New Year wishes

Shelfie

It’s at the tail end of the year that I look forward to what literary delights the coming year has in store for me, what my wishes are concerning books to be read and discussed.

I’ve already put up a retrospective post here detailing how I got on with the challenges and goals I’d set myself for 2019; now it’s time to see if, knowing what I’ve actually achieved this year, I intend to be as ambitious for 2020.

The answer turns out to be both “yes” and “no”.

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“It hath made me mad”

Here follow final thoughts on Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, certainly for 2019, and definitely for now on this blog. At this point I just want to say a few words for the woman with no real voice in the novel, Bertha Mason, the famous ‘madwoman in the attic’.

Of course, she doesn’t really reside in the attic; moreover, we’re not told the exact nature of her madness — neither do we hear her speak (she only laughs or snarls) nor is there someone to speak for her. Jean Rhys in 1966 famously attempted to do so, in Wide Sargasso Sea, though she changed the timeline somewhat to suit the purposes of her fiction. But it can’t really be argued that Rhys’ protagonist is the same as Charlotte’s Mrs Rochester, nor that this ‘prequel’ is fully compatible with the Victorian original.

Meanwhile, Brontë certainly knew the tale of Bluebeard, for she has Jane picture Rochester’s wife confined to Thornfield Hall’s third storey, along somewhere which is “like a corridor in some Bluebeard’s castle,” and — recalling the young Jane’s terror at being locked in the Red Room of Gateshead as a punishment — we can imagine how such imprisonment might impact on a particularly volatile individual such as Bertha Mason.

But the simile in the phrase “like a corridor in some Bluebeard’s castle” quietly signposts the fact that this is not a simple retelling of the fairytale; and that, despite the literary echoes, this is a vastly more complex narrative that works on several level, perhaps like the different storeys of Thornfield Hall.

Can we find Bertha anywhere in this literary labyrinth?

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Nearing journey’s end

Yay, it’s that time of year again when we glance back over twelve years of things mostly bookish, and I express heartfelt indebtedness to casual readers and followers alike for their likes, comments and even reblogs.

Meanwhile my Goodreads page tells me that I’ve achieved 135% of my 2019 reading goal, having completed 70 books compared to the planned 52. Not crowing or anything but I hope my commentaries have emphasised quality over quantity — especially as the shortest title is only eight pages long!

So, as with many of you fellow bloggers, we’ve at that point when we indulge in retrospection and reflection, the R & R of all dedicated readers. I don’t intend to bombard you with the full details of stats — I’ll leave the My Year in Books Goodreads page to do that — but I do beg your indulgence while I point out a few of my highlights.

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“Greed puts out the sun.”

Islands

Ursula Le Guin: The Other Wind
Orion Children’s Books 2002 (2001)

O my joy!
Before bright Ea was, before Segoy
Bade the islands be,
The morning wind blew on the sea.
O my joy, be free!

When Lebannen, king of all the isles of Earthsea, remembers this fragment of a ballad or lullaby from his childhood he is sailing on the Inland Sea. A storm has passed; whether it is the words, the tune or being on deck that has brought the words to mind matters less than that it is a leitmotif for this final novel in the Earthsea sequence, and perhaps for the whole sequence. It recalls a beginning and even an ending, for on the last page Tenar whispers the final words to Ged: O my joy, be free . . .

The Other Wind is, however one looks at it, the last novel in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea sequence: the collection Tales from Earthsea includes episodes which predate the events in this swansong instalment but these two books, along with Tehanu, form a balancing trilogy with the first three books which, the author came to recognise, gave a rather unbalanced worldview of her creation in terms of gender.

As Earthsea’s existence and survival is bound up with balance, it was only morally and poetically right for its Creator to follow the male-dominated first trilogy with a second reasserting female contribution; and if that involved if not retconning then at least establishing that the fulcrum of power on the Island of Roke was initiated by women as much as men justice could not only be done but seen to be done. And though some benighted erstwhile fans saw this somehow as too politically correct, to this reader at least Earthsea’s yin was finally complemented by its yang and Le Guin’s passion made manifest.

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Fierce wistfulness

Tove Jansson

Tove Jansson:
A Winter Book: selected stories
Sort of Books 2006

It seems that everybody who’s heard of Tove Jansson knows her as the author of a series of illustrated books about some Finnish trolls. Though I’ve yet to fall under their particular spell — and heaven knows enough people have urged me to — I’ve instead been captivated by her writing for adults.

My admiration began with the collection of short stories published in English as Art in Nature and continued with The Summer Book. Now, with the selection of pieces known as A Winter Book, I revisit some of the sense of wistfulness I’ve noted before, coupled with a fierce independence of spirit that permeates virtually every story.

Though there are references to ice and snow in some of the offerings, this alluring ragbag of writings (selected and introduced by writer Ali Smith) doesn’t deal exclusively with winter, but in a series of vignettes it does perfectly sum up that end of year feeling when one looks back to review what one’s life has accomplished and what it might all signify.

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Step by step

Durer’s Knight

Anne Wilson: The Magical Quest.
The Use of Magic in Arthurian Romance
Manchester University Press 1988

This book, though seeming of the mystical camp popular in the 70s and 80s, is rather more academic though nonetheless exciting for all that. It asks the question ‘Why are there so many apparent contradictions in medieval Arthurian romances?’

The answer is that the authors use traditional plots. And the rationale of these plots, like the closely-related fairytales, is that of a different order to that of so-called realistic novels. What, then is this rationale?

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A sense of entitlement

Troutmark Books, Castle Arcade, Cardiff

No, not a comment on certain politicians — my word, aren’t there a lot of candidates for this epithet at the moment! — but a lovely pot boiler of a prompt otherwise called ‘My Life in Books 2019’ which was passed on by Annabel:

Using only books you have read this year (2019), answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title.

  1. In high school I was—
  2. People might be surprised by—
  3. I will never be—
  4. My fantasy job is—
  5. At the end of a long day I need—
  6. I hate—
  7. Wish I had—
  8. My family reunions are—
  9. At a party you’d find me with—
  10. I’ve never been to—
  11. A happy day includes—
  12. Motto I live by:
  13. On my bucket list is—
  14. In my next life, I want to have—

Of course, this presupposes that like any assiduous bookworm you’ve actually read over fourteen books.

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Eyres and places

Constantin Héger: a model for Edward Rochester? Image credit: https://alchetron.com/Constantin-H%C3%A9ger

Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre has been the subject of much discussion and I won’t pretend that I’m going to add anything novel or groundbreaking to those conversations; all I can do is say what strikes me as interesting or enlightening, in the hope that you too may find it so — even if you disagree (in which case feel equally free to say so!).

In this rather long post I mainly want to talk about aspects of the novel’s central relationship, that between Jane and Rochester. I shall rely on points made by a study or two to structure my remarks but other observations will be largely mine. Are you ready? Then I shall begin!

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Comfort and joy

Erik Blegvad endpapers for The Winter Bear

Ruth Craft: The Winter Bear
Illustrated by Erik Blegvad
Collins Picture Lions 1976 (1974)

This is one of the most delightful of picture books for this time of year. A perfect blend of poetry and watercolour & ink illustrations, The Winter Bear tells the story of three children who set off for a brief brisk walk in the countryside as dusk and snow approach and discover something lodged, tatty and unloved, in some branches.

Retrieving it with difficulty they return home to render it presentable and something to be loved. As a mini-saga, a journey with a beginning, middle and end, it’s as beautiful a miniature to look at as well as to read aloud.

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Christmas delights

Above The Dardy, Llangattock, Crickhowell

We never had a Christmas in the country before. It was simply ripping…
— E Nesbit, New Treasure Seekers

Love it or loathe it, Christmas is coming. Even if modern Christmases are increasingly tawdry* (a perpetual cry, I’m sure) at least we have past literary Christmases to fall back on for a quantum of solace when modern commercialised Yuletides get too much to bear, when our childhood memories of more magical midwinters need reviving, when we want the traditional once-upon-a-time seasonal fare to give us reassurance and sustenance.

As you may have noticed, I recently reread and reviewed John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk as preparation for a readalong of his more familiar The Box of Delights for the Twitter readalong #DelightfulXmas.

I then took to wondering how children’s fantasy literature through the years has presented and evolved the seasonal theme; a few thoughts are offered here (links are mostly to my reviews).

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Tales within tales

The Sleep of Reason (Wikipedia Commons)
The Sleep of Reason (Wikipedia Commons)

Ursula K Le Guin
A Fisherman of the Inland Sea: Stories
Harper Perennial 2005

Ursula Le Guin is best known for her fantasy and her science fiction writings, though she also writes other fiction as well as poetry, articles and reviews. The short stories in this 1994 collection, while firmly in the SF genre, also demonstrate her ability to compose in various tones, from light to dark, from gentle humour to philosophical musings. Originally published in various periodicals between 1983 and 1994, the narratives are clearly placed in context by an excellent introduction in which she not only discusses the tales but also mounts a spirited defence of SF as a genre, a defence which twenty years on may be less urgent though no less valid or effective.

She explains that she experiments with SF by using the form to explore character and human relationships, rather than exploring the ‘scientism’ and elitist technocracies that much traditional ‘hard’ SF was associated with and which put off the unconverted. She also denies that SF (and by extension, I suspect, fantasy) is necessarily escapist; instead, by exploring human characteristics, even or especially in alien humanoids, she throws light on our own humanity, humaneness, human-ness; she focuses on the potential strengths of SF, most particularly on a quality that is not always attached to this genre: beauty.

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“Strange things”

‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1818) attributed to George Cruikshank (British Museum)

Presentments are strange things! and so are sympathies; and so are signs: and the three combined make one mystery to which humanity has not yet found the key. — Jane Eyre, II/6

The climax to Jane Eyre, as most readers know, comes with the narrator hearing Rochester’s voice calling “Jane! Jane! Jane!” though he is many miles distant, and he in turn hears her answering, “I am coming: wait for me.” And Charlotte Brontë has, if we are aware of it, given us plenty of hints that “strange things” are part and parcel of the novel, as this example from the second volume shows.

Presentments, sympathies, signs — what are we to make of these? Luckily Jane characterises them thus:

  • Presentiments are when impressions are anticipated in the form of a dream.
  • Sympathies can exist “between far-distant, long-absent, wholly estranged relatives.”
  • Signs, “for aught we know,” she writes, “may be but the sympathies of Nature with man.”

She has dreams about one child or another, which she recognises as symbolic; the sympathetic bond she has with Rochester — expressed as a cord joining their bodies — finds its fullest expression in their telepathic communication; and the chestnut tree riven by lightning (though surviving) is Nature’s sign of their imminent but temporary separation. Magic and the supernatural thoroughly suffuses the pages of this classic.

As a novel Jane Eyre is full of balances and correspondences, as I’ve alluded to in an earlier post, another such one being orphan Jane’s religious education by Helen Burns in Lowood Asylum — as occurs early on — being matched by Jane’s cousin St John’s evangelical zeal towards the end. Indeed, as we may expect from a perpetual curate’s daughter, the pages are increasingly peppered with biblical phrases and references.

But running parallel with plentiful Christian images we have a contrasting concentration on the supernatural, almost pagan, world or plane, and especially on Faërie and fairytales, notably in the central Thornfield section. As always with these discussion posts there will be spoilers galore, so desist from further perusal if you’d rather not have revelations!

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A doughty psychopomp

Martha Wells:
Emilie & the Hollow World
Strange Chemistry 2013

Having run away from her straitlaced relatives orphan stowaway Emilie has found that she is not on the conventional steamship she expected; instead she finds the vessel under attack, a gentleman who is part scales and part fur, and a totally unconventional voyage that takes her under the sea to unknown lands.

For this is a not your average Edwardian adventure tale of derring-do; this is a steampunk novel where Jules Verne meets Edgar Rice Burroughs or H G Wells hobnobs with Rider Haggard, and this is a world both like and yet unlike our own.

Because, as the title tells us, it is a planet where we discover a world within a world: the earth of this universe is hollow.

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Many a quaint craft

You may have seen many a quaint craft in your day, for aught I know;—square-toed luggers; mountainous Japanese junks; butter-box galliots, and what not; but take my word for it, you never saw such a rare old craft as this same rare old Pequod. She was a ship of the old school…

I’ve been in a typhoon in the South China Sea when returning to Hong Kong in a China Navigation vessel in the 1950s; and crossed the Bay of Biscay in a vomit-inducing gale on a so-called mini-cruise in October — to be sure, a notorious time of year for storms.

Contrast these violent passages with more forgettable ‘calm sea and prosperous’ voyages to Japan, the Philippines and Thailand in my pre-teens, or numerous uneventful cross-channel ferry journeys to France as an adult.

Sailings have featured in recent reads, and though I’ve disembarked from them I’m still aboard another; I’m hoping maybe you’ll be interested in hearing what was jotted down in the captain’s logs for these several sea passages.

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