Sea cruise, baby!

JMW Turner, Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, 1842 (de Young Museum)

No need to get excited. I plan to travel virtually, in honor of Herman Melville’s 200th birthday. Over the next few months I’ll be aboard stories set on ships (with perhaps a rowboat or two) that will take me up rivers, across oceans, and through canal locks.

While the blog-o-meters clock pages conquered in Moby Dick (worth it!, says this 3-time reader; it’s nearly time for my 4th voyage aboard the Pequod), I’ll be cruising through some shorter works, including other dark tales from Melville, along with several of his progeny: Joseph Conrad, Eva Ibbotson, RL Stevenson, Holling Clancy Holling, and Julian Barnes. I’m indulging myself with several re-reads, but there will be some first timers as well (I’m looking at you, Lord Jim and Billy Budd).

I have no master plan or goals (other than to be entertained), and I make no promises to report much beyond what I’ve read — although I’ll allow myself to encourage (or discourage) any who wish to follow in my wake.

Meanwhile, I’ve committed to joining Lory’s appreciation of Robertson Davies @ ECBR, and of course Chris @ Calmgrove and I will be planning something exciting for this year’s WitchWeek in October (only 6 months away? Yikes!).

And also meanwhile, my 2018 NaNoWriMo project, a dystopian sci-fi thriller that’s currently challenging my knowledge of bitcoin mining, is filling my days with procrastinative research.

Finally, here’s a very young Dick Clark setting the tone for my next few months:

Posted in Adventure, Am reading, Classic, Fiction, History, Seafaring | Tagged | 8 Comments

In Welsh hills

Another review to add to Paula Bardell-Hedley’s Wales Readathon. Chatwin’s novel of 20th century life in the Black Hills of Wales wasn’t in my TBR pile for this month, but it called to me from the pages of Anthony Bailey’s travelog, and I couldn’t resist.

On the Black Hill (1982), 249 pp.

Twin brothers Benjamin and Lewis Jones, born in 1900, are the main characters in this novel, but Wales also has a starring role.

In other words, this book isn’t just about Benjamin and Lewis, it’s about their world, including the land and all the oddball characters who enter, leave, and often re-enter many years later.

Let’s start with the land. The twin’s parents settle on a farm on the border between Radnorshire and Herefordshire. From the crest of the nearby Black Hill, you can look westward over Wales, or eastward over England, and despite centuries of living on this border (or perhaps precisely because of it), there is heavy distrust of “the English” in the local community. Victoria is still Queen of England when Benjamin and Lewis are born; when they turn 80, two world wars have barely touched the land around them, yet Radnorshire itself has been subsumed into the British county of Powys (“the English” at it again). The political dance doesn’t register in the lives of the Jones twins. As farmers, they see only the yearly cycles — “foddering” the livestock; mucking out sties, coops and barns; planting and harvesting, shearing and lambing — the daily toil that keeps them tied to the land, yet they never want to sever those ties.

Penkerrig (detail), Thomas Jones (1742-1803), Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

Winters are cold and dark, driving some to a form of madness. Benjamin’s and Lewis’s father suffers an extreme form of what we now call seasonal affective disorder, becoming surly and violent, resentful of hardships, neighbors, and even his own wife’s education. Then spring changes everything:

a breeze was ruffling the net curtains; a thrush sang in the pear-tree; pigeons were burbling on the roof, and patches of white light wandered over the bed-cover.

Summer and autumn show their colors, sounds, and scents as well, and anyone considering the life of a farmer might want to read this. No one should be surprised to learn how hard that life is, but the rewards come in unexpected ways. For Benjamin, it’s the joy of helping a ewe during lambing. For Lewis its working the land — at first with horse and plow and then later with tractor and combine.

If you’ve ever tried to follow sheep trails when hiking in any part of England, you’ve seen how they branch, veer off, rejoin, run parallel, stop suddenly, clamber down steep hills, and meander so much that you wonder why more sheep aren’t lost. Chatwin’s stories of all the people around the twins are like those sheep trails. Meg the Rock’s mother is murdered, and Meg’s placed on a neighboring farm. We see her at moments over the years — seriously ill, tending wild animals, befriending a lapsed Buddhist, attending a harvest festival. One member of a wealthy family appears at just the right moments to help Mary Jones or her sons. The twins’ sister Rebecca marries an Irishman and moves to North America; several decades later her daughter appears with hopes of inheriting the family farm. The twin’s father feuds with a neighbor, Tom Watkins, and Watkins, many years later, gets revenge at an auction, even though he has long been gone and the father long been dead.

The southern part of the Grwyne Fechan valley in the Black Mountains, Wikipedia

The book always comes back, however, to Benjamin and Lewis. As children, if one is hurt, the other suffers the pain. As adults, they fall ill if separated. The two grow to be different without growing apart. As adults, Lewis wants to modernize, but Benjamin hates spending the money on equipment. He’d rather buy land, even though they haven’t the manpower to take care of it. Lewis is outgoing, Benjamin shy and reluctant to leave the farm. The brothers’ only true rifts are over women (Lewis wants a wife, but Benjamin can’t tolerate the idea and sabotages all Lewis’s attempts).

Chatwin’s writing is lovely, full of pinpoint descriptive notes: “The farmhouse at Lower Brechfa lay in a very windy position and the pine-trees around it slanted sideways.” “… a hollow hidden among rowans and birches, where water whispered over a rock and there was a bank of grass cropped close by sheep.” “The beast-house had not been cleared for years; the layers of dung had risen four feet above the floor, and the heifers scraped their backs on the roofbeams.”

There’s no real plot here — no quest to complete or mystery to solve. But because of this, it’s more like real life. This means there’s also no “happy ending”, but there are endings, some of which make you think, “Ok, there is balance in the universe.”

A quick look on the internet has revealed that Chatwin’s novel was adapted for film in 1987, with Welsh actors playing the major roles, and exterior scenes filmed in Wales, including several in the small town of Crickhowell. The search now begins for a copy of that film. [UPDATE: 2 minutes later: yep, it’s on Youtube]

NB: This is a reposting of my review from 8 September 2013, updated with a few new comments and corrections after a third reading of the novel.

Posted in Am reading, Dewithon, Fiction, Historical fiction, Wales, Wales Readathon | Tagged | 7 Comments


No, not the 1970s prog-rock group (although their song, “Take the Long Way Home” may be apt for what will become obvious reasons).

For this month’s Wales Readathon, Book Jotter has selected William H Davies’ Autobiography of a Super-Tramp as our shared reading. Davies’ book chronicles his years tramping around England, the US, and Canada in the 1890s — hobo campgrounds, jails, freight yards and trains, kind-hearted women and harsh railroad guards. Book Jotter will be posting weekly updates, with opportunities for others to join the conversation.

It isn’t too late to participate. Head here to find out more. And if you’re interested, you can find various online (and free) editions of the book here.

Posted in Am reading, Dewithon, History, Travel book, Wales Readathon | Tagged | 4 Comments

I want to go to there

A Walk through Wales, Anthony Bailey (Harper Perennial, 1992), my first contribution to BookJotter’s Wales Readathon. I reviewed Bailey’s book back in 2010 for my other (now defunct) blog, so some of what follows is shamelessly cribbed from that post.

Some travel books relieve me of the desire to take a particular trip: Jack Hitt’s tale of walking the Camino de Santiago (see my review here) is one example. Fiction often produces similar effects: books by Eva Ibbotson and Ann Patchett have convinced me that a trip up the Amazon won’t appear on any future itinerary of mine.

But in the case of books about places I’ve already visited, my response invariably is to start planning a trip that retraces the author’s route, and right now I’m trying to figure out if October is a good time (weather-wise) to hike through Wales.

On a rainy spring day, Bailey begins his walking tour on a pier, next to a Victorian pile “clad in terracotta, with hexagonal chimneys, gargoyles, and a castellated clocktower”, and heads into the valleys and hills north of Cardiff. Within just a few days, he has reached a fairly rough trail in the Brecon Beacons, the line of mountains that run almost horizontally across the southern half of Wales. At one summit, he writes:

A hazy sun shone. To the south I had a view over the reservoirs almost to Merthyr. The upper faces of the mountain resembled old light-green velvet, very thin and worn. On the north and east sides Pen-y-Fan fell away in almost sheer drops. I stood for a few minutes a little way back from the north edge, rocking slightly from the strength of the wind that hit the scarp and came over the top…. This wind … felt high, but, as in a sailing boat or open plane, it made you feel as if you were in motion. The air, the wind, was blowing solidly toward Pen-y-Fan, and the earth, the mountain, the summit of Pen-y-Fan, was turning through the wind.

Other challenging trails reward Bailey with equally expansive views (when the rain lets up) of meadows and bog heaths, hills and long valleys leading to the sea — the wild terrain that produces slate, peat, coal, and sheep.

As we travel with him, we learn history, geography and biography — something armchair travelers expect in such books. But most interesting to me were the conversations he had with people he met along the way, farmers and housewives, festival singers and hotel owners, gatekeepers at castles and toll booths, all with stories of only local importance that, nevertheless, when assembled by Bailey, create a fairly full portrait of this lovely country.

Bedivere casts Excalibur into Lake, illustration by Aubrey Beardsley for Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, 1894.

Bailey is a sailor, novelist, historian, and critic, with books about JWS Turner, sailing the Outer Banks, life in a New England village. In this tale of a coast-to-coast trek that takes him through two of Wales’ national parks, he helps readers understand how history and myth play out in the Wales he saw during his travels — King Arthur, Owain Glyndwr, Dafyd ap Gwilym, King Offa, the Welsh language itself are all topics he wanders through, examines carefully, and then considers as he hikes up the next hill.

Bailey has no political or ecological axe to grind, especially as an Englishman in some very anti-English parts of Wales. He does occasionally bemoan the loss of farmland to caravan parks, and can’t help noticing the military jets screaming their way above the otherwise quiet countryside. He also understands Welsh resentment of the English, who in the 1980s and 90s were buying up property in Wales, thus raising housing prices above what most Welsh could afford. Nearly 30 years later, the future of the Welsh language seems a bit more secure, but what about the future of Wales itself in an era of Brexit and widening income gaps? As I was reading Bailey’s final pages, the Welsh Assembly joined with the Scottish Parliament to ask that Brexit be postponed.

Bailey ends as he began, on a pier, his back to the city behind him (this time it’s Bangor). In his final words, I hear a sigh of contentment mixed with regret: I can go home now (smiley face); my trip is over (frowny face). As a sailor, he understands this feeling well:

I felt like a lone sailor at the end of a voyage, wanting to go ashore and yet dreading the loss of independence and the cessation of onward movement; looking forward to going back home but knowing it would involve having to live with the urge to set off again.

Posted in Am reading, Dewithon, Wales, Wales Readathon | Tagged | 14 Comments

Dewithon 2019

I’ve lined up my options for Book Jotter’s 2019 Wales Readathon, which starts in just 1 day:

William Davies’ Autobiography of a Super-Tramp is the shared reading for this year’s event, so it’s a must. A Walk Through Wales, by Anthony Bailey, will be an easy add-on because it’s so short. That leaves the other three, which are hefty choices.

Happy is the reader with many options!

Posted in Am reading, Dewithon, Wales | 1 Comment


J. R. R. Tolkien (1892–1973), Dust jacket design for The Hobbit, April 1937, pencil, black ink, watercolor, gouache. Bodleian Libraries, MS. Tolkien Drawings 32. © The Tolkien Estate Limited 1937.

Studio of H.J. Whitlock & Sons Ltd., Birmingham, J.R.R. Tolkien, January 1911 [age 19], black and white photograph. Bodleian Libraries, MS. Tolkien photogr. 4, fol.16 © The Tolkien Trust 1977.

The Morgan Library’s JRR Tolkien exhibit may not be large, but it’s crammed with plenty of items that require a good long look just to see every detail. Images of a small number of the items are up on the exhibit’s website, which provides a sense of the exhibit’s range: not just Tolkien’s illustrations and maps, but early versions of these, along with letters, manuscript pages, plot notes, geometric designs for heraldry, Elvish alphabetical experiments, even doodles drawn on newspaper pages as he worked the daily crossword puzzles.

For some future post I may write an appreciation of Tolkien’s writings, but here I just want to point to Tolkien’s talent as an artist. I had already seen the big pieces — full-page illustrations for The Hobbit, cover designs for LOTR, the Father Christmas letters — and of course I knew the basic story of Tolkien’s life: a WWI vet with an expertise in linguistics, he invented Elvish and then fell by accident into writing fantasy. All along, however, he was drawing — realistic scenes of the trees, rivers, and hills around him, as well as fantasy scenes that helped him envision what eventually became Middle Earth.

Tree of Amalion, MS Tolkien Drawings 88, fol. 1 [?1940s]

Tolkien’s doodles evolved into geometric patterns for Middle Earth shields, clothing, dragon-scales, and even trees. Many of the pieces in the exhibit emphasize Tolkien’s love of nature, showing us the anger and sadness that lie behind the Scouring of the Shire, Saruman’s senseless destruction of Fangorn, and the elves’ eventual departure from Middle Earth. Trees feature prominently throughout, appearing even in Father Christmas’s bedroom wallpaper as a row of floor-to-ceiling firs. In Quena script, Tolkien captioned the image to the left: “lilótime alda amaliondo aranyallesse túno” [‘the many-flowered tree of Amalion in the Kingdom of Tuna’; Túna is the hill city built for the elves on the eastern edge of Valinor and overlooking the island of Erresea and the sea — see The Silmarilion]. Note the swirling branches holding different varieties of flowers, buds, and fruit. According to Catherine McIlwaine, the editor of Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth (the exhibit’s hefty catalogue),

Tolkien drew a tree bearing different flowers and leaves many times over the years; there are examples as early as 1928 and as late as 1972…. Tolkien … described it as bearing ‘various shapes of leaves many flowers small and large signifying poems and major legends.’ (Bodleian Library, 2018, p. 182)

J. R. R. Tolkien (1892–1973), Section of the first map of The Lord of the Rings, c.1937–1949, black, red and blue ink, pencil, colored pencil. Bodleian Libraries, MS. Tolkien Drawings 103. © The Tolkien Trust 1992, 2015.

The life of an author is never an easy one, and Tolkien was also a husband, devoted father of 4, academic, and founding member of the Inklings. He continued to tweak his history (and maps) of Middle Earth throughout his life, and his drawing habit supported this work.

If you need an additional reason to visit NYC before May 12, when the exhibit closes, this might be the final needed push. But plan your trip carefully. The best time to visit is when the Morgan opens (10:30 am), on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday (the museum is closed on Mondays).

*© 2019 (can I copyright a word?)

Posted in Am reading, Art, Fantasy | 2 Comments

Was it a bear or a Russian or what?

Inspired by a recent review by Calmgrove, I dug around in the archives of one of my retired blogs to find what I wrote. Here’s my take, with only a couple of minor revisions.

The Circus of Dr. Lao, Charles G. Finney (1935), Viking Compass, 159 pp.

Happy as I am to hail from the same home town as Tony Randall, I warn you at all costs to avoid the film in which he plays Dr. Lao (the blogger behind the Great Science-Fiction and Fantasy website suggests that “if ever you are faced with possible exposure to the thing, run away screaming”).

I so loved this book that, while in college, I adapted it for the stage, and a good friend offered to direct. It ran for two performances. Six months later, I received a letter from a publisher who wanted to see my adaptation, with the possibility of publishing it. In the end, they decided that producing the play would be prohibitively expensive, so they weren’t interested. My first rejection letter.

Two things fascinate me about this novel. One is the odd character of Dr. Lao himself, switching between the worst parody of Chinese-influenced pidgin and perfect English throughout the book, sometimes within the same scene. He challenges everyone he meets to re-evaluate their assumptions about him and the world, and to distrust the evidence of their own senses.

The other thing is the subtle humor. The novel takes place in a small town in Arizona, near the Mexican border (Finney lived in Tucson after leaving the army, where he served in China). Cultures collide, as European meets Asian meets Latinx. For instance, two men who have just struck up an acquaintance enter a bar. One orders “two cervezas,” and the other says, “Naw, naw, I just want beer.” Oh, the layers under that last line!

In another scene, Mr. Etaoin, the newspaper editor (printers will get the joke) describes in great detail the life of a Duroc Jersey pig, from birth to slaughter, and ends with

Some months later I went into a restaurant and ordered pork chops. And the chops they served me–may I die this instant if I lie–were from that very pig of which I have been talking. And the moral of this story is that the whole, sole, one and only and entire purpose of that pig’s life, and the lives of its ancestors, and the lives of the things upon which pig and ancestors fed … the sole purpose of all that intermixed mass of threads and careers, I say–was to provide for me in that restaurant, at the moment I wanted them, a pair of savory pork chops.

Etaoin is talking to a caged sea-serpent in this scene, who has just described eating a few Polynesians. Their conversation reveals an egocentric view of one’s purpose in life, something of which we’re all, at times, guilty.

Appolonius of Tyana tells dismal fortunes, Medusa petrifies a cynical woman, a satyr nearly seduces a staid English teacher, some unidentifiable beings appear here and there, and the Grand Finale includes a scene of utter annihilation.

As Calmgrove points out, Finney created scenes of racism and bigotry, not to mention misogynistic objectification of women. The Great Depression, though in full-swing by the publication date, gets no attention at all.

The issue of what to make of books and authors whose sensibilities don’t match 21st century social justice ideals is one I’m not prepared to address in this post. For now I’ll just say that, however imperfect this fantasy is, it’s still a perceptive tale of human foibles and well worth reading.

Posted in Fantasy, Favorite books | 9 Comments