Saturday, March 23, 2019

March DWJ reading so far

It may not seem like I've done much March Magics reading, but I have in fact -- in the spirit of reading the favorites -- read two and a bit DWJ novels.

I needed to read Homeward Bounders all of a sudden because one of the kids had a phone catastrophe and my husband pretty much said "As to that..." and produced a replacement phone out of thin air.  It was a pretty impressive trenchcoat effect moment.  I adore Homeward Bounders, it's such a strange story and so compelling and tragic, yet of course has DWJ's humor and tendency to drop deep thought grenades on the reader (as in, you don't see them for a while and then *boom* -- in fact, I hereby declare that to be a new technical term.  Deep Thought Grenades.). 

Homeward Bounders is what you get when you put multiverse theory, Greek mythology, and Dungeons & Dragons together in a blender, and add a street-smart Victorian urchin to the mix.

I also picked Hexwood from my DWJ shelf.  I love Hexwood for its bizarre complexity; I suppose she would have had to make extensive notes for the story structure, and I wonder if it would be possible to diagram it out somehow?  It's a daunting prospect.  I have to figure out some of it anew each time I read it, what with everybody having at least two identities, and those in deliberate contrast with each other.  Absolutely everything is juxtaposed with its opposite: a galactic empire with a medieval fantasy landscape, a super-intelligent computer with the ancient primeval forest, legendary heroes with futuristic tyrants....even Fire and Hemlock might not be quite this pretzel-like!

Speaking of which, Fire and Hemlock is what I'm reading now, though I'm not very far in yet.  And I need to start Howl's Moving Castle if I'm going to write a post for the right day!

Friday, March 22, 2019

Lord Dunsany, no wait, a movie or so instead

I've been meaning to read Lord Dunsany's Book of Wonder for some time.  Well, I read it once long long ago, and don't remember anything about it except that I didn't get it, so I wanted to try again.  It was on my TBR shelf, and I figured I'd read it for the Ireland event.  It turns out I just don't like Lord Dunsany.  I read several stories, and the idea of reading a whole lot more of them is not a happy thought, so I'm quitting.  The stories are all very short, and consciously strange, with lots of names:
King he was of Afarmah, Lool and Haf, over-lord of Zeroora and hilly Chang, and duke of the dukedoms of Molong and Mlash, none of them unfamiliar with romance or unknown or overlooked in the making of myth. He pondered as he went in his thin disguise.
So, I guess I still don't get it.  But I don't think I'll bother with Lord Dunsany again, be he never so important a pillar of early fantasy literature (something I usually try hard to read).

But now I don't have an Irish book to tell you about!  Instead, I will tell you about my very favorite movie, which happens to be an Irish fairy tale.  It's The Secret of Roan Inish, and it's based on a lovely children's book, The Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry, which just so happens to be back in print thanks to the NYRB children's classics imprint.  It has charming illustrations, and one day I'm going to embroider one of them in white on navy, possibly for a tote bag.  (Since I don't have enough tote bags, ha.) 

Fiona's family had always lived on an island off the west coast until the war forced everyone to the mainland.  During the evacuation, baby Jamie was washed out to sea in his boat-shaped cradle.  There are stories that Jamie is still alive, living with the seals out around the islands, and Fiona thinks that if they move back to their old home, maybe Jamie will come back...

The music in the film is just lovely, and we've listened to the soundtrack for years.  When my kids were taking violin from our beloved teacher (who moved away, and we still miss him, though our current teacher is great too), I told him about The Secret of Roan Inish, and recommended it for his family.  Next thing I knew he was assigning my kids the music.

There are two other Irish fairy-tale movies that we've really enjoyed as a family, and that are, uh, no longer available on Netflix.  They both have similar animation and music styles -- they're from the same studio.

The Secret of Kells is a romanticized story about the creation of the Book of Kells; little Brendan lives at a monastery that is building a huge wall to keep the Vikings out, and he explores the forest and meets Aisling, presumably of the Sidhe.  Brother Aidan, a refugee from Iona, arrives with the unfinished Book and Brendan wants nothing more than to help.

The Song of the Sea features Ben, whose little sister Saoirse does not speak.  Ben blames her for their mother's death, but Saoirse -- and their mother -- is a selkie, and must be rescued from Macha if she is to live.  There is a lot of great music in this one too.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Yeats: Short Stories

Stories of Red Hanrahan
The Secret Rose
Rosa Alchemica, by W. B. Yeats

This book has been sitting around forever and I don't know where it came from.  It's a very elderly book, and the spine label is nearly illegible.   I had a vague idea that it contained Irish folktales, but when I actually opened it up and inspected it, it revealed itself to be short stories by W. B. Yeats.  There are two different collections and then one longish story that is still too short to be a novella.  My copy was published in 1914, but this fancier version in the image is from 1927.

Stories of Red Hanrahan -- these seem to have been written at different times, all about Owen "Red" Hanrahan, who starts off a young schoolteacher.  He gets a message from his sweetheart, summoning him to help her, but first a strange man insists that he play cards for a little while.  After playing for hours, Hanrahan wanders out into the mountains and finds a sleeping queen, with four crones holding the four treasures of Ireland.*  Like Percival in the Grail quest, he is afraid to ask the important questions, and so he is banished to wander forever, touched by the Sidhe.  He spends the rest of his life wandering, sometimes charming women with his words, and sometimes being defeated by them.

These stories were dedicated to the Irish poet Æ, George William Russell, and Yeats described them as being about "but one subject, the war of spiritual with natural order..."   

Yeats got more obviously mystical with the stories in The Secret Rose.  It's important to remember for these that Yeats was not just interested in Irish nationalism and folklore; he was heavily into Theosophy as well.   These stories are not connected with each other, but they all have a similar tone.

The first has a wanderer arrive at a monastery for shelter, but the shelter is terrible, so he makes up a poem satirizing the abbot.  The abbot, afraid that the locals will learn the song, comes up with a solution: instead of improving the shelter, the monks put the wanderer to death, as is their habit.  Another story has a knight who sacrifices himself for an old man's pigs, for reasons of his own.  There is an elderly hermit who has spent his life waiting for the moment when he can become young again by bringing the Men of Faery to his side, a king who grows hawk feathers in his hair, and quite a long story about Proud Costello, who ruins his life and his sweetheart's by his pride.

Rose Alchemica is the most mystical of all; it's the story of a man interested in alchemy, and an old schoolfellow promises to initiate him into the Order of the Alchemical Rose.  He has many visions of lavish halls filled with dancing pagans, wars between gods and angels, all sorts of things...but like many fairy visions, it turns to dust in the morning.

I won't say I understood these stories or anything, but they were pretty interesting.  I really only know some of Yeats' poetry and not much of that, so it's good to get some more in.  Apparently he got more realistic (in his writing, I mean) later on in life; I guess this was all written during an early transcendentalist period.


*As mentioned the other day, in the Elidor post.

Monday, March 18, 2019

The Light and the Dark

The Light and the Dark, by Mikhail Shishkin

A few years ago I read a modernist novel by Shishkin, Maidenhair, which was strange and intriguing.  I've been meaning to read his next book for quite some time and I finally did it.  By now he's probably published three more, oh dear.

This is a love story, maybe.  Alexandra (Sasha) and Vladimir (Vovka) are separated lovers who write to each other.  In long alternating letters, they reminisce about their time together, talk about their memories, and share what's happening in their lives.  Except...after a while, the reader starts to notice strange things.  Volodya is a soldier, and eventually we realize he's in China, helping to put down the Boxer Rebellion.  If you look for indications of Sasha's environment, there are few clues, but she is more modern and seems to live at the end of the century.

And both of them seem to be writing into a void; they never reference each other's letters.  Vladimir addresses Sasha directly and longs for her, but after a little while Sasha's words are more like diary entries than letters.  Only near the end does she really address Volodya again, and by then he might be dying.

Not at all a difficult read, but certainly a strange one.  I'm not sure what to make of it.  Maybe it's supposed to make an ouroboros.  It was interesting, though.

While looking for an image to use, I found out that in Russia, a play was produced, called The Letter Book, which appears to be the Russian title.

Friday, March 15, 2019

The Riddle of the Sands

I just read it for free on Kindle
The Riddle of the Sands, by Erskine Childers

 This is another title I picked up from the Slightly Foxed podcast, which lauded it as a gripping boys' adventure and minor classic.  It was indeed pretty exciting, but it's waaaay longer than I anticipated!  I thought it would be a quick little read on my phone's Kindle app for odd moments, but it took me weeks.

Carruthers, young man about town, is invited on a yachting cruise by an old school friend, Davies, and he packs up his nattiest yachting outfit and heads for the north coast of Germany to meet Davies and relax for some duck shooting.  Except, the 'yacht' turns out to be a tiny (but tough!) little souped-up boat, and what Davies really wants is to explore the north-west coast of Germany in excruciating detail, because he's become convinced that something nefarious is going on.  Something worth killing for, that involves the German navy and concerns England.  It's clearly their patriotic duty to investigate.  So Carruthers and Davies set out to explore the sandy, difficult coast, outwit the German authorities, and figure out... the riddle of the sands.

Most of the action takes place in Friesland.

It's an exciting spy story of two amateurs against professionals, and it's also a sailing story.  In fact, there is a simply incredible amount about boats.  I'm pretty sure the entire Horatio Hornblower series does not contain this much material about boats and sailing and navigation.

The novel was published in 1903, and had an enormous impact.  From what I can gather, it was really one of the very first spy novels -- it built on Victorian adventure novels but introduced a twist with modern anxieties about invasion from other European powers and espionage, and it inspired an avalanche of spy novels.*  I've seen claims that it even inspired the founding of MI5 or of British naval bases, but that seems iffy to me.  I'd like more information on that.

You can really absorb the zeitgeist of 1903 here.  These two young men are entirely a product of their time and place, which makes it interesting.   You can see World War I coming over the horizon.  There is a surprising amount of admiration for the German Kaiser from Davies, which I didn't expect:
'Here's this huge empire, stretching half over central Europe—an empire growing like wildfire, I believe, in people, and wealth, and everything. They've licked the French, and the Austrians, and are the greatest military power in Europe. I wish I knew more about all that, but what I'm concerned with is their sea-power. It's a new thing with them, but it's going strong, and that Emperor of theirs is running it for all it's worth. He's a splendid chap, and anyone can see he's right....'

For two days we travelled slowly up the mighty waterway that is the strategic link between the two seas of Germany. Broad and straight, massively embanked, lit by electricity at night till it is lighter than many a great London street; traversed by great war vessels, rich merchantmen, and humble coasters alike, it is a symbol of the new and mighty force which, controlled by the genius of statesmen and engineers, is thrusting the empire irresistibly forward to the goal of maritime greatness.    'Isn't it splendid?' said Davies. 'He's a fine fellow, that emperor.'
  It is really strange to see this character with such admiration for a guy I think of as bombastic, uncontrolled, disastrously impulsive, and fatally Prussian-minded.  But in 1903 I suppose the average citizen didn't know all that.

It's worth reading, and pretty exciting, but be prepared for a really overwhelming amount about boats.

*John Buchan came next, John LeCarre....I suppose without Erskine Childers we might not have James Bond or Jack Ryan or Jason Bourne, at least not in the form we're used to.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop

Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop, by Christopher Morley

These fun books came across the donation table and I just read them in spare moments.  Several years ago, I downloaded The Haunted Bookshop, but I couldn't understand the first chapter at all, so I quit.  I had no idea that it was a sequel to Parnassus on Wheels!  Now it all makes sense....

Parnassus on Wheels is the narrative of Helen McGill, spinster, who lives with her brother on a farm.  Until a few years ago, they farmed happily together, but then Andrew wrote a book and became a successful writer about the joys of country life, and things have never been the same since.  Helen is pretty fed up and the last straw arrives on a wagon in the form of a mobile bookstore, Parnassus on Wheels; the owner wants to sell the outfit to Andrew so he can retire and write his book, about the joys of bookselling.  Helen decides that it's high time she got to go out gallivanting around the countryside and let Andrew run his own farm, so she buys Parnassus and sets out to become a traveling bookseller.  She'll just take this Roger Mifflin fellow along for a day or so while she learns the ropes, and then drop him off at the train station...

The adventures of Helen and Roger are a lot of fun.  There are bandits and storms, irate landladies,  sheriffs and even a train wreck!  I think I actually enjoyed this one better than the next, which is still quite a good read.

In The Haunted Bookshop, the Great War is over and the Mifflins have settled down in Brooklyn to run Parnassus at Home.  An energetic young advertising clerk happens by and is intrigued by the garrulous Roger, and at about the same time a friend asks them to take on his daughter as a favor, so she (fresh from finishing school) can find out what real working life is like.  But odd things are happening at the bookshop.  Why do people keep coming in and asking for Carlyle's Cromwell, and why is that tome never where it ought to be?  Young Mr. Gilbert thinks he smells a rat and he's determined to find out what's going on.

This story is still great fun, plus there are schemes and spies and adventures.  I particularly got a laugh out of this bit at the start of the book, where Mr. Mifflin and Mr. Gilbert first meet and entertain themselves by having their dinner conversation in a deliberately Johnsonian style:

 "Ah, you should taste Mrs. Mifflin's cooking!" said the bookseller. "I am only an amateur, who dabbles in the craft during her absence. She is on a visit to her cousin in Boston. She becomes, quite justifiably, weary of the tobacco of this establishment, and once or twice a year it does her good to breathe the pure serene of Beacon Hill. During her absence it is my privilege to inquire into the ritual of housekeeping. I find it very sedative after the incessant excitement and speculation of the shop."

"I should have thought," said Gilbert, "that life in a bookshop would be delightfully tranquil."

"Far from it. Living in a bookshop is like living in a warehouse of explosives. Those shelves are ranked with the most furious combustibles in the world—the brains of men. I can spend a rainy afternoon reading, and my mind works itself up to such a passion and anxiety over mortal problems as almost unmans me. It is terribly nerve-racking. Surround a man with Carlyle, Emerson, Thoreau, Chesterton, Shaw, Nietzsche, and George Ade—would you wonder at his getting excited? What would happen to a cat if she had to live in a room tapestried with catnip? She would go crazy!"

"Truly, I had never thought of that phase of bookselling," said the young man. "How is it, though, that libraries are shrines of such austere calm? If books are as provocative as you suggest, one would expect every librarian to utter the shrill screams of a hierophant, to clash ecstatic castanets in his silent alcoves!"

"Ah, my boy, you forget the card index! Librarians invented that soothing device for the febrifuge of their souls, just as I fall back upon the rites of the kitchen. Librarians would all go mad, those capable of concentrated thought, if they did not have the cool and healing card index as medicament!"
Yes, we would all go mad!  Mad, I tell you!

These two are minor classics of American humor and a must-read for any book lover.  I'm glad I found them.

Somebody went ahead and did it!

Monday, March 11, 2019

The Last Dragonslayer

The Last Dragonslayer and The Song of the Quarkbeast, by Jasper Fforde

I do love Jasper Fforde!  For Dewithon, I read the first two books in the Chronicles of Kazam trilogy.  The third is no longer at my library, and I put an ILL request in for it.  These middle-grade fantasy stories are so fun, everybody!

OK, I haven't gotten that third one yet, but I like this image
Jennifer Strange, age 16, is a foundling -- there are lots in the Kingdom of Hereford, ruled by the illustrious King Snodd IV.  She works as a manager at a company of wizards; it's her job to do the practical work of booking jobs, scheduling, and feeding the very unruly jobbing wizards, and since the worrying disappearance of the owner 8 months ago, she's been running it all on her own.  But!  The level of magic available in the world is going down.  It's getting harder and harder to do big workings, and pretty soon the wizards of Kazam might be out of work altogether.  Meanwhile, the last of the dragons is dying, and Jennifer has been named a dragonslayer despite not wanting at all to kill any dragons.  She and her faithful quarkbeast set out to see what can be done.

As with the Thursday Next books, at least half the fun is in the details and the oddball world Fforde has invented.  This is a Britain un-united, with innumerable tiny kingdoms and plenty of strange creatures.  A good deal of Wales belongs to dragons (naturally enough) and the north belongs to trolls.  Magic runs the technology, and is written in code -- RUNIX used to be standard but ARAMAIC-128 is more modern.

There were a lot of good moments, but this one in particular had to be read aloud to anyone nearby.  Jennifer and the company's messenger, a magic-carpet owner and prince of a neighboring kingdom, are on their way home:

We took the train back to the Kingdom of Hereford.  After the afternoon's action, the carpet was in no state to be used for anything -- not even a carpet.  The prince had no cash, so he swapped a minor dukedom back in his home Kingdom of Portland for two first-class tickets and we caught the first train out of Stirling station.  As a foundling I was not permitted to sit anywhere but third class, but when the conductor questioned my presence in first, the prince said that I was his personal organ donor and traveled everywhere with him, just in case.  The conductor congratulated the prince on such a novel use of a foundling and told me I was lucky to have such a kind benefactor. 

I'm seriously tempted to give my dragon-loving niece this trilogy for her next birthday.  I think it would be right up her alley, despite not being mainly about dragons.  I loved them, I can't wait till the third one shows up, and if you like humor in your fantasy, or if you enjoyed Thursday Next, you should definitely read the Chronicles of Kazam.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

The Wee Free Men

The Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchett -- audiobook read by Stephen Briggs

It's #MarchMagics Pterry Day!  The readalong was Wee Free Men, and I thought I'd try listening to the audiobook, as my mom said it was fantastic.  I don't usually like audiobooks, so this is a departure for me.  (Usually, I lack the patience to listen to a book I know I could be reading about five times faster.  Also I tend to let my mind wander and then I get lost.)

And indeed, the audio version of this book IS fantastic!  It's beautifully read, and Briggs gives everybody a wonderful variety of accents.  I recommend!

Now, in my opinion, the Tiffany Aching series is just about Pterry's apex of writing.  It would probably be hard to get any better.  The way he managed to blend humor, myth, and Big Important Stuff is simply amazing to me.  Tiffany is a fantastic character, and the Nac Mac Feegles are sheer genius.

As a result, it's hard to find much to say about The Wee Free Men besides enthusiastic words.  So I'll keep this short and participate in the discussion that should happen at Kristen's blog today.

Looking around, I saw that the Jim Henson Company announced it would be making a Wee Free Men film, which sounds like a great idea, but that was all from 2016 and there doesn't seem to have been much news since then, so I guess I won't hold my breath.

So many different covers!  Here are just a few.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Adventures in music!

This isn't about books at all; it's about what I did Wednesday and how happy I am about it, and so I thought I'd write it down.

One of my very favorite all-time bands is a New Zealand group called the Chills.  It's fronted by Martin Phillipps, whose lifelong project it is; the other members have changed quite a bit though the current lineup has been around for a while.  I first got into them with their 1990 album Submarine Bells, which was their first international release.  In 1992, they did a US tour, and I saw that they were playing in San Francisco -- at a venue I couldn't get to.  I didn't have a car or any friends with cars who wanted to go see a band they'd never heard of (cars were very rare in my world); it was too far from any BART stations and in a really sketchy area.  I sadly concluded I'd have to wait till the next time, but I never heard of another one.  Until now!  And now I have a car!

So my husband and I hopped into the car on Wednesday and started driving.  Wow, spring sure is pretty in California (if extremely short; see this poem)!  The drive was just lovely.  I was supposed to do the driving, but I lasted all of 45 minutes before I got too sleepy, so my poor husband had to drive down and then back again afterwards.  We hung around the Mission district for a bit -- luckily, we found a really great bookstore with a cafe attached -- and had some dinner before going in.

Excited me
 We got a very nice spot at a little table at the front of the balcony, which gave us a wonderful view.  There were two opening acts; one was okay, the other stank on toast.  But it was all entirely worth it, because the actual show was fantastic and the best thing ever.  They played most of the songs that I would have picked to hear, the playing was wonderful, and pretty much I GOT TO SEE MARTIN PHILLIPPS SING and I won't pretend I didn't tear up once or twice from joy.

The drive back was brutal, and we got home at 3am, but we're still poking each other and going "We got to go see the Chills!"  I was 27 years late, but I got my chance!   And now I shall inflict photos and music videos upon you:

One of their most known early songs

The breakout hit (whenever I'm asked for a quotation I tend to produce a line from this song)

Just one of my favorites

A more recent song that I just really like

Wednesday, March 6, 2019


Stet: a Memoir, by Diana Athill

I've been listening to the Slightly Foxed podcast, which is a bit of a problem when it comes to my TBR pile and its daunting rate of growth.  One episode mentioned this memoir by Diana Athill, who was an editor in London for decades, and it sounded so fun that I had to have it.  InterLibrary Loan was my friend, and I enjoyed it very much.  It also put three more books on the TBR list, which I hope doesn't happen every time; the podcast gave me two or three titles, and if each one gives me two or three titles more, pretty soon we'll have a 'going to St. Ives' problem.

Athill starts out with her youth as one of those county families with no actual money but some land and a taste for the leisured life.  She lived with horses and dogs outside, and books inside, and then went off to London to earn her living, which coincided with the war, and eventually turned into editing.  She ended up at Andre Deutsch, and edited books for a good 40 years or so.

The first half of the book is a chronological memoir of life in publishing.  It's a great pleasure to read (although intermittent accounts of love affairs show up at boring intervals) and there is plenty of humor.  I particularly liked the description of editing one book, written by an expert and full of wonderful detail but very badly written.   After she painstakingly edited just about every sentence in the book, the author sent her a review that praised the writing and pointed out that there had been no need for all that editing fuss.

The second half consists of Athill's reflections on working closely with six of 'her' authors -- including Jean Rhys and V. S. Naipaul.  Also very interesting and, like the rest of the book, honest in her assessments of others (and herself).

The whole thing is a delightful read and, I'd say, something just about any book-lover would really enjoy a lot.  I don't mean necessarily everyone who likes to read -- I mean anyone who is interested in books, in how they are written and produced and made.  It's out of print, but libraries have it (though not many in the US) and used copies are available.

One of Athill's last thoughts is a short meditation on what she considers to be the shortcomings of publishing during her career.  She points out that English publishing was run almost entirely by people of her own 'caste' -- upper-class types with a particular outlook -- and that the resulting books tended to appeal to that caste and not to others.  She singles out Virginia Woolf and Angela Thirkell as rather embarrassing examples -- I meant to put the quotation here but then I lent the book to my mom before it has to go back.  Now, I'll agree that both of them were awful snobs, but I'm going to defend Thirkell (Woolf hardly needs me).  She is indeed an example, and I can see where from within that world, she's cringe-inducing; nearly all her 'real' people are of her own class.  But for me as a complete outsider, reading her as someone from a very foreign world, it's possible to read her for her many good points and take the others with a grain of salt.  It's much easier to enjoy her for what she is, and I'd hate to miss out on her books.

So -- if you like books about books, get hold of this one sometime.