30 November 2016

the uncanny valley.

explained for English majors, by an English major.

Right, you know when you're in a used-book store, one of those wonderful tiny ones where the books are organized by subject matter and nothing else, and the shelves are improbably high and if you tried to take a book down off the top shelf everything would fall down and kill you, probably? And there's a cat, because of course there's a cat, and it's absurdly satisfied with itself? Which it deserves to be, if you lived here you'd be satisfied with yourself too. You wouldn't mind trading lives with that cat for a week or so.

You circle the store in no great hurry. You poke through the section labeled Esoterica, hoping to find some Charles Fort (you've been re-reading From Hell lately) but all you can find are dusty paperbacks about astrology and candle magick and that sort of thing. You almost buy a translation of The Golden Ass, but you're trying lately not to buy books that you can trivially find from the library, so you leave it, even though it's by a translator you admire a great deal. In general living so near a public library rather punctures your enthusiasm for book-buying; what you really covet is that lovely bust of Hippocrates, which isn't for sale. Textbooks you still buy, though, so you dutifully (futilely) examine all the New Testament commentaries in hopes of finding the ones you've been assigned for Advanced Koinē next semester.

You also seriously consider a novel by A.S. Byatt, but your mother loves Byatt and so you reckon she probably owns a copy—you can borrow it over Christmas break. If she doesn't have it you can just re-read Possession; it's been over a year. In Drama you accidentally pick up some anti-Stratfordian literature, and because you're absurdly overdramatic you make an audible noise of disgust when you realize what it is you're holding. This is by far your favorite bit of the store, in the absence of any discernible sci-fi shelves, and in between looking at nice editions of your favorite Shakespeare plays you reiterate to yourself your long-standing intention to finally read The Revenger's Tragedy. 

Another thing that catches your eye over here is a little hardback of the first quarto of Hamlet, the bad quarto of 1603. You take it down and open it at random, and the first line your gaze falls on is Corambis (the bad quarto's equivalent of Polonius) saying "He hath, my lord, won from me a forced grant." The Folio line, you know very well, is "He hath, my lord, won from me my slow leave." It's almost exactly the same thing—scans the same, means the same. But this version is completely nails-on-chalkboard wrong to you, so wrong that you can't even judge on its own merits how good a line it is. It's the wrong line, end of, and it feels even more wrong because it's so close to the line you already know. You've always thought of Shakespeare as a binary state, whereby any given text is either Shakespeare or not-Shakespeare, but this is almost Shakespeare, and it makes you physically uncomfortable.

And, yeah, the uncanny valley is that feeling but with robots.

you thought I was joking about the cat, didn't you?

9 November 2016

I don't know what to say, but I'm still here. Heartbroken, and taking time to fully absorb what's happened. I've been rereading the C.S. Lewis essay "Learning in War-Time" all day long, because it's the only way to keep myself doing my schoolwork and not giving up entirely.
The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure the search would never have begun. [...] Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never comes.
All the animal life in us, all schemes of happiness that centred in this world, were always doomed to a final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise man can realize it. Now the stupidest of us knows. We see unmistakably the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it. If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon. If we thought that for some souls, and at some times, the life of learning, humbly offered to God, was, in its own small way, one of the appointed approaches to the divine reality and the divine beauty which we hope to enjoy hereafter, we can think so still.
And so I'm doing the work I can do. If you're afraid: so am I, and I'm sorry, and I'm here for you. Read this; it helped me a little and it might help you too. Let's all be kind to each other, and work for knowledge and beauty as much as we can. Κύριε ἐλέησον. Χριστέ ἐλέησον.

7 November 2016

a series of promises in the event that I am magically transported to London 1601.

This exists in lieu of an actual review of Saving Hamlet, a new YA novel in which the protagonist is magically transported to London 1601. It's essentially a much less good version of Susan Cooper's King of Shadows, which is one of my favorite children's novels of all time. It was fun even so, but I had mixed feelings about it, largely because the central time traveler is so unrealistically incompetent that I was cringing throughout. This is a recurrent problem with time travel narratives; one of the few things I wholeheartedly admire about myself is that I know I would do a very good job of time traveling. Most of the below are not based on specific things the protagonist of Saving Hamlet does, but some of them would be good advice for her nevertheless.

See also this and this.


I will cheerfully eat and/or drink absolutely anything that anyone offers me. I will drink ale like it's water. I will not drink water, unless I am able to discreetly boil it.

I will not go around boiling water: that would attract attention.

If anyone suggests that I join them to go watch the bear-baiting, I will respond with enthusiasm and a blithe unconcern for the humane treatment of animals. This is a normal thing, I will say, and I am delighted to join you in this, a normal event which we will both without reservation enjoy.

I will be very grateful that my sense of smell is naturally quite weak, but to be completely safe I will not comment at all, even once, on the smell of anything. All smells I am smelling are normal smells, and I, a normal inhabitant of 1601, am completely okay with them. (The exception will be if I smell smoke—buildings of this period are extremely flammable, as am I, and I'm taking no risks.)

I will be very grateful that I'm not squeamish about blood.

I will express surprise at nothing; I will put forward no opinions.

I will do all in my power to ensure that no one notices me.

I will conjugate all verbs correctly. If I am unsure of how to conjugate a verb, I will not use it. There is always a workaround.

I will be aware of my use of pronouns. "You" is for strangers, social superiors, and groups of two or more. "Thou" is for friends, social inferiors, and supernatural beings. "Ye" is a plural form of "thou." I will not confuse these, but if I do I will err on the side of "you."

Despite my commitment to accurate EModE, I will not say "forsooth"; it will make me sound ridiculous. I might say "i'faith," but only if I hear other people doing it first.

Under no circumstances will I call anyone "nuncle."

I will not try to do the accent, because I have my pride. I will take as many notes as possible on the accent, though I will not let anyone notice me doing so; upon returning to my own time, I will anonymously mail these notes to Ben Crystal.

I will not attempt to invent feminism.

I will not attempt to invent vaccines.

I will not attempt to invent the germ theory of disease.

I will accept, generally, that I understand nothing about modern medicine, and that anything I say or do will help absolutely no one and might make people think I'm a witch.

That said, if I can actually do something to save somebody's life, I will.

I will express no doubts regarding the efficacy of bloodletting; in general, I will enthusiastically align myself with humor theory. Bile, man, am I right? (It will help that I already low-level believe in humor theory. Do I know it's been discredited? Yes. Do I avoid eating mustard when I'm in a bad mood? Religiously.)

I will figure out exactly what the deal was with Will Kempe and the Lord Chamberlain's Men. Any breakup that ends in one of the parties Morris dancing to Norwich must be a really good story.

I will remember that Shakespeare has not yet written Measure for Measure, All's Well that Ends Well, King Lear, Timon of Athens, Macbeth, Antony & Cleopatra, Pericles, Coriolanus, Cymbeline, The Tempest, or Two Noble Kinsmen. I will make no reference to any of these plays. I will be wary of mentioning Twelfth Night, Troilus and Cressida, and Hamlet, all of which date to 1601 +/- a couple years. I will under no circumstances reference any of his sonnets at all; none of them have yet been published.

Anything by Kit Marlowe is fair game, though; he's already dead.

When I attempt to place evidence of myself in the historical record, I will do so subtly and with as little true anachronism as possible.

I will be extremely polite to Richard Burbage.

If I meet Edward de Vere, I will punch him in the face, and I will refuse to explain why. I may or may not seek him out for this express purpose.

3 November 2016

october bookblogging.

Susan Howatch, The Wonder Worker. Astute readers may remember that over the summer I read the Starbridge series, a collection of novels focusing on the Church of England from the thirties to the sixties. Later on, Howatch wrote three more in the series, featuring a different setting but lots of the same characters. These are the St. Benet's Trilogy, about a London-based ministry of healing. The thing I love about Howatch is her characters. They all feel so real, and coming back to her world after a few months away was like paying a call on old friends. Unlike the Starbridge books, this book has a different narrator for each part: Alice Fletcher, Lewis Hall, Rosalind Darrow, and Nicholas Darrow. The changing perspectives worked very well to build a full picture of events. I was able to see—for example—from Lewis' perspective that Rosalind was utterly ghastly and all wrong for Nicholas, and then I was able to see from Rosalind's perspective how agonizing it must be to be Nick's wife, and how having Lewis around wasn't helping even a little. Nuance! None of these people are terrible, although they can be terrible to one another. They all need lots of help. And divine grace.

Alejandro Zambra, Multiple Choice. Experimental Chilean novel (short stories? poetry? game?) written in the form of a multiple-choice test. It took me a while to get into the spirit of things, but it got better as it went and ultimately I think it's a successful project.

Ryan North & Erica Henderson, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel, You Really Got Me Now. And just like that there's three whole ongoing comics series I care about. (Saga and Ms. Marvel, obviously.) Doreen Green is a sophomore computer-science major with all the powers of squirrel! She fights crime! Where was this comic book when I was twelve! It's a warm-hearted all-ages comic, it's really funny, and Henderson's art is delightful.

David Prudhomme, Cruising Through the Louvre. Immersive and magical. A man wanders around the Louvre, feeling as though he's in an enormous comic book. Minimal dialogue and narration, lots of wonderful sketches of museum patrons. My favorite bits are the parallels between the patrons and the art, especially on the Raft of the Medusa page. Looking at people looking at art is one of my favorite parts of the museum experience, and Prudhomme captures that so beautifully.

Howatch, The High Flyer. I don't know what it is with Susan Howatch. Her early books were so subtle and psychologically nuanced. This book is not really either of those things. (Well, maybe the second. Definitely not the first.) Carter Graham is a high-powered City lawyer; her husband Kim has, depending on how you count, no fewer than three dark secrets. One of them involves Nazis; one of them involves gnosticism. The number and general over-the-topness of Kim's revelations rapidly leads to diminishing returns, such that the entire plotline becomes less shocking than funny. There's a lot to like here—Carter herself is well-drawn, and the St. Benet's crew are as lovely as ever—but overall it's a weak entry in the series.

Howatch, The Heartbreaker. A step up from The High Flyer, though still not up to her earlier standard. I think my major issue with these three is that they focus almost entirely on the laity, which means they lack all the church politics from the earlier volumes. It turns out I really was largely in it for the clerical infighting and archidiaconal scorn.

ed. Jack Lindsay, Loving Mad Tom. A collection of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Bedlamite songs. Folklore nerds, for the use of. (No, you regularly Google MA programs in folkloristics.) This was published in the twenties and reprinted in the seventies and is now out of print, and all I can say is thank God for college library privileges—it looks as though my other option would have been to buy it for $223 from Amazon. Which, like, if that sounds like a good deal to you then by all means go for it, though I'm not sure how wholeheartedly I can recommend that. In terms of the texts themselves it's an invaluable resource, but I wish the notes were less cumbersome to navigate. It's a good and important volume but not as user-friendly as it could be. (Also, shout-out to the foreword, by Robert Graves, which contains the following line on "Tom o' Bedlam": "All that need by said is that the author was someone pretty good." Same, bro.)

North & Henderson, Squirrel Power & Squirrel, You Know It's True. See above.

Pat Barker, Regeneration. A historical novel about Siegfried Sassoon's time in psychiatric care. I was going to say "long on incident, short on plot," but in fact it's short on both those things. It's a beautiful novel and I admire it, but the fact is that nothing happens and I had trouble telling the characters apart.

Ada Palmer, Too Like the Lightning. A new sci-fi novel that's going to get nominated for all this year's awards, and if there's any justice in the world it's going to win the Tiptree. (Seriously, it'll upend your perceptions of gender if you give it half a chance.) It's a bit, a little bit, like if Susanna Clarke wrote sci-fi instead of fantasy, complete with the shock of wait, what, this is her first novel, WHAT. Like JS&MN, this is one of those books that takes a while to ease into because all the while it's teaching you how to read it. It's set in the twenty-fifth century but written in an eighteenth-century style. The world is intricate and multifaceted, and it gets into your head. The thing people will want to do with this book is argue about whether it's utopian or dystopian, and the argument will be as boring and wrongheaded as it always is. The world is a bit good and a bit bad, which is why it's convincing. I wouldn't want to live in Palmer's world, but I want some of the things that it has and I can see why other people would want to live there. It's also theological sci-fi, though the theology is very strange and I won't be able to comment on it properly until I've read the rest of the series.

Christopher Marlowe, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. This is such a weird play. It's got that sort of Grimm Brothers atmosphere of casual slapstick surrealism—which makes sense, of course, as the plot comes out of German folklore. "Let's be invisible and steal the Pope's dinner and then punch him!" and "that magician just ate a whole cartload of hay for literally no reason?" and "oh, I tried to wake this guy up and now his entire leg came off in my hand, this is fine," that sort of thing. Besides all that, Faustus' idea of earthly delights appears to be a) pranks b) arguing (he argues about existence of hell with a demon he just summoned out of hell; Faustus is too dumb to live—same with all that "think'st thou then that Faustus must be damned?" malarkey: you just now signed your soul over to Lucifer, my dude! Do you, like, not know what words mean, is that the problem?) and c) kissing Helen of Troy that one time. (He's always promising to make human sacrifices, which would be interestingly perverse and make a change from all the astronomy, but he never really seems to get around to it.) He does get a chariot drawn by dragons, but the dragons are offstage, probably on grounds of "Kit, we showed your draft to the props master and he started crying?" Mistake me not: this play is incredible. There are parts of it I would give a year of my life to have written, and I want to have sex with Kit Marlowe's brain. But, yeah, it's also kind of ridiculous. Feelings! They're complicated!

Dorothy Sayers, The Devil to Pay. Another play of the Faust legend, and it was not well served by being paired so directly with Marlowe. I grant that saying "Dorothy Sayers was not as good as Marlowe" does rather amount to praising her with faint damns. There's some really wonderful moments here—Faustus' soul being so degraded that even Mephistopheles isn't interested in it anymore is a neat touch, and I love the handling of Azrael—but on the whole this is very thin. I think that skill at writing everyday people, which served her so well in her life of Christ plays, is her undoing here; she tries to make Faustus believable and ends by making him ordinary. Ordinariness is of course the last thing I want from the Faustus myth, and the effect shows in the fact that though this play is occasionally clever, it is never terrifying. There are also rather too many things that go underexplained, and the gender roles are not at all what I'd expect from Sayers.

20 October 2016

recent gadding.

As a dedicated student, I make it a minor point of pride that I never go anywhere or do anything. (Joke. Don't write in.) I've never felt such kinship with Kierkegaard as when I learned that he used to go to the beginning of an opera, run home and write for the length of the show, and then come back for the end so as to be seen leaving. You're such a nerd, Søren; let's hang out. All of which means only that it's rather a surprising turn of events that I went to two different events in a row at the weekend, a panel at the Art Institute Friday night and a concert on campus Saturday.

clockwise from top: Ware, Panter, Chute, Kokielski.
Art21 Panel—Gary Panter, Chris Ware, and Hillary Chute, with moderator Tina Kokielski. I'm not familiar with Panter's work, but I studied Ware in my lit seminar in the spring, and I've used Chute's work when I've researched academic papers on comics. (Seriously, I can't recommend her book Graphic Women highly enough. She knows the score. Dr. Chute, if you're reading this: you know the score.) This event was hosted in Fullerton Hall, a really beautiful auditorium that I'd never been in before. It didn't have a very clear topic beyond "comics! we like 'em!" and although I also like 'em I think the lack of focus was a major weakness; still and all, the panelists had fascinating things to say and I enjoyed myself tremendously. I took extensive notes, which I won't share here (although hit me up if you want a look), but I am sharing from my notebook the drawings I made of the panelists. The thing about Ware, which I did not manage to capture in my sketch, is that although he remarked on his inability to draw self-portraits in fact he looks like one of his own characters to an almost alarming extent. I am not at all sure what to make of this. He also looks like my Uncle Paul, although that might just be my standard white-man-face-blindness.

What I am sure of is that everyone involved was very aware that we were there primarily to see Chris; before the discussion they showed a filmed segment of interviews with him interspersed with footage of his home and of him working in his studio. That, and the insight it provided into his process, was one of the most interesting bits. He bikes his young daughter to school every morning [insert here adorable footage of the two of them on a tandem, which delighted me because I used to ride behind my dad on a tandem when I was about her age] and works from eight to 2:45, at which point he goes to pick her up again. It takes about 40 hours to make a page, he said, which includes lots of time spent walking around hating himself—and "there's something interesting about spending a couple decades on a book that takes three or four hours to read." This self-deprecating attitude continued throughout: during the Q&A an audience member asked him to comment on the fact that his early work was much more curmudgeonly than what he's done lately, and looking discomfited he said "I guess I was just a bad artist."

Andrew Peterson at Pierce Auditorium. I don't really listen to music. There are a few artists I love with all my heart—come talk to me about Martin Carthy—and I'm vaguely fond of several others, but when I listen to something it's usually a podcast or radio program, and thinking about music doesn't often take up very much of my brainspace. I certainly don't go to concerts. The other aspect of all this is that when I listen to music don't listen to Christian music. I'm not happy about it, but there it is: Christian music today is mostly not very good. It saves time to take that for granted. This is why, when I went to the chapel that Andrew Peterson did last Friday morning, I was astonished to find out that he's actually good. No, really, he's proper good, like a male Carrie Newcomer. (He is not as good as Carrie Newcomer.) He can write lyrics, and he's got a lovely voice, besides which he's very funny.

I went therefore to his Saturday night concert, which was a longer version of his chapel set. It was transcendent; there wasn't a song that wasn't beautiful, and as soon as I left the building I texted my mother saying "if I feel as though the top of my head has been removed I know THAT is poetry." I can't talk about it in very much detail, because I don't understand music and I'm not familiar enough with his work to know the names of the songs he sang and because anyway it's so hard to write about art you loved (it's easier to be smugly cutting than honestly appreciative), but I will say that because of Paul Simon's recent birthday he played both "Homeward Bound" and "Song for the Asking," two songs which I adore with all my shriveled little heart. So, a win!

14 October 2016

poetry friday: notes on sonnet-making.

The Spanish proverb informs me, that he is a fool which cannot make one sonnet, and he is mad which makes two.
—John Donne


At the beginning of this school year, I decided to write a sonnet every week. This is the last day of midterms, and I'm pleased to announce I've only missed one week since records began. When I tell people about all this they're usually impressed, and because I've got a congenital malformation of my compliment-acceptance gland this makes me panic. My genuine knee-jerk reaction, which I usually manage not to say out loud, is "But Ezra Pound wrote a sonnet every day!"

Which, okay. A of all, no one is comparing me to Ezra Pound, literally no one would ever do that; second of b, Ezra Pound was literally a fascist. This is not role model material! Being like Ezra Pound is not anyone's standard for me—including, if I think about it sensibly, my own. Depressive realism is not all it's cracked up to be, kids.

Another friend I told about it said, with very flattering enthusiasm, "Are you blogging it?" I'm not, for several reasons. Some of my sonnets are part of longer sequences that I want to finish before I do anything with any of the component parts. Some of the best ones I'm keeping under my hat because I've got pretentions to publication. (The college lit journal has one of those under consideration at the moment!) Some of the others I keep to myself because they're not all that good. However, even if I'm not sharing (m)any of the sonnets themselves, it occurs to me that the project itself might interest people.


Why sonnets? Several reasons.

They're easy. Or, rather, they're in a sweet spot of difficulty: hard enough to be a challenge, easy enough to be a realistic challenge. They're not limericks; they're also not sestinas. (If you're writing a sestina every week I pity you—I do earnestly pity you.) They aren't all that long. And they're flexible. There are lots of variations on the sonnet form, really too many if I'm honest, and you can write them about really truly anything at all.

One of the most important things, though, is that I know what a good sonnet looks like. Many of my favorite poems are sonnets. I have lots of them memorized; most if not all of my favorite poets wrote or have written them. This is a container I can put my thoughts into. They fit.


So. The facts are these. My sonnets go in my planner. It's a pocket-sized Moleskine (other artsy notebooks are available), and every spread is laid out with the days of the week on the verso and a blank lined page on the recto. Every week, I draw a line fourteen lines up from the bottom of the recto: that's the sonnet block. It's a rule of mine that only final drafts go there; rough drafts get written on my phone/laptop/class notes/dining hall napkins, and then the poem is transferred into my planner once I'm reasonably happy with it. I provide a diagram below.

Midterms! (I took this photo about a week ago.)
The nice thing about this, besides meaning that I have all the sonnets in one place, is that it provides me with a space that I feel obliged to fill. I'm literally making space for poetry in my week. I don't sit down at a given time and say, right, got to do my poem now—but every week I go out into the world with the intention of thinking in a sonnet way, and having a blank space marked out helps with that. Making space in my planner leads me to make space in my mind.

That's what a lot of my poetic practices (the most pretentious phrase I've ever written, I'm genuinely sorry) are fundamentally about: making space. Another example is that I've almost entirely stopped using my earbuds out of doors. I use them so I can listen to music in the library while I work, or watch Flying Circus in bed without bothering my roommate, but I've stopped using them to listen to things while I'm walking around campus or around town. This means that I've fallen behind on my podcasts—except for The Hidden Almanac, which is the podcast of my heart and soul—but it's worth it. I'm making a point of paying attention to what I see and hear around me when I go walking, and of making time to be bored and think about nothing. This really is how poems happen. It's a way of organizing your mind. What am I seeing? What does it remind me of? What do I think about when I'm not thinking about anything? What happens when I let myself be bored?

Another thing I do to nurture poetic thought is read. Not just my academic reading, although obviously I keep up with my academic reading, but some of everything—feminist science fiction and weird comic books and my mother's favorite novels. I was talking to someone recently who said how much she respects people who manage to keep up with their non-academic reading during the school year, and as I talked about it with her what I realized is that I simply can't not. I think what I said then is that I don't feel in balance if I'm not in the middle of at least one book. It's one of those things I check if I'm feeling particularly rotten: am I hydrated? am I eating sensibly? have I called home recently? does my room need cleaning? and when was the last time I spent a decent chunk of time with a book?

Books are a vital ingredient to my mental health in a way that very few other things are, and they're also a vital ingredient to my health as a writer. You learn to write, or any way I have, by reading something and saying, I want to do that. I want to make someone else feel like this book makes me feel. And then you copy it, and then you keep copying it until your copies start turning into something that sounds like you. You never need to stop learning that way. I still want to be Diana Wynne Jones when I grow up.


What of the sonnets themselves?

They're all in iambic pentameter. I adore iambic pentameter. There's nothing in the world that's quite so fun. Sure, a ballad meter is nice, for a while, you can sing it and that's charming, and I have nothing against an anapest or a trochee now and again (dactyls are obviously right out), but fundamentally I was exposed to Shakespeare at too early an age and when my thoughts turn towards poetry they hum along in iambs. My meter sometimes stumbles, of course—even Homer nods, and part of my goal with this project was to develop my ear. I'm not as tin-eared as I might be, but I've got a long way to go. The sonnet writing has really helped, and I get into that frame of mind to the point where even my free verse sometimes comes out metrically.

As for rhyme scheme: sometimes it's Petrarchan, but usually it's Shakespearean. I think my Shakespearean sonnets are better, but I'm prouder of my Petrarchan sonnets. They really are bigger accomplishments; doing Italian rhyme schemes in English is hard. This week I wrote a blank verse sonnet, but that's only because of too much Wallace Stevens in my diet.


Several Sundays ago I took a train into Chicago and spent the afternoon in the Art Institute. I love the Art Institute, and I've written several poems about things I've seen there. That time they were displaying lots of satyr statuary, and so I wrote a poem about that. I wrote the octet in my head walking around the exhibits, and then I went to the café and bought some tea and wrote it all down, and while I finished my tea—did you know that the Art Institute sells really good tea?—I wrote the sestet. Here it is, both halves. I don't think it's that bad.

pic ganked from Sotheby's.

Lines on a Statue of Pan at the Art Institute of Chicago
A woodland deity often worshiped in caves, Pan had dominion over flocks and herds and is associated with nature’s bounty. Here the brutish creature slings a pitcher of wine over his shoulder. The hole drilled into the vessel indicates that this sculpture was once part of a fountain in its owner’s garden.
“Was once part of a fountain,” says the sign.
Naff garden art, the neighbors must have thought.
A statue of a satyr pouring wine?
There goes the neighborhood. What bloody rot.
First century kitsch, a piece of Roman junk—
I see no reason it should have survived.
If anything its value should have sunk,
but here it stands, a miracle, revived.
We rescue the detritus of the past,
the flotsam of a world that used to be.
These are the things they never thought would last,
stuck on a plinth and labeled history.
Pan holds his jug, though there’s no water now.
Two thousand-odd years on, his chance to wow.

This week's poetry roundup is here.

8 October 2016

september bookblogging.

[disclaimer: I wrote most of this instead of reading Wallace Stevens in preparation for my English midterm. If it's only half as disjointed as "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction" it... should still be pretty incomprehensible, actually.]

I'd assumed that being at school would bring my book count significantly down, but the damage isn't as bad as I'd feared; I managed ten this month besides school books, and two of them were really quite long.

Jill Lepore, Joe Gould's Teeth. This book is so good; I think it's the only biography I've ever read that's gripped me like a novel. Joe Gould was for a while very famous, mostly because he had famous friends—he got check-ups from William Carlos Williams! Alice Neel painted him! he was friends with Ezra Pound and E.E. Cummings! (Gould and Pound bonded over how much they both hated Jewish people, this is literally a true fact, I hate Ezra Pound with the fire of a thousand suns.) Nowadays almost no one has heard of him, which is a shame. He got into Harvard as a legacy student, dropped out of Harvard, worked briefly for a eugenicist organization, was often homeless and at least once institutionalized, and he also invented oral history. Lepore's book is about all this, and it's also about Augusta Savage, a black sculptor Joe Gould harassed for years. Sad, weird, highly recommended.

Patience Agbabi, Telling Tales. A contemporary verse retelling of the Canterbury Tales. I mentioned this on the blog back when I first found out about it, and almost as soon as I moved back to Wheaton I ordered an ILL of it. It's just as good as I was hoping it might be. Clever, funny, experimental, true to the source material, and she made the Miller's Tale even more bawdy. (I know! I was astonished too!) There's no real dead wood here, even the Tale of Melibee is surprising, but my very favorites were "Joined-Up Writing" (a sonnet cycle based on the Man of Law's Tale) and "The Contract" (the Second Nun's Tale, as narrated by one of the assassins who killed Cecilia).

Pamela Dean, Tam Lin. A re-read. This is a college novel about fairies. It was one of my favorite books in high school, and one of the few books I brought with me to university, but I was nervous about reading it again as an actual college student myself. I finally reread it on Labor Day, when I was recovering from a ghastly cold and needed to read something engaging but not actually taxing. To my delight, it held up and had even improved. Several of the characters are classics majors (in that sense it's really sort of a lighter-and-softer counterpart to The Secret History) and those parts were even better now that I student ancient Greek myself. I love this book.

Susan Palwick, Shelter. Why does no one ever talk about Susan Palwick? How does Susan Palwick not have a Hugo? This is near-future science fiction about AI and parenthood and mental illness. It's not one of those one-big-change books, it's subtle and complex and there's a lot going on in it. Palwick gets a lot of things right that writers, and sci-fi writers in particular, usually get wrong—she writes wonderfully about religion for one thing, and for another she can write believable children. Nick isn't a normal child, or a healthy one, but he's as desperately real as the adult characters are. Absorbing, stunning, you need to read it now.

Lindy West, Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman. A feminist memoir. It's good, funny and angry and well-written, but I'm not sure it's quite as good as it's been made out to be. This may be partly because I'd already heard some of the best bits on a recent episode of This American Life. Caitlin Moran on the back cover is particularly egregious in saying that it's "literally the new Bible." Right. And Jessica Valenti's memoir is literally the Bhagavad Gita, and Bad Feminist is literally the Enuma Elish, and words literally mean nothing. Come on, Caitlin.

Lucy Knisley, Something New. Another memoir, this one a comic about Knisley's wedding. Fun, but slight and overlong. I might write something longer about it; watch this space.

Michel Faber, The Book of Strange New Things. Peter Leigh is a priest (n.b. the book does not use the word priest and I think that might be significant), Anglican-not-otherwise-specified, who gets sent to a recently-colonized planet to act as a missionary to the native population. This was a disappointment. It's a long book, and a lot of it is spent inside Peter's head, or in his emails home to his wife, and that's a problem given that Peter is neither likable nor interesting; at the end of the book I felt I didn't know much about him and didn't care to know more. (Note: based on plot developments, this is possibly something Faber's doing intentionally. It didn't work for me.) Theological science fiction is my entire jam, and I'll read as many examples as the industry produces, but this book is not great. The theology's nothing to write home about either, and much of the writing about Peter's faith felt fairly shallow to me. Just read The Sparrow instead.

Suzette Haden Elgin, Native Tongue. A classic of feminist sci-fi. How much you enjoy this book will depend on your tolerance for second-wavers and the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I can cope with both of those things in a controlled environment, so I thought it was pretty awesome. A lot of the thought here falls apart fairly quickly if you start picking at it even a little bit (a text message I sent to my mother halfway through: "I reject the essentialist notion of a single 'female experience' in any kind of universalized sense"), but if you're into this sort of thing it's worth your time. I like it better than The Handmaid's Tale, to which it is usually compared, because Elgin writes female friendship better and is less afraid of science fiction cooties.

Susan Palwick, The Necessary Beggar. Absolutely wonderful. When Darroti kills a woman, he and his family are exiled to another dimension. They come through in a refugee camp in Nevada, where they start a long slow process of learning to live in another world. This book is about home and family and grief, and it's both sad and hopeful. Palwick does a gorgeous job of building her fantasy world, and of writing the culture shock that comes with the move to ours. (Content warning for suicide.)

Patrice Kindl, Owl in Love. This won the Mythopoeic Award for Children's Lit in 1995, and it unquestionably deserved it; this is what YA was made to do, and I've never read anything like it. Owl is a fourteen-year-old in love with her science teacher, and being a were-owl doesn't help. The first-person narration is both completely realistic and utterly alien: Owl is cold, uncertain, overconfident, passionate, awkward, brilliant, and totally sui generis.

Rebekah Nathan, My Freshman Year. This was for my Intro to Anthropology class. An anthropology professor in her fifties enrolls in her university as a freshman so she can understand the undergraduate experience, comes away with astonishing insights like "sometimes students don't do all their assigned reading." I too was stunned!


So that's eleven in total, ten of them by women. Four nonfiction, one comic, one book of poetry. All of them were library books except for Tam Lin and My Freshman Year, which I own. (Well, Freshman is a rental.) My favorite was either Owl in Love or one of the Palwick books, and I'll definitely be seeking out more by both Palwick and Kindl. I'll see you next month with another haul!

1 September 2016

august bookblogging.

Being back in Wheaton, I have access to a public library again (not to mention the college library), so my pool of available books has grown dramatically. Being back in Wheaton, I'm in class again, so my available reading time has shrunk dramatically. A man's reach must exceed her grasp, as the poet saith, or what's a heaven for?

Naomi Novik, Uprooted. This year's Nebula winner, a fantasy novel set in pseudo-medieval pseudo-Poland. The magic descriptions are the best part and I wanted more of them. Specifically I wanted more of the magic lessons. My problem with this book mostly boils down to a mismatch of expectations: I read it thinking it would be a quiet novel with romance and a heroine learning how to do magic (I'd heard it compared to Howl's Moving Castle, so you can't really blame me), and at the beginning that's what it looks like. I enjoyed those first parts immensely, mostly because I'm a massive sucker for a Beauty and the Beast motif. But then the high-stakes plot showed up, the court scenes and politics bogged me down a great deal, and the romance turned out to be underwritten. The ending's wonderful though, and overall I'm glad I read it. Novik's as competent as ever, and if you like this sort of thing it's just the sort of thing you'd like; it just wasn't as much my type of thing as I thought it might be.

P.G. Wodehouse, My Man Jeeves and Right Ho, Jeeves. They're Wodehouse. What else do you want to know? If you've read any Wodehouse you know exactly what he's like, and if you haven't why are you wasting your time on this blog?

George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion. What an aggressively peculiar play.

Donna Tartt, The Secret History. In summary: Never study Classics. Never do that. This is a book about a lot of pretentious Classics students at an elite Vermont liberal arts school who get together and murder one of their classmates. There is not a single spoiler in that sentence. You know from the beginning that they've murdered their classmate: when, why, and how they did so are gradually revealed. It's a beautifully written book. Tartt's characters and settings are well-drawn, and the story is incredibly gripping despite the fact that all those well-drawn characters are straight-up terrible people. It is also, in places, very funny. One of the best books I've read in absolute yonks, and despite its length a quick read. I love college novels and this is a good one. (I'm pretty sure it's also the book that Chip Kidd's novel The Cheese Monkeys was trying to be. Don't read that. Read this. Chip Kidd can do a decent atmosphere, but he can't do plot.)

Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison. This is not the first Lord Peter novel (that's Whose Body?), but it is the first to feature his eventual wife Harriet Vane; like many people I only read Poison because I first read and loved the later book Gaudy Night, which stars Harriet. I don’t like mysteries much as a genre; I can never keep suspects straight in my head, and I found a lot of the business about the will a bit tedious, but surprisingly the story picked up when the narrative shifted over to Miss Climpson. She’s a great character, and the séance scenes are delightful. Also—possibly because I don’t read mysteries—the solution took me completely by surprise and struck me as very clever indeed. The emotional plot is a little thinner here than we would get later on, and Harriet and Peter will both mature a great deal before this is all over, but even here I love them.

Curtis Sittenfield, Eligible. Why did I read this? I don't know, I didn't know while I was reading it why I was reading it. It is not a good book. It's a modernized Pride and Prejudiced, and it's competently written, if a little overwritten, but it's just not that good. I dislike Sittenfield's take on Mrs. Bennet, and Jane and Bingley are both fairly underwritten. There were some clever bits, but as usual: if you want to read Jane Austen fanfiction, do it on the internet. It's actually a lot better there.

Adam Rex, The True Meaning of Smekday. A re-read. This is a comic novel for kids about the alien invasion of the United States, and it's an old favorite of mine. The friendship that develops between Tip and J.Lo is one of my favorite friendships in all of children's literature.

Rumer Godden, The Peacock Spring. This was a recommendation from my mother—one of her old favorites. It's a quiet and sad story about an English girl, the daughter of a diplomat, who moves to India and falls in love with her father's gardener. Everything goes wrong, as things are wont to do. This is a beautiful book, written in a strange and evocative style, full of long and elliptical sentences. It's also smart. It would be so easy for a book with a plotline like this to come across as a condemnation of interracial relationships, but—largely because of Godden's deft and realistic character work—it's painfully obvious that the failings of Ravi's and Una's relationship aren't because he's Indian and she's English but because she's immature and he's awful. It's a relationship between two real and particular individuals, both of whom ring true to me. I'm hoping soon to read Godden's book In This House of Brede, which is about a convent.

Annie Dillard, Mornings Like This. A lovely little collection of found poetry. The pieces are rather hit-or-miss, but the hits hit hard. Curiously the technique works best in her imperative pieces, the ones where the text is drawn from how-to manuals; I haven't quite figured out yet why that should be. It's a good collection, and it gave me some excellent ideas for my own poetry.

Pamela Dean, Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary. This was a re-read. Dean is one of my favorite authors; I re-read her novels regularly and always seem to pick up something new in them. I think the best place to start with this one is that it's a feminist novel, not in the sense that it’s about cool and interesting women and girls (although it is) but in the most literal sense of being a work about feminism, and femininity, and what it is to be just-barely a teenage girl. It's also an adaptation of a traditional ballad, "Riddles Wisely Expounded." Dean has the advantage here that most readers nowadays, if they are familiar with the ballad at all, are only familiar with the modern rationalized version. She follows the oldest and weirdest branches of the tradition, and although I knew both versions of the story the darkness of this telling astonished me the first time round. It does have one of my favorite hopeful-but-not-altogether-happy endings of all time. The young characters read older, which is a perennial problem with Dean's writing, but I love them too; it's one of those books you re-read just so you can hang out with the people in it. Dean's dense and allusive prose is as intoxicating as ever.

who even knows, probably Tara Gillesbie, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. No, I'm not explaining who Tara Gillesbie is. If you didn't already get that joke you don't want to know, and also you're not even a little bit cool enough to be reading this blog. So, this play. I mean—it's not good, to start with. I suppose you might call it a curate's egg, but you'd be best off just calling it fanfiction. I'm not sorry I read it, largely because there are some bits that are genuinely good or at least rather sweet (Draco gets a redemption arc! Ron and Hermione are in love in every universe!) and there are some spectacularly goofy bits that I enjoy knowing about ("dog diggity, Cedric Diggory, you are a doggy dynamo"). I recommend it, even!—if you can keep you expectations low. It tries to do too much, and it's sloppily plotted. I'm not sorry I read it, but I can't help being a little sorry that it exists. Feelings are complicated!

Laurie Halse Anderson, Speak. I know, I know, the rest of you all read this in middle school. I meant to, but then I didn't. So I read it now, and it's much better than I was expecting it to be. It is of course the archetypal YA "problem novel," a genre distinction I've always hated. It's about a girl starting high school who was raped at a party during the summer. It's about trauma and depression, and it's also in large measure about recovery and growth. You can see Melinda come to life. It's also funny and well-observed, and Melinda comes across as a real fourteen-year-old. It's well worth your time, and it made me cry.

Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark. The sequel to his wonderful Wishful Thinking. These are his theological ABCs, whimsical and insightful and heartening.

Buechner, Peculiar Treasures. And the third in the trilogy; this one is on Biblical characters, from Aaron to Zaccheus. I think it's the best of the three. My favorite entries included Aaron (Buechner's take on the golden calf: "a God in the hand is worth two in the bush"), Onesimus, and Paul, but it's a wonderful book all through. If I have one objection it's the way he writes about Bathsheba, generally blaming her for the whole debacle in ways that bother me. He's only averagely terrible at writing Bathsheba, I've definitely seen worse, but "average" is jarring when I've come to expect him to be so far above average.

Tommi Musturi, The Book of Hope. A Finnish comic book. The illustrations are beautiful, occasionally—as in some of the nature scenes—breathtakingly so. I don't know who decided that graphic-novels-as-art had to mean graphic-novels-as-incomprehensible, but I suppose we just have to make the best of it. This one's not bad. It's a bit like Jimmy Corrigan the Smartest Kid on Earth if that book were less of an interminable slog and had brighter colors in it. The art style is similar as well, in fact—someday I really will write that paper on la ligne claire in non-Francophone comics. (I will not do this.) (I might.)

Anderson, Wintergirls. This one's about a girl with anorexia whose (also anorexic) best friend has just died. Like Speak, it avoids being a by-the-numbers issue-book by virtue of its sharp characterizations. It's a lot more painful than Speak though, and a lot less funny. It's got mythic undertones, and depending on how you read one plot element it may or may not actually be a fantasy novel. Though I'm usually all "YES EVERYTHING IS FANTASY" all the time (The Secret History is a fantasy) I'm not quite sure in this case what I want to believe. It's a very liminal book. Not as good as Speak I don't think, but a good book all the same.


That's seventeen books, almost all fiction and just over half of them by women, out of a hundred and fifty two books from the whole year. Currently besides several books for various classes I'm reading Jill Lepore's absolutely magical book Joe Gould's Teeth. I'll tell you about it this time next month!

26 August 2016

poetry friday: wordsworth, sayers, & me.

The sonnet is beyond doubt my favorite poetic form; one of my more questionable skills is the ability to instantly identify fourteen-line blocks of text even in free verse, prose, and internet comments. Moving into my dorm this week, I was reminded of one of my very favorite sonnets, Wordsworth's "Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent's Narrow Room."
Nuns fret not at their convent's narrow room;
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, into which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, 'twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet's scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.
It's beautiful. On the most literal level I love it because I've always liked small rooms, enclosed spaces, a quiet place to focus on my work. I love it too as a defense of the sonnet (a Petrarchan sonnet at that, which in English is far more difficult than the Shakespearean sonnet), with all its constraint and freedom. And on this reading it reminded me of another sonnet about the contemplative life, Dorothy Sayers' from Gaudy Night. Within the novel Harriet Vane writes the first eight lines and then accidentally puts them in a bundle of papers that she gives to her suitor/detective partner Peter Wimsey. When she gets it back, he's completed her poem with a sestet.
Here then at home, by no more storms distrest,
Folding laborious hands we sit, wings furled;
Here in close perfume lies the rose-leaf curled,
Here the sun stands and knows not east nor west,
Here no tide runs; we have come, last and best,
From the wide zone in dizzying circles hurled
To that still centre where the spinning world
Sleeps on its axis, to the heart of rest.

Lay on thy whips, O Love, that me upright,
Poised on the perilous point, in no lax bed
May sleep, as tension at the verberant core
Of music sleeps; for, if thou spare to smite,
Staggering, we stoop, stopping, fall dumb and dead,
And, dying so, sleep our sweet sleep no more.
It's a gorgeous and terrifying tension, inaction as rest versus inaction as death, and it encapsulates the central tension of the novel, Harriet's internal battle over whether it's possible for an educated woman to have both a life of the mind and a life of the heart, whether Harriet herself can have her career as a novelist and love Peter. "What," in Harriet's words, "are you to do with the people who are cursed with both hearts and brains?" In Peter's sestet he offers her a picture of the dangers of contemplation, the idea that being still and contemplative, "poised on the perilous point," is acceptable only so long as we are kept upright by the whips of love. It's love, of course, that keeps us alive; it always was.

Thinking about these two Petrarchan sonnets, I wrote my own. I have perhaps prejudiced you against it by prefacing it with the works of two far superior sonneteers. Nevertheless, I'm pleased with it, and I enjoyed making it. It's about my freshman year at Wheaton, and about the consolations of study.
It wasn't quite a pensive citadel,
Those four white walls I shared with stranger soul.
I felt condemned to play a foreign role
And longed for peace, a silent monkish cell.
That was a loneliness I could not quell
When I was young and scared and far from whole.
And being far from home took its sure toll:
It was in exile Dante wrote his Hell.

But I was saved by friendship with the dead.
In their words comfort came and strength anew.
In study found I gifts from God above:
In Homer's wars, in Chaucer's pilgrim tread,
In thought, in word, in quest for something true,
In fourteen lines that sang an ancient love.
It's a poem for last year, inspired largely by observing the new freshmen, and I suppose this time next year you can expect a poem about sophomore year. Poems take time, even when you're not actively writing them; this morning in my English class I learned that the two-line "In a Station of the Metro" took Actual Fascist Ezra Pound a year and a half to write after the experience it describes, and all that time he was thinking how best to put it into words. (His first draft was thirty lines long.) "Emily Dickinson could have done it overnight," my professor said, "but most of us need time for our ideas to distill and ferment." (A paraphrase based on my notes, but she really did say that about Dickinson and it really is true; in 1862 she wrote 366 poems.)

It's only now that I have the perspective I need to write the above sonnet, and that's reflected in the fact that moving in this year has been incalculably easier than last year. I'm feeling a confidence and peace that would have been almost incomprehensible to me this time last year. Indeed the sheer number of conversations I've had today would have seemed absurd to me: a friend I ran into in the dining hall at breakfast, a professor from last year who told me I should drop by and talk to her, another friend on the way to lunch who proclaimed himself a faithful follower of this blog (hi)—and others. My sonnet's most grievous omission, which I can only explain with the phrase "scanty plot of ground," is that I've left out all my wonderful living friends and teachers. Fourteen lines, remember, and if there is one certainty in this life it is that there will always (always, always) be more poems.

Less importantly, I'm slightly troubled by the implication that we studied Wordsworth in my English classes last year; we did not, but I'm fond enough of the wording that I'm keeping it as it is.

I'm happy; I wasn't sure I would be, but I am. I'm writing a lot. It's good.

My building, feat. trees, fountain, and a bit of lamp post.
This is most of what I do in my dorm.

The roundup is here.

21 August 2016

lewis & potter.

I have, in preparation for a project, been leafing through Lewis' collected letters—one can hardly do anything but leaf, as except for the slim and delightful Letters to Children they're all rather intimidatingly doorstoppery. Excepted also is the volume that Warren Lewis edited, which takes the eminently sane path of collecting only the interesting bits of letters, and interspersing them with interesting bits out of Jack's diaries. Dare I say that Warren was in some ways a better editor of his brother's work than Hooper was? I do dare, because it's true. He didn't annotate but I don't hold this against him as it saved him from Hooper's deadly sin of overannotation.

The extent of the Lewis correspondence is vast, especially when you consider how very little pleasure it gave him. (A note to Dorothy Sayers: "Oh the mails: every bore in two continents seems to think I like getting letters. One's real friends are precisely the people one never gets time to write to.") Despite that—and may we give thanks for his sake that he was spared the indignities of email, which would have enabled even more total strangers to make unreasonable demands on his time—he wrote terrific letters. Did you know he had a long correspondence with a nun and used to sign himself Brother Ass? And here's the reason for this post, a particular gem I encountered in volume II (1931—1949). He's discussing Beatrix Potter in a letter to one Delmar Banner:
It was the Professor of Anglo-Saxon [i.e. Tolkien] who first pointed out to me that her art of putting about ten words on one page so as to have a perfect rhythm and to answer just the questions a child would ask, is almost as severe as that of lyric poetry. She has a secure place among the masters of English prose. He and I have often played with the idea of a pilgrimage to see her, and pictured what fun it would be to shoulder aside the mobs of people who want to show you all the Wordsworth places with the brief rejoinder "We are looking for Miss Potter."
Which is delightful. I'd known that Lewis loved Potter's work, especially Squirrel Nutkin—in some ways his totally unpretentious love of children's literature was one of his more appealing qualities; see also the bit in The Problem of Pain where he's talking about numinous awe and his first example is out of The Wind in the Willows—but I hadn't realized that he saw her as a serious artist to this extent, still less that Tolkien loved her too and the two of them were a sort of fan-club. This sort of thing is why even when Lewis says something infuriating (as he so often does!) I can never get properly mad at him; I criticize him of course, but emotionally I can only sigh and say "sit down, Jack," as though he were a troublesome uncle or a much-beloved family friend. I've known him too long: I know too many endearing little facts about him, and I'm too well-acquainted with his fundamental intellectual humility.

So what I want to know is chiefly
1: Did they ever meet, and
2: Do we know if she knew his work?

Question 1 is a great deal easier to answer than 2, at any rate with the materials I have on hand. The Banner letter reads as though they hadn't met (you don't go on a pilgrimage to see someone you're already acquainted with, do you?), and it's dated November 1942; Potter died just over a year later, in December 1943, and it's not inconceivable that the two could have met at some time in that window. This letter is the last reference to her in the volume, though, and glancing at several biographies I don't see any references to her apart from the fact that he enjoyed her work. So there's no correspondence, and if there was a meeting the Lewis biographers either don't know about it or haven't thought it worth mentioning. I can't approach the question from the other end because I haven't any works on Potter. (There's no reference in the Tolkien biography either.)

But there's one last means of finding out. The context of the original letter I cite is that Banner had asked him to visit, and Lewis said that he couldn't but would love to, especially if there was any chance of managing to visit Potter—who lived near him in the Lake Country. And then early in 1944 there's another letter to Banner wherein he writes "Less chance now than ever of my getting to your much desired valleys. My domestic difficulties grow worse daily and half my correspondence consists of refusing engagements which I should both like to, and ought to, accept." So by 1944 the desired visit to the Lake Country had not materialized. If it had, even or especially in the form of a "pilgrimage," it seems to me he would have mentioned it here, and so I'm almost certain that no meeting ever took place. It's not the answer I wanted, but the satisfaction of using research to answer a trivial but interesting question is so great that I don't mind in the slightest.

As always, if anyone has any contradictory knowledge—or any data on whether Potter ever read Lewis—please write in. Please join me also in the mental image of C.S. Lewis and Beatrix Potter as a superhero team-up and/or a crime solving duo. She's a genre-defining children's author, he's also a genre-defining children's author, she's a Lake Country sheep farmer, he's an Oxford don, they fight crime. Yes? Yes.

Nothing more on the Lewis project for now, though a proof of concept may show up here at some point in the nearish future. And I've got several other posts in the pipeline, but as I'm flying to the States tomorrow and will be moving back in to the dorms I expect I'll be fairly scatterbrained for a good while yet. Which is the other reason I've been reading Lewis of course; the combination of straightfowardness and familiarity is very soothing indeed.

5 August 2016

poetry friday: spine poems.

I've been reading a lot of Wodehouse lately—it seems to be about all I've been able to absorb, and there is after all a great deal to be said for the public domain. I mean to say there's something so civilized about free e-books. It does not, however, do much for my prose style; everything I've been trying to write has come out, when it comes out at all, frightfully Woosterish. This would of course be super if I wanted to write pastiche (and Wodehouse pastiche is a noble end provided you've got something interesting to say in it—see this or this) but under the circs it's rather less of a boon. In fact I've been dissatisfied with the progress of all my writing lately, which is part of the malaise that's driven me to these straits. In light of that I've decided to share some "writing" I'm not entirely displeased with: my spine poetry for the past few weeks.

Spine poetry is one of the three great book title games. The other two are the The Man Who Melted Jack Dann and "books that sound more interesting with the last letter of the title knocked off"; spine poetry is the easiest, and my favorite: it refers to the practice of making piles of books in such a way that the titles form a found poem. It's become a bit of a hobby of mine, though it's only an extension of my previous long-standing hobby of pottering around pulling books off of shelves. When you've got no words of your own, it's a delightful practice to make things out of other people's. I use almost exclusively books I've not read, since I don't want to be over-influenced by what I know of the contents. The only other thing is to note is that I apologize for the photo quality, which is—politely—inconsistent.

A closer walk
through gates of splendor,
through the wilderness of loneliness—
believing God,
waking the dead.

Silver on the tree—
everything is illuminated.
Little women
on wings of eagles:
fantastic voyage.

There is a land
before the fall.
School days,
infinite jest.

About grace?
Ordinary grace?
Sharp objects,
fates & furies,
flood of fire,
a brother's blood—
the culture of fear.

Life after life
among others.
Invisible cities,
fire and hemlock,
a stone for a pillow.
Comfort me with apples.

Here's the roundup.

3 August 2016

july bookblog.


Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Discussed here. 

Jo Walton, Necessity. Discussed here.

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven. A gorgeous and immaculately plotted novel, set before, during, and (mostly) after a civilization-ending flu epidemic. It's about healing, the connections between people, and the necessity of art. For all that it's an apocalypse story it never feels bleak—it's gentler, more melancholy than despairing. It's a very hopeful book.

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales. I am ultimately going to write a proper blog post about this. You can't expect me to sum this up in a single paragraph. However, my Chaucer blogging up to this point can be found here and here and here and here. There is more to come.

Ken Liu, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories. I've been meaning to read this essentially since it came out, since all the reviews were so good and it's got such attractive cover art, and I finally gave in and bought it when Amazon was offering it for 1.99 a few weeks back. It's a mix of fantasy and science fiction, and it's so good. This is a best-of rather than a themed collection, but Liu has some definite preoccupations—parent-child relationships, intergenerational friendships, storytelling as an act of love and heroism. It's an intensely life-affirming collection, and the prose is delicious. Some favorites: "State Change" is delightfully clever, "The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species" reads like neo-Calvino and I'd adore to write a paper on it, and "An Advanced Readers' Picture Book of Comparative Cognition" made me cry. Other great ones are "The Regular," "Mono No Aware," and "All the Flavors"—but really truly there aren't any duds here.

Chaucer, The Book of the Duchess. It's no Parliament of Fowls.

Diana Wynne Jones, Dark Lord of Derkholm. A re-read. This is from the same sequence as The Tough Guide to Fantasyland and Year of the Griffin. I read the other two first, and they're more to my tastes—Tough Guide is funnier, and Griffin is an academic fantasy, which has always been one of my favorite subgenres—so Derkholm came as a disappointment and I've never rated it very highly. Re-reading it after several years I was much more impressed. It's still not one of my very favorite books of hers—how could it be when there's Witch Week and Fire and Hemlock and Howl's Moving Castle?—but it's very good indeed.

Margo Lanagan, Tender Morsels. What a good book. I know, I'm late to the party—but what a good book. It's a retelling of the Grimms' fairy tale "Snow White and Rose Red," which was always one of my favorites. It's oddly structured and sometimes a bit confusing, but it's good for all that and I'd recommend it if you liked Kristen Cashore's Bitterblue; this is another woman-centered YA fantasy novel about trauma. (I know, I know, I really need to read Deerskin soon.) (Content warning for rape.)

Lauren F. Winner, Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity. I read Real Sex less because I was interested in it and more from a desire to finish all of Winner’s oeuvre; I'd already read all her others (well, except her dissertation). This one is worth reading, but it’s definitely an early work and I think her weakest book. (Rough ranking: Still, Wearing God, Girl Meets God, Mudhouse Sabbath, Real Sex.) I think you can also fairly criticize her for offering so much marriage advice in a book largely written before her marriage.

Rob Bell, How To Be Here. I was feeling insecure about how few books I've been finishing lately compared to how many I've been starting, so I went back and finished this one—I read most of it back when it came out. In many ways it's fairly standard Rob Bell; I don't think there's that much here that I haven't heard him say elsewhere. That doesn't mean it's not good, though. I'm a Rob Bell fan and I like some of the points he makes here, especially about the Sabbath. I have misgivings about his framing of that particular issue, but those misgivings are to be saved for the long essay about Sabbath-keeping. Which will happen! Eventually! Sometime before the last Lammas.

Rainbow Rowell, Eleanor & Park. I was underwhelmed with both Fangirl and Carry On (throughout Carry On I couldn't shake the feeling that nobody needs to read knock-off Harry Potter fanfiction from St. Martin's Press when there's a superabundance of the real thing on the internet), but I'd heard such good things about Eleanor & Park that I decided to give it a try. Apparently third time's the charm. I don't read very many straightforward romances, but this one was a delight, very sweet and believable. What no one had told me is that the characters read Watchmen. I swear, the whole world is conspiring to make me feel guilty for not having read Watchmen yet. It's really dated now probably! I howl to the whistling winter winds. I don't even like superheroes except for Ms. Marvel! Anyway I already read From Hell, isn't that enough for you? And the whistling winter winds reply, It won a Hugo award before the comics category was even introduced and anyway you love From Hell, you thought it was a masterwork, that should just make you more excited about reading Watchmen. The winter winds may not be as unkind as man's ingratitude, but they're still plenty unkind.

Joan Aiken, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. This is a children's classic that I somehow managed to miss reading. It's delightful, all plucky orphans and evil head teachers and secret passageways. It's been a while since I read a proper children's book, and it made me realize that my reading diet these days doesn't have nearly enough plucky orphans in it. I would have loved this if I'd read it in elementary school, and as it was I liked it a lot. The edition I read had a gorgeous Gorey cover, too, which put me in just the right mood.

Brian K. Vaughn & Fiona Staples, Saga: Volume Six. I mean, it's Saga. It's one of like two/three current comics that I keep up with, and if you want a fast-paced space opera comic about family, it continues to be the go-to. Volume six is the most recent trade paperback, and if I have a complaint about it it's that it's been several months since I read volume five and I had a bit of trouble getting back up to speed and remembering where we left off. I'm sort of looking forward to when this series is all over and collected and I can marathon it, like my periodic Sandman marathons. Even at this stage it's a blast though, and there's not a single plotline or character that doesn't interest me.

Elisabeth Tova Bailey, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating. Lovely and meditative, half memoir and half natural history. While Bailey was bedbound with a mysterious virus, a friend brought her a potted violet with a woodland snail in the pot. This book is about her illness and her time spent watching the snail, one might almost be moved to say becoming friends with it, and it's just really really wonderful.

Delia Sherman, The Freedom Maze. The review I read of this said that it was YA, but it isn’t at all—it’s a children’s book, and it’s a very good one. The obvious thing to do is compare it to Octavia Butler's Kindred, but I’m not sure that the comparison is either accurate or useful, though this is a time travel novel about slavery. If you've only got world enough and time for one time travel novel about slavery, it probably ought to be the Butler, but that's not to say that Sherman's book isn't worth reading. It stars thirteen-year-old Sophie, a white girl from Louisiana in the early 1960s. She makes a badly-thought out wish and is sent back in time to the eve of the Civil War, where her ancestors take her for a light-skinned slave. Sophie begins by doing what's expected of her to avoid detection, but by the time she's returned to her proper time her memories have changed so that she really does believe she is who everyone says she is. It's a very short novel, and a genuinely moving one.

C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed. It reads like C.S. Lewis stylistically and in that I recognize his ways of thinking, and not at all like Lewis in that nothing else of his is so... personal, I suppose, not even Surprised by Joy. It's more or less exactly the book you'd expect him to write, which is not even a little bit a critique.


Sixteen books by eleven women and six men. (Which comes to seventeen because I'm counting Fiona Staples, the illustrator of Saga, as an author.) One comic, four books of nonfiction, two MG, three YA, two Chaucer, the rest adult sci-fi/fantasy. Ten that I and family own, the rest from various libraries. Seven paper, eight digital.


I'm not doing a complete list this month of what I started and abandoned, because it's depressing. I tried and failed to read The Man in the High Castle, and I made it a few chapters into Life After Life before I got bored of it. I read most of The Odyssey, and I'm planning to finish it in the next few days. I've also been re-reading Frog & Toad books, which has been more or less where my mind is lately, and I'm working on Troilus and Criseyde. The last thing I started before the end of the month was Naomi Novik's Uprooted.

As of the end of July 2016, I've read 135 books since January. I'll see you next month with another pile!

1 August 2016

july linkblog.

Never say I don't provide you with relatable content, kids. I love Wikipedia a lot, and I’m fully prepared to issue a prize to the first person who guesses what article I got that screengrab from.


At Crooked Timber: Summer Reading for a Rainy Day.

“The English major barista is a myth in the sense of being untrue. It is also a myth in the deeper sense of that word: a story that a culture tells itself to explain wishes or fears. In this case, fears.”

So I didn’t actually tear up reading this NPR essay about the Great British Bake Off, but it was a very near thing. Gotta say though, it’s taking me a while to get used to hearing Americans call it the Great British Baking Show. I think it’s a copyright thing? It’s weird.

And another Bake Off essay, over on Mockingbird. The phrase “revolutionary compassion” is used, to my great delight. (Also, okay, you guys. I still haven’t watched all of that season but I know who won. I thought everybody knew who won. Do the Americans somehow not know who won? That’s adorable. Americans! Qu’est-ce que vous faites!)

Glory be, it’s a nuanced discussion of trigger warnings. I’m not certain I agree with all the conclusions, but it’s a very good read. I definitely agree with the point about the misunderstanding of what triggers are—this is why I only ever use the term “content warning.”

You Are The Cannibal Lobster-Man Of New England. Can You Become The Governor Of Maine? Okay, I know this is on ClickHole, but as it happens I unironically love ClickHole, and this is some genuinely terrific IF. Can you become the Governor of Maine? And should you?

Also at ClickHole: If Black Lives Matter Isn't A Racist Hate Group, Then Can Someone Please Explain To Me Why I Keep Insisting They Are?

IF-adjacent: a Twine-powered interactive self-care guide. I love Twine and I love seeing Twine be used for good. An "interactive self-care guide" is a thing that has the potential to be really saccharin and silly, but in fact it's relentlessly practical and concrete. A good thing.

IF-adjacent-adjacent: this month in literary games! And another new book I want to read.

BILL BILL BILL BILL” — all of Dr. Who fandom, at increasing volume

“moss-based embroidery” = new favorite phrase?

...though it's rivaled by "tilt-shift van Gogh."

Fantasy maven Jo Walton on her surprising cure for writer’s block. I hate the word maven, and I don’t think the surprising cure for writer’s block is all that surprising. (She does something boring to make writing look like the interesting option—I thought we all did some version of that?) Otherwise this is a really solid Q&A. She also gave Uncanny an interview in rhymed iambic pentameter.

The new Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, is a black woman! And an actual professional librarian rather than another scholar!

No links about the garbage fire that is US electoral politics, because I’m exhausted. Here’s Andrew Rilstone’s latest thing on Jeremy Corbyn instead. I dunno anymore. (This is not to say that UK politics is not a garbage fire. But it’s not my garbage fire, and I’m not responsible for it, which means that reading about it can still function as a weird kind of escapism. I'm not endorsing this behavior, just engaging in it.)

This is a good post about Cursed Child; I think the strongest point it makes is that there are only two good parental figures in the series—Molly Weasley and Narcissa Malfoy. I might expand this to include Arthur Weasley, but then Rowling is much less interested in him than she is in Molly. (The second strongest point is that Dumbledore is a bad teacher and a terrible father. I have been saying as much for years.)

Octavia Butler’s notes on writing Kindred!

“I suppose what's happening here is I'm coming to the shocking conclusion that Wittgenstein was a cleverer man than I am.”

“A Think Piece Response to the Open Letter to My Unborn Child About the Things Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew to Pray For: a Manifesto.” This is peak Evangelical satire, we can all go home now.

Old but good: The West Wing as SF; The West Wing as fantasy.

Why we write, but never underestimate an author’s ability to write an entire novel out of spite.

Why Calvin and Hobbes Is Great Literature.

At Tor, a new series on African SFF.

Continuing the AI-poetry theme from last month: Literary Magazine CuratedAI Publishes Only Poetry by Artificial Intelligences.

Guy Leaves Fake Animal Facts All Over Los Angeles Zoo.

I haven’t yet read this, but if I save it till next month I’ll forget about it: Mary Beard on the public voice of women. “I want to start very near the beginning of the tradition of Western literature, and its first recorded example of a man telling a woman to ‘shut up’; telling her that her voice was not to be heard in public.”

The Very Quiet Foreign Girls poetry group. A long and beautiful essay about a poetry group for refugee children.

Little House and the Art of Hiding Your Feelings.

The Mysterious Metamorphosis of Chuck Close.

Okay, we all know the Dark Ages are a myth, yeah? Okay, so enjoy this superb essay on why the Dark Ages continue to be a myth.

A fabulous blog post on my homegirl Penthesilea. "At the moment of her death, Achilles sees her face and either a) falls madly deeply in love with her (ugh) or b) feels really really guilty at what he has done. Either way, he weeps over her corpse, and the warrior Thersites makes fun of him for having feelings. Obviously Thersites has not been paying attention, because Achilles is basically a big squishy stress ball of feelings, that is the point of Achilles." It is the point of Achilles!

This month in webcomics: this is the best xkcd in literal years. I cannot remember the last xkcd that made me laugh this hard.