This is the first in a series of several (probably) posts about death.  I’m letting you know in case now isn’t a good time for you to read about it.

The night before my grandmother died at Christmastime, Der Mann and I came back late from the hospital.  I hadn’t been sleeping, so I burrowed through my bag for a book.  I’d stopped short–just–of packing Safe Area Gorzade, but I had not known my grandmother was dying when I’d shoveled a stack of books off the shelf for our sudden trip.  A random selection from my usual library check-outs: Japanese teenaged murders and suicides, a monstrous psychedelic incarnation of Dionysius in the early 1970’s, ghosts.  What kind of a freak am I? I couldn’t help asking, settling down with the least death-y book in the bag.

This was Kage Baker’s Bird of the River, a swashbuckling fantasy.  In the first pages I met teenaged Eliss, her little half-Yendri brother Alder, and their mother Falena, who is an out-of-work salvage diver and drug addict.  Eliss finds work for her mother and a temporary home for the three of them on a huge riverboat with a mysterious captain.  It was a reassuring beginning for a fantasy, and although I didn’t read much more than a few pages that night, I appreciated it.  I half-slept for an hour or so, stared into the dark for a lot longer, got up, and went back to the hospital.

The next night, after my grandmother had died, I was grateful not to have to figure out what to do with myself.  My only fear as I reopened The Bird of the River was that the story might be too light to hold my attention.  Lying on a cold lumpy couch, having flashbacks, with sore eyes and no sleep ahead, I really, really wanted something to take my mind off death.

I read on for a few pages, and Falena unexpectedly dies.

“The cruelest thing was that, however much Eliss tried to feel relief, however hard she tried to remember all the things Falena had done wrong in her life, the bad memories wouldn’t come just then.”

The Bird of the River was published posthumously.  I had put off reading it because I was afraid the writing would be bad, and then I would be sad not only for Kage Baker’s being gone, but sad for her stillborn work-in-progress.  This sort of thing bothers me more than it should.  What kind of a freak am I?  I can tell you, actually: I am the kind of freak who awards family positions to her favorite authors.  I have several honorary imaginary grandmothers, numerous aunts and uncles.  Kage Baker was my best imaginary aunt.  She was one of the very funniest writers of fantasy, and the kindest, and the wisest–and it turns out I did right to keep reading about Eliss and her dead mother that night.

Mama, I’m sorry your life was so hard.” thinks Eliss at Falena’s funeral, and, “Why mama?  You could have done anything else with your life?

Set in the same fantasy universe as The Anvil of the World and The House of the Stag, The Bird of the River is a different sort of book.  It has plenty of the light fantasy elements I’d expected, and when these come forward the writing can be a bit rumpled in a way I’m sure Baker–consummate craftswoman that she was–would have wanted to smooth out.  But that’s okay.  Eliss’s slow-growing responses to the loss of her mother and her own coming of age are twined through the whole book.  The writing is sure in these parts, and when you read Bird of the River, they are the ones that will stick.

Soon after Falena’s death, Eliss is found to have an unusual talent for masthead spotting, or “reading the river.”

“What’s that?” Eliss pointed to a curious pattern she had noticed in the water.  It foamed and ran up the way the water did around the snag markers, but there was no buoy in sight.

“What?” said Salpin, and went pale when he noticed it too.  He leaned forward and, in the loudest Calling Voice Eliss had heard so far, shouted: “Snag!  Unmarked snag to larboard!” and in a normal voice to Eliss: “Excuse me.  Stay there.” . . .

. . . “And that’s why we’re not supposed to sit up here in pairs, usually,” he said.  “Because if you start chattering away and not noticing things, then we could have a disaster.  But you noticed.  Good for you.”

“I’m good at noticing,” said Eliss.  She had spent her whole life watching faces for the signs that meant a shift of mood, the signs of of anger or other things.  The river seemed easy by comparison.

It’s been hard to know what to say to people when I’m forced to mention my grandmother’s death.  The electric empathy-storms that blow in my direction are not only tiring but awkwardly misaligned.  From the way these good-hearted empathizers speak of their own grandmothers, I can tell their relationships were way less complicated; for most of them the biggest shake-up came in simply realizing that their grandma was no longer there, not in actually watching her die, and the whole experience was cushioned by the presence of other family members who shared memories of her in better times.  It’s rare for a grandchild to be the only “man on the ground” trying to negotiate the terrain of hospital horribleness, of unrelieved suffering-unto-death.  I suppose my experience has more in common with that of someone who watches over the deathbed of an elderly parent that way–only it wasn’t like that either.  I had two grandmothers.  The one who died was the one who, when I mentioned her to friends, I would distinguish with a careful euphemism: “my non-favorite grandmother,” while the other, just plain “Granny,” is still alive and is dearer to me than anyone in the world.

I found out how useful stock phrases are around death.  I still wish I could fall back on “we weren’t close.”  That would at least calm the storms of empathy, but I can’t make myself say it.  There can be all kinds of distances between two people, some so crowded and dense with meaning that they press on those who share it–especially when they are related–and connect them so awe-fully, the word “love” simply doesn’t come near.

My grandmother was a sad woman.  I made her sadder than anyone.  When my grandmother saw me she saw her dead son–the only child of her only child.  Making her sad made me sad, but I knew I was supposed to pretend I didn’t know this and to act happy around her.  Lively.  Alive.  Thanks to my precocious river-reading skills, honed on my mother as Eliss’ were on hers, there was never a time I didn’t know all this.  My grandmother and I each made the other sad, and we both pretended otherwise.  The difference?  I knew I made her sad, but she didn’t know I knew, because I was better at pretending than she was.  The other difference: while I couldn’t help living a life without my father in it–it was the only one I had–my grandmother more or less refused to live a life that didn’t contain her son.  She died more than 30 years after he did.  That made for more than 30 years–all the years I knew her–of ongoing refusal, a hollowed-out existence where there could have been . . . who knows?

The most striking thread in the Eliss/Falena storyline is introduced a little less than halfway through the book.  There’s an evening of dancing and music on board the Bird, and one of the ship’s musician’s performs the tragic story of a beautiful diver he’s been preparing for the occasion: The Ballad of Falena. Although the crew had only known Eliss’ drug-ruined mother for a few days before she died–

People were weeping when the music droned to its close.  Eliss sat there, uncertain what she ought to feel.  She looked over at Alder and saw him watching her, blank-faced.  It was the most beautiful song she had ever heard and it was all in honor of her mother, but . . . it wasn’t true.  It left out all the bitter ugly parts of Falena’s life.  It was all about a brave and strong Falena, who had loved one man so deeply she had been faithful beyond death.  Eliss’s real mother had loved a dozen men.

But people were weeping.  People were applauding.  The other musicians were crowding around Salpin, asking him to write down the words, asking him to show them the chords.  Even the Yendri were asking him.   A strange excitement hung in the air, and Eliss somehow couldn’t share it.  All she felt was embarrassment.

The Ballad of Falena becomes ubiquitous.  Its popularity precedes the Bird upriver, it’s sung everywhere Eliss goes ashore, it hounds her.

Eliss sighed and stared stared into the fire as the musicians played.  Her mother had become a beautiful melody, a sentimental story, and Falena would have been pleased by that.  Alder had been right.  It was just the sort of thing she would have enjoyed listening to herself.

So why does it still make me angry? Eliss wondered. It’s not just because it isn’t true.  It’s because it feels as though she got away with living her life the way she did.  All the stupid mistakes she made.  All the lies and broken promises, and she gets to become a pretty legend in the end.

Mrs. Crucible, noticing her expression, nudged her gently.  “I hope the song doesn’t make you sad,” she said.

“No.  It’s all right.”

“It’s just that it’s so beautiful.  And it’s our song, after all.  Nobody ever wrote a song about divers before.”


“He’s got it right.  We do run the risk of leaving our souls down there, every time we go into the water,” said Mrs. Firedrake.  The other divers nodded.  Eliss looked uncertainly from face to face.  It hadn’t occurred to her that the song was about more than her mother.

And the adult Eliss voice in her mind murmured, Maybe Mama’s life was about more than Mama too.

Eliss’ talents as a spotter assure her place on the Bird.  Its slow yearly progress up the river and back down, passing through the cities and holy places of the bustling, gadget-minded Children of the Sun who also form its crew, make it not only a boat, but a metaphor for the cycling of history and human lives: together in their apartness.  The Bird’s rhythms of port calls and travel, commerce and encounters with the mystical Yendri, are also the rhythms of individual existence.  Eliss’ own particular upriver journey runs parallel to the one that takes her into adulthood.  The Bird is always traveling both to a source and an ending.

I only read half of The Bird of the River the night my grandmother died.   I could have read the rest in a single sitting.  Instead I read it over the next week, in short bursts, in-between-times devouring whole novels I hardly knew I was reading and couldn’t tell you much about.  I finished it the day after we got home from the funeral.  This wasn’t intentional, but now I think I was relying on its companionship through the final ordeal, wanting to give it the power of the last word.

Relying On My Middle Finger

January 18, 2011

A few days ago I injured my right middle finger. I gouged the top knuckle. If you’ve never been involved in a freak apple-grating accident, you may not know how little is between your knuckle bone and the world just there. Or how much blood is in those few millimeters of the stuff that you are.

My knuckle starts bleeding again whenever I leave the bandage off. I have been favoring my middle finger in order to keep the bandage clean so I don’t have to replace it as often. Too, the bandage makes my middle finger clumsy and unsure of itself: self-conscious, in fact. I keep thinking, “Surely that’s a job for my pointer anyhow,” but I am wrong. My pointer and my middle finger are collaborators on almost (almost) every worthy task. And in every case (almost every case), Pointer gets the credit.

Because there was nothing else to eat for breakfast, I was making a frittata out of leftover potatoes. Two eggs were needed to make it stick together. I cracked the first egg into a bowl. Noticing how potentially bandage-soiling this was, I then gently hyper-flexed my middle finger out of harm’s way and picked up the second egg between my thumb and forefinger alone. It fell on the floor. I cursed, glanced at the ooze slowly leaking out from beneath the top dome of the eggshell, saw how many eggs were left in the box. Without thinking I used all five fingers to scoop up the broken egg. The yolk was whole and there was still a little white. I beat my eggs, made my breakfast, and ate it up.


December 17, 2010

I washed a canvas grocery bag, and it was like Shrinky Dinks.

Then, in a single instant, I grasped the whole grand purpose of Twitter: to keep that sort of remark from cluttering up the Internet.

Which got me thinking about the clutteredness of the Internet, which made me start to itch.

Or maybe it was just my hat.



December 12, 2010

If two different strangers tell you “Cute hat!” and one is a developmentally disabled young man at Goodwill, and the other is the clerk at the liquor store, should you conclude that your hat is cute, or merely that it is noticeable?

Trapunto’s Summer Reading

August 31, 2010

July was going to be my catch-up month, but it only caught me up to the middle of spring.  Since then the ranks of the bookish unblogged have grown to mountainous proportions.  Reminding myself that this is a replacement for my handwritten reading logs, I’m going to take the easy way out.

Building Porches and Decks from the editors of Fine Homebuilding
Taunton Press, 2003

I didn’t mean to include any of my nonfiction research reading on this blog, but Building Porches and Decks became my holy text for several months, so I guess I’ll make a note of it.  It’s a compilation of articles that appeared in Fine Homebuilding prior to 2003.  It’s the best reference I could find on how to design a porch or deck that isn’t a disposable pressure-treated pine Home Depot jobber constructed to start rotting itself apart in 3-7 years–like the one attached to our house when we moved in.  Information you simply won’t find anywhere else.

The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty
Vintage of Random House, 1990; originally published 1969

I loved this too much to have anything to say about it right now.

One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson
BBC Audiobooks, 2006
Read by Stephen Crossley

Sub-standard reading.  Crossley muddied Atkinson’s comedic timing, but that’s okay, since I only sort of liked the book.  I feel Atkinson gives in to the lazies when she writes mysteries; hard boiled silliness comes too easily to her.  She is like her main character in Emotionally Weird that way.

Didn’t finish:
The Gone Away World by Nick Haraway
Knopf Borzoi, 2008

Can I safely call this post-modern science fiction?  I went back to Gone Away World again and again and again but never got on board with the characters or premise. Now I am halfway through the book and simply can’t bring myself to care whether the main character makes good.  I enjoyed the silly martial arts descriptions and lore more than anything.  Akin to the soup that eats like a meal, this is one of those books that reads like an action movie, for me.

Fire by Kristin Cashore

Fire is a supernaturally lovely human-formed demon-creature with a subtly ruthless (now dead) human-formed demon-creature father.  That father-daughter relationship was the only thing that stuck out pleasantly for me in Fire, since its the only thing I remember clearly a couple of months after reading it.  That aspect was quite good.  Cashore doesn’t hold back on the evil.  But I get kind of yawny when faced with mind control powers in books, and the angst that surrounds them.  “I’ve read–YAAAWN–so much–YAWWN–science fiction and fantasy where the helplessly gorgeous heroine is emotionally tortured by the alienating effects—yaaaaaawn–of her awesomely awesome powers.”   (I yawned just writing that.)   Women go all pawing and worshipful and men get all weird and fight each other to rape her when they see Fire’s long flame-colored hair–which for purposes of authorial convenience can’t be cut.  I disliked the reverse-chauvinism feeling this gave the book: some girls may be demons, but all men are animals.  Demon-creatures have this sexual magnetism thing going on in Cashore’s world.  Even though Cashore does the poor little demon-girl song and dance pretty well, I’m not in a position to be properly appreciative.  And Big Doings in the Kingdoms doesn’t work too well for me in a book this short.  Not enough time to give them the politics their proper weight.  You have to use a particularly clever short hand–make your macro, micro–if you want to make politics work in a YA novel.  Cashore isn’t quite there yet.

Deep Secret by Diana Wynne Jones
Tor, 1999.  First pub. in Britain 199_?

A re-read of one my least favorite Jones predictably made it climb the charts.

Idlewild and Edenborn by Nick Sagan
G.P. Putnams, 2003 and 2004 respectively

I tease Der Mann about his nerd-crush on Carl Sagan.  Nick Sagan is Carl Sagan’s son, but I can’t get Der Mann to read Idlewild.  Even though I know he would love it.  Maybe he will, after reading this.  A little bit solipsistic and stagey–as a lot of things were back in the good old early 00’s, but those are my only complaints about this competent virtual reality novel.  I don’t usually like them much, and I liked Idlewild.  It had something unusual.  It helped that the protagonists were precocious teenagers, and seemed like it probably ought to have been packaged as YA.  I liked Edenborn less.  The Sufism didn’t enthrall me the way I’m pretty sure it did the author.  The kids were dumber than the last batch, and the grownups hadn’t grown up, just translocated their fantasies.

Didn’t finish:
The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel
Yale University Press, 2006

I’m going to call it a night on this one.  I haven’t been in the mood, and it should go back to the library.  It’s a winter book.  Manguel sniped at Andrew Carnegie in one of his essays, and I never recovered my enthusiasm.  Too, this book is less an inquiry into what libraries are, than it is one man’s (who also happens to be a natural collector both of books and ideas) idea of library-ness.

Pyongyang: a journey into North Korea by Guy Delisle
Drawn and Quarterly, 2003, 2005 (distributed by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)

Graphic memoir by a Paris based French Canadian animator about his experience working on an animation project in North Korea.  This is a very narrow slice of life, as he rarely leaves his foreigners’ hotel (where he also works) much less the capital city, and is carefully kept out of contact with anything he could besmirch, or that could besmirch the facade of national perfection North Korea shows visitors.  The angles are all hard and architectural, the artists’ drawing style is spare and humorous.  He chafes ineffectually at these constraints.  It’s more a blackly humorous study of the aesthetic of totalitarianism than of an actual country.

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
Candlewick, 2008.  First UK edition, 200_?

I perceived all its advertised virtues of structure, style, pacing, and message, but the dialect did this one in for me.  And the shore’nuff religious fundamentalists.  On another planet.  Same thing happened to me with Molly Gloss’s Quakers in space.  I just can’t believe Earth religious subculture would survive interplanetary travel intact, the way authors always seem to want it to.  I also found this book heavily didactic, which rarely happens to me, since I like ethical musings and have no warm fuzzies for either fundamentalists or militia-ism.  Still not sure what-all went wrong.  Nosir.

The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart
William Morrow and Co, 1970

I liked the first half of it then bogged down for MONTHS and MONTHS in the last little bit.  This is the first Stewart that let me down.  My favorite thing about Mary Stewart is her descriptions of place.  She is the champion place/atmosphere writer.  Her characters are less dependable.  First her Merlin felt like a real person, then he felt completely unreal.  Most peculiar.

Didn’t finish:
Soulless by Gail Carriger.

Supernatural Victoriana.  I meant to read the whole thing, just because I wanted to get my head around it.  I couldn’t.  I have never read such twee, dead-horse-beating, anachronistic, unfunny SHITE.  This is the first and last time you will see me let loose at a book this way.  I was stupefied by its badness coupled with its pretensions.

Unconquered Countries, Four Novellas by Geoff Ryman
St Martins, 1994.

I love Geoff Ryman and you should too.  Even these revivified early works are excellent.  Since I didn’t look at the publication date, I didn’t know how old they were until I read the Afterword.  I thought they were contemporary, and that for some he was writing in an alternate history eighties nostalgia mode.  Even the technology was strangely believable.  What would we have ended up with if we hadn’t ended up with Windows and the Internet?  Read “Fan” and see.

Stories were about: immortal disembodied intelligences exploring space meeting alien life, a poor single mother’s relationship with an AI program simulating former folk-rock-star in London, gay concentration camp workers in a gender dystopia, and futuristic war from a peasant woman’s perspective in an unnamed part of Southeast Asia.

From the Afterword:

A Fall of Angels was written about 1976 as a show of strength.  Fan was written in 1988 or ‘89.  Both O Happy Day! and The Unconquered Country were finished in 1984, a year in which I could do no wrong.

It has been very strange rereading them, as if I had run across my younger self.  There is the embarrassment of reliving youthful inadequacy; grief for departed energy; a kind of sympathy for the awkwardness and seriousness and pomposity of youth.

There is also the embarrassment of old friends.  Here they come, like certain kinds of fan.  Here comes Teenage Megadeath, envisaging the slaughter of millions and imagining that this is an effective protest.  Here comes the Expository Lump, covered in spots and determined to back you into a corner to detail at length his brilliant ideas.  Here comes Unperceived Sources, all agog with Star Trek and unaware of it.  Here comes Style, all done up in German Expressionism, or Brechtianism, or whatever mainly visual or musical trend has caught his attention, his hypersensitivity to fashion.  These are among the usual embarrassments of writing Science Fiction, a genre that is at its most flaming, its most colorful, the less you know, the ruder your taste.

and later:  “It really should not come as a surprise that you were sweeter, kinder when young.  Somehow it still does, rather as though you had grown more rebellious and adolescent as you grew.”

How can you not love an author who is able to talk about himself this way?  And guess what?  He’s writer-friends with Lisa Tuttle, which makes perfect sense.

Illyria by Elizabeth Hand
Viking, 2010

Like Lisa Tuttle, it seems Elizabeth Hand is going to be one of those writers who keeps confounding my expectations in a good way.  Each of her books that I’ve read so far has felt like it could have been written by a different person.  I found it very hard to place this particular story in time with its dearth of cultural references, though I believe it was meant to be the late 1970’s.  It could have been taking place anywhere from the 60’s through the 80’s.  A short coming-of-age tale featuring love, theater, magic, and dysfunctional family life, with a dash of addiction.  The love is never delineated and the art/magic is never explained.  They merge sublimely.

If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous
Harper Perennial, 2010

After The Makioka Sisters this will probably turn out to be my favorite book of the year; I can’t see myself reading anything better.  The central metaphor: a young American woman teaching English in rural Japan refuses to deal with her own garbage.  Obvious and brilliantly executed.  Watrous is already ten times the writer that anyone I can think of who launched herself in the same brainy style is–say a Laurie Moore or a Megan Daum.  One of those interesting times when I was pretty sure I would have nothing at all in common with the author/her protagonist if I met her in person and yet loved the book.

Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie
Grove Press, 1995

Angry magical realism.  It didn’t quite gel as a novel, though it was great to read, and I kept finding quotes I wanted to pull out.  Alexie shows he was a poet and short story writer first, novelist second, back when he wrote this one.

Bad Blood by Lorna Sage
William Morrow of Harper Collins, 2000

I thought about this book so long and hard, it’s now impossible to know what to say about it.  I was the bad blood in my family, and a great many of Sage’s perceptions–and not only of her family life–were eerily similar to my own.  I’ll have to give it a careful reread.

Coronation Summer by Angela Thirkell
Moyer Bell, 1998. First pub. 1937

Social history of the summer of 1837 (it is illustrated with period engravings from brochures, like a history book) rough-cast as a girl-gets-boy novel with a lot of jibes at the conniving, air-headed protagonist’s expense.  Thirkell seemed to be getting her kicks with the idea that 19th century “culture” was entirely childish and ridiculous.  There were a couple laugh out loud pieces of risque irony (“Did she really mean that?  She can’t have meant that.  She meant that!!”), but overall probably not the best Thirkell to start with.  Know a better one?

Gateway by Sharon Shinn
Viking, 2009

So, why do I keep coming back to Sharon Shinn’s books like a dog coming back to its–  Never mind.  It’s a mystery.  Shinn writes like a journalist: who-what-when-where-why-goodbye.  She has some phenomenally good ideas and striking imagery, but (with the exception of her first novel) not enough emotional oomph to flesh them out.  Sex and sexy images sub for emotion in her books.  Or, really, desire.  Because the sex is the deferred kind.  I find her heroines particularly disappointing.  I thought she might do YA better, since her adult novels had a certain speediness and thinness I thought might benefit from being squeezed into fewer pages of text.  Nope.  She just made even things speedier and thinner.  Though I really did love the alternate-Chinese fantasy setting.

Hexwood by Diana Wynne Jones
Greenwillow 1994, first pub UK 1993

My new favorite Jones.  I must have read it very quickly in my mid teens.  I hadn’t thoroughly uncovered the Arthurian references.  It was like reading a new book this time.  I had just been looking at a biographical article that told a little about Diana Wynne Jones’ childhood, and I believe she drew heavily on it for Mordion’s.  I’m disturbed by the idea of a hero who looks like a grinning skull, though; maybe the ugly cover exaggerated what Jones meant by her description of his looks . . . or maybe the heroine really was someone who could fall in love with death.  I can’t be sure.  I sort of had to forget about Mordion’s shriveled-up-skullness in order to sympathize with him.  I’m just not goth that way.

Lonely Werewolf Girl by Martin Millar
Soft Skull Press, 2008

I should tell you that this is only “about” a lonely werewolf girl in the way that a shaggy dog story is about a shaggy dog.  Kalix, the lonely Scottish werewolf in question, is a slyly understated cliché.  I found her hilarious then wondered if I should; possibly I am just a bitch that way.  I am completely puzzled as to how Lonely Werewolf Girl got shelved as YA in my library because it seems very much catering to non-young adults in its references and humor.  Kalix is a minor player in a cast of immortal fashion slaves, assassins, were-people and people-people shuttling themselves around London doing this and that (and sleeping with each other), and werewolves beating each other up, drinking whisky (a lot of whisky–was Millar on the wagon?), and discussing werewolf clan politics.

NESFA Press, 1995
Finished: early August 2010
Source: library browsing
Genre: fantasy
On the Scales: mixed

I wish I had been able to post my review of this book during actual Diana Wynne Jones Week (as opposed to the perpetual Diana Wynne Jones Week in my heart), since my sole purpose in reading it was to make everyone jealous.

No, no!  I swear it wasn’t!  Before I was even thinking about Diana Wynne Jones Week I was strolling through the adult fiction section of the library.  I spotted her name on the shelves at eye-height.  “What’s this?” I said cleverly (knowing Jones has only written two books my library might shelve in the adult section, and that it doesn’t own either of them), “A new book I haven’t heard about?  An old UK-only release that has finally come out in the States?  Or has a sensible magid taken pity on us for only having twenty- or thirty-odd books by Diana Wynne Jones to read in this particular dimension, and imported one by her counterpart in his home world?”

I knew I would want to read it, whatever it was, so I put it in my bag without opening it, checked it out without looking at it, and took it home.  That’s where I figured out it was a rare book.

Contents include:

Two novellas:
Everard’s Ride
The True State of Affairs

One essay:
The Shape of the Narrative in The Lord of the Rings

Five short stories:
nad and Dan and Quaffy
No One
Dragon Reserve, Home Eight
The Master
The Plague of Peacocks

The title novella strikes me as an early work because of its style.  Jones typically externalizes her characters’ thoughts and feelings, either through hints in the things they choose to say or through their facial expressions, manner, and movements.  Everard’s Ride employs authorial asides and makes forays into the characters’ thoughts.  This busy style is in keeping with the setting: high Victorian England, where a teenaged brother and sister make trips to an island accessible via a causeway at low tide.  The island is also the access point for a 15th century kingdom which (sometimes) occupies the same landscape.  One character is recognizable as serious version of Wild Robert, while the ever-so-slightly-sent-up Victorian family life is reminiscent of the Chrestomanci books.

It’s fun to spot the Jonesian details in the not-so-Jonesian prose.

Miss Gatly came back after taking the teapot to the parlour and told them some of the stories.  She sat by the range, knitting socks, needles clicking, cap rattling, and talked in the strange, formal way old country-people still use when they tell stories which may not quite be true.  She told them how the ghost-lights flitted through the island on foggy nights and were seen to go winding through the bay where no-one else dared to go for fear of quicksands.  She told of the dangerous kingdom of Falleyfell out in the bay and how those who saw it were as good as dead.

“And if,” she said, “a wise man hereabouts sees aught of this on a clear night, he will shut his eyes and turn away, making the sign of the cross for safety. . .”

Alex put his thin greasy hand under his pointed chin and leant forward with an eager sigh.  Cecilia had tucked her feet up under her green tartan skirt, with one hand holding down the bulging crinoline.  With the other hand she was absent-mindedly twirling and pulling a bright gold ringlet.  The draught sighed in the chimney and a sheep coughed outside.  Cecilia signed too, because the best part of the tale was coming.

You can find most of the short stores here in the collection Believing Is Seeing.  “nad and Dan and Quaffy” is DWJ tripping on I mean paying tribute to coffee and word processing in the life of the science fiction writer.  As with The Homeward Bounders and A Tale of Time City you’ll have to step lively if you want to keep up with her on this one.  “No One” is the name of a household robot I am pretty sure must have been a prototype for Yam in Hexwood.  “The Master,” is a frightening, dreamlike tale set in a wood, a rose garden, and a futuristic sorcerer’s den.  “Plague of Peacocks” features a satisfyingly tongue-in-cheek revenge on some neighborhood busybodies.  I particularly enjoyed “Dragon Reserve, Home Eight” which takes place on a frontiersy Nordic-themed planet with matriarchal steadings.  Non-anthropomorphized dragons are kept in game parks and witches (while fairly common) are illegal, so I’m thinking this may be the same world mentioned as “Lind” in Hexwood.  “Dragon Reserve, Home Eight” is not Jones’ usual sort of thing, and I would very much like to see it expanded into a novel.

I can’t say the same for The True State of Affairs because it is perfect as it is.  Unless you have begged, borrowed, or stolen Everard’s Ride (or can get your hands on the UK-only collection Minor Arcana), you will not find it easy to get a copy of this story, but it’s worth a try!  At just 90 pages, this is (I’m dead serious) one of the best things Diana Wynne Jones has ever written.  It is simply masterful.  If you don’t think of Diana Wynne Jones as a “literary” writer, you are wrong.  The True State of Affairs is a study of power, personality, communication, love, and loneliness that compares favorably to work by the likes of Eudora Welty or Katherine Anne Porter for emotional depth.

The plot is simple.  A modern day Englishwoman finds herself, through no real fault of her own, a political prisoner in a fantasy world (Dalemark).  The action takes place in her tower room–she is not allowed to leave it–in a medieval-style fortress.  Her confusion with the language, her privations, her desperation, and her growing dependence on her journal and her daily over-the-rooftops glimpses of a fellow prisoner who is allowed a brief walk in a distant courtyard, all come together in a pressure-cooker of personal narrative, scribbled on a diminishing supply of paper that is always in danger of being confiscated…

Strong stuff.  Actually, on second thought, I do want it to be a full length novel.  I’m greedy and willful that way.

Next to The True State of Affairs, “The Shape of the Narrative in the Lord of the Rings” was my favorite piece. One of the the things that pleases me most about Tolkien is the shared arena he provides for people who want to hash out the theory and practice of fantasy.  Having read this essay, I reeeeeealy wish I could put Ursula Le Guin and Diana Wynne Jones in a room, and then they would start talking about Tolkien, and I could be a fly on the wall.  I could listen to either one of them for days.  I could listen to both of them for weeks.

Diana Wynne Jones studied at Oxford when, according to her online biography, “C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien were both lecturing . . . Lewis booming to crowded halls and Tolkien mumbling to me and three others.”  Tolkien’s mumblings failed to reveal his narrative intentions, but Jones draws them brilliantly from his books.  “The Shape of the Narrative in the Lord of the Rings” reminds me more of an energetic guided tour than a scholarly dissection.  Like an actor giving you a backstage tour of a theater, Jones knows what she’s talking about, and her excitement is contagious.

To make your envy complete, I leave you with her thoughts on the Elves:

. . . Legolas has been there for some time now, hinting at these mysteries, and yet, since he is one of the Fellowship, kidding you that Elves can be human and approachable.  This is not the case.  Tolkien lets you see much, but still leaves the Elves almost as mysterious and alien as they were before you saw it.  They are genuinely not human.  Their concerns seem other, even when they help.  The reason seems to be their intense, abiding melancholy . . . The Elves are dwindling, we are told.  The dwarves awakened evil and forced many Elves over the Sea.  This could be the explanation, but it is not really.  You get the real reason by hints, which you pick up mostly subconsciously: the Elves, by reason of their apparent immortality, are widowed from history.  They are forced back on their own, which is merely living memory, unimaginably long.  Tolkien conveys quietly, without ever quite centering your sights on it, the immense burden immortality would be.  He uses women to do it: the Morning Star, Arwen Evening Star, and Galadriel herself.  I daresay Women’s Lib could make destructive points here, but it is entirely appropriate in a Romance, in which woman grieves for ever.  Women are generally more often widowed than men.  But this stands for the situation of all the Elves.  When they enter the temporary brawls of history, they pay for it by having to endure its horrors for ever.  So they are forced for the most part to stay withdrawn among their yellow trees, never dying, but never quite coming to maturity either.  The yellow trees vividly express their state.  Are mallorns the yellow of spring, or autumn?  Both, but not summer or winter.  I find them profoundly saddening.

Does anyone else remember that place in Daddy Long-legs when Jerusha Abbot has just read Wuthering Heights for the first time, and she cries from the heart: “How can there be a man like Heathcliff?”

I didn’t care for Heathcliff.  In fact, when I first read Wuthering Heights at age fifteen or so, I remember asking pretty much the same question in disgust.  Whatever floats your boat.  It’s just one of those things.  Wuthering Heights, or Jane Eyre.  Heathcliff, or Rochester.  A jar of Miracle Whip that has been left out in the sun for five hours, or fresh-whipped French egg mayonnaise made with real lemons.

Now that I’ve alienated half of you, I would like to bring up the delicate subject of CUTE SHY GUYS or perhaps, SULKY SMART GUYS WHO ARE SO COOL, or even NAKED WIZARDS IN THE BATHTUB in the fiction of Diana Wynne Jones.  I didn’t want to be the first, but . . .

I’m just going to assume that none of you (now that all the Wuthering Heights lovers have left the room; and at this point the straight men can go too, and anyone else so inclined) are so silly as to think I want to leave my my husband for 12-year-old enchanter in training.  What I’m talking about isn’t a fantasy roll in the hay, but personal magnetism.  Diana Wynne Jones does male mystique like no one else!

You will find very little overt romance or love in a typical Diana Wynne Jones novel.  Characters learn about each other, become friends, admire one another, understand one other (sometimes) and have adventures.  Then, rather abruptly from the reader’s perspective, they occasionally announce their engagement–or in the next book they happen to be married.  You could just say Jones doesn’t do lust and standard romantic conflict because her books are written for children who would say ick to those things.  I don’t think that’s the case.  I think she is simply inclined to hang her characters’ relationships on a more equivocal framework than “love story” because she finds that more interesting.

Writing about young people (and others whose lives are ruled by forces greater than themselves, like magic-users) gives Jones’ a lot of scope for this preference.  Some writers forget that not only are teenagers They of the Raging Hormones, but also They of the Raging Ideas, They of the Raging Anxiety As To How They Can Possibly Find A Place In The Adult World, Raging Creativity, Raging Independence, and the Raging Need Not To Turn Into Their Parents.  Most real teenagers aren’t looking around for a Prince or Princess Charming and a happy ending; they are too busy negotiating the relationships in front of them, doing battle with evil, and generally surviving.  These are the ones Jones writes about.

Teenagers!  All that raw energy going off in all directions!  A lot like magic.  As readers of fantasy know, unharnessed magic can be very dangerous.  It comes on you without warning.  You must learn to harness it.  You must learn how to live with it.  Remind you of anything else?  Despite the lack of overt romance and desire in her fiction, Jones’ books are not asexual.  Drama (good drama, not melodrama) is sexy.  The raw energy of adolescent self-definition is pure aphrodisiac.  Magic is hot.  Why?  Because like the best sex, each of these things creates a raised pitch of emotion, a sense of revelation, and a feeling of commonality.  A metaphor made in heaven.

I will not harp on the mallet-over-the-head trend to capitalize directly on this connection in certain popular fiction.  Diana Wynne Jones’ fantasy characters are a different breed.  They are real people first and foremost; they weren’t created as vehicles for magical sexiness, and they never do the same song and dance twice.  Jones can write a novel that appeals to a third grader for its sly humor and inventive plot.  An adult can read the very same book and find deep wells of motivation, multi-faceted characters, scenes full of teasing undercurrents.  That is Jones’ virtuosity.

In her essay (from a 1992 lecture) on heroes, she remarks, “I do find, myself, that the Hero, the protagonist, is the story. This is not to say that the other people in it are of no importance. Before I can write about anyone, I have to consider them as my close personal friends, even the Baddies.”

The more I read Diana Wynne Jones, the more flattered I am by her good opinion of her readers.  Whatever our age, without fail she treats us as if we were smart enough to take as much as we like from her books, be whoever we like in them, and scratch under the surface as deeply as we please–trusting us to find the way (or one of the ways) she has laid out for us.  She repays our enthusiastic blundering by packing her stories with ideas and crafting them on multiple levels.  Reading her comment on submerged alter egos in the essay mentioned above, I suspect she would take it for granted that it is possible both to want to be an eccentric wizard and find him hot at the same time.

Because it does not revolve around wanting a guy to ask you to the prom or turn you into a vampire, the sexiness in a Diana Wynne Jones novel not does not depend on your identifying with one character and desiring a different one.  (Readers aren’t known for their compliance in this department, but still.)  The sexy intensity is embedded in the story and everything that comes together to make it.  When the story is the hero, and the story is sexy, that makes the hero sexy too.

I can only speak from where I’m standing, so you will notice all of the following characters are male.  I don’t doubt there are readers crushing on Mig and Polly, but Jones happens to have a particularly fine hand with men and boys (for reasons that may become clearer if you read the essay I mentioned above), and she has written a lot of them.

So get comfortable and channel your inner fourteen-year-old.  Without further ado I bring you an incomplete list of–

The Hotties of Diana Wynne Jones

Jamie:  An intelligent urchin who gets handed the rawest of raw deals and turns out to have a backbone of steel and a heart of gold.  Triumphs over the odds then gives up his winnings.

Tom Lynn:  Shadowy, prickly professor who refuses to pull his intellectual punches, never condescends to youth, and still knows how to enter unabashedly into the delights of a pretend game.  The man with a secret sorrow.

Nick Mallory:  Here is a cocky trickster who, as a teenager, is willing to dance an impromptu witchy dance in public with his older girl cousin.  Astoundingly healthy self-image, clear goals, good sense, and no illusions about his mother!

Howl:  Gorgeous, mercurial, preening wizard who shelters his shrinking heart behind a multiplicity of just-barely-self-conciously humorous personae, and conceals his virtues from everyone, including himself.  The most powerful sorcerer, but off-handed with it.  Surprisingly good with kids.

Sirius:  Dispossessed angel.  Kindness perfected through suffering.  The empathetic sweetheart.  The otherworldly, perceptive male.  And sometimes is a dog.

Chrestomanci:  Ah, Chrestomanci!  (If I said it a third time I’d be in trouble.)  I am rendered nigh speechless.  Frock coat, I blurt.  Dressing gown.  Tangled mess all better.  Will recklessly risk his life(s) and his impeccable dignity in the pursuit of Sweet Magical Reason.  The steady hand on the pull-rope of the Deus Ex Machina.  The Maestro.  If you find competence sexy . . .  (Unfortunately also a married man.)

Conrad:  Harried, responsible teenager.  The underdog.  The good guy.  The unwilling rebel trying not to get taken for a ride.  Everyman.  With good hair.  In footman’s togs.

Dagner:  Unreliable artist.  The young tragedian with the fatal flaw.  If you ever went through your parents’ or older sibling’s record collection, found an old album with the face of a long-haired young man, played it, and suddenly understood that you were grown up and that the world was a sad place and poetry was its only hope . . .

Moril:  Down-to-earth mystic.  The worried, hardworking soul who attracts the Profoundest Magic.  A boy with his own concerns who tries, but will never quite be able, to give you his whole attention.  The craftsman.  The humble Lancelot.

The Ghost in Aunt Maria:  Harlequin.  Refracted personality.  A self-abnegating jester who knows all the tricks and tries to do what good he can, under the radar.  The martyr.

Charles Morgan:  Mastermind.  Cipher.  The Cold Face of Vengeance. . . and he wears glasses with the same threatening air as a shoulder-holster!

Rupert Venables:  My most recent addition.  I re-read Deep Secret a few months ago.  This time I was struck by his capacity for accurate self-assessment.  A bit of a stuffed shirt, but he knows it.  Prejudiced against tiresome people, but owns up to it as prejudice, and is willing to have his mind changed.  Proud of his magical ability, but justifiably so, and equally aware of his limitations.  I had no idea this quality could be so endearing!

So now my big question is: Who is your top Diana Wynne Jones heartthrob?  Is he on the list?  Did I miss one?

And one last:

How can there be an enchanter like Chrestomanci?

Greenwillow, 2010

Finished July 23, 2010

Genre: children’s fantasy with magic in the real world

I liked the cover design for this book with the magic spilling from the skylight as rainbow streamers, especially the way the designer took a blown-up portion of the illustration and wrapped it around the back cover and the flaps.  While I had the book open to read it, rainbows peeped out at me all around the pages.  (A further note on the cover–it looks to me like something is spilling from Aidan’s nose.  I know it is only magic sparkles coming from the glasses he is holding in front of his face.  Still, every time I glanced at it…)

This is worth mentioning, because streaming rainbows and chirping bluebirds of happiness is what it feels like to hold a NEW Diana Wynne Jones novel in my sweaty little hands.  Enchanted Glass doesn’t offer the complex plotting of some of her works that are geared for older readers (though in part that’s moot; all Diana Wynne Jones’ books have something for everyone), and there are a few loose ends, but I enjoyed the homey setting.  Books about people who inherit old, magical country houses full of old, magical stuff in English villages always make me jealous.  There should be more rich old magicians in the world, naming obscure distant relatives as heirs.

Andrew inherits Melstone House from the grandfather with whom he spent summers as a boy.  This means he can retire from his university teaching job and finally write the history that’s been on his back burner.  The book Andrew means to write is one of those loose ends I was talking about; because really, though Andrew is slow to realize it, Melstone isn’t just an inherited house, it’s an inherited post.

I had a couple of different favorite things about Enchanted Glass, and one of them was how the magic comes slowly on Andrew.  Diana Wynne Jones perfectly conveys the way you can forget things from childhood without really forgetting them; the feeling of things you remember without exactly remembering.  Sorry that is vague, but if you want to know what I’m talking about you should read the book!

Andrew is both admirably businesslike (no stagey skepticism, which I hate) and sweetly surprised as he rediscovers the magic around Melstone House.  A sense of wonder for grownups, in a book for kids that is also about about a grownup growing up–don’t you just love that?  And what other writer could pull it off so well?

I suppose his age is why I find Andrew more interesting than Aidan, the orphaned boy who shows up on Melstone House’s doorstep with magical peril on his heels.  The simple fact that I am no longer 12 (or 16, or 20, or even 30) means I can sympathize with a middle-aged professor more than a kid.  Aidan is nice, and it’s easy to get into his head, but he is definitely more of a children’s-literature-style protagonist than a young adult one.  He’s reflective, but not complicated.  His problems are pretty straightforward.

Which brings me to my other favorite thing about this book.  Melstone is what’s referred to as a “field-of-care.”  When Aidan and Andrew go out to walk the boundary (borders and boundaries are a theme in lots of Jone’s work, if anyone wants to jump in and discuss), we get Aiden’s kid-like take on it:

When there were no cars coming either way, Andrew led the way down the bank, to cross the road just beside the dip where the ghost had been.  Going as slowly as he dared, in case someone was speeding, he wove up and down the slight rise in the road, until he had fixed in his mind what the boundary felt like.  The side where the field-of-care was felt like what he now thought of as normal: deep and slightly exciting.  The other side–

“Oh!” Aidan exclaimed.  “It’s all boring and dangerous on this side!  Like standing on a runway in the path of an airplane.  Flat, but you’re lucky you’re not dead.”

This passage, and others, had me in raptures.  In giving us the magician’s perspective on the magical vs. the non-magical, Jones is also giving us a perfect metaphor for literature vs. real life.  Entering the world of a fantasy novel as fine as Diana Wynne Jones’, whether writing it or reading it, is much like entering a field-of-care where everything is “deep and slightly exciting.”  Take it that way, and he dry humor in “flat, but you’re lucky your not dead,” as an assessment of real life: priceless.  And Jones all over!

If all this sounds good to you so far, and you can get behind the idea of cauliflower casserole as a tool of revenge, a giant zucchini as a deadly weapon, giant vegetables (and giants in general), I’m sure you will enjoy this book.

An animated gif: our cat prancing around in a medieval-themed glam rock outfit–I dangled this idea in front of the resident graphic designer but he didn’t bite.  Or maybe a furry head poking out of a claw foot bathtub erupting in slime?  Ooh!  Or a downloadable paper doll with an outfit for each dimension!

(Now I am thinking about the potential wonderfulness of Diana Wynne Jones paper dolls.  I’d want the Cart and Cwidder set because there’d be the cart backdrop, and all the glad rags.  Plus Dag is kind of a heartthrob.)

Speaking of heartthrobs, meet Howl:

(Greeny)Blue-eyed, vain, prone to elaborate bathing and airy departures.  And when we first got him a year ago he howled.

Jenny got it in one because Jenny is the best and fastest guesser in all the land.  Then she UNGUESSED HER GUESS!  Since I’m sure she wouldn’t have done that if she’d known she was allowed multiple guesses, Jenny gets the bookmark.

Excellent guessing, everyone.  If we get another cat I can easily see it being a Sophie or a Gwendolen or a Calcifer.

Der Mann sent me this link, and he thinks it’s mean of me not to give any hints.  Our cat’s a he.  You can guess more than once.  I’m having fun with this.

Find a new Diana Wynne Jones novel and a comfortable chair.  Make a cup of tea.  Read and drink tea, eating a piece of Ghirardelli 60% cacao chocolate* whenever you think of it.  In just two hours you will be ten pounds happier, with firmer brain tone and increased positive energy!**

This is an unsolicited plug for Jenny’s Diana Wynne Jones Week because I have started Enchanted Glass and am enjoying it immensely.  Eleven more days until the blog fun begins!

In advance festive spirit:

Our cat is named after a Diana Wynne Jones character.  The first person to correctly guess his name, which I’ll announce on August 1, will receive a handwoven-by-Trapunto bookmark.

*Substitutions: dark Toblerone, green olives, buttered soda crackers.
**Not intended as a slenderizing regimen.

Running Press, 2009

Finished: July 19, 2010

Source: Jodie at Book Gazing

Genre: historical adventure/romance in frock coats, with swords.

On the Scales: feisty featherweight

“Get your men under control now or I will see you disrated for this!”

The storm flared in Alfie’s eyes.  A storm raged about the two of them.  Lightning cracked overhead and the prickle of it made John’s hair stand on end, stirring like a live thing.  His skin tightened with shock and static, his heart thundering.  He was a galvanic rod, fully charged and set opposite its mate.  Any moment the spark would leap, and until then the tension mounted and mounted.  He felt alight with power and perhaps this showed, for Alfie surrendered.

“Alright, lads, leave it now.  That’ll do.”

Running Press is calling this line “M/M Romance”–which I joked to Der Mann stands for “Mmmmm, mmmm.”  Though I had never heard the term until I read Jodie’s great review, I knew the genre existed.  One of the characters in Geoff Ryman’s novel 253 is a secret writer of gay romance married to a closeted gay man.  I assumed this sort of fiction must be straightforward soft porn, since the traditional will-they/won’t-they? romance stories with gay guys usually end up getting published as fantasy and sci-fi.

If you are a fan of anime or manga, you may know that gay romance written for straight girls, known as yaoi, is already a well-developed genre in Japan, with many subgenres.  Some yaoi is dumb and porny, more is cute and corny, and a small amount is sweeping, complex, and operatic.  Japan has a longstanding tradition of variations on same-sex crushes (and love) in theater and literature, intended to appeal to various audiences in, ahem, various ways.

Der Mann and I, who are the arty, snobby kinds of anime fans (and possibly also overwrought Japanese teenagers at heart), have enjoyed some of the non-porny yaoi.  We both read False Colors, and while I can’t speak for Der Mann, I came to this book expecting yaoi on the high seas, and found something quite different.  You should read Jodie’s review for the plot, which I won’t go into.  For me this heartfelt novel doesn’t seem to fit into a genre at all.  It is bumpy and earnest, and as much about the psychology of the characters as it is about their romance.  Typical yaoi is polished.  False Colors is a gem in the rough.

I wonder whether Alex Beecroft set out to write a lesser book and just couldn’t do it?  What a sweetie!  I can’t see this genre sustaining itself if every book is a story of the characters’ struggles with their particular culture’s response to their sexuality–which is what False Colors turned out to be.  I sensed Beecroft’s growing respect for her characters as the story went on, and in her respect they grew more real.  The naval action was disjointed and brief, taking place in several locations; it was exciting, but there simply wasn’t enough of it to provide the ingredients for a plot.  That fell to John, the icy Methodist virgin who had just been awarded his first ship, and Alfie the roguish lieutenant he had been awarded along with it, each coping separately with the unhappy consequences of their mutual attraction.

If you take this as a historical novel, yes, there were quite a few anachronisms.  Beecroft’s fiery descriptions of naval warfare made up for them.  As for her other descriptions…

I’ve never got through a straight bodice ripper (don’t find them interesting), so I don’t know the requisite number of sex scenes, or how well they’re supposed to blend into the story.  In most of the fiction I read the sex is either off screen or described rather modestly–leaving all but a few carefully chosen erotic details to the reader’s imagination.  When there’s graphic sex, it’s for dramatic impact, or to communicate something about the characters, so there’s usually only one big scene.   (This is the way most yaoi anime works, too, and even most pulp fantasy.)

False Colors had several graphic sex scenes, and a lot of shorter ones in the characters’ imaginations–a clever way to work around the old will-they/won’t-they romance novel taboo against actual sex (you can’t keep on with the will-they-won’t-they once they have).  Mostly it is about flirtation and lusty looks (Alfie), and aching sinful thoughts (John).

Was it sexy?

You know, before I answer that question, I will tell you something I kept wondering while I read this book: what would a gay guy think of it?  Would a gay guy even pick it up?  Would he recognize the brooding looks?  The brushed pinkies?  The fluttering hearts?  The nit-picky overanalyzing and fantasies of domestic tenderness so familiar to readers of chick lit?

If I thought there were any gay guys reading this (statistically unlikely, given the number of hits I get) I would do a survey.  Whose book would you take on vacation: Georgette Heyer’s (the only verified gay-guy-approved romance author I happen to know of) or Alex Beecroft’s?  And if Beecroft, what about the military metaphors, the swords and cannon fuses and yardarms?  The manly pitting of physical strength turning to bruising kisses?  Does this turn you on, or just make you laugh?

I know it doesn’t really matter, but based on gay novelists writing about guys in love, I think the answer would be the same as mine; some of it is silly, some of it is sexy, and some of it is kind of both.

The real question is, was it romantic?

Harder to say.  Between them, Alfie and John take turns filling all the traditional romance roles.  They get to do the sword fighting and the lace-and-cologne wearing.  One is the tender nurse and the other is the stoic patient, one is the damsel in distress and the other is the agonized rescuer.  Then it all reverses in the next scene.  They go weak-kneed with lust, or demanding with it.  Masterful or overwhelmed, needy or implacable, ravished or ravisher.

Their experiences are very much like the experiences of a reader of traditional romantic fiction, who can empathize with any character they choose, switching allegiances in the blink of an eye.  It’s disorienting to see what is usually an audience experience lifted right up onto the stage. The changes can feel a bit random and fast.

The part I thought was most romantic of all actually had to do with the characters’ consistency, not their fluidity.  Neither John nor Alfie are really my “type,” but John’s moral agonies were very convincing.  When, for love of Alfie, he immediately and efficiently gave up the part of his self-image he had clung to all through the book–his steely integrity–and did so in such a mundane way as running around talking to people, it made me weak in the knees.

Harcourt, 2006

Finished: July 11, 2010

Source: blog (forgot to write which one)

Genre:  chick lit madwoman in the attic feminist revenge tale

On the Scales: lightweight

I didn’t love this book, but I loved the ending.  If you have read it you will know what I mean, and what a meanie I am.

That is all I really need to say.  However, since you took the trouble of bringing me up in your browser I will also say:  Maggie O’Farrell does some fantastic writing.  She won my heart with this passage.

Iris and Luke came across each other two months ago at a wedding.  Iris hates weddings.  She hates them with a passion.  All that parading about in ridiculous clothes, the ritualized publicising of a private relationship, the endless speeches given by men on behalf of women.  But she quite enjoyed this one.  One of her best friends was marrying a man Iris liked for a change; the bride had a beautiful outfit, for a change; there had been no seating plans, no speeches, and no being herded about for horrible photographs.

Much my own feelings about weddings.  Thank God I’ve only got a few more half-siblings and cousins left to go.  She continues:

It was Iris’s outfit that had done it–a backless green crêpe-de-Chine cocktail dress she’d had specially altered.  She had been talking to friend for some time but had still been aware of the man who had sidled up next to them.  He was looking about the marquee with an air of calm assurance as he sipped his champagne, as he waved at someone, as he passed a hand through his hair. When the friend said, “That’s quite a dress, Iris,” the man had said, without looking at them, without even leaning towards them.  ”But it isn’t really a dress.  Isn’t it what used to be called a gown?”

Hee, hee!  What a line!

I have also (just once) experienced the magical effect of a Really Good Outfit on a nasty social event: a January wedding to which I wore a mid-sixties textured wool suit with three-quarter length sleeves which I had mended and altered myself, a new silk-satin scarf which complemented it perfectly, and a pair of very tight, unlined, never-worn, vintage 3/4 length kid gloves.  Still hated the wedding, but it was like I was floating through the awfulness on a cloud of fashion confidence.

Introverted party-goers, I recommend gloves.

Then we learn Iris runs a vintage clothing store.  After an extremely sensuous window dressing scene with with a red velvet haute couture gown, I began to think I was in for a bookful of the same ecstatic antique apparel fan-service I enjoyed in These Granite Islands.  It was not to be.  We never went back to Iris’ shop!

I was much more interested in modern-day Iris than I was in poor Esme’s past.  For one thing, I was embarrassed by the anachronisms in O’Farrell’s portrayal of 1930’s Edinburgh.  (Or whatever you call them; really they are anti-anachronisms–I mean when the past is more stiff-upper-lip, “In your place, young lady!”, dour past-y than it ought to be, given the setting.)  The mistakes weren’t horrible, but they were, well, agenda-ed.  It’s not a criticism I like to make, but since O’Farrell is actually a bit older than me, I will: this seems to be an especially noticeable fault in young writers.  A subtle ideological mishandling of the past, even when they’ve done their research.

The narrators of this past are a couple of old ladies, sisters.  Kitty has Alzheimer’s.  Esme seems to have something like Asperger’s.  This means you have to piece the story together, which is the point.  You, reader, are to be all the more horrified at what happened to Esme (who has spent the last 60 years locked up) because it is presented as the emotional equivalent of a strip tease.  Pretty gruesome.

First published UK 1967, US 1969
Finished: early May, 2010
Source: Book blogs: Things Mean a Lot and others I forgot to write down
Genre: ?
On The Scales:  Hard to tell.  Depends how on-purpose it was.

I have seen the fatal flaw in my blog-a-book-a-day plan for July.  I keep reading them.

I have been stacking up everything I’ve read by the computer and the pile isn’t getting any shorter, even though I have replaced some of the actual books, like The Magic Toyshop, with pieces of paper scribbled with their titles.

I just now finished Bad Blood by Lorna Sage, and I was gratified to see that she has written a book on Angela Carter, because it must have been a match made in heaven.  I want to read it.  My first Carter has left me even more interested in what other people said about her than what she herself had to say in her fiction.

The Magic Toyshop is a lurid gothic fable of orphans, childhood, male and female power, creativity, class, and sex.

I’m all for lurid gothic fables, brainy books, and neglected classics.  This in mind, and having quickly discovered Carter’s novel was compulsively readable, I expected to have a strong positive or negative reaction to it.  My reaction was more of a mild positive.  The gargoylish awfulness of life in the toyshop–a rotation of claustrophobic misery and heavy meals–and the crowded, compost-y layering of subtle (and not so subtle) symbols and images both contributed to my engaging with it at a bit of an emotional remove.  I think her style of writing did that, too.  It is finely honed.  The book read like something thousands of undergraduates would one day be encouraged to dissect into millions of pieces.  And her post-pubescent main character initially copes with her situation by going passive.  As reader, I followed her example.  It was that or shake the girl.  Then she copes by falling in love with the Irish.

Falling being the operative word.

With her upbringing, Melanie didn’t really see any more active options.  Or at least this is what I think we were meant to believe: that she was so sheltered, it didn’t occur to her that there were outside agencies meant to prevent her despotic artist uncle from doing things like beating his apprentice/brother-in-law, not sending his niece and nephew to school, and keeping his family in a state of near-suicidal fear.  But this was the 60’s.  In London.  And yet she seemed to have grown up in the 1930s.  When I started the book, and was making my way through her virgin-in-the-tower budding-sexuality sighings in her parents country house, I was sure it was set in the 30s.

I want to say it was a bit much, but when the whole book is meant to be a bit much…

I wasn’t looking for realism, but The Magic Toyshop was playing around (on purpose) with a framework of realism, so it kept setting up oddly conventional expectations, fulfilling them, then taking a dive back into the absurd.

I was struck by her many descriptions of how ripe the unwashed grown Irish boys were.  The stink meant something. It was supposed to be sensual?  (The combination of “dirty” and “Irish” always sets off a few alarm bells.  Or maybe she was playing with negative stereotypes as well.)  But then if you switch over to realist mode, you have to admit that really, truly bad body odor is the one thing lust can’t conquer.  Had Carter ever been stuck in an enclosed space with an unwashed teenaged boy for weeks on end?  Hard to think it.

Moyer Bell, 2000

Finished: April or May 2010

Genre: novel of manners

On the Scales: middleweight

A few months ago I ended up at the main library while I waited to pick Der Mann up from work.  I hadn’t brought any of my book lists along, so I started browsing the fiction stacks.  I was feeling rotten–the kind of rotten where you desperately want a book to carry you off, but know from experience that 99% of them won’t do it.  Light fiction is unbearably trivial.  Heavy fiction is too much work.  Science fiction is improbable.  Fantasy is overwrought.  Romance is fatuous.  Young adult and children’s books seem designed to make the reader squirm at the authors’ naïveté.  Not a good day to be without my lists.

I got together a stack I wasn’t sure I would read just to have something to take home.  There I realized my autopilot selections had been two Eudora Weltys, a Booth Tarkington, an Alice Thomas Ellis, and a couple of dystopic science fictions.  Why do I gravitate to Southerners and celts when things are grim?  It’s not on purpose; that’s just how it always seems to work out.  Gail Godwin.  Eudora Welty.  Kaye Gibbon.  Iris Murdoch.  Jane Gardam (not a celt, but North Yorkshire almost counts?).

And Alice Thomas Ellis is the greatest of these.

Or at least the witchiest.  Ellis was half Welsh and half Finnish.  A number of her novels take place in Wales.  The first I read, I hated.  “How can they?  How can she?  What a mean lady!” Then I went back for another.  And another.  Now I am just annoyed at her for dying about the same time I discovered her and for not writing fiction until the latter half of her life.

I came across the word “mordant” lately, and that is almost the right one, but not quite.  Reading one of her novels is like hearing the best joke you’ve heard in ages then stubbing your toe and getting a gin-and-tonic thrown in your face while you are still laughing.  No one is nice.  Some characters try to be, but even the well-meaning are too (pick one or more of the following:) stupid, abstracted, compulsive, self-absorbed, passive, or vain for it to do much good.  Or harm.  Ellis doesn’t write catastrophes.  For her, human nature is catastrophe enough.

I make a point of saving her for the right mood.  Also, most public library systems tend to own just one or two of her books.  Both moodwise and book-itself-wise I hit the jackpot with Pillars of Gold.

The setting is a gentrifying neighborhood of North London in the 1990’s.  The main characters are three women neighbors (one of whom never makes an appearance), and a teenaged girl.  The title is from William Blake:

The fields from Islington to Marybone
To Primrose Hill and Saint John’s Wood,
Were builded over with pillars of gold;
And there Jerusalem’s pillars stood.

Pancras and Kentish Town repose
Among her golden pillars high,
Among her golden arches which
Shine upon the starry sky.

–which makes me shiver even though I do not like the last line or the break before it, and which was quoted at the beginning of the book.

I puzzled over why she took her title from this poem, and maybe there is no reason except that Ellis liked it, but I think it has something to do with a dreamy, transfixed unreality hanging over the lives of the characters for the week or so in which the story takes place; and possibly (I’m not familiar with London) that frozen, golden moment in time when an old city neighborhood still has a faint grip on reality, before the final plunge into the hands of the very, very rich.  Like characters in a piece of existentialist theater, Ellis’ three women never exit the stage (or in the case of Barbs the New Age-y American everyone secretly loathes, never makes an entrance), only wander back and forth from each other’s kitchens, in and out of the garden.

And they talk.  They talk about their lives, and they talk about Barbs–who disappeared without a trace without taking her purse–but never quite manage to do anything about them.  Constance sells jewelry that she Frankensteins from antique costume pieces and reads widely.  She inherited her mothers’ house, in which her large family of gipsy entrepreneurs store cardboard boxes of dubious origin.  She has Cypriot lover who may not be–but probably is–cheating on her.  Scarlet is the depressed wife of a nouveau riche advertising executive.  Her teenaged daughter Camille cuts classes and wanders around sitting on curbs and cadging drinks in tapas bars with her friends, exquisitely disillusioned and bored.

None of which tells you how good the book is.  This passage might start to give you a clue:

“You’ve got me now, anyway,” said Memet.  I’d never see you short of money.  You know that.”

“Do I?” said Constance.

Memet looked at her, uncomprehendingly.  Being a man, he could not understand why she should sound so doubtful.

“I’d never let you go short of anything,” he said, “and if anybody hurt you, you know what I’d do.”

“Yes, yes,” said Constance.  “I know what you’d do.  Blood everywhere.”

Memet was wounded by this.  “Why do you say it like that,” he asked, “as though you didn’t believe me?”

“It’s not that, said Constance, “I believe you all right.  Only when you’ve got brothers like mine, what you want is a bit of peace.  All my life I’ve had brothers breathing down my neck, watching my every move, checking on who I’m going out with and what time I’m getting home.  If I ever got talking to some man in a pub, it was more than his life was worth.  My brothers’d be watching his every move, just hoping he’d put a foot wrong so they could jump in and scrag him.  It wasn’t so much my virtue they were worried about as their own standing in the community.  They’re very medieval, my brothers.  So what I mean is . . .,” she said after a moment’s thoughtful silence, “it’s very nice of you, but I don’t need any more bother.”

Memet was silent too: he was more deeply offended that he could permit himself to show.  Constance, in a few words, had insulted his dignity, his pride, his sense of exclusiveness, his manhood.  He was beginning to get annoyed.

After an unnaturally long pause Constance became aware of this.  She had been injudicious.  Her worry about his probable infidelity had led her to attack him in an irresponsibly dangerous manner.  If she had spoken truthfully and expressed her doubts about his faithfulness, he would have been flattered, gentle, and full of mirth.  She had felt she’d rather die than give him the satisfaction, but now she’d have to be clever, for by implication she had denigrated his power and his commitment to protect her.  Not, she thought, that she needed his or anybody’s protection.  She had been well able to look after herself since she had been about seven . . .  But physical victory was a poor thing to a woman and little to preen herself on: any fool could disable another with a judicious cast of fist or foot, a neatly wielded weapon, or a dirty trick.  Her real power lay in her knowledge of others, her awareness of the weakness of men, the destructive weight of a well-timed laugh.  Telling a man the simple truth could reduce him to wreck, so that, on the whole, she held her punches and her tongue knowing how deeply she could wound. . .

Constance and Camille are the most likable of Ellis’ characteristically unappealing characters.  At least their faults are the natural result of being in love and and being on the cusp of adulthood, respectively; and they are funny.  Camille, especially.  You can tell Ellis spent a lot of time around teenagers.

“You’ve got bags under your pretty little eyes, Mum,” she said in her normal voice.  “I’ll wring you out a couple of tea bags.”

“That’s kind,” said Scarlet.  I think I’ve got a touch of hangover.”

“I’m not surprised,” said Brian, “not after what you put away last night.”

Once upon a time Camille would have dipped her oar in here: she would have turned on Brian for attacking her mother or chided her mother in no uncertain terms for being a drunken slut.  Or possibly, she would have done a bit of both.  As it was, she smiled, rather falsely, for while laughter came naturally to her, smiling, as yet, did not, since only babies and adults can smile with conviction: she realized that her face felt uncomfortable wearing this expression and reverted to her habitual frown.

Scarlet was relieved, since Camille’s adolescent smile had reminded her of the expression on the face of some ancient, alien reptile.  “Don’t be late home, darling,” she implored.

Pillars of Gold also has a definite plot and structure–good ones–which it could almost have done without; I’d have been happy to eavesdrop on Constance and Scarlet’s drunken late-night talks for a whole book twice as long.

A. A. Knopf, 1957 (first pub. Japan, 1948)
Translated from the Japanese by Edward G. Seidensticker
Finished: April 2010
Source: heard about the author at Chasing Bawa
Genre: Novel with a capital N
On the Scales: heavyweight

The plot was quiet and multi-streamed. The characters were both recognizable and completely themselves. If I tried to describe them, I’d never talk about this book at all. But I did want to tell you what reading Junichiro Tanizaki for the first time felt like: it felt like finding out about a cache of never-before-seen completed manuscripts by Jane Austen.

If you have ever sat around around sighing, “I’m sad that I’ve read everything Jane Austen wrote,” be happy! Because you can read something oh-so-much-closer to Pride and Prejudice than Regency spinoffs.

Tanizaki was known for his European sensibility, but that’s not the connection. Neither is the way the story revolves on a shabby-genteel family’s anxious preoccupations with eligible batchelors, reputation, and the need for daughters be married in the proper order–though it was an uncanny parallel for two cultures so far apart. I believe what made reading The Makioka Sisters so like reading Jane Austen was the way both writers set up the tension between individuals and the constraints of their social circle without placing their authorial selves outside the circle. Instead they draw us in, and they do this so expertly that we can take even the most alien cultural imperatives for granted. I guess what I’m saying is that Austen and Tanizaki have similar voices. Sympathetic omnipotence?

Restrained empathy?

Quite often when I am reading a piece of emotionally complex fiction, I get the feeling that there is no backstage; the author is sweating and strutting along with his characters–which can be fine, but there is a special pleasure in the kind of book where someone is very definitely behind the scenes running the show, and an almost sublime pleasure in the best examples.

The Makioka Sisters is most excellent capital-N Novel I’ve read for years. I am going to parcel out Tanizaki’s other work slowly. For emergencies.

Harcourt Brace and Co., 1947

(most essays previously published)

Finished: early April

Source: Nymeth at Things Mean a Lot

Genre: essays

On the Scales: middleweight

It was a bit unfair of me to write this review in two acts, because there’s no more drama.  Once I had been apprised of my barbaric incompetence as an English speaker, my conversation with Dorothy Sayers was through.  I’d read everything but the Holmesian criticism: “Holmes’ College Career,” “Dr. Watson’s Christian Name,” “Dr. Watson, Widower,” and “The Dates in The Red Headed League.”  My Sherlock Holmes was too rusty to appreciate them–and I wasn’t in the mood.  Sayers says that the rule for this sort of essay is “it must be played as a county cricket match at Lord’s: the slightest touch of extravagance or burlesque ruins the atmosphere.”  She meant it.  They are the driest things in the book.  I wonder if Laurie King has read them?


I don’t regret the time I spent reading Unpopular Opinions.  I would do it again.  I am even thinking of getting my hands on my own copy.  After my last post Jenny of Jenny’s Books pointed out that even when she is spouting complete [insert crass noun of choice] Sayers’ turns of phrase are charming, and it is so true!  It was stimulating to read such repugnant assertions couched in such fine style–a crash course in appreciation of style regardless of content.  Good for my brain.


You will notice I didn’t talk about “Are Women Human?” and “The Human-Not-Quite-Human.”  That is because anything I might say about Sayers’ feminism or the delightful humor you’ll find in these essays would be redundant if you read Nymeth’s review at Things Mean A Lot.

As for the theological essays, time and cultural distance may have turned them into curiosities, but they go down like a bowl of cherries as long as you are willing to spit the pits.  She takes an understandably hard line in “Forgiveness,“ as it was written during the war, and rejected by the newspaper editor who commissioned it because he “wanted and got [from someone else] . . . Christian sanction for undying hatred against the enemy.”

That isn’t to say I agreed with it.

One thing emerges from all this: that forgiveness is not a doing-away of consequences [Check.]; nor is it primarily a remission of punishment [Check.].  A child may be forgiven and “let off” punishment or punished and forgiven; either way may bring good results.  But no good will come of leaving him unpunished and unforgiven [Double check.]  Forgiveness is the reestablishment of a right relationship, in which the parties can genuinely feel [italics mine] and behave as freely with one another as thought the unhappy incident had never taken place.  But it is impossible to enjoy a right relationship with an offender who, when pardoned, continues to behave in an obdurate and unsocial manner to the injured party and to those whom he has injured, because there is something in him that obstructs the relationship.  So that, while God does not, and man dare not, demand repentance as a condition for bestowing pardon, repentance remains an essential condition for receiving it.

Something didn’t sit quite right with me, and it had to do with that “genuinely feels.”

By Sayers’ definition, forgiveness between equals must be very rare.  It would work when a parent forgives a child, or a Deity forgives a mortal, but in those cases no one has taken an emotional injury. For injury, there needs to be equality.  A parent isn’t hurt when her child behaves badly because the child (usually) is not sophisticated enough to be naughty with the deliberate intention of causing emotional harm to her parent–and certainly not of actually causing it.  A boundary been transgressed, that’s all.  The ritual of forgiveness must be played out for the sake of the child, who needs to learn it in order to live with other people, and for the adult, who needs to feel she is doing her job as a parent.

When a parent forgives a child, everyone can “genuinely feel” that nothing unhappy has taken place, because it hasn’t.  Not in the way of malice between equals.  Like physical injuries, emotional injuries don’t just disappear on command, they have to heal.  Until they heal there is no way the injured party can “genuinely feel” unhurt.  I take issue with Sayers’ claim that the ritual of forgiveness, properly conducted, results in the practical equivalent of an undoing of harm.  That trivializes forgiveness on one hand and makes us all failures (or self-deceivers) on the other.

Sayers’ distinction between the conditions for bestowing pardon and receiving it strikes me an ugly work-around for the injured.  It robs them of the healing grace of the ritual.  “Here’s your forgiveness.  I’m setting it right here.  But–nah, nah!–it’s just going to rot.  You can’t have it because you’re still making me mad!”


Have you ever enjoyed a prickly book because it was good for your brain?

Harcourt Brace and Co, 1947

(most essays previously published)

Finished: early April

Source: Nymeth at Things Mean a Lot

Genre: essays

On the Scales: middleweight

I opened this collection of essays with the same confident anticipation as a really good chocolate bar.  Der Mann and I had just watched the BBC Wimsey and Vane adaptations then listened to an audio version of Strong Poison that had us laughing like goofballs.  She was every bit as great as everyone was saying!

Such was my confidence, I stopped to read the introduction.

I have called this collection of fugitive pieces Unpopular Opinions, partly, to be sure, because to warn a person off a book is the surest way of getting him to read it, but chiefly because I have evidence that all the opinions expressed have in fact caused a certain amount of annoyance one way and the other . . .

Ho, ho! I chuckle.  I skip introductions because I have found that they often make me like a book less, and never make me like it more; but how could any opinion that annoyed the po-faced hoi polloi of the first half of the 20th century possibly annoy modern me?  And what’s more fun than a guiltless laugh at the past’s expense, through the eyes of woman so eminently ahead of her own time?  I read on:

. . . Speaking generally, the first section courts unpopularity by founding itself on theology and not on “religion.”  The second will offend all those who are irritated by England and the English, all those who use and enjoy slatternly forms of speech, all manly men, womenly women, and people who prefer wealth to work.  The third will annoy those who cannot bear other people to enjoy themselves in their own way.

My laughter grows nervous.  I have been moved to irritation by England and the English at times.  Notice how Sayers lumps me together with entitled slackers and those who patronize the literary equivalent of prostitutes.  I feel her rapier wit turning, turning . . . and a sudden need to duck.

The essays are divided into three sections: theological, political, and critical.  The theological section includes work that could be called philosophical, like “Towards a Christian Aesthetic”–less about Christianity and more about aesthetics and ethics, with a look at Plato and Aristotle.  The critical section features Sayers’ foray into the genre of spoof literary criticism that treats the Sherlock Holmes stories as memoir.  The political section includes her famous feminist essays “Are Women Human?” and “The Human-Not-Quite-Human,” but aside from those, is mostly given over to essays about English national character English usage.

“The Mysterious English” is a speech delivered in London in 1940.  To an English audience.  Remember that.  Actually, no need: Sayers makes it pretty hard to forget.  After she describes the history and geography that have contributed to make England an Island Nation of proud mongrels, the very essence of which is its integrative spirit (“If ever you hear a man boast of his pure English blood, he may be a Bostonian, he may be a Jew; but whatever he is he is not English.”), she speaks about language (for of course only one real language has ever been spoken at a given time by the people that matter in the Island Nation) and finally draws her thesis up to the present era:

A direct result of the mongrel nature of the English, and a thing very noticeable about them, is that they have never in their lives been what the Germans still are, that is, a Volk.  From the first beginnings of their Englishry they have been, not a race, but a nation.  The comparative absence of folk-music and folk-customs from England is remarkable, compared with their energetic survival in, say, the Highlands of Scotland; and the English have never had a folk-costume at all.  The thing that ties them together is not a consciousness of common blood so much as a common law, a common culture and a very long memory of national consciousness.  The law, generally speaking, is Saxon; the culture, generally speaking, is continental.

I could rip this apart.  Not in anger, Ms. Sayers.  But in terms of European and British history, I could come up with a pretty darned good argument to counteract pretty much every assertion (implied or otherwise) in this paragraph—and you are so much smarter than me!  Really, how could you put yourself in such a position?

Well, yes, I understand your audience’s need to dissociate themselves from Volk just now, and I understand this is rhetoric, not a scholarly essay.  Perhaps if I just read the rest as if it were called “How The English Needed to See Themselves In 1940,” I will remain un-irritated and avoid the needle-sharp point of your scorn.  Back to national character:

We are not a military nation, as has sometimes been said; and I doubt whether it is correct to call us a martial race; but we are an adventurous people.  We are the magpies of Europe.  We love to decorate ourselves with foreign spoils, mental and spiritual as well as material.  We feel we are in no danger of losing our own individuality by decking ourselves in these borrowed plumes.  Insecurity tends to turn the soul inwards upon itself, so that it keeps on reckoning itself up to see that it is all there . . . but security looks outward.

That’s interesting.  You are not military Volk.  Not “a martial race.”  I believe that your next point will be that your own stab at a worldwide Empire (unlike some we could name) was a reflection of your innate confident eclecticism.  Is that right?

England is an adventurer and a collector of unconsidered trifles.  It would be true to say that she did not conquer her Empire; she did not even very deliberately acquire it in the interests of her trade; the fact that she collected it casually, and almost accidentally, in a spirit of lighthearted adventure, as a sailor will collect monkeys and parrots and, like the sailor, found herself committed to looking after the creature.  The English, though they have done a good deal of conquering in this random kind of way, have never considered themselves to be a nation of conquerors, in the sense that Hitler understands the word, or even as Caesar understood it.  We do not see ourselves as invaders of conquered territory.  It is true that if you turn out the Englishman’s luggage you will find it full of bits of land of alien origin; but the possessor will explain, with perfect sincerity, and more truth than you might suppose, that he never had any idea of foreign conquest.  He was just roving about the world doing a little business, when he came across something, the Elgin Marbles, or Cleopatra’s Needle, or an island or so, or possibly half a continent that nobody seemed to be looking after, and he just slipped it in his pocket to take care of it.

What is more he does take care of it.  Like the sailor with the parrot, he feels it is his duty to feed it, make it comfortable, and teach it the English language, and will go to a surprising amount of trouble and expense to do the right thing by it.

I see.  You just happened to put India in your pocket because it needed looking after.  Yes!  I’m irritated.  I’m irritated at the English capacity to use self-deprecating humor to legitimize self-congratulatory self-deception!  I’m irritated at the English!  I’m irritated at YOU Dorothy Leigh Sayers!  Happy?!

Or wait a minute.  Maybe the joke was on me all along?

It is not surprising that the European should suspect a certain hypocrisy in this apparent contradiction between the Englishman’s repudiation of the idea of conquest and the plain fact that he has succeeded in laying hands on so much of the Earth’s surface.  Yet there is really no hypocrisy, and no true contradiction.  Both things spring from the same root: the powerful sense of national solidarity, which results from his being an island mongrel.  His outward security has made it easy for him to go roaming about the world; his mixed blood has made a roaming life agreeable to him.  Like Kipling’s cat he walks in the wild woods, waving his wild tail, and all places are alike to him.

Exactly.  Why.  I’m.  Still.  Mad.

If we’re going to make it a matter of blood–something I would think, Ms. Sayers, you might show a little more reluctance to do in 1940–I suppose you could say this is my Celtic bias.  If you ignore Scandinavia and the Continent, my blood’s a lot more Welsh and Irish than English; what’s more, all the most interesting ancestors and best stories come from those bits of the family.  So let’s just say I’m a raging Celt, genetically programmed to take an obtuse angle on the age-old argument between dominant culture (“All places are alike, so what’s your problem?”) and marginalized culture (“We are us.  We don’t want to be you.”).  Fine.  I don’t mind.  I cede the point.  Let’s wipe the slate clean.

What next, now that we’re friends again?  You know how much I adore your writing.  How about “The English Language” (1936), since I’m sure it’s something we both can agree on.  I’m just wild to hear what you have to say about those slatterns who debase “the richest, noblest, most flexible and sensitive language ever written or spoken since the age of Pericles”!

It is well, then, to know what we mean and to learn how to say it in English.  And by English I mean English, not any other tongue.  In a day when the British Broadcasting Corporation imports its language committee from Ireland and Scotland, and when Fleet Street swarms with Scots, Irish and Americans, it is well to remember that all these persons are foreigners; that the Scots and the Irish were so from the beginning and that the Americans have become so; that they speak our language as foreigners; and that while it is childlike and charming in us to enjoy their sing-song speech and their quaint foreign barbarisms, to imitate these things is childishness and folly.  It is true that a language thrives by piracy: it will do us no harm to adopt a striking word of slang or a vivid turn of expression.  We must not, however, give our pure gold for cowrie-shells or abandon our beautiful and useful grammatical tools because these barbarians do not know how to handle them.

[About to hurl the book across the room, Trapunto pauses thoughtfully at the sight of it’s first American edition green cloth binding and puts in a bookmark instead.]

End of Act I

translated from the French by Barbara Bray

Pantheon, 1985

Finished: April 2010

Source: Jenny at Shelf Love

Genre: arty, psychological historical novel

On the Scales: heavyweight

It was strange to read this book so soon after No Signposts In the Sea. The Lover is a very different novel with some shared themes–so different, I hesitate to call it better even though I think it is.  Denser, certainly.  Both are short books featuring voyages by sea from the East to the West and West to East with all that entails atmospherically and metaphorically.  Where No Signposts lacks structure, in The Lover–like a poem–the structure is inseparable from the message.

The Lover is a spiral.  It circles back again and again to a series of events that transformed the narrator–now in unhappy late middle-age–to her adult self.  Imagine a whirlpool or someone who keeps lifting the needle from a phonograph record and putting it back in an old groove, trying to hear something new in the music.  To understand.

On the surface it’s the story of a precocious sexual coming-of-age: a 15-year-old French girl takes up with a young Chinese businessman in pre-WWII Indochina.  Through a set of circumstances relating to her peculiar home life, the affair is an open secret in the small expatriate community.  They look the other way while sneering under their breath.

Race comes up, but it isn’t at the heart of the book.  The “lover” of the title refers not to the besotted Chinese but to the 15-year-old in her schoolgirl pigtails, bargain basement lamé pumps, and her instinctively fetishized fedora.  “How can it be that some are born to be lovers, and never to love?” the narrator seems to be asking the girl, though never in quite in so many words.

The answer comes in the form of the girl’s widowed mother.  Each time we circle back for a look at her, the woman is madder, more pathetic, and more deeply hated by her daughter.  After a while of this we begin to realize that the narrator’s reluctance–perhaps inability–to show us that Her Mom Was Just Plain Nuts until somewhere around the middle of the book is a sign of  how collusive she was in her daughter’s bungled launch and her sons’ fiery disasters on the launchpad.

This book was fantastic.  It might not be for everyone.  I liked Duras for not pulling punches (the novel is said to be a memoir to some extent), but others might find her harsh and self-obsessed.  If you can stand brutal, desperate teenagers without much innocence to lose, fatigued existentialists, cyclical narratives, and the subtle cruelties of family dynamics against a backdrop of crumbling colonialism–and you like gorgeous writing–you will enjoy it, too.

Viking, 2008

Finished: April-ish 2010

Source: checking library catalog

Genre: YA fantasy with a moral and several Issues

On the Scales: welterweight

Don’t read this book.  If you haven’t read any other Graham Joyce novels, skip it and read Dark Sister or The Limits of Enchantment.  Then, if you are brave and have a strong stomach and stronger nerves, read Indigo.  Chase it with The Facts of Life so you can get to sleep that night.

Joyce writes what they were calling interstitial fiction a while back–a term designed to repel all boarders if ever there was one.  It applies to Mr. Joyce because (this frustrates me so much!) he is the sort of uncategorizable writer who keeps getting swept into the cracks.

It’s also worth mentioning that he’s British, because more than most, his sensibility for 20th century British cultural history is a big part of what makes his books so great.

Points In Favor of Graham Joyce

1.  Atmosphere:  Local, complex, and pregnant.

2. Characters:  Lively and believable, especially when he takes you inside their heads.

3.  Plotting and Pacing:  Flawless, tight.

4.  Description:  Concise.  Almost magically evocative.  Rich visual details never bore or overwhelm the reader.  And he does macro and micro equally well.

5.  Dialog:  Wry, charged, and individually tailored to the character.  Often very funny when juxtaposed with characters’ thoughts (see 2).

6.  Ideas:  Diabolical.  Moving.  Mythic.  Weird.  Feminist.  Fantastical.  Reassuring.

Points Against Graham Joyce

Just one–he shouldn’t be using the YA template.  Joyce’s YA novels are exceptional.  You won’t find better “issues” books.  With coming-of-age themes evident in so much of his work, he’s a natural candidate for the current crop of suspense/magical realist YA writers…it’s just not what he does best.  Which we all know is what every author ought to be doing.  Chain him to his desk and crack the whip.

Entertain, minon!

Joyce allows himself the frayed children’s lit device of a magical object that teaches a lesson.  That’s okay; he’s one of the few authors who could pull it off.  The real problem with The Exchange was that it was too short.  There simply wasn’t enough time for him to give Caz and her magic bracelet his usual treatment.  Aside from Caz and a couple of classmates, all the charachers are loosely sketched grownups–not looking too closely at the inner workings of grownups (ick!) being a YA tradition.  I enjoyed them anyway: lovelorn tatooist, bossy old lady, depressed mom, painfully nerdy male teacher.  Joyce couldn’t help help making them real.

For example:

The next day in school, Caz is called to see Mrs Crabb, the Head.  Mrs Crabb is a kindly old stick, but she takes no nonsense.  She reeks of cigarette smoke because outside of lesson times she is a chain smoker.  The fingertips of her right hand are the colour of acorns because of the nicotine, and her teeth look like a mouthful of autumn leaves.  Aside from that, the kids like her, and Caz does, too.

She has a “study,” which is actually just a stockroom piled high with dusty old books from the 1960s.  There’s a small desk and two chairs.  Even though no smoking is allowed inside the school, Caz thinks the “study” smells like a pub ashtray.

Caz and her friend get underage jobs bussing tables at a bar.  I especially liked this walk-on part for a amatuer rock singer:

It’s a strange night at the pub.  The band playing that evening are spectacularly bad– so awful that people drift away–and by ten o’clock only a handful of drinkers are left.   The sound less like a rock band than a group of road diggers in hard helmets.  Caz hears Frank Swear.  “That’s it!” he shouts above the industrial din.  He marches to the side of the stage and suddenly the guitars go dead.  The drummer plays on regardless.  He’s in his own world, drumming with his eyes closed.  The singer, a guy with eyebrows that join in the middle and a ratty fringe hanging in his eyes, bellows away for a few moments until he catches the sound of his own miserable wailing.  He looks astonished at how bad his voice is, as if he’s never heard it before.  Then the drummer opens his eyes and drops one of his drumsticks.

The band all turn and look at each other.  Then they all look at Frank.  He’s holding the main supply plug high up in the air for them to see.  The entire pub goes quiet, as do Caz, Lucy, and the rest of the bar staff.  The silence is broken by someone who claps and cheers Franks intervention.

“You’ll thank me for this one day,” Frank says.

“What?” spits the singer.

“Every young band needs to be told the truth of how bad they are if they’re to get better.  That’s why I say you’ll thank me when I tell you that you are the biggest pile of garbage ever to stand on that stage.  And believe me we’ve had some crap here at The Black Dog.”

“I’ll second that!” shouts one of the stalwart drinkers.

I just got the papercut of my life.  Shirt cardboard.  Between writing the above and coming back to the computer to post it, I went to start a load of wash, and I wanted to put a new T-shirt in the load.  It was wrapped in plastic, folded on a piece of cardboard.

I ripped it open, and it ripped me open.

I pulled the full length of the long edge of the cardboard through my pinky.  Ow, ow, ow!  I always forget how much these things hurt.