Feeling festive

Crick-Lit-Fest-Logo-black

The second Crickhowell Literary Festival takes place October 1st-9th and, because I shall be stewarding for many of the events, blogging will be rather sporadic during this time. Be prepared for the odd repost of reviews you may have missed!

The festival is jointly sponsored by local hostelry The Dragon Inn, a Grade II listed coaching inn dating from the late 1500s, Book·ish, Crickhowell’s jewel of a bookshop, voted Best Independent Bookshop in Wales and the Midlands in the 2016 British Book Industry Awards, and a number of other local initiatives. The sixty-plus events will highlight a number of authors, feature workshops and film screenings, and include literary dinners and book clubs.

Crickhowell Literary Festival: http://cricklitfest.co.uk
Book·ish Bookshop, Crickhowell: http://www.book-ish.co.uk/

Of people and pink whales

19th-century whaler
19th-century whaler attacking a Right Whale around 1860 (public domain)

Joan Aiken’s Night Birds on Nantucket is the second of the Wolves Chronicles to feature the irrepressible Dido Twite and, as is becoming increasingly apparent, features more and more of the author’s virtuoso play with themes, scenarios and words, not to mention sheer fun! This post follows the pattern of my previous responses to the series with a discussion of particular (and often peculiar) aspects of the volume already reviewed. As always, spoilers follow …

Continue reading “Of people and pink whales”

Fact and fiction

Robinson Crusoe, from the first edition 1719
Robinson Crusoe, from the first edition 1719; Defoe’s novel is partly based on the life of Alexander Selkirk, marooned from 1704 to 1709

Robert Carse The Castaways:
A Narrative History of Some Survivors from the Dangers of the Sea

Ronald Whiting & Wheaton 1967 (1966)

I don’t usually start reviews with a biographical note, but since I knew nothing about Robert Carse I felt it was only fair to find out what constrained him to write this rather curious narrative history. I discovered that he was a pulp fiction author whose first effort was published in 1928, with stories appearing frequently in Argosy magazine and The Saturday Evening Post. Born in 1902 (he died in 1971) he became a sailor on the Great Lakes at seventeen, later becoming chief mate at sea. Having extensively sailed the world’s ocean he then embarked on a career as a maritime historian: it’s said that Carse claimed to have spent half of his life on water, and must have spent the other half writing about it, some of his work drawing on his experiences as a merchant seaman during the war.

With a back catalogue of short stories, serials, articles and books, both fiction and non-fiction, Carse’s output was aimed variously at children and adults. Thus The Castaways could as easily appeal to young adults as to older readers. His nine chapters include nine men who went ashore in foreign parts and one woman, and they include stories ranging from the Tudor period to the 19th century. With such a wide experience of seafaring and of being published Carse should have come up with a Narrative History that both impresses and convinces. But I found that this was a tantalising and not totally satisfying read.

Continue reading “Fact and fiction”

A very serious matter

old books

Mark Forsyth The Unknown Unknown:
bookshops and the delight of not getting what you wanted

Icon Books 2014

As Donald Rumsfeld, the former Secretary of Defense in the Bush administration declared — and I paraphrase —
1. There are known knowns: things we know that we know.
2. There are known unknowns: things we now know that we don’t know.
3. There are unknown unknowns: things we do not know that we don’t know.

On the basis of the last category Mark Forsyth, author of The Etymologicon, has penned this 24-page essay, here published as a booklet, on the delights of lighting on books you had no idea existed. He declares early that there are “books that I’ve never heard of; and, because I’ve never heard of them, I’ve no idea that I haven’t read them.” He’s read Great Expectations: that’s a category 1 book, a known known. He hasn’t read War and Peace, so that’s category 2, a known unknown. And, though he’d love to name some books that he hasn’t heard of, he can’t — because he’s never heard of them. They’re the unknown unknowns of the title.

Continue reading “A very serious matter”

A youngster’s reading list

Scilla in the Banzoota school library
‘Scilla in the Banzoota school library’ by Quentin Blake in Joan Aiken’s The Winter Sleepwalker

In an ongoing discussion on Goodreads which began a few years ago one reader noted that one of Diana Wynne Jones’ novels — Fire and Hemlock — “mentions a number of books that DWJ probably liked herself.” This noted children’s author, as many authors do, had included quite a few semi-autobiographical details in her fiction; and in Fire and Hemlock one character, Tom, lends or recommends a number of titles to the young Polly. They’re all intended to obliquely reference traditional ballads like Tam Lin, which is about a human rescued from the Queen of the Fairies by his own true love.

In a review of Fire and Hemlock which I posted both here and on Goodreads I agreed: “Jones’ book references — quite apart from their relevance to the plot (as when Tom insists that Polly reads the book on fairy tales he has sent her) — must be a good indicator of Diana’s own childhood and student reading matter …

Continue reading “A youngster’s reading list”

Guffaws galore

Attribution: Madmaxmarchhare at English Wikipedia
Attribution: Madmaxmarchhare at English Wikipedia

Sebastian Faulks Pistache
Hutchinson 2006

You might expect, from the title, that this is a culinary offering from the award-winning novelist, but you’d be wrong. The dustcover informs us that this is

A COLLECTION of FANCIFUL, SATIRICAL and SURPRISING parodies, squibs and pastiches inspired by THE WRITE STUFF on RADIO 4

and so it turns out to be. The whole text of over 100 pages is essentially tongue-in-cheek, from the purported etymology of pistache (“a friendly spoof or parody of another’s work” from a possible “cross between pastiche and p**stake”) to its invented author biography (“born in Vilnius in 1969 … educated by Russian monks … His most recent book … runner-up in the Watney-Mann Bookend of Longlists”). He was — and still is — a team captain on BBC Radio 4’s lighthearted quiz The Write Stuff, proclaimed as the station’s “game of literary correctness”. Each weekly programme features an author of the week, in whose style panelists are asked to write a parody on a given theme; I’ve caught the odd broadcast over the years but to my chagrin have never been a regular listener. Was this collection of broadcast pistaches all that it was cracked up to be?

Continue reading “Guffaws galore”

Strange wistfulness

vellichor
One in a series of Word of the Week outside Book·ish bookshop, Crickhowell

Book·ish, my local bookshop, has been highlighting a Word of the Week for the last few weeks, and among those featured has been

hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia

— which ironically (or probably deliberately) means “the fear of long words”. The online Urban Dictionary tells us that “sesquippedalio” relates to long words while “phobia” is an irrational fear. As for “hippopoto” and “monstro” (which are derived from hippopotamus and monster) they’re both included to exaggerate the length of the word. If such elongations are not your thing then perhaps the synonym sesquippedaliophobia (which means exactly the same thing) will easily substitute.

Another word featured is one I suggestedabibliophobia, or the fear of having no books to read. I also have high hopes of them including one of my recent neologisms, selidodeiktology, which you may remember is the study of bookmarks.

In the meantime a recent-ish meme has found its way onto their noticeboard. This is vellichor, as defined by — and possibly invented by — the online Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows as

the strange wistfulness of used bookstores, which are somehow infused with the passage of time—filled with thousands of old books you’ll never have time to read, each of which is itself locked in its own era, bound and dated and papered over like an old room the author abandoned years ago, a hidden annex littered with thoughts left just as they were on the day they were captured.

The pedant in me assumes that what is meant by a “used bookstore” is actually a shop containing many used (that is, secondhand) books, though the Dictionary definition could equally mean a bookstore that is well frequented. Perhaps both are implied. But no matter; more interesting to my mind is, whence this concoction?

WorldWideWords.org suggests that it is a compound of ichor and vellum. “The former is the stuff that was said to flow in the veins of the Greek gods in place of blood,” while the latter refers of course to parchment made from calfskin, such as was used in medieval manuscripts. “For lovers of books, there is nothing more distinctive and melancholy than the sight and smell of old books, redolent of dust and decayed hopes.” They add that the term deserves to be more widely known — so here I am trying to spread the word, though I’ve no idea in what context I’m next likely to use it.

Anyway, all this is a preamble to my lauding of Book·ish which — wouldn’t you know — is hosting the second Crickhowell Literary Festival, or CrickLitFest for short. This year sixty-four events are being staged over nine days, from October 1st to October 9th, featuring talks, literary dinners, workshops, children’s events, film showings and other delights. As festival directors Emma Corfield-Waters and Anne Rowe write, a recent Saturday edition of The Times made reference to Crickhowell’s ‘renowned Literary Festival’ which had, at that point, had only one outing, its inaugural appearance! CrickLit aims again to focus — though not exclusively — on Welsh connections such as authors (like its new President, Owen Sheers) and topics (history, culture and, of course, rugby), but anniversaries such as the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s death, the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth and the centenary of the Battle of the Somme will all also be commemorated.

Clearly this is intended as not just a nine day wonder to be forgotten once it is over but a celebration of books and writers that will resonate until at least the third festival in 2017. May that strange wistfulness that envelops well-used bookstores continue well into the future!

500-posts
My latest milestone, as advised by WordPress …

 

Globetrotting with Dido

sarah-casket-chartIn a previous post I mentioned that in Night Birds on Nantucket our young heroine Dido Twite would go a-voyaging from her native London all around the world. In this, the third instalment of the Wolves Chronicles, she manages to cross the equator four times — though two of those occasions were while in a coma. In this post I intend to look at the places visited by Dido, while further posts will focus on people, themes and Dido’s use of language.

Continue reading “Globetrotting with Dido”

And what exactly is selidodeiktology?

Book spine bookmarks (http://wp.me/p31N1m-3g)
Book spine bookmarks (http://wp.me/p31N1m-3g)

You may recall I’ve been trying to come up with an acceptable term for the study or collecting of bookmarks. I’ve already suggested aestelology and philaestely, and the consensus from my poll is that the former is the favourite. I invited alternatives, and one suggestion was libellumprohibere, from two Latin words meaning ‘book’ and ‘to stop, keep or preserve’.

But I neglected to look further afield, having restricted my search to just one rare Anglo-Saxon word for an object pointing to words, an æstel; my oft-vaunted Europhile credentials were, for a start, sadly not in evidence. So let me remedy that now with some further thoughts.

Continue reading “And what exactly is selidodeiktology?”

Blow me, it’s Dido again!

J T Marston's Cannon, from Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon
J T Marston’s Cannon, from Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (1865)

Joan Aiken Night Birds on Nantucket Puffin 1969 (1966)

Writing a successful novel is sometimes a little like inventing a recipe for a special dish. Take a dash of Jules Verne, add essence of Charles Dickens, several pinches of Herman Melville and season with adventure. Would that it was as simple as that. What you need is the main ingredient, the protein in the dish, and in Night Birds on Nantucket that is provided by the indomitable figure of Dido Twite.

When we last saw Dido she’d been lost at sea somewhere off the northeast coast of England, presumed dead. That was December, 1833. It is now ten months later, and the poor lass has lain in a coma after having been picked up by the whaler Sarah Casket. Like an amalgamation of Snow White and Moby Dick‘s Ishmael she is found in a wooden straw-filled coffin-like box on the other side of the world, north of East Cape on the Russian side of the Bering Straits (the East Cape — Cape Dezhnev since 1898 — was then popular with whalers). She has been looked after by young Nate Pardon all the while, and when she finally awakens it is to find it could be months before she is in a position to head back to England. And while she waits she finds that those on board the Sarah Casket are a very strange bunch indeed.

Continue reading “Blow me, it’s Dido again!”

The Phoenix and the Fossil

archaeopteryx
Source: Florida Center for Instructional Technology http://fcit.usf.edu/

Phoenix-like, from stone
it rises, wings raised, renewed,
the stuff of legend

Paul Chambers
Bones of Contention: The Archaeopteryx Scandals
John Murray Publishers Ltd 2002

A few years ago I had a notion about the legend of the grail as it appeared in medieval Germany. The Bavarian poet Wolfram von Eschenbach described the grail (grâl or graal he called it) by the strange term lapsit exillis, by which he meant a stone rather than the more familiar dish or chalice. Wolfram has his own conceit about this object:

By the power of that stone the phoenix burns to ashes, but the ashes give him life again. Thus does the phoenix [moult] and change its plumage, which afterwards is bright and shining and as lovely as before.*

When reading this I had a sudden vision of the deceased phoenix on its stone as an archaeopteryx fossil, the first of which had been discovered in Bavaria in the middle of the nineteenth century. Checking the map I later discovered that Wolfram’s home town, now re-named Wolframs-Eschenbach in his honour, is not that far distant from the Altmühltal, a river valley where the limestone quarries that first revealed these winged and feathered creatures are situated. Was it possible that this medieval poet had seen a now vanished archaeopteryx fossil, that it too reminded him of the legend of the phoenix, and that he subsequently co-opted that legend for his version of the wondrous quest object?

I included this notion in a short story I wrote, and passed the hypothesis by the odd mildly intrigued expert, but it remains mere speculation, however much I’d like to believe it may be true. And there it stayed until this account of archaeopteryx (from the Greek for ‘ancient’ and ‘wing’) by palaeontologist Paul Chambers started me wondering about it again. Continue reading “The Phoenix and the Fossil”

Aestelology, anyone?

King_Alfred’s_Jewel
The Alfred Jewel, now in the Ashmolean Museum, from Dresses and Decorations of the Middle Ages by Henry Shaw, 1843 (public domain)

The world is filled with magpie minds and natures. You name anything that has the whiff of the mass-produced and there’ll be someone, societies even, collecting it enthusiastically. I was encouraged to collect stamps when I was a kid, steaming used ones off envelopes, affixing them to gridded album pages with special adhesive tabs. Many of them ended up stuck to a papier mâché tray I’d made and varnished over. I also had a thing about matchbox labels — Bryant & May’s designs for England’s Glory and Ship labels varied a lot, I seem to remember. Then there were the coins that my father collected from countries around the South China Seas — I’ve still got a box of them somewhere. I could go on …

But I digress. I’ve already posted about bookmarks, those simple devices for keeping the page reached when there’s a pause in reading a book; it so happens that three of the bookmarks I’m currently using advertise independent bookshops. One is for Seaways Bookshop in Fishguard, Pembrokeshire: it features a stylised lighthouse designed by Sarah Earl — referencing the nearby beacon on Strumble Head — and is mostly bilingual (for example ‘bookshop’ is siop lyfrau in Welsh). The second bookmark is from The Hours Café & Bookshop in Brecon, Powys, with an Art Deco logo and an extract from a laudatory Guardian review, which reads in full:

Continue reading “Aestelology, anyone?”

The sea all day

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c.1555 (oil on canvas) after Bruegel, Pieter the Elder (Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels)
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c.1555 (oil on canvas) after Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels)

Julia Rochester The House at the Edge of the World
Penguin 2016 (2015)

A man falls from a high point into the sea and is lost. I am reminded of the myth of Icarus, the son of Daedalus, who on his way to freedom flew too close to the sun so that its heat melted the wax holding together the feathers of his artificial wings and he fell from the heavens. Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting on this subject famously shows his fall as unnoticed by ordinary people such as a ploughman, a shepherd and an angler.

But when John Venton falls off a cliff somewhere facing the North Atlantic on the southwestern peninsula of England his absence is very definitely noticed by his family — by his wife Valerie, by his twin children Morwenna and Corwin, by his father Matthew — and by his friend Bob, who was too drunk at the time to notice what happened. The impact that this disappearance (no body is ever found) has on the evidently dysfunctional family is far-reaching, stretching years into the future; and the time comes when the twins, who were of school-leaving age when their father disappeared, start to question the received wisdom.

Continue reading “The sea all day”

Triumphing over unbelievable odds

Wolves original
Bonnie Green: the first draft of what became The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (https://joanaiken.wordpress.com/2016/09/01/wolves-the-beginning/)

August 24th 1953. I’ve just had my fifth birthday and the family are preparing to up sticks from Bristol in the West Country back to Hong Kong on the other side of the world; here I will spend the next five years, having already spent three years previously on Kowloon, that peninsula pointing like a finger to the island that was once a Crown Colony.

September 4th 1953. On her twenty-ninth birthday Joan Aiken installs an old table in a corner of her bedroom in Kent, and sits down to write the first chapter of her projected novel Bonnie Green in an old exercise book.

“Now at last I can write my book, and make it the most marvellous adventure ever!  I can fill it with all my favourite things – not just one dreadful villain but a whole pack of them; castles and dungeons, banquets and ballrooms, shipwrecks and secret passages, and above all – indefatigable orphans facing unbelievable odds and triumphing over it all!”

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Choices

mirepoix labyrinth

Once I got the germ of an idea regarding this post I found myself umming and ahing about the title, ironic since it’s about post titles. Well it’ll be a mystery to me for much longer than it will be for you because — the gods willing — that’ll be the first thing you see, while I will be scratching my head until the remaining hairs fall out of their own accord.

Do you have problems deciding your title? Or does it come to you in a flash? Maybe the title comes first and you fit the content to it? Or perhaps you don’t bother with one at all, rebel that you may be? Here’s a little discourse on how I approach the issue, and I’ll be pleased to hear about your own modus operandi regarding these tricksy things.

Post titles function in the same way as book titles, don’t they. They may inform: this often applies to review blogs which give the book title and even helpfully add the word ‘review’; with photo blogs they may tell us what in the picture (sometimes in more than one language). They may intrigue with offbeat phrases or witty puns or challenging statements that stop you in your tracks. They may quote from the huge stock left us by literary giants, politicians or philosophers; preferably Shakespeare or the Bible but anything portentous will do. Best of all they will tap into a current meme to capitalise on public curiosity and the efficiency of search engines.

Continue reading “Choices”