Friday, February 23, 2018

Soviet Ghosts

Soviet Ghosts, by Rebecca Litchfield

Is there anything more fascinating than photos of decaying Soviet buildings?  I think we all know the answer is no


Rebecca Litchfield took a bunch of photos in old buildings from all over the former USSR, and East Germany as well.  They're arranged in thematic chapters, almost like a social studies textbook: daily life, military, education, health, sport...and so on.  Each chapter has a little introductory essay, but the photos are the important bit.

Random thoughts about these photos:

Wow, there is a remarkable amount of robin's egg blue paint. 

Many of the photos look like people just walked away, like maybe there was not a lot of official closing down and clearing out.  There's not just furniture, there are mattresses, medicine/chemical bottles, school equipment -- things you would think would be wanted elsewhere even if the institution closed.  There is one empty swimming pool with the lane-dividing ropes still hanging in space.  Where did all the people go?


I wish there was more explanation of the photos -- they are presented with location and nothing else -- but I imagine that was both an artistic and a practical choice.  The photos are mysterious without explanations, and anyway I suppose in many cases those who could explain are gone or not easy to find.  It's one thing to wander through an abandoned hospital, and another to track down a former nurse.

The chapter essays do not always make a ton of sense.  Luckily that isn't very important, but they aren't deep or very helpful, and they're sometimes contradictory or weirdly exculpatory about Stalin.  Sometimes the sentences are off, like they've been put through Google translator.  The photos don't always really fit into the chapter headings, either, and I sort of wonder why anyone bothered with a bunch of divisions.


A few of the photos look too staged.  I do not believe that an abandoned schoolroom was found with a doll sitting on a chair and a gas mask hung on the back of said chair.

There ARE a remarkable number of gas masks, though.  One truly bizarre photo (not the one below) that took me a while to figure out is a sort of small auditorium in a Russian sanatorium, and there are groups of gas masks hanging off the ceiling like light fixtures.  But they are all still there, which I have to wonder about; surely people would have grabbed some of them while exploring.


Of course, there's a section of photos of Pripyat.  I suppose that's mandatory, although it also seems like you could skip it on the grounds that everybody already knows about Luna Park.

Not all of the photos are from former Soviet sites.  One neat image is of a Russian Black Widow submarine...that is on display in the UK.  (Where?  I want to visit it.)  Oddly, a few of the final photos are from Auschwitz.  I don't know what they are doing in there, along with a bunch of great images of massive Soviet monuments.

The images I like best are of old, disintegrating murals and monuments.  I really wish I could go see them myself.


Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Age of Bede

The painting is of Cuthbert
The Age of Bede, by various people such as for example Bede

I started off the year in a very Anglo-Saxon medievaly sort of mood.  I guess I'm still in it, since today I put two Old English language study books on my Amazon wishlist.  Still, it took me a long time to read this collection of pieces, because they are mostly not super-gripping.  Worth reading for several reasons, and the last one is fantastic, but still.  Anyway, here we have four early Anglo-Saxon sources from the north of the British isles:

The Life of Cuthbert, by the Venerable Bede
Cuthbert was the prior of Lindisfarne (and a bishop too!) in the mid-7th century.  He was greatly beloved, did a lot of missionary work, and was OK with accepting Roman practices in the British Church, which a lot of people were not.  He was considered a saint, too.

The Life of Wilfrid, by Eddius Stephanus
Wilfrid was bishop of Northumbria, also in the mid-7th century, but he wasn't allowed to do a lot of bishoping.  Wilfrid accepted and wanted to enforce the Roman method of figuring the date of Easter (a method which differed very little from the Celtic, and looks incredibly minor to a modern reader), and this was such a contentious issue that the local king appointed a different bishop (Bishop Chad!) in his place and threw Wilfrid in prison and did all sorts of things to keep him from his job.  Wilfrid seems to have spent much of his time traveling to Rome to plead his case over and over with the Pope, only to go home and find the locals still defiant.  Eddius portrays Wilfrid as a martyr, but others seem to have disagreed.

The Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow, by the Venerable Bede
This is a short history of the various abbots over the monasteries St. Peter and St. Paul.  The important bit, to me, is that this is where we read about Benedict bringing lots of books from Rome.

The Voyage of St. Brendan
Now this was nothing but fun!  It's the legend of St. Brendan, a 5th century Celtic monk who sets sail to find the Isle of the Blessed, together with some fellow monks.  They have wonderful adventures, sailing around for years and having Easter feasts, camping on an island that turns out to be a whale, and finding an island that may be a very fanciful description of an iceberg.  They find an entrance to Hell, and all sorts of great stuff.  This is by far the most entertaining part of the collection.

I sure would love to make a trip to the north of Britain someday, and see all these places.  That would be pretty great.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys Into the Medieval World, by Christopher de Hamel

I had such a wonderful time with this book!  I actually started it in late 2017 and decided it would have to be my favorite book of the year, but then I was reading it so slowly (to make it last, and to absorb it properly) that I didn't finish until a couple of weeks ago, by which time I was so busy and frazzled that blogging sort of fell off the map for a while.  But now I can tell you about it!  Hooboy, this was such a fabulous book.

Christopher de Hamel is one of the bigger names in the world of medieval books (or so I gather), and he's written several things for a lay audience.  In this very long book, he travels around to twelve really neat manuscripts and does an in-depth...interview...with each one, describing the history of the book, how it got where it is now, what's in it, lots of information about the writing and art, and plenty of yummy details.  Every so often he offers a possible solution to a mystery or maybe just speculates.

Orion in the Leiden Aratea
There are plenty of beautiful photos of each manuscript, and that's where this book really shines.  It's just so much easier now to print detailed color photos, and de Hamel takes full advantage.  He's really trying to give the reader some impression of what it's really like to sit and study the actual manuscript, and in fact he often exhorts us to go out, find whatever old books are locally available, and figure out some reason to request a real viewing.  That's how he got his start (as a kid in New Zealand*) and he's very encouraging about readers getting involved.

Some of the featured books are famous enough that ordinary people like me have heard of them: the Book of Kells, the Hours of Jeanne de Navarre...but most of them are not quite that famous.  De Hamel chooses a volume of Chaucer, but not the most well-known one.  It's great that most of the books aren't ones laypeople are likely to have heard of, because there are loads of fascinating manuscripts around and we don't need to read about the same 8 books all the time. 

The earliest manuscript is the Gospels of St. Augustine, from the late 6th century, with a few Roman-style illustrations and lovely uncial script.  The latest, the Spinola Hours, is from 1515 or so, a good 900 years later and a stunning example of book art.  In between we see not only prayer and scripture books, but astronomy, strategy, songs, and poetry.

Party in Jeanne de Navarre's Hours

I learned a lot from this book, but here are my favorite things that I learned:

The Codex Amiatinus, a Bible, contains a correction that may be in the Venerable Bede's own hand.  Also, in one of those weird literary coincidences that we all get every so often, I happened to be reading some bits and pieces about early Anglo-Saxon church history at the same time, so first I read de Hamel telling the story of how the Codex Amiatinus got around, and then I read the actual account. 

Diana Wynne Jones left a secret joke in A Tale of Time City that I only got when I read a description of where the old texts are kept in the Bodleian Library.

Salisbury Cathedral's library of medieval books is still intact and you can apply to visit.  I suppose that's true of a lot of cathedral libraries, and if I ever get to go to the UK again, I am absolutely going to start thinking up excuses to apply to visit them.

Goering, that rat, stole the Hours of Jeanne de Navarre and then probably stole one of the best pictures out of it.  It was rediscovered in a train car stuffed with treasures, by getting stepped on.

Here is what to do if you are ever in a sea battle, says Hannibal:
Put venomous adders into bottles and toss them over the railings of the enemy's ship where they smash onto the deck, and the snakes can rush out and bite your opponents....while the snakes are hissing and attacking, throw curved metal blades, which cut through the enemy's rigging, and firebombs too which then set the sails alight....

So obviously this is a book that you've got to read if you're into old books.  It's just so fun, and the pictures are so fabulous.  Of course, most of these are digitized and available on the internet now too, but how will you know to go look for them unless you read about them?   I cannot think of anything more fun than to travel around the world to these libraries (from St. Petersburg to Los Angeles!) and visit these amazing books.  I suppose I'd better start with LA, since (to my shame) I have never been to the Getty...





*Apparently de Hamel is from Dunedin, which is also where my favorite NZ band is from.  Dunedin  was, in the 80s, a center for Kiwi indie music.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Never Use Futura

Never Use Futura, by Douglas Thomas

This title really caught my eye; a book entirely about the Futura font!  Thomas starts off by commenting that in design school, they always tell you never to use Futura -- and yet, all the giants do, so what's up with that?  Let's talk about this massively influential font.

Thomas has a lot of fun talking about the development of Futura -- at first it was really quite avant-garde and had some features that many found kind of extreme (although attractive).  Soon it got a bit toned down for more general use, and it hit the big time, spawning a zillion imitators.  For one thing, Futura was a German font and you know nobody wanted to support that during World War II, so Americans came up with a home-grown version that was virtually identical.

Futura is so familiar that even a total ignoramus like me can recognize it.  It has a lot of flavors, though, so I did not at first know that the blocky capitals on the cover are in the same family as the type that I think of as mid-century schoolbook and very 1950s. 


Of course, a book about design has to be mostly visual.  The 200 pages are probably less than half text, and are covered in wonderful diagrams and images that take the reader on a tour of most of the 20th century.  SO many famous things feature Futura fonts that it becomes quite the party.

Futura!
Also Futura!



















So why should you never use Futura?  It's not like Comic Sans where designers kind of disdain it.  (Comic Sans, in an illustration of how maybe we shouldn't always listen to designers, turns out to be an excellent font for people with dyslexia, unlike Futura I am betting.)  Well, Futura is not easy to get right.  I gather that it's an easy default, but hard to do well, so maybe make sure you know what you're doing.  Use it thoughtfully and with purpose, with a sense of the history and connotations you're bringing to the piece.

Loved this book.  If you like looking at pictures and designs, you should find a copy!  And check out the Never Use Futura website too!

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Crashing Suns

Mine at last!
Crashing Suns, by Edmond Hamilton


Well, hello again and fancy seeing you here, assuming anybody is left to read Howling Frog.  It's been a little while, I guess.  But I've been reading some great stuff in the meantime.  I hope to be back for reals now.  I didn't even finish my January event properly!

Well, I've always loved the poster for the Vintage Sci-Fi event so I was all excited to get a chance to read the actual book, Crashing Suns, which is a collection of five short stories.  It's a 1965 paperback, but the stories are much older; they were published in the magazine Weird Tales from 1926 - 1931, as far as I can tell from the inner blurb, which isn't really all that informative.  Hamilton had written a serial novel featuring the Interstellar Patrol, Outside the Universe, and it was popular enough that he wrote these stories to follow up. 

Here is the funny part: all five of these stories have exactly the same plot.  Maybe people didn't notice, or didn't care, at the time?  But reading one after the other is a fairly surreal experience, as the details vary, but the plot is the same every time. 

"Crashing Suns" features a rogue sun speeding towards our own Sol.  If the Interstellar Patrol doesn't figure out a way to stop it, it will crash right into our own sun, killing everybody!  When they get there, they realize that the star is dragging a single planet along, and the inhabitants are steering towards our sun on purpose to revitalize their dying one.  How to avert the awful fate?

And this happens every time:
  1.  A dangerous space phenomenon threatens our solar system or, later, entire galaxy.
  2.  Explorers realize that malevolent aliens are steering the phenomenon and have every intention of destroying everybody else, rather like Krikkit's reaction to the rest of the universe's existence  ("It'll have to go.").
  3. The good guys get captured and all hope seems lost.
  4. Good guys manage to avert disaster at the last second, killing all the malevolent aliens in the process.
At first, the story is set within our solar system, in the Eight Worlds, and it's all humans.  (Remember, in 1930 we didn't know about Pluto!)   Later stories take in the entire Milky Way galaxy and the Patrol works for the Federated Suns, which gives the human narrators the chance to work with alien partners, which is very fun and also sounds exactly like that scene in the Star Wars prequel where the Galactic Senate is assembled.  The characters all have pretty much the same names, though -- Sarto Sen, Jor Dahat, Korus Kan, and so on.

Federated Suns or Galactic Senate?  You decide.
There are some fun side effects of the stories being so old.  Hamilton plays very fast and loose with the definitions of galaxy and universe in a way that a modern person never would.  They are practically interchangeable, along with the solar system in the first couple of stories, so that our own sun's destruction is described as the destruction of the universe.  Later on, Hamilton does know that other galaxies exist, but the imminent obliteration of the Milky Way is still described as the death of the universe.  Early stories imply the existence of aether rather than a vacuum in space, and phenomena we know to be fairly boring clouds of dust and gas (nebulae) or ice/rock combinations (comets) are imagined as huge, fiery things that can wipe out a star.  Which does make the cold vacuum of outer space a good deal more exciting!

And his writing is something else!  Everything is very flowery and thrilling.  Spaceships do not travel or fly, they flash.  Stars blaze with a sullen crimson fire.  Here's a sample of some dialogue and it's utterly average for the tone of the story:
"As you know, all nebulae contract with the passage of time, their fiery gases condensing to form great blazing stars, the eon-old cycle of stellar evolution, from fiery nebula to flaming sun.  In this cycle the great nebula followed..."
I had fun reading this collection, but it was also kind of hard going because it was so repetitive.  I kept wondering if I would hit a story that was not about evil aliens planning to kill everybody else so they could keep their star/comet/whatever going.  Nope.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Four Things: a Tag

Lifted from Lois at You, Me, and a Cup of Tea:

Four Jobs I've Had
  1. Janitor at an airport business.  My first job was sweeping out airplane hangars.
  2. Cashier at a bakery -- twice; one was quite a fancy place.  I don't really eat donuts any more....
  3. Peon at a dining commons (a college dorm eating hall).  Dishwasher, food server, etc.
  4. TA at an elementary school.  Great kids, but I got sick a lot.
Four Things I Don't Eat
  1. Shrimp
  2. Lobster
  3. Clams
  4. Oysters.  I'm not really into seafood.
Four Places I've Lived
  1. Bakersfield, California
  2. Santa Maria, California
  3. Otterup, Fyn, Denmark
  4. Berkeley, California
Four of my Favorite Foods
  1. Raspberries
  2. Pizza
  3. Tri-tip -- Santa Maria-style BBQ, baby!
  4. Chocolate
The one true BBQ: Tri-tip, pinquito beans, salsa, garlic bread, and salad.

Four Movies I've Watched More Than Once
  1. The Secret of Roan Inish (my favorite!)
  2. Tron
  3. The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai
  4. Veer-Zaara
The Secret of Roan Inish

Four TV Shows I Watch
  1. The Librarians
  2. MST3K
  3. Doctor Who
  4. Babylon 5  (we're watching this all together right now and it is so fun!)


Four Things I'm Looking Forward to This Year (In 2018)
  1. More hours at work
  2. Kid #1 graduates high school (OK, I'm not really looking forward to that all that much!)
  3. Sewing the quilts I have planned (Tardis!  Patchwork City!)
  4. Reading some fabulous books and blogging about them
Four Things I Can't Live Without
  1. Books, obviously
  2. My family
  3. My faith
  4. The electric heating pad at the foot of the bed
Four Places I've Visited
  1. The Tower of London
  2. The Round Tower (you know, the one the dog had eyes as big as)
  3. The Twin Towers (long ago)
  4. The CN Tower in Toronto
The Round Tower!

Four Pet Peeves
  1. Kids who won't go to bed already
  2. People who do not replace the toilet paper roll or, worse, leave the lid open (!)
  3. Wrapper-crinklers at the theater
  4. People who wait until 5 minutes before the paper is due to print it out, but have no print card, or the file is in Pages, or something like that.
Four Things I Wish I Could Do
  1. Speak Russian, or Hindi
  2. Travel all over the world
  3. Calligraph really well  (that's a verb, right?)
  4. Spend all my time sewing cool things and reading great books
Four Subjects I Studied at School
  1. Norse mythology
  2. Classical Greek literature
  3. Cataloging
  4. Scandinavian literature
I can catalog an onion.  I can catalog YOU.

Four Things Near Me Right Now
  1. A phone, with a cord
  2. A bag of salt and pepper cashews (blame the Girl Scouts)
  3. A magazine with a really great pattern for a t-shirt quilt in it
  4. My husband, who is playing a video game

Monday, January 15, 2018

Adventures in Bookbinding

My mom and I went to San Francisco, and we even drove there.  Which is insane.  I dislike going to SF, and I even more dislike driving there -- I can get very whiny about it.  I am an East Bay kind of girl.  But this worked out okay.  For one thing, it was on a Sunday, and also our destination was pretty close to the bridge and freeway, but south of it so that it was easy to park.  I did not believe the website's claim about "ample street parking" but it turned out to be true.

We actually arrived somewhat early, so we explored the neighborhood a bit.  We found an old, but apparently thriving, brewery.


We found a very interesting church!  I mean, it's like a mission style Orthodox church, two styles I never expected to see together, but in fact it's Episcopalian.  We were taking pictures of the outside and this guy invited us in, where a service was going on. 



You enter into a large clear area with an altar in the middle, and the dome is painted with a stunning mural of Christ leading people in a dance.  They chose ninety people to be portrayed as saints, from St. Francis (with a wolf) to Dante and Emily Dickinson and all sorts of people. 


 The people were very welcoming and clearly anxious for us to feel comfortable.  We just stayed and watched for a little while, since we had to go get lunch before our class.  Anyway, if you're ever in the neighborhood, St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church is well worth a visit.

After a quick lunch, we went in to the SF Center for the Book.  It is obviously a great place to do stuff in, and also fairly intimidatingly artistic.  There are all these presses in the main room, along with a side area for exhibits.  Other rooms are also stuffed with various giant metal presses and bookbinder tools.



Our class was in a smaller room.  There were five students and one teacher, and four of us were librarians.  We made four kinds of sewn paper books.  The first two are quite easy but look impressively artsy -- there's a do-si-do book where the signatures face opposite ways, and one that puts a cool tab between the two signatures but only has to be sewn once.  Then we learned to do some more complex spine stitching with a "dots and dashes" arrangement (the blue one below), and a final book had several signatures to sew and a separate book jacket.  My photo below, taken at the very last second during clean-up, does not really give a good idea at all, so you could head over to the class page for some better examples.  Ours were very plain, since there was no time for embellishment.  As it was we went nearly half an hour over.


The whole thing was very fun and I would love to do more of the basic book classes.  I don't know if I will; getting to SF for a full day class is quite a tricky prospect and all the driving is kind of exhausting.  (I'm not a good long-distance driver; I get sleepy and I need to stretch my legs often.)  But their list of classes is hugely tempting.  I'm not likely to really learn how to do leather binding and tooling, but surely some simple Coptic stitching and hard covers would be fun?

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Something on Sunday, 1/14

I know you're all dying to know how my intro to bookbinding class went, and the answer is, it was fun!  And I'm writing a post about it!  I just need to sit down and spend a little more time on it.  This week, the kids went back to school, but I haven't gone back to my job yet, so in theory I have a lot of free time.  This has turned out to be largely theory (I scheduled dentist appointments) but I did get to work quite a bit on my Tardis quilt blocks.  I ran out of blue, bought more blue, and am not sure I won't run out again.  The blocks are quite large, you see.

The ingredients

Getting there...maybe 75% done with blue blocks
Would you like any used books?  Because boy howdy, have I got used books.  I think I've mentioned that I sort books for my library's booksale, and this week was a doozy.  I walked in and met this pile:



My mom and I work on this side of the table.  Other folks do other jobs; everybody has a specialty.  We managed to clear this table and get everything boxed, but I'm reliably informed that it looked just the same again a couple of days later.  It's a bit overwhelming, but just think: people are made happy when they buy super-cheap books, and the money goes to benefit the public library, so that's pretty good.

In other good news, I thought this was a pretty good op-ed in the New York Times the other day: Why 2017 Was the Best Year in Human History.  There's plenty to worry about, but let's make sure to notice that hey, an awful lot of things are getting better.


Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Reavers of Skaith

 The Reavers of Skaith, by Leigh Brackett

The last Skaith book closed with Stark and Ashton finding a ship to take them home.  Or so they thought; the captain promptly betrays them, deciding that plundering the entire planet, now that it's in chaos and defenseless, sounds like a better plan.  And he's not Skaith's only problem; the sun is old and cooling, and winter arrives extra-early.  Half the crops were ruined by war, and now the harvest fails completely.  Most of the world population is heading into the warmer areas, but there's no food to eat.  The government has nearly collapsed and its last supporters have turned.  Stark and Ashton head south through the tropical zone to the antarctic, chasing the pirates and meeting yet more fanatically violent warriors.

There is no group in the novel formally identified as "reavers," and I presume she means the betraying, plundering spaceship captain, but honestly it could be practically anybody in the story as a world's entire social order breaks down under the beginning of an ice age.

I do wonder if this novel is the first mention of the term "reavers" in science fiction.  I poked around a little bit, and the word goes back to Old English from Old Norse.  It appears in some of the first Anglo-Saxon documents we have; Alfred used it, it's in Beowulf and in the Bible and more.  To reave is to pillage or plunder.  It's gained popularity in science fiction -- I'm not very knowledgeable about comics but apparently there were some Marvel reavers in the 1980s, and of course we get really terrifying Reavers in Firefly.  I can't find anything much about reavers before that, though, so I'm going to guess that Leigh Brackett introduced the word into the SF world.




Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Hounds of Skaith

The Hounds of Skaith, by Leigh Brackett

So hilariously bad.  Wow.

More fun on Skaith!  Stark and Ashton and company --which includes a pack of deadly Northhounds -- are heading south to try to get to Skeg, the only city on Skaith where spaceships are allowed to land, before the remnants of the Lords Protector can get there and close the spaceport forever.  Half the planet is in revolt and Stark has no compunction about encouraging the other half, through which he is traveling, to do the same.

There is a good deal of fairly interesting stuff on why the Lords Protector, as well as a bunch of other Skaithian peoples, want to get rid of the starships.  The government doesn't want to lose its slaves, but also they are all in a kind of culture shock.  It's only been ten or fifteen years since the population of Skaith found out about other planets and peoples, and many of them can't deal with it.  They'd prefer to pretend it didn't happen.  It's a bit like how the Krikkiters reacted to the same discovery!

Add caption
Skaith is packed with different kinds of people and tribes.  Besides your usual desert warrior nomads and such, there are groups that long ago did some genetic engineering on themselves to try to survive a dying planet, with varying degrees of success.  Amphibians, furry ice people, elvish cannibals, winged psychics, and really terrifying desert predators keep things interesting.  As the weather gets worse and resources dwindle, all these groups hate each other and fight endlessly over what's left.