Books, My week in reading

Weekly reading meme: w/c 8 April 2013

About half a week ago I was happily outlining revisions to my novel when I realised that I had failed to make any reference to the European medieval witch trials … in a book where restrictions on women’s practice of magic is a major strand. (It lets me write about earnest educational reformer characters. You know how much I like earnest reformers!) So off I rushed to the library to find some books about the witch trials.

Unsurprisingly there is a vast amount of writing on the topic, and I had to be quite strict about how many books I took out. Anyway, this explains why my reading has suddenly gone off in another direction.

What are you reading now?

Wizards: A History by P. G. Maxwell-Stuart. This is not relevant to the subject of witch trials; it was just on the same shelf at the library, and seemed interesting. (Deceptively so! >:( ) It’s a fairly short historical account of “ritual magicians” in the European tradition – particularly the kind that attempted to communicate with spirits – and given its subject matter it is surprisingly boring. I think the author and I are just interested in different things? I also think it is a little odd how he doesn’t quite make it clear whether he believes in magic or not, but perhaps I am just being narrow-minded here. (I am mostly a skeptic, but my attitude towards magic and ghosts and that sort of thing is that I don’t believe in them but am a little worried that they believe in me. I am also like my mom’s Malay ex-coworker who was really superstitious but went to UK and happily visited a graveyard there, and when questioned about this said, “Oh, the Mat Salleh ghosts won’t be interested in me.”)

What did you just finish reading?

Witch, Wicce, Mother Goose by Robert Thurston. A compact academic review of the European and American witch trials. Again, it wasn’t quite what I wanted, as the author and I have different concerns — basically this guy is making an argument in response to all the other academic writing about the witch trials. (He argues that the trials weren’t primarily motivated by misogyny, but resulted from the circumstances of the specific locations where the trials arose and, in particular, the pressures and fears to which these communities were subject — though I don’t think he denies that the deeply embedded misogyny of the culture affected who got persecuted as witches.) But it was useful to give an idea of what went on.

Interesting factoids:

Both this book and the boring wizards book distinguish between sorcerers or magicians or cunning folk and witches. The former might not be wholly approved of, but they weren’t straight-out evil, and in any case their practices were viewed as being distinct from witchcraft.

Witches were people (mostly but not exclusively female) who made a pact with the Devil, but as Thurston points out, the pact kind of sucked for the witch. You had to have sex with the Devil and his demons, and the sex was not enjoyable; he might pay you, but the gold usually turned out to be leaves or poop; the rewards were usually something like the ability to kill and eat babies. Also to show your allegiance you had to kiss the Devil’s butt. Altogether kind of a crappy job lor!

What do you expect to read next?

Another of the witch trial books I got out of the library, I guess, though I might just skim and return. I don’t think I’ll make more than a passing reference to them, after all.

Ooh, I should also read The Complete Servant by Samuel and Sarah Adams – oyceter kindly pointed out a rec for this to me, and it is a handbook for servants by a servant that also looks like a useful guide to Regency period details. It’s free on Google Books, but as my main options for reading it on Google Books are a) my phone and b) my computer screen, I’m trying to decide whether it’s worth paying 82p to call the hard copy up from the public library reserves. Banyaknya buku, singkatnya masa.

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Books, My week in reading

Emerging for air

This week at work — ! Words fail me. I should probably check my work email, actually, but I will leave it till after I have finished this post.

On the shiny new smartphone: Swype is a proper revelation! Infinite thanks to delfinnium for pointing it out to me. It is still slower than keyboard typing, but I am doing much better with it than I was tapping away on the touchscreen. However, the Eljay app continues to be disappointing in the matter of allowing me to read my friends list, on either DW or LJ. I think it’s because it believes I want the advertising turned off (on the free app you can only read your flist if you enable advertising) — but I keep turning the advertising on and not seeing any ads, or my flist. I am wondering whether to just pay for the damned thing so I can get a look at my flist, but if it doesn’t work now what reassurance do I have that it would work when I’ve paid for it?

Since I’ve got a couple of months’ worth of paid account time, I have been indulging myself with reading my Dreamwidth network. This has afforded me the additional, quite unexpected pleasure of stumbling across kind reviews of The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo by people I don’t know — I think because a couple of people I do know recommended it when it was free, so people I don’t know downloaded it then and are only just getting around to reading and reviewing. So thank you very much to those who mentioned it. It has been a nice wee boost to balance out the recent rejection (of the short story collection I’ve been querying — not at all a surprise, since trying to get publishers to take short story collections is a dicey proposition at the best of times, but still hardly the “yes please!” response of one’s lurid writerly dreams).

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What are you reading now?

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. I like Anne Lamott, though she is very … er … I dunno how to say. She strikes me as a progressive white lady who very much thinks of herself as a progressive white lady, but she is not quite so progressive as she thinks. (E.g. she mentions hanging out with “ethnic people” at college because she was a bit of an outcast growing up and was drawn to other people who are ~different~.) But her writing is very easy and fun to read, and it is a good writing book because it is not prescriptive.

After all the only writing about writing that can be tolerated is that which is personal. Otherwise you get into “don’t use adverbs” and “show, not tell” type stuff — infinitely tedious, often just plain wrong.

What did you just finish reading?

A Brief History of Britain, 1660-1851 by William Gibson. I didn’t read all of it — started somewhere near the middle of the eighteenth century — but I will count it as finished. It was more fun than I thought it’d be! The period from Walpole to Pitt was boring because it was all about politics, and made me reflect on the fact that history’s often being perceived as the story of who is in power (as opposed to: what everybody else was doing) makes it boring. Though of course you do have to understand the macro stuff to put what everybody else was doing in context … is the question of who was Prime Minister and the squabbles intrigue surrounding that really macro stuff, though?

But the stuff about the industrial revolution, though really a little later than what I was reading for (it is background research for my Regency fantasy romance!), was really interesting. And in fact I’m going to contradict myself a little here and say that even the Walpole stuff taught me something new, because the whole system of corruption and patronage up top made sense of why Jack Aubrey is always worried about “interest”.

Other things I had not known:

– There were four royal Georges in a row from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century. How uncreative!

– Stockbroking was a new thing in the nineteenth century because they had all this extra money from the industrial revolution that needed investing.

– Before the 1660s there weren’t all these hedgerows bisecting (multiply-secting?) the English countryside — those came about because of enclosures. You think of hedgerows as being so typical of the English landscape that it is very interesting to think that it would’ve looked totally different before enclosures.

There was other stuff … but I have forgotten it.

So zhun (准), just as I had got to the last page and was starting to look through the “further reading”, my book expired and I couldn’t go on. (It was a library ebook.) I have reborrowed it so I can make notes on further reading.

What do you expect to read next?

I’m not done with Bird by Bird yet, but I’ve got to leave it at whatever percent for now, because it’s not got an expiry date, whereas I borrowed a couple of new ebooks from the library which do:

Japanese for Beginners by Katie Kitamura, by a Japanese-American about Japan — which I don’t think I’ll bother reading: I read the first few pages but it is too literary-journalistic, when I was hoping for more of a personal memoir sort of thing (e.g. when Kitamura meets her cousin at the airport, her cousin suddenly becomes the emblem of the “cool generation” of Japan, blah blah departure from previous generation’s values of hard work and depersonalised ambition blah).

The Discovery of Jeanne Baret by Glynis Ridley, which I will read — it is about a lady in eighteenth century France who travelled on a ship making a round-the-world trip to (presumably among other places) Tahiti, dressed as a dude and doing Science. I am a little dubious because early on the author says that Baret could not have published her work on birds or whatever in France because society would have viewed her as a whore!!! I could accept an argument that such work would have been viewed as totally out of a woman’s sphere, perhaps leading on to the point that deviation from the norm in a woman is/was often couched in terms of sexual deviation, a betrayal of her inherent femininity … Or perhaps Ridley meant that by publishing Baret would have revealed that she’d shared her boyfriend’s cabin for the duration of the voyage, and so society would have viewed her as a whore. But the bald statement that a lady publishing science would have been viewed as whorish for publishing science seems to me to require some explication.

It is an interesting story anyway, so I will read on.

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Books, My week in reading

Weekly reading meme

I hadn’t realised this was meant to be a weekly meme. /o\ Anyway, I am anyhow doing it, last time on Friday and this time on Monday (actually Tuesday).

What are you reading now?

The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down – A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman. This is a sad book, or rather it is not itself a sad book, but it is about very sad things. It is not bad on race, but I would still be annoyed at if I were Hmong because it speaks in such broad sweeping generalisations, New York Times editorial style. I also wish she were more anthropological about the people she keeps calling Americans — meaning by this white Americans — but since it is a book intended for a white American audience, not much hope lah.

I am also reading Desolation Island by Patrick O’Brian. I got distracted because I am worried that Jack is going to lose all his money down the fake silver mines.

What did you just finish reading?

*koff* The Mauritius Command, also by Patrick O’Brian. I had forgotten what a great character Clonfert is — so tragic, absurd, obnoxious and touching all at once.

What do you expect to read next?

I shall go back to Desolation Island after I have finished The Spirit Catches You etc. I still have to read A Brief History of Britain, 1660-1851 … I hope it hasn’t expired yet, but if it has I guess I could renew it.

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Books, My week in reading

Books books books

What are you reading now?

Patrick O’Brian’s HMS Surprise. I started rereading this during my Malaysian wedding, in that vast dull space in the morning between the departure of the make-up artist and the arrival of the bridegroom. I was immured in my bedroom while my friends were occupied in setting him and his heng dai various challenges, and started rereading O’Brian to pass the time. The groom’s party arrived before I got past the first chapter, though. I am now doing a reread of the first book through to the twentieth — we have passed the debauching of the sloth and are now in Bombay, where Maturin has met Dil and is hanging around waiting for Diana.

As with all the best books, I always notice something different on a reread; this time it was the fact that Stephen’s dealings with Dil are a good metaphor or analogy or, really, example of the disastrous consequences that can attend the well-intentioned meddlings of the privileged in the lives of the less privileged. It’s hard to do good, and easy to mess up ….

This is the main thing I am reading: I am indulging in rereading because it is a holiday and also the Aubreyad is the right period for the novel I’m writing, so I can sort of justify it on those grounds. I am also reading Blue God: A life of Krishna by Ramesh Menon, having finished his retelling of the Mahabharata in two volumes, as well as Daughter of Elysium by Joan Slonczewski, which I downloaded when it was being offered for free a while ago. Daughter of Elysium is old-fashioned science fiction of the anthropological, we all live in giant living cells under the sea sort; it is too early for me to have any strong opinions. Blue God has the same satisfying mythic richness as Menon’s retelling of the Mahabharata, though I confess I am skimming the Bhagavad Gita bits.

What did you just finish reading?

800 Years of Women’s Letters, edited by Olga Kenyon, which was very disappointing — Cephas kindly ordered it off a catalogue of academic-y books he received. The letters are fine, but there is very little variety — she extracts letters from the same writers over and over, grouped under different topic headings — and the commentary is shockingly poor. Also, this was first published in the early ’90s, but there have been a couple of reprints since, and she hasn’t really bothered expanding the selection of letters — her sources are all late ’80s. And a good number of the letters are fiction — as in, extracted from fiction, and on at least one occasion she says, “OK, so the following extract isn’t a letter, but it kind of sounds like a letter ….” Really poor.

Post-Captain by Patrick O’Brian. The new thing I noticed was that Stephen is as much at fault for the parlous state of his relationship with Diana as Diana is — she makes it clear from the very beginning that she is looking for marriage, and then he doesn’t offer. I know she blows hot and cold, but it’s pretty obvious that she’s only doing that because she’s furious at him for being just like all the other dudes who just want to sleep with her and won’t commit.

The Surrendered by Chang-rae Lee. This was very good, but I found it incredibly brutal reading — it was part of the reason why I started an Aubreyad reread. It was making me so depressed and grumpy that I needed a boost — a spiritual palate cleanser. But it is very good! It is all about broken people and horribleness and survival.

What do you expect to read next?

The Mauritius Command! I’ve also borrowed A Brief History of Britain, 1660-1851 by William Gibson, which expires in 21 days, so I’ve got to read it soonish. (My library does ebooks! This is very exciting!)

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