Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada by Anna Brownell Jameson

This entry is part 16 of 20 in the series 2022 Reads

As with other posts in this series, these #booksread2022 posts go anywhere from a few weeks to a month after I’ve read them. I read this particular book last week, though! 

This is a book I’ve had for ages, but from which I only read a little bit. I figured I’d resolve that, and… quickly remembered why I had never read much of it. Anna Brownell Jameson was long-winded in the way of many people from her era—she was born late in the late 1700s, and this book is an account of her travel to Canada in the 1830s. 

Notably, it’s retitled here—or maybe it was retitled in its 1852 edition, or perhaps the title of an abridgement of the original book, I’m not sure—because the (abridged?) copy available on Project Gutenberg is titled something that aged much less well: Sketches in Canada, and Rambles Among the Red Men. That said, the book is what it said on the tin: the first ~200 pages include some impressions of Toronto after a brief stay, and the remainder of the book (over 300 pages) details Jameson’s trip out into the countryside, including among First Nations people referred to in the title. 

The book is, honestly, a slog punctuated by moments of surprise and oddity. Jameson spends a lot of time outlining her thoughts on Goethe, but then she’ll bust out some comment about the status of women in her time that sounds downright modern. Then… back to Goethe, or Mendelssohn, or some something else less than interesting or exciting. 

Things do get a little more… “interesting” after her trip begins. She makes a lot of observations about the First Nations people, and a lot of those observations are what you’d expect from an Englishwoman of the 1830s: she constantly refers to the indolence of the men, the poverty and squalor and filth and so on. (That said, there are also passages where she uses a lot of the same adjectives for white men in Canada.) Those adjectives tend to get swapped when she is describing Christianized “Indians” and especially when she is describing aboriginal women. Yes, she does compare one to one of the witches from MacBeth, but she describes others as astonishingly beautiful—saying they would be considered so anywhere—and when comparing their condition to the condition of women in England, she concludes that they might even be a little better off than the typical Englishwoman, all things told. Which is to say, when she wants to excoriate Englishmen for their suppression of women, then the aboriginal women she sees suddenly enjoy relatively greater freedom; when she wants to emphasize the inferiority of the natives, suddenly everyone is “indolent” and “filthy” and living in “squalor.” 

Jameson seems to at least partly grasp that these are people living through a slow-moving apocalyspe of sorts—and an apocalypse occasioned by European and specifically English cruelty and viciousness, which she both acknowledges and excoriates, albeit at times couching her criticism in the presumed inferiority of the aboriginal people that she encountered: she outright states that she does not think they are “tameable” for example. (She thinks that she’s complimenting them, but… I don’t feel like she really is, and nor have many modern critics.) Even the sympathies she entertains seem to have their limits… at approximately ten feet, in fact: whenever she interacts directly with a Native person, she slips into praising them; when she observes them at a distance, she’s much more critical, and the biased vocabulary emerges again. Then again, most of her direct interactions with aboriginal people seem to have been with Christian converts. I guess that shouldn’t surprise us: even today, a lot of people have that whole “good ones” and “bad ones” dichotomy in their heads. 

All of which is to say that it’s not the most comfortable reading in 2022, even if you know enough about 1836 going in to expect that. She does, for what it’s worth. try to learn people’s actual names and transcribe them the best she can. She tries to share a song—there’s sheet music on one page of the book—and retells some stories that a missionary translated for her (how accurately, who knows, but probably only somewhat). She relates a little of the folklore she runs across, comparing it to European and Far-Eastern analogues when she can think of them. She does seem more interested than I imagine a lot of English writers would have been at the time, though maybe I’m underestimating her contemporaries. 

That said, the snippet I found most interesting was one I posted a while back, about the Black community there and its powerful resistance to the repatriation of a slave to his American master on a legal technicality: it’s not a surprise that escaped slaves might congregate in the area, since crossing into British territory legally made them free (at this time). Still, it’s a fascinating scene I think most modern, white Canadians cannot imagine. 

In any case, this is a book I must admit I skimmed rather than reading throughout; and I don’t think that neglect is wholly unwarranted,. In many ways, it feels a lot how blogs feel today, a decade after their faltering and mostly slipping from the digital landscape: it’s written for an imagined audience, but with perhaps too little attention to whether that audience would really enjoy what is being written. 

Djuna Interview Up at Clarkesworld

This entry is part 71 of 71 in the series SF in South Korea

While this is not a full-fledged update on SF in South Korea, I thought it’s noteworthy that Clarkesworld recently published our interview interview with the author Djuna, a longtime enigmatic titan of the Korean SF scene. 

(We’ve also translated two of their stories recently, so it’s been very 듀나-듀나-듀나 at our place lately.)

Anyway, the interview is up at Clarkesworld now, alongside lots of other great stuff including an interview with translator Rachel Cordasco (founder of the SF in Translation website) and some a really gangbusters lineup of stories—for me, the Pan Haitian and Greg Egan are especially attention-grabbing. Go check it out. 

May We Borrow Your Husband? and Other Comedies of the Sexual Life by Graham Greene

This entry is part 15 of 20 in the series 2022 Reads

As with other posts in this series, these #booksread2022 posts go anywhere from a few weeks to a month after I’ve read them. I read this particular book last week, though! 

May We Borrow Your Husband?  is a 1967 collection of short fictions—in some cases, they’re in fact extended vignettes, and Greene himself called them “entertainments”—by Graham Greene. The subtitle—”And Other Comedies of the Sexual Life”—isn’t printed on the cover of the Penguin edition I have, but it pretty much sums up the book. It reminds me a bit of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City except it’s much grittier and much, much more meanspirited… in a good way, I suppose, since Greene’s approach appeals to me more. 

Why? I think it has something to do with Greene’s honesty. His mode of observation is quietly empathetic eye, but also mercilessly honest. The result is that his characters are sometimes quite bit stupid,  and a bit tawdry, fairly selfish, and often quite sad and broken as human beings, and yet they’re still somehow unremarkable in this, and Greene doesn’t generally seem to judge them too harshly for it, since—one gets the sense—he seems to feel that the human condition is fundamentally one of absurd ridiculousness, and that there’s little we can really do about that. Accepting their flaws and cruelties and failings even as he lays them bare for us to see almost seems to free Greene from feeling any need to pull his punches with them, and likewise from feeling the need to spare us as readers. Greene understands that his readers are likely very flawed, and almost wants to reassure us that our flaws and our brokenness are deeply connected. 

I guess that is also to say: for the first time, I can see that Greene really did take Catholic ideas to heart in his writing. I never noticed it much in the other novels of his I’ve read, but in this book, somehow, it is hard to miss. Perhaps it makes sense, given the role of sex and sexuality in these stories, I don’t know.  

I find his use of narrative distance from the goings-on fascinating: in just the first few stories, there are multiple seductions, a cheap shot at a lonely old lady with a ridiculously named dog, and a guy who, no kidding, carries a dead baby (his wife’s, but with another man) home on an airplane from France to England in his carry-on luggage as if it were no big deal… “I’ll have to declare it, I acquired it abroad,” he says, as if he were speaking of a handbag, and of course we learn why he’s so cold, and are perturbed by the fact it’s at all understandable he’d be like this. 

Greene may be merciless, but often there’s an older male writer in these stories, and truth be told that older male writer often ends up looking anywhere from ridiculous to terrible. Greene doesn’t push this angle too hard, but one gets the sense that he could skewer himself as well as he could anyone.

Now, there are some stories where light and kindness and sympathy wins out, as much as they ever could in a book by Greene: I expected to dislike “A Shocking Accident” (about a man who struggles through life having to deal with people laughing at the story of how his father died—struck by a falling pig in the street one day in Italy), but it’s actually kind of a beautiful depiction of what love can look like when it really works out, and the ending is just gorgeously written. “Cheap in August” is also well-written and heart-wringing and sympathetic more than it is judging: it’s much less a tale of adultery than it is a tale of loneliness, autonomy, and desperation. I was surprised to discover that several of the tales here were adapted for TV, but maybe I shouldn’t be: after all, the majority of Greene’s novels were adapted to film, so why wouldn’t have producers turned to his short stories next? 

I did feel a few of the tales are duds, and the “Beauty” especially feels like the elaborate setup for a nasty punchline. A few other stories left me wondering whether I’d missed something. Not all of it has aged particularly well, either, but I found it fascinating to watch Greene work with material that he felt was less “serious” than the stuff of his more “literary” works—”entertainments,” as he called them, even if I had a nagging sense that my time might have been better spent reading one of his more serious novels. 

Dragons (Time Life Enchanted World)

This entry is part 14 of 20 in the series 2022 Reads

As with other books of 2020, this comes a while after I read it. 

We visited my grandmother’s house in Quebec when I was a kid. That was the trip when I discovered one of my cousins shared my interest in RPGs. It was also the trip when I noticed our uncle’s book collection. He had piles of graphic novels—all in French, of course—but he also had what I remember as a full set of the Time Life Enchanted World books. If you were growing up in the 1980s, you probably knew someone who had them, or at least saw the ads on TV:

Supposedly, people at Time Life talked about their book series with expressions like “books as furniture,” but leafing through them as a kid, I ended up very badly wanting that book series.  

Sometime after we got back to the Saskatchewan (where my family lived), I got a paper route and soon after, I convinced my dad to call and order the books for me. It lasted something like three months before—for whatever reason—my dad called again, this time to cancel the deal. (I suspect I’d fed all the collections from my route into a video-arcade game at the local corner shop, including what I owed the newspaper company, and that this was my punishment or consequence or whatever.) I had received the volumes Night Creatures, Ghosts, and Fairies, and that was it. I read them from cover to cover many times each, and was enthralled: each was, to young me, a kind of smorgasbord of tales from across history and around the world, and the art captivated me. 

Over the years, I picked up a few more volumes in used bookstores, but none of them ever made it to Korea with me. However, last year I happened onto someone selling the full set as an auction online, and I lucked out: if I remember correctly, I paid $5 for the entire 21-volume set, not including shipping to Korea (via a parcel forwarding service). They’re heavy books, so shipping wasn’t really negligible, but it still worked out to only a few dollars per volume, and I was happy to finally have this thing that I’d wanted so badly as a kid. 1

Anyway, now that I have the Enchanted World books, I figured this would be the year I’d make my way through the whole set (orm anyway, get started on it). I don’t remember what the word is for nostalgia for things one never actually experienced, but that’s the kind of read this is. It seems fitting that—as someone who never cared all that much about dragons, that this would end up being the subject of the volume that I more or less picked at random to start with.  

It turns out that the volume a reasonably well-done survey of dragons in myth and legend, with a pretty vast breadth of references. The main focus is on Western Europe and Northeast Asia, since the differences between Chinese-styled dragons and European ones makes for a dramatic contrast. However, the book goes into Babylonian myths (Tiamat and Marduk!), Persian tales of dragon-hunting, a Japanese myth, folktales from Hungary, Wales, England, France, and Germany, dragons in classical-era myths and stories, and more. I suspect the entire series is like this: mostly dominated by European folklore, plus some Chinese and Japanese stuff, with a smattering of Middle-Eastern content. That’s not so bad, even if the exclusions are a little hard not to notice: for example, I was a bit surprised not to see even a brief a discussion of nagas, which to me seem a bit like the missing link between the Northeast Asian “dragon” and the European one, for example. But only so much can fit into a book of this size, and it’s also not really an academic treatise, so it’s easy to understand why they’d just focus on, you know… stuff that people would readily recognize as “dragons.” 

With these books, it’s as much about the art as it is about the text, if not more so. The prose is professional and workmanlike—and there is some effort to present a coherent thesis about the topic, even. (In this volume, the argument seems to be that dragons symbolize nature and the chaos from which it springs: they’re emblems of cthonic forces in the world, and their eradication goes hand in hand with the human “mastery” of nature. Evidently COVID and climate change alike both suggest that humanity’s declaration of triumph over nature was somewhat premature, but then, we already knew that.)

Still, it’s the “lavish” illustrations (as Vincent Price’s line goes in the ad) that I imagine will bring me back to these books after having read them, just as it was the art that caught my attention in the first place. 

  1. I’ll be honest, I’d love to have the Mysteries of the Unknown books—they’re sort of the slicked-down Fortean woo-woo equivalent of the Enchanted World books, and are filled with the kind of nonsense that fascinated me as a teenager. I hear the Time Life series on the old west is pretty good, too. But I never see those on auction with a starting bid of for $5, somehow…)

The Katurran Odyssey by David Michael Wieger, illustrated by Terryl Whitlatch

This entry is part 13 of 20 in the series 2022 Reads

As with other posts in this series, these #booksread2022 posts go anywhere from a few weeks to a month after I’ve read them. I read this particular book last week, though! 

This year, I’ve decided it’s time to start reading longer stories to my son. I’ve been reading to him since before he could speak, but until now, it’s been shorter books. He’s gotten into some longer things on his own, despite being unble to read for himself as yet—the Dog Man comics are a big hit, as are Captain Underpants, but until now I hadn’t read anything longer to him. 

I started with The Katurran Odyssey, which… was long. It took us several weeks, going ten to twenty pages at a time and missing the occasional day. Many of those pages are heavily—and beautifully—illustrated, of course, but it’s still a pretty long text to read aloud, especially to a young kid whose vocabulary necessitated frequent pauses to check whether he understood this or that passage. (And, to be honest, this is not a book written for kids of that age, for reasons I’ll get into below.)

That said, it was a great place to start. I’m a sucker for animal adventure stories like this one. It tells the story of a lemur named Katook who is cast out from his famine-stricken village after he stumbles onto a secret involving corruption on the part of his lemur village’s high priest. He travels across his world, encountering unusual individuals and then a series of curious animal civilizations in sequence. Each culture has its own weirdness and obsession and problems, and each culture is missing something important. I think a fair bit of it went over my son’s head, but even so, we both found it a fascinating read. 

The story is fun, scary, exciting, and sometimes even moving, but of course the illustrations are also a big part of the appeal of this book:


Those images are actually from the newer Design Studio Press edition, which I suspect as a bit better laid-out than the older edition we read: the layout was fine and the art just as gorgeous, but the text was a bit dark on some pages in the older version. (It looks like they avoided that problem in the new version by switching to white text on darker pages, and some of the art seems to have been touched up or expanded a bit.) Still, the images above should give you an idea of how captivating the illustrations are. The artist, Terryl Whitlatch, has had a long career as a creature designer and concept artist for Lucasfilm: this is her main book, though she’s published some books about creature design more recently (also published by Design Studio Press). When I got this for my son, I also got Animals Real and Imagined for my wife, as she’s a fan of animal illustrations, and she really liked that book, too.  

The story was… maybe a little intense for my son, in parts. (There were a lot frightening threats tossed around, most of them directed at Katook, who is written as an adolescent.) There’s some really harsh stuff that happens in a couple of parts of the story, and some animals who are out of their minds, depressed, or cruel. Still, the book has plenty of funny moments, and plenty of exciting surprises, some wild joy, and a few moving passages. It’s also wonderful to see a quagga featured as a major character; in some small way, it gives those lost creatures a new life. 1 There is a religious theme to it, albeit much more of an animal-nature spirit animist type. But the tale is well told, and kept us fascinated even despite how long it took us to get through the book. More than once, after reading our allotted number of chapters for the day, my son urged me to continue, and I was glad of it. 

Here’s a little bonus: a pair of musicians named Jeff Johnson and Brian Dunning created a music album that is a kind of “soundtrack” for the book. It actually does evoke the mood of the book in some ways! The album is available to listen through, and/or to buy, over on Bandcamp.