Alice in Hinterland

Exploring
Exploring the world of ideas through books

In my head I think of this as a book review blog, and that’s what I tend to call it. But of course it turns out to be much more than that. If there’s ever any suspicion that ‘book review blog’ is a misleading description I have only to look at a few other fellow bloggers who feel equally free to roam widely while still under the banner of bibliocritic. (Hmm, is there such a word?)

No apologies then for apparently masquerading under false colours! What I do stand by is my aim of exploring the world of ideas through books. You may well have noticed that my reviews seldom consist of like/dislike statements or — heaven forbid — star ratings, or lengthy plot summaries or lists of dramatis personae — not that there’s anything wrong with all that. No, I tend instead to waffle on at length about, say, the significance of names or a novel’s similarity to a folktale, or elaborate on author’s jokes or their philosophical viewpoint, or sometimes all of these at the same time. Occasionally I may even seem for long stretches to forget to refer to the novel at all!

This is what I mean by exploring: Continue reading “Alice in Hinterland”

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Slow and stately

Pavane
Pavane, “The Dance in the Garden” Early 16th-century illumination from Roman de la Rose, Toulouse, British Library Harley MS 4425, fol. 14v http://www.britanynica.com/media/full/6868

Keith Roberts Pavane Victor Gollancz 1995 (1968)

On a warm July evening of the year 1588, in the royal palace of Greenwich, London, a woman lay dying, an assassin’s bullet lodged in abdomen and chest. Her face was lined, her teeth blackened, and death lent her no dignity; but her last breath started echoes that ran out to shake a hemisphere. For the Faery Queen, Elizabeth the First, paramount ruler of England, was no more…

In between a degree in Music and, amongst other things, playing in an electric folk band I sang lute songs. Not very well, I must add, but accompanied very ably by a lutenist and a bass viol player. Rather than being seen as art songs these airs — by Campion, Morley, Dowland and others — telling of love and woe and of paganism and nature must have displayed a clear kinship with the traditional airs and folk themes normally sung in the club, and seemed to go down well despite my artless renditions.

One of the best known of John Dowland’s collection of airs called Lachrime (‘Tears’) is the heart-rending ‘Flow My Teares’ from his Second Booke of Songs or Ayres of 1600. It is in the form of a pavane, a slow and stately dance of the period, the sections structured here as AABBC (where C is the coda or tailpiece and A and B contrasting melodies). Whether Keith Roberts intended it so or not, it’s possible to use Dowland’s words as a counterpoint to Roberts’ narrative, and that’s what I intend to do.

But first, the Prologue…

Continue reading “Slow and stately”

A Breve History of Time

CredoPlainsong
The Credo as plainchant in neum notation; the C on the second line down represents the position of note C, and the lower case ‘b’s or flats indicate that the Credo is in what we’d call the key of F

Wanderings among Words 3: Time

Plaisir d’amour ne dure qu’un moment,
Chagrin d’amour dure toute la vie.
— Words by Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian (1784), music by Jean-Paul-Égide Martini

In the dim and distant past I sang plainchant. When Latin was the lingua franca for the Catholic Church my school would congregate on high days and holidays to massacre Gregorian chant. Then along came the Vatican Council in the 1960s, vernacular tongues were after nearly two millennia now allowed in Catholic rituals — and plainchant went out the stained glass window. Protestant hymns became more acceptable in services, and in time songs which some call happy-clappy (‘happy-crappy’ according to cynics) came creeping in.

I must admit as a schoolboy I was never much an admirer of plainchant: throughout practices and services I usually had to stifle yawns. Though musically literate I found the old notational conventions bizarre by modern standards, particularly over how long notes needed to be held for — however did any one know how long to hold a note? One of the few conventions seemed to be that a note with a dot after it had to be held a little bit longer.

I knew where I was with modern notation. Semibreves, minims, crotchets — they all made sense to me, having had them drummed into my head from the age of five. It wasn’t till I began to teach music as an adult that I realised that these words made as much sense as calling them Fred or Mary or Voldemort. (Maybe not the latter.) So here’s what I pieced together after some research and the application of guesswork masquerading as logic.

Continue reading “A Breve History of Time”

Making tracks

tracks

China Miéville Railsea Pan Books 2013 (2012)

Imagine a world covered in railway tracks, the occasional settlement sticking out like an island in the ocean. This is the Railsea, a non-aquatic environment sailed by merchants, pirates, navies,hunters, explorers and scavengers in trains of every size and shape, powered by every means of locomotion you can imagine. China Miéville’s collision of steampunk and dystopia has the young hero, Sham ap Soorap and a pair of siblings — orphans all — off on quests to find the answers to secrets that beset them, holy grails that reveal either whether a mythical goal is real or the truth behind the disappearance of their birth parents. Could it be that both quests are destined to converge onto the same single track?

Continue reading “Making tracks”

All in the cards

Queen of Hearts card

Anne Spillard The Cartomancer Pan Books 1989 (1987)

It’s odd how, re-reading this twenty-five years later, I find that I recall neither characters nor plot from that first reading other than that the narrator tells people’s fortunes from an ordinary deck of cards. That and the fact that there are a few obscure Arthurian references thrown in. This second rather more careful reading reveals there is a little more subtlety than at first appears from a cursory perusal, making it more satisfactory yet, curiously, curiouser.

Continue reading “All in the cards”

Perusing progress

2016 reading challenge
2016 Reading Challenge posted by Goodwill Librarian on Facebook

Well, we’re way past the halfway mark of 2016, a year that so far has appeared more an annus horribilis than an annus mirabilis. But thank goodness we have the benefit of books and the leisure to peruse them: the consolation of reading helps mitigate some of the universal depression over world events that hangs over many of us like a pall of smoke.

This is a good point at which to pause and see how I’m getting on with my various Reading Wishlists. Hmm, not brilliantly. So far with re-reads I’ve only begun Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, though I’ve managed the odd other reread (three in fact, listed below). With my Reading New England challenge I’ve managed … one book. Where non-fiction and classics and standalone fiction are concerned I’m making a little more progress. And I’m steadily filling up my alphabetical list of authors whose last names begin with each of the letters of the alphabet.

I’ve only just come across Goodwill Librarian‘s 2016 Reading Challenge on Facebook. It’s nowhere near as long as the 50-odd challenges from last year that I attempted, but I reckon I’ve a good chance to cover this with what I’ve already read and what I hope to read in the coming months without making any extra effort. So I’m not, as far as I can see, making myself a rod for my own back; though looking at the actual options I suspect that they may be angled towards less voracious and less omnivorous readers.

Here, for what it’s worth, is my current 2016 tally (feel free to skip this list):
Continue reading “Perusing progress”

“Rook, read from your book”

Bodleian crow
Crow, from an illuminated manuscript in the Bodleian Library

Mark Cocker Crow Country:
a Meditation on Birds, Landscape and Nature

Vintage 2016 (2007)

A long ellipse of shapes, ragged and playful, strung out across the valley for perhaps half a kilometre, rides the uplift from the north wind directly towards my location. The birds, rooks and jackdaws heading to their evening roost, don’t materialise gradually — a vague blur slowly taking shape — they tunnel into view as if suddenly breaking through a membrane. One moment they aren’t visible. Then they are, and I track their course to the great skirt of stubble flowing down below me …

A short paragraph from near the beginning of this ‘meditation’ includes much of what I loved about this book: the prose poetry in the language, the evocation of a moment in time and the willingness to share a worthy obsession. Mark Cocker describes himself as author, naturalist and environmental activist (in that order) but I liked the way he melded all those roles into a seamless whole in producing the eighteen chapters of this book. There’s some autobiography here, there’s also travel writing, science, historical perspective, literary allusions, potted biographies of contemporaries and predecessors who have laboured in this field. And yet he wears much of this learning and experience lightly, inviting the reader into the warm glow of campfire anecdotes mingling with facts and figures.

Continue reading ““Rook, read from your book””