Friday, August 28, 2015


Picture Day Friday: Illumination from a Medieval Manuscript


Spectacular example of an illuminated drop letter "S" from folio 229 recto of a medieval manuscript located at the British Library shelf mark Royal MS 1 E IX. It is a "Bible, in Latin, of St. Jerome's version with the Gospel of Nicodemus. Produced in England (probably London) during the first quarter of the fifteenth century."


[Image copyrighted by Robert Miller.]


Friday, August 21, 2015


Picture Day Friday: Rare Black Vellum Manuscript


A rare black vellum Book of Hours from Bruges c.1480. It's kept at the Morgan Library and Museum in NYC. (MS M.493, folio 18 verso and 19 recto)

All 121 vellum folios of The Black Hours are stained in black. To make the writing stand out against the dark background, only white lead and opaque paints were used for the miniatures, and gold and silver ink for the script. Only three of these black parchment manuscripts survive to this day.


[Image copyrighted by Europe's History.]


Wednesday, August 19, 2015


2015 #TBRChallenge Reading: Poetry by Walt Whitman


2015 TBR Reading Challenge
Book: Poetry by Walt Whitman edited by Jonathan Levin
My Categories: Poetry
Wendy Crutcher's Category: Impulse Read (I'd been meaning to read this book for ages. Then I was walking by my shelves looking for something to read for this challenge and chose it at random.)

And I'm very glad I did. I'd forgotten the Whitman poems I'd studied in my school years. My poetry education ended in twelfth grade. In recent years, I've done some reading here and there but nothing formal. I've rediscovered my love of the poetry of the Romantic poets, while also attempting others. I seem to be drawn to pastoral themes.

One of the most remembered of Whitman's poems I studied was "O Captain! My Captain!" Imagine my delight when I heard those lines recited as a clarion call to literary arms in the movie "Dead Poets Society"! Whitman deeply mourned Lincoln's assassination and immortalized his admiration and sorrow in this poem.

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
     But O heart! heart! heart!
     O the bleeding drops of red,
     Where on the deck my Captain lies,
     Fallen cold and dead.


Whitman, like Frost whom I wrote about here, was very much an out-and-about tramping kind of a poet, and he wrote about what he saw and experienced during his rambles. He celebrates it in his poem "On Land":

O the gleesome saunter over fields and hillsides!
The leaves and flowers of the commonest weeds, the moist fresh stillness of the woods,
The exquisite smell of the earth at daybreak, and all through the forenoon.


Over his wanders, he discovered the miraculous in the ordinary and plain. Using the poetical device of the catalog, Whitman gives examples in his poem "Miracle":

Why, who makes much of a miracle?
As to me, I know of nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of the water,
Or stand under trees in the woods,
Or animals feeding in the fields;
These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,
The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place.


Unlike many poets of his time, who took great effort in setting their poems in well-ordered rhyme and meter, Whitman's poems flow in an uncontrollable flood of words and emotions. However, they're not without their own rhythm. Whitman often recited his poetry out loud as he walked and you can hear the pounding of the surf, tramping of the boots, the crackling of twigs underfoot. Listen to these lines from "I Tramp a Perpetual Journey":

I tramp a perpetual journey, (come listen all!)
My signs are a rain-proof coat, good shoes, and a staff cut from the woods,
This day before dawn I ascended a hill and look'd at the crowded heaven,
And I said to my spirit, When we become the enfolders of those orbs, and the pleasure and knowledge of every thing in them, shall we be fill'd and satisfied then?
And my spirit said, No, we but level that lift to pass and continue beyond.


Whitman was a great advocate of and believer in democracy and in the rights of all men. In stanza 24 of 52 of his first poem "Song of Myself," he says:

Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son,
Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding,
No sentimentalist, no stander above men and women or apart from them,
No more modest than immodest.
Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!
Whoever degrades another degrades me,
And whatever is done or said returns at last to me.
I speak the pass-word primeval, I give the sign of democracy,
By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.


And this brings me to one of the most heartbreaking pieces in this collection. It is also from "Song of Myself" and is about assisting a runaway slave in defiance of the federal laws of the time.

The runaway slave came to my house and stopt outside,
I heard his motions crackling the twigs of the woodpile,
Through the swung half-door of the kitchen I saw him limpsy and weak,
And went where he sat on a log and led him in and assured him,
And brought water and fill’d a tub for his sweated body and bruis’d feet,
And gave him a room that enter’d from my own, and gave him some coarse clean clothes,
And remember perfectly well his revolving eyes and his awkwardness,
And remember putting plasters on the galls of his neck and ankles;
He staid with me a week before he was recuperated and pass’d north,
I had him sit next me at table, my fire-lock lean’d in the corner.


Friday, August 14, 2015


My Comments on For Such a Time by Kate Breslin


I want to make one thing clear up front. The commentary below is of the BOOK, not the AUTHOR. I will not, nor do I have the right to, comment on the author, but I can and will comment on what I see on the page, colored by my biases. This is purely my subjective opinion and is by no means authoritative. There are most likely spoilers and upsetting triggers in my comments.

Summary

For those of you who haven't read For Such a Time, it's an Evangelical Protestant inspirational historical romantic fiction book set in a [then] Czechoslovakian transit concentration camp in 1944. The story is between a Nazi SS Kommandant Colonel Aric von Schmidt and Jewish prisioner Hadassah Benjamin set in the Theresienstadt camp. Her blonde-hair blue-eyed "Aryan" looks allow her to use her false paper to pass off as non-Jewish. She is initially tattooed, shorn, and slated for the firing squad at Dachau, because she offended a Gestapo officer by rebuffing his advances. The Kommandant is there, because he sees the discrepancy between the Aryan paperwork and "Jude" stamped on it. He takes one look at her and wants her, so he rescues her and spirits her away to Theresienstadt. There he installs her in his house as his secretary.

Initially, Hadassah thinks of the Kommandant as a "Jew Killer." Over time, she's beguiled by his obvious interest in her and her own growing attraction to him. She realizes that he is bruised in spirit due to his war experiences and is convinced that she can change him. She appeals to him to grant concessions to the Jewish prisoners.

Initially, she feels abandoned by her G-d, because of all her suffering. Over time, her progressing relationship with the Kommandant leads her to believe in the Christian God through the Bible that appears whenever she's in crisis and "speaks" to her. The central questions of the story are: how can she reconcile herself to him, how will he change, how will their love survive reality, and do both of them turn to God.

Comments

My many learned colleagues have done a far better job of addressing the historical, religious, and textual contents of the book than I ever could. So I'm not going to try. My focus is the impossibility of the love relationship and the personalities of the two protagonists.

When you write a historical fiction novel, you're required to be true to the history you're setting your story in. Yes, sometimes in service to your story, you may change a few small details here and there, but by large you try to stay true to the facts. Otherwise, what you're writing isn't historical fiction, but alternate reality fiction.

When the history in question is full of anguish and is in living memory of the survivors and the descendants of the survivors, it behooves you to be scrupulous of adhering to all of the well-established details of the history. Tampering with those details results in the erasure of the experiences of entire swaths of people; of the people themselves. The Holocaust wasn't just a heinous crime against the Jewish people, the Roma, gays, and others. It was a crime against all humanity. It was a crime against the basic tenets of what makes us human.

In that context, he's the representative of the perpetrators of the crime and she's the representative of the victims of the crime. He uses her to assuage his supposed despair over his experiences as a soldier. She uses him for the warm shoes, warm clothes, soft bed, and good food he provides.

Scearp scyldwiga [sceal] gescad witan worda ond worca.
A sharp warrior must know the difference between words and deeds. —Beowulf


The Kommandant suffers from the horrors he saw—not what he did—in the battles in Russia. That is what he tells her and she can sense it all beneath his "punishing," "desperate" kisses. But he has no remorse or even disquiet—in fact, he's indifferent—over the thousands of Jewish people he sends to Auschwitz or starves, over-works, and has tortured in Theresienstadt. It doesn't matter in the story that his sergeant or his captain actually do the torture. He's the Kommandant. The buck stopped there. But he only cares that he is not hurt by a refusal to participate in everything and that Hadassah not find out about it all so that she won't withhold her affection from him.

Also, his war experiences and supposed sensitivity to them should've given him a classic case of PTSD. I saw no evidence of that.

A true love relationship exists between mature, consenting adults who're respectful of each other. This certainly wasn't that. There can be no consent between a jailor and a prisoner, where he's the aggressor and she's subsumed herself in him. At the least resistance from her, he gets angry, threatens her, and forces his will on her and she accedes the power to him. He has no respect for her, and she respects his power over her, not as his equal. A true love relationship between them is impossible.

Did romantic feelings—note, not true love—develop in similar circumstances in reality during WWII? The Daily Mail published a piece on the real-life story between a Jewish woman and an SS guard at Auschwitz. Years after the war, from Israel, Helen Citronova said, "'I thought I'd rather be dead than be involved with an SS man. For a long time afterwards there was just hatred. I couldn't even look at him.' But she admitted that her feelings for Wunsch changed over time" when he saved her and later her sister from death. After the war, "...her relationship with Wunsch never developed further...." Helena said, "'There were moments where I forgot that I was a Jew and that he was not a Jew.... But it could not be realistic.'"

Yes, not realistic. Take the stresses of war away, and what do they have left? Horror of what they've experienced and horror of what they've done. No relationship can survive that. Thus, I cannot believe that there's any future for the Kommandant and Hadassah. There's no HEA (happily ever after), no love, nothing. But that is the point of a romance novel. A HEA is a requirement.

"You're not a monster." Her voice came to him soft and steady. "Or a martyr either. You're just a man, nothing more."

She's right. It's Hadassah who's the monster of the story, not the Kommandant, not the evil caption, not the traitorous sergeant, not the SS General. They are behaving true to form. But Hadassah? She sends thousands of her own Jewish people into Auschwitz's Krematorium, in exchange for good food, a warm roof over her head, and sexually exciting kisses. Thousands. And in all of this, her emotional state of mind is ephemeral, self-serving, and remarkably bloodless.

Here's an example. She has been found out as the traitor who deleted a few people from the lists of those bound for the Auschwitz trains. The Kommandant is extremely angry and rough with her and threatens to hit her. He purportedly loves her but sends her off with his captain to the ghetto. Her kaddishel ten-year-old Joseph has been badly beaten and brought to her in the ghetto. He was the Kommandant's houseboy and the Kommandant purportedly cared for him, but did nothing to stop Joseph from being beaten up.

Later, the Kommandant comes to see them.

...he removed his hat and gloves before lowering himself to kneel beside the boy. "How is he?"

His white-knuckled grip on the cane told her his legs pained him more than usual. Caution overruled any compassionate urge, however. He had yet to state he purpose for his visit."


She feels compassion for him? After what he's done to her and Joseph? And the only reason she's not going to show him her compassion is because he hasn't said why he's there?

The hand on his cane wavered slightly. "You must hurry and get strong, Joseph. There is much to do, and I need your help." His gentle voice tore at Hadassah's heart.

He makes those self-serving statements and she's touched by them?

Hadassah searched the face of the man before her, feeling joy, frustration, even laughter. Most of all, she ached for the comfort of his embrace.

After all that has occurred—two trainloads to Auschwitz, torture of her uncle, starvation of all the prisoners at the camp, Joseph's beating, her own treatment—she feels like laughing? And wants him to hug her?

Hadassah fills me with horror. Classic case of Stockholm's Syndrome.

[Edited to add since I already received a couple of troll comments. I shall be ruthlessly deleting comments that are not respectful of me or other commenters.]



Picture Day Friday: Medieval Waistcoast Made From Manuscripts


These days, purses made from book covers are popular with the bookish crowd. But this trend was popular in the Middle Ages, too. Here's a medieval waistcoat made in Iceland from a manuscript on parchment dated c.1375.


[Provenance unknown.]


Tuesday, August 11, 2015


2015 TBR Reading Challenge: Truckers by Terry Pratchett


2015 TBR Reading Challenge
Book: Truckers by Terry Pratchett
My Categories: children's, fantasy, male author
Wendy Crutcher's Category: RITA book (That this book ain't!)

I loved this book. I laughed out loud in many places. I marveled at the intricate society and culture of the ordinary world that Pratchett build up.

The story's about these tiny, outer-worldly creatures called Nomes. Some of them live outdoors and are called Outsiders. The majority of the Nomes in this story live under a departmental store called the Store. This is their world. The ceiling is the sky, the departmental sections of Ironmongery, Stationeri, Corsetry, Millinery, and so on are the clans under which the Nomes have organized themselves. Within each clan, there's the head honcho, an advisory team, and other such titles. The clans war with each other and some are stronger / more dominant than others. There's a food hall where, by mutual agreement, everyone comes to the table as equals. Sensible!

Due to a problem with their habitat, the Outsiders hitch a ride on one of the lorries (trucks), which brings them to the Store. Almost all of the Nomes there are astounded by the presence of the Outsiders. Some refuse to believe in them and think they had simply been living elsewhere in the Store.

"It is very hard to meet someone who doesn't believe you exist."

Patriarchy is alive and well among the Nomes of the Store. Not so among the Outsiders.

Their exclamations of surprise or anger are "Grand Finale Sale" and "Everything Must Go." The villain of the story is "Prices Slashed," the security guard.

All the Nomes of the Store believe in a god called...wait for it...Arnold Bros (est. 1905). The Outsiders believe in a black Thing box that once it has access to electricity acts as an oracle and information supplier. It is the computer that came with the Nomes thousands of years ago when they left their planetary home.

And stranger still is that the Thing tells the hero of the tale, Masklin, that the days of the Store are numbered and the Nomes need to move elsewhere to survive. Slowly some of the clan leaders come to accept that the Black Thing and Masklin might have a point. The majority of the book is devoted to how Masklin achieves their removal via a lorry before the Store demolition deadline.

There are nuggets of Pratchett's writing that had me sticking Post-its all over the book.

"I don't know enough words, he thought. Some things you can't think unless you know the right words."

But the best part of the book is the humor. LOL was really L.O.L. Masklin decides that the best way for them to escape was to drive a lorry. Imagine the scale of things.

"It's too far up. It's a small step for a man, but a giant leap for nomekind."

So Masklin and a bunch of higher official Nomes stand on the dashboard and navigate by reading the book The High Way Code and a map from a pocket diary with areas marked "Europe" and "Asia." They tell the signaler to signal left or right. He in turn tells the conductor on the floor of the truck who orchestrates teams of Nomes on the gas pedal, the brake, the clutch, the gear stick, the turn indicator, and the steering wheel.

Imagine this. Hundreds of Nomes manage to maneuver a huge semi out of the garage, out on the city roads, and out into the boondocks. That whole process of coming together to make it work...my sides hurt, because...

"'Well, laddie,' he said. 'I've seen a lot of people, and I've got to tell you, if you lined up ten Nomes and shouted "Pull!," four of them would push and two of them would say "Pardon?" That's how people are. It's just nomish nature.'"

But they do it. They make it safely to outdoor caves. Huzzahs!


Friday, August 7, 2015


Picture Day Friday: A Water Bridge !!!


This is one of the coolest things I found out this year. There's such a thing as a water bridge consisting of one waterway connecting two waterways over a fourth waterway. The Magdeburg Bridge is located in Germany. According to Wikipedia, "[the aqueduct] spans the river Elbe and directly connects the Mittellandkanal to the west and Elbe-Havel Canal to the east of the river, allowing large commercial ships to pass between the Rhineland and Berlin without having to descend into and then climb out of the Elbe itself."


Tuesday, August 4, 2015


My July Reading ... Part 2


This is part two of my reading in the month of July.


Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
Categories: children's
Diversity: Book by a male author. The eponymous character, Stargirl, definitely falls under the diverse heading but not in any known category. It's in her attitude towards life—so unconventional, so free, so confident in her differentness.
Commentary: Recommended by my daughter. This is a gentle love story of this unconventional girl and a conventional boy. He likes her but is very conscious of his fall from social grace because of his choice. Her gentle strangeness is what brings her to his notice. At first he only marvels at her odd starts and ability to empathize with the disaffected. Gradually, her views are what draws him to her, and of course, the fact that she has declared her obvious interest in him and designated him as cute is clearly flattering to him. The first part of the story establishes her personality; the second half is his story and how he negotiates his relationship with her and society at large. My daughter was right—I loved the story.


Six Cousins at Mistletoe Farm by Enid Blyton
Categories: children's
Commentary: I have read and re-read this book since I was under age 10. When my daughter was born, I scoured Book Depository and Abe Books for all the Enid Blytons I remembered from my childhood. Lucky for me, she has shared my love of these books. What do I love about an Enid Blyton? The innocent halcyon days of childhood when children were children and not sexualized mini-adults. (This is a rant long-time in the making.) These children had rough-n-tumble adventures, laughed a lot, ate a lot, worked hard, and seemed to live life larger than children these days.

Fifteen-year-old twins Jane and Jack and their 11-year-old sister Susan live on a farm in England. They grow up on a busy working farm and have morning and evening chores of feeding the chickens, mucking out the stables, and so on. The news that their father's brother's house went up in smoke, his wife is prostrate with grief at a hospital, and their three children are going to descend onto Mistletoe Farm is met with great dismay. Cyril, Melisande, and Roderick are town people and have grown up with governesses, prep schools, and expensive living. There's an utter disconnect between the two sets of cousins. But rub along they have to. They share bedrooms and bathrooms and schools and chores and in so doing, each child learns something from the others. They change, grow up, and grow together. Out of misfortune comes an opportunity for the betterment of self. Blyton writes such uplifting stories.


This Gun for Hire by Jo Goodman
Categories: romance, western
Commentary: Ever since I read the first western by Jo Goodman in Never Love a Lawman (2009), I have loved every western by her. This current book was no exception. Her understated style with deadpan low-key humor, quick repartée, authentic, well-researched details, and great, great characters always make her books engrossing reads for me. Most importantly, she does not employ known melodramatic tropes to inject action into her stories. Her characters generate their own chemistry, their own drama, and are very mature about it all.

She is a bounty hunter. (Yes, really.) He's a lawyer, cattle rancher, and federal marshal. (Yes, really.) They meet in a brothel. She threatens to shoot him. (Yes, really.) Out of such improbable details comes a tender love story. Calico has had a tough upbringing but she's revels in it and is proud of the unconventionality. He's had a traditional upbringing but has a problematic relationship with his religious family. And yet the two are drawn together emotionally when they're brought together to play bodyguards to a daughter-father duo. I liked the suspense aspect of the story as well. It's nuanced and despite small details dribbled here and there, the answer's not obvious. There's no grovel scene, no huge proposal scene...just a quiet acknowledgment of their love and a few chapters later, a quiet acknowledgment of their commitment to marry each other. They had disagreements, but there was no immature bickering. They settled their differences responsibly and respectfully. These were people I could like in real life. While this is not a criteria for liking a book, I do like to see characters behaving like adults.


Charlie All Night by Jennifer Crusie
Categories: romance, contemporary
Commentary: Without a recommendation by Vassiliki and MissBates, I would've missed this charmer. It was cute, it was tender, it was laugh-out-loud funny in places—altogether delightful. Allie is a primetime 6am radio show producer, who has an affair with her star. She gets dumped by him and from her job and is assigned to a 10pm–2am slot with a newbie DJ. Of course, they strike sparks off each other despite both thinking the other is an unlikely bet in the beginning. This is a type of story that I'm very fond of because you can see the two of them falling in love slowly and unknowingly and then committedly. This is what makes for a satisfying romance read for me every time. I want to watch the unfurling of personalities and the blooming of love between them, knowing every step of the way why they're right for each other and that this is forever.


Heaven's Fire by Patricia Ryan
Categories: romance, medieval
Commentary: I loved this book primarily for all the medieval manuscripts details in the construction, writing, and illustrating of them. I was particularly taken by the section on how the illumination was done. Great research well-told.

The central story takes place in Oxford when they are just talking about appointing a chancellor and setting up formal colleges. However, this Oxford of the mid-12th C. is already a place of learning with a well-established office of the Magister Scholarum. Unlike Paris, a more advanced place of learning, the scholar teachers here are not required to be priests. However, higher offices like the chancellor are required to be celibate.

So here we have this ex-priest, celibate scholar of a wealthy noble French family. The heroine is an Anglo-Saxon peasant, more comfortable in English than in Norman French. However, she can read and write, and is well-versed in Latin. Due to tragic circumstances, she arrives in Oxford and manages to earn a living illustrating and illuminating books. Previous circumstances where he saved her from smallpox has bound them together inseparably. Their love story unfolds under the shadow of the Sir Roger, a knight of her village who has always fancied her and has now set a man to find her after she has escaped to Oxford.

An excellent medieval story that conveys the period very well without resorting to known clichés. And it has medieval manuscripts. A decided PLUS!


Mr. Impossible by Loretta Chase
Categories: romance, regency
Commentary: A favorite Chase that I've re-read multiple times. A bumbling aristocrat, a younger son of the highly-accomplished, very-powerful Earl of Hargate, is sent to Egypt by an exasperated parent, hoping he'll inflict this excesses on someone else. There he meets a scholarly, naïve bluestocking, who hides her expertise in languages behind her not-very-bright brother. The two set off on an adventure to find her kidnapped brother and a precious papyrus, where she's the brain and he's the brawn. Hijinks ensue and they fall in love.

I had an interesting discussion with author Emma Barry about how to define Rupert's character. He's certainly not a beta or an alpha. Emma said, "I've heard people call Rupert a beta hero, which I don't quite buy. But he's not typically alpha." So I said that that is what made Chase's story "revolutionary when it first came out. A bumbling less-heroic hero who turns out to be perfect for heroine." Then Emily Jane Hubbard asked if he is gamma. My contention was that a gamma's someone who's laidback, quiet, very competent but goes about without causing too much of a ripple. Thus to me, Rupert defies definition because he has some alpha tendencies, some beta tendencies, and some unique to him. Then Emma brought up a completely different definition of gamma: "I think of gamma as subverting institutions. Like Robin Hood." That's a very interesting look at a gamma. I suppose by that definition Dunnett's Lymond's a gamma. But this still leaves Rupert undefinable.


Monday, August 3, 2015


My July Reading ... Part 1


Now that half the year's over, time to take stock of my reading list. I started out the year with a—in retrospect—ginormous list of books. Taking into account my reading record of the past years but forgetting to account for the large number of slow, non-romance reads, I was Very Ambitious. Instead of a one-year-plan, I had launched a five-year-plan. Naturally, since then, new books have been added to my list due to recommendations by other people (the new shiny is always more entrancing than the good old). The original list saw few books being taken off it. As a result, it stands stalwart in guilting me well into the late 20-teens.

I read a fair bit this month, so I've divided my reading account into two parts. I'll post the second part tomorrow.


Without You, There is No Us by Suki Kim
Categories: memoir
Diversity: Based in North Korea featuring North and South Korean people in addition to volunteers from other countries.
Commentary: What a fantastic look behind the curtain into North Korean life for its youth. The author is Korean-American, born and brought up in Seoul, who moved to the US with her family in her teens. She has maintained close ties with South Korea, traveling there for academic and journalistic work (she writes for Harper's among others) very regularly. Before publishing this book, she traveled to North Korea multiple times, every time worrying and enraging her family. She has written extensively and critically about the country. However, this is the first book she's written about her personal experience. Her Korean ancestry made for strong and conflicting emotions about her journey. She writes about it with a kind of "coming home" yet distancing tone that is by turns achingly sad, warm, confused, and at times patronizing. I liked her for this, except the last, because her feelings and thoughts felt authentic.

I'm still reading it.


The Great Wall of China by Franz Kafka
Categories: nonfiction
Diversity: By a male author
Commentary: Say, what? Kafka, you ask? This is addressing "the lack of humanities in my education" with a vengeance. I admit readily that I would've benefitted from having read this in a classroom setting so salient points and important suppositions could've been pointed out to me. I loved the fable approach to highlighting what he had to say. Brings back childhood memories of Aesop's Fables among others.

The first part of the eponymous story was taken up with analyzing how the Great Wall was built and how the morale of the workers affected how the construction went. Initially, they started building from one end and continued going along. Then they realized that quite a few workers stuck in an inhospitable region for weeks and months on end lost hope and thus their work suffered. So the wall was built piecemeal for many sections so the workers had a small project in hand that they could finish in a short amount of time and start another project in a different region.

The workers were divided into two groups: one group was where the workers didn't mind how the wall was built or where they had to live to work at it and the other group was where workers needed constant encouragement, appreciation of their work, and reassurance of their purposefulness. This allowed the second group of workers to step out of their preoccupation with their inner self into thinking about the community and working together for a common goal. One thing I felt Kafka was at pains to point out was that everything about a communal goal isn't always laudatory. He took a step back from the flag-waving ideals of socialism there.

The narrator not only narrates the story and analyzes the nebulous characters but he or she also posits questions. Doubt is expressed about the piecemeal construction method but also about the purpose of the whole project. Was it really set up to protect against the northern hordes or was it something else or nothing at all? Defending against the nomads is a tacit acknowledgment that the command of men survives only if there are precise tasks detailed in a precise order of things. Thus, according to Kafka, men cannot survive "outside the law."

I could write and write about this and still not fully comprehend it.


Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
Categories: literary fiction
Commentary: Recommended by Rohan Maitzen. I loved Eloisa James's memoir Paris in Love. It's a joyful chronicle of her sabbatical year in Paris, and it's written in small vignettes of everydayness elevated to the extraordinary through her writing. So when Rohan wrote about Speculation that it's also a story told in vignettes, I immediately put a hold on it at the library.

This is very much a "Brooklyn Book." It's self-conscious, stylistic, self-absorbed, spare. Hang on, you say, it's a fictional memoir so it's going to be about self. Well, there's memoir and then there's navel gazing. This is the latter. Many reviewers call it funny. That it is not. It aims for profound but doesn't get there.

It is not a book that celebrates life. It's a book that looks at life sideways and comments on the less savory aspects of it. I was not much in sympathy with the character for most of the book. She genuinely had difficulties—a colicky baby and a troubled marriage, for examples—but some were imagined or manufactured.

"So lately I've been having this recurring dream: In it, my husband breaks up with me at a party, saying, 'I'll tell you later. Don't pester me.' But when I tell him this, he grows peevish. 'We're married, remember? Nobody's breaking up with anybody.'"

I was in sympathy with her husband for most of the book, till I found out he had an affair with someone who was "easier."

Offill's prose describing the state of her main character's feelings and thoughts on this very difficult time in her marriage—as she is surprised by the affair, as she realizes she does love him, as they both try to reconcile with each other—is superb. Her character's reactions are unique and recognizable as ordinary at the same time. She reads a book about how different cultures handle repairing a marriage after an affair. She starts referring to herself in the third person as "the wife," disassociating herself from what was happening to her.

"The wife has taken to laughing maniacally when the husband says something, then repeating the word back incredulously back. Nice??? Fun???"

"Afterwards, the wife sits on the toilet for a long time because her stomach is twisting. Their towels are no longer white and are fraying along the edges. Her underwear too is dinged nearly gray. The elastic is coming out a little. Who would wear such a thing? What kind of repulsive creature?"

She's justifiably angry at him and makes him suffer through rants and fights. She seems to want to continue with the marriage as does he. He starts to make amends, to return to liking her. She refuses to respond, or perhaps she cannot (?). She's always been her own worst enemy. And now, with her mental balance being questionable—she's on medication and seeking therapy—it makes it all the more difficult for her to respond appropriately to the situation. This aspect of the novel was difficult reading and rendered very well by Offill. I was very much in sympathy with the character here as she was portrayed.