Still relevant

Black No More:
Being an Account of the Strange and Wonderful Workings of Science in the Land of the Free, AD 1933-1940
by George S Schuyler.
Penguin Classics Science Fiction 2021 (1931).

[Dr Crookman] was naively surprised that there should be opposition to his work. Like most men with a vision, a plan, a program or a remedy, he fondly imagined people to be intelligent enough to accept a good thing when it was offered to them, which was conclusive evidence that he knew little about the human race.

Chapter Three

Imagine if an innovative process involving “glandular control and electrical nutrition” became available, allowing those with a dark skin pigment to become as pale as a majority white population; how many would take advantage of that process and what effect, if any, would that have?

A black US journalist, George Schuyler, did imagine just that in 1930, demonstrating in this, his sharp dystopian satire, a humorous and cynical approach that was underpinned by a realistic grasp of human weaknesses. Interestingly, it appeared just before a major shift in American politics when under Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms the Democratic Party became more socially liberal while the Republicans established themselves firmly as the party of the right.

But what hasn’t changed is human nature, along with the doublethink that still holds sway, especially in the US, all of which makes Schuyler’s narrative so relevant to our contemporary world and its societies ninety years on.

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A jovial comedy

Circe (The Sorceress) by John William Waterhouse: a model for Jadis?

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:
A Story for Children,
by C S Lewis,
illustrated by Pauline Baynes.
Puffin Books 1959 (1950)

Queen Susan said, ‘Fair friends, here is a great marvel, for I seem to see a tree of iron.’

‘Madam,’ said King Edmund, ‘if you look well upon it you shall see it is a pillar of iron with a lantern set on the top thereof.’

‘By the Lion’s mane, a strange device,’ said King Peter…

‘The Hunting of the White Stag’

When so much has been written and expressed about a children’s classic can there be anything new or even worthwhile added in respect of it? When that classic is C S Lewis’s first instalment of his Narnia septad, a series which has attracted so many contrary opinions for and against, should one risk possibly fanning the flames of controversy?

Speaking as a reader who has had different reactions to each encounter in the near half-century since I first picked it up, and having veered from disappointment to irritation and now to grudging admiration, I feel I may indeed have some new things worth adding to the reams of ink spilt over seven decades and more — even if it’s only to acknowledge that each individual could well have a personal and instinctive reaction which a rational argument mayn’t affect.

I first read this in the 1970s when our first child was growing up and felt that, compared to The Lord of the Rings, this was a poor patchwork creature, a Christian allegory in which the tail wagged the dog and different mythic lore sat awkwardly side by side, all couched in an impossibly patronising text. A more recent read of the Chronicles of Narnia seemed to reinforce my feeling of unease. And so to now.

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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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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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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 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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#Narniathon21 begins

#Narniathon21 image after Pauline Baynes

On this, the last Friday of the month (and three days short of C S Lewis‘s birthday on 29th November) the start of #Narniathon21 is officially announced: the wardrobe door is now open!

As previously noted, we’ll be reading all seven titles of The Chronicles of Narnia in publication order, beginning with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950). You will have a month to read each title at your own speed, in your own time, until the last Friday of the corresponding month when you’ll be invited to comment. Here’s the schedule:

  • December. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
  • January. Prince Caspian.
  • February. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
  • March. The Silver Chair.
  • April. The Horse and His Boy.
  • May. The Magician’s Nephew.
  • June. The Last Battle.
  • July. Optional read: From Spare Oom to War Drobe by Katherine Langrish.

At the end of the month you’ll be invited to join a conversation here — and also on Twitter — about that month’s instalment. If you find yourself at a loss as to where to begin, I’ll pose three general questions which you can either respond to or ignore, as you wish—this readalong is designed to be an enjoyable experience, not an examination! (But in the meantime feel free to add initial thoughts below.)

Two more points: as the last Friday in December happens to be New Year’s Eve (when you may have other things on your mind!) that month’s summative post will be on Thursday 30th December.

Secondly, roughly midway through each month I shall aim to post (or repost) a review of a related title or discuss a topic which touches on an aspect of that month’s selected title. As always the tag #Narniathon21, with or without the hash, may alert you to that post, principally on Twitter if you don’t already follow this blog.

And now all that remains is to remind you how it all started so innocuously:

Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy.

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2022 and All That …

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Yes, I know, it’s a bit early to be thinking of what I could be reading next year; after all, not only are there still two months to go before 2021 is wrapped up for good but there are already plenty of prospective events coming — Witch Week for example, Novellas in November and SciFiMonth to name just three, plus Narniathon21 which starts in December (and then runs through 2022).

But I like to have a medium term vision of what might constitute my bookish choices, and what better than a literary anniversary or two, or even twenty-two?

Interesting centenaries and half-centenaries are in the offing for 2022, and as it happens I’ve either read, even reviewed, some of the titles or authors to be celebrated, or happen to already have a few appropriate titles waiting on the shelves. What follows is a mere selection of what has caught my eye, not to be regarded in any way as comprehensive!

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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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