and admired because it’s published with an excessive gorgeousness that’s sensual verging on sexual. It was particularly pleasant to slowly realize the action happens in Golden Gate park but during a decade when I was nearby but entirely unaware of it. It is really tempting to compare Eyes and the Impossible to Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, which is why I almost didn’t buy it – but the wood! the liquid gold edge! the smooth creamy paper! the illustrations! It’s not at all like that. It even has a foreword that says it isn’t like that. It’s more like Seton Thompson or Bianki, but without the hopelessness and cruelty. Signed up for author alerts and updated the library list.
  4. Richard C. Morais – The Hundred-Foot Journey. It’s… a book. About cooking and immigration from India, written by someone who neither cooked, nor immigrated, nor spent time in India. It carefully hits all the right buttons. It adds nothing whatsoever to my knowledge of either India or haute cuisine, probably because the author read all the same books as me. I got it because of an endorsement on the back by Anthony Bourdain, and I can definitely see why he liked it – Morais repeats many of his opinions.
  5. Caimh McDonnell – McGarry Stateside. So far the author is a few books ahead of me, but I’m gaining steadily. Definitely re-readable from any point in the series, and I really look forward to watching the TV series

Another awesome day

Woke up to a hot breakfast (two dishes! fancy eggs and sandwich), tea, cleaned counter, unloaded dishwasher, cute notes, and a pom-pom on my spot courtesy of the kids.

Took a nice relaxing bath with a fun book (Disaster Inc, Caimh McDonnell) and bubbles in a cleaned bathroom.

Arranged and hang two more memories frames, in that blank spot over the couch that’s been annoying me ever since last October-ish when the construction stopped and I started doing Zoom meetings on the couch (really Skype and Telegram, but who’s counting).

Put some stickers onto the cat shelf over my head because taking it down and covering it in wall paper is more work than I feel like doing.

Got a light crafting project going – exciting.

Am listening to a fascinating class by Linor Goralik on costume and just heard a great story: Apparently during the Meiji period Japan started electrifying far-off regions. The effect was about the same as it is for cell towers – people got worried in inverse proportion to education levels. There were stories that electrical wires must be painted with the blood of virgins. As a direct response unmarried women all over rural Japan started to blacken their teeth, at great expense, to look married in case an electrician comes by (before electricity only married women blackened their teeth).

Life is good.

Dublin Trilogy

Got to book 6, Firewater Blues, of the Dublin Trilogy by Caimh McDonnell and it’s unexpectedly laugh-out-loud hilarious, unlike the previous books, which are exciting and re-readable, but not more than mildly funny. Oddly, I remember a few of them, which means I must have read the book series out of order at some point. I wonder what was going on that made me do that.

The main character, Bunny McGarry would be a stereotypical Good Strong Man if he didn’t go in so heavily for political correctness (I love every single time he teaches people that being shitty to women and minorities is not nice) and wasn’t so well and pleasantly written.

My personal issue with Good Strong Men in books and movies is that most of them would be dangerous to me in real life. Bunny McGarry might not actually love me as a person if he met me (or, in fact, notice) but he would definitely be safe, and knowing that allows me to relax and enjoy the books.

Favorite anti-Semites

Mine are definitely Georgette Heyer and Shakespeare. I quit Saki and Dorothy Sayers but still regret them. Heyer and Shakespeare I’ll probably never quit, although I don’t give Heyer to my kids.

Thought about this because I tried to watch New Ohio Theatre’s Shylock and the Shakespeareans last week on Vimeo. It was good. So good, in fact, that I couldn’t get past the first act and it still irks me like a splinter a week later. If they keep it online I may try to get back to it, or just watch the end, for closure.

It’s not-quite-a-remake of the Merchant of Venice. Separate play about the same events, in a more modern (but equally imaginary) time and place. It’s hilarious (I loved entitled and clueless Portia and her maid) in that instantly-recognizable Jewish “a funny thing happened on the way to the gas chambers” style. Unlike every other modern Merchant of Venice this play leans hard into the anti-Semitism. It’s a play about Shakespeare as anti-Semite and about living with anti-Semitism all around one.

It’s like inhabiting two realities at once – one in which I’m a rich educated white woman in the most liberal place on Earth with all the privileges pertaining to this status, in a world that’s getting more and more liberal (it is, really) every year, AI making the world even more user-friendly, medicine improving, Juneteenth finally a Federal holiday, major scientific advances in clean energy… And another reality in which the Earth is burning, resources are becoming more scarce, and people who literally want to kill me and my kids are more and more powerful and violent.

Switching from one to the other is like switching from the duck to the rabbit, except the rabbit wants to kill you.

This week in YA

Just finished three YAish books (1 and 2 because the Older Kid said so, 3 voluntarily, because I liked the Old Chosen One idea). It’s really refreshing to read about characters that are very much not like myself (i. e. not city people, not Jewish) and at the same time are not fantasy characters, so even though I didn’t love-love any of the three the first two were, at least, interesting.

  1. This Might Get Awkward by Kara McDowell – it is a very model of the modern YA romance. Everyone is Battling Something. Misunderstandings are Conquered Through Open Discussion. Everyone is Actually a Good Person. Bonus points because I got to listen to country music I’d never have come across otherwise and for the author’s obvious love for Lake Powell which is in Arizona and very beautiful. I visited it once, I believe, and have the fondest memories.
  2. Kiss Number 8 by Colleen AF Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw – it is an illustrated novel in my least favorite format (busy black-and-white) about Teenagers Facing Difficult Facts, Testing Friendships, and Discovering Themselves. There’s a lot of angst. The comics are charming (even to me – and I’m very much not a comic person) every character a pleasure to see, and add significantly to the story (in one important passage the picture directly contradicts the text – a really powerful move). Imo the main heroine’s relationship with her mother is insufficiently explored and the change feels unrealistic. I also have a hard time believing that a lawyer’s widow has to wait tables for a living or that, if she does, she can easily spare $30K or that teens brought up to strict Catholicism will not so much as think about Jesus in 300 pages.
  3. The Remarkable Retirement of Edna Fisher by E. M. Anderson – it’s a book about the Chosen One, except the Chosen One is an old lady. Otherwise it’s about par for the course – Edna Fisher Makes Unexpected Friends Along The Way, discovers a surprising ability to wield weapons (badly, but well enough to last more than seconds against a well-trained military man less than half her age), has disabilities that disappear when the plot needs it etc. There are plenty of convenient coincidences -literally everywhere Mrs. Fisher goes there’s a bush with a symphony orchestra concealed inside. She is Chosen to stop mass dragon attacks by wizards that apparently couldn’t care less whether the attacks actually get stopped. It turns out that the attacks are led by former Knights (Knights are a military body that fights Dragons somewhere Out There) that object to what seems to be a level of hazing standard for the Russian army. Their objections include attacking both Knight bases and civilian towns indiscriminately because their Leader has Angst. Of course, when everyone reveals the levels of hazing the Good Leaders are Abhorred. That’s not how hazing was in Their Day. It’s Shameful. That said, approximately 90% of the way into the book the idea that killing unnamed characters is not quite nice begins to be thoroughly explored and the ending has a slight barely-there tint of realism that, unfortunately, prevents it from being fully satisfying to any of the characters. There’s a general feeling of a richer, fascinating world around the characters that the author probably expands in other books.

Recent books read

Just finished: Victoria Goddard’s Clary Sage, a longish short story about how Hal, the Duke of Fillering Pool decides to go to Morrowlea Of The Radically Egalitarian Traditions. Sweet, light, and satisfying. Reminded me of why I liked the Greenwing & Dart series before the religion started getting heavy.

The Particolored Unicorn by Jon DeCles. Came recommended by Katherine Addison, one of my favorite writers (oddly, because Sarah Monette, another pen name of the same person, is very much not). This book has all the things it needs to be hilarious – witty descriptions, great dialogue, plenty of fun references to literary classics (Douglas Adams etc.), charming and wacky characters…

Should be similar to Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds in feel, but is not. Maybe there’s a bit too much of the author’s political views in the book (I mainly agree with those, but including them explicitly is wrong for the genre), or maybe it’s the general air of trying too hard. There is a sequel and I won’t be searching for it 🙁

Thus Was Adonis Murdered by Sarah Cauldwell. Good solid detective story set in Venice and full of charming and wacky characters. Unfortunately, not enough Venice and way too much reliance on complicated lawyer speech for humorous effect. A really good thing, but not my thing, or perhaps I was just too tired to appreciate the language as much as it deserves (and it really, truly, deserves a lot of appreciation).

Drinking Midnight Wine by Simon R. Green – a story of a man in his thirties who has everything – a paid-for house in a charming town near the scenic and historic Bath, a low-effort job in a charming old bookstore that pays for all his necessities, a few buddies he drinks with at the local pubs, and his health.

Yet, he is not content.

His life is empty, lonely, purposeless… He follows a beautiful woman through a mysterious door and becomes a Focal Point, Champion of Humankind, and Important. He also develops a golden tongue and awesome artifact-assisted fighting skills. After a lot of exposition he Saves the World and Gets the Woman of His Dreams.

Good solid example of the genre, the author’s liking for his characters and the rich backstory in his head are obvious and touching, but the main character wakes the cynic in me, and once woken the cynic nitpicks.

Yet another good day

Garden at the Black Bird Bookshop and Cafe

Went to see Sargent in Spain. Legion of Honor often shows non-representative works (e. g. gaunt men by Rubens, or full-length mythological males by Greuze), and this Sargent exhibit was not an exception – not a single socialite! (OK, there was one pre-teen boy, but).

Sargent loved flamenco, so much of the exhibit is flamenco dancers, with paintings accompanied by thoughtful and interesting notes by members of a Roma advisory group. Consequently one learns almost as much about the mode of living of Roma in Spain as one does about Sargent’s ditto.

Some of the notes are merely informative, some are amusing (e. g. the facial expression of the Spanish Roma Woman is said to be difficult to understand, or some words to that effect. I think the difficulty in understanding is due to the lack in English of the words “все достало”. Others are poignant, such as when the notes author addresses the Spanish Roma Family to tell them of his worry that his daughter will not grow up to be Roma.

This speaks to me very directly, because, unless something horrible happens, my children will not grow up to be Jews in the visceral way that I am a Jew. They are aware of their Jewish heritage, but I think it’s no more real to them than the (theoretical) Vikings somewhere up the Russian side of my family tree are to me. To my grandchildren it will probably be even less. I feel that this is a loss, but cannot explain why, or what it is precisely being lost. Certainly I myself do not feel the lack of a visceral attachment to my Slavic heritage as a loss.

Getting back to art, it’s really amazing how much better art is in conveying an experience than realistic representation, how much more real it is than reality. Compare this video of La Carmencita dancing with Sargent’s portrait of La Carmencita dancing – the video does not really let (me, now) understand why her dancing ( to contemporary eyewitnesses) felt “wild” and “breath-taking”, but the second at least gives an idea of the wildness and beauty they experienced.

After Legion of Honor I went to the Black Bird Bookshop, which, besides a most beautiful and peaceful garden, has an unusual and lovely selection of books. I got Igbo Mythology for Kids; Forests, Fairies, and Fungi Sticker Anthology, and an amazingly lovely The Eyes And The Impossible. I don’t even know what it’s about, but I couldn’t put it down.

I have the hardest time resisting beautiful books.

Финист Ясный Сокол

Read “Финист ясный сокол” Светланы Петрийчук. It’s rather clearer than most articles I saw on ISIS wives. The author and director were arrested last week for “propaganda of terrorism”. There is, of course, no propaganda of terrorism in the play, they were arrested for existing in Russia.

The author seems to have meant this as an anti-terrorist play, but to me it reads more like a play about the false lure of abstract ideas. The main character(s) follows Love into the role of the Sacrificing Striving Lover much like one might follow a will-of-the-wisp, and to a similar dirty swampy end. They could have for the same reasons and with the same effect followed Faith, Revenge, Loyalty, Nation… I wonder what the Yahoo Purple Lady is up to now.

Derring-Do for Beginners

Yet another Victoria Goddard novella, just as satisfying and spirit-lifting as I’ve grown to expect. This one is about the youthful meeting of Jullanar not yet of the Sea, Damian not yet Captain of the Red Company (but already probably greatest swordsman in the Nine Worlds), and Fitzroy not yet (as far as I can figure out) Angursell. The links above, btw, lead to the author’s pages with some quotes from the early versions of the story. Both the writing and the story grew significantly better in the years since these were posted.

Damian gets the trademark “his life was sad and his family did not understand him, but Communication, Insight From Relative Strangers, and Serendipity opened their eyes, made his accomplishments clear, and helped him understand his challenges” plot line and Fitzroy is mainly there for comic relief, which means Jullanar’s story is the more interesting one of the three. There is quite a bit of emphasis placed on colonialism and colonial worldview, but as usual the characters are so charming and descriptions are so lovely that some heavy-handedness is easily forgivable. After all, it’s not like Hugo and Gautier didn’t indulge themselves in the same.

Those descriptions, though! Just the colors alone would be enough to make this a perpetual re-read. I can’t wait for Victoria Goddard to reach her deserved level of fame so I can buy the fancy, glossy, fully-illustrated boxed set of the Nine Worlds books.

Good Things This Week

  • I have a really comfortable reading place on the veranda again
  • Victoria Goddard published yet another novella and it’s NOT about making Cliopher Mdang OR Jemis Greenwing Even More Happy And Victorious (not that I’m not eager to find out what amazing things will happen to Cliopher Mdang next)
  • Saw the Anselm Kiefer retrospective at SF MOMA again, this time without kids, with a good friend, and using their audio guide. It’s really hard to look away from his paintings, I keep coming back to them and seeing them in my mind’s eye.
  • Saw Gerhard Richter again (because it’s the same exhibition, yes) – the way he makes oils look like pastels is uncannily beautiful and absolutely mind-blowing in all of the very diverse ways he painted.
  • Had a really good conversation
  • Got started on the craft station. Turns out it’s a whole-family project, which somehow makes it less stressful and more fun. Also, there’s that warm and fuzzy feeling of being supported 🙂
  • Started watching Fall of Civilizations: Han Dynasty by Older Kid’s request. They took notes! It’s really interesting. Will probably listen to the other episodes on Spotify – the video is nice, but I’m a text person.
  • Have I mentioned SF MOMA? Really amazing exhibit on furniture (mainly chairs, a few lamps, very few peculiar objects).
  • Made a super-quick chicken soup that Older Kid actually ate, which is great, because they were sick and didn’t want to eat. Feeling Parentally Accomplished.
  • Singing teacher claims I have a wide and unexplored range. This is going to be fun. Turns out learning things is my hobby – who knew I even had one?
  • Showed kids Oscar. They laughed.

Bea Wolf by Weinersmith/Boulet

Absolutely perfect children’s book. Everything from the size to the dust jacket and paper quality to the illustrations is harmoniously chosen, well-crafted, and worthy of the text.

The illustrations are amazing in themselves. It is weird as it is to read a Weinersmith book that does not look like https://www.smbc-comics.com/. And they also don’t look like https://english.bouletcorp.com/. They are easy to “read”, but very detailed and convey both the innocence of the story at the meta level and the awe, terror, and glory of the story from the inside. The detail level will add to re-reading, I’m sure there will be more and more cool finds every time.

The poem itself is true to the original in the aforementioned awe, terror, and glory as well as in the satisfying use of kennings and alliteration. It’s juicy and fun to read and suitable for children without cutting down on fear and danger. I was dubious that this could be done, and I was wrong to doubt.

Overall a joy, worth many re-reads, and I hope they do the part with Grendel’s mother next.

Ryan North, How to Take Over the World: Practical Schemes and Scientific Solutions for the Aspiring Supervillain

Really good popular science book – clearly written, detailed, with fun illustrations. Guessing that 50% or more of the information will soon be outdated, but the remainder is enough to make it re-readable. On my personal rating scale of: “Avoid everyone who likes anything this person wrote” to “Reread whenever I need a pick-me-up” this is a solid “Re-read pieces when in a hurry”.

Scale:

  1. Avoid everyone who likes anything this person ever wrote
  2. People who like this are suspicious but might be ok
  3. Avoid this author
  4. Avoid this book
  5. No point finishing
  6. Won’t re-read, but it was time well spent
  7. Seek out other books by this author
  8. Might re-read, especially in short pieces
  9. Set aside for re-reading
  10. Re-read regularly
  11. Re-read when sad or tired
  12. Seek out other people who like books by this author

Playing with chatbots

It’s much more fun to give the same prompt to Bing and ChatAI than to either separately. From what I can see so far ChatAI is endearing and nice (probably connected), while Bing is just. darn. mean.

For instance, I asked both to write a simple letter of complaint to a teacher because I don’t trust myself not to tear this particular teacher’s head off. ChatAI came through with something that barely needed to be altered, while Bing’s version was even meaner than my own.

Bing is definitely better than I am at searching – no surprise there. Makes tasks like comparing editions much easier.

Which is why I now know that the Roadside Picnic translation I want is the Bromfield one, despite how much the Folio Society one shocks me with sheer gorgeousness.

LOTR

Finished watching the extended version with the kids today. Together it’s an even better experience. Can’t wait for the new movies (Rise of the Rohirrim in 2024 + whatever unspecified things they’re keeping Peter Jackson updated on “every step of the way”) to come out.