29 July 2016

poetry friday: my own heart.

My profile picture here, as you may or may not know, is a photograph of the surprisingly-handsome Gerard Manley Hopkins. He is absolutely my favorite poet, no competition, and yesterday (28 July) was his 172 birthday. I tried to write a post for the occasion about what he means to me. It turned into a bit of an essay, and I've decided to save it and post it when I've thought about it more and managed to polish it up.

In lieu of my pontifications, I'm sharing my very favorite Hopkins poem, "My Own Heart." It's one of his most hopeful poems—an exhausted hope, but one that has gotten me through some very tough times. "Leave comfort root-room": it's a reminder, and a challenge, that I often need.

Happy birthday, Fr. Gerard, and thanks.

My own heart let me have more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
Charitable; not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind tormenting yet.
I cast for comfort I can no more get
By groping round my comfortless, than blind
Eyes in their dark can day or thirst can find
Thirst’s all-in-all in all a world of wet.

Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise
You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile
Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size
At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile
’s not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather—as skies
Betweenpie mountains—lights a lovely mile.

Here's the roundup.

23 July 2016

thoughts on susanna clarke.

It's so difficult to tell, sometimes, if one is being spurred to excellence or simply called to break one's staff and drown one's notebooks. It is especially difficult when one is as envious a soul as I—envy's always been my besetting sin, and it's all too easy to imagine myself in Dante's Purgatory with my eyes sewn shut. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was Susanna Clarke's first novel. Her first—even Will Shakespeare wrote a few crap plays before he managed to turn out Hamlet and Macbeth! (Have you read The Comedy of Errors? There's a reason nobody performs it.) Even Chaucer wrote The Book of the Duchess! (It's not terrible, but... I mean, it's no Parliament of Fowls.) Of course Jonathan Strange took Clarke ten years, and she was in her thirties when she began it, and I am only scarcely nineteen. This is less comfort than you might imagine; I'm as susceptible as anybody to our culture's fetish for precocity.

(Has anybody asked Clarke about her trunk novels, I wonder? I hope she has trunk novels.)

I first read Jonathan Strange when I was about thirteen or fourteen. Too young, I think now, to really appreciate it, although I loved it with a ferocity and spent my NaNoWriMo that year trying without success to imitate it. The years wiped quite a bit of it from my mind, though, leaving only a few details and an overall impression of transformative brilliance. What Jo Walton wrote about it when she first read it was "It's as if we've all been building sandcastles in the shadow of a cliff and suddenly Clarke has raised a great castle out of the sea with a strange light shining through the foam-water windows." It's just like that, which might explain some of the despair it's engendered in me. Someone else's sandcastle may be great, but it's great in a way you can imitate. When somebody makes herself a castle out of the sea, all you can do is stare.

I reread the novel recently because my mother and I finally got round to watching the recent miniseries. Which is beautiful, ably adapted by Peter Harness. (I don't normally notice the names of TV writers, but Harness has done some fabulous writing for Doctor Who these past years, and so I've kept an eye out for him.) Some of the emphases are rather shifted, the story is of course compressed, and I disapprove strongly of the resulting marginalization of Stephen Black who has a great deal more interiority in the book. I'm not entirely certain about the treatment of the gentleman with the thistledown hair either. He was gorgeously unseelie, but I wonder if he didn't lose some of his charm in translation; there's very little here of the character that Arabella sees in the book as a friendly if bonkers acquaintance of the Poles'. On the whole though it captured the feel of the novel better than we had any right to expect, and it's an absolute crime that it's not up for anything in this year's Hugos. Obligatory Hugo head-shaking goes here.

It's tempting to say that everyone who'd like Jonathan Strange has already read it by this point—it's more than ten years old, it won the Hugo and the Mythopoeic and the WFA, and the Locus for best debut, and it was longlisted for the Booker of all things—but that's absurd of course. There are new readers all the time. So: it's a good book, and it's well worth reading even if you've already seen the miniseries, because quite aside from adaptive changes Clarke's prose is a pleasure all its own. I keep thinking that I should share an excerpt to make my point, but it seems that every time I open the book I hit on something that wows me with its elegance or its limpidness or even just its humor.

There's Paris Ormskirk's spell against madness, which Strange uses on George III with mixed success. (And all my love by the way for her utterly sympathetic portrayal of his illness—because besides everything else this is a book about the nature of madness.)
Place the moon at his eyes and her whiteness shall devour the false sights the deceiver has placed there.
Place a swarm of bees at his ears. Bees love truth and will destroy the deceiver's lies.
Place salt in his mouth lest the deceiver attempt to delight him with the taste of honey or disgust him with the taste of ashes.
Nail his hand with an iron nail so that he shall not raise it to do the deceiver's bidding.
Place his heart in a secret place so that all his desires shall be his own and the deceiver shall find no hold there. 

Memorandum. The color red may be found beneficial. 
Which is perfect all the way down to that casually academic memorandum. It's the sort of thing that feels traditional even though it isn't, making it clear that Clarke's spent a lot of time studying Anon's work. Who was it said Anon is the greatest writer who ever lived?

Or there's this long, elegant paragraph describing Norrell's Yorkshire life.
Consider, if you will, a man who sits in his library day after day; a small man of no particular personal attractions. His book is on the table before him. A fresh supply of pens, a knife to cut new nibs, ink, paper, notebooks—all is conveniently to hand. There is always a fire in the room—he cannot do without a fire, he feels the cold. The room changes with the season: he does not. Three tall windows open on a view of English countryside which is tranquil in spring, cheerful in summer, melancholy in autumn and gloomy in winter—just as English landscape should be. But the changing seasons excite no interest in him—he scarcely raises his eyes from the pages of his book. He takes his excercise as all gentlemen do; in dry weather his long walk crosses the park and skirts a little wood; in wet weather there is his short walk in the shrubbery. But he knows very little of shrubbery or park or wood. There is a book waiting for him upon the library table; his eyes fancy they still follow its lines of type, his head still runs upon its argument, his fingers itch to take it up again. He meets his neighbors twice or thrice a quarter—for this is England, where a man's neighbours will never suffer him to live entirely bereft of society, let him be as dry and sour-faced as he may. They pay him visits, leave their cards with his servants, invite him to dine or to dance at assembly-balls. Their intentions are largely charitable—they have a notion that it is bad for a man to be always alone—but they also have some curiosity to discover whether he has changed at all since they last saw him. He has not. He has nothing to say to them and is considered the dullest man in Yorkshire.
Or there's this cutting description of the difference between a butler and a lady, a passage which gets right to the heart of a lot of the novel's concerns.
Curiously, no one noticed that the strange malady that afflicted her ladyship was to a precision the same as that which afflicted Stephen Black. He too complained of feeling tired and cold, and on the rare occasions that either of them said any thing, they both spoke in a low, exhausted manner.

But perhaps it was not so curious. The different styles of life of a lady and a butler tend to obscure any similarities in their situations. A butler has his work and must do it. Unlike Lady Pole, Stephen was not suffered to sit idly by the window, hour after hour, without speaking. Symptoms that were raised to the dignity of an illness in Lady Pole were dismissed as mere low spirits in Stephen.
And then she goes on to Lord Pole's depressive cook welcoming Stephen as "a newcomer to the freemasonry of melancholy," a turn of phrase that made me laugh aloud. This book pretends to be about the Romantic rivalry of two upper-class white men, but in fact much of what's most interesting here is the margins of that story, in many cases the victims of that story, and Clarke knows it. Characters like Childermass and Vinculus, and Stephen Black and Lady Pole and Arabella, are interesting to the reader because Clarke is interested in them.

The accomplishments of the book are perhaps too many to enumerate here. Clarke can do both humor and horror. She can do omniscient point of view the way hardly anybody in fantasy does these days. The novel has just the sort of ending I like best, ending on a moment of ambiguous hope. And, as regards specifically genre-related skills, her most important is that she's mastered the skill of putting in enough magic that the book feels magical, but not so much that the magic ever feels cheap. Wonder pervades everything, but we're still awestruck when Norrell or Strange (usually Strange, let's be honest) pulls off something really audacious.

I think it's down to worldbuilding. The word conjures visions of maps and vowel charts, but that's not the sort of thing I mean here. What I have in mind is more the organically immersive quality of Clarke's writing. It's the creation of not a map but a mindset. She's been noted for her tendency towards footnotes—at least once she sticks an entire short story in one of them. Sometimes the footnotes are citations, giving the impression of Clarke as a magical historian supporting her argument with a quote from a letter, a reference from John Segundus' biography of Strange. Other times they have nothing to do with the main plot; Ann Leckie discusses an early example here. "A digression on a digression," she calls it. "Decoration. Filigree. But there’s more than one kind of efficiency, isn’t there." I know Leckie means to be complimentary, and in fact the piece is a lovely tribute to Clarke, but I wonder if the words "decoration" and "digression" don't mislead slightly. Clarke's great accomplishment is that her "digressions" feel utterly of-a-piece with her narrative; her world feels less built than grown. It's all twined together, and it's this generosity of detail that makes one say—oh, of course it all happened, just like that! The same generosity of detail makes one feel that there must be just as much more she isn't telling us.

Tolkien, God rest his grumpy soul, had no time for the term "willing suspension of disbelief": "what really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful 'sub-creator.' He [sic] makes a secondary world which your mind can enter. [...] The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed." (It's in "On Fairy-Stories," one of my favorite essays of all time.) Jonathan Strange never has this kind of failure. Its world is one that you can live in.

And so here's the part where we bring up Victor Hugo. He gets a lot of stick from today's readers for what one might politely term his interest in everything, his long passages going into loving detail about sewers and soldiers and slang. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a much more tightly focused novel than Les Misérables, of course, and it's quite a bit shorter. Obligatory joke about Napoleon goes here. But as far as I'm concerned that's one of the strengths of Hugo as a writer: he cares about everything. That's because, and I'm sure I'm not the first person to point this out, the hero of Les Misérables is not Valjean, or Javert, or Enjolras, or even poor silly Marius. It's not Fantine or Monseigneur Bienvenue. Hugo's hero is a heroine: she is Patria: Motherland: France. Citizen, my mother is the Republic! And in the shape of his great novel-epic Hugo wants to roll all her strength and all her sweetness up into one ball. It's a love letter to France, at that instant in her history.

Clarke's interest is similarly encompassing, and while Hugo had the advantage of living in the world he wished to capture, she manages to do it with a world that has never existed. That's what I mean by worldbuilding, this seamless capture of an entire country at a particular moment in history. Except, again, it's a moment that never happened in a country—magical England—that doesn't really exist.

It's a neat trick if you can do it. I'd like to learn how.

19 July 2016

top ten tuesday: ten books set outside the US.

This week's Top Ten Tuesday—hosted as always by The Broke and the Bookish—is about books set outside the United States. To be true to the prompt I've only listed things that are set in real countries in the real world, and I've left out books set in Britain (I read so much stuff set in Britain). I'm also trying to give a slight preference to Things I've Read Recently, Novels In Translation, Non-Western Countries (Yes I Hate That Term But What Can You Do), and Things You Probably Haven't Read. Also the list is more than half female, so!

One: Joann Sfar, The Rabbi's Cat, trans. Alexis Siegel & Anjali Singh. Algeria. This is a French graphic novel capturing one man's struggle to answer the age-old question, Is my talking cat Jewish? It’s set in the 1920s, primarily in Algiers though there are sections set in Paris. In the sequel, The Rabbi’s Cat 2, the Rabbi and his cat travel by land to Ethiopia. (They briefly meet Tin-Tin while they're passing through the Congo, and they don't think much of him. Get wrecked, Hergé.) A masterpiece of the form, and quite good fun to boot.

Two: The Housekeeper and the Professor, Yõko Ogawa, trans. Stephen Snyder. Japan. Very short indeed, and well-worth reading if you’re interested in issues of memory and/or people who feel too many things about math and/or Japanese baseball teams. It’s rather light, but I enjoyed it immensely—sort of gentle and domestic, a lovely study of cross-generational friendship.

Three: The Core of the Sun, Johanna Sinisalo, trans. Lola Rogers. Finland. Guys. If you have to read just one book off this list, you have to make it be this. Published in Finland in 2013, it only came out in Anglophone markets this year. It’s science fiction or (more precisely) a genre they’re calling the Finnish Weird, which seems to be analogous to what Anglophone SF writers call the New Weird. It’s set in Finland 2017, in a misogynistic dystopia that’s a bit like The Handmaid’s Tale if Maggie Atwood were weirder and smarter. (Is it misogynistic of me to put down Margaret Atwood with a diminutive of her name? I respect you, Ms. Atwood, except for The Penelopiad!) The protagonist, V, fairly leaps off the page; she’s a depressive synesthete with a scientific mind and a capsaicin addiction—not a word of exaggeration, there, and I sometimes (often) think that one of the major signifiers of feminist fiction ought to be us allowing ourselves to write unrepentantly strange women. I’m sick of everywomen; I want to see us—female writers—let our girls be weird. V is crazy and hungry and brilliant and scared and strange; she’s got enormous appetites and a mind like a scalpel, and I love her to death. This book is one of the best things I’ve read this year.

Four: The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, Nancy Farmer. Zimbabwe. Looking through my list of books for this year, I thought about including Farmer's The House of the Scorpion, which is set in a future Mexico. I was on the point of adding it when I remembered this one, which I think is much better. It's an old favorite of mine, a delightful children's novel set in Zimbabwe in 2194.

Five: Feeling Sorry for Celia, Jaclyn Moriarty. Australia. Is it just me or is Australian YA weirdly reliable? And "reliable" really is the word: I wouldn't say it's all terrific, but I don't think I've ever read a really bad Australian YA novel. And this one is genuinely terrific, top-quality feel-good fun. The sequels, The Year of Secret Assignments, The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie, and The Ghosts of Ashbury High, only get better. (Although if you're an overachieving perfectionist with self-worth issues [hi] Bindy Mackenzie can seem decidedly less feel-good. I love it, but I have trouble re-reading it sometimes because there are lines that hit altogether too close to home.)

Six: How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, Sarah Glidden. Israel. It's the only non-fiction on my list, Glidden's graphic memoir of her Birthright trip. Really interesting and like The Rabbi's Cat it should be fairly accessible to people who don't read many comics.

Seven: Calvin, Martine Leavitt. Canada. More YA; this one's a short novel about a schizophrenic teen obsessed with Bill Watterson. I stayed up way too late to find out how it ended, and it was entirely worth it.

Eight: The Melancholy of Mechagirl, Catherynne M. Valente. Japan. A collection of Valente's Japan-themed short stories and poetry, all SF and fantasy. Almost all of them are set in Japan—one or two are US set but only one or two. I liked some of them better than others, and certain pieces here are more than a little confusing, but I've always enjoyed Valente as a stylist and overall this book was a delight. One of these stories was also featured in an anthology called The Future Is Japanese from the same press—the anthology's had mixed reviews, but I'm probably going to pick it up from StoryBundle. Also: writing this I realize that The Future Is Japanese features quite a few non-Japanese authors, and I'd love to read some SF/F by actual Japanese people. Please advise—there are some Japanese authors in the bundle I linked, but I'd love to hear other recommendations!

Nine: Sophie's World, Jostein Gaarder, trans. Paulette Moller. Norway. A novel about a fourteen-year-old girl taking a life-changing correspondence course about the history of philosophy. It’s a cross between a philosophy textbook, Alice in Wonderland, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. It’s a bit of a doorstopper, so I don’t reread it often, but it’s a mind-bender and well-worth your time.

Ten: Boxers & Saints, Gene Luen Yang. China. A weird and excellent two-volume graphic novel about the Boxer Rebellion, by this year's LOC Ambassador for Young People's Literature. I've not read a single book by Yang that wasn't excellent—I've got a particular fondness for The Shadow Hero—but as far as I recall the others are all American-set.


16 July 2016

what is best in life?

General: We won again! This is good, but what is best in life?
Warrior: The open steppe, a fleet horse, falcons at your wrist, and the wind in your hair.
General: Wrong! Conan! What is best?
Conan: A ripe mango.
General: That is good! That is good.
(See also. It's worth noting that I haven't seen the movie Conan the Barbarian, and when I first composed the above text I accidentally wrote Cohen instead of Conan. Who else remembers Cohen the Barbarian? The comments are open to any and all discussion of Cohen the Barbarian, also Rincewind and Twoflower.)

Today, in between poking at revisions on a short story, I managed to produce a very credible version of this mango pie from The Woks of Life. (Used five mangoes and no lime zest, and I couldn't be fussed with the whipped cream—otherwise I followed their instructions to the letter.) The short story's rather questionable, but it sure is nice to have a completed first draft of something. There's no first draft that's worse than the blank page was, as the fellow said, and while I'm certain that there'll be expansions and additions and deletions I do at least have something that might sensibly be called a short story.

I won't be doing anything new when I observe that baking a pie is far more immediately rewarding than writing—this is as good a time as any to cite Grace Paley's lovely "The Poet's Occasional Alternative":
I was going to write a poem
I made a pie instead it took
about the same amount of time
of course the pie was a final
draft a poem would have had some
distance to go days and weeks and
much crumpled paper
The rest is here. A pie, as she notes, needs no revisions. Although what she doesn't say that's also true is that a good poem and a good story last forever. A good pie lasts a few days at most.

See? Sic transit gloria mundi.
It turns out, in any case, that what's best in life is tea and pie in the garden in the early evening with one's family. Shock finding.

15 July 2016

poetry friday: general prologue, remixed.

When I was thinking through what to share this Friday, I realized that I had several pretty great options. This week I discovered Edna St. Vincent Millay's elegant heartbreaker "Spring"—which will definitely come up here again—and Denise Levertov's "The Secret"—which made me cry tears of poetry. But my best discovery was last night, when I came across some work by a poet I'd never heard of: Patience Agbabi. She's a British poet who does among other things lots of spoken word and slam, and her most recent book—2014's Telling Tales—was a contemporary rewrite of The Canterbury Tales.

If you've been reading this blog with any care, you might have picked up that I've been reading Chaucer's original. It was a project for this summer, reading it (them?) aloud with my dad in Middle English. I'd read a few of the tales in English classes, but I wanted the full experience. See, I loved what I'd read of the Tales, and now that I've read more of them I can say even more confidently that I love them with my whole heart, from the Man of Law’s Tale, which I would describe as only moderately racist, to the Squire's Tale which features a robot horse, to the interminable Tale of Melibee, which is short on plot but long on quotations from Ecclesiasticus. It’s also long on feminism, sort of. (“Feminism, sort of”: the Geoffrey Chaucer story.) And we're nearly finished: we're partway through the last Tale, the Parson's, which is a long prose sermon and if I'm honest a bit of a chore.

And so when I came across Agbabi's revision of the General Prologue, I was delighted. It's funny and fast, intricate and reference-dense while also being completely modern, true to Chaucer's chaotic vernacular beauty while still being accessible to people who aren't terrible terrible nerds. You can watch her perform it here—embedding is disabled, but I recommend going over there and checking it out—and below you'll find the text, nabbed from Poetry International Rotterdam. Try reading it out loud to yourself, even, 'cos it's as fun to read aloud as Chaucer is.

I haven't read the book yet, obviously, but I very much want to. Research has also turned up the fact that my main girl Alisoun is reimagined as a Nigerian, Mrs. Alice Ebi Bafa—you can read that here. If you already knew about this and you didn't tell me, you're fired.
When my April showers me with kisses
I could make her my missus or my mistress
but I’m happily hitched—sorry home girls—
said my vows to the sound of the Bow Bells
yet her breath is as fresh as the west wind,
when I breathe her, I know we’re predestined
to make music; my muse, she inspires me,
though my mind’s overtaxed, April fires me,
how she pierces my heart to the fond root
till I bleed sweet cherry blossom en route
to our bliss trip; there’s days she goes off me,
April loves me not; April loves me
with a passion, dear doctor, I’m wordsick
and I got the itch like I’m allergic
but it could be my shirt’s on the cheap side;
serenade overnight with my peeps wide,
nothing like her, liqueur, an elixir,
overproof that she serves as my sick cure,
she’s as strong as a ram, she is Aries,
see my jaw-dropping jeans, she could wear these,
see my jaw dropping neat Anglo-Saxon,
I got ink in my veins more than Caxton
and it flows hand to mouth, here’s a mouthfeast
verbal feats from the streets of the South-East
but my April, she blooms every shire’s end,
fit or vint, rich or skint, she inspires them
from the grime to the clean-cut iambic,
rime royale, rant or rap, get your slam kick
on this Routemaster bus: get cerebral
Tabard Inn to Canterbury Cathedral,
poet pilgrims competing for free picks,
Chaucer Tales, track by track, here’s the remix
from below-the-belt base to the topnotch;
I won’t stop all the clocks with a stopwatch
when the tales overrun, run offensive,
or run clean out of steam, they’re authentic
cos we’re keeping it real, reminisce this:
Chaucer's Tales were an unfinished business.
May the best poet lose, as the saying goes.
May the best poet muse be mainstaying those
on the stage, on the page, on their subject:
me and April, we’re The Rhyming Couplet
I’m The Host for tonight, Harry Bailey,
if I’m tongue-tied, April will bail me,
I’m MC but the M is for mistress
when my April shows me what a kiss is . . .
The roundup is here, and here's one of my own Chaucer remixes.

14 July 2016

this day in history.

Today is a good day I think for being sad!

Last night Ken Burns came up in conversation at dinner, as is so often the case. In the course of the following conversation I learned that Mother and Brother didn't recognize the name Sullivan Ballou. He was a soldier in the American Civil War, a 32-year-old Union volunteer from Rhode Island who died at Bull Run the first and is famous for his final goodbye letter to his wife Sarah, which was discovered in his trunk after his death. (It was notably read in Ken Burns' Civil War documentary, if you're still looking for the transition.) Looking the letter up to read it aloud, I found that it was dated the fourteenth of July, which I hadn't remembered. So it's as good a time as any to link it.

It's a really beautiful letter and I think about it a lot. It's all very I-could-not-love-thee-dear-so-much, except that I hate that poem and I don't hate the Ballou letter. Sullivan isn't only being honorable, he's also being conflicted and kind. It's a love letter. Here it is as it appeared in the documentary—a different, shortened version of the text, with music.
But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the garish day and in the darkest night—amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours—always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.

Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again.
People in the past were people. It matters to me to remember that, and it's imperative that we remember it also about people who unlike Ballou didn't have the time and ability to write their thoughts down.


Unrelated: I would have saved this link for the end-of-month roundup, but it turns out the offer only stretches till this weekend, so here it is now. The good people of Tor.com want to give you a free ebook of the Hugo-winning The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (as translated by Ken Liu). I don't know much about it, but I'm not ready to stop respecting the Hugos yet, so. Besides that I'm always trying to read more novels in translation, and I never turn down free books.

12 July 2016

book review: necessity, jo walton.

Image from Amazon.
Or: a harmless necessary book review. As few spoilers here as possible; I'm aiming this at readers who've not read any of the series yet.

Jo Walton is one of those few living writers whose new books I am always willing to buy sight-unseen. Connie Willis is another such (have you seen she has a novel out in September?); Terry Pratchett, while he lived, was another. The first book of Walton's that I read was Among Others, which was a birthday present the summer I turned fifteen. I remember beginning to read it on a fold-out couch in my grand-parents' house. When I came to the line in the preface where she says "there was never such a year as 1979, no such age as fifteen, and no such planet as Earth. The fairies are real, though" I began to cry so I thought I'd never stop. I couldn't quite articulate why then, and I can't now. All I know really is that fifteen was a difficult year, and Among Others was just the kind of book I needed to help me get through it in one piece, the kind of book that felt as though it had been written specially for me. It's still one of my very favorites, and I've re-read it several times since then though I try not to read it too often for fear it'll lose some of its magic.

I think the next one I read was Tooth and Claw, the one about Trollope's dragons. Even my mother liked it, and I think they may be the only dragons she's ever cared about besides Eustace. (No, I tell a lie—I just remembered that she also liked Naomi Novik's Temeraire books.) Her alternate histories, the Small Change books and My Real Children, I loved possibly a little less, but I still loved them. And of course there was Lifelode, which besides being proper domestic fantasy in the vein of Linda Medley's Castle Waiting or Pamela Dean's The Dubious Hills is massively clever about time in a way that means I'd recommend it as a readalike for Possession or Arcadia. All of which is to say that I haven't read a single Walton book I wouldn't recommend; which one I tell you to read depends more than you than it does on me. Tooth and Claw if you like dragons and/or Victorians, Among Others if you are or were ever a lonely bookish teenager, My Real Children if you like sci-fi but you also want to read quiet woman-centered character studies. (Do we not all want to read more quiet woman-centered character-focused sci-fi?)

It won't surprise you, then, that I pre-ordered both The Just City and The Philosopher Kings and read them both in a single day when they came out, and it won't surprise you either that when I woke up this morning one of the first things I did was download Necessity with a lusty cry of "Cancel my appointments, Bunter!" Which Bunter did—in fact I failed to make my mother a curry I had promised her because I was too busy reading. Much reading is a weariness of the flesh, you know.

To bring the stragglers up to speed: The Just City came out in January of 2015, and The Philosopher Kings was its sequel that June. I've read the first three times, the second twice. I read them both before and after reading Plato's Republic, and I loved them both times though I saw them differently. They're science fiction wherein the goddess Athene helps a lot of time-traveling philosophers and classicists found Plato's Republic on Atlanta. That description sounds awkward, but in fact in execution it always feels completely organic. The time travelers are all Platonists who read the Republic in the original Greek (it had to have been in the original, see, otherwise they wouldn't have had a common language; as it is, Ancient Greek and Latin are the linguae francae of the Republic) and prayed to Athene to make it real. They have a lot of the problems you'd expect—ten-year-olds aren't quite the beasts Plato imagined—and some of the ones you wouldn't. They populate their city with Greek-speaking slave children from antiquity and go from there. Also, Apollo incarnates himself in the city.

It all goes even more sideways when Sokrates himself turns up.

Again, it sounds weird but it works in the book; novels aren't meant to be experienced in synopsis form. (Wasn't it Lewis who said the difference between myths and novels was that myths still worked when you compressed them to their most basic elements, and novels usually didn't? It sounds like the sort of thing he'd come out with, but it's been a while since I've read An Experiment in Criticism.) The first book is narrated by Maia, an eighteenth-century philosopher, Simmea, who grew up in the city, and the god Apollo. Though Apollo is a narrator throughout the trilogy, the others change—I won't say who the new ones are, because in fact that's a spoiler in itself, but I will say that I was particularly delighted by one of the new narrators in Necessity.

In fact there's very little I can say about Necessity without either spoiling the first two volumes or just being impenetrable to anyone who hasn't read them. Like the first two, it's about utopia and volition and the precise nature of the soul. Like the first two, it's got lovable characters and really engaging Socratic dialogues. This time around, though, we have alien theology, more poetry than ever before (really very good poetry), and neatly handled time travel. Aw yeah.

It feels utterly of-a-piece with the preceding volumes, and it's a very satisfying end to the series. Walton answers all the niggling questions I had left while also developing her old themes in new ways and telling a new story that's worthwhile in itself. I'm already looking forward to reading all three books in a row and finally experiencing the trilogy as a continuous whole, especially as there are several things about the trilogy as a whole and Necessity particularly that I won't be able to form solid opinions on until I reread them/it. I'm still not at all sure about the narrative treatment of Christianity, for example, though I think I understand why she handled that element the way she did.

On the whole, though, I'm immensely pleased. I wasn't always certain what she was doing—as the review on Tor.com notes it's rather less tightly structured than the other two were, I think because it's trying to tell a rather bigger story—but Walton is of course much cleverer than I am and it all worked out in a way that felt both startling and inevitable, with no unnecessary loose ends. I laughed aloud with pleasure often, squawked quite a bit, and at several places I physically put down the book and applauded. I am, ah, a bit of a demonstrative reader.

When I first read the first two books I hadn't read any Plato but the Allegory of the Cave, and this past semester when I finally read the Republic for my Philosophy 101 (yes, the entire Republic) I felt not just that I understood Walton's novels better for having finally read Plato, but that I understood Plato better for having read the novels. In fact I think I'd probably pick up my copy of the Republic again if it weren't packed away for the summer. Walton is much more sympathetic to Plato than I tended to be when I was reading him, and even Necessity has cleared up some things for me about his points of view. Walton's Sokrates is eminently lovable. I want to argue with him every bit as much as I wanted to argue with him when I read Plato; the difference is that now I also want to be his friend.

"It's not for everyone" is the obvious thing to say about such an unusual book, but I think it's for a lot of people. If you love Plato (me), or hate Plato but love arguing with and about him (also me), or if you've never read Plato but like philosophical science fiction, or if you're interested in any or all of robots or utopia or incarnation or feminism or Greek mythology, you really ought to think about picking these up.

I can't imagine that you'd regret it.

4 July 2016

a softer elsinore.

Music: The Rough Guide to English Folk.
Tea: Earl Grey, milk & honey. 
Word count: 7350 (!).


A Softer World strips edited to be about Hamlet & co. These are in no particular order. As ever, click to enlarge. Previously.

(content warning: depression & suicidal imagery. It's Hamlet.)

924 // David Tennant as Hamlet.

560 // Ladi Emeruwa as Hamlet v. Tom Lawrence as Laertes.

778 // David Tennant as Hamlet.

527 // John Dougall as Claudius.

242 // Horatio & Hamlet (cannot find actors' names; information welcome).

476 // Maxine Peake as Hamlet.

27 // Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet & Nicholas Farrell as Horatio.

976 // Ladi Emeruwa as Hamlet.
1170 // David Tennant as Hamlet.

15 // Beruce Khan as Laertes & Jennifer Leong as Ophelia.
1024 // Ladi Emeruwa as Hamlet & John Dougall as Claudius.

1224 // Maxine Peake as Hamlet.

1106 // Maxine Peake as Hamlet.
763 // Maxine Peake as Hamlet.

1 July 2016

june linkblog.

Does anybody know what's happened to Chaucer? He doesn't usually go this long without tweeting, and that sounds worryingly like a final farewell. I don't want to have to live in a post-@LeVostreGC world.

...anyway, links!

My girls Margery and Julian!

"Frivolous" Humanities Helped Prisoners Survive in Communist Romania.

I haven't seen or read Game of Thrones, but this piece on its deficiencies seems to have a wider application, especially (?) for fantasy writers like myself. "There are lots of things that many humans actually do that never show up on Game of Thrones. Menstruation is a much more common way for people to bleed than getting stabbed a bunch of times, for example. I feel comfortable saying you’re more likely to murder someone on television than care for a child, which would leave the proverbial alien very confused about our persistence on this planet. Smiling is seriously underrepresented on GoT, as are jokes, games, songs, and horseplay that doesn’t end in bloodshed."

Department of golden girls and chimney-sweepers: Dave Swarbrick, of Fairport Convention, died on the third of June. If you don't know without being told what a loss that is, I'm not sure it's possible to make it clear to you. There were giants in the earth in those days.

Department of old news that’s new to me: In 1989, John Cleese read an audiobook of The Screwtape Letters. Having listened to some of it, I can say that it’s exactly what you’re expecting from that description, i.e. an unmitigated delight and possibly the role he was born to play. (I'm joking, obviously: he was born to play James McNeill Whistler.) The first letter is here, after which I trust your ingenuity to lead you to the rest.

On Tor.com, Harry Potter & the Cursed Child photos: this time, we have gorgeous gorgeous Granger-Weasleys. Also, anyone want to buy me a sixty-dollar action figure?

Also also, a rather enticing list of book recommendations.

C.S. Lewis on Arthur C. Clarke: "I’m sure you’re very wicked people–but wouldn’t the world be dull if everyone was good?" I've read very little Clarke (well, we all have gaps in our educations) but I always enjoy unexpected literary friendships. This isn't quite on the level of Samuel Beckett and André the Giant, but it's very good indeed.

Sarah Urist Green being commendably lucid about selfies.

July 12th cannot come soon enough.

"You’re A Social Climber. What Horrible Faux Pas Have You Committed At This Dinner Party, Alienating Your Only Allies In High Society And Ruining, Perhaps Forever, Your Chance Of Winning Lord Grangemere’s Affections?" And, while we're doing choose-your-own-adventure, this profile of Ryan North is incredible and I love it.

Ever look at art and an entire fantasy novel unfolds in your head?

Ursula Vernon prints on Topatoco! And there was much rejoicing.

Element names? Element names!

We all know that butt jokes in trailers for animated movies are annoying, but is it a gender thing? Selfishly I almost hope so, if only so I can have a real reason to object. (My first instinct on reading the article was to do a joke about Absolon, but I think that would prove unhelpful.)

A beautiful piece surveying the way the concept of beauty's developed in Doctor Who, from 1963 to the present day. "What’s beautiful, in other words, is the messiness of life, the nitty gritty, the small details, the clinging of life. Not the picturesque view." Also monsters, natch.

Uncleftish Beholding,” by Poul Anderson. This is what it would've taken to interest me in physics in high school. "Nor are stuff and work unakin. Rather, they are groundwise the same, and one can be shifted into the other. The kinship between them is that work is like unto weight manifolded by the fourside of the haste of light." ♥!

"If Lea Salonga were your best friend, the two of you would share a joint Kindle library, but on your birthday Lea would give you beautiful new titles in hardcover—the books you were most eager to read, the books whose release dates you marked on your calendar—because she’d know that getting real books is one of your love languages."

1,000 Vintage Postcards Show Famous Actors Performing Shakespeare’s Plays from 1880 to 1914. My entire jam.

Richard E. Grant interviews John Finnemore.

Amanda Palmer reads E. E. Cummings.

Tolkien watch: What Tolkien was doing when you weren't paying attention. Map of North America drawn in Tolkien's style. Which is it: Prescription drug or Tolkien elf? (Astonishingly difficult—I got 23/30, and my only regret is that the honorable members failed to make use of my very favorite Tolkien elf name, the gobsmackingly unfortunate Teleporno.) And of course how to tell if you are in a J.R.R. Tolkien book. ("God’s grace descended upon you once, in the form of an gigantic, murderous war eagle"; "You find the sun disappointing and the moon insipid. When you were young, the world was lit only by the stars.")

Sic transit gloria mundi.

Food52: I can't stop thinking about this sandwich. And this tart baked up gorgeously, even in our temperamental oven.

Would it be immoral to send out a generation starship? Followup question, would it be awesome enough that we wouldn't care if it was immoral or not? (Pretty sure that's maybe and yes.)

Can you tell the difference between sonnets written by a human and sonnets written by a machine? Is this what Alan Turing had in mind? Well, no, but it's quite good fun. I can tell the difference as it turns out; I only misidentified one of six, and apparently in the original trial "None of the judges was fooled by the poetic computers." (Worth noting: I wasn't tricked into thinking that any of the computers were human; my mistake was to label a human a computer.) I'm also linking because some of the human sonnets are genuinely really good.

And speaking of sonnets. I'm more of a Terrible Sonnets girl, but this blog post, "Felix Randal as a Pattern for Remembering Hopkins," is lovely and spot-on. "Just as Hopkins was endeared by seeing sick Felix Spence, we are endeared by seeing sick Fr. Gerard."

At NPR, a farewell for the Toast. Don't read the comments.

There's a lot of good in this essay, but the bit that hit me hardest was "Indeed, one can do worse than to define “amicus/philos” in humanist as one with whom I share reading." Well. Exactly.

Dinosaur Comics killing it as always.

june bookblog.


Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb. This was a reread. I read it less than a year ago, but it seems to be ever-new. It's a meditation on cooking and theology. Capon was an Episcopalian priest with strong views on kitchen knives—so, you know. Dream man. There's a bit where he says that cooking with an electric stove is like playing the piano in mittens, a line I agree with fervently and quote frequently. It's full of brilliant little bon mots like that, and what stops it from feeling like nothing more than a book of one-liners is a) the larger unity of the work and b) Capon's gift for turning a phrase, which is such that I'll allow him anything up to half my kingdom.

Susan Howatch, Glamorous Powers, Ultimate Prizes, and Scandalous Risks. These are all part of the Starbridge series, six books about the Church of England in the twentieth century (which is to say, the thirties through the sixties). I rather enjoy thinking of it as Clergymen Make Bad Life Choices: the Series. Most of them are narrated by clergy—Powers is about Jon Darrow, an Anglo-Catholic priest and ex-monk, while Prizes focuses on Neville Aysgarth, Darrow's archdeacon. Even Risks, which is narrated by laywoman Venetia Flaxton, is full of clergymen and their terrible decisions. The first novel, which I read in May, was called Glittering Images and focused on Charles Ashworth, a canon.

I'm fairly certain Howatch must be an Anglo-Catholic, though I have no proof of this but the fact that she makes her Anglo-Catholic characters much more sympathetic than her low church characters. Certainly I had far more patience with Darrow than with the Liberal Protestant Aysgarth, and I don't think it's only because I'm quite high church myself. I had even less time for Venetia, who's a churchgoer but not a communicant. All her life choices are awful, though I must say it's not entirely her fault. (But really—a kindly intellectual German canon who's smitten with you sounds absolutely the top. Why focus your attentions on a married man who could be your father?) I really wanted to like the only female narrator, but there you are; it was a relentlessly bleak novel and I was glad to see the back of it.

(And I think Howatch has a bit of a tendency to fridge her female characters, a tendency which is doubtless brought into focus by reading them all in a row like I did.)

Nevertheless, I enjoy seeing different strains of thought in the Church of England, and I love seeing characters from multiple points of view as the books continue—especially the way characters who look sensible and well-adjusted outwardly are really just as tormented as everyone else, and the way even the most rascally of them—lookin' at you, Aysgarth—really are doing their best to serve God as well as they know how. Despite some misgivings it is with a joyful heart that I add these novels to the Official List of Non-Terrible Post-Milton Fiction About Christianity.

William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar. After finishing Risks I re-read Julius Caesar in a reader's theatre with my family. We've been taking turns choosing plays to read, and this was my brother's selection. I hadn't read it since, gosh, 2012? and I love it even more than I remembered. Casca is underrated. (My young brother's considered opinion on Caesar: Cassius is young, scrappy, and hungry, and he's not throwing away his shot. I suppose the corollary is that yond Alex has a lean and hungry look? Someone get on this.)

Howatch, Mystical Paths and Absolute Truths. Then I read the last two Starbridge books. I think Paths is probably my favorite of the series, but Truths—although chronologically it's set a few years before Paths—makes an elegant and satisfying ending to the sequence.

Jhumpa Lahiri, In Other Words. This, Lahiri's latest, was a recommendation from my mother. She's loved Lahiri's previous books, none of which I've read. This one is a memoir of language—the Bengali she learned as a child, the English that became her primary language, and her recent acquisition of Italian. This book was written in Italian, published there as In altre parole, and translated not by Lahiri but by translator Ann Goldstein. It's less a straightforward narrative than a collection of essays, less travelogue than introspection (the Guardian review called it "monkish," inexplicably), and it contains two short stories she wrote in Italian. I think perhaps those stories, "The Exchange" and "Half-Light," are the strongest parts of the book, limpid pieces that are both autobiographical and dreamlike.

It brought back my own experiences learning languages (French, Latin, Koiné), and it reminded me also of reading Dante's Commedia in a bilingual edition and trying to puzzle out the Italian. "Assume Italian if you have it not," the professor said, which did not prove to be the most helpful advice he ever gave us. It's also a book about feeling lost and foreign, experiences I can identify with all too well.

Jennifer Donnelly, Revolution. I've got a long post about this one in the works. Suffice it to say for the moment that I don't recommend it.

Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go. I wanted to read The Buried Giant since it's been getting such good reviews, but it was out. This one was marvelous, though, a lovely chilling little book. I'll definitely be seeking out more of Ishiguro's work. Maybe The Remains of the Day?

Robert Farrar Capon, Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law, & the Outrage of Grace. The mind behind this is obviously the same as the mind behind The Supper of the Lamb, but this book is a much more ambitious book and as such a much more challenging read in every sense. It's the sort of thing that I'm going to have to worry at for a long while before I really feel settled with it—and there are a few points I do actually disagree with—but on the whole I love this book. It starts as a romance novel, turns into a Socratic dialogue, and ends as a theological high-wire act wherein Capon juggles concepts of reconciliation, judgment, hell, and heaven. There's also two sermons (one of them in the style of John Donne) and a short story about the mob. He's not very good at genre, but then genre is a social construct mostly of use to booksellers. Fr. Capon shocks, and does so gleefully, but I never feel that he's out purely for shock value. And stylistically he's a delight.

William Shakespeare, As You Like It. It was my turn to choose a Shakespeare play, and I thought I'd plump for a comedy. My mother and brother quit after two acts contending that it didn't make any sense, but the faithful remnant finished it on our own and loved it—I think it may be my favorite of Will's comedies.

Jaques is my favorite character, perhaps unsurprisingly, but I love Rosalind and Touchstone and Celia and even Orlando. (Theory: Jaques is what Hamlet would have grown up into if he'd lived in a comedy.) It's sweet and funny of course, and the poetry is to die for. Indeed the only thing I can think of to make this play better is that Rosalind's father the Duke should be her mother the Duchess, and all her lords and attendants in the forest should be women as well. Nothing less than a sylvan misandrist utopia in the forest of Arden will satisfy me. Jaques is the only one allowed to be a man, as he can be the token dude who nobody much likes. I wonder why nobody ever hires me as a director?

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me. I have nothing useful to say about this book, except what everyone already knows, which is that Coates is a great stylist and that this book is incredibly important. It's not a perfect book and it deserves honest and thoughtful criticism—there's nothing more dangerous than a pedestal—but I'm not the person to do that criticism, not only because I'm white but also because I haven't thought, or read, or learned, nearly enough to talk intelligently.

Susan Palwick, The Fate of Mice. I love short stories, but like most (all?) short story fans I've got used to expecting at least one dud in any given collection. The Fate of Mice isn't like that at all. I have favorites—"Sorrel's Heart," "The Old World," the title story—but every story here is just right and I wouldn't change a thing about the lineup. "Gestella" has displaced Suzy McKee Charnas' "Boobs" as my favorite werewolf short story, "Beautiful Stuff" made me care about zombies, and I think "Ever After" might be a definitive take on Cinderella. There's a wide range of genres here—some of the stories, like "Jo's Hair" and arguably "GI Jesus," aren't fantasy or sci-fi, in fact—but most of the stories are sad, all of them are kind, and they're full of a deep and palpable concern for women's lives. The introduction, by one Paul di Filippo, says that Palwick's stories are about the question "How does one live boldly in the face of looming personal extinction?" Spoilers, the answer is caring about each other. I'll definitely seek out Palwick's novels.

Madeleine L'Engle, The Sphinx at Dawn. Reviewed here.


Christopher Moore, Fool. Women in the audience—you know when you’re reading a book by a male writer, and you want to like it, but as you go on you realize that the man who wrote this never imagined a woman reading it? It so often feels personally insulting—you’re trying to enjoy yourself and the book keeps saying, “No. No. No. Not for you.” If on a winter's night a traveler was like that, but I managed to enjoy it anyway because a of all it was published in '79 and second of b Calvino was a genuinely game-changing genius. Fool came out in 2009, and Italo Calvino it ain't. It's a comic novel narrated by Lear's Fool, and all through it kept reminding me of Terry Pratchett's Wyrd Sisters, which is a comic novel based on Macbeth. It will astonish none of you if I tell you Wyrd Sisters is far the superior novel. Pratchett, if you believe it, could write old women without boggling at how disgusting they are, and young women without making them into sex objects. I know! No bloody wonder, is it, that when I first read Pratchett's novels I spent quite a while thinking he was a woman. If I sound bitter it's because I'm bitter.

Also, the footnotes. I usually adore footnotes in fiction, but Moore uses his footnotes to define words like "portcullis," "trencher," and "iamb." A few words I could maybe allow, but these? I'm reading a novel about Lear's Fool; I'm not here to be condescended to, and few of any of the definitions had even a scrap of humor in them. (There is exactly one person who can get away with defining words for me in narration, by the way, and his name rhymes with Jiminy Cricket.) Defining British slang, as Moore does occasionally, is a bit more comprehensible given that the book is aimed at an American reader, but it's still a bit unacceptable in a post-Google age. And, you know, I have limited sympathy for Americans who try to be British or for anybody who tries to be Richard Curtis*. Moore's successfully replicated all the misogynistic and homophobic bits of Blackadder (of which there are more than I generally prefer to admit), but the things that actually made it funny seem to remain by and large beyond his grasp.

There are quite a few good lines in amongst the cheap sophomoric gags. I did laugh out loud more than once! But I soured on this book incredibly quickly and I wonder if it wouldn't have been better off as a short story.


Terry Pratchett, Wyrd Sisters. (Reread.)

Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose.

Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. (Reread.)

Helen Marshall, Gifts for the One Who Comes After.

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales.

As of the end of June 2016, I've read 119 books since January. I'll see you next month with another pile!

*Yes, I know there was more than one writer on Blackadder. It was by way of being a synechdoche.