Saturday, March 30, 2024

April 2024 In Books: What I'm Reading

The Leipzig Book Fair ran last weekend, and I'd intended to read Dutch and Flemish books before then. I didn't, much, but picked up music scores from German publishers.

Before, I'd dropped into a Polish-German bookstore in the Berlin areas of Kreuzberg/Neukölln. The bookshelves were full of books I might want to read and hadn't read yet. NoViolet Bulawayo's Glory and Olga Tokarczuk's Flights, for example. Zimbabwe's Bulawayo I'd heard about on YouTube, and Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk's prose was so good when I read an excerpt from Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead that it has been on my mental list to read more.

Before that, I'd watched the 4 episodes of the literary Canada Reads 2024 competition on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's YouTube channel.

Jessica Johns's fantasy-thriller book Bad Cree was available in the Berlin bookshop just after I heard of it on Canada Reads.

Courtesy of ECW Press

But the first Canadian book I want to finish is Denison Avenue by Christina Wong and Daniel Innes. So far it is one of the best books that I have read in years.

After those, I hope to read The Future by Catherine Leroux or Shut Up You're Pretty by Téa Mutonji.


In multimedia:

MIT's OpenCourseWare programme's self-guided English literature course of study on the medieval epic Beowulf, based on 2023 lectures for undergraduates. MIT has published lecture videos, reading lists, and other useful material on its website and on YouTube. It begins with a crash course in Anglo-Saxon grammar. I highly recommend it.

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, Roald Dahl's strange short story that left me wondering if it was fact or fiction (but I never tried seeing through a pack of cards, as it felt like too much trouble especially if it would likely only prove that I was gullible) when I was a child, has been adapted into a film by Wes Anderson. Breaking the fourth wall, the film weaves in Ralph Fiennes as Roald Dahl, the narrator. It is available on Netflix, and has won an Academy Award.

Saturday, March 02, 2024

Spring Scenes in: The Ugly Duckling

As Berlin breaks out of the winter stasis at its customary slow pace, I wanted to celebrate spring with seasonal classics.

Idyllic painting of a hilly village on a sunny day with light clouds. A church with an onion dome, two large half-timbered houses. A dusty street leads up the hill with villagers on it. The trees are beginning to have leaves, some have blossoms.
"Maiabend im Tieftal - Erfurt" (1885)
by Emil Zschimmer (1842-1917)
via Wikimedia Commons

William Wordsworth's famous poem "To a Daffodil" has already appeared in this blog. So, moving on to the next inspiration, I browsed translations of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales to find springtime scenes.


The "The Ugly Ducking" (1843) (which is famous enough that it requires no synopsis) has a lovely description of spring. It's an analogy of the Ugly Duckling's winter of discontent turning into glorious summer.

It would be very sad, were I to relate all the misery and privations which the poor little duckling endured during the hard winter; but when it had passed, he found himself lying one morning in a moor, amongst the rushes. 
He felt the warm sun shining, and heard the lark singing, and saw that all around was beautiful spring. 
Then the young bird felt that his wings were strong, as he flapped them against his sides, and rose high into the air. 
They bore him onwards, until he found himself in a large garden, before he well knew how it had happened. The apple-trees were in full blossom, and the fragrant elders bent their long green branches down to the stream which wound round a smooth lawn. Everything looked beautiful, in the freshness of early spring. 
From a thicket close by came three beautiful white swans, rustling their feathers, and swimming lightly over the smooth water.

From: Hans Andersen's Fairy Tales. Mrs. H. B. Paull, transl. London/New York: Warne & Co., 1888.
[Wikisource, but I've changed the paragraph structure]

(English translations differ strongly in their translation of 'elders.' 'Lilacs' and 'syringas' appear in other editions published before the First World War. These seem to be the correct translation. 'Syringa' is the Latin genus name for 'lilac.')


Men det vilde blive altfor bedrøveligt at fortælle al den Nød og Elendighed, den maatte prøve i den haarde Vinter – – den laae i Mosen mellem Rørene, da Solen igjen begyndte at skinne varmt; Lærkerne sang – det var deiligt Foraar.

Da løftede den paa eengang sine Vinger, de bruste stærkere end før og bare den kraftigt afsted; og før den ret vidste det, var den i en stor Have, hvor Æbletræerne stode i Blomster, hvor Sirenerne duftede og hang paa de lange, grønne Grene lige ned imod de bugtede Canaler! O her var saa deiligt, saa foraarsfriskt! og lige foran, ud af Tykningen, kom tre deilige, hvide Svaner; de bruste med Fjerene og fløde saa let paa Vandet. 

— Hans Christian Andersen. "Den grimme Ælling" (1843) [Wikisource]

Gold-toned, coloured painting of water lily flowers, papyrus stalks and other plants in a pond
Illustration from Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary (1890—1907)
via Wikimedia Commons


Friday, January 19, 2024

January 2024 in Books: What I'm Reading

As December ended, I tried to finish as many books as I could before New Year's:

Ken Krimstein's graphic novel about The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt, for example. It instilled an appetite for Weimar Republic-era philosophy that I haven't yet followed up on. It had a few moments of the perfervid enthusiasm of a Dead Poets' Society, but either way it is very well done.

My uncle also gave me Berenberg's German-English edition of Eliot Weinberger's poem Die Sterne. Interspersed with Franziska Neubert's illustrations of starry patterns, which nod I think to Weinberger's cross-cultural approach to star lore and remind me of Islamic art (at least, modern Islamic art) that eschews depicting people, it is a soothing read.

It's also happily tying in with a hardcover edition, with picturesque gilt-edged leaves, of Jean Menzies's collection of English retellings of ancient Greek myth: Greek Myths: Gods and Goddesses. Which was a present, too, from a British former teammate.

Chekhov's Lady with a Lapdog and Other Stories are proving harder to read, just because they aren't very cheerful. But it is impressive again to consider how a man who didn't see his 50th birthday was able to write with so much observation, at such a stylistically sophisticated level, about such a large range of characters.


Aside from that, I read The Light of Days by Judy Batalion in a young readers' edition.

It extols young Polish Jewish women who fought Nazis as well as the Jewish police in the cities, towns and villages in the early 1940s. Incredibly grim as the events are, I was impressed the author pulled through the writing and research.

It's also a more morally ambiguous book than I think the author realizes. She cheerfully describes the deaths of Nazis, or (in some cases) the attacks on Jewish police who have been detailed at the coercion of German authorities to round up fellow Jews, as if she were a World War I-era Briton talking about 'potting the Huns.'

Whereas at other times, Nazis, Germans who aren't Nazis, Polish people, and Jewish police help Jewish civilians to escape, even at great personal risk.

Did grenades, bullets, lightbulbs filled with acid, etc., always hit the oppressor instead of the helper? 

I think it was more complex for the Jewish fighters to kill others than the book relates. Likely Batalion's research would have dug up evidence, if there had been any, of PTSD or feelings of guilt related specifically to guerrilla warfare. But I'm not sure if all Holocaust survivors would have been open about having these feelings.

I grew up around my grandparents' deep, war-related queasiness around weaponry. None of them, of course, were Holocaust survivors. Still, their attitude reinforced for me that people who knew best knew guns and their use, saw these as a serious, grim thing. In a limited context, guns can determine who dies and survives; as a broader response to violence, I am not sure they resolve anything as intended.


The next book once The Light of Days was finished: We Had a Little Real Estate Problem, a book on First Nations, Native Americans, and stand-up comedy by the Canadian author Kliph Nesteroff.

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Carollers and Wind in the Willows

"Badger by C. E. Swan
(Meles taxus syn. Meles meles)"
From: The wild beasts of the world (1909)
by Frank Finn
via Wikimedia Commons

The Wind in the Willows first appeared in print in 1908. It's a beloved children's classic since then — I suspect that a plot summary isn't needed! Even aside from the books with Ernest H. Shephard's (or Arthur Rackham's, or...) illustrations, its legacy lives on in other ways.

My family watched the 1980s British stop motion animated series on Canadian television in the 1990s, and still sometimes hum the theme song from memory.

A watercolour painting of a lady mouse, who is sitting, wearing an old-fashioned cap and knitting a sock
Mouse knitting
From: Appley Dapply's Nursery Rhymes (1917)
by Beatrix Potter
via Wikimedia Commons

The Wind in the Willows's Christmas passages, atmospheric and pleasingly English, have also inspired composer Audrey Snyder to arrange a musical setting of the Carol. It is sung by choirs at Christmas under the title "Joy on Christmas Morning." (For example: [YouTube].)


It was a pretty sight, and a seasonable one, that met their eyes when they flung the door open. In the fore-court, lit by the dim rays of a horn lantern, some eight or ten little fieldmice stood in a semicircle, red worsted comforters round their throats, their fore-paws thrust deep into their pockets, their feet jigging for warmth. With bright beady eyes they glanced shyly at each other, sniggering a little, sniffing and applying coat-sleeves a good deal. As the door opened, one of the elder ones that carried the lantern was just saying, 'Now then, one, two, three!' and forthwith their shrill little voices uprose on the air, singing one of the old-time carols that their forefathers composed in fields that were fallow and held by frost, or when snow-bound in chimney corners, and handed down to be sung in the miry street to lamp-lit windows at Yule-time.


Villagers all, this frosty tide,
Let your doors swing open wide,
Though wind may follow, and snow beside,
Yet draw us in by your fire to bide;
Joy shall be yours in the morning! 
Here we stand in the cold and the sleet,
Blowing fingers and stamping feet,
Come from far away you to greet
—You by the fire and we in the street—
Bidding you joy in the morning! 
For ere one half of the night was gone,
Sudden a star has led us on,
Raining bliss and benison
—Bliss to-morrow and more anon,
Joy for every morning! 
Goodman Joseph toiled through the snow—
Saw the star o'er a stable low;
Mary she might not further go—
Welcome thatch, and litter below!
Joy was hers in the morning! 
And then they heard the angels tell
'Who were the first to cry NOWELL?
Animals all, as it befell,
In the stable where they did dwell!
Joy shall be theirs in the morning!'

A wintry landscape painting with a lake, snowy path with a horse and rider on it, pollarded willow trees, and vast partly cloudy sky
"Belgian winter landscape" (19th century)
by Louis-Pierre Verwee
via Wikimedia Commons

The voices ceased, the singers, bashful but smiling, exchanged sidelong glances, and silence succeeded—but for a moment only. Then, from up above and far away, down the tunnel they had so lately travelled was borne to their ears in a faint musical hum the sound of distant bells ringing a joyful and clangorous peal.  

Source: The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame [Project Gutenberg Australia]

Tuesday, December 05, 2023

A 15th-Century Storke Carol

"The Storke" is as far as I know not well known in Canada, the United States, or indeed in the United Kingdom where it was written in the 15th century.

But it was set to music by the Canadian conductor Ernest MacMillan around 1927. I heard it in a recording from the late 1990s, by the Canadian choral group Elmer Iseler Singers in their album Noël: Early Canadian Christmas Music / Music canadienne d'antan pour Noël.

MacMillan had been captured in Germany during World War I, as he was visiting Bayreuth when the war broke out, and interned in Ruhleben. He would only return home in 1919.

"De arte venandi cum avibus"
13th cent. Creator unknown.
via Wikimedia Commons

According to Clifford Ford's liner notes for the album, MacMillan's interest in an old poem reflected a general "revival of English folk songs" during the first half of the 20th century. (The earliest edition of "The Storke" as a poem I found on Google Books was from ~1914.) Ford adds, referring also to a song "I Sing of a Maiden,"

The original tunes for these carols have not survived, but MacMillan's vocal lines, sensitive accompaniments, and metrical shifts to accommodate textual accents, produce two charming settings reminiscent of Vaughan Williams.

In the UK, Donald Swann, who himself had an adventurous life, picked up the poem a generation later and set it to music in Sing Round the Year (1968).

Both settings can be found on YouTube.


The Storke

1. The storke shee rose on Christmas-eve,
And sayed unto her brood,
I nowe must fare to Bethleem
To view the Sonne of God.

2. Shee gave to ache his dole of mete,
She stowed them fayrlie in,
And farre shee flew And fast she flew,
And came to Bethleem.

3. Nowe where is He of David, line?
She askd at house and halle.
He is not here, They spake hardlye,
But in the Maungier stalle.

4. Shee found hym in the maungier stalle.
With that most Holye Babye,
The gentyle storke shee wept to see
The Lord so rudelye layde.

5. Then from her pauntynge brest shee pluckd
The fethers whyte and warm;
Shee strawed them in the Maungier bed
To kepe the Lord from harm.

6. Nowe blessed bee the gentle storke
For evermore, Quothe Hee,
For that shee saw my sadde estate
And showed such Pytye.

(7. Full welkum shall shee ever bee
In hamlet and in halle,
And hight henceforth The blessed Byrd,
And friend of Babyes alle.)

"Stork (detail of a tapestry)." 1550s.
Artist unknown - City of Brussels.
via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, September 03, 2023

Berlin Reads, 2023: A Short Story by Idza Luhumyo

The International Berlin Literature Festival formally begins on September 6th this year, but 'Berlin liest' is a long running prefatory tradition that my bookseller mother has also celebrated once or twice.

'Berlin reads': People and businesses read aloud a book, for no more than 30 minutes, in public. It's a kind of 'amuse bouche' for the festival itself.


There are few restrictions, but the organizers offered a few nudges. Why not read poetry by Dinçer Güçyeter, whose prose and poetry memoir Unser Deutschlandmärchen won the prize at the Leipzig Book Fair in April? Or Palestinian author and current New Yorker Ibtisam Azem, who wrote Das Buch vom Verschwinden as a reflection on the ongoing conflict in Israel and the Palestinian Territories? Salman Rushdie's Victory City is also on the list, in honour of the author who was notoriously attacked last year. Jeffrey Eugenides's Virgin Suicides and Middlesex are well known, Bora Chung's short stories in Der Fluch des Hasen (Cursed Bunny) imaginative works of fiction.

In the end I read the magical realist short story "Five Years Next Sunday." Idza Luhumyo won the Caine Prize for African Writing for it, in 2022. You can read it as well on the Prize's website.

It's short, but full of imagery, and the metaphors are so complex that I wasn't able to disentangle them fully. (If they are all metaphors; some things you can probably also understand literally, like acquaintances rudely pawing the protagonist's hair.) Pili, the main character, is being emotionally bled dry by the family (parents and teenaged brothers) and new friends around her. On one level she sees through their motivations, on another level she doggedly takes their purported affection at face value. At the same time, I think, Pili is scrambling for a chance to escape and to chase her own daydreams.

She keeps looking outside, reporting on the gathering of the clouds, the darkening of the day, the flight of the birds. “Rain is coming,” she whispers.

Thursday, August 03, 2023

August 2022 in Books: What I'm Reading

It's a colossus and I'm still running back and forth between its legs like a Brutus (to attempt a poor Shakespeare allusion). But gradually I'm tackling the audiobook recording of Robert A. Caro's memoir of Lyndon B. Johnson during his vice presidency under John F. Kennedy: The Passage of Power.

If it were a Columbo television crime show episode, I'd say at once that Johnson was the mastermind who organized Kennedy's assassination. Jealousy, enmity, rivalry, and humiliation teem in the pages.

It's hard to regard Kennedy's presidency as a saintly Camelot, or to consider even Robert F. Kennedy as a kindly figure, if one reads about the dynamics behind the scenes. That said, no individual actions of the Kennedys stick in my memory as criminal; the Kennedys generally just seem sort of mean. (Well, all right, I think the patriarch was genuinely a 'piece of work.') Johnson himself, however, practically built his career on electoral fraud and political crimes.

"Photo portrait of Lyndon B. Johnson
as U.S. Senator for Texas
and Majority Leader"
via Wikimedia Commons
Public domain

So it does feel as if one scratched the surface of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. and found it — and by extension the entire presidency and democratic system — to be made not so much of stone, as of paper-mâché formed to look like stone.

And of course the other paradox: despite the emotional and moral hollowness that marked parts of their political lives, Kennedy, Johnson, and others, achieved genuine, lasting good. — And before Kennedy's political career, [as mentioned in a past blog post] his rescue of his fellow sailors in a torpedo boat in World War II really is the stuff of superheroes, and makes for a thrilling adventure in Caro's prose.

It's also astonishing how many significant historical details are no longer known, now that the former President and Vice-President have died.

The most significant detail, perhaps:

Did Kennedy offer the vice presidency to Johnson assuming, after their fierce primary battle and mutual hatred, that Johnson would reject the offer? Or was it in fact a purposeful, strategic move to enable Kennedy to win more votes than Richard Nixon's Republicans in the South?


New cover of Touch the Dragon
From the Turnstone Press

Karen Connelly's Touch the Dragon (1994) was given to me by my paternal grandfather when I was a teenager.

The author went to Thailand on a student exchange when she was seventeen years old. It was the 1980s. She was a Canadian who didn't know much of the language, but she is taught partly by immersion and partly in a school.

In brilliant prose, Connelly describes daily life from the glamourous to the not-so-glamourous. She writes frankly of the mental discomfort of adjusting to what feels like a diametrically opposed new reality, and dishes about the dissolution of her relationship with a boyfriend back in Canada.

It's affectionately, immersively written. Connelly's sarcastic, worldly-wise voice as an author recalling her younger self is pitch-perfect — but I think that one or two snap judgments that seem insensitive, like calling music at a festival 'horrific,' could also have been edited away without weakening the book.


Otto Hahn's autobiography, Mein Leben, is not a famous book. But from reading it I have been converted from someone who knows that he was a famous German scientist, to an admirer of him personally.

He is generously precise about his life, starting in a lower-middle-class family in Frankfurt am Main, through his university years and his escapades e.g. in duelling fraternities, and his various youthful loves and losses.... And that's as far as I've gotten. His life certainly did not end in the early 1900s, and later chapters will likely detail his attitudes toward the two World Wars, and the Cold War.

Christopher Nolan's film Oppenheimer has come out in theaters, tracing the role and reaction of a different scientist to knowledge pursued for the sake of military applications. It would be interesting to compare the different works.