Countdown to Witch Week 2020: One week to go

Halloween card, 1908, NYPL

Actual Halloween may be cancelled this year, but you can celebrate it virtually with us, during Witch Week!

Don’t miss out on the fun: Apply your Gothic makeup, put on your best costumes, and settle down for a close reading of Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book.

The 1980s music to inspire your nightmares ends with this industrial classic from Ministry [set to the 1929 cartoon, “Hell’s Bells”, directed by Walt Disney (!) and drawn by Ub Iwerks, Silly Symphonies series; read more about the film here]:

Posted in Gothic, Witch Week | 4 Comments

Stress Reading

This month, as three crucial dates slouch nearer (31 October, 01 November, 03 November¹), my reading has been all about trying to keep calm. True, only one of these dates will have world-wide significance, its consequences possibly repeating and repeating unpleasantly, like bad champagne of which we’ve bought too many cases yet feel compelled to keep drinking. (Again, I want to know: why do we keep doing this to ourselves?) The other two involve multiple participants, but I doubt the aftermath will be so dire.

However, that these three events converge makes this month — for me, at any rate — particularly baleful. Thus, an unusual assortment of comfort reading:

The Jane Austen Society, by Natalie Jenner. Ash, by Malinda Lo. Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Four Nancy Drew mysteries. The Plague, by Camus. Eleanore Updale’s Montmorency series. Back issues of the NYRB and LRB (so nice to be reminded of the world’s concerns pre-2016). Peter May’s Blackhouse and Jenny Milchman’s The Second Mother

Kipling and Nancy Drew need no attention from me. I reviewed Updale’s series here. Jenner’s bit of fan fiction is diverting but not worth a re-read, much less a review. Still working on May’s and Milchman’s thrillers.

That leaves two books to discuss here:

With her 2009 fantasy novel, Malinda Lo reboots the Cinderella tale in a fascinating new take that flips everything on its head, including the meaning of “fairy godmother”. To the story’s traditional medieval setting, Lo adds a close proximity to the land of Faerie, whose denizens easily move between there and here, looking for fun — in other words, for means of making mayhem. Lo’s elves are more like Pratchett’s and Townsend Warner’s rather than Tolkien’s — haughty, selfish, often fatal to humans, but for the most part living in their own world. Yet one comes to the aid of Ash (short for Aisling) when her step-mother begins mistreating her (not just by making her do housework — oh, the horror! — but the dreadful woman accuses Ash’s adored father of being a spendthrift!). Ash essentially sells her soul to her fairy-aide in order to be able to attend the Prince’s celebrations, and how she gets out of that commitment is the (somewhat disappointing) denouement. Yet overall, this unusual story wins my admiration. By switching genders for key characters, Lo makes this a surprising tale of sexual awakening as well as passage into independent adulthood, and not just for Ash. Angela Carter would approve.

As for the remaining novel from this month’s list, it’s been much in the news earlier this year. Everyone’s must-read, the book-candy for every eye, multiple re-issues, yadda yadda yadda. In April, the wait for an e-copy from the NYPL was several weeks. Today, access is immediate. Readers have moved on.

Yet here I am, reading it again after … omg, has it been40 years?² I can recall seeing it on my shelf a few times, considering it, and then deciding, “Not yet.”

Well, “yet” has come.

First off, I admire Camus’ astute portrayal of the range of responses to the pandemic. When Oran, the Algerian coastal town where Camus sets his novel, goes into lockdown, the citizens pass through every stage we’ve experienced the past several months — denial, anger, boredom, frustration, fear, despair, rebellion. The only difference is that the local Préfet and other government officials follow the scientists’ advice. One can only dream.

Allegory? Absurdist drama? Christian apology? Whatever you like; I don’t believe it matters. Although there are few women and no Arab characters (even though the Arabs must outnumber the French) the novel’s value lies in the arguments between Dr. Rieux and other characters about how one ought to respond to a crisis like this. (Aaaand again, I get to refer to The Good Place and its 4-season examination of how we should treat each other.)

This quote is on a wall near my desk: “… evil exists so we can struggle to overcome it” (David Brooks, “Your Loyalties Are Your Life”, New York Times, 24 January 2019). In The Plague, Camus’ narrator argues that citizens of Oran who volunteered to help during the epidemic (caring for the ill, disposing of bodies, etc.) were actually just doing their duty. He uses the example of a teacher:

… we do not congratulate a schoolmaster on teaching that two and two make four, though we may, perhaps, congratulate him on having chosen his laudable vocation. Let us then say it was praiseworthy that [the volunteers] should have elected to prove that two and two make four rather than the contrary; but let us add that this good will of theirs was one that is shared by the schoolmaster and by all who have the same feelings as the schoolmaster …. [A]gain and again there comes a time in history when the man who dares to say that two and two make four is punished with death. The schoolteacher is well aware of this. And the question is not one of knowing what punishment or reward attends the making of this calculation. The question is that of knowing whether two and two do make four. For those of our townsfolk who risked their lives in this predicament the issue was whether or not plague was in their midst and whether or not they must fight against it.

I have other explanations for the existence of evil (one comes from Tom Waits’ song, “Heartattack and Vine”: “don’t you know there ain’t no devil there’s just god when he’s drunk”), but I can’t argue with Camus’ narrator about our duty in the face of evil. To do nothing is to accept evil.

Tarrou, the traveler accidentally trapped in Oran’s lockdown, is the one who organizes the volunteers during the epidemic. Dr. Rieux asks him why he helps these people to whom he has no connection, and Tarrou answers, “I don’t know. My code of morals, perhaps.” When Dr. Rieux asks, “What code?” Tarrou replies, “Comprehension.” That is, Tarrou understands what we owe each other in this world, and how to respond to evil.


¹In case you need it, in calendar order: Witch Week (7 days to celebrate Diana Wynne Jones and fantasy fiction), NaNoWriMo (a month of writing abandon), Election Day (the possible end of all hope for the future).

²These days, when I pick up a book I haven’t read for a while, I enjoy recalling those carefree days of the 1970s, 80s, 90s — even the 2000s.

Posted in Am reading, Classic | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Cooking up some scary fun

Mount Fløyen hiking trail, Bergen, Norway. Photo courtesy of Lizzie Ross

There’s still time to prep for Witch Week 2020. If you haven’t yet read Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, find a copy and get started. You have two weeks starting … now!

For the second musical inspiration, here’s one from the grandaddy of Goth bands, Bauhaus, with visuals from Tod Browning’s 1931 horror classic, Dracula. Those eyes!

 

Posted in Gothic, Witch Week | Leave a comment

Are you ready for Witch Week 2020?

Medieval beast

Leaves are turning, winds from the north are cooling down the nights, pumpkins and apples are making appearances at local farm stands.*

Which can mean only one thing:

WITCH WEEK 2020 approaches!

Anyone still unsure what that is can check out last year’s celebration at Calmgrove’s blog, which you can find here. This year’s theme is GOTHICK, and our read-along is Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. We start in just 3 weeks. Will you be ready?

Meanwhile, I’ll be posting some inspirational music videos, to help get you in the mood. Today’s is a Goth jewel from the 1980s.


*Northern Hemisphere version. Those of you who live south of the equator have my sympathies.

Posted in Witch Week | 4 Comments

Witch Week 2020

Not long now!

Witch Week, the annual celebration of fantasy fiction, begins in under 2 months. Lory @ EmeraldCityBookReview created it to honor Diana Wynne Jones, author of the Dalemark and Chrestomanci series, along with dozens of other fantasy novels and short stories. These days I co-host Witch Week with Chris @ Calmgrove, and we’ve lined up a frightening array of posts for the week between Halloween and Guy Fawkes’ Day.

Our theme this year is GOTHICK, and our guest bloggers will cover nearly 300 years of gloom and doom, including a discussion of our read-along novel, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. Pick up a copy and join us for a week of thrills.

Here’s a little something to put you in the mood:

Posted in Fantasy, Gothic, Witch Week | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Hashtag Jane Austen

Twitter has misinformed me. There I was, getting all excited about #AustenInAugust, and it turns out not to be a thing. It was a thing in 2019, but apparently not this year.*

Do I care? Not a fig, for that tiny bit of misinformation led me, via a circuitous route too complex to recall, to this little bit of fan fiction published just as WWI was preparing to change the face of Europe.

Old Friends and New Fancies: An Imaginary Sequel to the Novels of Jane Austen (Sybil G. Brinton, 1914, NYPL e-book) is the likeliest candidate for the prize of First Piece of Jane Austen Fan Fiction. Brinton’s only novel, it gathers major and minor characters from Austen’s six major works, focusing to a greater part on Georgiana Darcy, Kitty Bennet and Mary Crawford, whom Brinton has chosen to place at the center of her marriage plot. Austen herself had said that Kitty eventually married a curate who lived near Pemberley (which Brinton uses), but gave no hints of Georgiana’s and Mary’s fates. That Brinton rehabilitates Mary Crawford initially struck me as odd, but of all the women left unmarried in Austen’s work, she is, in fact, the most attractive and intelligent. In the end, I was relieved that all barriers to her happiness were removed, just as with the others. After all, that is what a marriage plot is about

Most of the familiar characters are there: The Wentworths, Tilneys, Knightleys, Bingleys and Darcys, Edward Ferrars, and Edmund Bertrams are all healthy, still happily married and comfortably settled throughout England. They provide houses — both in the country and in London and Bath — for the others to visit and intermingle, setting up all kinds of possibilities for match-making. The fact that these families all know each other seems a bit far-fetched, given the range of their wealth, but it isn’t strictly impossible. (It makes me want to write a sequel/s that show how each meets the others.)

Knowing Austen’s plots certainly helps in understanding relationships between and among characters, especially as some are only briefly referenced, but isn’t required. Being a Janeite is required, however, in being able to appreciate Brinton’s attempt to model Austen’s style. Here, for instance, is Brinton’s first sentence:

There is one characteristic which may be safely said to belong to nearly all happily-married couples–that of desiring to see equally happy marriages among their young friends; and in some cases, where their wishes are strong and circumstances seem favorable to the exertion of their own efforts, they may even embark upon the perilous but delightful course of helping those persons whose minds are as yet not made up, to form a decision respecting this important crisis in life, and this done, to assist in clearing the way in order that this decision may forthwith be acted upon.

It’s an excellent attempt, although perhaps a bit long and lacking Austen’s spritely tone. Compare it with this:

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

Note the word seemed, in which Austen suggests that Emma, “handsome, clever, and rich”, may be missing something important to her maturity — something that, perhaps, can only come from being distressed and vexed. Brinton’s sentence, no matter how closely it adheres to Austen’s style, gives no hints of unformed character, nor does it make any satirical statement, as do the starts of Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion. It lacks that knowledge of human nature that lies behind all of Austen’s prose.

It’s a brave soul who takes on the burden of writing sequels to Austen, which these days run the gamut from murder mystery (P D James) to romance (Joan Aiken) to horror-parody (Seth Grahame-Smith), not to mention all the modern reworkings for film (Clueless, Bride and Prejudice, etc.). I can understand the allure: Austen’s characters are irresistible. When Brinton brings Jane and Elizabeth’s father, Mr. Bennet, to Pemberley for a short visit, I relished every statement he made concerning Kitty’s frivolity and desire for attention. On being asked for permission to marry Kitty, Mr. Bennet explains to the man,

Let me know when the time comes to wish you joy …, and I will do it, but life is so uncertain that I think for the present I had better refrain. Have you ascertained whether Kitty can cook, make her own gowns, and trim hats? I understand it is a great promoter of married happiness when the wife can do so, and I am not sure whether all my girls have turned their education to such good account.

I wish Mr. Collins had also appeared, and I absolutely longed for Henry Tilney’s teasing wit.

Despite its failings, Old Friends and New Fancies was good entertainment. I generally feel about Austen sequels the way Dr. Johnson felt about women preachers: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” To be honest, Brinton has done surprisingly well with this sequel. I can recommend it to anyone who is not ready for another read-through of Austen’s oeuvre.


*If #AustenInAugust2020 is out there, please let me know!

Posted in Fan fiction | Tagged , | 9 Comments

Getting over the Don’t-Wants

LA palm trees at dawn, early June 2020

Maybe you’ve never heard the term, but you know the feeling: Low energy, little interest in doing anything that isn’t absolutely essential (cleaning, eating, sleeping), general listlessness.

But stop right there — I don’t deserve anyone’s sympathy. I know I spent three months in paradise, of which I took full advantage. I was able to gratify every don’t-want imaginable, and it was lovely. Don’t want to go for a walk? Fine, guidelines said to stay home anyway. Don’t want to talk to anyone? Fine, staying inside guaranteed a safe social distance from others. Don’t want to cook? Fine, my daughter’s happy to do it. Don’t want to write? Fine, I don’t have my computer anyway. Don’t want to read? (Yes, that happened.) Fine, I can watch all four seasons of The Good Place for the third and then fourth time, or listen to podcasts about The Good Place, or just stare at the sky from the terrace off my bedroom and think about the meaning of The Good Place.

But I had to leave eventually, and after this month at home, I realize again how lucky I’ve been (especially since season 4 of The Good Place isn’t available here. Gah!!!). Also, I realize how much I’ve let slide, and it’s time, at last, to correct that. Kick out the don’t-wants, bring back the action.

NYC sunset, early June 2020

So, with jetlag finally cured, my days have become more productive. I spent the last week of June in an online writer’s workshop, where I got feedback on a MS I’ve been working on for six years. New readers, new inspiration — I’m making some major changes and will submit the revised MS to agents starting in August. Deadlines leave no time for the don’t-wants.

Lory at Emerald City Book Review has inspired me to read something in French. I have Harry Potter 1, as well as Candide and a few other books. I think I can manage to read at least one during July. I just finished a reread of Cornelia Meigs’ Invincible Louisa and have decided to take on the bulk of Louisa May Alcott’s novels, starting with An Old Fashioned Girl. After the first chapter, I can already see an inspiration for L M Montgomery’s Anne Shirley (which I have no way of proving, so I merely note the resemblance).

Then there’s Witch Week to prep for. Chris at Calmgrove and I are lining up some great guest bloggers, who plan to review Gothic novels and short stories from the UK, Italy, and the US. We hope you’ll join us as we celebrate the creepy, spooky, mysterious, fantastic, grotesque, and bizarre worlds created by gothic authors, all in honor of Diana Wynne Jones.

Who are your favorite gothic writers? Even if you don’t join us as a guest blogger, we hope you’ll review something in that genre during Witch Week. Let us know in advance, and we’ll give you a shout out.

Happy reading, everyone, and, as always, stay safe.

Posted in Am reading, Am writing, Gothic, Witch Week | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Farewell to Aotearoa

Moon over Aoraki, over Lake Pukaki

With mixed feelings, I’ll soon be leaving this lovely country. But I’m so grateful for the refuge it has provided my daughter and me.

To all my readers, I hope you also have found comfort somewhere during these months, in friends and family, in books, in art, or — like me — in the beauty that surrounds us.

Next time you hear from me, I’ll be home again. Safe journeys to all of us.

Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

More from down under

Some good news: we’ve booked our flights back to NYC, to arrive late afternoon on 03 June. 90 days in New Zealand (60 more than originally planned) have exponentially increased my respect for the people of this country. They know how to treat each other well.

If only …

Nope. I refuse to go down that road. Instead, let me introduce you to an Australian author, one who deserves more attention: Jaclyn Moriarty. If you know of her, it’s most likely through her YA Ashbury/Brookfield series, which includes The Year of Secret Assignments. Perhaps at some other time I’ll review those books, but today here are two that are so far apart in concept that I wouldn’t blame anyone who thought they weren’t penned by the same person.

Unknown-1The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone (2018, NYPL e-book) is MG fantasy-adventure at its best. 10-year-old Bronte, orphaned and living with an aunt, learns that her parents have recently died during a pirate raid. She has never lived with them (they set off on their travels just after she was born), so she isn’t very upset, but in order to inherit their estate, she must visit each of her other 11 aunts to hand-deliver some small gifts, following a precise itinerary (including where to stop for tea and tasty scones). And she has to do this alone, traveling across the realm by coach, ship, foot, and even dragon. Oh, yes, there are dragons, along with Spellbinders and Whisperers and child-snatchers, not to mention those pirates.

A mixture of the third-child trope from fairy tales (how she responds to the people and situations she meets along the way governs her luck) and practically every adventure yarn you can think of (including Sabatini’s Captain Blood), Moriarty’s fantasy delivers a perfect tale with complex plot strands that are all neatly tied up by the end. Early on, Bronte jumps into a raging river to save a baby, building a chain of connections that come into play when she finally has to face the Whispering King.

Moriarty undercuts our expectations of fantasy. For instance, Bronte’s Aunt Sophy is a dragon vet, and explains how to talk to dragons:

… if you want to say “Sleep is the best thing for you, Dragon Sayara, and when you wake, your throat will feel much better,” you make these noises: grrrr eek! eek! bro, grl, brl, and at the same time, you bend, touch your toes, straighten, then punch yourself in the stomach.

The 12 aunts, each with her own special attributes, include ship captains, that dragon vet, a queen, parents, businesswomen, and one who is in love with a mer-man. The variety is mind-boggling.

I can’t wait to get my hands on the sequel.

UnknownMoriarty’s other novel under review here, Gravity is the Thing (2019, NYPL e-book), is for adults and includes no fantasy at all. In it, Abigail (Abi) Sorenson, in her mid-thirties and recently divorced, single mother and cafe owner, is still mourning her brother, Robert, who disappeared the night of her 16th birthday and all these years later no one knows what happened to him.

Meanwhile, through all these years, Abi has been receiving bi-weekly letters from “The Guidebook”, some letters just two or three lines, others much longer, but each setting her a task (physical, mental, or otherwise). The novel begins as she heads off to a weekend retreat, where others on the same mailing list have gathered to “Learn the Truth about The Guidebook.”

The “Truth” is that The Guidebook has been preparing them to fly, without wings or equipment. No joke. And I remind you that this is not a fantasy.

From Abi we learn about her 3-year-old son, Oscar (who ages 2 years over the course of the novel), her divorced parents, her ex-husband and several disappointing, dissatisfying — even abusive — boyfriends, her former career as a lawyer and then decision to open the Happiness Cafe, where she wants to help her clients find happiness, even if only via a great muffin.* The chapters move back and forth in time, quoting occasionally from Abi’s annual “reflections” on The Guidebook (required for submission, but there are three she didn’t send), from The Guidebook itself, and then taking us through the weekly meetings of those who want to learn the Truth.

It’s impossible to represent the joy underlying this very dark book. The shadow of Robert’s disappearance lies over everything, and how this is resolved shows the power of Moriarty’s plotting and careful writing.

Moriarty, in Abi’s voice, attacks the labels rom-com, and chicklit — both of which could accurately be applied to this novel. But because it goes much deeper into Abi’s “rage at a world that cheapens, dismisses [her] need for sex and love,” this novel stands out:

The sneering at the happy ending, the pursed lips intoning: You don’t need a partner! You must be happy with yourself, content to be alone! ¶I don’t want a man to save me; I am happy with myself. Only, this longing for physical contact is real, a shape with dimension, and it’s all on a continuum with longing for closeness, for friendship, connection, for love. It’s a yearning that reaches back to lost best friends, lost brothers, lost birthdays, lost birthday wishes.

The realness of every character in this novel is a big part of what made me so happy I’d read it.


*If you listen to podcasts, Freakonomics’ recent episode, “Reasons to be Cheerful” addresses this very issue.

Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

Free-range

Although restrictions have eased a bit, I’m still under lockdown beneath the southern cross¹ (aka “lolling in the Antipodes”). Still doing needlework, still getting out for walks and short bicycle rides, still reading Little Dorrit (as dense as overdone grits so not as easily gobbled as Evelyn Waugh’s early prose; yet I persist).

Meanwhile:

imagesEleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine  (Gail Honeyman, 2017, NYPL e-book)

Early in this novel, it becomes clear that 31-year-old Eleanor has a tragic past. She is a combination of misanthrope, language police, and brick wall, strongly seasoned with Asperger syndrome. In response to strangers phoning to sell her something, she whispers, “I know where you live” and then hangs up. Figurative language is not in her wheelhouse. (Someone asks her if she’s seeing anyone, and her response is “Yes”, meaning yes, she’s seeing the person she’s conversing with at that moment.) She sneers when she sees her colleagues’ over- and under-use of apostrophes, and she believes it’s weak people who fear solitude:

What they fail to understand is that there’s something very liberating about it; once you realize that you don’t need anyone, you can take care of yourself. That’s the thing: it’s best just to take care of yourself.

This is a story of a damaged soul saved from itself². Eleanor begins the process after developing a crush on a local musician. She decides she needs to spruce up if she wants the musician to notice her, so she opts for a make-over that encompasses hair, clothing, and make-up.

Over time, the make-over expands to include mental as well as physical well-being, and I couldn’t help cheering for Eleanor as she learns more about how to be happy with herself and comfortable with other people. She starts to pull bricks from that wall I mentioned earlier. But there was a point where I noticed myself missing the old rough-edged, literal-minded Eleanor and hoping she could hold on to the part of her that doesn’t like the “gilded cage” of normalcy:

… like the chicken that had laid the eggs for my sandwich, I was more of a free-range creature.

At the end, when the full scale of Eleanor’s tragic past is revealed, I wasn’t surprised. Any careful reader should be able to guess her story. But there’s nothing wrong with an ending that fulfills expectations. Honeyman’s writing doesn’t falter, and there are scenes of pinpoint exactness: the “bronze” of autumn leaves piled along a sidewalk, the utter despair caused by disappointed hopes, the disquieting instants of self-understanding, the comforting scent of a friend, even if they smoke.

Strong writing, unforgettable characters, a satisfying ending — I can’t ask for more.


¹Every time I see the southern cross constellation, this tune from Richard Rogers’ Victory at Sea runs through my mind. My dad was a WWII naval veteran, and he loved this music.

²For similar redemption story, see Ricky Gervais’s After Life, available on Netflix.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments