Wednesday, April 29, 2020

The Golden Thread

The Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History, by Kassia St. Clair

A while ago, St. Clair's first book, The Secret Lives of Color, was very popular, but I had already read Victoria Finlay's Color: A Natural History of the Palette (which is wonderful, and apparently I read it pre-Howling Frog, which surprises me!) and I -- rather snobbily -- eschewed the newer book, thinking it couldn't be as good.  I will have to rethink that snap judgement.  I can never resist a book about textiles, and though I kind of thought this might be on the light side, I found that I enjoyed it very much and and recommend it to any textile-lover...or for that matter, anybody who has never given a thought to the huge importance of textiles.

This book is not a comprehensive history of the development of early textiles, though.  St. Clair hops around a bit in the fields of history and geography.  Each chapter focuses on one sub-topic, and gives several stories about that.  So there is no giant history of linen (that might take a very large book); there is a chapter on linen's importance in ancient Egypt, and several different stories about that.

After weaving and linen, there are chapters on silk, wool, cotton, lace, and then more modern fabrics such as rayon, textiles for extreme cold, space suits, sports, and, finally, spider silk.  Each one contains fascinating stories and details.

One of my favorite stories was about the work of Su Hui, who composed and embroidered an incredibly complex poem, Star Gauge, on a panel of silk.  It can be read in any direction and is divided into panels, as shown:

Su Hui and her poem
 Another favorite was the revelation (to me!) that the Vikings wove their sails from wool I would have assumed they were linen, but no!  It was a highly specialized job involving an incredible amount of work; the wool they used was naturally high in lanolin, and then they added fish oil and other substances to make the fabric both waterproof and efficient for sailing.  It sounds like the sail may have been a good deal more valuable than the actual ship; a ship could be built in a few weeks, but sails took years.  Scandinavians used wool for sails for centuries.

And as I mentioned, there is a lot of information here about modern developments in fabrics, too.  The chapter on cold-weather gear was particularly fascinating, involving both mountain-climbing and polar exploration.  Early cold-weather gear was ridiculously difficult and inadequate, being mostly wool.   Alpinists were ...snobbish?  ignorant?  about the extreme environment, and so we get descriptions like
By 1924 Mallory had grudgingly accepted the need for gaseous aid to climb Everest.  Even today many climbers believe climbing without it is aesthetically preferable; previously Mallory had believed that it was unsporting and, worse, un-British.
[on the first man to try out down clothing, coated in balloon fabric] Finch, an Australian, was ridiculed by the snobbish Alpine Club and his contemporaries refused to adopt the style, even when it proved far warmer than their own gear.
 This book was so much fun!  I loved reading it.  In fact, since last week was National Library Week, we decided to celebrate by taking 'quarantine shelfies,' and I chose to use The Golden Thread as my book.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Coronation Summer

What a fun cover!  Mine isn't.
Coronation Summer, by Angela Thirkell

A couple of people around the bloggy world have been reading Angela Thirkell, which strikes me as a perfect author for reading while hiding out from a global pandemic.  I had this one on my TBR shelf, and indeed it was an ideal read for right now.  I'm going to pass it on to my mom and then to a friend; it was so refreshingly funny!

Fanny Harcourt is 17 in the summer of 1838, when the young Victoria is going to be crowned.  She and her best friend Emily Dacre manage to talk Fanny's father into spending the summer in London so they can see all the sights and experience the excitement.  The girls also spend quite a bit of time thinking about the young men they meet; Emily has a crush on Fanny's older brother Ned, and Fanny is much struck by the romantic-looking dandy, Mr. DeLacy Vavasour, who has published several sensational novels.*  Mr. Darnley, on the other hand, is also charming...

The story is told by Fanny herself, now a young matron, a few years later in a reminiscence she is writing for her children to read someday.  She and Emily have just read The Ingoldsby Legends** and are confused by the (fictional) author's name; they are well acquainted with Tom Ingoldsby, but how did he write this book?  Fanny thinks she might turn author too.

This is really a delightful novel, and one reason is the perfect pitch of the writing and dialogue.  I'm no expert, but this read completely 'young Victorian lady' to me.  Never was there a jarring modern word or expression; Fanny sounds just right.***  She gushes over "our dearest Boz," and thinks a lot about fashion but has a realistic wardrobe. 

Another delightful element is that, while Fanny writes as a nice young lady, she often gives herself away as...not always very nice!  She tends to both misunderstand and manipulate her father, and is often not very kind to her 'dearest Emily' -- they quarrel regularly.  It is delicately done, and very funny.  Thirkell is satirizing her characters and their world, but so expertly that it is all just a little bit over the line, and all the funnier for it.

Here are a few excerpts:

...parents are created to distress us, and let me not forget that Emily too has her trials.  Never shall I forget her account of the Sunday when her father, usually all that a parent should be, actually sent her home from the very church door for wearing a bonnet which he considered unbecoming to the daughter of a rector of the Church of England.  Poor Emily, who had for the moment indulged in a tender sentiment for a handsome young Evangelical preacher whom she had met while at Miss Twinkleton's school at Cloisterham, and who was subsequently imprisoned for abducting an heiress, had taken to wearing plain bonnets as a sign of regeneration.  She was forced to go home and put on a bonnet with feathers and ribbons...

[describing a beauty, at length, evidently after the style of Mrs. Radcliffe]...Her rounded figure was moulded by a dress of pure white silk from the riches looms of Cashmere, while a scarf of finest gauze half hid, half revealed a bust which might have served a Canova as model.  She wore no ornaments except a necklace of cameos richly set with diamonds, and her arms were clasped with magnificent bracelets...

[On Quakers] ...They seems to be a useful and philanthropic sort of persons, and as for their religion, I have been brought up an Anglican and can tolerate any form of worship which does not attempt to foment discord among the lower orders.
Oh, I had so much fun with this one.  Really glad I read it.  And it's pretty cheap on Kindle, so if you think you'd like it, it will be easy to get!

*Mr. Vavasour's novel has an incredible plot that is a wonderful pastiche of the typical elements.

** Having grown up reading E. Nesbit, I always wondered what The Ingoldsby Legends were, and so some years ago I got a copy.  It's a collection of funny ghost stories, legends, and poetry that first appeared in magazines.  The first story is about a ghost who steals guests' pantaloons...and you can easily get it in ebook format!

*** I suppose Thirkell had an advantage over our modern writers; having been born in 1890, she probably had a grandmother who really did speak in Fanny's style.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, and, The Bookshop of Yesterdays

Here are two novels that I'm putting into one post, because: 
  1. They are both books in which the reader, and the protagonist, have to figure out what the Terrible Thing in the Past is;
  2. They're both bestselling first novels, and very recent, and I picked them up from our Little Free Library; and 
  3. My friend made me read the first one, and I'm going to make her read the second one.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman

This novel was all the rage a couple years ago, but I never got to it until now -- one of my closest friends read it recently, and recommended it to me.  Pretty soon I came across a copy in our Little Free Library and took it home, and I thought a quarantine would be a good time to read it.  Also, the April book for that one TBR challenge is supposed to be the newest book on the TBR shelf, and while I'm not 100% sure which book is the newest, this one seemed like a pretty good bet.  So here's the story:

Eleanor Oliphant works in a Glasgow office and has no friends, no outside life besides books and TV at home.  She's not very good at getting along with others -- she's very rigid and tends to say whatever she thinks -- and also she spends every weekend drunk in order to make the time go by.  When the kind of doofy IT guy, Raymond, starts being friendly, she is horrified and doesn't know what to do.  Oh, and she is suddenly convinced that a local singer is her one true love; he just doesn't know it yet.

So the reader spends the novel trying to figure out what Eleanor's deal is, as she starts to think about maybe going out into the world a little bit, and maybe letting the world in a little bit too.  Eleanor is a mess, and a very lovable one, but she has a lot to figure out.  Eleanor is terrified of remembering her own life, of having emotions or needs, of opening herself to anyone at all.

What I most appreciated about the story was that Raymond and Eleanor are friends.  It's not a friendship that transforms into a romance; it's just two friends helping each other figure out life.  It's a good read, and so I'm glad my friend made me pick it up.

The Bookshop of Yesterdays, by Amy Meyerson

When Miranda turned 12, her wonderful, imaginative, and fun Uncle Billy -- a seismologist who also owned a bookstore -- disappeared from her life.  She was devastated, and nobody would explain what happened.  Her mother simply wouldn't talk about Billy. 

At 27, Miranda is a history teacher on the other side of the country, and has just moved in with her boyfriend.  She doesn't think about Billy very much any more, but then she gets the news that her uncle has died -- and a book and card arrive in the mail.   They're obviously clues to a Billy-style scavenger hunt, but to what?  Miranda travels home for the funeral, and finds that Billy has left her the bookstore.  As she follows the clues to his riddles, she is also following a trail that will lead her to the story of what happened when she turned 12, why Billy disappeared, and why her mother has kept so much from her.

There is a lot of emotional interplay between the characters, and a lot of exploration of the fact that we never know people completely; we all show different sides to different people, and often our parents are the people we know least.  We tell ourselves stories about things that happened, but it's impossible to know history completely; all we ever get to know are certain viewpoints, certain facts, and the interpretation we put on those decides a lot.  Billy, Miranda, and her mother each have their own interpretations, and some of them are going to have to let go; all of them need to forgive each other.

I enjoyed this one a lot. Good stuff.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

The Long Walk

The Long Walk: A Gamble for Life, by Slavomir Rawicz and Ronald Downing 

Well, this was certainly an interesting read, and not for the reasons I thought it would be.  It came across the book donation table, and I thought it looked interesting.  My mom said it was a bestseller in its day -- the memoir of a man who had escaped from a Siberian gulag and walked to India.  Well, I couldn't resist that!

But I was a bit startled when I started to read the foreword, by Ronald Downing (a reporter who wrote the story as Rawicz told him), and it starts with
My newspaper, the London Daily Mail, was launching an expedition into Nepal to seek the yeti, or Abominable Snowman, of the Himalayas... 
Wait, what??  Downing goes on to explain that he met and interviewed Rawicz because he'd seen yetis, and insisted on telling the entire story, since the encounter with the yetis was pretty minor really.  In fact, it takes up maybe a page or two in the whole book.

So I started reading, with some puzzlement.  It started off with Rawicz, a Polish cavalry officer, getting captured, imprisoned, and tried by the NKVD in 1939.  He was sentenced to the gulag and the first several chapters are dedicated to getting there, with weeks on the way.  (The camp itself is relatively comfortable compared to the trip, once they build their barracks, and it's not like it's any fun there.)

At about this time, I mentioned the yeti part to my mom, who had forgotten about it.  She said that in 1956, when it was published, people took the yetis pretty seriously, but it had been called into question later.  So I decided to look up this Slavomir Rawicz on the magical internet; surely there would be something.  And of course I found a Wikipedia entry!  The short version is: in 2006 people figured out that Rawicz did not escape from a gulag and walk to India, although quite possibly some other men did.  Rawicz was released in 1942 as part of an amnesty for Poles.

So that was disappointing, but by this time I was halfway through a short book and decided to keep going to see how it turned out.  Rawicz tells a very exciting story of escaping along with six other men.  Soon they pick up a young Polish woman who has run off from the collective farm she had been sent to, and they all travel together.  It's all plausible enough until they get to the Gobi desert.

The trek through the Gobi desert is, quite frankly, incredible.  As in not credible.  Rawicz claims that they walked through the desert heat for six days without water or food before finding an oasis.  It's then a good twelve days until they find water again.  (Two people die during this part.)  Then there are uncounted days in which their only source of moisture is the snakes they kill for food.  Now, as I understand it, a human being can generally survive about three days without water, with some variables, maybe a bit longer.  But there is no way that I believe these guys could walk through a desert for twelve days with no water or food.

After that they wander through the Himalayas (which sounds as improbable as the Gobi desert part), sight a couple of weird tall creatures, and eventually stagger into India with the last of their strength, meeting a patrol of soldiers led by a British officer.

So, I guess it's mostly fiction, though Rawicz did in fact serve in the Polish cavalry and go to the gulag.  I am kind of bummed that he would steal somebody else's story, if it happened at all.  I thought this would be an item for my History Non-Fiction Reading Challenge, but...nope.  It's basically a novel.  It's still in print and was made into a movie; but the current edition still claims to be a memoir.

Monday, April 20, 2020

When They Come for Us, We'll Be Gone

When They Come for Us, We'll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry, by Gal Beckerman

Well, this title took me a little longer than I expected it to!  Embarrassing to relate, I started it in January and got bogged down a few times, especially when we started the lockdown.  For a while I couldn't concentrate well at all, and while it's a fascinating history, it's also a fairly heavy-duty book.

This is the amazing history of the struggles of Soviet Jews, and outside efforts to help them.  The dilemma was that, while the USSR didn't really want Jews around, it wasn't willing to let them leave either.   In theory, the Soviets would band together as one; in practice, Jews were always treated as second-class citizens, which kept them out of jobs they were qualified for and made them feel unwelcome.  But if they applied to leave, they would just about always be denied...and would also lose their jobs and social circles.  This meant that even Jews who weren't religious or who felt no particular connection to Judaism -- which were a lot of them -- were pushed to regard themselves as Jews and to want to get out. 

In the US, Jewish activists started bringing attention to this problem in the early- and mid-60s.  The history of the non-Soviet side of this movement gets just as much attention as the Soviet side, so we spend a lot of time in New York, Ohio, and Washington DC.  Activists pressured the White House to pressure the USSR to pay more attention to human rights.  Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn't, but by the time Reagan and Gorbachev came along, the issue of Soviet Jews was a major one.

Beckerman introduces us to a large cast of characters on both sides of the Iron Curtain, and it's not always easy to keep track of everyone.  It's a fairly comprehensive history -- probably a little more thorough than most people would want at first thought -- but it's always gripping history with wonderful insights into the politics and beliefs on both sides. truth, the Soviets never knew exactly what to do with their Jews.  The Marxist idea was to create one single, socialist society that would eliminate all national, religious, and even ethnic attachments.  But in practice, the Soviet Union's attitude about nationalities, and Jews in particular, was schizophrenic.  On the one hand, from the Bolshevik Revolution onward, Jews were viewed as a people who would soon assimilate into nonexistence and were therefore denied any real opportunity to flourish as a separate culture.  On the other hand, the Soviet state never stopped reminding Jews that no matter how assimilated they became, they were still somehow foreign. (92)

A month after taking power, [Andropov] laid out an ominous-sounding vision for how to solve the nationalities problem in the Soviet Union: "Our end goal is clear.  It, to quote Lenin, 'is not only to bring the nations closer together but to fuse them.'"  This fusion would not be voluntary. (431)
A thorough analysis of an important chapter in history that doesn't get a lot of attention now, and a very good read.  Not light reading though!

Sunday, April 19, 2020

And my special Spin number is...


Which means I'll be reading The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, by Henry Handel Richardson.   Henry Handel Richardson was actually Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson (1870 - 1946), and when I put it on the list, I forgot that The Fortunes of Richard Mahony is in fact three novels that got collected into one volume: Australia Felix, The Way Home, and Ultima Thule.  So that adds up to a good 800+ pages, yikes!  It's supposed to be a lot of adventure, but maybe I should have just picked the first volume?  We'll see how it goes.  I only have this book in Kindle, which I always find a little more difficult than reading a book, but after all, we're all home all the time now.

So on the whole, I'm pretty excited!  Here we go!

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Time for the Classics Club Spin #23!

Woohoo, it's Spin time!  I was really hoping one would come along to brighten our quarantine time.   Of course, I'm limited to the titles that I actually have in the house (or on my e-reader), but I need to read those piles down anyway.  I tried to pick some that would work for other challenges, and I've tagged those, but only for a couple of them; they're pretty much all on my TBR pile, and many would work for the Reading Classic Books Challenge, whereas I'm having difficulty finding certain of the Back to the Classics requirements.

The Club challenges us to pick some titles we are excited about and others that are scary, which I have done.  I'm nervous about several of these!  But I've learned my lesson about the dreaded #1, so I put something fun in there.
  1.  Twelfth Night  (Back to the Classics)
  2. The White Guard, by Bulgakov
  3. For Two Thousand Years, by Mihail Sebastian   (Read Around the World)
  4. Stories by Nick Joaquin (Read Around the World)
  5. Marriage, by (somebody...)
  6. The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, by Henry Handel Richardson
  7. Thus Were Their Faces, by Silvina Ocampo 
  8. The Well at the End of the World, by William Morris
  9. The Gray Earth, by Galsan Tshinag
  10. Oblomov, by Goncharov  (Russian lit)
  11. Eichmann in Jerusalem, by Hannah Arendt
  12. The Obedience of a Christian Man, by William Tyndale
  13. Oroonoko, by Aphra Behn (Back to the Classics)
  14. The Female Quixote, by Charlotte Lennox
  15. Forest of a Thousand Daemons, by D. O. Fagunwa
  16. The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson
  17. First Love and Other Stories, by Turgenev  (Russian lit) 
  18. The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis  
  19. Season of Migration to the North, by Tayeb Salih  (Read Around the World)
  20.  Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens  (Back to the Classics)
OK, here we go!  Let's see what number comes up.  

Friday, April 17, 2020

Some pre-Shakespearean plays

Selections from Specimens of the Pre-Shakespearean Drama, vol. I, ed. John M. Manly

That 2020 TBR challenge that I'm not officially doing said that in March, I could take the TBR book that had been there the longest.  As far as I could figure, this was that book.  I bought it in about 1994 from the UC Berkeley Library, which had discarded it from the Moffitt Undergraduate Library (my least favorite library on campus, which is now a bunch of fancy group study rooms with no books at all).  It is a two-volume set, with a date of 1897 on it, and has a bookplate in it for one George Hubbard Savage, complete with family crest (on right!) and motto ("A te pro te").

This volume contains the fun stuff in the dual set: a whole bunch of medieval mystery plays, in which various guilds would depict a piece of the Bible;  some Robin Hood and St. George plays, and a sword play.  I wanted to read some of those, not the whole thing all in one go.

I read the "Norwich Whitsun Plays," which depicted the Creation and Fall and were given by the grocers of Norwich.  In rhyming verses (mostly couplets), Eve is created for Adam, the Serpent tempts them, and they are expelled from Paradise.  The plays are really not very long or even difficult to read, although they retain a lot of the spelling and there are lacunae where bits of the script are missing.  These plays were written in 1533 and 1565.  The mystery plays were apparently commonly performed on a wagon that was also a stage, so I found an illustration, included above.

What I was really looking forward to was the Robin Hood plays, and they were fun, but also slightly disappointing, because large chunks are missing.  There are three plays, which pit Robin Hood against a knight, a friar (Friar Tuck), and a potter.  The first play seems to be very old, dating from before 1475, and a knight promises the Sheriff to arrest Robin Hood.  Very little of the play survives, but it probably didn't have a lot of dialogue anyway!  It's easy to see that a Robin Hood play was pretty much an excuse for mayhem on a stage -- lots of fighting and yelling insults, with the occasional donning of a disguise, and of course Robin Hood always wins.

In "Robin Hood and the Friar," Robin tells John that a friar has just whacked him with a quarterstaff and robbed him, so off they go to get revenge.  Robin and Friar Tuck each have a gang of men, and they all fight.  Robin calls Tuck a "lousy friar," and Tuck shoots back with "ragged knave."  It must have been fun to watch!  The play about the potter involves Robin smashing all the potter's pots because he hasn't ever paid a penny for passage through the forest, and then lots of fighting.

The St. George plays involve a lot of mayhem too, but it seems to be slightly more organized.  This volume includes two.  The Oxfordshire play is very fun; it presents a large and random cast of characters, ranging from Old Father Christmas, to King Alfred and his Queen, to the Giant Blunderbore and several others.  Everybody runs around and fights, and a Dragon appears, so they all fight him, and the Doctor comes and cures everybody's wounds, and Father Christmas brings peace and plenty.

The Lutterworth Christmas play is also about St. George, who is a prince here, and again, there's lots of fighting with a Turkish Knight, who mortally wounds George.  A doctor comes along and cures him:
All sorts of diseases,
Whatever you pleases;
I can cure the itch, the pitch,
The phthisic, the palsy, and the gout;
And if the devil's in the man, 
I can fetch him out.
My wisdom lies in my wig.
There is also quite a long play of the old folk type that involves a Fool and his sons trying to kill him, with a sword dance.  I'm not really familiar with it, so when it says that the dancers "lock their swords to make the glass," and then the Fool jumps up and down on it, I was pretty befuddled.  But Youtube to the rescue -- there are a few examples of morris dancing with swords on video, and it turns out that they do this trick where they kind of weave the swords together to make a six-pointed star wreath arrangement, which they use as a looking-glass.   So I learned quite a bit.

This post has become ridiculously long, but I was having fun with this whole thing, and I shall end with a bit of family history that I think is fun.   Congregations in my church generally put on some sort of Christmas party, and when I was about 14 or 15, they asked some families to put on little plays or shows, or songs, or whatnot, and everybody would go around the building to the various rooms and see these little performances.  My mom decided to have us kids do a St. George play, which is quite possibly the only time anybody has ever done that at an LDS Christmas party in the US.  My three brothers were St. George, the Saracen, and the Dragon, and I was the Doctor with a curing potion.  We had all completely forgotten this until a year or so ago, when a couple of photos surfaced, which are highly embarrassing, but worth saving for posterity.  I am holding our baby sister, who spent the entire time demanding to "drink medicine" too.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, by John le Carré

This has been on my TBR for a little while; I'd never read John le Carré, and when this book came across the donation table, other folks said he was pretty good and I should give him a try.  It was, indeed, pretty good, but not at all as I was expecting!  Also, the copy I have turned out to be a sort of commemorative edition to mark the fall of the Berlin Wall -- it has an introduction by le Carré written just afterwards -- because the novel was inspired by the building of the Wall in the first place.

Alec Leamas is a British spy overseeing operations in Berlin, but his contacts have all failed, and the best one is killed just as he's about to cross and escape from East to West.  Leamas goes home, a failure expecting to be shoved into a corner, but his boss offers him one last job.  In order to do it, Leamas must enact the part of an embittered loser going down the drain, and get recruited for the other side -- and he must do it perfectly.

This is a spy story stripped of the Bond glamour and swashbuckling action, a deliberate reversal of the popular spy story tropes.  No gadgets, no beautiful betrayers, no posh hotels or cars.  Instead, Leamas drinks too much and gets a rotten job that doesn't even pay for his awful little flat.  He and his fellow spies are cynically resigned to the ruthlessness of the job.  They hardly ever run around in action scenes; nobody is hunted across a country or two.  Instead, they hole up in ratty little houses and talk endlessly.

So it's a good spy novel, but nothing like the usual thing.  I'll probably read a couple more
 le Carré stories; I'm interested to see what he did next.

Oh hey, a blurb on a newer edition informs me that this series (about George Smiley, who barely comes into this one) has been turned into a TV show starring Tom Hiddleston.  I presume he plays Smiley.

Monday, April 13, 2020

The Homeward Bounders, and March Magics Wrapup

By far the best cover ever done
The Homeward Bounders, by Diana Wynne Jones

Kind of funny to have a wrapup two weeks after the event ends, but such is life.  I spend too much time at my desk for work, and then fail to fit the blogging in.  I actually have several books to share, but getting to it is a different thing!

My final read for March Magics was The Homeward Bounders, a long-time favorite.  I love how DWJ took the idea of role-playing games, mixed it up with a multi-verse and threw in Prometheus, and bam: amazing story.  Jamie, Helen, and Joris are all wonderful characters, and Jamie is so understatedly tragic.*

I don't have a lot new to say about this story this time, but I wanted to give it its due, and thank Kristen for hosting March Magics even though this is a difficult time.  The choice of DIY turned out to be far more appropriate than anyone imagined!  I was grateful to have some DWJ to read in the middle of all this muddle.

 Looking forward to next year... (assuming 2020 doesn't come up with a robot zombie apocalypse just to round things out)...

*I said Mordion might be more tragic, but I've changed my mind again.  Jamie wins that contest.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Spellcoats and Crown of Dalemark, plus an update

The Spellcoats, and
The Crown of Dalemark, by Diana Wynne Jones

Last Witch Week, I read Drowned Ammet and Cart and Cwidder (which I then did not post about, since I went on a hiatus instead), so it seemed only fair to read these two for March Magics.  And of course, they were lovely.  Although I think that DWJ's refusal to spend a tremendous amount of time in any one world was a strength and a good thing, I sure would love a couple more Dalemark stories.  Maybe the story of Manaliabrid, or where Ammet and Libby Beer fit in with the others.  I would very much like to have about 300% more information about Dalemark history, especially about my favorite character, Tanaqui.

Spellcoats is such a fascinating novel, to my mind.  It's a 'found documents' story, in which the novel is translated from artifacts found in an archaeological dig -- but the artifacts are "rugcoats," woven robes in which the weaving actually forms words for those who can read it.  These artifacts are prehistoric, dating from before Dalemark had written history, and were woven by the younger sister of the legendary first king of Dalemark.  I love the inclusion of weaving as an important activity.

Tanaqui is only about 13 or so, but she is an expert weaver, and that makes her a magic-maker as well.  Kankredin and his mages literally weave their spells and wear them in their robes, which is what makes them work, and Tanaqui is doing the same in order to fight them.  Putting her story into the weaving gives it power and force, and makes it true, in yet another example of DWJ's theme of having things come true at characters.  Since we can only read what she put into her weaving, we get this sort of diary format that feels real, yet frustratingly incomplete because we don't know the rest.

Dalemark is where DWJ came closest to making up a new language like Tolkien did, but she mostly put it into these two novels, written a good 20 years apart.  Spellcoats is all about language and thought and how they can be used, and The Crown of Dalemark continues those themes -- and has a handy glossary in back that gives some nice hints to fill out the picture a bit, but still doesn't cover everything.  Not only that, but the glossary is also a 'found document,' written by a Dalemark historian, and contains mistakes because the historian doesn't have a complete picture, and doesn't know some things that we do know.

Crown of Dalemark ties up the quartet by bringing together three time periods.  Maewen is a 13-year-old girl living in a modern, industrialized Dalemark, two hundred years after Drowned Ammet and Cart and Cwidder, which take place unknown centuries after the events of Spellcoats.  Maewen is sent back in time to travel with Mitt, Moril, and Wend -- who is Tanaqui's youngest brother.

I remember buying a somewhat beat-up copy of Spellcoats, which was published in 1979, and my copy was probably nearly that old.  I bought it at the Berkeley Book Consortium, which is long gone, around 1993ish -- which is right when Crown of Dalemark was being published, but I didn't know that and didn't come across it for a few years. 

To sum up, if you've never read the Dalemark Quartet, I hope you will.

Update: We are doing just fine, but I'm still finding it difficult to blog -- I'm not sure if it's because of working from home, or because I'm having a hard time focusing on anything for very long!  After taking refuge in DWJ books, I regressed into a week-long bender of Three Investigators novels.  I love the Three Investigators but reading them six at a time is maybe a little much.  Today I tried to take myself in hand and read some history.

Otherwise, there's not much to tell.  We're home all the time, school is now canceled for the rest of the semester, and I'm usually desperate to get outside at least once a day.  I feel very fortunate that so far the weather has stayed nice and cool; we've had two spells of rain since this started, which we really needed.  I love walking on a cold, cloudy, windy day.

My youngest kid turned 17 last week, and we celebrated with a yummy dinner with grandparents (we see them all the time, so they're part of our quarantine pod) and homemade pie and ice cream.  It was a pretty weird birthday for her.  My mom and I also took her on a hike, and we took a different trail than we usually have, and found a neat ravine with a waterfall.  17yo thought it looked like a storybook, and I must say I agree.  See?

I want so much to hear how all my bloggy friends are doing, and I'm trying to keep up with all of you, but my blog reader still has a good 300 articles waiting because of my lack of concentration.  So I hope you'll be patient with me when I show up and comment on your post a week late. <3 p="">

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Irish Fairy Tales

Irish Fairy Tales, by James Stephens

I wanted to read something for Cathy's Reading Ireland 2020 event, but my TBR pile did not hold any modern Irish literature.  It did hold this volume of Irish tales, retold by James Stephens, and as a bonus, it turned out to be illustrated by Arthur Rackham.  In fact it's a lovely volume all 'round, though sadly missing its dust jacket.  My copy is a modern reprint of the 1920 original.

Most of the stories are about Fionn mac Uail (in this version; I've seen it spelled other ways and in English it's Finn MacCool), the heroic leader of the Fianna Finn.  There are some other tales as well, such as the story of the man who hated dogs, the 'carl with the drab coat' who ran a race over Ireland with a foreign king, and the Hag of the Mill.

One of the great joys of this collection of stories is Stephens' language, which is lovely and descriptive, and often very very funny.  I could not resist sharing some of the bits that made me laugh, so here they are, far too many, but you won't be sorry.  I won't write much of a post here, I'll just share these:
He learned to jump by chasing hares in a bumpy field. Up went the hare and up went Fionn, and away with the two of them, hopping and popping across the field. If the hare turned while Fionn was after her it was switch for Fionn; so that in a while it did not matter to Fionn which way the hare jumped for he could jump that way too. Long-ways, sideways or baw-ways, Fionn hopped where the hare hopped, and at last he was the owner of a hop that any hare would give an ear for.

Fionn learns to run fast
The king kissed him on both cheeks.
“Indeed, my dear heart and my son, we are not scolding you, but you must try not to look so terribly thoughtful when you think. It is part of the art of a ruler.”
“I shall never master that hard art,” lamented his fosterling.
“We must all master it,” Dermod replied. “We may think with our minds and with our tongues, but we should never think with our noses and with our eyebrows.”

But that did not prevent Goll from killing Fionn’s brother Cairell later on, nor did it prevent Fionn from killing Goll later on again, and the last did not prevent Goll from rescuing Fionn out of hell when the Fianna-Finn were sent there under the new God. Nor is there any reason to complain or to be astonished at these things, for it is a mutual world we llve in, a give-and-take world, and there is no great harm in it.

Being a king he had authority to ask questions. Conn asked her, therefore, all the questions that he could think of, for it is not every day that a lady drives from the sea, and she wearing a golden-fringed cloak of green silk through which a red satin smock peeped at the openings. She replied to his questions, but she did not tell him all the truth; for, indeed, she could not afford to. She knew who he was, for she retained some of the powers proper to the worlds she had left, and as he looked on her soft yellow hair and on her thin red lips, Conn recognised, as all men do, that one who is lovely must also be good, and so he did not frame any inquiry on that count; for everything is forgotten in the presence of a pretty woman, and a magician can be bewitched also.

The High King did not know where exactly he should look for such a saviour, but he was well educated and knew how to look for whatever was lacking. This knowledge will be useful to those upon whom a similar duty should ever devolve.  

“Master,” said mac an Da’v as the troop drew abreast and moved past.
“What is it, my good friend?”
“Let me throw a little small piece of a rock at the King of Leinster.”
“I will not.”
“A little bit only, a small bit about twice the size of my head.”
“I will not let you,” said Mongan. 

Now the Hag of the Mill was a bony, thin pole of a hag with odd feet. That is, she had one foot that was too big for her, so that when she lifted it up it pulled her over; and she had one foot that was too small for her, so that when she lifted it up she didn’t know what to do with it. She was so long that you thought you would never see the end of her, and she was so thin that you thought you didn’t see her at all. One of her eyes was set where her nose should be and there was an ear in its place, and her nose itself was hanging out of her chin, and she had whiskers round it. She was dressed in a red rag that was really a hole with a fringe on it, and she was singing “Oh, hush thee, my one love” to a cat that was yelping on her shoulder.

In the first battle three hundred of the men of Lochlann were killed, but in the next battle Eolgarg Mor did not fight fair, for he let some venomous sheep out of a tent, and these attacked the men of Ulster and killed nine hundred of them.
So vast was the slaughter made by these sheep and so great the terror they caused, that no one could stand before them, but by great good luck there was a wood at hand, and the men of Ulster, warriors and princes and charioteers, were forced to climb up the trees, and they roosted among the branches like great birds, while the venomous sheep ranged below bleating terribly and tearing up the ground.
Fiachna Fim was also sitting in a tree, very high up, and he was disconsolate.
“We are disgraced,” said he.
“It is very lucky,” said the man in the branch below, “that a sheep cannot climb a tree.”
“We are disgraced for ever,” said the King of Ulster.
“If those sheep learn how to climb, we are undone surely,” said the man below.
“I will go down and fight the sheep,” said Fiachna. But the others would not let the king go.
“It is not right,” they said, “that you should fight sheep.”

 Now if the sheep were venomous, this dog was more venomous still, for it was fearful to look at. In body it was not large, but its head was of a great size, and the mouth that was shaped in that head was able to open like the lid of a pot. It was not teeth which were in that head, but hooks and fangs and prongs. Dreadful was that mouth to look at, terrible to look into, woeful to think about; and from it, or from the broad, loose nose that waggled above it, there came a sound which no word of man could describe, for it was not a snarl, nor was it a howl, although it was both of these. It was neither a growl nor a grunt, although it was both of these; it was not a yowl nor a groan, although it was both of these: for it was one sound made up of these sounds, and there was in it, too, a whine and a yelp, and a long-drawn snoring noise, and a deep purring noise, and a noise that was like the squeal of a rusty hinge, and there were other noises in it also.