Friday, March 30, 2018


Isis: a play by Nawal El Saadawi

Nawal El Saadawi is an Egyptian writer (and physician too) who has been fairly prolific over her long career.  She has focused a lot on women's issues -- FGM in particular -- and has been imprisoned and exiled for her anti-religious and feminist writing.  Until I started writing this post just now, I was under the impression that I had read one of her novels in the early days of this blog, but it seems our library did not own her works at that time and I didn't read it after I'm a newcomer.

Isis is the earliest of El Saadawi's seven plays and was written in 1986 in Egypt.  El Saadawi seems to identify a good deal with the ancient Egyptian goddess; she titled her memoir A Daughter of Isis (as in, she considered her actual mother to be Isis-like), and calls her a "personal muse."

In the play, Ra has taken over all of creation and thrown out Geb (god of earth) and Nut (the sky goddess).  Ra insists that he is the only person anybody may worship, and he uses Seth as his lieutenant and enforcer, making him king of the earth.  Seth is gleeful about his rise to power, but what he really wants is Isis -- and she's what he can't have.  Seth murders her husband Osiris, but instead of submitting, she flees with her friend, the goddess Maat.  They meet a sailor who is maybe the reincarnation of Osiris? and Isis has a son, Horus, with him.  They all live together in a village, teaching wisdom, love, and harmony.

Until Seth finds them.  Isis stands up to him, though he destroys everything again, and then she puts him on trial, insisting on the value of love, mercy, and so on.

It's an interesting play, only translated into English fairly recently, and I don't know that it has ever actually been performed in English.  El Saadawi is trying to bring Isis back into prominence in a way that she feels is more true to how ancient Egyptians saw her, rather than how history has treated her -- mostly as Osiris' wife with no real presence of her own (or at least, this seems to be how El Saadawi sees it; I'm not at all sure that I agree about historical disregard of Isis). 

But I think there's a weakness in the play; or perhaps it's just a function of writing a play that features deities as characters.  Isis is the heroine, and she is completely good.  She is just about the only good character, since Ra and Seth are evil villains, Osiris is a passive foil with little presence, and Maat and Horus are minor supporters  (Maat is kind but fearful; Horus mostly a vengeful son).  There are humans too, and of course they are a little more nuanced, being mostly weak, vicious, or vulnerable.  The result is, I feel, a little flat.  Perhaps that is inevitable with all the gods around.

Isis is clearly an enormously important archetypal figure for El Saadawi, that embodies all that women are able to do, but have so often been denied (perhaps especially in El Saadawi's own experience).  She is a creation goddess, standing for everything from justice and wisdom to art and music.

Now that I've discovered that I haven't read El Saadawi before, perhaps I'll have to read more!

Thursday, March 29, 2018


Danubia, by Simon Winder

Last year I read and loved Germania, Winder's book about all the things he likes about Germany and its history.  That book led to this one, in which he tackles the absurdly impossible task of explaining the Habsburgs -- the European dynasty that ruled huge (and varying) swathes of Europe for centuries, from Rudolf I in 1282 to the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I.  Luckily for all of us, Winder does not even try to cover everything; this is an "interesting bits" selection.  It's still 500 pages long, and I ran out of steam about halfway through and left it alone for a little while before picking it back up again, but it's a highly entertaining 500 pages and just as good as Germania.

(Note: This kind of stuff is right up my alley, and Simon Winder, if you ever read this, I would like to volunteer for a job as, say, secretary.  I would happily wander around Brno looking at old churches and residential neighborhoods if anybody wanted to pay for my trip.  Just a thought.)

After an introduction, Winder sticks mainly to a chronological telling, and he pretty much just romps around visiting castles, inspecting weird curiosities, and talking about the Ottoman Empire.  It's impossible to really wrap your mind around all this stuff, so it's best to just relax and enjoy the scenery while you're carried along.

I've said before that Winder writes a style similar to Bill Bryson's except much, much better, more fun, and without the complaining, whinging, or endless beer-swilling.  This is still true, and what's more, he's very entertaining, with a gift for phraseology that regularly has me laughing, collaring passing family members to force them to listen to choice paragraphs, or, equally, pondering the pitfalls of nationalism.

The pitfalls of nationalism are really the underlying theme of the book, or at least the second half of it (the first half being mostly given over to a lot of fighting and killing).  Over and over in the 19th century, we see small(ish) and nervous ethnic groups, afraid that they'll be overwhelmed and crushed by massive waves of Germans and Slavs, turn to their histories to look for noble origins to be proud of, folk designs and costumes to use, and music or literature to assert their identities with.  It all seems quite harmless, laudable, and pleasant at first.  I'm all for folk embroidery and literature and Bartok, and it seems sort of undeniable that slicing Poland into three parts was a rotten thing to do.  From an American perspective, it's interesting and fun to read dubious legends about Magyar descent from the Huns.  All too easily, however, all this folklore and poetry and longing for the beautiful motherland tips into ethnic rivalry and calls for national autonomy (and of course, the obligatory anti-Semitism).  And incredibly soon, that turns into war, pogroms, ethnic cleansing, and genocide.

Winder shows us these knotty problems, but can offer no solutions.  I don't think there are any.  The Austro-Hungarian Empire was one attempt at a solution of sorts -- it was a good deal more tolerant than its neighbors, even to the Jewish people -- but nobody liked that either.  You'd think the entire 20th century would teach us not to do this, but we're seeing exactly the same sort of thing happening again now.  Yes, it's happening across Europe, but America is seeing a rise in what we now call identity politics too.  To some extent, it's good and laudable to take pleasure in your roots or your identity; but it's also dangerously easy to take it too far.  I think we can see some parallels between late 19th century Austro-Hungary and our current American climate.  Maybe we ought to be more careful about that.

The nationalism theme has piqued my interest, and so I started reading a Polish national epic sort of thing that was also living on my TBR shelf.  We'll see how that goes.  And a memoir I'm almost finished with has strains of it as well....

On a more cheerful note, let's have some quotations.  I marked so many that I'll have to pick only a few:
[From the introduction]  This hunt for origins became obsessive in the nineteenth century as a literate and aggressive language-nationalism came to dominate Central Europe.  Town squares filled up with statues of heroic, shaggy forebears and town halls became oppressively decorated with murals of the same forebears engaged in i) frowningly breasting a hill and looking down on the promised land; ii) engaging in some ceremony with a flag or sword to found a town; and iii) successfully killing everybody who was there already.  Schools rang to the sounds of children reciting heroic epics.  This was at the same time a great efflorescence of European culture and a disaster as the twentieth century played out these early medieval fantasies using modern weapons.

According to an ancient story, the deeply pious Leopold’s new bride’s veil was blown away and he swore to build an abbey wherever it was found. Years later, while out hunting, he discovered the veil on an elderberry bush and building began. This story features in innumerable carvings and miniatures and can never surmount the problem that a piece of cloth on a bush is hard to represent in an engaging way, a problem generally solved by showing the extra pointer of the Virgin Mary and tons of angels blazing away in the sky above the bush.

In Italian it is called Castel Roncolo, which implies a pretty turfed courtyard with maidens in gauzy outfits skipping about to tambourines and lutes with weedy youths in coloured tights looking on. In German it is called Schloss Runkelstein, which implies a brandy-deranged old soldier-baron with a purple face and leg-iron lurching around darkened dank corridors, beating a servant to death with his crutch.

Venice's quite separate political development from the rest of Italy gave it a certain resistance to Italian nationalism, but this did not for a second imply anything other than loathing for the Austrians.

The Metropolitan Palace, as it gradually took shape in the 1870s, seems to have got completely out of control, the building equivalent of the sorcerer's apprentice unable to stop the spell he has unleashed.  The result is a Burgundo-Hanseatic-Grenadan-Hutsul-Byzantine mishmash of a heroic kind, and a classic piece of Habsburg collaboration: with a patently insane Czech architect, Josef Hlavka, armies of medievally inspired German and local decorators and specialists and seemingly no one doing the budgeting.

I enjoyed this book so much. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Doomsday Book

Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis

Reading the Chronicles of St. Mary's was fun, but it got me longing to read more about time travel in done in a way that I just like better.  I've only read Doomsday Book once before (as opposed to To Say Nothing of the Dog, which I've read many times) because Doomsday Book will break your heart into bits and then jump up and down on them.  But all of a sudden I really wanted to re-read it, and so I pulled it off the shelf.

In future Oxford, historians can time-travel to observe real historical events, but nobody has ever gone as far back as the Middle Ages.  Kivrin, however, is determined to go and has been training for two years.  She's got it all planned out and will stay for two weeks, seeing the Christmas of 1320.

Nothing goes right.  Kivrin falls ill as soon as she arrives, and as all of future Oxford falls to the same influenza virus, they can't get her back.  She takes shelter at a small manor where the family is hiding out from an unsettled political situation.   We alternate between an epidemic in Oxford and a much worse one in the past, because Kivrin has not gone to 1320 at all.  She has arrived just in time for the plague.

Probably one of the greatest SF time-travel novels ever written.  Read it, but keep your Kleenex close at hand.

Incidentally, over the weekend I visited the antiquarian book fair in Sacramento, where all the book dealers for two hundred miles around congregate to show off and sell their best stuff.  I saw a first edition of Doomsday Book, with the above cover, for a few hundred dollars.  Right below it was a nice set of the unauthorized Ace paperbacks of the Lord of the Rings, which I was inordinately pleased with myself for recognizing.  There was all sorts of great stuff, even a few actually antiquarian pages of incunabula.  (The "antiquarian" is not so much a strict rule as it is a warning that it isn't a Scholastic book fair for children.)  We just went to see what it was like, and it turned out more fun than we had anticipated!

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The Tick: The Naked City

The Tick: The Naked City, by Ben Edlund

My kid got me a present, and it was a good one!  We are all Tick fans here, but it's a long time since I saw any of the graphic novels.  This is a collection of the first six Tick comics, in which he arrives in the City in order to greet his destiny.  Destiny takes the form of a lot of ninjas!  And there is plenty of other action to keep Tick amused, until he meets Arthur, his sidekick, and his new nemesis....the Red Scare.

 Oh, I just love the Tick.  SPOON!

They're in disguise.  As a hedge.

The Macclesfield Alphabet

The Macclesfield Alphabet Book: a Facsimile, ed. Christopher de Hamel and Patricia Lovett

After reading Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts, I wondered what else de Hamel might have produced, and I found this neat book!  With the magic of InterLibrary Loan, it was soon in my hands.

This is a facsimile of an unusual manuscript.  It's not very long, and it dates from the late 1400s.  It's a sort of design or idea book for the fancy initials in illuminated manuscripts!  It contains fourteen different kinds of decorative letters: a sort of blackletter type, several with leaves, and some very whimsical alphabets made of human and animal figures.  Most aren't colored in or anything; they're diagrams.

It's a lot of fun to look at and full of great design ideas.  I'm very tempted to use some of them in embroidery, and maybe someday I will (I've got plenty to do right now).  If you're interested in lettering, this is a great resource!

Monday, March 26, 2018

March Magics: Two novellas

These are my favorites of the shorts, and I saved them for last!  I hadn't realized how very early they had been written; both date from the mid-1960s, which also accounts for their similar semi-Elizabethan air.  Neither were actually published until the mid-1990s.

"The True State of Affairs" is written by a modern English woman who has somehow ended up in another world, one in which she is promptly fooled into being a fall guy.  She is now a political prisoner in a late-medieval sort of world where a couple of factions are fighting for dominance, but since the only information she gets is from her jailors, it's really hard to figure anything out.  (The country is called Dalemark, but none of the other names match, so I'm going to presume that it's an early version without too much connection to the Dalemark Quartet.)

From her balcony, she can just see a bit of another prisoner's balcony, and without much to do, they each think a lot about the other.  A few messages are secretly passed; he is courtly, she responds, and so a long-distance romance develops.  It's a fascinating story!

I always imagine all this happening at the Tower of London, and probably featuring Sir Walter Raleigh or some similar fellow.
DWJ stated that she wrote this story after reading the Kingis Quair, a long, romantic poem written by James I of Scotland when he was imprisoned.  (This isn't James I of England, this is nearly 200 years earlier and his several-greats-grand-daddy.)  He fell in love with a lady he saw walking by and wrote her courtly notes.  I downloaded the Kingis Quair last night to read too, and was surprised to see that although SWJ says "Of course it all stopped when he was released," that wasn't the case.  They  married and had eight children!  (Plus, he spent 18 years as a hostage, most of it while he was king.)

I wish DWJ had written similar information about "Everard's Ride," but as far as I know she did not.  If anybody knows anything, tell me please!

Alex and Cecelia are the mid-Victorian children of a wealthy and socially ambitious farmer, but they live on a seashore near an island...and sometimes, if you go there, you can get to the hidden kingdom of Falleyfell.  Robert, ex-duke of Gairne, shows up on their doorstep one night, having been outlawed, and the siblings are soon thrown into Falleyfell politics, while at the same time contending with their gentry neighbors in real life.  Wow, this story is hard to describe, but it is wonderful

I particularly like how the story is written as half-novel, half-history, so that there are occasional references to future events -- such as a particular king or something, and as though you, the reader, will know these events perfectly well, just as you would understand a future-history reference in an ordinary historical novel.

Both of these short novels are right up my alley and I wish they were easier to find so more people could read them.  If you never have, you are in for a treat!

Friday, March 23, 2018


Craeft: An Inquiry Into the Origins and True meaning of Traditional Crafts, by Alexander Langlands

I got wind of this book when it was published in the UK because I subscribed to the Heritage Craft Association's Facebook page.  (Why did I do that?  Who knows, it's interesting!)  I've been waiting for it ever since, and I finally got it.

Alexander Langlands is a British archaeologist who I gather is fairly well known if you pay attention to these things.  He started off as a jobbing archaeologist (because in the UK, you have to pay archaeologists to check out the ground if you want to build anything; who knows, maybe Richard III is down there) and then did a bunch of things for the BBC that I would probably enjoy watching, like Victorian Farm and Edwardian Farm, only I never seem to have time for much TV.  So he's the kind of guy who really likes to do things like thatch roofs or learn how to mow hay with a scythe.  And that is what this book is about -- Langlands' efforts to learn how things were once done, and whether traditional crafts have any place in the modern world.

Obviously a book like this can very easily fall into the trap of overly romanticizing the past, and it's true that Langlands does not spend a lot of time on the bad parts, but he does do a good job of not falling into tweeness.  His focus is on figuring out exactly how things were done, and then seeing if he can do them too and (as long as we're here) pondering on their practical implications today.  So there is not a lot in the way of soft-focus descriptions of the joys of haymowing.

Chapters each deal with a different craft used in the UK: making hedgerows and drystone walls, haymaking, pottery, thatching, boatmaking, and so on.  Langlands has mostly tried them out himself, or studied them at least -- making a working pond seems to be an unrealized dream -- and he writes great descriptions of the tremendous skill and work that goes into them.  There is even a section on burning lime, which made me happy, because lime has always puzzled me and now I know a lot more about it.  I also liked the sections on leather, beekeeping, and thatching.

These are mostly masculine sorts of crafts; the weaving chapter veered off to weaving fencing out of wood pretty quickly, to my annoyance.  There is a good bit about beekeeping (frequently part of a housewife's work), and a chapter about basketry, but personally, I would happily read a companion book about womanly crafts, because this book mostly doesn't get into those.  That's OK; crop rotation and haymaking are important.

So, what can we learn from these older crafts to bring into the modern world?  Langlands isn't a romantic, but he does point out that our assumptions that concrete and gas-powered tools are inherently better do not always hold up.  If you can learn to scythe your weeds just about as fast as you whack them with a weedwhacker, can you really say that the quieter, cheaper, and less fussy scythe isn't just as good?  Isn't a pretty, long-lasting and well-designed basket just as good for the job as a plastic box...and when it finally breaks, isn't it nice that it just breaks down and doesn't have to be disposed of?

I had a good time reading this book, and I'm a little afraid to let my kid read it, since she will immediately want to do all the things.  (She already mentioned that she and her buddy had wanted to burn lime; they didn't know that the off-gassing is toxic!  Luckily they never had a chance of getting their hands on limestone.  Phew.)  If we lived in the UK, we would join the Heritage Craft Association!

Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Wonderful Garden

The Wonderful Garden, by E. Nesbit

A few weeks ago, the mood hit to read an E. Nesbit book I haven't read for quite a while: The Wonderful Garden.  We have most of the Nesbit books here but apparently not this one, so I downloaded it (with illustrations!) for a buck on Kindle, figuring that was a pretty good deal to satisfy my whim.

Caroline, Charles, and Charlotte's parents are stationed out in India, and they've had to come back to England for school, to their disappointment, and they stay with relatives for holidays.  They're quite excited when their wealthy and eccentric great-uncle invites them to stay in a house crammed with old treasures, and on their way they meet a boy who is clearly not at all thrilled to be spending the summer in the care of a schoolmaster.  So when Rupert runs away from "the Murdstone man," they hide him.

They've also gotten into magic, in a way.  They've got a new book, The Language of Flowers, and they spend a lot of time putting together bouquets to persuade people to do what they want.  Once they find an old book of magic, they're unstoppable.  Rupert is the sole skeptic, but then he has his own problems that need sorting out.

There is a lot crammed into this story, actually, between the garden and Rupert and the various people the three C's have adventures with.  It's a fun read.

The great thing about E. Nesbit is that she wrote characters who were real children getting into realistic scrapes.  They are not especially virtuous or clever, and they bicker and come up with schemes that will definitely not work out, and they want to help people but aren't necessarily very good at it.

Nesbit is also funny.  I didn't necessarily get all the jokes when I was a kid, but she is poking fun at things in her dry way.  I spent a lot of time laughing while I read!

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

March Magics: Random bits and bobs

Just a little post to cover some extra bases.  I've been reading Unexpected Magic, the largest collection of DWJ short stories and the only place to find the excellent novella "Everard's Ride" (besides the very rare volume that has it and "The True State of Affairs" -- only Lory has that!).  Most of the stories in this volume are collected in books I've already covered, so this is just the few that aren't, plus another sort of rare story, Wild Robert.

When my husband and I were first married in 1996, we took a trip to the UK and of course, I figured I'd look for DWJ books.  A friend of ours, also a diehard fan, asked particularly for us to look for Wild Robert as his copy had been lost in a house fire.  Luckily we were able to buy two, and I'm not sure I've ever seen it again.

"The Green Stone" is a very short story with a fun punch at the end.  It's one where DWJ is playing with the fantasy trope of a 'tour,' where a crew goes on a quest.  So it's quite reminiscent of Dark Lord of Derkholm or The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, except that it's only a few pages long.  "The Fat Wizard" is another short, funny story, in which the pompous town wizard and the narrator's pet pig run into each other.  Another good bedtime story!

"Little Dot" is a cat story, but it's my favorite cat story, and it reminds me just a little of Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which was itself a tribute to DWJ, so I have to wonder if the two are connected.  Little Dot is a cat with a benevolent wizard who is working on helping local farmers trap a strange beast that is prowling around the hills.  She and her fellow cats have to save their wizard, though.

Wild Robert is a short children's novel, and I think it's rather different, not quite your usual DWJ story.  And it's illustrated, unlike most!  Heather's parents are caretakers at a historic stately home, and when Heather is quite fed up with trippers in all her favorite spots, she winds up at a hummock that the locals say is haunted.  And so it is; Wild Robert Toller was buried there three hundred years ago, and Heather accidentally calls him up.  Robert is not happy to see his home covered in visitors, and produces some witchcraft to solve the problem.  He has every intention of seeing to Heather's dad -- clearly an interloper who is cheating the family -- next.

What I like about Wild Robert is the way that Robert is both a real problem and a truly sympathetic character.  He's had a rough time, and he also has a volatile character that has been the source of some of his difficulties.

Next up: two of the greatest DWJ short works!

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Eight Whopping Lies

Eight Whopping Lies, and Other Stories of Bruised Grace, by Brian Doyle

Brian Doyle was an Oregon and a Catholic writer; he wrote a lot about Oregon (though he was a transplant from New York), and he wrote a lot about being Catholic, and about lots of other things too.  He does not appear to be terribly famous, but those who know his works love them, and you should try them out because they are great stuff.

This book is a collection of very (very!) short essays, which as far as I can guess he must have put together shortly before his untimely death at only 60.   They were mostly published in the American Scholar, but sometimes in other magazines, like First Things.  A lot of them are about family: about being one of many brothers, or a particular moment with a kid.  Some are about being Catholic.  And a good many are about moments of ordinary life that all of a sudden aren't ordinary at all.

These are lovely and wonderful little pieces of writing, and I highly recommend you try some Brian Doyle today.  You can even do it for free by reading his archive at American Scholar, or these essays at Sojourners, except they want you to subscribe to read more.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Witi Ihimaera: His Best Stories

Witi Ihimaera: His Best Stories, by Witi Ihimaera

I was not familiar with Ihimaera's name until I came across this collection of short stories.  From what I can tell, he's pretty famous as a Maori writer (Wikipedia says he was the first published Maori novelist).  He's mostly written short stories, which are mostly about living as Maori in a Pakeha-dominated world.  This collection was selected by Ihimaera himself and contains 24 stories, so it's really packed.  The stories are arranged in chronological or thematic sections, usually in threes, and he introduces each section with a short explanation, which is great.  Since I didn't really know anything about his writing, it was nice to get some background right along with the stories.

The stories about Maori life tend to fall into three generations; some of them are set a ways back, and others are more modern.  I particularly liked "The Seahorse and the Reef" and "The Halcyon Summer" from the older generation of stories.  "Dustbins" was pretty disturbing, and "The Affectionate Kidnappers" too, in a completely different way; it was about cultural misunderstanding leading to huge trouble.

Other stories are not specifically about being Maori.  "Who Are You Taking to the Dance, Darling?" is funny, and "The Washerwoman's Children" is about school reunions with people you hated.  And "Someone Is Looking At Me" is futuristic science fiction.

A very interesting collection and I'm glad I ran into it accidentally.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Early Christian Writings

New and pretty cover!
Early Christian Writings (a Penguin collection), trans. by Maxwell Staniforth

I've had this collection of very early but non-Biblical Christian writings on my TBR pile forever, and I finally read it!  Of course, what we have is a small surviving fraction of the writings and epistles that once existed, so while there is a "First Epistle to the Corinthians," there aren't any more.  My own copy is about as old as I am, in the earlier Penguin format, but there's no good photo of it online, so you get this attractive new cover as an illustration.

Clement: First Epistle to the Corinthians: This letter is from the church in Rome to the congregation in Corinth, and it's very early indeed, about 96. It is unsigned but is traditionally assigned to Clement, who was bishop of Rome at the time.  (He was fourth in line, it goes Peter, Linus, Cletus, Clement.)  Apparently, nobody thought of Clement as a pope; nonetheless, he writes a letter to the Corinthians chastising them for recent divisions in their congregation and calling them to humble themselves.  It's a long and diffuse letter, but all centered around the terrible sin of pride.

Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch:  Here is a whole series of letters from Ignatius, who was bishop of Antioch in Syria.  We know just about nothing about his life, except that his parents were probably pagans and he converted to Christianity after a dissipated youth.  He was martyred in 107 under Trajan, and was actually taken to Rome for the purpose.  On the trip, representatives of various congregations would meet him, and he would give them letters to take home with them.  In these letters, he speaks about the importance of unity in the Church and the authority of the clergy.  He didn't like all the threatening schisms he saw.  He also talks about the glory of martyrdom.

Epistle of Polycarp to the Phillipians: Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, seems to have been a beloved figure in the Church, and since he lived to be quite old -- 86 -- and seems to have been born to Christian parents, he served as a great witness to the younger Christians, because he was old enough to have been taught by Apostles and to have known many people who had seen Christ.  He was a disciple of St. John and a steadfast transmitter of his faith, without new inventions or frills.  For all that, we don't know much about Polycarp's time as bishop, and we mostly know about his martyrdom.  The letter was written to the Phillipians because they said they'd like to hear from him, and he warns about the love of money and speaks about the Christian duties of various people.

The Martyrdom of Polycarp: This is an account, written by Marcion who saw Polycarp's death, who put it together for the members of the Church at Philomelium.  It's "the earliest genuine record of the death of a Christian martyr that we possess," and so people used it as a template after that.  It's a gripping story which starts with Polycarp's arrest where he was hiding.  He was a frail and elderly man, but he faced it all down with calm and even good humor.  He was threatened with wild beasts and with fire, but eventually the governor decided on fire.  Polycarp was burned and then stabbed.

The Epistle to Diognetus is an anonymous treatise that is supposed to be an answer to a pagan's questions about Christian beliefs and customs.  Both the author and recipient are unknown, and the book says that "Diognetus" may have been identified with Emperor Hadrian, but yeah maybe not.  The letter starts off explaining why the Greeks and the Jews are no good, and then talks about Christian life and beliefs.

The Epistle of Barnabas:  Writer unknown, although lots of ancient people thought it was by the Apostle Barnabas.  This seems to be extremely unlikely, as Barnabas was very attached to his Jewish roots, and the letter is listed in Eusebius as one generally not considered as inspired.  The letter is about the question of how Judaism and Christianity are related, and this author is quite convinced that they have nothing to do with each other (!!!).  He claims that the Jewish people were deceived, and then goes a bunch of really pretty weird allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament.  (He says that the dietary laws restricting eating particular animals each have their own reason, for example not eating hares really "means you are not to debauch young boys.")  This is a strange epistle and it's no wonder it wasn't generally considered inspired.

The Didache was only re-discovered in 1873 and is a very important little work.  It's pretty much a handbook for Christian life; the first half, "The Two Ways," is an exposition of virtue and vice, and the second half is rules for baptism, fasting, missionary work, and so on.

I would say that if you're going to read just a couple of these works, pick Polycarp's martyrdom and the Didache.  A lot of the epistles are not of great interest unless you're studying the early Christian Church (which is a good idea!).  But those two are very interesting, and not at all difficult to read.  I'm glad to have finally read these, and am interested in reading more.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

March Magics: Believing is Seeing

Believing is Seeing: Seven Stories, by Diana Wynne Jones

Since the first story in this collection is "The Sage of Theare," I'm really only going to talk about six.  By the way, this collection is nearly identical to the earlier Minor Arcana, except Minor Arcana does not have "Enna Hittims" and does contain the very rare "The True State of Affairs," which I'll cover later.  Even the introduction is re-used for this volume!

"The Master" is one freaky terrifying story.  DWJ said it was a nightmare that she had to write out, and yeah, if I kept having that dream I'd have to write it out too!  The narrator is a vet, called out to an urgent case.  There's a forest, a murdered woman, and wolves right outside a very strange house. 

"Enna Hittims" starts off as fun but becomes frightening in its own way.  Anne has been ill and, to pass the time, tells stories to herself about tiny adventurers in the hills made by her blanket.  The adventurers come alive; they are not at all easy to deal with, and they have every intention of killing all the giants in this castle they've found.

"The Girl Who Loved the Sun" is almost a story from Ovid.  Phega is in love with the Sun, and she is determined to become the thing the Sun seems to love best -- a tree.  This is a tragic story that I really like.

Of course, "Dragon Reserve, Home Eight" is a real favorite of mine; I think it is for a lot of people.  DWJ said she wrote it while trying to work out the layers of worlds in Christopher Chant, but I tend to connect it with Hexwood -- I think because she uses a couple of names (Yurov, for example) that also show up in Hexwood, and really I think that the story would fit well in the Hexwood universe.  Siglin is arrested for being heg (having witch-like powers), but it turns out that heg abilities are the only thing that can save civilization.

I'm not a huge fan of cat stories, so "What the Cat Told Me" does not automatically endear itself to me, but it is a very interesting story.  The cat narrates a fairy tale from her own perspective; she was once a familiar to a wicked wizard who kept a servant boy.  Boy plans to escape with the cat, but he gets distracted by food and a pretty girl...

"Nad and Dan adn Quaffy" is a funny story in which DWJ pokes a bit of fun at herself (or possibly Anne McCaffrey!)  as a writer.  F. C. Stone, science-fiction writer, lives on coffee and writes a lot of scenes in which spaceship pilots hunch over controls and deal with complex space politics -- all fueled by alien coffee, of course.  Until the word processor talks back and calls her Captain.

Most of these are stories often seen in DWJ collections, and they're all pretty good.  But to my mind, "Dragon Reserve, Home Eight" is the best one!

Monday, March 12, 2018

Reading Ireland: The Third Policeman

The Third Policeman, by Flann O'Brien

Flann O'Brien was a pen name for Brian O Nuallain (O'Nolan) -- he seems to have had a few.  He was born in 1911 in an Irish-speaking home, where his father was reluctant to send the children to an English-speaking school; they could all speak English just fine, and he preferred that they be taught in Irish, but such a school was not to be found.  O'Brien became a comic, satirical writer -- and he drank a lot -- and The Third Policeman was his last novel, written in 1939 but not published until 1967, after his death. The blurb on the back cover says O'Brien was "one of Ireland's great comic geniuses" along with Joyce and Beckett.

The narrator, who never gets a name, is a young man, a fanatic scholar of the great philosopher de Selby, and he's going back to the family farm after university.  He's an orphan and the farm is run by one John Divney, who suggests they remedy their lack of money by killing and robbing Mathers, the local miser.  The narrator ends up in a conversation with Mathers' ghost, and then enters a two-dimensional police station, where two officers interrogate him about bicycles, teach him Atomic Theory, and plan to hang him for murder.  Also eternity is down the road a little ways, and the narrator has conversations with his soul, whose name is Joe.  The whole narrative is punctuated by long footnotes about de Selby's discoveries and writings, and in the end the narrator goes to find Divney...

I did not exactly find this novel to be comic or funny.  It's surreal and weird and odd, and interesting, but I wouldn't call it funny.  Maybe I don't have the right sense of humor.  I liked it fine, and I do think it fits with Beckett.  I haven't read enough Joyce to be able to compare (and my knowledge of Beckett dates from college and is rusty).

Friday, March 9, 2018

March Magics: Mixed Magics

 Mixed Magics, or, short stories of Chrestomanci

Yay, Chrestomanci stories!  DWJ wrote more Chrestomanci stories than anything else, but there are not enough of them.  The four short stories:

"Warlock at the Wheel" stars the Willing Warlock from Charmed Life, who escapes from the law to our world.  He steals a car, and from then on it's pretty much O. Henry's "Ransom of Red Chief," as a demanding little girl and her giant guard dog torment the poor Warlock into a breakdown.  It's funny, especially for younger kids ($5 says it also started as a bedtime story!), but not stellar.

"Stealer of Souls" is a fairly recent story, published in 2000 and only in this collection.  Tonino Montana visits Chrestomanci Castle, and Cat is charged with looking after him (this takes place some time after Charmed Life and just after Magicians of Caprona).  Cat is an utter brat about this and dislikes Tonino, but then they are both kidnapped by a terrifying evil wizard who has spent the last couple of hundred years collecting lives from nine-lifed enchanters.  With their memories stolen, and forced to cope on their own, Cat and Tonino become a team.  I love this story; I think it's a great addition to the Chrestomanci tales.

"Carol Oneir's Hundredth Dream" is another particular favorite of mine.  It's from 1986, which means it was written just before (or I think more probably at the same time as) The Lives of Christopher Chant, and in the timeline it takes place right after "Stealer of Souls."  Carol is only about eleven, but she's a highly successful professional dreamer.  When all of a sudden she can't dream any more, her father calls up Chrestomanci for a consultation.  Chrestomanci expertly dissects Carol's dreaming methods and delivers her from her stage mother as well.

There are two fun elements about this story: DWJ both explained and poked fun at her own writing methods with Carol's dreaming cover story and her real, inner thoughts -- which are both true, despite the contradictions.  Then, Carol's father is the Oneir who smashes Christopher's head with a cricket bat....and "oneiric" means "having to do with dreams."

"The Sage of Theare" is also one I'm very fond of.  In an extremely orderly parallel world, the gods are worried about the prophesied Sage of Dissolution, who will destroy them.  In a bid to stop him, the sun god finds curious little Thasper and takes him to another world, but that causes some serious difficulties.  Chrestomanci has to help Thasper and deliver a stern lecture to the gods.  This story is a standard selection and appears in a lot of the DWJ collections.

So, three really great stories and one fairly good one.

What's My Spin Number?

And the number is....3!

I will therefore be reading And So Flows History, by Hahn Moo-Sook.  It's a three-generational Korean family saga that starts in the late 19th century and continues until, I think, the end of World War II.  It was published in 1947 and does not include the ideological battles that turned into the Korean War.

Hahn Moo-Sook was quite a young woman when she wrote the book; she must have been about 30, and a young mother, when it was published.  Her daughter, Young-Key Kim-Renaud, is the translator.  (To clarify, on the book, Hahn's name is written in the Asian way, and Kim-Renaud's in the Western way.)

Should be interesting!  I'm supposed to finish and post by April 30th.  Surely I can manage that.  And it will count for South Korea in my Read All Around the World Project too!

Thursday, March 8, 2018

March Magics: Stopping for a Spell and other younger stories

 Stopping for a Spell and some other stories for younger ages

I thought I'd write about most of the younger stories all at once.  I started with them and figured on working my way up in complexity.

Stopping for a Spell has three stories, and I think they must have started off as bedtime stories for little boys who wanted a lot of laughs.  DWJ, after all, had three boys, and she said they always wanted funny stories.  "Chair Person" brings a family's hideous old armchair to life, "The Four Grannies" features Erg, who accidentally turns his four bothersome grannies into one great big Supergranny, and "Who Got Rid of Angus Flint?" has a horrible houseguest who is finally evicted by the fed-up furniture, since nothing less will shift him.

None of these are big favorites of mine, but I can imagine little boys in pajamas absolutely screaming with laughter over them.  They all feature outside intruders into family life, and the horrified parents are usually kind of helpless in the face of ridiculously over-the-top antics.  Even the kids can't always prevail!

Other stories for younger ages are scattered in Warlock at the Wheel and a couple of other books.

I quite like "Plague of Peacocks," in which a new set of busybody neighbors move into the neighborhood and plague the life out of everyone else.  All the kids depend on little Daniel Emanuel -- once he gets fed up, there's no knowing what might happen.  "Fluffy Pink Toadstool" delivers a comeuppance to a mom who gets a little too into the Natural Lifestyle; this one does make me laugh.  In "Auntie Bea's Day Out," she drags everyone to the seaside and insists on heading out to an island despite the 'danger' signs, and the island dislikes her so much that it tries to get rid of her.  So those are all about awful adults who impose on everybody else and must be dealt with.

"Carruthers" is an odd story.  Elizabeth, rather a bullied kid, adopts an old walking stick.  She misunderstands some things and hopes that the stick will eventually beat her father so he'll stop being terrible, but instead Carruthers just complains and eats a lot, until burglars arrive.  "No One" reminds me a bit of Ray Bradbury; in a house of the future, No One is the robot charged with caring for 6-year-old Edward.  Kidnappers show up and No One organizes a comedic and messy defense with all the AI house appliances. 

These are mainly funny stories, but they have their themes too.  DWJ is pretty clear that she doesn't like meddlers; people ought to be left alone to do as they please.  Nearly all of these families are pretty average, pleasant groups of people, if sometimes kind of ineffectual -- if the intruder is a relative, it's nearly always somebody outside the immediate family circle.  "Carruthers" is an exception; Elizabeth and her sisters are really not treated well, the more so because they're girls and their parents have very limited ideas about what girls can do.  I think DWJ put her own family into this story more, albeit very toned down.

I hadn't read some of these for a long time, so I had fun.  Even when they're not big favorites, they're still full of great turns of phrase and insightful moments.  I am particularly fond of Chair Person's smashed-hedgehog beard and the nature-obsessed mother's insistence on floppy hand-woven clothing.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The Chronicles of St. Mary's (I and II)

Just One Damned Thing After Another and
A Symphony of Echoes, by Jodi Taylor

These two books about time-traveling historians came across the donation table, and I nearly didn't take them, but then I did.  They turn out to be the first two books in what is now quite a long series, The Chronicles of St. Mary's.  They're more adult fiction than YA; that is, everybody in it is over 25 and it just feels more like adult fiction, plus people die at a fairly high rate.  The back blurb calls the series "madcap," so watch out, I guess.

Max is a historian with no family ties, which makes her a perfect recruit for St. Mary's, an outfit that secretly does historical research in person.  Max's training and first big assignment comprise the first book; she becomes close with all the other trainees and, once qualified, she and her partner head off to the Cretaceous to study actual dinosaurs!  But!  Tyrannosaurus Rexes are not the only danger.  St. Mary's has an enemy who is not above using history as a weapon.

In the second volume, Max starts off trying to catch a sight of Jack the Ripper on his last night of action, moves on to Thomas a Becket's murder, and ends up on a long assignment with Mary, Queen of Scots.  That's the tricky one; somebody is trying to introduce an anomaly into History, which normally squashes anyone flat if they try.

I thought these were pretty good reads.  They are witty and exciting.  The foreshadowing is on the heavy side; every other chapter ends with some version of "if only I had known that my world was about to be torn apart."  This happens far too often.

Time-travel books tend to have this problem of how to not mess with history.  If there isn't some mechanism to protect History as we know it, then the baddies can loot everything and the goodies can kill Hitler.  Taylor solves this in much the same way that Connie Willis does in her time-travel books; History simply doesn't allow meddling, and if something does go wrong, it corrects by any means necessary.

I'm not sure if I will read more of this series.  It was pretty good, but I don't yet know if I want to read more.

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Green Unknown

The Green Unknown: Travels in the Khasi Hills, by Patrick Rogers

I was offered a review copy of a book about walking through part of India!  How could I pass that up?

Meghalaya is an Indian state in the far northeast, on the northeaster border of Bangladesh and not too far from Myanmar.  It's a steeply mountainous area covered in jungle, with the highest rainfall in the world, leading to waterfalls and floods.  The people live in villages scattered throughout the mountains, often having different dialects just a few miles apart, even though they travel around a lot.  Tourism is mostly confined to one or two points of view, but Patrick Rogers became fascinated with the area and wanted to explore more.

In particular, Rogers was interested in the root bridges that the locals have built over generations.  The native ficus trees have long, strong roots that can, over years, be trained into bridges spanning the chasms all over the landscape.  To the inhabitants, they're just a normal, inexpensive way to get around.  To the rest of us, they're an amazing meld of nature and craft.  There aren't as many as there used to be, though, and so Rogers got interested in documenting them (nobody seems to have a real idea of how many there are) and hopefully encouraging their preservation; he writes a good deal about local people trying to drum up interest.

Root bridge at Nongsteng.  Photo: Patrick Rogers

Rogers writes lyrically about the beauties and dangers of the Meghalayan mountains, and humorously about his own adventures therein.  It's a nice combination, and I really enjoyed the book.  He writes about exploring mountain paths (not always very safely), visiting villages, how to wait out a monsoon, and what to eat.

The Green Unknown is only a buck on Kindle, and that's a good deal. You can check out the book's website here; just watch out for the myriad photos of really gigantic spiders!  (I would really like to visit Meghalaya and hike around and cross a root bridge.  I'm doubtful about my ability to cope with conditions and with giant spiders.  Maybe if I cut all my hair off?)

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Long Utopia and The Long Cosmos

The Long Utopia and The Long Cosmos, by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

I finished the Long Earth sequence just in time for March Magics! These are the last two in the series of five, and Baxter notes at the beginning of the last volume that, sadly, he had to finish the last one on his own.  It's a nice tribute.

The Long Utopia, again, jumps a decade or so forward and has several storylines that follow our protagonists.  Joshua, is learning about the father he never knew and some weird family history, and he's also called to find out about a new phenomenon -- the Next, superintelligent (and not terribly empathetic) humans who are no longer quite human, and who get together to build their own society and discuss: what to do with the regular humans?  Maybe cage them for their own good in a utopia?  Lobsang has retired to a remote world and is trying to live as a human with a family, but he winds up running straight into a problem that requires Next help.  Alien insects have discovered his world and are mining it from the inside.  What if these aliens discover the rest of the Long Earth?

In The Long Cosmos, a message is broadcast along the entire Long Earth: "Join us."  Join who?  The Next figure out that the message contains instructions for building a massive artificial intelligence machine, but they need human help to do it.  Is this a good idea, or not?  Joshua, meanwhile, is about 70 and goes on one of his lone treks -- but this time he gets smashed by an animal and is saved by a troll band.  Living with them, he learns previously unguessed-at aspects of their society and discovers yet more strange worlds.  Then the final adventure: stepping to alien planets with the help of the Machine....

One interesting aspect of both books is an emphasis on replicators; AI machines that can reproduce themselves.  The alien insects seem to be replicators, possibly ones that have gotten out of control.  An English teacher decides to bring Shakespeare to the entire Long Earth, and uses a self-replicating book to do it, but he doesn't quite grasp the implications.  And the Machine becomes self-building after a while.  I like how Pratchett and Baxter look at several different replicator possibilities.

This is a great sequence of novels, one I really enjoyed, and I think most of my family members would like it too.  Now if I could just get them to read it...

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Classics Club Spin #17!

Woohoo, it's time for another Spin!  I've done all of them, so you know I can't miss out.  I love the Spin, and if you're not familiar with it, the rules can be found here, at the Classics Club blog. Join us!

We'll know the Spin Number on Friday, the 9th. 

Nearly all of these titles are books that are in my house right now, whether they're on my TBR pile or on the library shelf.  I have far too many books waiting around to be read to have any business bringing more in (which I do all the time).  But these are a good mix of titles from all over the world, some scary and some I'm looking forward too, with a couple of chunksters thrown in.
  1. The Glatstein Chronicles
  2. Jurgen, by James Branch Cabell 
  3.  And So Flows History, by Hahn Moo-Souk
  4. Revelations of Divine Love, by Julian of Norwich
  5.  Walls of Jericho, by Rudolph Fisher 
  6. To Live, by Yu Hua 
  7. The Plague, by Albert Camus
  8. Miss MacKenzie, by Anthony Trollope
  9. The Dawning, by Milka Bajic Poderegin
  10.  Franny and Zooey, by J. D. Salinger
  11. The Green Face, by Gustav Meyrink
  12.  The Obedience of a Christian Man, by William Tyndale
  13.  Amerika, by Kafka
  14.  Stories/essays of Lu Xun
  15. The Journal of a Tour Through the Hebrides, by Boswell
  16. Pan Tadeusz, by Adam Mickiewicz 
  17.  The Sea and Poison, by Shusaku Endo
  18. Subtly Worded, by Teffi 
  19.  Palm-Wine Drinkard, by Tutuola
  20.  Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange (Medieval Arabic stories)
Let me know what you think of my list, and may the odds be ever in our favor in the Spin.