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Petroglyph's 2019 Challenge

TBR Challenge

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Edited: Jan 16, 8:02am Top

Books from countries I have not read (enough of)
  1. Colombia:
    Collected stories by Gabriel Garcia Márquez.
    This one was also on the 2016 tbr challenge, but I only completed a few stories. I’ll try again this year.

  2. Canada/Caribbean:
    Cereus blooms at night by Shani Mootoo.
    A gift from my SO. Set in the Caribbean.

  3. Sénégal:
    So long a letter by Mariama Bâ.
    My first Senegalese author. A recommendation by my SO, who specialises in African literatures. I’d much rather read this in the original French, but couldn’t say no to a second-hand English-language copy for only $1. So it goes.

  4. Sudan:
    Season of migration to the north by Tayeb Salih.
    My first Sudanese author. Comes warmly recommended by my SO.

  5. Yugoslavia/Serbia:
    Houses by Borislav Pekić.
    My first Serbian author. A random choice, motivated entirely by my crush on NYRB Classics (almost anything they put out is worth reading).

  6. Hungary:
    The door by Magda Szabó.
    I’ve heard nothing but good things about this novel, but know very little about it going in.

Reading projects

  1. Das Muschelessen by Birgit Vanderbeke. English title: The mussel feast
    Part of an effort to read more in German. This book is a recommendation by a colleague, and I have no idea what to expect.

  2. Currently reading: Beckomberga by Sara Stridsberg. English title: The gravity of love
    Part of an effort to read more contemporary Swedish authors (I live in Sweden). About a girl growing up in a psychiatric hospital (though not as one of the patients).

  3. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, Emperor of Rome.
    Part of an effort to read more by the Ancients. I made it through a third of this book as a teen before just never picking it up again, though not for any real reason (I’m always reading too many books at once). This time I intend to see it through.

  4. Le colonel Chabert by Honoré de Balzac. English title: Colonel Chabert.
    This year’s Big French Classic. I gather that the main character got declared dead in absentia, but is very much alive and wants to reclaim their forfeited possessions. Sounds interesting enough.

  5. The gate of angels by Penelope Fitzgerald. Finished: 4th January 2019
    After Jane Austen, I’ve decided to make Penelope Fitzgerald my next Completist Author, meaning I’ll be reading all nine of her novels. Four I’ve already read, and and this is the only unread book by her I own (though I might buy and read more by her in 2019). From the blurb, The gate of angels is an academic novel and a romance set in 1912 Cambridge. Also, it apparently features a character based on M. R. James, whose early 20thC horror stories I will always have a soft spot for.

  6. Two Spanish picaresque novels by Francisco de Quevedo.
    This year’s Big Classic: a book containing the 16thC The life of Lazarillo de Tormes (Anonymous) and the 17thC The swindler (El buscón) by Francisco de Quevedo. I’m fond of reading the occasional picaresque tale, and this year I’ll finally be reading a purchase of eleven years ago.

General Owned-but-Unread

  1. Currently reading: Een zwerver verliefd; Een zwerver verdwaald; Het fregatschip Johanna Maria; De wereld een dansfeest by Arthur van Schendel.
    An omnibus of four novels (published between 1904 and 1938) by the neoromantic Dutch writer Arthur van Schendel. I bought this omnibus over a decade ago on the strength of the fourth novel, De wereld een dansfeest, which I’ve read twice already (it is due for a reread). The other three will be new to me. I will be counting this as a single item.

  2. De koffiedief by Tom Hillenbrand. English title: The coffee thief
    This year’s Doorstopper. A present from my SO. An historical adventure thriller set during the 17thC coffee trade dominated by the Dutch East India Company. (Translated from German.)

  3. Ten days in a mad-house by Nellie Bly. Finished: 13 January 2019
    Back in the 1880s a investigative journalist had herself temporarily committed to an asylum for the insane in New York, in order to write a series of articles documenting the (mal)treatments that the inmates were subjected to. That sounds super interesting! (As does the rest of her life, btw.)

  4. Currently reading: A portrait of the artist as a young man by James Joyce.
    I’m unlikely to ever read Ulysses, and I’ll never read Finnegan’s wake, but I remember enjoying Dubliners. Joyce’s other book has stood unread on my shelves since I was 17, and this year I’ll finally scratch that vague itch and move it into the Read section of my library.

  5. The image of a drawn sword by Jocelyn Brooke. Finished: 2 January 2019
    This was an impulsive purchase, and the only unread item from a 2014 London book haul. Some kind of fantasy-horror to do with World War Two. Sounds like the kind of thing I would read ;)

  6. Currently reading: Samlade dikter by Edith Södergran. English title: Collected poems.
    My SO’s favourite Swedish-speaking poet. Let’s give her a go!

  7. Tabac by Gerda Dendooven.
    A Belgian author’s debut novel. I know Dendooven primarily as an illustrator of YA books; this is her first novel for adults.

  8. Angel by Elizabeth Taylor.
    I’ve been itching to dip into the books of Elizabeth Taylor -- no, not that one -- and this book, about a writer’s life, is what a local independent bookshop happened to stock.

  9. The bluest eye by Toni Morrison.
    Because it is high time I read something by her.

  10. Moravagine by Blaise Cendrars.
    Some books sound like they were written to please me in particular (Earlier instalments from this challenge include The towers of Trebizond and The Wake). This year’s candidate appears to be Moravagine, a Decadent novel, in which an escapee from a psychiatric hospital and his doctor traipse around the world, witnessing the global chaos that were the 1910s.

  11. The Satanic verses by Salman Rushdie.
    On this list because a) it’s one of those books and authors I feel I really ought to have read, and b) I’ve owned a copy for a shameful mumbleteen years now.

  12. The obelisk gate by N. K. Jemisin.
    The second volume in her Broken Earth trilogy. I enjoyed the first one quite a bit, and will definitely read the rest of the series.

Edited: Dec 24, 2018, 9:17am Top

Some photos:

The book pile & Category 1 (6 books of 6)

Category 2 (4 books of 6) & Category 3 (7 books of 12)

The books not pictured I will be reading as ebooks -- either because that's how I acquired them in the first place (Ten days in a mad-house and The obelisk gate) or because my physical copies are in storage and I've had to get digital replacements. Meditations, the Two picaresque novels, A portrait of the artist as a young man and the Arthur Van Schendel books are all too old for copyright to apply. That leaves The satanic verses, which I'll borrow from the library when its time comes.

I only realized after I made my selection and went to pull the volumes off their shelves that this year's challenge consists primarily of fairly slender volumes. True, I'll be reading an omnibus of 4 and have it count as one item, and some of the books not pictured are hefty, but still. I guess this year I'll have an unfair advantage ;)

Dec 17, 2018, 10:11pm Top

I thought The Satanic Verses was quite good. And James Joyce is interesting in a different sort of way. I'm a fan of Toni Morrison, although I haven't read that one. And I have Meditations sitting on my shelf as well, so I look forward to seeing your thoughts. You have a very interesting list. Should be a great 2019. :)

Dec 18, 2018, 9:02am Top

I appreciate the thought you put into your lists. I've played with the idea of adding rationales to choices myself, but a lot of it might read like 'just because'.

I think I would like to read more by Marquez someday, although I haven't rated him a favourite. The NYRB Classics series does seem pretty amazing in its spectrum and I like their covers; coincidentally I've got one for my 2019 list too. Marcus Aurelius has a rep for being one of the more impressive emperors of Rome, so he's probably worth the revisit (I'll be getting to know a fictional version of Hadrian). Hope Balzac is a better French choice this time! Portrait is my favourite Joyce novel, I rate it #1 for capturing the spririt and sensation of boyhood. I'm on the fence about visiting Toni Morrison, I should probably try. I didn't like Rushdie's "Midnight's Children" but I've kept the Verses in TBR; won't be this year, maybe your review will help me decide when. I really, really must read Jemisin's trilogy, just don't know when I'm ever going to find the time/room in one of my lists.

Dec 18, 2018, 11:48am Top

I believe that Portrait of an artist was on my challenge list from a couple of years ago but I never got to it. Maybe you reading it in 2019 will inspire me to add it back for 2020. Nellie Bly was so fascinating to read about that I wanted to read more about her but just haven't yet. Toni Morrison is one of those authors I'm embarrassed to have never read, so I'll be interested to see what you think of The Bluest Eye in case I finally do read something by her, I might know where to start.

Dec 19, 2018, 8:04pm Top

You always have such interesting lists. I'm following along as again. Happy reading!

Dec 20, 2018, 4:59am Top

>3 billiejean:
2019 looks like it's going to be a good reading year. I'm thinking of trying another challenge (the category challenge or Reading Our Own Tomes) -- purely to finally deal with a bunch of books at the bottom of mount tbr, the ones that got added early on (Joyce's Portrait of the artist being possibly the earliest). Weirdly looking forward to 2019 for that reason.

>4 Cecrow:
I typically read loads more books during a given year than these 24; these happen to be the ones I make myself "finally get to". These lists probably look more interesting than they are because they've gone through filters: a mix of eager and more reluctant reads; balanced for gender (half male, half female); at least four or five famous "classics" (broadly speaking) that people will have heard of.

>5 LittleTaiko:
Nellie Bly does look like it's a fascinating read -- I probably won't be able to keep myself from reading it soon. Tony Morrison I've planned for February -- I'll let you know!

>6 Narilka:
Thank you! Happy reading to you too!

Dec 20, 2018, 11:52am Top

>7 Petroglyph: - It's funny - my work secret santa bought me a Toni Morrison book. It wasn't one of her fiction books though, instead it's a collection of essays called Playing in the Dark. Guess I'll be reading her sooner than I thought!

Dec 20, 2018, 4:55pm Top

>8 LittleTaiko:
Sampling a writer's non-fiction together with their fiction is always an interesting exercise. Her introduction to The radiance of the king by Camara Laye was very good (which is the only non-fiction by her I have).

Jan 2, 5:58pm Top

I've updated >2 Petroglyph: with photos and some comments.

Also, earlier tonight I finished #1: The image of a drawn sword. No great feat, though: it's barely over 140 pages!

Jan 2, 6:00pm Top

The image of a drawn sword by Jocelyn Brooke

Why did I choose to read this?
This was an impulsive purchase, and the only unread item from a 2014 London book haul. Some kind of fantasy-horror to do with World War Two. Sounds like the kind of thing I would read ;)

Review (Also posted here.)
This wasn’t quite fantasy-horror, but more of a cross between Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense and Kafka’s The Trial.

Reynard Langrish, former soldier declared physically unfit during WWII, lives with his mother just outside a village outside the town where he works at a bank. Above all, he feels increasingly untethered to reality: his senses are dulled, and the world feels washed-out. One night, a particularly dark and stormy one, an army captain called Archer calls at his house, claiming to have taken a wrong turn and asking for directions. The two strike up an awkward, almost compulsory friendship. As Langrish’ encounters become increasingly dreamlike, he soon finds himself training to join a British Army battalion that is being raised in secret.

This was a weird read: not quite horror, not quite Weird Fiction, not quite suspense. Horror tropes that are seemingly used straight (cf. the dark and stormy night when Langrish and Archer meet) are treated as irrelevancies; the nightmarish quality present in the Weird is primarily due to a regimented and unquestioned army bureaucracy; and the dreamlike reality flows along a little too predictably for the suspense to be gripping. This short novel is situated in the periphery of several different genres but isn’t really at home with any of them.

At 140 pages, this is a quick but unsettling read, as much for its contents as for its genre indecisiveness.

Jan 2, 6:43pm Top

Interesting. And great start to the year.

Jan 2, 8:16pm Top

>11 Petroglyph: What a strange book. Thanks for the review.

Jan 3, 8:01am Top

>11 Petroglyph:, that vaguely reminds me of Howard Waldrop's story "Ninieslando" in the Warriors anthology. It seems like a weird setting for a fantasy, but then I'd imagine there must have been something that felt unreal about those frontline experiences.

Edited: Jan 4, 5:34pm Top

>14 Cecrow:
Never heard of that author, or that anthology, though I have read several items from it (just via other channels).

"Kafkaesque" is a massively overused term, I think, but it is just such a perfect term to apply to The image of a drawn sword: the near-existential absurdity of army discipline, physical training for training's sake, the chain of unquestioned obedience, nobody really knowing why, in the grand scale of things, certain decisions are being made, increasingly superior ranks of officers who all have a vested interest in not bothering their superiors... Plenty of unreality there, no need to even make it to the front.

Edited: Jan 3, 6:40pm Top

Currently reading The Gate of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald, who published her first novel when she was sixty. Enjoying it very much, in part because of Fitzgerald-esque paragraphs such as the following. One of the main characters, Daisy, has just been dishonourably dismissed from the hospital where she had a position as a nurse-in-training:
It was made clear that she must leave by Monday week. This was a concession, because it was known that Daisy had no home to go to. Kate Smith and some of the eighteen other second-year probationers -- but not all of them, some were cautious -- bought a leaving present for her. There was not much time, and they had to settle for a travelling salt-and-pepper set, said to be new china, and decorated with a view of the coronation of George V. Daisy was grateful. Disgrace contaminates, even though it makes everyone else feel a little safer.

That combination of slightly absurd, barely-humorous mundanity (the uninspired farewell gift) with resigned but true observations about the unpleasantness of human interaction: I just love that about her writing. She's been around, and writes such truths, such insights into how people in a society treat each other. It's fiction, and made-up people, but it all feels so true.

Jan 4, 6:53am Top

And that is #2 wrapped up! The gate of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald was a lovely, lovely read. I enjoyed it so much, you guys!

Jan 4, 7:37am Top

You're off to a great start!

Jan 4, 8:25am Top

Looks like 48 days oughta about do it for you this year. ;)

Jan 4, 9:51am Top

>18 billiejean:
I am!

>19 Cecrow:
Lol, four months, maybe? Perhaps if I read nothing but these books...

Jan 4, 11:15am Top

I'm feeling like a bit of a slacker - I haven't even started any of my challenge books yet! Though I have moved two into my upcoming reads pile so hopefully I'll get to them before January is over.

Jan 7, 2:32am Top

And that is #3.1 wrapped up: Een zwerver verliefd (A vagrant in love), the first in the Van Schendel omnibus of four novels.

I didn't like it very much: too sappy, too saccharine. Onwards with the next item, though. This one was written early in his career, and I suspect he got better.

Jan 7, 2:33am Top

>21 LittleTaiko:
Start with a short item! Does wonders for morale!

Jan 7, 1:55pm Top

The gate of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald

Why did I choose to read this?
After Jane Austen, I’ve decided to make Penelope Fitzgerald my next Completist Author, meaning I’ll be reading all nine of her novels. Four I’ve already read, and and this is the only unread book by her I own (though I might buy and read more by her in 2019). From the blurb, The gate of angels is an academic novel and a romance set in 1912 Cambridge. Also, it apparently features a character based on M. R. James, whose early 20thC horror stories I will always have a soft spot for.

Review (Also posted here.)
An academic novel and a romance set in 1912 Cambridge is indeed a good way to describe this novel. The two main characters, Fred Fairly and Daisy Saunders meet by (literal) accident, and since the former is a Physics fellow at a tiny Cambridge College, and the latter is a working-class nurse-in-training, there is the expected attraction of opposites. Well, kind of. The book never specifies that that is what’s going on, but merely implies it.

In fact, Fitzgerald leaves lots unsaid in this book: she juxtaposes sections that may differ in tone, location, sometimes even genre, and leaves it up to the reader to connect them -- the well-read reader, who knows how romances and academic novels typically develop. Characterization is bare-bones, mainly done through dialogue and Omniscient-Narrator commentary, only hinting at a more coherent personality in the background -- all this is again to be assembled by the reader. I imagine that this may feel disjointed or even unfinished to some, but reading one section in the spirit of the others worked wonderfully for me (or perhaps I merely like the way my own imagination works). Carrying over the subtle silliness and absurdity from some of the sections and treating the novel as though that is the kind of heightened reality in which it is set makes the whole thing come together beautifully.

For silly and absurd is what this novel is -- quietly and occasionally at first, but the mainly straightforward romance plot, which runs so much on readers’ expectations of both romances and academic settings, acquires more and more sudden absurdities and tongue-in-cheek moments until it reaches a crescendo and turns into what I unrepentantly call “uproariously funny”. I giggle-laughed with delight repeatedly.

It turns out there is a character based on M. R. James in there -- a pipe-smoking mediaeval palaeographer who writes ghost stories in his spare time and is fond of reading them out loud to colleagues at various Colleges. Fitzgerald even includes her take on one of his ghost stories -- a case of sudden genre shift, at which point the novel finally comes into its own as an unapologetically funny book. Seriously, the crowning moment of awesome in this book is a reference to another writer’s style -- I love it when media can pull that off. (Does it work if you haven’t read M. R. James? Totally! The genre shift even comes with foreshadowing!) After that, the book coasts to an ending on a wave of good-will.

Penelope Fitzgerald has an exquisitely calibrated sense of humour, and she puts it to excellent use in The gate of Angels. I absolutely loved this book: it’s going to be hard to beat this one in terms of shameless fun.

Jan 7, 2:56pm Top

Great to find an author you love, and even better when they can write consistent quality entertainment, whatever the genre. I try to circle back for one or two of these each year.

Jan 7, 3:08pm Top

>25 Cecrow:
It is! Unfortunately, I only have four Fitzgerald novels left. And a short story collection. I'm going to space them out a little bit -- though not one per year. I'm too impatient: I want to have reached the stage where I have read all of her fiction. I think I'd really enjoy having read her, but it might be more fun to yet have to read her. Decisions, decisions...

Jan 7, 8:09pm Top

I'm going to have to check her books out.

Jan 7, 8:18pm Top

>27 billiejean:
Oh, do! The Bookshop is probably her best-known book (easiest to get a hold of. It's also been turned into a 2017 movie by Isabel Coixet) I'd also recommend The beginning of spring as a starting point.

Jan 7, 8:23pm Top

Een zwerver verliefd (English title A wanderer in love) by Arthur Van Schendel

Why did I choose to read this?
One of an omnibus of four novels spanning an early 20thC Dutch author of the Neo-Romantic persuasion. I liked one of his books enough to buy this collection.

Review (Also posted in Dutch here.)
A wanderer in love is historical fiction, set in twelfth-century (I think) Northern Italy during the wars between the Holy Roman Emperor and the forces of the Pope. The titular wanderer is Tamalone, unable to hang around the same place or the same people for too long. And so he wanders passionately, taking full advantage of his network of wealthy contacts around the city states and his near-total lack of strings attached. Then, when hanging around the retinue of a friendly Imperialist warlord, one of his contacts, he is tasked with keeping safe the warlord’s mistress, and he falls in love.

This short novel is short on substance. Characterization is barely there, emotions and nature descriptions too saccharine, too Romantic. The setting -- Northern Italy during the Investiture Controversy -- seems ripped from an uninspired children’s book: Tamalone and his friends walk everywhere with ease, nothing’s too far away, travelling is fun, and food and shelter and clothes present no obstacle whatsoever. Van Schendel clearly expected the Big Emotions to do most of the legwork, the passionate paean to carefree vagrancy and, above all, the tropes of Courtly Love. Sadly, I think I may have outgrown those tropes.

So yeah. This didn’t do it for me: too facile, too childish, too hackneyed, too antiquated.

Jan 8, 10:26am Top

>28 Petroglyph: - The Bookshop is the only one of hers I've read so far. I remember enjoying it. Obviously I should be looking for more of her books based on your glowing recommendations.:)

Jan 8, 4:02pm Top

Yes, thanks for the recommendations.

Jan 8, 6:20pm Top

>30 LittleTaiko:
>31 billiejean:
Welcome! Always happy to get people hooked on some P. Fitzgerald.

(I saw the movie of The Bookshop (2017) earlier tonight. Don't bother: it's a disappointment.)

Jan 9, 9:10am Top

Just had another look at my much-treasured list of 501 Must-Read Books and discovered The Blue Flower is on it.

Jan 9, 8:05pm Top

Susan Hill, in Howards end is on the landing, includes The blue flower among the 40 books she would want to bring along to an uninhabited island. She also writes this:
I have never, ever understood why it did not win every prize extant but prize-judging is a law unto itself, as it were. I have been on the panels of many, and never once have things gone as might have been predicted. I was a judge for a major prize the year The Blue Flower was entered and I have never tried so hard to convince others of anything as I did that this was a rare, a great, novel whose like we might none of us see again. It was not that my fellow judges were wilfully determined not to agree, or had anything whatsoever against Penelope Fitzgerald – for who could? They simply could not see it. They saw something pleasing, short. Slight. That was the word I heard again and again. ‘Slight’. I think I sweated blood, but to no purpose.
‘Slight’. Slight? SLIGHT?
The Blue Flower is a masterpiece. It is the most extraordinary book, and half of it is in invisible writing, so much is there that is not there, so much lies below the surface, so much is left unsaid and yet is redolent and rich with meaning. Fitzgerald manages that quite remarkable feat – she simply walks into another world, one of several hundred years ago in another country, and takes up the story, moving among the characters as if she had known them all her life, and so the reader does so, too. Her prose style, like the line of the drawing on the Christmas card, is so clear, clean and simple, and yet so full of meaning. She was a past-mistress of dialogue, she knew how to make places taste and smell, knew what they sounded like. She saw into other people’s minds and hearts with complete empathy. It is my favourite of all her books and it is gratifying that slowly, slowly over a decade or so, The Blue Flower is being recognised and lauded as indeed a novel of genius, and a masterpiece. During the celebrations for the fortieth anniversary of the Booker Prize, time and again it was mentioned with bewilderment as ‘the one that got away’. I hope that she knew her value. She was a shy and modest woman and yet underneath that exterior, I think she did realise her own worth, though she would never have been vain about it.

After reading that, well, I simply had to check it out. I'm so glad I did.

Jan 10, 4:28am Top

Thank you for sharing that.

Jan 10, 5:14pm Top

>35 billiejean:
With pleasure!

I've also just finished #3.2: Een zwerver verdwaald, the second volume in the Van Schendel omnibus.

Edited: Jan 10, 7:55pm Top

Een zwerver verdwaald by Arthur van Schendel

Why did I choose to read this?
One of an omnibus of four novels spanning the career an early 20thC Dutch author of the Neo-Romantic persuasion. I liked one of his books enough to buy this collection.

Review (Also posted here, though in Dutch.)
This book picks up the story a few months after Een zwerver verliefd. Tamalone, on a mission for one of his wealthy contacts, has temporarily settled in Venice, and meets a noble lady who falls in love with him. Just like in the previous book he'll have to choose between love, which perhaps will finally settle his profound longing for something unknown, and the carefree wandering life, which is at least a known pleasure.

Van Schendel once again tries to build the novel up around the theme of Fate: the outcome, in the end, is ineluctable. And once again, I must admit I am not convinced. Tamalone refuses to think through his decisions and takes everything as it comes; instead of Fate I think it is systematic unpreparedness and panic attacks that really drive this novel's plot.

Still, I enjoyed this one more than the previous book: no more love triangle, no more bland Courtly Love. Instead, we get a disappointing and unreliable human being whose imprecise dreams of stability will only ever see half-hearted attempts at realization. That, I can appreciate!

Jan 11, 7:43am Top

>37 Petroglyph:, on the strength of that, sounds as though you'll finish the omnibus at some point. They can be tricky investments sometimes, even more than anthologies. I take the same approach of not committing to the whole thing in one bite.

Edited: Jan 11, 10:21am Top

>38 Cecrow:
Oh yes, I will finish the omnibus -- sunk cost and all that. And they're not terrible books, merely too sentimental for my tastses. And I get to remove that "unread" tag from the omnibus, too!

Its selection is chronological: his earliest books (from his "Italian period") are very neo-romantic. Apparently he got more modernist as time wore on, and so I'm looking forward to the 3rd book (new to me, from his "Dutch period", when he wrote maritime novels about 19thC Dutch sailors) and a reread of the 4th book (which I love, and is from his "mature period"). So I'm expecting things to improve, lol.

Jan 11, 5:52pm Top

Systematic unpreparedness and panic attacks sounds like a plan some people use. :)

Jan 12, 4:07am Top

>1 Petroglyph: I always love seeing your list, such different titles you always have, so intriguing!
I read my first Morrison a few years ago, went with the default Beloved, was excellent.

>11 Petroglyph: Welp now my curiosity is piqued, that sounds really interesting!

>39 Petroglyph: Bummer that the earlier ones aren't panning out as well, but sounds good for the later two, at least!

Jan 13, 7:31pm Top

>41 .Monkey.:
re: different titles, I refer you to my comments to Cecrow in >7 Petroglyph:

The image of a drawn sword seems popular. Good! I think you would like it.

And the later books are definitely more to my tasts. Or perhaps I'm getting used to sentimentality, reading these in rapid succession. It hasn't been a waste of time, though.

Edited: Jan 13, 7:46pm Top

Het fregatschip Johanna Maria by Arthur van Schendel

Why did I choose to read this?
One of an omnibus of four novels spanning the career an early 20thC Dutch author of the Neo-Romantic persuasion. I liked one of his books enough to buy this collection.

Review (Also posted here, though in Dutch.)
Het fregatschip Johanna Maria, or in English The frigate Johanna Maria, is about the forty-year career of a three-masted sailing ship, and about the sailor whose life merges with hers over the decades. In other words: a man and his ship, or perhaps a ship and her man.

This was a classically beautiful book, the kind of old-fashioned sentimentality that my parents and grandparents would appreciate. Van Schendel does tug on those heartstrings sometimes, but not to the extent that pathos begins to dominate. As a novel, this book reminded me a lot of the Naturalistic Farm Novels (cf. Streuvels), and of other Neoromantic novels (cf. Den Doolaard, or perhaps The old man and the sea): there's tacit suffering through abuse, pure hard graft for an uncertain reward years in the future, the fusing of Man and Nature.

At times I was even reminded of sad animal books, of the type where the family dog or the racehorse is stolen and ends up in various criminal milieus: the ship’s standing, through ever-changing owners, names, and career paths, has its ups and downs as it traverses the seven seas. But the steadfast sailor is always there to see her through the worst of it.

In all, I must say that I was pleased with this novel. Not overly sentimental, entertaining enough, and tastefully nostalgic for the lost art of handling square-sailed three-masters. Three and a half stars!

Jan 13, 7:43pm Top

Earlier tonight I also sped through Nellie Bly's Ten days in a mad-house, which was a surprisingly short read. Very interesting, and very good. Review on the way.

Jan 14, 8:12pm Top

Ten days in a mad-house by Nellie Bly

Why did I choose to read this?
Back in the 1880s an investigative journalist had herself temporarily committed to an asylum for the insane in New York, in order to write a series of articles documenting the (mal)treatments that the inmates were subjected to. That sounds super interesting! (As does the rest of her life, btw.)

Review (Also posted here.)

Well, this was a sobering read. It’s also really good, and it’s freely available online.

Nellie Bly, an investigative journalist from the 1880s, had herself temporarily committed to an asylum for insane women in New York, in order to write a series of articles documenting the (mal)treatments that the inmates were subjected to. This book was a reissue of those articles to satisfy the high demand.

Things start off amusingly, when Bly has to try and convince people to section her -- essentially, she shows up at a short-term lodging place for women and acts suspiciously, while pitying the kind people she is deceiving in the process. But once she is transported to the asylum, she puts on her journalist hat, acts completely normal, and records what is allowed to happen to her.

It’s not pretty. The inmates are always cold (due to insufficient clothing, non-existent heating, and cold baths); the food is execrable; they are under constant threat of violence; and humiliations are frequent and issued with glee by the power-tripping staff. The maltreatment of the patients rises to the level of prison camp torture: they are deliberately and methodically kept in a state of sleep deprivation, malnourishment and under-stimulation. Worse: there is no way to prove their sanity, nor will the staff be even willing to listen. A diagnosis equals a sentence for life.

Bly describes a typical day as she underwent them, which is a terrible enough ordeal, and adds other inmates’ stories and experiences -- which are worse (lifelong imprisonment for not speaking English? How xenophobic can your medical system get?). Bly uses no rhetorical flourishes; there is no need for jokes or cutesy asides: drily narrated reality is harsh and unforgiving and undermines trust in fellow human beings, if not in society at large. I knew 19th-century treatment of The Other was atrocious, but reading contemporary reports really drives home that message.

The only good thing about Bly’s undercover stint is that, as a response to this exposé, the city of New York increased the funding (and, through increased inspections, the living standards) of its asylums.

Finally: my edition of this book also contains two shorter articles, in which Bly goes undercover to secure a job as a maid, and works briefly as an inner-city factory girl. Those as well show off her on-point observational skills. Good stuff!

Jan 14, 10:28pm Top

Great review!

Jan 15, 6:31am Top

Wow, she sounds like a pretty awesome woman.

Jan 15, 3:49pm Top

That sounds intense. So the asylum staff didn't know she was under cover?

Jan 15, 7:49pm Top

>46 billiejean:

>47 .Monkey.:
She totally was. I've added her book on how she went Around the world in seventy-two days to my wishlist.

>48 Narilka:
Nope! Once inside, she behaved like she would have behaved outside. Granted, low-level staff aren't supposed to be in charge of admissions, and have no reason to question the specialists' decisions. And they are likely confronted with plenty of mentally disturbed people every day saying whatever in order to get released -- it just stops registering after a while. But Bly makes it clear that she is not the only inmate who has no business being locked up on charges of insanity (non-English speaking patients, for instance).

Once you've been diagnosed as insane by specialists (or even because of a misfile or a bed switch), it's almost impossible to convince medical staff you're not. It's a known bug.

Edited: Jan 16, 7:32am Top

>49 Petroglyph:, awesome link re Rosenham, thanks. Especially this part of his experiment:
The second part of his study involved an offended hospital administration challenging Rosenhan to send pseudopatients {i.e. fake actors} to its facility, whom its staff would then detect. Rosenhan agreed and in the following weeks out of 250 new patients the staff identified 41 as potential pseudopatients, with 2 of these receiving suspicion from at least one psychiatrist and one other staff member. In fact, Rosenhan had sent no pseudopatients to the hospital.

Jan 16, 8:05am Top

Other books in my TBR that deal with psychiatric institutions are Beckomberga (currently reading; also on this challenge) and Inconvenient people by Sarah Wise, a non-fiction treatment of psychiatric practices in 19thC England. The two items on this challenge have definitely bumped the Wise book up to near the top!

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