Epilegomena

Sign welcoming visitors to Hay-on-Wye © C A Lovegrove

Prolegomenon

Despite my plan to discard books
(which then are destined, once completed,
for recycling) few spare nooks
are now appearing. Seems I’ve treated
this most worthy fine endeavour
not as fiercely as I sought to,
buying books as fast as ever,
not One In, One Out as ought to.

Epilegomena

The Ancient Greek for ‘things that have been chosen’ — epilegomena — applies to my outsize book collection, each title selected because, once upon a time, they somehow appealed, every one for which I entertained the intention of eventually reading. Yet a recent visit to nearby Hay-on-Wye — the World’s First Book Town — plus a trip to Bristol for babysitting duties found me in ensconced in bookshops behaving like a child in a sweetshop, a youngster whose eyes inevitably prove larger than their stomach’s capacity.

This of course is a litany you’ve heard me chant before, a psalm that has grown tedious in the repetition. Is there a worthy reason — or even an excuse — for this compulsive behaviour, or is it sheer greed that accounts for this seeming avaricious acquisition?

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Around the world

© C A Lovegrove

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, they say. That’s as may be but, even though I don’t believe in hell, good intentions have certainly paved my route to reading more widely in world literature of late.

If ‘Around the World in Eighty Books’ as a popular meme smacks of hubris, Around the World in a Few Books seemed more realistic as far as I’m concerned. I therefore picked a couple or more flags to wave just to signal my intentions this year. One was Gilion Dumas’s European Reading Challenge, and another was Lory Hess’s Summer in Other Languages (whether works read in the original language or in translation).

As we approach the three-quarter point of the year Twenty Twenty-one dare I pause to take stock of where I’ve got to and what I’ve achieved? Well, of course I dare, hence what follows!

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Meeting and greeting

© C A Lovegrove

You should know me by now, you’ll know I don’t usually like book tagging, in fact I don’t usually do tags. Specifically, I don’t do the kind of tags which pose all kinds of impertinent questions, almost up to but not quite asking “What is your PIN number?” (Don’t get me started on the tautology involved in that last phrase.)

But when, under the tag Good to Meetcha, Bookforager posted some quirky questions which I found strangely pertinent I was, dear Reader, extremely tempted. In fact I went further and swallowed the hook, the line and the veritable sinker.

I hate the usual “what do you do?” and “where are you from?” questions that normally get fired out upon making a new acquaintance. The answers invariably fail to give me any sense of the person I’m talking to, and feel … judge-y. So this tag is about the things I actually want to know when I first meet a new person (specifically, the ones I want to be friends with).

Bookforager, ‘Fun for Monday

How could I resist? More to the point, how can anyone resist such an inviting preamble?

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Nights at the opera

The Witness for the Dead
by Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette).
Solaris / Rebellion Publishing Ltd 2021

He stared at me as if I’d told him I could hear fishes singing.

Sometimes the effectiveness of a novel can be judged by whether it can make you believe in impossible things, such as being able to hear fish singing. On this basis The Witness for the Dead fulfils this criterion with flying colours, even though no piscine choirs are involved. Elves and goblins are involved, however, as are listening to the dead, dowsing for individuals’ whereabouts, and confronting ghouls and ghosts; and yet far from been presented with a succession of tired fantasy tropes we’re instead served a nuanced character study and an engaging crime fiction.

In the imperial state of Ethuveraz Thara Celehar is a prelate of Ulis, the divinity who has charge of both death’s dominions and the moon. Thara is also a Witness for the Dead in the provincial city of Amalo, a calling that depends on his ability to tap into the emotions and last thoughts of those who’ve died either by violent means or in unclear circumstances, and thus to speak for them.

But Celehar’s status within the Ulineise hierarchy is anomalous, attracting political jealousy as well as support, and though accorded respect for his abilities he is regarded by many with suspicion, even fear. And his past hides a potential scandal which, though previously hushed up, could jeopardise everything for him.

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Perilously inebriated

@perilreaders

Autumn. Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. And of things that go bump! in the night. (No, I don’t mean falling leaves.) In the Fall one’s fancies turn to thoughts of … Frights, Fears, Foul Secrets and Fouler Deeds. Which is why Readers Imbibing Peril, if the XVI following RIP is any guide, has proved so popular for so very long.

Mystery
Suspense
Thriller
Dark Fantasy
Gothic
Horror
Supernatural

I think I may be able to muster up a few titles as likely suspects for my own reading, but whether I’ll actually get round to reading any of them (or indeed none of them) is beside the point. The point being that it’s usually fun to consider one’s choices.

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Landmarks

Built in 1758, Perrott’s Folly, Edgbaston, Birmingham towers 96 ft or 29 metres. Photo credit: Dominic Tooze.

I began my latest reread of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in April this year and got to ‘The Breaking of the Fellowship’ at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring in July, when I decided to have a bit of a pause for the summer.

Along the way I used the tag Talking Tolkien in several posts whenever I felt constrained to discuss aspects of Tolkien’s writing or themes that struck me strongly as I read, or featured reviews of Tolkien-related titles.

In September I intend to pick up the journey again with The Two Towers, the middle section of the ‘trilogy’ (in fairness not a description that the author favoured) and I hope you will again join me, if not with the reading then at least with comments on my reviews and discussions.

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Aperçus

WordPress Free Photo Library

Just because a book is written by a woman or is about women doesn’t mean it has nothing to offer men. It opens their eyes to what it’s like to live as a woman, the first step to learning empathy. And it may help to burst the bubble many men have been inadvertently living in, allowing new thoughts and insights to germinate. Isn’t that what the arts are for?

M A Sieghart

In the Guardian Review for 10th July earlier this year Mary Ann Sieghart’s piece ‘Bookshelf bias’ quite rightly bemoaned the results of a research she’d commisioned which showed that “men were disproportionately unlikely even to open a book by a woman,” and that of the “top ten of bestselling female authors only 19% of their readers are men,” the rest being women, while male authors had a more evenly split readership tilted slightly towards males.

I mention this because as a male I have in recent years been trying to ensure I get a better gender balance in the authored books I tend to read. This year, for example, of the 54 titles I’ve read so far 27 are by women and one is a collection of short stories by both male and female writers. And my intentions in so doing were for the very same reason Sieghart exhorts men to read women: to learn empathy. This then is the first bookish aperçu I want to share with you today.

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Romancing the novel

Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan as Tarzan and Jane
Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan as Tarzan and Jane

When, in the early 70s, I spent a year or so as a library assistant (not ‘assistant librarian’, as I was firmly told) life seems in retrospect to have been a lot simpler. Information technology was in its infancy, microfiche was cutting edge for library users, and fiction was arranged on library shelves according to a simple fourfold system: Fiction (by author, in alphabetical order), Detective, Western … and Romance. (Teenage reading, what we might now call Young Adult, was still shelved under Children, hived off in its own ghetto and marked Juvenile. How fashions change.)

‘Fiction’ — that is, the works shelved by author surname from A to Z — is such a broad canvas: I’ve seen it referred to as mainstream (that is, ‘popular’), literary (niche, that is, not so popular), commercial (makes piles of money, usually in inverse proportion to its literary worth) and contemporary (probably published in the last year or so, certainly excluding classics like Dickens, Hardy and Austen). In truth these are categories with very fluid boundaries, often overlapping.

(To my mind there are in reality only two types of fiction, fiction you like and fiction you don’t, but you can’t plan a public library based on personal preferences.)

Where, then, does the Romantic Novel — the last genre we looked at in the creative writing class — sit?

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Writer’s block

© C A Lovegrove

I’ve just read and reviewed a novel which centred around an author who struggled to follow on from a successful first novel. He was offered a strategy to help deal with his writer’s block: write two thousand words of any old nonsense at set intervals. In Diana Wynne Jones’s fantasy this seems to have worked for him.

This fictional premise reminded me of an incident in the 1960s when I was in my teens. Around the age of sixteen and inspired by Treasure Island I began a novel set in 18th-century Bristol, having done some desultory research by cycling round the city’s historic sites. Unfortunately my parents got hold of the unfinished first chapter and made some really patronising comments, as a result of which I abandoned all attempts to write any fiction. That is, until I joined a creative writing class in my late 60s.

You’d think all those exercises I wrote — they eventually led to a Certificate of Higher Education in Creative Writing Studies from Aberystwyth University — would have stood me in good stead, and that the sluicegate holding back all those imaginative juices would have been opened—but no. Instead I pour all my energies into blog post after blog post—reviews and such—perhaps in the firm belief that I’m still learning the craft from the masters.

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Urban gorilla war

Christmas Steps, Bristol © C A Lovegrove

[After Fire and Hemlock] I then started, immediately, to write Archer’s Goon. Just picked up a fresh block of paper and began. Now those of you who have read this book will know that it hinges on a man called Quentin Sykes discovering a newborn baby in the snow. I had just started the second draft of this book when my eccentric Sussex friend went for a walk in the middle of a winter’s night and discovered a baby. It is all very well my books coming true on me—it is a risk I take—but when this starts rubbing off on other people it is no joke.

Diana Wynne Jones, ‘A Whirlwind Tour of Australia’

Most if not all authors include bits of themselves, their lives, their family and friends in their novels, and that’s what often adds authenticity to their narratives and a sense of verisimilitude. That applies as much—if not more so—to fantasy as to contemporary fiction, but if authors find true life imitating fiction it can be disconcerting, to say the least.

Diana Wynne Jones’s fantasy Archer’s Goon (1984) has so much busy-ness about it that, outside a spoiler-free review, it’s hard to know where to begin. Perhaps a discussion of its physical setting would be a good starting point, because after that the characters and the themes can be placed like pieces and moves on a gameboard.

The author spent a good many decades in the English town of Bristol until her death in 2011 and this novel, like a few other novels of hers — such as Deep Secret (1997), The Homeward Bounders (1981) and Fire and Hemlock (1985) — features aspect of Bristol in its topography and placenames. As it happens, she has borrowed a good many street names for her unnamed town which, as an ex-Bristolian myself, I have walked and know well. So the first part of this spoiler-filled post will start with places, and then I shall go on to discuss a little (or maybe a lot) about people and themes. The curious names encountered — Archer, Shine, Dillian, Hathaway, Torquil, Erskine, and Venturus — refer to seven sibling magicians whose names will crop up later in the discussion. I shall also be mentioning Howard Sykes and his sister Awful — real name Anthea — who play central roles in most of the action when drawn into conflict with the enchanters.

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Foraging for food for thought

© C A Lovegrove

We’re just about at the end of a few days break in Bristol and, pending a book review, I’m just posting a few items of bookish news for now.

First off, in between visits to friends and old haunts I’ve taken in a few bookshops. Let me list them: one Oxfam bookshop, The Last Bookshop (which, paradoxically, was the first one I went to on a second outing), a second Oxfam bookshop, and Bristol’s remaining Waterstones — it used to have three — or, as I still prefer to think of it, Waterstone’s.

Also, since I’m currently rereading Diana Wynne Jones’s Archer’s Goon, I revisited some Bristol sites that I’m certain inspired a few of the fictional places in the fantasy. After a review I shall be putting together a few photos and speculations for a related post.

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Stopping places

Tree of Life stained glass window design after Louis Tiffany

In my series Talking Tolkien I’ve looked at several motifs that have occurred to me so far during my sixth read of The Lord of the Rings. I’ve discussed the place of allegory, Tolkien’s use of colour, morality in the trilogy, and the One Ring. I’ve also looked at the significance of locations, in particular crossing places and portals.

I now want to consider stopping places, those places where Frodo and his companions, and certain others, stay for a time during the course of The Fellowship of the Ring. In a there-and-back journey such as the hobbits undertake there will be many rests taken, in the open, in overnight camps or rough shelters, but temporary stops are not what I want to discuss; instead I shall compare and contrast the places designed for respite, rest and recuperation between Hobbiton and the Rauros Falls, where the fellowship breaks up.

These locations will by and large feature habitations, whether in buildings or in woodland settings. Some will prove extremely dangerous, and the travellers will often only survive by the skin of their teeth; but in the main the places of safety will be shown to be where several days may be spent and plans laid almost ignoring the urgency of the mission.

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Death in that remark

Monet’s Rouen Cathedral: setting sun (symphony in grey and black). Amgueddfa Cymru, my photo.

Heartstones
by Ruth Rendell.
Arena Novella, Arrow Books 1988 (1987)

“There is death in that remark, the sound of death.”

Antigone’s response to Creon, in Sophocles’ play, as translated by Elvira.

Psychologically as well as intellectually this novella is as satisfying as it is perplexing. Written by one of the doyennes of crime fiction, Heartstones has intimations of unnatural deaths but without a sleuth leading the reader through to a revelatory conclusion.

To me Heartstones is a modern-day equivalent of a Classical Greek tragedy, one that’s transposed to an anonymous cathedral town (probably near the south coast of England) and played out with a limited cast, and sundry bystanders as chorus. With passing references and quotes from Sophocles’ Antigone and Euripides’ Medea there’s no doubt the author wanted us to make this particular connection, but Greek drama isn’t the only echo we are meant to hear: almost everything seems to have a symbolic significance, from the title to the house the fated family live in, and on to the stories told about the building.

At a little under eighty pages there’s a lot packed into this volume, but we ponder the genres Rendell hints at — crime fiction, Gothick romance, ghost story, horror tale, psychological thriller — particularly when the novella begins and ends with references to poison.

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Classics Club Spin 27

© C A Lovegrove

The Classics Club people are in a spin again: by 18th July we’re invited to number off twenty titles on our personal lists of fifty classics, so that whatever random digit comes up we aim to read the corresponding book by 22nd August.

As it happens, I have ‘only’ 13 titles remaining on my list and therefore I’ve had to arbitrarily allocate repeat titles for the last seven. I’ve used wherever possible simple criteria for my choices with this septet: (1) children’s classics (2) shortish classics. Heck, I don’t want to make it hard for myself!

  1. Petronius Arbiter: The Satyricon
  2. Frances Hodgson Burnett: A Little Princess
  3. Charles Dickens: Oliver Twist
  4. George Eliot: Middlemarch
  5. Hermann Hesse: The Glass Bead Game
  6. Charles Kingsley: Hypatia
  7. Rudyard Kipling: Kim
  8. D H Lawrence: The Princess and other stories
  9. Niccolò Machiavelli: The Prince
  10. L M Montgomery: Anne of Green Gables
  11. Mervyn Peake: Gormenghast
  12. Mark Twain: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
  13. Horace Walpole: The Castle of Otranto
  14. Frances Hodgson Burnett: A Little Princess
  15. Rudyard Kipling: Kim
  16. L M Montgomery: Anne of Green Gables
  17. Mark Twain: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
  18. Niccolò Machiavelli: The Prince
  19. Petronius Arbiter: The Satyricon
  20. D H Lawrence: The Princess and other stories

I’m sort of hoping Middlemarch or Gormenghast will get picked as I desperately need a proverbial kick up the pants to return to one of these stalled titles. But we’ll see what pans out.

In the meantime I’ve been steadily deleting ephemeral posts that are long in the tooth — previous Classics spins, irrelevant observations, reblogged posts — so it’s possible that you may find the odd link to them no longer works. Apologies. This one too will almost certainly self-destruct soon after it ceases to be relevant.


Update

No 6 it is: Charles Kingsley’s Hypatia.

Archipelagos and islets

Burgh Island, Devon. © C A Lovegrove

Sharp-eyed followers of my posts will have realised I have a thing about maps, real as well as fictional, and any that are a kind of halfway house too. In addition they may have noted that a few of my reviews have been as much about islands as they’ve been about lands.

In fact I even considered what I might include as my Desert Island Books, should I ever be cast ashore on a sea-girt piece of earth with a climate which didn’t rot the binding, curl the pages, or fade the print.

I was curious about which islands I’d actually visited on this blog, and which if any I’d be happy to be a castaway on. So here is a rapid tour of a selection of some of them, some of which you may have sojourned on yourselves, and I shall end with an attempt to settle on my ideal. (Links will mostly take you to my reviews.)

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