Blogging and lockdown

Blogging for me (and maybe for you too) has been a saving grace for the last year and especially during lockdowns. Much social media has been awash with political indignation, pandemic worries and personal tragedies, but having an outlet focused on books has been one positive thing to look forward to and think about, largely because it is so concerned with creativity.

Having a book blogging community has therefore been a real boon, else it would have been calling into a void with only one’s own echoes coming back. I’m so grateful, thank you all, and I hope I have been able to perform a similar service back to all of you.

But I also know that fatigue can hit, as some of you have been posting, all while we individually try to cope with sustained levels of anxiety and stress caused by outside factors. And some of you have indicated that you’ve needed to take a break from a demanding schedule of writing and posting. I think I may be approaching that point.

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The speculative philosopher

Mars, the ‘red planet’

The War of the Worlds by H G Wells.
— ‘Evolution and Ethics in The War of the Worlds‘ by John Huntingdon (1982).
Penguin English Library 2012 (1898)

And before we judge of [the Martians] too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?

Though we’d rightly take issue with the narrator’s term “inferior races” for the Tasmanians, he is correct to refer to genocide as one atrocity among many that humans have long visited on populations, along with species extermination. Throughout Wells’s alien invasion story he constantly has the narrator compare the Martians’ treatment of humans with our lack of concern for social insects like ants, bees and wasps, or gets him to comment on the belief that animals are only useful when treated as a food source.

But The War of the Worlds isn’t only framed as a moral tract (the narrator identifies himself as a speculative philosopher): it pretends to be a journalistic first-hand account of a few weeks in June in the last decade of the 19th century, from the first intimations of activity on Mars to the arrival of the supposed vanguard of a colonising force, the devastation of the hub of a global empire, and finally the defeat of the aggressors by the humblest of terrestrial allies, microbes.

Yet Wells is also having fun with his apocalyptic scenario as described by his unreliable narrator, and even while he includes scenes of horror and of wanton destruction and death he’s alert to his story’s satiric impact.

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Twenty-one books

Ursula K Le Guin 1929-2018

There’s a meme going around under the heading of 21 books in 2021 — and I’m very tempted to adapt it for my own purposes as yet another prompt to guide my reading. I’ve already decided on a number of other prompts to take me month by month (or season by season) through the year, so you’d think I’d have enough by now to get on with. So did I until an anniversary hoved into view.

Today marks three years since the untimely death of Ursula Le Guin and I’ve realised that I have one of my periodic yearnings to revisit her worlds. I’ve therefore been trying to decide whether to reread one of her novels (as I did recently with Orsinian Tales and Rocannon’s World) or to tackle a title new to me (such as Malafrena, The Eye of the Heron or Four Ways to Forgiveness). Or indeed whether to go for both options.

And then I thought of how I might in fact use this meme: in amongst all my other prompts I’d not calculated how to create space on my bookshelves for any new tomes, so why not formulate my own twist for this twelvemonth, when lockdown has knocked down any physical bookshop browsing? I present to you … 21 TBR Books in 2021.

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A bold but misguided exercise

King Arthur: engraving based on a 1874 photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron

King Arthur: The Truth Behind the Legend
by Rodney Castleden.
Routledge 1999

Rodney Castleden is well known as an investigator into prehistoric enigmas such as the Minoan civilisation, Neolithic Britons and giant hill figures, and has here turned his attention to Arthur. As expected, this is a widely researched book burrowing into scholarly literature, archaeological reports, fringe theories and texts both ancient and modern. There are photos of relevant sites and a generous helping of detailed maps, plans and figures mostly by the author himself (though, disappointingly, three illustrations by the present reviewer are uncredited and unacknowledged) and the whole is attractively laid out. There are a few typos, some of which didn’t seem to have been corrected for the paperback edition, but these don’t detract too much.

After setting the scene Castleden plunges into an examination of the nature of the available early documentation and what is known of the archaeology of post-Roman Britain; he then outlines the historical context before turning his gaze on the man himself, his possible power bases and his disappearance.

It won’t be giving too much away to say that he plumps for a West Country setting for Arthur, but that he places his demise and burial far away from Glastonbury and not at any of the expected sites.

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Wolfish Chronicles

Thomas Bewick, The Wolf

Following a review of Joan Aiken’s Cold Shoulder Road — the first of a series of discussion posts about this entry in the Wolves Chronicles — but before concluding with an examination of the very last chronicle of all, The Witch of Clatteringshaws, I want to do an overview of the series.

Long term followers of my posts will be well aware of my obsession with the Wolves Chronicles, for far too long an underrated sequence which, I think, deserves as much love and attention as, say, C S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, J K Rowling’s Harry Potter stories or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.

Unless you’ve sampled these often complex yet diverting novels for yourself it may be hard to work up enthusiasm for them, and I can understand why my in-depth explorations of people, places, timelines and themes in the dozen or so titles attracts little comment or interest when I’ve posted about them. (It’s me, not you!)

But if you were to at least try the first three or five titles you might start to understand why they are special and, perhaps, hopefully, may even be persuaded to try some more. In which case this post is an attempt to provide the bare bones of where to start and where to go on next.

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Now, and then

River scene (engraving by Thomas Bewick)

The River at Green Knowe
by Lucy M Boston,
illustrated by Peter Boston.
Odyssey / Harcourt Young Classics 2002 (1959)

A prosaic reader might say this is a story about three children who spend an idyllic summer at a mansion in Cambridgeshire mostly messing about on the river, and in this they wouldn’t be wrong. But this is no ordinary mansion, these are no ordinary children, and this is no ordinary river: this is Green Knowe, and these are children alive to imaginative possibilities, and this is a river where those possibilities can come true.

Mrs Oldknow, who owns the ancient Manor House of Green Knowe, has let it out for the summer to the distinguished archaeologist Dr Maud Biggin and her friend, the homely Miss Sybilla Bun. Dr Biggin promptly decides to invite her great-niece Ida and two refugee boys called Oskar and Hsu to stay for the holidays.

Ida (11), affectionately called Midget, along with Oskar Stanislawsky from Poland (also 11) and Hsu, known as Ping, who’s from China, happily get on well together and, left to their own devices, get on with enjoying lazy days and stealthy nights exploring and mapping the river. This being Green Knowe the trio soon find there is unexpected natural magic around every corner.

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Betwixt and between

Simurgh

East, West by Salman Rushdie.
Vintage 1995 (1994)

“East, West, home’s best.” — 19th-century proverb *

If one has a foot in two regions where then is home? In these nine short stories — three published for the first time in this collection — Salman Rushdie explores the disorientation that some experience when cultures collide.

These aren’t polemical essays, however, but character studies, thumbnail sketches which allow us insights into individual lives with all their comforts and dilemmas, and as such are a joy to read. They include vignettes, parodies, fables and mini-tragedies, each item with an independent life but all linked by themes, imagination and wit.

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Stories I know to be true

Some editions of Marie de France’s lais

The Lais of Marie de France,
introduction by Keith Busby,
translated by Glyn S. Burgess.
Penguin Classics 1999 (1986)

The editor and translator of Marie’s lais, leading scholars in the field of medieval French literature, have in the best tradition of Penguin Classics aimed to make their subject accessible to the general public. Translating a foreign text, especially a poetic text, is always full of difficulties, but luckily Marie’s poems, simple in expression and apparently without artifice, speak as well in translation as in the original.

A comparison with the pseudo-medieval version served up by Eugene Mason in the early 20th century is revealing for not only how tastes have changed but how many liberties were taken then with the text. For example, where Mason has Marie addressing critics with “Now let the japer, and the smiler with his knife, do me what harm they may. Verily they are in their right to speak ill of me,” Burgess offers us “But just because spiteful tittle-tattlers attempt to find fault with me I do not intend to give up. They have a right to make slanderous remarks.”

The original text mentions jongleur, or entertainer, and losengier, a flatterer or liar, and I think Burgess gets closer to what the poet intended with her simpler phraseology, which might now be rendered as “it’s their right to badmouth me!”

Nel vueil mie pur ceo laissier, | se jangleür u losengier | le me vuelent a mal turner; | ceo est lur dreiz de mesparler.

For convenience the 1999 edition prints three of Marie’s shorter lais in their original French, and anybody with even just a smattering of the language can follow the gist of the tales and see how accessible the translator has made them.

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Present tensed

Text to image: https://experiments.runwayml.com/generative_engine/

Do you remember those gauche reports you or your fellow pupils may have written about a school trip or what you did during the holidays? You know, the kind that went First we did this and then I did that and then my friend said this and then…? One thing followed by another with no real sense of direction or purpose and an absolute anticlimax when it all comes to an end: And then we went home.

That’s the feeling I have about some novels, accounts that leave me frustrated and tense, like those seemingly never-ending dreams from which you emerge restless, as if from some randomly edited student movie, thinking What was that all about?

Those narratives nearly all have one thing in common, a factor which leads me to put them aside pro tem or maybe in aeternum. That common factor is the historic present tense. And that’s exactly what it makes me: tense.

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Mums and kids

Shingle beach overlooking the English Channel, Dungeness © C A Lovegrove

Cold Shoulder Road
by Joan Aiken.
Red Fox Books 1996 (1995)

Mums and kids better stick together
Hang in there whatever the weather
Hold in a chain that none can break
Hold together for the future’s sake …

The sequel to Is (US: Is Underground) is another of Joan Aiken’s unputdownable novels in her Wolves Chronicles. The villains are as villainish as ever, with few redeeming features, the young (and not-so-young) protagonists are regularly scrobbled, and much of the fairytale action which would normally be regarded as implausible acquires a degree of reality through Aiken’s powerful storytelling.

Rich in details, the novel dovetails chronologically into the rest of the series but can be enjoyed—just about—as a standalone. Most of the action takes place in Kent, along the coast from Aiken’s beloved Sussex, but in Aiken’s usual timeframe where the 1830s and early 1840s are not quite as the history we are more familiar with.

Young Is Twite, fresh from saving child miners from drowning when a tsunami caused by the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Hekla floods their undersea coal mine, comes south with her newfound cousin Arun to his hometown of Folkestone in Kent in a bid to reunite with his widowed mother Ruth. But, true to the ways of this alternative world, nothing is straightforward; and heartache, danger, villainy and death will be experienced before natural justice reassert itself.

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The best-laid plans

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

Each year recently I’ve resolved to either eschew reading challenges altogether or make them manageable by calling them goals or wishes. And each year I find myself sorely tempted by shiny new-to-me memes.

It will surprise none of you that 2021 seems to be the same old same old. In 2016 I succeeded in completing the quantity of books I’d aimed (in the Goodreads Reading Challenge) for by year’s end simply by underestimating the number I was certain to finish, and that’s continued to be the case for five years. But other goals have been more elusive: the fifty titles I listed to be ticked off for the Classics Club challenge ending 2020 remained unachieved, even though I changed some of my choices.

So, Twenty-Twenty-one, how goes it?

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Twelve classics

Karen (who blogs at Karen’s Books and Chocolate) is again hosting the Back to the Classics Challenge, a year-long challenge in which participants are encouraged to finally read the classics they’ve always meant to read — or just recently discovered. “At the end of the year, one lucky winner will receive a prize of thirty US dollars in books from the bookstore of their choice.”

Karen asks readers to read from twelve categories in 2021. She offers one entry to the prize to anyone who reads from six categories, two entries to a reader from nine categories, and three entries to a reader from all twelve categories. Now while I’m not too fussed about the prize (I’m already hemmed in by surplus books, despite my credo that ‘you can never have too many books‘) I do like the look of the options; and much as I keep repeating that I don’t ‘do’ reading challenges, I think I can manage the categories from titles I already have on my shelves.

And as I have yet to complete the list of fifty titles for Classics Club which I originally committed to finish by 31st December 2020 (I’ve extended the challenge to the end of 2021) most of my Back to the Classics list will be drawn from there.

Here are the categories for 2021, with my choices:

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Wise but not preachy

Image of laboratory mouse by Pixabay (Pexels)

Flowers for Algernon
by Daniel Keyes.
SF Masterworks, Gollancz 2000 (1966)

We all want you to remember that you got friends here and dont you ever forget it. I said thanks Gimpy. That makes me feel good.

Its good to have friends . . .

This SF classic has lost none of its power in the sixty-odd years since its first incarnation as an award-winning short story, followed a few years later by this novel, before being adapted for television and film. Knowing that some of the science of its ‘hard SF’ approach may have dated badly I approached it with some trepidation, but I needn’t have worried because the science really was incidental to the psychological and moral aspects of this absorbing tale.

Charlie Gordon’s story, told as a series of self-penned progress reports, may form a perfect bell curve in its year-long trajectory, but rather than simply seeing its progress as triumph followed by tragedy one could argue that it works as a meditation on what constitutes the essence of being human. Whether or not Flowers for Algernon was deliberately planned to echo certain other literary classics it does share their lofty themes and ideals, posing some universal questions which continue to linger in my mind.

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The Walrus said

Andrew Morton Books, Lion Yard, Brecon

‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
To talk of many things…

But mostly books

We all know how this year has gone — what can I usefully add to what has already been said, and experienced, and suffered by so many? — so let me here consider positive things, like reading and stuff.

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2020 in books

A selection of the 80+ titles I was able to choose from

Thanks to Annabel‘s example I’m posting my version of this alternative view of my year in the world of literature.

Using only books you have read in 2020, answer these prompts. Try not to repeat a book title.

Luckily I had quite a range of completed books to choose from, more than eighty! Links in the titles will take you to my reviews. Disclaimer: Not all the statements are true…

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