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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Aperçus

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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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Housekeeping

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And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle.
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot…

‘Macbeth’

I’ve fallen into the habit of posting every two days with either a review or a discussion; I’ve also found it’s becoming a bit obsessive. Well, more than a bit if I’m honest. I’ve always tried to post regularly (bearing in mind WordPress advice regarding maintaining a blog) but the curse of social media online is that increasingly we’re living in the here and now, too often ignoring the past and future darknesses which the light from this very moment’s candle doesn’t reach.

When I look at my stats over the years I see that the greater part of the site’s traffic occurs in the winter months, tailing off in the summer; but that hasn’t stopped me feeling that, if I don’t keep posting, posting, posting, followers will stop visiting, my online presence will fade, I’ll become a shadow presence and my idiot tales will be heard no more …

I know very well where this personal malaise comes from, fuelled by multiple sources, many of which you will be familiar with since they’ll be common to many of us in these strange times. And I know that reading and blogging represent distractions from the many stark realities that would overwhelm me if they were all that I chose to contemplate.

Which leads me on to housekeeping.

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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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Icons and eye cons

2nd-century CE funeral portrait of a Roman Egyptian officer wearing a gold wreath (detail). Faiyum, Egypt

Wandering among Words 10: Pupil

What’s the link between a celebrity and a chrysalis, between a student and a pet, and between a marionette and a metaphorical apple? And, indeed, what are the links between them all?

Let’s take a closer look at this; and for looking we need an eye, and something to look at. So I shall start with the notion of the icon, and then range widely between observers and the observed. And where better to start than with one of the funerary portraits from Faiyum in Egypt, a painting done from life to be placed with the mummified body after death?

Here then is an exemplar of the Greek word eikon, meaning a likeness, image, or portrait; and like many portrait icons from later Christian traditions the subject gazes frankly out at the viewer with dark, dilated pupils. The look is almost mesmerising, reminding one of the proverb that the eyes are the window to one’s soul. Or, as Charlotte Bronte wrote in Jane Eyre, “The soul, fortunately, has an interpreter – often an unconscious but still a faithful interpreter – in the eye.”

We try to judge character from such icons, don’t we; but even though these days ‘icon’ usually has one of two popular meanings — a digital symbol used on social media, or an object or indeed celebrity judged to have ‘iconic status’ — both of course are visually presented, requiring the eye of the observer to appreciate them.

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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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Precious, my precious

“It is mine, I tell you. My own. My precious. Yes, my precious.”

Gollum

The strength of a book, sometimes even its worth, lies often in its resonances, like the echoes in a cavernous space rebounding back to the caller. It’s a poor work, I feel, that gives nothing back to its reader. In my immature youth I avoided much fiction in the mistaken belief that it would unduly cramp any creative impulses I aspired to; I now see that a great work of fiction frequently borrows freely from its predecessors while transforming and transfiguring the material, and that wider reading of fiction then may well have been to my advantage.

In my continuing read of The Lord of the Rings for my series Talking Tolkien I have been revisiting the Council of Elrond chapter in which the back history of the One Ring is openly shared and discussed. At one point Aragorn’s ancestor Isildur is quoted as unwittingly but significantly describing the Ring as “precious”, a description which we may recall was Gollum’s own name for his “birthday present,” taken violently from his cousin. Isildur wrote:

“But for my part I will risk no hurt to this thing: of all the works of Sauron the only fair. It is precious to me, though I buy it with great pain.”

Isildur, quoted in ‘The Council of Elrond’

And I recall some apparently unrelated reading I did some years ago and more recently which amplified the resonances set up during another of my rereads of LOTR, resonances which, with your usual kind indulgences, I’d now like to share.

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The fanboys versus the critic

Rarely has a review of mine generated so much commentary or so many viewings; and even more rarely has so much bile been directed to it and, by extension, to me. That review I entitled ‘Unreadable nonsense‘, a critique of a pseudohistorical publication pretending to have identified not just one but two candidates for King Arthur.

It provoked a range of responses, from readers agreeing with my assessments through to commentators prepared to politely disagree, and on to fanatical supporters of the book’s authors, many of whom share a common inability to answer criticism with any degree of logic. It is the comments from this third cohort I want to discuss here because they seem to me to exemplify the irrational side of some individuals, the type who believe that being contrary indicates a valid antiestablishment position, regardless of how nonsensical the taking that position is.

Note, roughly half of the sixty-plus comments on that post are my answers, and the antagonistic comments number just a handful.

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May 9th be with you

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May the Fourth be with you! Everyone understands the joke now — even those who take it very seriously — so of course I don’t need to explain it. But isn’t every day a special day? Of course it is, and there’s a plethora of sites that tell you when National This Day or International That Day takes place. From these I discover that in the US (where else?) today, 9th May, is National Odd Sock Memorial Day, as well as National Butterscotch Brownie Day. Several countries this year also celebrate Mother’s Day on this day, though the UK follows an early religious tradition by marking it on the fourth Sunday of Lent, usually somewhere around the third week of March, around the spring equinox and the Feast of the Annunciation.

I wondered what other serious (as opposed to flippant) events were commemorated on this day. Some are literary, of course, such as the Peter Pan author, J M Barrie being born on 9th May 1860, and others are quirky, for example Colonel Thomas Blood attempting to steal Crown Jewels from the Tower of London in 1671 — 350 years ago on this date (before the change of calendar) — before being captured. His 1680 epitaph is a wonderful piece of doggerel:

Here lies the man who boldly hath run through
More villainies than England ever knew;
And ne’er to any friend he had was true.
Here let him then by all unpitied lie,
And let’s rejoice his time was come to die.

No doubt we can think of some other colourful characters who deserve a similar eulogy. However, in the spirit of positivity I want to focus on three anniversaries or commemorative days this Sunday, beginning with an event that took place exactly eighty years ago.

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Smiling villains

The Lady under the control of Comus: William Blake, 1801

“O villain, villain, smiling, damnèd villain!
My tables—meet it is I set it down
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain…”
—Hamlet: Act I, Scene 5

I began with Comus, Milton’s 1634 masque, the touchstone of which I identified as chastity ensnared. Its horrifying story of a young woman trapped by a villain — smiling or otherwise — the likely victim of perdition through seduction is distressingly all too familiar these days. In Milton’s drama she puts up a spirited defence, but if it weren’t for the intervention of her brothers and a third party she may have indeed been lost; rescue, tragically, is all too rarely at hand in real life.

Many tales where the female is menaced by a male figure are still seen as inferring that it’s the woman who’s the instigator of her own victimhood, the architect of her own misfortunes. Like mythical Pandora or Psyche, who succumb to what’s often referred to as ‘transgressive curiosity’, they may stray where they shouldn’t, open storage containers, shine lights in dark corners, enter locked rooms or go widdershins. The astonishing message appears to be that it’s their own fault that they find trouble by, for instance, dressing provocatively, walking alone, or just being a woman.

But not all narratives take this line; whether implicitly or explicitly they pin the blame fully on the predator, the male — and more often than not it is a male — who perversely sees women as deserving abuse, rape or death. Many scholars have discussed this aspect and in what follows I shall allude to some of them (because, of course, my argument is in no way original). I want then to take up a couple or more threads: the implication that women bring misfortune on themselves; the intervention of one or more rescuers; and instances when sisters are actually doing it for themselves.

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Present tensed

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Do you remember those gauche reports you or your fellow pupils may have written about a school trip or what you did during the holidays? You know, the kind that went First we did this and then I did that and then my friend said this and then…? One thing followed by another with no real sense of direction or purpose and an absolute anticlimax when it all comes to an end: And then we went home.

That’s the feeling I have about some novels, accounts that leave me frustrated and tense, like those seemingly never-ending dreams from which you emerge restless, as if from some randomly edited student movie, thinking What was that all about?

Those narratives nearly all have one thing in common, a factor which leads me to put them aside pro tem or maybe in aeternum. That common factor is the historic present tense. And that’s exactly what it makes me: tense.

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The Walrus said

Andrew Morton Books, Lion Yard, Brecon

‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
To talk of many things…

But mostly books

We all know how this year has gone — what can I usefully add to what has already been said, and experienced, and suffered by so many? — so let me here consider positive things, like reading and stuff.

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The spirit of Christmas

Signed and sent Christmas postcard

Within a rustic framework sits a family consisting of a couple, their children (two with their spouses) and grandchildren, with the adults toasting the viewer.

The youngsters are tucking into the food and drink with a will, but the family aren’t forgetting their charitable duties: in the adjacent side panels individuals who are hungry and destitute are being attended to by the servants and given food and warm clothing.

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Bohemian rhapsody

Prague. Photo by Julius Silver, Pexels

“Prague is one of the most interesting towns in Europe. Its stones are saturated with history and romance; its every suburb must have been a battlefield. It is the town that conceived the Reformation and hatched the Thirty Years’ War. But half Prague’s troubles, one imagines, might have been saved to it, had it possessed windows less large and temptingly convenient.”
— Jerome K Jerome, ‘Three Men on the Bummel”

Prague. Not a city I’ve ever been to but it wears a kind of aura as the capital of the Czech Republic — a country right in the physical centre of Europe and an apt symbol of the heart of the continent — and is thus a place I feel I ought to visit.

Being set centrally in what is deemed Mitteleuropa—nestled within Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Austria—Prague has also been at the crossroads of movements of people, with a turbulent and troublesome history, and yet historically it seems to retain a mystical attraction for freethinkers and revolutionaries.

And of course as the main city of ancient Bohemia it has a huge cultural capital in fictional terms, as I have discovered from recent, current and future reads.

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Errant

Bastardised shop sign from Hereford (?)

“To err is human, to forgive divine.”
— from An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope.

You may have noticed I’ve become a little bit obsessive in recent months: loads of books read — blog posts appearing every two days — reviews getting longer and wordier — strident statements occasionally appearing… If you’d wondered (if indeed you’ve happened to notice) then I think the time has come for a little bit of self-reflection on my part and an attempt at an explanation.

I think this flurry of activity comes as much from displacement activity as it does from genuine bookish pleasure. The reasons for that displacement aren’t hard to divine: the pandemic for one, which affects everyone; the crisis arising from global heating, which should be concerning everyone; and the nightmare political situation in too many countries which, closely bound up with the first two reasons, has divided everyone almost as much as any physical wall.

And because of all this I’ve alighted on the usually sage sayings of Alexander Pope.

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