Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Books by Clarence Day

God and My Father
Life With Father
Life With Mother, by Clarence Day

A few weeks ago, somebody posted about God and My Father, a sort of memoir about the time Dad turned out not to be baptized.  It was made into a film and everything.  So I wondered if I could get it, and the library obliged with a collection by Clarence Day of his family memories.

Clarence Day grew up in upper-middle class New York City in the late 1800s; his family was well-off, but not really wealthy.  Day started off in business like his father, but crippling arthritis forced him into a much quieter life and he did a lot of writing, frequently for magazines, but books too.  These books are really funny, written with great affection and understanding.

God and My Father is a real memoir with a plot; it's a comedic story about his father's religious opinions and the family battle over baptism.  Mr. Day was a conventional man who insisted on church attendance, but for the rest he preferred to be left alone to conduct his business as he saw fit.  He was surprised and displeased to discover that his free-thinking father had not allowed him to be baptized, but he certainly wasn't going to do it now!

Life With Father is more a collection of vignettes, possibly written over years for magazine columns.  They detail Day's growing-up years and are just really fun to read.  Life With Mother is just like Life With Father, except that it contains more analysis of Mrs. Day's character and tends to cover later years.  Mr. and Mrs. Day were a very loving couple, each with strong opinions and tempers of their own, and life was never dull under their roof--especially with four boys around.

These were so fun!  I just dipped into the book for a few stories at a time, and it was great; refreshing and amusing, with lots of nice details about life 100 years ago.  I really enjoyed reading these.

Young Clarence--tonedeaf--tries to learn violin

Clarence Day is now most known for writing this:
The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men's hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead.
Pretty good, huh?

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Big Green Tent

The Big Green Tent, by Ludmila Ulitskaya

Phew, I wanted to get this very long novel finished in time for the end of Women in Translation month, and I did!  AND this is the second time I've written this post, because Blogger ate the first one.  I hope I can remember what I said.

Three schoolboys become friends in post-Stalinist Russia; so do three girls, in a different class.  Their lives are the lattice for the intertwinings of many characters over four decades.  Many of them are involved with underground activities, the samizdat network or political advocacy.  The story moves around in time, following people through years or decades and then turning back again to other stories.

Although the book cover's blurb focuses on the three boys, I really felt that Olga's story is the center of the novel; although she does not appear in the beginning or the end, she dominates half the book, to the point that parts of her story are told twice or even three times, with different emphases.  You could make a really interesting tapestry by mapping out the appearances of various people.

Most of the main characters are involved in literature, art, or music, but we meet all kinds of people: elderly peasants, wise grandmothers, Party hacks and spies, oppressed Tatars and old soldiers.  Ulitskaya is very skilled at handling the transitions from one person to another, and I sometimes didn't even notice for a while that she'd done it and I was immersed in a different life.  The result is one of those sprawling, complex novels that contains a tremendous amount and which I really enjoyed.  It reminded me of A Suitable Boy or In the First Circle.

What is the big green tent, you ask?  It is only mentioned once, in a dream, but its shadow lies over the whole novel.

I really like the cover, by the way.  It's nice that it's not red, for once (even the little Soviet flag!), and the patterns are kind of quilty, which I like.  (It even makes me happy that nobody tried to make the font extra-Russian by reversing the R or anything.  I wouldn't have expected that, since this is not an 80s movie about the Cold War, but it's still something I appreciate.)

Hey, I know, I'll give you a bonus song!  As long as I'm in a Russian mood--a while back I watched this fun little children's series made in about 1985, called Visitor From the Future.  It was hugely popular at the time, and it's a neat piece of history to watch now.  It's fun, kind of goofy in spots, and very sweet.  This is the theme song with classroom scenes that don't give you spoilers.  Watch it sometime if you get a chance!

Revolutionary Days

Revolutionary Days, by Julia Cantacuzene

I have been reading a lot of Russian stuff lately, so get ready!  This is a book I picked up at the used bookstore, largely because it is part of the Lakeside Classics, which is this odd little series that publishes one volume per year, always a non-fiction title with some connection to American history.  I only have two, and the other one is the Life of Olaudah Equiano.  As soon as I figured out what this one was about, I had to have it!

Julia Grant was a granddaughter of President Ulysses S. Grant.  Her father was also an eminent soldier, and later became an ambassador in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Julia grew up quite privileged and spent her late teenage years in Vienna.  There she met a handsome young Russian prince, Michael Cantacuzene (a direct descendant of the Byzantine emperor and a junior branch, so not in the line of succession at all), and married him in 1899.

For nearly twenty years, Julia lived the life of a Russian princess.  Her husband did state work and ran the family concerns.  They had a country estate and properties in St. Petersburg and on the Black Sea.  She had three children, and her son attended the posh military academy for young nobles.  They traveled to America to visit grandparents, and generally lived a lifestyle of untold wealth and the responsibility to care for and pass down their estates.

Then the Great War came, and things weren't going so well.  Prince Michael was an eager soldier and all that, but the government started to totter and Tsar Nicholas II was worryingly reclusive and pliant.  The government fell, Kerensky came to power, and finally the Bolsheviks took over.  The family was very fortunate and escaped to America.  That's the ground covered by Princess Julia's memoir.

It's a fascinating first-person account of pre-Revolutionary Russian society through the eyes of an American.  Of course, Julia is always complimentary of her adopted country and her Russian family and friends.  She would never dream of criticizing in public, so don't expect that--and I don't mean to imply that she should. 

That's not to say that she doesn't have any strong opinions!  Julia has quite a lot to say on the topic of Madame Vrybova and the circle surrounding the Tsarina (including Rasputin), and their dreadful influence on the Tsar.  She (and, she implies, most of the Russian nobility) believed that the Russian government must liberalize or die, and laments how Tsar Nicholas II would agree to sensible measures with his advisors, and then be persuaded by the Tsarina that autocracy was the only proper way to go.  The direct result was the fall of the royal house.

One really interesting point was that once the royal house did fall, Julia says that most people felt very hopeful about the Kerensky government.  They figured that sure, things would be tricky for a while, but it would calm down, and on the whole everything would be fine and the country would modernize in a liberal, fairly calm way.  The nobility were prepared to acclimatize and go along with the new government, because they already realized that the old autocracy couldn't continue.  But the Kerensky government made some serious errors, and meanwhile the German-funded Bolsheviki were infiltrating and causing all sorts of trouble.  (Julia believed that the Germans planned to destabilize Russia and end their participation in the war by funding the Bolsheviks.  I do not know whether she was right, maybe somebody can tell me?)

This is an engaging memoir; if you're interested in Russian history, it's well worth a read.


And to finish off, here is a poem just for you about John Cantacuzene, Byzantine emperor and ancestor of Julia's husband, by John Bellairs:

John Cantacuzene
Swaddled in Byzantine
Pearl-seeded robes

Put out the eyes of his
Prelate, for piercing his
Priestly ear-lobes.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Classics Club: August Meme

Every month, the Classics Club blog posts a question for us to answer, and I just about never get around to it.  Memes in general, I am not good at them.  But today I think I will do it!
What classic piece of literature most intimidates you, and why? (Or, are you intimidated by the classics, and why? And has your view changed at all since you joined our club?)

I have gotten a lot less intimidated, that is for sure.  The CC has helped me focus my reading and discover that I can tackle scary books!  But there are still a couple of areas that really make me nervous:

French literature.  Nothing is scarier.  Zola?  Balzac?  Hugo?  Proust?  Eeeek, save me! I feel quite proud of the fact that I have now read The Count of Monte Cristo (1000 pages of adventure and melodrama) and Madame Bovary (fabulous novel which required a readalong to give me courage).   Now that I'm getting to the end of my CC list, though, I'm thinking I'll need to put Hugo on the next one.  I still don't know about those other guys. The thought of reading Zola makes me shrink and quiver.  But perhaps, someday, French literature will be my pale green pants with nobody inside them.

Anything heavily philosophical.  I tried to read Aristotle's Ethics.  Bleh.  I took one look at William James' Varieties of Religious Experience and felt faint.  I can deal with Plato and Socrates just fine, but anything else....well, I dunno.

Moby Dick.  I have no plans ever to read Moby Dick.  I cannot see why I should!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Scholar Adventurers

The Scholar Adventurers, by Richard Altick

I came across this intriguing title while weeding.  At first it didn't look too prepossessing, but the description--"Altick's classic portrayal of scholars on the prowl"--looked kind of fun, so I took it home.

Altick describes the travails of the literary scholar (pre-Internet!) who wishes to track down the unpublished, unknown bits and pieces of information.  He starts off with the papers of James Boswell, whose debauched reputation led his Victorian relatives to suppress the masses of letters, diaries, and other writings he had left behind.  The tale of how batches of Boswell papers eventually saw the light of day is a fascinating one!

Other chapters ask who Sir Thomas Malory really was, or describe quests for lost papers of Byron or Shelley.  Altick also describes literary forgeries, texts in cipher, and all sorts of fun things.  What has happened when science teamed up with literature to the benefit of both?

Since the chapters aren't closely related, it's a great book for dipping into.  It's just full of fun stories.  I'm glad I found it!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog

Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog, by Boris Akunin

I like Russian stories, and I like mysteries, so I should have started reading Akunin years ago.  I did start this one several years back, but I made the mistake of trying to read it on a BART train, and when I failed to get into it, I put it aside and meant to try again sometime.  I finally did, and it was an enjoyable read!

Bishop Mitrofanii, spiritual leader of a country province, has a reputation for solving tricky mysteries.  In fact, it's the unobtrusive Sister Pelagia who does the detecting, and when the bishop's elderly aunt writes to him about the violent killing of her beloved white bulldog, he sends Pelagia off to deal with the problem.  It doesn't seem too important, but Pelagia meets a motley and unusual group of residents at the aunt's estate, and soon realizes that there is a lot at stake.  More dogs are killed, and then people. 

The nineteenth-century setting is wonderful.  Akunin excels at creating a vanished world, illustrating a whole social order, and linking it to our own.  He has also done it with his much larger series about Erast Fandorin, a Moscow diplomat and detective.  I'll certainly have to seek out more of his books--especially the next Pelagia title, which involves a haunting by a black monk.  Shades of Chekhov!

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Death of Vishnu

The Death of Vishnu, by Manil Suri

For some reason, I thought this was a post-apocalyptic SF novel.  It is absolutely not.  It is the first in Suri's "Hindu Myths" series, which so far has three volumes; they are unconnected except that they use mythology as their inspiration and symbolic language.

Vishnu is the errand ganga for a block of apartments; he therefore sleeps on the stair landing and lives on a system of tips and perks, but now he is dying.  As he lies there, waiting to die, he (mentally?  symbolically?) ascends the stairs, considering the life stories of each tenant, and possibly attaining godhood along the way.

We get to know each family and personal drama.  The Pathaks and the Asranis constantly quarrel over every little thing, especially over who should pay for Vishnu's ambulance.  Kavita plans to elope with her upstairs neighbor, Salim, but really she just wants to live in a Bollywood movie--her feelings have very little to do with Salim.  Mr. Jalal (Salim's father) has been a trial to his devout wife for years because of his determined disbelief, but now he's obsessively looking for enlightenment.  Vinod lives in the past, reliving his happy years with his wife.  And the radio-wallah has gone a bit mad.  Vishnu also remembers his childhood and his years pursuing Padmini, a prostitute.

It was an interesting novel, and made quite a splash when it was published in 2010, but I didn't love it.  I'm not all that much of a modern literature person and this wasn't really my taste, except that I like books about India!  I may well pick up the next Suri book, The City of Devi, because it actually is sort of an apocalyptic novel, but I may not.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings

Hey everyone!  We've been starting school and such, so I haven't written much in the last week.  And it's only going to get busier from here, as I start back to work, but I've got some great books to tell you about, so stay tuned.  Meanwhile, we went to see a fantastic movie this weekend, and I want to tell you about it, because it's not getting nearly as much attention as it deserves!

Kubo and the Two Strings is a Laika production; they do stop-motion animation, and you might remember Coraline, which was also fantastic. The 3D they do is some of the best we have seen (and for once, doesn't hurt my eyes). Kubo is an original story, inspired by Japanese mythology....look, just watch the trailer:

It's gorgeous, it's a great story, it's an amazing, creative, unusual movie, it's...not produced by a big studio, and so it's just not getting the attention.  I'm telling you now, it's worth every penny and minute, and I hope you'll go see it too.  Go quickly!

Monday, August 15, 2016

Last Tales

Last Tales, by Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen

I always enjoy reading Isak Dinesen, and I have just about everything on the bookshelf because I took a course in college that was almost nothing but Dinesen (I did a good bit of Scandinavian literature).  She was an odd duck in her day, and reading her now is almost surreal; the stories are so strange to our sensibilities, especially in this last collection.  She did her level best to write as though she lived in the 18th century, or possibly earlier, and nobody thought more of aristocracy, nobility, or the mysterious power of femininity than she did.

I remember once my instructor showed us a photo of her standing on a stage with Betty Friedan.  Two more dissimilar women could hardly be imagined, and I have to wonder if they'd ever read each other's works (probably not) or if they could possibly have had anything to say to one another.  Karen Blixen was tall, slim, elderly, elegant and proud.  She'd probably put belladonna in her eyes for the occasion.  Betty Friedan was a good deal younger, short and stout in a shapeless dress that emphasized her scorn of fripperies.  The mutual disdain almost radiated from the photo, and I sure wish I could find a copy online for you to see!

Dinesen in her later years
Last Tales was originally published in Danish and my copy is listed as a translation, so I'm counting it for Women in Translation month.  Dinesen mostly wrote in English and then translated into her native Danish, so I wasn't at all sure about this title, but they were her last works so maybe she just went with the Danish.  The first several stories were for a novel that was never written.  Then there are two "New Gothic Tales," one of which is unfinished, and three "New Winter's Tales."

The unwritten novel was going to be called Albondocani and the tales belonging to it have an Italian flair, with cardinals and sculptors and intrigues.  (In fact, a cardinal tells two of the stories, which are titled the First and Third--there is no Second Cardinal's Tale.)  Characters frequently say things like:
For the entire being of a woman is a secret, which should be kept.  And one more deep secret to her becomes part of it, one charm more, a hidden treasure...
...as to the shedding of blood, this to our shepherdess--as to any lady--is a high privilege and is inseperably united with the sublimest moments of existence, with promotion and beatification.  What little girl will not joyously shed her blood to become a virgin, what bride not hers in order to become a wife, what young wife not hers to become a mother?
 The final tale in this section, "The Blank Page," is a bizarre little story on the power of silence.  (I told my husband the storyline and he was really pretty horrified.)  I don't want to spoil it for you, but it's so short that I thought I could probably find it in full, and so here it is--click and read.

I wondered what Albondocani meant, and the Danish Wikipedia page on Last Tales says it was one of the names of Caliph Haroun al-Rashid in The Thousand and One Nights, which sounds about like something Dinesen would choose, but I can't find any mention of the name connected to Haroun al-Rashid or The Thousand and One Nights otherwise (perhaps it's usually spelled differently?).  Instead, the only other mention of "Albondocani" is a tiny private press, mostly known as a publisher of Edward Gorey's works.  So there's your mystery coincidence of the day for you...and if you know anything about it, tell me!

After that are two "Gothic Tales," which doesn't mean that they have ghosts and bleeding nuns--it means more elaborate and Romantic in the German style, though "Echoes" is about an Italian opera singer hiding out in an Italian village.  "The Caryatids" is unfinished but travels as far as Canada.  Women are the caryatids of the story:
We did not forget our honor, or the honor of our houses, when you went away.  There is not one, no not one, of the women of Haut-Mesnil, who has disgraced her name, the name of our father.  Is it forever, then, the task of the women to hold up the houses, like those stone figures which they call caryatids?  And are you now, Lord of Haut-Mesnil, going to pull down all the stones of our great house, upon your own head, and upon mine, and the heads of all of us?
Like the "Winter's Tales" collected together, the new Winter's Tales are more domestic and set in Denmark, but they are still pretty obsessed with the honor or nobility of old families.  In one, a young squire discovers that he may--or may not--be the son of his old nurse instead of the lord he thinks himself, but perhaps that is only fair.  In another, a young commoner loves his cousin, a countess, and so he despairs.  And in the last, a poet, a prostitute, and a king sit together and converse all night.

It was neat to revisit these stories that I hadn't read in years, and to remember the class discussions we had about them.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Grave Goods

Grave Goods: Essays of a Peculiar Nature, by John P. O'Grady

This is an odd little collection of essays on topics that literary academics don't write essays on.  Some of the stories have ghosts, or witches, or strange happenings. 

There's a lady who makes and sells magic mirrors, and another one who is a psychic consulted by police (really?  I am skeptical).  In one essay, a country beekeeper announces that the bees are gone because he didn't give them the news properly--this is an old belief, that you have to give the bees the news respectfully--and so they go on a bee hunt and instead find a stone marker of Rip Van Winkle's sleeping spot.  Things like that.

The essays are all about events within the United States, and they often feature natural settings--O'Grady is an environmental writer.  They're things he says happened to him, or to friends of his, or at least that he knows of.

The last essay features a guy who was the night watchman at a San Francisco cemetery that was being dismantled and moved to Colma.  He also wrote poetry.  An elderly lady shows up in the middle of the night and gets him to help her dig up a manzanita plant; she claims it's the last wild manzanita around and so she's going to take care of it before it gets bulldozed.  This puzzled me, since manzanita is a common wild shrub/tree all over California, but then I thought maybe it was some special subspecies--manzanita usually grows in dry climates, not cold, damp San Francisco.  The species is given, so I looked it up, and sure enough, there's a special one native to the area, which is endangered.  (Manzanita is notable for its very smooth reddish bark, which peels off in curls.)

It's a pretty interesting book of essays.  Not especially fabulous, but not a waste of time.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, by Dubravka Ugrešić

I couldn't resist this title!  I've had it on the pile for a little while now, and the Women in Translation event this month gave me an opportunity to pick it up.  It's post-modern and odd, not exactly a reworking of the Baba Yaga stories, but more finding her in modern life--an unusual story about women getting old.  There are three distinct parts, which makes it not quite a novel to my mind. 

The first part is narrated by an unnamed writer/academic whose elderly mother just wants to die, but meanwhile keeps her apartment obsessively clean.  The writer goes to Bulgaria (her mother's birthplace) to take photos, but a younger academic, Aba, attaches herself and just won't leave.

Then we go to a spa, where three older ladies have come for a vacation.  Pupa is very elderly and keeps her feet in a fur boot for warmth.  Beba works in a hospital and misses her son, and Kukla is a serial widow who secretly writes.  Their lives are accidentally and completely changed during their visit.

And then the third part of the book consists of a long letter by Aba, now a professor specializing in folklore, giving a Baba Yaga primer and analyzing the first two stories in light of Baba Yaga legends!  Not only that, her full name is Aba Bagay.  So that was odd.

Dubravka Ugrešić is Croatian, or post-Yugoslavian possibly; when the war broke out, she was vocally opposed to nationalism and wound up having to leave the country.  She lives in Amsterdam now, and writes post-modern things and criticism.

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg is part of the Canongate "Myths" project, a long-term endeavor of publishing modern reworkings of ancient myths.  Several of the titles on the list will be familiar, but it looks like 2011 was the last time they published a title.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: the Untold History of English, by John McWhorter

Somebody, probably my mother, mentioned McWhorter's name while we were on our UK trip, and then when I got home and went to work weeding the library collection, I came upon this book, so I took it home.

There are a zillion books out there that will tell you about the history of the English language, but McWhorter feels that they're inadequate and do not properly address the why of how the language evolved.  Why, for example, do we say "I'm driving to the park" instead of "I drive to the park" like every other Germanic speaker?  (I have often wondered this myself.)  Why do we say do all the time when it doesn't actually mean anything much?

Well, McWhorter is here to tell you why.  He's got some very strong opinions, and in fact he's rather given to ranting--I think about half of this book is dedicated to rants about linguists who disagree with him and why they are wrong wrong wrong.

He'll take you through the effects that invasions and population-mixing have had on the English language, and he'll explain his theories quite well.  They make sense.  But, as you can figure out from the tone of the book, he's apparently in the minority.

A whole long chapter is also dedicated to arguing over the hypothesis that grammar and language determine thought.  I think this is a bit of a digression from the main thesis, really, but it's pretty interesting.  When people say (I have said it myself) that speaking a different language tends to make your thoughts different too, I certainly never took it to mean anything like what he is talking about here.  I simply meant that thoughts take on a slightly different flavor or shape.  McWhorter takes it more literally than that, but he seems to be arguing with people who also do that, so maybe it's fair.  It's a lot of ranting, though.

The final chapter is really intriguing, and takes McWhorter's theories really far back in time, to Indo-European roots and what prehistoric population mixing might have gone on to make European languages what they are.  That was my favorite part, though I enjoyed almost all of the book.  It just could have used about a third less ranting, is all.  There's plenty of fun theory-spinning to keep any language lover happy!

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Conference of the Birds

The Conference of the Birds, by Farid ud-Din Attar, with Rafiq Abdulla

It was only after I read this book--introduction and all--that I figured out that it's really selections from a longer poem.  It's only mentioned in one spot that I nearly missed!  So now I feel kind of dumb, but I did enjoy the poetry and maybe someday I'll find the whole thing.  I have no idea how long it is.

The Conference of the Birds is a Sufi poem, a sort of allegory of humanity's journey to God.  All the birds of the world meet together, and the hoopoe encourages them all to look for the Simurgh, the King of Birds--that is, God.  The hoopoe is their spiritual leader, wiser than the rest, and he tells them that the journey is long and difficult, but nothing else is worthwhile.

The birds are at first happy enough to look for the Simurgh, but when they realize how arduous the quest will be, they start dropping out and giving excuses.  The sparrow is afraid, the owl doesn't have the energy, the duck finds satisfaction enough in his water, the nightingale is a romantic more interested in poetry and roses than religion.  Each has a common failing, and the hoopoe sees through every one of them and tells them what they need to hear.  There are also birds who honestly dedicate themselves to the journey from the start, and a large group sets out.

It's a long trip.  Some birds die along the way.  There are seven allegorical hazardous valleys to cross, and I don't really get how exactly they work (Sufi steps to enlightenment, I suppose), but they are Love, Understanding, Detachment, Unity, Bewilderment, Deprivation and Death.  Those that cross all the valleys--only a few out of the many that started--get to the Simurgh's palace....where at first they are denied entrance.  Only when they insist that they will never leave are they allowed to enter and become one with their Beloved.

Though I'm not a Sufi, there is plenty here for anybody to think about and the poem is a stirring one as well as great literature.  The volume of selections I read is lavishly illustrated with illustrations from illuminated manuscripts held by the British Library, which was neat.  I enjoyed the artwork.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Faerie Queene Readalong Book III, Part I

I think we have all slowed down just a bit with the Faerie Queene project, but I did keep going!  I decided that I want to post for each half-book instead of waiting to finish an entire book at a time.  I finished the first half of Book III not too long after I got home from the UK, but then I had to get around to writing the post....so after I finish this I'll go back to Book III and see what Britomart gets up to.

Book III's theme is Chastity, with Britomart its champion.  That doesn't mean that she is never going to get married!  In fact, the whole theme of the book is Britomart's love for her knight (Sir Artegall, who represents Justice).  Britomart has never met him yet, but she's in love and has to learn to control her passions in order to find a true, chaste married love, which is holy, ordered, and fruitful.  She starts off a somewhat clueless teenage girl....but let's take this in order.

Canto I starts with Arthur and Guyon resting at Alma's to recover from their battle.  They send Acrasia off to the fairy court as a prisoner, and then it's back to knight errantry.  Soon they meet a mystery knight (Britomart), who jousts with Guyon, defeating him with her enchanted spear.  They all journey onward as friends until a lady breaks out of the wood, fleeing a grisly Forester intent on no good.  Guyon and Arthur pursue, leaving Britomart alone.  She soon sees six knights attacking one, and jumps into the fray to defend the knight in trouble.  This is Redcrosse, and the six knights are demanding that he love the lady of the castle, which he refuses to do.  Britomart wins the battle and everyone goes in.  The interior of the castle is sumptuous and sensual, with images of Venus and Adonis and a generally Persian flavor.  The lady of the castle welcomes them and invites them to take off their armor; Redcrosse complies (oops) but Britomart refuses.  The Lady, who is Malacasta ('bad chastity') thinks Britomart is a man, and desires her favors, which really throws Britomart for a loop; she doesn't know what to do at all.  Once everyone is in bed, Malacasta sneaks into Britomart's bed in hopes of a snuggle, and the maiden leaps up, grabs her sword, and prepares to defend herself.  Malacasta faints and Britomart receives a small wound, which is significant.


Spenser claims that women used to be warriors all the time, but men got jealous and stopped them.  He portrays Britomart's actions as entirely appropriate and consistent with her maiden status, not unladylike at all.  After all, she's looking for her true love.  She now relates her story to Redcrosse: she is Welsh, the daughter of King Ryence (mentioned in Geoffrey of Monmouth), and has been raised as a knight.  She claims that Artegall has injured her, but this is false; it's that she doesn't know how to describe her feelings.  In fact, she saw Artegall in a magic mirror that Merlin gave to her father.  She fell in love with him, but doesn't even know if he's real or not, much less where he is.  Thus, she pines, worrying her Nurse, who is relieved to find out that her charge just has a normal crush on a guy.  Nurse casts a spell to help.

Britomart sees Artegall in the magic mirror

Spells, however, are unavailing, because this is not lust, but love, and Britomart has it badly.  Nurse suggests that they visit Merlin to ask for advice; it was his mirror, after all.  So we learn Merlin's powers and origin, and they got to see him in his cave.  He knows all about it, and prophesies of Britomart's descendants with Artegall--this is all fated, and they will be the parents of kings and emperors, culminating with the golden age of Elizabeth.  We learn that Artegall lives in Fairyland and believes himself to be an elf, but in fact he is a kidnapped human, Gorlois' son (which makes him Arthur's stepbrother!).  Merlin gives the standard potted history of British kings, including the Tudors (and incidentally, refers to Saxon pagans as Paynims, which is a little confusing).  So: Britomart must go on a quest.  It's Nurse's idea to go disguised as knights--Britomart shall be like Angela, a virgin Saxon warrior maid.  They get some armor and King Bladud's magic spear, which makes them both British and Saxon, and off they ride to Fairyland.

Great warrior ladies of old have got nothing on Britomart!  She is the paragon.  Redcrosse now tells her about Artegall, who she is imagining as perfect (I suspect this will backfire on her).  She rests at the seashore, pondering her situation and complaining that she cannot seem to reach her goal; she is all torn up inside and angry.  This promptly manifests as a strange knight who attacks her.  He smites her breast and she falls, but recovers and attacks back, goring him right through.  This is Marinell, son of a sea nymph and a sailor, and he guards the riches of the sea strand.  A prophecy had foretold that a girl would kill or defeat him.  His mother goes to complain to Neptune, and takes Marinell to be healed.  Meanwhile, Guyon and Arthur are searching for the fleeing damsel, who is Florimell, Marinell's true love.  Also, Arthur does some complaining about wanting Gloriana.

Arthur, wandering in the forest, meets a dwarf who tells him all about Florimell, who has heard about Marinell's plight and gone to find him.  In other news, Timias (Arthur's squire) is still chasing the Forester, who runs off and joins his two equally awful brothers.  The three ambush Timias while he is fording a river, but Timias still manages to kill all of them (though he sustains a 'thigh' injury).  He swoons, and Belphoebe finds him as she is hunting.  She physics him, and he falls in love with her--but alas, he is of lowly estate, and so he despairs and wishes to die.  Belphoebe, all unknowing, worries about his condition.  Is she heartless and cold, or just clueless?  It's not clear.

Now we get Belphoebe's story.  She and Amoret are twins, borne by the fairy Crysonoge, who was impregnated by the Sun as she napped, naked, after a bath.  Dismayed by her mystery pregnancy, she flees to the forest to escape her shame, and goes into a coma.  Venus and Diana find her unconscious, with two babies, so each takes one.  Diana (Phoebe) raises her girl to perfect maidenhood, while Venus raises Amoret to perfect loving womanhood in the Garden of Adonis, which is a pretty fascinating place.  This garden is a paradise and the source of life and regeneration.  Souls--both human and animal--grow here, leave by getting born into physical form, and then return at death to be replanted for 1000 years before going out again.  It's a garden of reincarnation!  Or something.  Only Time is the enemy here; otherwise, all is lovely and frank (which means uninhibited).  There is some very interesting imagery here.  Psyche, meanwhile, adopts Amoret, who becomes the perfect example of chaste (married) affection, and her love is Sir Scudamore.  But...what of Florimell?

For the rest of Florimell's story, not to mention Britomart, Amoret, and Belphoebe, we'll just have to wait.  It's sure getting interesting!

Monday, August 8, 2016

The Fair of St. James

The Fair of St. James, by Eleanor Farjeon

It's hard for me to describe exactly what it was that Eleanor Farjeon did.  She's a little odd.  She wrote fairy tales, really; mostly for children, but sometimes for grownups.  And they're fairy tales with a particular light and airy quality; usually English, but with a French flair.  A few times, she mentions Watteau in her stories, and I think that's a clue--she wrote stories that could be painted by Watteau.  She also loves to put stories within stories, and sometimes will produce a book structured like the Decameron or Canterbury Tales.

Pilgrimage to Cythera, 1717, by Watteau
The Fair of St. James is certainly a fairy tale for grownups.  Laura and her husband Jimmy are touring France, and they stop in an enchanting country town.  A nearby deserted field has a gate that says "Foire St. Jacques," and that evening, Laura enters the Fair -- which hasn't existed for years -- and also searches for Jacques Coeur, who has left France and shall not return until a pink rose turns blue.  There she meets a beggar who is the King of France, a waiter who has invented a drink that will cure broken hearts (except his own), and many others who tell their stories.  It's all as frothy and light as Pirouet's tangerine drink, but it isn't made of sugar.  It's a lovely escape into fairyland for a day.

I don't know why the title of the book is St. James instead of St. Jacques.  At no point in the actual text do you ever see a St. James, and it doesn't give you the right idea at all.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

UK Trip XIV: Winchester and Chawton

Our final day was a bonus, because we hadn't expected to have all day to drive in.  Our plan was to get from Salisbury to Heathrow by late afternoon, so we could stay at a large motel right by the airport and not have to worry about getting to our flight.  We debated what to do and settled on visiting Winchester and then Chawton.  They were good choices!

Arriving in Winchester, we parked at a teeny little lot fairly close to the cathedral, mostly because of Fiona the sat-nav.  Winchester is quite tricky to drive in and I think we might have passed the large statue of Alfred the Great more than once!  We thought we would just pop into the cathedral and not stay very long, because we had seen at least one church per day and honestly, we were pretty cathedraled out, despite being pretty dedicated fans.  Two hours later, we exited the cathedral, exclaiming over what a fascinating place it is!

Winchester Cathedral was first founded in 642; that old building is known as the Old Minster and was demolished once the current building was dedicated in 1093, only fourteen years after its beginning in 1079.  St. Swithun was buried near the Old Minster and then moved into the new building, and he is its patron saint.  On our way in, we passed a pub called The Bishop on the Bridge, and it's named after a St. Swithun story in which he miraculously fixed a woman's basket of eggs which had been broken.

Jane Austen is buried at Winchester, which I did not know; when she got really ill, her sister Cassandra moved her into town for more attention and she died there.  She is right on the north side (and of course her stone says nothing about her literary work, but there is a display too).  She is quite close to the old Norman font, which looks downright Celtic and features St. Nicholas.

The north transept was particularly exciting; it currently houses the Winchester Bible in a little house of its own--at least, one volume of it.  You can see it open, and there are large photos of particularly beautiful pages on the walls of the little house (one being the Morgan Leaf, a page that was removed and which resides in the Morgan Library).  I didn't know much about this Bible, really--and I still don't; we bought a book I'm going to read--but it was commissioned to be a major work of art, and it is.  It was finished before the new cathedral was begun, by about 1175.  It's also huge!  I was pretty impressed to learn that all of the calligraphy was done by one scribe.  The illumination was by six different people, but one of those artists also did frescoes in a tiny chapel off the north transept, and those still survive.  So we could see his art in the book and on the walls!

This little man kept popping in and out of the Bible's house and around us, talking and explaining all the time.  He was very nice, but it was quite funny to see him; he was a bit like a squirrel.

The crypt is accessible from the north transept, too.  Visitors mostly can't go down into the crypt, because it floods a lot.  It was mid-June, but it hadn't really dried out yet, so we stood on a sort of observation deck and looked at the crypt.  It's empty except for a statue of a person contemplating water held in his cupped hands, which we really liked.

Medieval frescoes by a Bible artist

The damp crypt

There are some very famous people in mortuary chests in the cathedral, but sadly they were not accessible when we visited; I forget why.  I think they are investigating them.  Anyway, King Canute is in there, and William Rufus.  I would have really liked to see King Canute's box; I'm quite fond of him.

We were especially fascinated, though, with the story of Diver Bill.  There is this bust of a diver, and it says that William Walker saved the cathedral "with his own two hands."  This is a fairly surprising statement, I think, and so we asked a docent about it.  He explained that the cathedral was built on peat (!!) and so as soon as it was done, it started sinking and subsiding a bit.  By 1900, there were cracks you could put an arm into--and here he pointed at the walls, showing how they are in fact a little out of true.  They had to build supporting walls, but to do that they would have to drain all the groundwater, which would cause the building to collapse.  So they dug pits in the peat, and Diver Bill went down every day into complete darkness and put in concrete to shore things up so they could eventually pump the water out and build the walls.  It took years of work.

I liked the floor tiles.

Diver Bill, who saved the cathedral

Then we saw the memorial shrine to St. Swithun.  It's right up near the altar, and the floor here is the oldest tiles I'd seen; I think the sign said they were the real medieval thing, whereas mostly we'd seen later replicas.  Swithun's shrine was covered with an embroidered cloth quoting his rhyme, about how if it rains on St. Swithun's day it will rain for another forty days.  The day in question is July 15!  And here we thought it was more like Groundhog Day.

The quire was medieval and in lovely shape, with lots of interesting carving of vines, beasts, and men--and even a green man or so to keep everybody happy.

The quire

The altar screen

A set of icons

Just as we were on our way out, we passed a station with two gentlemen sitting there selling bookmarks and cards and things, and a sign said that this was the cathedral scribe.  One of them really was the guy who does all the calligraphy!  We could pick out a bookmark, and he would write a name and then laminate it.  So we all got beautiful bookmarks with our names written on them.  They were awfully nice and chatted with us quite a bit.

It was a bit rainy, and we visited the shop and put more money in the parking meter before we walked through the high street area to get to the Great Hall.  This is all that is left of the once-large Winchester Castle.  The Hall was an addition by Henry III, who was born at the castle.  It was founded in 1067, as William was consolidating power, and extended by Edward II, but now just the Hall is left.  And it's pretty empty except for a lot of neat painting on the walls and the very famous Round Table.  Of course, it's not King Arthur's Round Table, which is fictional anyway, and we wondered about the history.  Did people think it was real, or not?

"Queen Eleanor's Garden," but it was raining enough that we didn't go out

We found out that the table was constructed by Edward I for a big Arthurian-themed party in the 13th century.  It didn't seem that anyone at the time meant it to be taken for the real thing--Edward really liked to throw Arthur parties and he wasn't the only one--but pretty soon lots of people believed it anyway.  Henry VIII ordered it painted for his own purposes, which explains the massive Tudor rose in the middle.  The portrait of Arthur bears a pretty strong resemblance to the young Henry, too.  It became a propaganda tool to legitimize Tudor rule--look, you can see that Henry must be a descendant of Arthur!

We had fun trying to decipher the knights' names around the table.  Some were easy, and some were impossible, but we spotted Galahad, Lamorak, Kay, Lancelot, Mordred, and Bors.  I was most proud of finding Bedevere, who was very tricky to read.

We got back in the car and drove to the village of Chawton--Jane Austen's last home.  Her brother Edward owned an estate nearby, including the house, and Mrs. Austen, Cassandra, and Jane lived there together for eight years.  They have it set up very nicely to look something as it might have done in those days, though of course mostly with replica furnishings.  Relatives have donated quite a few family items too, so there are many interesting items to see.  The walls are decorated with framed illustrations from the novels, as well as family portraits and letters.

There is a lovely garden too

In the main room, Miss Austen's actual table is preserved; it's a very small twelve-sided table, now quite scarred up since it spent some later years in the kitchen or something.

Upstairs is the bedroom Jane and Cassandra shared.  How they got two beds in is a bit of a mystery to me; there is only one right now.  Other upstairs rooms hold many family items.

Part of the bedroom; it was hard to get pictures.

In a small passage down the hall is a display case with the most precious items: Jane's personal jewelry, the topaz cross and turquoise ring, a beautifully embroidered muslin scarf, and the quilt.  It's currently hung so that you can only see about a fourth of it, but since it is symmetrical both ways, you can tell what it all looks like.  It is so amazing to me that we have a patchwork sewn by Jane Austen; 200-year-old quilts are extremely rare, and ones stitched by genius novelists even rarer!

The quilt is quite a big deal to me, so when we got downstairs I asked if there was anyone who knew a lot about it that I could talk to.  It took a little while to find Sue, but once she was found, we sat down and she talked for about half an hour, telling me all sorts of wonderful details about it.  She has seen the wrong side of it!  (It's not quilted, only backed.)  The project she wants to do next is to catalog all the fabrics used in the patchwork and see if any can be matched to other known samples, which would be quite a job.  So if there are any PhD students around who want to help with that, there should be enough for a few theses in that project.

A fuller view; it was once hung like this.

You should understand, this patchwork is really something.  It's all diamonds with a lattice sashing, and the fabric they used for the sashing must have been an extremely long, narrow piece, because they had to piece the sashing--no bit is more than a couple of inches long, not even as large as a diamond side.  Then, the border is made of a couple thousand tiny diamonds--and every single bit is symmetrical both ways.  The pattern is reflected vertically and horizontally.  Sue told us that it seems to be an original pattern; no other similar patchwork is known, though it's possible they actually produced two and the other was lost.  One mystery is that the piece of chintz in the center doesn't really seem to fit--the picture is too large for its frame.  They wonder if perhaps it was a different piece at first, and then changed later.

I actually made a quilt last year inspired by the Jane Austen patchwork.  It's not exactly the same size, and I didn't do the border of tiny diamonds, but I did try to get the same feeling in my fabric choices, and it's symmetrical too.  Even by machine, it was quite a bit of work!  I'll put a photo at the end of this post so it doesn't get mixed up.  (If you want to sew a Jane Austen quilt, get Linda Franz's Jane Austen Patchwork Mystery, which has exactly the same size diamonds.  It's a funny size of a diamond, and other patterns have changed it; one uses squares.)

We also discovered a funny coincidence.  Sue mentioned that she had been in Bath a few days earlier, on Saturday, for a wedding in the Assembly Rooms.  We exclaimed that we had been there, and had seen them setting up for the wedding.  Sue explained that the bride actually works at the Chawton house a couple of days a week, despite living near Bath, so it made perfect sense to have the wedding at the Rooms.  We thought that was pretty fun.

When we went into the shop after the tour, they had just gotten in some of those stuffed fabric ornaments.  My mom, ever entranced by a naval man, got Captain Wentworth, and my daughter bought Mr. Darcy for her friend who loves him.  (That was a big hit.)

And that was pretty much the end of our trip.  After that it was all driving in the Heathrow complex--which is more like LA than London--returning the car, and hanging out in a giant motel until morning.  (I tell you what, the soundproofing in that building is phenomenal.)  The trickiest bit was catching the shuttle bus; it turned out to cost £5 for anyone over 14, and we had exactly £10 left in our pockets.  Luckily for us, the nice bus driver decided that my daughter must be 14.  Once we got to Heathrow, we turned in our Oyster cards and had £20 to buy lunch with, so we ended richer than we began.

And that's it!  The trip of a lifetime!  I'm so grateful that we got to go.

My Jane Austen quilt, before quilting.