2021 facts, figures and failures

The end of the bookblogging year is traditionally the time for graphs, diagrams and stats, so who am I to break the mould or trample on the template? But, honestly, who analyses other bloggers’ figures with a critical eye, does more than nod approval at big numbers or mutter more than consolatory noises when targets aren’t met?

So, yes, I shall be throwing the odd integer around, presenting the odd percentage and tantalising with what could have been but was not, but mainly I will be seeking to entertain, to lighten the mood as we hurtle towards the end of another tumultuous twelvemonth period.

And, of course, it’s all about the reading, and the books, and the pleasure.

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#Narniathon21: Through the door

Pauline Baynes

You will by now — I hope! — have completed your first (re)visit to Narnia for this #Narniathon21 event by reading and thinking about The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the first published title in the series of what’s variously become known as the Narniad or the Chronicles of Narnia.

As promised, I’m going to pose three general questions as a spur to your discussion in the comments section below, which you can either answer or ignore as you choose — though I hope you will have lots to say with or without my prompts!

My three questions will centre around three themes — magic, allegory, and character — but feel free to range beyond these if you so wish.

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Doing it for themselves

William Morris wallpaper design (detail)

‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and Other Stories
by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
Dover Thrift Editions, 1997 (1892-1914)

Seven extraordinary tales of what may almost be called ménages désenchaînées are collected here. The epithet ‘extraordinary’ is well deserved because these short stories composed in the score or so years preceeding the Great War are remarkable not only for describing sisters doing it for themselves but also for their literary style.

Gilman offers us tales of women achieving some large measure of agency, overcoming social mores and conventions, initiating change for themselves and others, and challenging contemporary prejudices surrounding supposed female feebleness of mind, body and aptitude.

The title story of this collection may be the best known but I also relished the other six offerings in this selection — and not solely for their feminist perspective, because Gilman’s observational skills emphasised individual propensities to change and adapt in positive ways for the benefit of all, women and men. In this she demonstrated an approach that could really be called humanist.

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A surgeon’s knife

© C A Lovegrove

Good Bones
by Margaret Atwood.
Virago Press 2010 (1992)

— There was once a poor girl, as beautiful as she was good, who lived with her wicked stepmother in a house in the forest.

There Was Once

This collection of stories cunningly play with reader expectations: they tease, they feint, they nick and draw blood. With a surgeon’s knife Atwood dissects common myths and tropes, performs autopsies on literary classics, male fantasies, human foibles and traditional fairytales. Then, reassembling the parts, she fashions tales that forces us to look anew at what we thought was the case.

The two-dozen plus three pieces in this slim volume are in large part succinct, some barely more than a page or so; others, only slightly less succinct, remorsely hammer home their point while pulling your leg; a few have as a starting or end point a poetic form.

And though some may be seen as taking a feminist standpoint I would argue they are as much humanist, inviting us to take a step back to see not just differences but also similarities, encouraging comprehension more than opposition.

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Stories shape people

Joos van Cleve, ‘Madonna of the Cherries’, Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery (discussed here https://wp.me/s2oNj1-cherry)

Inverted Commas 20: Ribbons of space-time

People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around.
Stories exist independently of their players. If you know that, the knowledge is power.


Stories, great flapping ribbons of shaped space-time, have been blowing and uncoiling around the universe since the beginning of time. And they have evolved. The weakest have died and the strongest have survived and they have grown fat on the retelling […] stories, twisting and blowing through the darkness.

‘Witches Abroad’

“Stories are important,” Terry Pratchett wisely wrote, but he recognised that narratives are very much chicken-and-egg issues. Unconsciously we grow up playing out scripted roles: we are a good child or a naughty one, we sense we’re masters of our fate or else forever fated, we’re loved or we’re rejected. Some of us are princesses in disguise, others ugly sisters; some feel they are the knight in shining armour, others the dragon. For every one born with a silver spoon in their mouth countless others will hear resonances in Albert King’ s lyrics: “Born under a bad sign, been down since I began to crawl. If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.”

You would think that a creative writer would claim credit for coming up with original plots, that they were the one shaping stories; but Pratchett knew that he was just recycling or repurposing existing blueprints, because stories do indeed exist independently of their players.

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At one’s convenience

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The Witch of Clatteringshaws is a last crazy jig of a book, a plum pudding of Aiken history and humour, whose wise men include a Fool, of course, and a talking parrot who everyone ignores throughout at their cost.

There are prehistoric monsters alongside Celtic saints, invading armies who become the backbone of an emerging nation, Kings who win their battles with games where no one dies, and the long suffering Dido Twite, ever indefatigable in defence of her fellow orphans, and now in the person of Malise another, unassuming heroine who wishes she had the words to save the world.

Lizza Aiken, ‘Joan Aiken’s Farewell’ on JoanAiken.wordpress.com

My own review of the last ever title in Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, The Witch of Clatteringshaws, is now followed by the customary series of discussion posts, on people and places, timelines and themes.

Today, the day after the midwinter solstice, I will start a dramatis personae of the characters who appear and as usual it will be a prosopography, a study of an individual’s role, personality, and relationships; and — this title being of course a fiction — it will include speculation about their names and/or origins.

I start with the title character, the Witch herself, who appears virtually at the start in the Prologue when we read of her writing a letter to her cousin, the Archbishop of Canterbury, from a Ladies Convenience overlooking a Scottish loch. (Immediately you will have spotted that this is no ordinary alternative historical fiction, but uses seemingly anachronistic effects to confound expectations.) I’ll also be looking at a couple of the other protagonists in this post.

As ever there’s a big red warning triangle for SPOILERS.

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Butterflies under glass

© C A Lovegrove

The Liar’s Dictionary
by Eley Williams.
Windmill Books, 2020.

Thousands of them — cuckoos-in-the-nest, changeling words, easily overlooked mistakes. He could define parts of the world that only he could see or for which he felt responsible. He could be in control of a whole universe of new meanings […]

‘R is for rum (adj.)’

For any writer worth her salt words will be her stock in trade. Their precise meanings, but also their imprecise meanings; their double meanings and their meaninglessness; when they’re set in stone and when they’re infinitely malleable. Eley Williams’s novel is its own metafictional universe, dealing as it does with real words, cuckoo-in-the-nest words, their puns and rhymes, as metaphors and as musique concrète. And, I suspect deliberately so, we’re left wondering what it all signifies.

We follow two timelines. One concerns intern researcher Mallory, tasked with searching out mountweazels — fake terms inserted into a published text — for the owner of the incomplete Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary, a thankless task until she’s joined by her partner Pip. The other strand, taking place towards the close of the 19th century, involves Peter Winceworth, a gauche young man who has unaccountably taken to affecting a lisp and is thus now saddled with a persona that’s become the butt of jokes amongst his colleagues working for Swansby’s in its heyday. When a beautiful erudite young woman takes an interest in him he finds himself embarrassingly tongue-tied in her presence.

The Liar’s Dictionary is thus a fantasia on things said and not said, of third parties who are not what they seem, and of secrets at the heart of an encyclopaedic publishers. That the failing firm is situated in Westminster may or may not be relevant to the political situation that has pertained in the second decade of the 21st century, especially when a certain government is riddled with accusations of blatant lies and fake news.

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A novel of anticipation

Felix Nadar c 1860 self portrait by Nadar, (Gaspard Felix Tournachon 1820-1910); Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, out of copyright
Félix Nadar c 1860: self portrait by Nadar (Gaspard Félix Tournachon 1820-1910); Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne,
translated by Edward Roth.
Dover publications 2009 (translation 1874, French original 1865)

From the Earth to the Moon was Verne’s prophetic space romance about space travel. Set after the American Civil War — the conflict coincidentally finishing just as the novel was first published in France — the novel details the implementing of a concept by the President of the Baltimore Gun Club, namely the firing of a projectile to the moon.

From concept, practice is attained in a little over a year: worldwide funding is raised, a site chosen, infrastructure established, a monstrous cannon or Columbiad cast, a giant refracting telescope built to track the projectile, and finally the projectile itself launched.

Several of the details anticipate what was to happen in this part of the world nearly a century later but while this is interesting in itself what surprised me was how more engaged I was in the personalities involved and in the authorial asides than I remember being when I first read it a few decades ago.

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Chosen by myth

Mow Cop Castle (built 1754)

Red Shift
by Alan Garner.
Collins Lion Track 1975 (1973).

I see in my mind’s eye an exposed cliff which has been riven by some past cataclysm: strata from different periods composed of contrasting materials now sit side by side, yet they belong to the same cliff face. In such a way Alan Garner’s Red Shift presents to my imagination: three stories from different eras cleaving together in one extraordinary narrative.

Shifting from the present (Cheshire in the seventies) to the English Civil War in the same part of the world, or to a remnant of the Ninth Legion trying to go native among the Cornovii tribe in the second century CE, the novel slowly reveals how different people in different timelines can somehow be linked by a number of strands: topographical sites, artefact, geology, astronomy, a mythic tale.

As with many Garner novels the book is intensely personal. A native of Cheshire with local family roots stretching back centuries, he sets great store by a sense of place and by objects suffused with age, tradition or ritual. But he also features troubled characters in protagonist roles, a reflection of his own mental struggles over the years, all of which go towards ensuring his narratives have a firm substratum of authenticity and truth.

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Contemplating the Narniad

Ptolemaicsystem
The spheres of above the Earth: Luna, Mercurius, Venus, Sol, Mars, Jove, Saturn, the Stars and the Empyrean

Planet Narnia:
the seven heavens in the imagination of C S Lewis
by Michael Ward.
Oxford University Press 2008

It is of supreme importance [in the construction of the human person] that children hear good fables and not bad. — Plato The Republic

I have been on the look-out for Michael Ward’s study of Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia ever since his 2009 BBC TV documentary The Narnia Code (also the title of a condensed version of Planet Narnia published in 2010). The seven titles of the so-called Narniad have garnered praise and criticism in almost equal part, frequently fixated on the author’s Christian subtext. Sometimes there have been attempts to ascertain Lewis’ grand design for the Chronicles: why seven? Does each have a distinct theme? Is there a hidden meaning other than that obvious subtext?

Michael Ward has come up with a closely-argued and fully-referenced proposition that Lewis, long enamoured with classical and medieval literary traditions, fashioned his sevenfold book series according to the seven pre-Copernican heavens, each ruled by a ‘planet’. The Narniad (as the sequence is sometimes known) “was a literary equivalent of Holst’s Planet Suite; each one of the seven heavens gave the key to a different Chronicle” (page 251). Above the earth in the pre-Copernican universe were a set of concentric spheres: the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Above that were the stars, the Primum Mobile and the Abode of God.

Each book of the Narniad is based on the mood, atmosphere and characteristics of one of these bodies as personified in pagan mythology and appropriated by medieval Christianity. Lewis, so Ward suggests, wanted to suffuse each book with those planetary aspects that he had assigned to them, such as joviality, saturninity, mercurialness and so on.

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A small but pretty town

Crickhowell, St Edmunds and the Vale of Usk from an old print by Henry Gastineau (1830-1). This view is taken from the top of the Norman motte looking northwest

Crickhowell
through the eyes of the visitor 1740-1910
by Robert Gant, William Gibbs and Elizabeth Siberry.
Crickhowell District Archive Centre 2021

Crickhowel [sic] is a small but pretty town … very close to the river, which looking upwards from the bridge, is truly picturesque in its windings and the character of the landscape on either side. It is a charming ‘bit’ for the painter.

Miles Birket Foster, 1864

This handsome and profusely illustrated booklet of some hundred pages has a history of its own, revised in 2009 after its first appearance in 1981 and now expanded from its previous 1780-1870 range to include new images from as early as 1740 and as late as 1910.

Along with reproductions of maps, prints, engravings, paintings and sketches is an informed and informative text, drawing on material in the Crickhowell District Archive Centre as well as that found online and in collections including the National Libraries of Wales and of Scotland, the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and institutions in New Zealand and Canada.

But this publication has more than merely local interest: it could serve as a template for how such historical guides focused on visitor experience may be successfully produced, and it shows how even an apparently out of the way small town may feature in national or even international consciousness when figures such as Lord John Wesley, Nelson, the Duke of Clarence and Compton Mackenzie stayed locally, and aristocrats fled here escaping the French Revolution.

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Polished reportage

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An Advertisement for Toothpaste
by Ryszard Kapuściński.
Selected from Nobody Leaves (2017),
translated by William R Brand.
Penguin Modern: 16, 2018 (1963)

The name of the late Ryszard Kapuściński was one that vaguely registered with me but until now I’d not read anything by him. I note now that controversy has followed his adoption of what has been dubbed ‘literary reportage’ and ‘magic realist allegory’ but to me, coming fresh to his work via this selection of four pieces, it first resembled the category known as creative nonfiction.

As a genre, creative nonfiction purports to present what’s factual in a literary fashion, and that’s what characterises these journalistic essays. Known as a reporter describing overseas events with first hand experience, Kapuściński instead here turns his attention on his native land, postwar Poland under communism.

Integrating himself in the action he gives the quartet of reports a veneer of actualité but glosses them with the polish of prose poetry. In doing so he, a born storyteller, invites us round his hearth, shapes his narratives into fables or short stories, and infuses them with a surrealism that gives them a fairytale quality.

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At a crossroads

Comus with his charming-rod about to compel the Lady to drink the potion. William Blake 1801.

Doomsday Morning
by C L Moore.
Gollancz Golden Age Masterworks,  2019 (1957).

Set in the early years of the twenty-first century, Catherine Lucille Moore’s speculative novel is also a thriller, the action moving from the midwestern prairies of America to the East Coast and then California. For a tale written in the 1950s there is much that would appeal to male SF fans of the time: gadgetry, a hard-bitten, hard-drinking protagonist, lots of doublecrossing, and of course violence and explosions.

But there is more to Doomsday Morning than meets the eye. The fifties in the US was of course when McCarthyism was at its height and Moore’s plot has more than a hint of authoritarian repression. It is also, for all SF’s outward credentials as pulp fiction, a very literary novel, with allusions to Shakespeare, Chekhov, Steinbeck and Milton embedded in the text.

It’s also prescient in many ways in its anticipation of driverless traffic, covert electronic surveillance and the US’s alarming propensity to lurch towards totalitarianism when the conditions for it are prepared.

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A Year of Reading Randomly

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I seem to start every January deciding that this will be the Year of Reading Randomly … what I want and when I want, unconstricted by outside influences. Reading for pleasure, in fact, not reading under pressure. This for example was what I put for my 2021 reading goals on the page ‘So many books‘:

I’ve subscribed again to the Goodreads Reading Challenge for this year, pledging to read at least 66 books in 2021. This will be regardless of whether they are first-time reads, rereads, library books or whatever.

And that’s it. I’ve decided that this year I shall read for pleasure. If I join in any reading event it will probably be last-minute and on a whim!

And yet every December this wannabe Epicurean finds that such hedonistic intentions have rapidly fallen by the wayside. Not only have I joined in reading events at the last minute but I’ve also signalled my intentions to participate well in advance — and even gone into details!

I could say it’s all the fault of you lovely bloggers of the bookish fraternities and sororities coming up with readalongs and reading months, and author-based events, but I’d be disingenuous. The fact is …

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Acceptance

Vintage aftershave bottle (artist’s impression)

Desirable by Frank Cotterell-Boyce.
Barrington Stoke, 2012 (2008)

A witty spin on the old adage ‘Be careful what you wish for’, cleverly linked in with teenage anxieties about being accepted socially for who you are, Desirable is designed to be accessible to readers of all standards as well as entertaining.

When George, the nerdy young male protagonist who’s normally shunned or even bullied by his peers, suddenly becomes instantly popular with his female contemporaries and even teachers, is it anything to do with the vintage bottle of aftershave labelled, significantly, ‘Desirable’? And when that popularity rubs the male students up the wrong way will he realise that there is a downside to his new found acceptance?

You can’t please all of the people all of the time but it is possible to find a select bunch of individuals with whom you do get on: it’s only a matter of circumstances coinciding with being yourself that may bring it about. In the meantime it could prove quite a ride, as Frank Cotterell Boyce’s dyslexia-friendly novella suggests.