Sunday, March 31, 2019

Say Nothing

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, by Patrick Radden Keefe

It was complete coincidence that my co-worker lent me this book in March and I felt like I ought to read it right away instead of putting it on the TBR pile where it would sit for a year.  But I did read it, and it was pretty gripping, as well as very depressing and now I have a lot of Feelings.  I should note that except for this book, my knowledge of Northern Irish politics is gained mainly from osmosis and not any systematic study. 

Say Nothing is ostensibly about the disappearance and murder of Jean McConville, a Belfast widow and mother of ten, in 1972, at the height of the Troubles.  It's really more about everything the IRA was doing, but the story of Mrs. McConville serves as a focusing lens.

Northern Ireland, in the 1960s, was a fairly poor area, with about 2/3 Protestants and 1/3 Catholics.  The Catholics were very definitely an oppressed minority, disallowed from good jobs.  The Protestants, as a minority within the entire island, also felt threatened, which encouraged them to continue policies of exclusion towards Catholics.  Illegal paramilitary groups and British government forces entangled each other in an ever-increasing spiral of violence.

This book focuses on the IRA -- mostly the Provisionals -- but it's made very clear that the Protestant paramilitaries were doing pretty much exactly the same kind of thing, except they had the British on their side.  The Provos considered themselves to be soldiers in a war against an occupying force, and as such they planned to shove the British out of Northern Ireland.  The Provo narrative is mainly about two sisters, Dolours and Marian Price, and two men, Gerry Adams and Brendan Hughes.  All four were deeply involved in the Provos.

Jean McConville's story is short.  She was a Protestant married to a Catholic (not common, but not unknown when they married in the 50s) and lived in Catholic neighborhoods.  They had ten children and when her husband died of cancer, she fell into a depression, rarely leaving the apartment where the family lived.  One night she was taken by the IRA and interrogated; the next day (or perhaps several days later), she was taken again and just disappeared.  No one helped the children, who nearly starved before being taken into various horrible institutions. 

Keefe weaves all of this stuff into a complicated but coherent narrative.  There are bombings, murders, double-crossings, and a code of silence that makes it all difficult to document.  There are, for example, two stories about Mrs. McConville's abduction; that the family had been labeled 'Brit-lovers' after she gave a pillow to an injured British soldier outside her door, or, according to the IRA, she was an informer -- which seems unlikely for several reasons. 

Keefe gives quite a bit of history: such as the bombs, which were in theory supposed to damage property and the economy, thus the British (who owned the businesses).  Of course, in actual fact they hurt and killed people and the rest of the UK barely noticed.  So they figured they'd take the war to London and make people sit up and take notice.  The trouble with bombs is, they're not very controllable.  As far as I can see, the IRA's dedication to violence mostly backfired on them. 

Gerry Adams seems to have been the guy who decided that politics would work better, and he gradually worked his way through politics until he could get the Good Friday agreement going.  In his public career, he always denied ever belonging to the IRA, and his political aspirations really embittered his former companions, who were left wondering why they had done such terrible things if their promised reward -- the British out of Northern Ireland -- was going to be denied.  Having committed such violence in their youth, they frequently spent the rest of their lives trying to drink away the memories.  Adams comes off as calculating and kind of a sociopath -- albeit also possibly the only person who could put together a cease-fire and agreement.

Keefe only mentions the Omagh bombing and the Real IRA in passing, which I found odd when so much time is given to the ins and outs of the rest of the process.  My understanding is that Omagh gave a large boost to the controversial Good Friday agreement.  Instead Keefe skips right over it to talk about Boston College's oral history project to collect the testimonies of the people involved, only to be opened after their deaths.  That's fascinating too, and it didn't go all that well.

Mrs. McConville's remains were finally found buried on a beach on the Cooley peninsula in Louth.  Her children were never really given any solace.

I learned a whole lot.  I'd like to read about the 'other' side as well.  All of it is very dark and a terrible warning of where human beings can go in the name of a cause, or because of there being two opposing sides.  I mean, look at the McConville children; everyone knew their mother was gone and they were on their own, and nobody was prepared to help them, because they were tainted by possible contact with the other side.  Surrounded by people they knew, they were left entirely alone. 

Or the Provisional IRA members, who committed murders in the name of a possible future, and then murdered their own members as well.  Who planted huge bombs and then blamed others for it.  Who 'disappeared' people for what, in the end, turned out to be maybe no reason at all.  Even their self-justifications turned out to be nothing.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Twenty-four Things

Brona did a fun TBR meme the other day, and then Fanda followed suit, and I thought it would be fun to join in.  I'd love to see yours too!

Twenty-Four Things from my TBR:

4 Books On My Desk
Not sure how to make this one a TBR list.  Books on my desk are ones waiting to be blogged about.  On the coffee table, I'm in the middle of reading them.  And the nightstand books are ones waiting to be re-read.  I guess I pick nightstand!

Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeology, and the Origins of European Dance, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber: I just loved this book but it's hard to describe, so here's the official synopsis: A fascinating exploration of an ancient system of beliefs and its links to the evolution of dance.  From southern Greece to northern Russia, people have long believed in female spirits, bringers of fertility, who spend their nights and days dancing in the fields and forests. So appealing were these spirit-maidens that they also took up residence in nineteenth-century Romantic literature...

Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak: I loved this novel so much the first time, I really do want to read it again...
Tales from Hoffman, by E. T. A. Hoffman: been meaning to re-read these odd German Romantic tales.
Caleb Williams, by William Godwin: I remember enjoying this in college, but have no memory now of any of the story.
The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson: another I enjoyed in college, and have been meaning to re-read.

4 Books On The Bottom Of The Pile

Uncommercial Traveller, by Charles Dickens: I have this adorable little red volume that must be ages old.  Can't remember where I picked it up, but it was in college.
News From Nowhere and Other Writings, by William Morris: I opened it once and was rather intimidated, but surely I can read Morris.

The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis: one of those books I've been meaning to read forever.
Specimens of the Pre-Shakespearean Drama, ed. by Manly: I picked this up as a library discard from the university.  It's in two volumes and I never got around to really reading it, but recently I opened them up to see if I wanted to keep or let go, and the second volume grabbed we'll see.

4 Books New To The TBR

Midnight Riot (Rivers of London), by Ben Aaronovitch: I've been wanting to get hold of this for a while.  It's a murder mystery series with magic thrown in.  Found the copy when I went to the Chills concert.
Pagan Britain, by Ronald Hutton: I won the prize in Adam's TBR Challenge for 2018 (yaaay!), and spent it on this and the next one!

Few Eggs and No Oranges: the Diaries, 1940 - 45, by Vere Hodgson: This is too long to ILL, but I've wanted to read it ever since I heard of it.  A continuous diary of wartime London by a pretty ordinary woman.  Yes please!
Natasha's Dance: a Cultural History of Russia, by Orlando Figes:  Came across the donation table.  If I didn't have enough Russian history to read already, but this is supposed to be excellent and it's not just about the 20th century!

4 Books That Won Awards
I had to look really hard; I took every book off the shelf and checked to see if it had won anything.  These are the four I found.

When They Come For Us, We'll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry, by Gal Beckerman: National Jewish Book Awards.

The Ultimate Tragedy, by Abulai Sila: a novel from Guinea Bissau, won the English Pen Award.
The Book of Chameleons, by Jose Eduardo Agualusa: an Angolan novel, winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
Secondhand Time, by Svetlana Alexievich: Nobel Prize, as all probably know.

4 Books I'm Keen To Read ASAP

Arthurian Romances, Tales, and Lyrics by Hartmann von Aue: OK, I've been keen for months and haven't gotten to it yet...but I still am!
Kalpa Imperial, by Angelica Gorodischer: the description of this Argentinian SF book really grabbed me.  Plus it's translated by Ursula K. LeGuin!

The Zelmenyaners, by Moyshe Kulbak: A Yiddish comic classic I've been looking forward to since I heard of it.
Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History, by David Aaronovitch: bought at Moe's Books last year, pretty excited about it.  Conspiracy theories only seem to be getting more widespread and influential -- one effect of the internet I'm not too keen on.

4 Books I'm Thinking Of Discarding Unread 

Decline and Fall of the Romantic Ideal, by F. L. Lucas: This and the next one were both library discards that caught my eye.  My eye is often caught by such things, but that doesn't mean I'm actually going to read them...but it does sound interesting...
Ancilla to Classical Reading, by Moses Hadas: Doesn't that sound kind of catchy?
Russian Thinkers, by Isaiah Berlin: I tried, but I think this might be too heavy for me.
Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson: don't know whether to keep this SF book or not.  Some people love it, but intergenerational narratives have never been my favorite.

Now those 'possible discard' titles look appealing again...

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Howl's Moving Castle

1986 edition
It's Diana Wynne Jones Day!  Kristen at We Be Reading, our host, decreed that today we would discuss Howl's Moving Castle.  And she has a great think-out on the different kinds of magic found in the story.  Throwing several different kinds of magic into a world or a story seems to have been a bit of a DWJ trademark.

I can remember quite well where Howl's Moving Castle lived on the shelf in the library where I grew up.  It was not the first DWJ book I read (that was Witch's Business) but it was one of the early ones.  I must have found it right after it was published in 1986.  As a result, I practically have it memorized -- I could not tell you how many times I've read it.   Even so, I enjoy it anew every time, and I still have new realizations about what's going on.  (Though possibly I have the same ones over and over, and just forget!  My kids tell me so sometimes.)

When I first met my husband, he had kind of forgotten reading for fun, as a lot of people do in college, and I gave him Howl's Moving Castle to read -- the same copy that is sitting here now, which is a UK edition from Mammoth that my mom got for me on a trip.  After we got married, husband and I also took a trip and bought a bunch of DWJ titles at Blackwell's.

 This story may not be quite as complex as Hexwood is, but it could still use a diagram, especially of which one was what one and what one was who.  Nearly everyone has at least two identities (again) and then there are the bits of people too.   I mean, I think the skull was Ben Suliman's, and Prince Justin's head was in the dog spell with Ben's body....but then there's the scarecrow too.  Aargh.  That guy who draws xkcd has done some quite fancy diagrams of LOTR and other things -- do you suppose he's ever read DWJ?

It seems to me that Howl's Moving Castle plays with some of the same themes as Pride and Prejudice does.  Sophie assumes that she knows all about Howl's character, and she doesn't.  She takes Martha's prejudiced view of her stepmother Fanny and only at the end does she realize how much she has misjudged not only Fanny, but her two sisters as well.  Of course, assuming that we know someone and finding out otherwise is a constant; we all do it all the time.  At least, the first part; the latter is probably somewhat rarer and is a salutary lesson in humility!

Diana Wynne Jones passed away eight years ago today, in 2011.  She is greatly missed, and it's so nice to be able to have this anniversary every year and talk together about her creations.  Thanks, everybody!

Monday, March 25, 2019

The Grey King, and a bonus

The Grey King, by Susan Cooper

Somebody read Susan Cooper's Grey King for the Welsh reading event, and I realized I hadn't read it The Dark is Rising for years.  I re-read it nearly every Christmas, but the others tend to get much less attention lately.  The Grey King did, after all, win the Newbery Award, so I figured this would be a good time to re-read it.  It's the fourth book in the Dark is Rising sequence -- and as I recall, the last one is really quite strange.

Will has been very ill indeed, and has actually forgotten his special knowledge, but he's sent to a family friend's farm in Wales to recuperate.  This places him exactly where he needs to be in order to fulfill the next step in his quest, which is to find a golden harp and awake the Six Sleepers.  He meets Bran, an unusual boy who could be an ally or an enemy, and Caradog Pritchard, a neighboring farmer and definitely an enemy.  Dogs are also everywhere in this story!  Will and Bran go through ordeals in order to win the harp, and waking the Sleepers is not easy.  

"The Grey King" is a strong personage of the Dark, and lives on Cader Idris, the Welsh mountain.  I had to look up the geography, which Cooper has fooled with a bit.  Cader Idris (more commonly called Cadair Idris, evidently) is a huge rocky peak in the Snowdonia National Park.  Cooper populates it with nearby sheep farms and, I think, moves the lake Tal y Llyn a bit.

Cadair Idris

Cader Idris also features in the third book of the Chronicles of Kazam by Jasper Fforde -- The Eye of Zoltar I got it through Interlibrary Loan and had a great time reading it!  Jennifer and her co-worker Perkins head out to the wilds of the Cambrian Empire (approximately the western half of Wales) to search for the Eye -- they need it to save their dragon friends.  Gathering a guide and some terrible companions, they venture into the incredible dangers of Cambria, an adventure that comes with a guaranteed fifty-percent survival rate.

But get this -- the story ends on a cliffhanger!  Fforde had jolly well better write some more Kazam adventures soon!

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.

Monday, March 4, 2019


Elidor, by Alan Garner

I chose this book for Dewithon, because I was under the impression that it had something to do with Wales...and it's set in Manchester.  So I was only a couple pages in and thought I was wrong, but Chris at Calmgrove pointed out some details, and the story features threads of both Irish and Welsh legend.

The four Watson siblings, bored and wandering around, go exploring and are suddenly shoved into a different world.  Elidor is not a lovely adventure world at all; it's a barren, post-apocalyptic wasteland, and Roland, the youngest, meets Malebron -- who promptly shoves him into a terrifying barrow to find some treasures and save his trapped siblings.  Malebron then tells them to take the treasures and hide them in their own world, and for over a year, nothing happens.  Until all of a sudden it does and the children are being hunted by men who mean to kill them to get those treasures.

Like most of Garner's work, Elidor is an unusual kind of fantasy story.  The children spend hardly any time in Elidor and much of the meaning is a bit buried.  There are clear echoes of Narnia: four siblings, and the youngest is the most faithful and the strongest, who has to learn to do what he needs to do regardless of what his older siblings are telling him.  (The oldest brother is desperate to find any way out of believing that there are four magic treasures and another world, not to mention a unicorn.)

So, what connections to Ireland and Wales?  I was glad for Chris' hint, because it's been far too long since I read my Irish mythology and I'd forgotten exactly what the treasures of Ireland are, but Garner really lays it out pretty clearly.  (And then I started reading something else and they popped up there too.)  Each treasure belongs to a city, which Garner shows as four castles, only one of which is still inhabited.  I need a chart:
Spear of Lugh    Gorias    Invincibility
Stone of Fál    Falias    Cries out for the king
Sword of Nuada    Findias    Also Invincibility
Cauldron of the Dagda    Murias    Plenty
These aren't given their proper names, or properties, and in fact once they're in our world they look like junk (luckily).

All right, so what about the Wales connection?  That's a good deal less obvious, and while I would have spotted the treasures anyway, I needed a big hint here.  Gerald of Wales told a story in his Journey Through Wales  about a priest who told a story about when he was a little boy: young Elidyr met two little men, who took him into their own land through a tunnel.  It was beautiful, though with no sun, and there was pleasure all the time.  They ate milk dishes with saffron, and hated lies, and gold was common there.  Elidyr visited often, and told his mother about the land, and she asked him to bring her a present of gold.  So he stole a golden ball and took it home, but the little men chased him and took it back, and he could never find the tunnel again.

Elidyr would be pronounced the same as Elidor, as far as I can figure, so Garner used a Welsh name connected with the otherworld for his tale.  A picture book of the story was printed in 1973 in the UK, which must have been fun. I'd like to see that.