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

Book gluttony

I have a note in my calendar that I’m supposed to be prepping for the Wales Readathon that starts next month. Paula Bardell-Hedley is hosting this event at her blog, Book Jotter, (check here for an extensive list of recommended books).

I vaguely remember promising to consider taking part. I should be done with my Tolkienerdity (© Lizzie Ross 2019) by March 1st, so why not?

I’m still thinking about which book/s, in addition to Paula’s read-along — W. H. Davies’ The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp — to feature on my blog. I’m leaning towards Anthony Bailey’s travelog A Walk Through Wales, but other possibilities tempt me: Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley, Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles, or perhaps even T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. I’ve a hunger for fat novels this year, so I may just pile all of them on my plate.

Posted in Am reading, Dewithon | 10 Comments

A slow month …

… but I’m not complaining.

Despite binge watching Netflix programs (I keep threatening to cancel my subscription, but then I don’t, because another series grabs me — I blame Titus Andromedon), in January I still managed to finish several books, abandon a few others, and even revise 50+ pages on my current WIP.

What I really need is a good blizzard, but that doesn’t look like happening this month, as per last fall’s predictions from The Old Farmer’s Almanac. Meanwhile, here’s where I am:

Books read: Sara Pennypacker, Pax (about a pet fox released into the wild — lovely, read it if you haven’t already done so). Julian Barnes, Sense of an Ending. Helene Tursten, An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good (how often does a reader root for the murderer?). Cynthia Rylant, I Had Seen Castles. E.B. White, Here Is New York. Debbie Macomber, Trading Christmas (set in Leavenworth, Washington, near where I spent December 2016 — my only reason for getting through this Harlequin Romance — but if this were the only type of book I liked, I could finish one a day). John le Carré, A Legacy of Spies (another George Smiley book). J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring (prepping for big exhibit at Morgan Library, more on that at a later date). Julia Child, My Life in France.

Books abandoned: Tolkien, Kullervo (I may give this another try, but not soon). Carrie Fisher, Princess Diarist (during which I discovered I’m not interested in Hollywood tell-alls — yay me!). Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings (set in Jamaica in the 1970s, this requires more intestinal fortitude than I can muster right now — I’ll give it another try, during happier times, if we ever find them again). Meg Cabot, The Princess Diaries (if I hadn’t just read that Harlequin Romance, I might have been able to finish this — sorry, Meg Cabot fans, but I couldn’t handle Mia’s voice — more evidence that I’m no longer a teenager). Julia Child, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Julie Powell, Julie and Julia (really, how much Julia Child does a reader need?).

My current WIP: 5 chapters revised (that’s a bit over 50 pages). At this rate, I’ll be done with the revision in (quick finger-math) about 3 years. I know what’s happening here: I get all excited about the discoveries of the first draft — characters revealing their secrets, plot twists appearing out of thin air, etc. — but too little of that happens during revision, so I really have to drag myself to the computer to do this work. Chocolate helps. Right now there are still some huge holes that offer the possibility of new discoveries (for instance, what is my villain’s motivation? and why does the protagonist’s boss assign her the job that gets her into so much trouble?), but discoveries at this point can be dangerous, requiring massive rethinking of everything. Also, I keep wavering about which story this could be a retelling of (Alban Berg’s Lulu? or Graham Green’s The Third Man? or Eric Ambler’s A Coffin for Dimitrios?).

And now that I’ve made that list, I’m starting to wonder if this WIP is actually about the villain and not the heroine.

See, that’s the kind of discovery that makes this writer want to quit.

But I won’t. The good news is that I love my MC, and she’s staying as the center of this story. Now I’m off to look at some Dutch masterpieces at the Met.

Posted in Am reading, Am revising | 7 Comments

The Last Ten Books Tag

APOD 2018 Oct 24: Light Pillars over Whitefish Bay

This post is inspired by one from Calmgrove, who was himself inspired by one at AnnaBookBel, who borrowed the idea from someone else, and so on and so on. I’m at least 5th generation on this thing, and I hope further readers decide to tag-on to this topic.

1. The last book I gave up on. Nicholas Gannon’s The Doldrums and the Helmsley Curse. I’d just finished the first book in this series (The Doldrums) and found it enjoyable enough to try the second, but I lost interest about 30 pages in. Gannon’s illustrations are wonderful, but the dense plot was more than I wanted — I could ignore the similarities to Harry Potter in the first book, but not in the second. Still, perhaps someday. (Both books borrowed from NYPL’s e-reader service.)

2. Last book I re-read. Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios, one of my favorite thrillers. This is a case of saw-the-movie-and-had-to-read-the-book. First saw the movie in the 1960s, first read the book in the 1990s (yes, it took me 30 years to find a copy). This duo is top on my list of great book-to-film adaptations.

3. Last book I bought. For about 2 years now, I’ve been trying not to bring more books into my apartment, but I couldn’t resist preordering Bookforms: A complete guide to designing and crafting hand-bound books, a new publication from NYC’s Center for Book Arts, where I’ve been taking classes in bookbinding and letterpress. The authors are the Center’s book binding instructors, some of whom I’ve worked with. Buying this from the Center (and not from any on-line retailer) supports the Center. My copy will be available at the end of this month, and I rub my hands in gleeful anticipation.

4. Last book I said I read but actually didn’t. Is this something people do? Am I being an insufferable snob by asking that question?

5. Last book I wrote in the margins of. Ambler’s Mask of Dimitrios makes its second appearance on the list here. I’m always writing in margins, even if just to bracket a passage I really like, but also whenever I find quotes that might work as epigrams for my novels (yes, I found one in Ambler that perfectly fit my current WIP). One of the frustrations of reading library books — whether analog or digital — is that I can’t write in them! Waaaa! Another first world problem!

6. Last book I had signed. Gene Luen Yang’s Shadow Hero, a graphic YA novel about a Chinese superhero. Yang spoke at a conference in NYC in 2015, explaining the literary value of graphic novels (his audience were already believers). I’d brought Shadow Hero to show I’d read something besides his biggest hit, American Born Chinese (another excellent graphic novel, but he must be tired of signing its title page). When he signed my book, he drew a turtle above his signature. He and I also spoke briefly about books by Maxine Hong Kingston and Frank Chin, and about the Chinese workers who built much of the western end of the Trans-American Railroad.

7. Last book I lost. I don’t lose books, but I do give them away occasionally, and sometimes I lend them, but I keep a list of the latter. A neighbor currently has Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale — which reminds me, I need to see if she has finished it so that I can reclaim it.

8. Last book I had to replace. See above, numbers 7 and 3.

9. Last book I argued over. More like forced friends — and even slight acquaintances — to read: George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, which everyone really ought to read. (See, I’m doing it again.)

10. Last book I couldn’t find. Couldn’t find where? on my own shelves? Keep looking — it’s there somewhere. At the library or bookstore? If that’s the case, it’s usually something by Beryl Bainbridge. If I find one of her books that I don’t have, I will buy it. But as I have a nearly complete BB collection, I think I’m good. And please, I really do have enough books.

And there you have it. Have I got you thinking about your own answers? If so, tag on!

Posted in Am reading, Last Ten Books, Lists | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments