Book Reports: Some Read Harder Books…

Published May 29, 2019 by Iphis of Scyros

Now that I’m finally done with school, I can get back to reading and writing whatever I want.  So I can start tackling this year’s Read Harder Challenge.  But in the course of this semester, I have read some books that qualify (three for class and one just because), so I’m just going to lump them all together in this post.  Partially because some of them were a while ago and my brain has already moved on too far to write much about them.

One of the two books we had to read for the first class meeting also meets Challenge 1 “An epistolary novel or a collection of letters.”  The book is Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, which technically didn’t fit the scope of the class, as the class was the history of Europe in the 19th century, and it was written late in the 18th century.  Yeah, we read a combination of histories and novels from the period.  I’d actually been worried about having only a week to get through hefty 19th century novels, but I ended up enjoying them a lot more than the histories.  Except this one.  This one was really a pain.  (And it was about a third the length of the others, btw.)  It wasn’t that it was bad, just that it was incredibly frustrating to read.  Not merely frustrating, but downright claustrophobic.  Unlike most other epistolary novels I’ve read, it consisted only of the title character’s outgoing mail (except for a few pages), and he made references to letters that had been written to him, but we never got to hear the other character’s actual words.  The main sorrow plaguing young Werther is, of course, a romantic one:  he’s in love with a woman who’s already taken.  Given that I’ve become bored with the entire heterosexual romantic narrative, this was already a point against it, but not an insurmountable one.  What was insurmountable was the fact that we never got to know her.  Werther assured his friend that his precious Lotte was just so beautiful and pure and innocent and witty and basically perfect.  But he rarely ever actually wrote down anything she said to him, so we could only take his word for it.  The longer it went on, the more I thought about a line from Shakespeare in Love, when Viola is first rehearsing as Romeo, and putting all her passion into bemoaning the loss of Rosaline’s love, and Will comes over and tells her that she’s talking about “a baggage we never even meet.”  That was how I felt about Lotte:  we never even met her, just heard Werther drone on about how much he loved her and loved her and ached for her and…argh.  Once I’d finished reading it, I went back and read the Introduction, which explained that much of it was semi-autobiographical, based on the experiences of Goethe and another man he had known about the same time, but knowing that doesn’t make it any less frustrating to read.  I’m going to have to read his Faust sometime, because Goethe is supposed to be the greatest of German authors, and I’d really like to read something of his that I could like.

(The library copy I read didn’t actually look like this, as it didn’t have its dust jacket. It just had the book itself, which was yellow.)

One of the books I read for my final paper fits Challenge 9 “A book published prior to January 1, 2019, with fewer than 100 reviews on Goodreads.”  This book, Munby:  Man of Two Worlds was published in 1972 and has a grand total of 9 reviews on Goodreads.  (Obscure history books to the rescue!)  This fits nicely with the theme of the previous book, in that it was a frustrating read.  Arthur J. Munby was a minor civil servant in the latter half of the 19th century and a mediocre poet with friends among the literary elite, and he was also a dedicated diarist:  the papers he left behind (with a rider on the papers that they were not to be opened until 1950) included daily diaries for 39 years.  Obviously, this book does not contain nearly 40 years of diaries, so there was much edited out, which of course is where the frustration comes in.  But first, let me explain just why I was interested in reading this guy’s diaries in the first place.  Munby was obsessed with working class women.  He would go over and talk to them whenever he saw them on the street, and he literally took trips to the countryside to meet women who worked on the pit brows at coal mines.  (Repeatedly.  Like, that was his favorite vacation, and he would visit the same mine several times, and all the pit brow “girls” knew him.)  Since my paper topic was on working women in Britain during the Industrial Revolution, his diary was a natural fit for me…only the guy selecting the entries to put in this book cut out most of the ones about the working class women.  He seemed to think his main duty was to make sure the book did a proper job of relating Munby’s life story, rather than that it make these otherwise lost voices from the past, representing an all too often overlooked demographic…despite that he actually commented how Munby’s diary had done such a great service to social history by preserving the stories of all these women.  On top of omitting the majority of the information I actually wanted from the book, he also omitted a lot of things that any normal person would say “heck, yeah, let’s read about that!”  Like, for example, Munby went to France in 1872.  For those well versed in French history, you know the significance of that, but for those who aren’t, let me tell you about a few key events that had just transpired:  in 1870, there was the Franco-Prussian War.  The actual war part lasted about six weeks, and ended with Napoleon III surrendering to Bismarck in Sedán, but Paris held out against a Prussian siege from September until January.  (Prussia, btw, became Germany during the siege.  The Prussian king had himself crowned as Kaiser (that is, emperor) Wilhelm at Versailles, which was the Prussian headquarters during the siege.)  The Parisians had been utterly unprepared, didn’t have enough food and had actively discouraged people from fleeing the city before the Prussian army got there.  In fact, people from the surrounding countryside had come to take shelter in the city, so its population was actually about half a million higher than normal.  By the end of the siege, they were eating dogs, cats, rats and zoo animals, having already eaten most of the horses as well as the actual food animals.  And the Prussians had been bombarding the city for weeks (or was it about a month?) before they finally surrendered.  One of the conditions of the surrender was that the Prussians got to have a victory march through Paris.  The people of Paris were outraged by that, and the people of one working class district decided to take a bunch of cannons out of the main section of the city and hide them in their own district to keep them out of enemy hands.  (Despite that the enemy had much better cannons.)  Somehow (even in reading about it in detail it never made 100% sense to me) that led to the Commune, in which a revolutionary government took over and basically tried to have Paris secede from France.  It’s more complicated than that, of course, but it lasted a few months, and by the end, the French government was bombarding Paris with even more devastating effects than the Prussians had been, and the retreating Communards in the several days of street fighting decided on a scorched earth policy and burned every section of the city they retreated from.  (Though their leaders twice ordered them to spare Notre Dame…and the week after we read about the Commune, it caught fire.  Eerie.  Especially since the book we had read that week (and it caught fire on a Monday, the day our class met) had ended in the street battles as the Commune fell apart, so it too was in the midst of a burning Paris…)  Between the artillery attacks, the massive sections of burning city and of course the reprisals by the French government, at least 20,000 people were dead.  And evidently when Munby was in Paris, he still saw lingering signs of all that devastation, and spent several pages describing it.  But this moron who compiled the book didn’t bother to let us read those pages!  Aaaarrgggghhh!!!  I mean, it’s not like that would have helped my paper any, but I would have liked to read it for pure historical interest.  Especially since I’d read a letter from a young American man on Grand Tour in Paris in 1872 who didn’t mention anything at all about signs of destruction.  (Though the fact that he was writing to his fiancee may have had something to do with that.)

Wow, I went way off topic there.  Anyway, like I said, very frustrating read.  But despite all the omissions, there’s still a lot of good information there.  Someone really needs to do a proper release of Munby’s diaries, though.  No omissions whatsoever.  Just a really detailed index, and/or a searchable digital version.  If I ever lose my job and end up moving to England, I could see myself trying to do that.  (Though I’d obviously prefer someone else did it.)

Right, so, moving on.

Wow, that is a really crappy copy of the cover image.  Dunno why Goodreads didn’t have a better image for this edition.  Anyway, this is for Challenge 10 – “A translated book written by and/or translated by a woman,” and in this case it’s the translation, not the book, which was by a woman.  Since there’s a very good chance no one else can read what the words on that book say, the book is The Condition of the Working Class in England, and it’s by Friederich Engels, first written in 1844 in German.  Sometime in the 1880s, it received an English translation for an American edition, and then an edition in England followed shortly thereafter.  (Or was it that the American translation was around the 1860s, and the English one wasn’t until the 1880s?  I’m too lazy to go check…)  This is that translation, and the translator was a woman.  It’s hard to know how to describe this book.  Engels’ father owned several factories in both Germany and in England (I think the English ones were all in Manchester, but he might have had some elsewhere as well), and Engels worked in the offices of his father’s factory, but he hated seeing how the workers were treated.  He spoke to them, got to know them, and went around to see where and how they lived, and the more he saw, the more outraged he became, and after much more research (both in person and in consulting various governmental reports that were made publicly available) he wrote this book to tell everyone just how bad it was.  And if he wasn’t exaggerating, it was certainly very, very bad.  Some of it is so horrible that it’s hard to picture it; he describes families living in such conditions of filth that you would only expect the worst of prisons to provide, and I mean that filth literally, in the “no place even for a chamber pot so they just had to use the corners” way.  It’s hard to imagine that people could have been living in conditions that bad in 19th century England, and yet evidently they were.  That’s why there were so many uprisings and such all across Europe in the middle of the 19th century (1848 saw revolutions in about half the countries of Europe, though the French one was the only one with results that stuck for more than a few weeks, and even it only lasted a couple of years), because things were this bad pretty much in every industrialized nation at the time.  This is definitely not a “feel good” read (unless, I suppose, you’re a sociopathic sadist), but it’s definitely an eye-opener.  And absolutely vital to any labor history of 19th century Britain.  (I think it must have made up at least a third of the citations for my final paper…)

And changing the tone incalculably vastly…

Challenge 11 is “A book of manga.”  And I read a lot of those, so this wasn’t much of a challenge.  😛  Technically, since this post has taken me so long to finish (started it ten days ago now!), I should have added Omnibus 3 to this, because I’ve now read it, too, but I doubt it matters.  Dragon Half is a comedy-fantasy manga about a girl whose mother is a dragon (capable of taking on a humanoid form) and whose father is an adventurer who decided to marry the dragon instead of killing it.  (Like you do.)  Anyway, I’ve long known the OVA of Dragon Half, which is very funny and cute and stars Kotono Mitsuishi (probably best known as Sailor Moon and Excel (title character of Excel Saga)) and Yasunori Matsumoto (probably best known as Gourry Gabriev from Slayers), and has one of the silliest ending credits songs imaginable, as most of the lyrics are about eggs and beer, and yet the music is an adaptation of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”  (Really.)  Anyway, the material that went into the OVA was entirely in the first Omnibus volume (the first two of which each contain two volumes of the manga, and the third of which has three), so this volume was entirely new territory to me.  And it pretty much was just what I was expecting of Dragon Half:  silliness with a little bit of fantasy violence, and the old-school style of “fan service” which somehow doesn’t bother me nearly as much as the newer type.  (The old type being more “let’s have our fantasy girls run around in chainmail bikinis” and the new one being more “let’s flip up the school girl’s skirt to show her panties, or have the hero walk in on her while she’s just wearing her underwear!”)  One thing that really struck me that I hadn’t expected from the OVA is the naming scheme in place for most of the smaller characters.  The magazine this manga originally ran in is (was?) called RPG or some variation thereof, which may be why so many of the characters have names borrowed from RPGs, though the translators dropped the ball on that, because they didn’t get that those two characters in volume 3 were supposed to be “Rosa and Rydia” not “Rosa and Lydia.”  (I guess they’d never played Final Fantasy IV.)  Most of the names I noticed are ones no one’s likely to miss (like, for example, Link), but the one that really hit me was Bufu.  Which is the name of the ice spell in Megami Tensei games.  In a way, that makes Bufu my favorite character, just for the sheer obscurity of the name. 😛

So, that’s where I currently stand on this year’s Read Harder challenge…

…though depending on how you classify “A humor book,” I suppose you could say I’ve already met it with Dragon Half‘s third volume, because it’s certainly humorous!  I’ll probably not count it for that, though, since it’s not purely humor.  A more slice of life or absurdist comedy manga would count (Non Non Biyori or City, for example, if I can ever remember where I left off on those), but I think a fantasy adventure comedy might be a bit far afield.  Oog, though, Challenge 17 will be tough.  I do not want to read a business book.  At all.  I wonder if there are ways around that.  I should see if the Goodreads forum have come up with anything that skirts that.  (Huh, maybe I should count the Engels book for that, instead, and use something else for the translated book.  I know there are several manga I read which are written by women…and in some cases also translated by women.  I’m not sure if “book about the results of business” counts as a “business book” though…oh, wait, what about a book about industrialization?  I wonder if that counts…)  Oh, hey, a couple of them suggested using Dilbert books for the “business book” challenge.  Sounds like a plan! 😀

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