Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Man Who Saved Britain

The Man Who Saved Britain: A Personal Journey Into the Disturbing World of James Bond, by
Simon Winder

Remember a month or so ago, I read and enjoyed Germania?  Well, I happened upon another, earlier Winder title at the public library, and I think it's pretty obvious that if you find a whimsical book about the cultural implications of James Bond, you have to read it.  At least, I do.

Here's the funny part, though: I've never been a Bond fan, and have not seen most of the older movies.  I don't think I've ever watched a whole Connery Bond movie, and I'm pretty sure the only one I've seen all the way through is the terrible Live and Let Die with Roger Moore (it's the one with Jane Seymour in).  I have seen some of the newer Daniel Craig films -- for some reason I've seen Casino Royale three times, why? -- but I haven't searched them out or anything.  I think Daniel Craig looks like a chimpanzee.  My Bond knowledge is therefore extremely patchy, to the point that I had not realized that Donald Pleasence's frequent appearances as an evil super-villain in some of my favorite B-movies stem from his role as the original blueprint evil super-villain in Bond films.  So I learned a whole lot about James Bond here -- more than anyone really wants to know.

Winder is about ten years older than I am and was the perfect age to grow up obsessed with Bond films, just like every other boy in the UK, despite the fact that by then Roger Moore had taken over the role.  He is therefore in a great position to have fun noodling around with ideas about what Bond meant to the collective British psyche, and proceeds to hop barefoot around the meadows of mid-century Britain with abandon.

In a nutshell, Winder's sort-of-thesis is that post-WWII Britain went into a tailspin of an identity crisis.  It was traumatized and out of money, the Empire was disintegrating, and entire industries based on that empire were evaporating into thin air.  In just a couple of decades, the UK went from a major world power -- one of the Big Three -- to a poor, kind of marginal country on the edge of Europe that had to beg to join the EU.  The fictional character of James Bond -- suave, worldly, sophisticated, and always superior to everyone he met -- provided a fantasy of British cool and importance, and even gave ordinary folks instructions on luxury goods and world travel.  Between Bond and the Beatles, we all think that Britain in the 60s was fantastic, and we have this vague impression that MI6 was doing important, amazing spy stuff.  It's not true, but it's a lot more fun than reality was.

Much of this book is very fun.  Some is pretty wince-worthy, what with the way Bond generally stomps all over modern mores.  And some is less fun.  I was often bothered by Winder's tone about his own country, which was very much in the self-hating British mode.  I don't mean that I didn't like that he had honest criticisms about his country's history and culture; I mean that he frequently came off as pointlessly mean or self-hating.  He got extravagantly disgusted about various points of British culture that aren't really worth getting all upset about.  It was neither enlightening nor entertaining, just kind of unpleasant.  And at one point he's really pretty vicious about the French for no reason that I can discern.

Still, I learned a lot and there are some very entertaining nuggets of anecdote, history, or story.  (For example, the Bond film director Cubby Broccoli was so named because his Italian market-gardening family developed broccoli in the first place.)  It was a worthwhile read.  And I liked this bit about Lego:
I never had quite enough Lego bricks to make more than a single Lancaster bomber and only that through roping in all sorts of implausible shapes which undermined any sense of documentary truth.  Lego then remained true to its relentlessly decent Danish roots and great care had been taken to use jolly colours and no shapes that could be construed as remotely weapony.  This was fine for the tots of Denmark, whiling away happy hours clicking together model nursery schools or yogurt factories, but in the murkier world of British childhood, where the crying need was for models of coastal gun batteries or V-2 launch sites, Lego bricks fell well short.
I think the image here is actually the UK edition.  The one I read features a smirking Connery and a stoned-looking girl wearing very little.  I actually stuck a post-it note over her in order to be able to read the dang thing!

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Skies Belong To Us

The Skies Belong To Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking, by Brendan I. Koerner

This has been on my wish-list for quite some time, and I finally got tired and ILLed it.  Oh, it was so fascinating!  I learned a ton.  Koerner gives a general run-down of airplane hijacking history in America and focuses in on one particular and intriguing case, along with some large dollops of relevant current events.

People, America in the 60s and 70s was kinda unhinged, at least where hijacking was concerned.  Airplanes were interesting, a symbol of power and the future, and there was no security whatsoever.  Passengers didn't have to go through any kind of procedure at all -- they didn't even have to show ID.  Once people figured out how easy it was to gain national attention and power, however fleeting, by hijacking a plane, a lot of them decided it would be a good way to solve whatever problems they had.

A fun fact I learned: one of the very earliest hijacking attempts actually occurred right here in my hometown, in 1961!  The guy was drunk and tried to force the pilot to take him to his hometown in Arkansas, but the plane was still on the ground and he was captured instead.

Most early hijackings followed the examples of those in other countries and involved forcing the plane to go to Havana.  People thought that they would be greeted as heroes and live great lives in Cuba.  Castro was happy to accept hijacked planes -- he could demand ransom money for each one -- but the hijackers were invariably subjected to weeks of interrogation followed by either incarceration or the Cuban equivalent of the gulag.  Later on in the 70s, Castro got tired of taking in unstable and violent people, and stopped accepting planes at all.

Our featured hijackers are Roger Holder, a Vietnam vet with serious trauma and a heavy drug habit, and his girlfriend Cathy Kerkow, who liked parties and shocking people.  Holder wanted to tell the world about the horrors of the war, and he constructed elaborate hijacking plans to broadcast his message.  He wanted to rescue Angela Davis, who was on trial, and take her to North Vietnam where they would be hailed as fellow fighters against injustice.  Angela would be grateful to him!

The actual hijacking didn't quite go as planned.  Angela Davis had no desire to be rescued.  Holder and Kerkow wound up in Algieria, guests of the International Black Panthers (Eldredge Cleaver and some friends), which sparked a short run of hijackings to Algeria now that Castro was no longer accepting anybody.  From there, they eventually went to Paris.   Koerner follows Holder through the rest of his tragic life, but Kerkow is more difficult; she thrived in Paris, and engineered a disappearing act in which she probably switched identities and just merged into the background.

I really had a lot of fun with this book, especially with learning about hijackings in general.  There is all sorts of weird stuff in here.  Anybody interested in recent history would probably enjoy it.

DWJ March: Conrad's Fate

Today we're talking about Conrad's Fate, a story I just love.  We have Conrad, a great narrator who has to figure out that he's been lied to his whole life, and get to see more of Christopher and Millie before they grow up.  I would have been perfectly happy to read endless adventures of Christopher, Millie, and assorted friends, but DWJ was not that kind of writer.

One character I both love and cringe at is Conrad's mother, who ignores everyone and everything in order to write books of academic feminism.  She is awful, sometimes in an over-the-top, funny way, and more so in a truly tragic way.  I suspect that DWJ was poking a little fun at herself here, magnifying the way all writerly mothers have to neglect other things in order to write at all.  Conrad's mother is not the usual hungry mother of DWJ writing -- that element shows up in the Countess -- but the way she utterly neglects her children and even succumbs to spells pushing her to forget them makes her just as bad in her own way.  She and the Countess are a pair.

And for today's question, Kristen asks:
If you were to discover a family secret, would you rather it be: a noble title, money, or magic?
 Well, I don't know what earthly use I'd have for a noble title!  (Unless maybe it comes with a semi-ruined castle and lots of money for upkeep of said castle?)  Money would certainly be awfully useful, but magic would be more interesting.  I guess it would depend on what kind of magic it is.  Also, I'm a sucker for surprises, so I'd probably pick magic just to see what would happen.  I can never resist the unknown quantity -- at gift exchanges I never steal opened presents.  I invariably pick the most intriguing-looking mystery package, and usually end up with something dopey.  (I got dollar-store Tupperware two years in a row at the Christmas party, and it still didn't cure me!)  On the other hand, if I had lots of money I could take another trip to the UK and see Bristol this time....

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

#MarchMagics: Reaper Man

Today Kristen is posting about Reaper Man.  Again, it had been so long since I'd read this that I'd forgotten most of it -- though not the Death of Rats.  He is a favorite character in our home! 

Today's question is a toughie.  Kristen asks:
Some of the extra life force in Ankh-Morpork causes head-wizard Archchancellor Ridcully's swears to be personified. They remain in a little swarm above his head and perched on his hat.

 If your favorite swear word/phrase turned into a creature, what would it look like?
 
My problem here is that my usual swear words run along the lines of 'dangit,' 'drat,' or in moments of real heat, 'hell.'   My mom suggests that a dangit would be small and fluffy.  I envision it sort of like those dust sprites in Totoro, only in color.  They could be little floaty green and blue puffballs.  Probably Archchancellor Ridcully's swears would then eat them as snacks.
 
But now seems like a good time to introduce you to our ol' buddy Death of Rats, here.  When animal skeletons filled the stores last Halloween, we realized that we needed to get a rat and fix him up.  Here he is, outfitted with glowy blue eyes, a black cape with the whole universe inside,* and a 3D printed scythe.  He greeted our trick-or-treaters in style. 

SQUEAK.

*The cape was originally made so that my daughter's American Girl doll could be a wizard.  We turned it inside out and it fit great.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Biggest Estate on Earth

The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, by Bill Gammage


This book wins the prize for Most Mind-Blowing Book of 2017 So Far.  Way back during Brona's AusNovember event, she posted about this book, and obviously I was going to have to read it.  I don't really know diddly-squat about Australian history, except for a vague impression of hunter-gatherer Aborigines decimated by British colonialism/prison settling.  I certainly did not know that the Australian landscape of 1788, when the First Fleet arrived from Britain, was a very different place than it is now.

The native Australians were running the entire continent as a vast...park.  Like a "gentleman's estate in England" kind of park, with lots of grassland and trees scattered about, with places for game to feed and multiply.  They had every inch of the land covered and took care of all of it, encouraging different habitats and plant varieties in carefully planned patterns.  Thousands of years of cumulative knowledge gave them the expertise to manage the land so that game was plentiful but not too much, and water was conserved in soil.  Then they could travel over the land and always be assured of enough for all, even in terrible droughts: "Across Australia the end was the same: to make resources abundant, convenient and predictable.  Only the means varied."  They accomplished all of this with several tools, but largely with expertly-wielded fire.

European settlers took the parkland as natural, describing it in detail and often comparing it to an English estate park.  Few realized that the Aboriginal habit of burning was a land-management technique -- though they did know that burning grass encouraged new growth for grazing -- and hardly anyone seems to have understood the breathtaking extent of the work.  Modern Australians have usually taken the early paintings of bucolic Australia to be exaggerations, but they weren't.

It actually did look like this

When the land-management patterns were disrupted, soil became compacted, water drained off, and most of all, new trees and spinifex took over.  The brush wildfires that now occur in Australia on a regular basis are new; Aboriginal fire management once prevented them.

Gammage proves his case exhaustively, using (apparently) every early painting and map, photos, and descriptions to compare 1788 to today.  He reels off names of trees, shrubs, and grasses until you're dizzy, and he seems to know exactly what each of them needs.  Many of the tree names, unfamiliar to a non-Australian, confused me at first, until he explained that most of them are either types of eucalyptus or types of acacia (golden wattle is one of those).  It's a long, heavy, and fascinating book, so it took me quite a while to read, and his thesis is hard to deny.

The result of this land management system was abundance.  Early settlers noticed, and resented, that Aborigines acted like leisured gentry.  "In most seasons they had plenty of spare time....Art was voluminous and intricate...Songs were long, corroborees might last months, initiations years."   Not only that, but part of the system was that in times of plenty, much was left to the animals, while people made sure to act like they were in a drought.  Their methods ensured that they could just about always avoid famine.

Aboriginal Australians invented a land management system for which we barely even have a name.  They planted crops, hunted, and gathered, but they did it in a framework that took in every corner of the continent.  Every bit was known by some family.  I don't think anything like it has ever happened anywhere else.

So: a lot of fascinating history here.  Gammage is exhaustive, but it's very worth a read. 


DWJ March: Lives of Christopher Chant

Throgmorten!
Today, we're reading one of my all-time favorites, and certainly my favorite Chrestomanci title, The Lives of Christopher Chant.  This is just such a great story! 

Kristen comments on Christopher's sullenness through a good half of the book.  He's got good reason to feel put-upon; although he doesn't understand or articulate it until the Goddess does, Christopher is a kid who has never had anybody love him.  He gets pulled and pushed around with no warning, so it's no wonder he's rude and grumpy when he is taken away from school (which he loves) to go to the rather grim Castle.  But at the same time, he has to figure out that he bears some responsibility for his unhappiness too; his behavior has alienated the Castle people, who are sympathetic, even if clumsy.  When he makes an effort, things change for the better, and stubbornly clinging to his misery has done him no good at all.

On to the question of the day -- Kristen asks,
When The Living Asheth gets to World Twelve-A, she needs a new name so that she can hide from The Arm of Asheth. She chooses Millie because of the boarding school books that she adored from Christopher's world. If you needed a new name, which bookish moniker would you choose?
 Ha, I would think of a DWJ name first, but I don't really feel that Polly Whitaker suits me, and Tanaqui only works as an Internet handle, not a name.  (Now I'm looking at my bookshelf and realizing that I can't pick an Indian or Russian name because that would be too implausible.  This is hard!)  Jane, from Susan Cooper's books, is a good solid name but far too close to my own; it's a cop-out, really.  How about Bentley Saunders Harrison?  Nope.

What if I go with an author's name, like Eleanor or Diana?  Those are both nice.  I'd have to pick a last name out of a phone book, in that case.

And the Spin number is...

12! 

Which means I'll be reading Sir Walter Scott's Heart of Midlothian, which is very long and very wordy.  I hope I can bash my way through it!  It's not exactly scary, but it's a bit intimidating.


It turns out that "Heart of Midlothian" is also the name of a Scottish soccer team (OK, football club) and a piece of Edinburgh paving that apparently you spit on.  I'll have to investigate that a little further, but right now I have to go to a work meeting....



A small mystery to unravel


Monday, March 6, 2017

MarchMagics: Mort

Kristen at We Be Reading has put up her question for Mort, the 4th Discworld novel and the first one about Death.  I've been recommending this one for years but haven't read it in ....I don't even know how long.  So while I remember the characters -- Mort, Ysabell, Albert, and Death himself -- I didn't remember the plot at all.  And it's kind of a weird plot!  Death is always hoping to figure out people a little better, though, and I did enjoy Mort's realization of his boss' complete loneliness. 

Question of the Day: Death has a soft spot for Discworld's kittens and cats. If you were not fully of this (our) world, what would be the thing that would attract/intrigue/charm you the most?
 
Kittens is a pretty good answer!  Otherwise I might go for human babies.  Or art; the amazing stuff that people do just to make something they enjoy making or think looks pretty.  Oh!  Penguins!  I vote penguins.

Germania

Germania: In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans and Their History, by Simon Winder

I was attracted to this book as soon as I saw it in the store, and it's been on my TBR shelf for a little while.  Once I began reading, I was charmed by Winder's fun writing style and by his prompt mention of Regensburg, the only German city I have really properly visited.  Right there in the introduction he talked about the centuries-old bratwurst restaurant right by the bridge!  I've BEEN to that restaurant, and so from that moment on I was completely enamored.  Winder did not disappoint.

Simon Winder has an unusual love for many things German, and here he indulges it freely, wandering around history, poking here and there for treasure.  He stops at 1933 for obvious reasons, but especially because a large part of his goal in writing is to bring up a lot of the wonderful stuff about Germany that got buried by the horrific 20th century.  The result is a really neat book that I got a big kick out of; I was constantly reading fun bits out loud to whoever was nearby.  Winder's overall style is light, but he really packs in the content and hits many somber notes, including a fair amount of very interesting analysis.  It's not a fast read by any means, but it is a great one if German history is of any interest to you.

Winder starts with Tacitus and goes right through to the 20th century.  It's sort of chronological, in that the bulk of the Holy Roman Empire material is in the first half and the 20th century is mostly near the end, but really, he's all over the place.  And since the very idea of "Germany" was pretty loose for a very long time, he has to bring in a certain amount of French, Central European, Austro-Hungarian, and everybody else's history.  Winder delights in tiny German duchies, principalities, and free cities; the odder and more obscure they are, the better.  And happily for me, he keeps coming back to Regensburg every so often.

Regensburg

I think Winder probably formed his style in the Bill Bryson mold; he loves unexpected adverbs, wandering around, and witty remarks.  But honestly, Winder completely outshines Bryson in several important respects.  First, he does not complain, and second, he doesn't put himself right in the foreground.  If Winder tells you a particular city is grim or depressing, it's because of the city's own history and not because he hated the hotel staff there.  Most of the time, he's talking about Germany, not about himself -- and when he does, it's interesting.  Third, he doesn't constantly talk about how much beer he's drinking (there is plenty of beer, obviously, but I don't know how many pints he downed).  Fourth, this ends up being a book with a good deal more depth and history to it.

I found it necessary to read with my tablet right next to me, because every few pages, Winder describes some painting, building, or monument that I have never heard of, and then I had to look it up.  He made them all sound so fascinating, and quite often they really were, though I did sometimes think (upon gazing at the actual object described) that he had gotten a little exaggerated in his highly colored, but always entertaining, descriptions. 

My copy of Germania is bristling with little sticky bookmarks; some are for things to look up later, and most are funny bits to quote.  But there are far too many, so I'll have to cut it down a good bit.  Here are a couple:
...the Senior and Junior Princes of Reuss were rulers of a few valleys in Thuringia from at least the twelfth century...Every male member of the family was called Henry as a homage to the emperor Henry VI's patronage, which was crazy enough, but, even worse, every male member was issued with a number rather than just the ruling prince, throwing up such challenges to sanity as Henry LXVII.
The English style of park, always contrasted with the geometric, gravelly French park, early on became a symbol in German not for liberalism as such, but at least for thinking vaguely about liberalism (and for being anti-French).
The interior is about two-thirds Enlightenment magic and about a third everything that's freaky about Germany.
As with other German princely families, such as the amazingly wealthy Thurn und Taxis family in Regensburg (I am not visiting any more museums with displays of mouldering old coaches and sleighs ever again)...* 
I just adored this book.  I had so much fun with it!  It might well make my Top Ten of 2017, but I still have two more Winder books to go: one about the Habsburgs (which seems certain to be even more 'wayward' than this) and one about, of all things, James Bond and the post-WWII British culture that loved him.  Who could resist?



______________________________________________________
*This tickled me because I too have seen an awful lot of Thurn und Taxis stuff, and own a beer mug etched with, of course, a coach.  T&T made their fortune by having a monopoly on the mail.  And now you know why I instantly loved The Crying of Lot 49.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Classics Spin #15

Aha!  It's my favorite classics event, the Spin, and I have a brand-new shiny list to choose from!  I was right to get the second list started, which makes me feel comfortably smug.  The rules for the Spin are familiar to most at this point and can be checked at the link -- join me, won't you?


Since I have many books piled around this house waiting to be read, I'm going to populate the list mainly with those, plus some at random.
  1.  The Man in the Iron Mask, by Alexandre Dumas
  2.  The Claverings, by Anthony Trollope
  3.  First Love and Other Stories, by Turgenev
  4. Sport of the Gods, by Paul Dunbar
  5.  Keep the Aspidistra Flying, by George Orwell
  6.  Pan Tadeusz, by Adam Mickiewicz
  7.  The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, by Henry Handel Richardson
  8.  Steppenwolf, by Hesse
  9.  The Dybbuk and other stories, by Ansky
  10.  Jurgen, by James Branch Cabell
  11.  Marie Grubbe, by Jens Peter Jacobsen
  12.  The Heart of Midlothian, by Sir Walter Scott
  13.  The First Wife, by Paulina Chiziane
  14.  Silence, by Shusaku Endo
  15. This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (with Brona)
  16.  Demons, by Dostoyevsky
  17.  The Go-Between, by L. P. Hartley
  18.  The Towers of Trebizond, by Rose Macaulay
  19.   Memoirs of the Crusades
  20.  The Blue Sky, by Galsan Tshinag