Friday, March 23, 2018


Craeft: An Inquiry Into the Origins and True meaning of Traditional Crafts, by Alexander Langlands

I got wind of this book when it was published in the UK because I subscribed to the Heritage Craft Association's Facebook page.  (Why did I do that?  Who knows, it's interesting!)  I've been waiting for it ever since, and I finally got it.

Alexander Langlands is a British archaeologist who I gather is fairly well known if you pay attention to these things.  He started off as a jobbing archaeologist (because in the UK, you have to pay archaeologists to check out the ground if you want to build anything; who knows, maybe Richard III is down there) and then did a bunch of things for the BBC that I would probably enjoy watching, like Victorian Farm and Edwardian Farm, only I never seem to have time for much TV.  So he's the kind of guy who really likes to do things like thatch roofs or learn how to mow hay with a scythe.  And that is what this book is about -- Langlands' efforts to learn how things were once done, and whether traditional crafts have any place in the modern world.

Obviously a book like this can very easily fall into the trap of overly romanticizing the past, and it's true that Langlands does not spend a lot of time on the bad parts, but he does do a good job of not falling into tweeness.  His focus is on figuring out exactly how things were done, and then seeing if he can do them too and (as long as we're here) pondering on their practical implications today.  So there is not a lot in the way of soft-focus descriptions of the joys of haymowing.

Chapters each deal with a different craft used in the UK: making hedgerows and drystone walls, haymaking, pottery, thatching, boatmaking, and so on.  Langlands has mostly tried them out himself, or studied them at least -- making a working pond seems to be an unrealized dream -- and he writes great descriptions of the tremendous skill and work that goes into them.  There is even a section on burning lime, which made me happy, because lime has always puzzled me and now I know a lot more about it.  I also liked the sections on leather, beekeeping, and thatching.

These are mostly masculine sorts of crafts; the weaving chapter veered off to weaving fencing out of wood pretty quickly, to my annoyance.  There is a good bit about beekeeping (frequently part of a housewife's work), and a chapter about basketry, but personally, I would happily read a companion book about womanly crafts, because this book mostly doesn't get into those.  That's OK; crop rotation and haymaking are important.

So, what can we learn from these older crafts to bring into the modern world?  Langlands isn't a romantic, but he does point out that our assumptions that concrete and gas-powered tools are inherently better do not always hold up.  If you can learn to scythe your weeds just about as fast as you whack them with a weedwhacker, can you really say that the quieter, cheaper, and less fussy scythe isn't just as good?  Isn't a pretty, long-lasting and well-designed basket just as good for the job as a plastic box...and when it finally breaks, isn't it nice that it just breaks down and doesn't have to be disposed of?

I had a good time reading this book, and I'm a little afraid to let my kid read it, since she will immediately want to do all the things.  (She already mentioned that she and her buddy had wanted to burn lime; they didn't know that the off-gassing is toxic!  Luckily they never had a chance of getting their hands on limestone.  Phew.)  If we lived in the UK, we would join the Heritage Craft Association!

Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Wonderful Garden

The Wonderful Garden, by E. Nesbit

A few weeks ago, the mood hit to read an E. Nesbit book I haven't read for quite a while: The Wonderful Garden.  We have most of the Nesbit books here but apparently not this one, so I downloaded it (with illustrations!) for a buck on Kindle, figuring that was a pretty good deal to satisfy my whim.

Caroline, Charles, and Charlotte's parents are stationed out in India, and they've had to come back to England for school, to their disappointment, and they stay with relatives for holidays.  They're quite excited when their wealthy and eccentric great-uncle invites them to stay in a house crammed with old treasures, and on their way they meet a boy who is clearly not at all thrilled to be spending the summer in the care of a schoolmaster.  So when Rupert runs away from "the Murdstone man," they hide him.

They've also gotten into magic, in a way.  They've got a new book, The Language of Flowers, and they spend a lot of time putting together bouquets to persuade people to do what they want.  Once they find an old book of magic, they're unstoppable.  Rupert is the sole skeptic, but then he has his own problems that need sorting out.

There is a lot crammed into this story, actually, between the garden and Rupert and the various people the three C's have adventures with.  It's a fun read.

The great thing about E. Nesbit is that she wrote characters who were real children getting into realistic scrapes.  They are not especially virtuous or clever, and they bicker and come up with schemes that will definitely not work out, and they want to help people but aren't necessarily very good at it.

Nesbit is also funny.  I didn't necessarily get all the jokes when I was a kid, but she is poking fun at things in her dry way.  I spent a lot of time laughing while I read!

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

March Magics: Random bits and bobs

Just a little post to cover some extra bases.  I've been reading Unexpected Magic, the largest collection of DWJ short stories and the only place to find the excellent novella "Everard's Ride" (besides the very rare volume that has it and "The True State of Affairs" -- only Lory has that!).  Most of the stories in this volume are collected in books I've already covered, so this is just the few that aren't, plus another sort of rare story, Wild Robert

When my husband and I were first married in 1996, we took a trip to the UK and of course, I figured I'd look for DWJ books.  A friend of ours, also a diehard fan, asked particularly for us to look for Wild Robert as his copy had been lost in a house fire.  Luckily we were able to buy two, and I'm not sure I've ever seen it again.

"The Green Stone" is a very short story with a fun punch at the end.  It's one where DWJ is playing with the fantasy trope of a 'tour,' where a crew goes on a quest.  So it's quite reminiscent of Dark Lord of Derkholm or The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, except that it's only a few pages long.  "The Fat Wizard" is another short, funny story, in which the pompous town wizard and the narrator's pet pig run into each other.  Another good bedtime story!

"Little Dot" is a cat story, but it's my favorite cat story, and it reminds me just a little of Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which was itself a tribute to DWJ, so I have to wonder if the two are connected.  Little Dot is a cat with a benevolent wizard who is working on helping local farmers trap a strange beast that is prowling around the hills.  She and her fellow cats have to save their wizard, though.

Wild Robert is a short children's novel, and I think it's rather different, not quite your usual DWJ story.  And it's illustrated, unlike most!  Heather's parents are caretakers at a historic stately home, and when Heather is quite fed up with trippers in all her favorite spots, she winds up at a hummock that the locals say is haunted.  And so it is; Wild Robert Toller was buried there three hundred years ago, and Heather accidentally calls him up.  Robert is not happy to see his home covered in visitors, and produces some witchcraft to solve the problem.  He has every intention of seeing Heather's dad -- clearly an interloper who is cheating the family -- next.

What I like about Wild Robert is the way that Robert is both a real problem and a truly sympathetic character.  He's had a rough time, and he also has a volatile character that has been the source of some of his difficulties.

Next up: two of the greatest DWJ short works!

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Eight Whopping Lies

Eight Whopping Lies, and Other Stories of Bruised Grace, by Brian Doyle

Brian Doyle was an Oregon and a Catholic writer; he wrote a lot about Oregon (though he was a transplant from New York), and he wrote a lot about being Catholic, and about lots of other things too.  He does not appear to be terribly famous, but those who know his works love them, and you should try them out because they are great stuff.

This book is a collection of very (very!) short essays, which as far as I can guess he must have put together shortly before his untimely death at only 60.   They were mostly published in the American Scholar, but sometimes in other magazines, like First Things.  A lot of them are about family: about being one of many brothers, or a particular moment with a kid.  Some are about being Catholic.  And a good many are about moments of ordinary life that all of a sudden aren't ordinary at all.

These are lovely and wonderful little pieces of writing, and I highly recommend you try some Brian Doyle today.  You can even do it for free by reading his archive at American Scholar, or these essays at Sojourners, except they want you to subscribe to read more.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Witi Ihimaera: His Best Stories

Witi Ihimaera: His Best Stories, by Witi Ihimaera

I was not familiar with Ihimaera's name until I came across this collection of short stories.  From what I can tell, he's pretty famous as a Maori writer (Wikipedia says he was the first published Maori novelist).  He's mostly written short stories, which are mostly about living as Maori in a Pakeha-dominated world.  This collection was selected by Ihimaera himself and contains 24 stories, so it's really packed.  The stories are arranged in chronological or thematic sections, usually in threes, and he introduces each section with a short explanation, which is great.  Since I didn't really know anything about his writing, it was nice to get some background right along with the stories.

The stories about Maori life tend to fall into three generations; some of them are set a ways back, and others are more modern.  I particularly liked "The Seahorse and the Reef" and "The Halcyon Summer" from the older generation of stories.  "Dustbins" was pretty disturbing, and "The Affectionate Kidnappers" too, in a completely different way; it was about cultural misunderstanding leading to huge trouble.

Other stories are not specifically about being Maori.  "Who Are You Taking to the Dance, Darling?" is funny, and "The Washerwoman's Children" is about school reunions with people you hated.  And "Someone Is Looking At Me" is futuristic science fiction.

A very interesting collection and I'm glad I ran into it accidentally.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Early Christian Writings

New and pretty cover!
Early Christian Writings (a Penguin collection), trans. by Maxwell Staniforth

I've had this collection of very early but non-Biblical Christian writings on my TBR pile forever, and I finally read it!  Of course, what we have is a small surviving fraction of the writings and epistles that once existed, so while there is a "First Epistle to the Corinthians," there aren't any more.  My own copy is about as old as I am, in the earlier Penguin format, but there's no good photo of it online, so you get this attractive new cover as an illustration.

Clement: First Epistle to the Corinthians: This letter is from the church in Rome to the congregation in Corinth, and it's very early indeed, about 96. It is unsigned but is traditionally assigned to Clement, who was bishop of Rome at the time.  (He was fourth in line, it goes Peter, Linus, Cletus, Clement.)  Apparently, nobody thought of Clement as a pope; nonetheless, he writes a letter to the Corinthians chastising them for recent divisions in their congregation and calling them to humble themselves.  It's a long and diffuse letter, but all centered around the terrible sin of pride.

Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch:  Here is a whole series of letters from Ignatius, who was bishop of Antioch in Syria.  We know just about nothing about his life, except that his parents were probably pagans and he converted to Christianity after a dissipated youth.  He was martyred in 107 under Trajan, and was actually taken to Rome for the purpose.  On the trip, representatives of various congregations would meet him, and he would give them letters to take home with them.  In these letters, he speaks about the importance of unity in the Church and the authority of the clergy.  He didn't like all the threatening schisms he saw.  He also talks about the glory of martyrdom.

Epistle of Polycarp to the Phillipians: Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, seems to have been a beloved figure in the Church, and since he lived to be quite old -- 86 -- and seems to have been born to Christian parents, he served as a great witness to the younger Christians, because he was old enough to have been taught by Apostles and to have known many people who had seen Christ.  He was a disciple of St. John and a steadfast transmitter of his faith, without new inventions or frills.  For all that, we don't know much about Polycarp's time as bishop, and we mostly know about his martyrdom.  The letter was written to the Phillipians because they said they'd like to hear from him, and he warns about the love of money and speaks about the Christian duties of various people.

The Martyrdom of Polycarp: This is an account, written by Marcion who saw Polycarp's death, who put it together for the members of the Church at Philomelium.  It's "the earliest genuine record of the death of a Christian martyr that we possess," and so people used it as a template after that.  It's a gripping story which starts with Polycarp's arrest where he was hiding.  He was a frail and elderly man, but he faced it all down with calm and even good humor.  He was threatened with wild beasts and with fire, but eventually the governor decided on fire.  Polycarp was burned and then stabbed.

The Epistle to Diognetus is an anonymous treatise that is supposed to be an answer to a pagan's questions about Christian beliefs and customs.  Both the author and recipient are unknown, and the book says that "Diognetus" may have been identified with Emperor Hadrian, but yeah maybe not.  The letter starts off explaining why the Greeks and the Jews are no good, and then talks about Christian life and beliefs.

The Epistle of Barnabas:  Writer unknown, although lots of ancient people thought it was by the Apostle Barnabas.  This seems to be extremely unlikely, as Barnabas was very attached to his Jewish roots, and the letter is listed in Eusebius as one generally not considered as inspired.  The letter is about the question of how Judaism and Christianity are related, and this author is quite convinced that they have nothing to do with each other (!!!).  He claims that the Jewish people were deceived, and then goes a bunch of really pretty weird allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament.  (He says that the dietary laws restricting eating particular animals each have their own reason, for example not eating hares really "means you are not to debauch young boys.")  This is a strange epistle and it's no wonder it wasn't generally considered inspired.

The Didache was only re-discovered in 1873 and is a very important little work.  It's pretty much a handbook for Christian life; the first half, "The Two Ways," is an exposition of virtue and vice, and the second half is rules for baptism, fasting, missionary work, and so on.

I would say that if you're going to read just a couple of these works, pick Polycarp's martyrdom and the Didache.  A lot of the epistles are not of great interest unless you're studying the early Christian Church (which is a good idea!).  But those two are very interesting, and not at all difficult to read.  I'm glad to have finally read these, and am interested in reading more.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

March Magics: Believing is Seeing

Believing is Seeing: Seven Stories, by Diana Wynne Jones

Since the first story in this collection is "The Sage of Theare," I'm really only going to talk about six.  By the way, this collection is nearly identical to the earlier Minor Arcana, except Minor Arcana does not have "Enna Hittims" and does contain the very rare "The True State of Affairs," which I'll cover later.  Even the introduction is re-used for this volume!

"The Master" is one freaky terrifying story.  DWJ said it was a nightmare that she had to write out, and yeah, if I kept having that dream I'd have to write it out too!  The narrator is a vet, called out to an urgent case.  There's a forest, a murdered woman, and wolves right outside a very strange house. 

"Enna Hittims" starts off as fun but becomes frightening in its own way.  Anne has been ill and, to pass the time, tells stories to herself about tiny adventurers in the hills made by her blanket.  The adventurers come alive; they are not at all easy to deal with, and they have every intention of killing all the giants in this castle they've found.

"The Girl Who Loved the Sun" is almost a story from Ovid.  Phega is in love with the Sun, and she is determined to become the thing the Sun seems to love best -- a tree.  This is a tragic story that I really like.

Of course, "Dragon Reserve, Home Eight" is a real favorite of mine; I think it is for a lot of people.  DWJ said she wrote it while trying to work out the layers of worlds in Christopher Chant, but I tend to connect it with Hexwood -- I think because she uses a couple of names (Yurov, for example) that also show up in Hexwood, and really I think that the story would fit well in the Hexwood universe.  Siglin is arrested for being heg (having witch-like powers), but it turns out that heg abilities are the only thing that can save civilization.

I'm not a huge fan of cat stories, so "What the Cat Told Me" does not automatically endear itself to me, but it is a very interesting story.  The cat narrates a fairy tale from her own perspective; she was once a familiar to a wicked wizard who kept a servant boy.  Boy plans to escape with the cat, but he gets distracted by food and a pretty girl...

"Nad and Dan adn Quaffy" is a funny story in which DWJ pokes a bit of fun at herself (or possibly Anne McCaffrey!)  as a writer.  F. C. Stone, science-fiction writer, lives on coffee and writes a lot of scenes in which spaceship pilots hunch over controls and deal with complex space politics -- all fueled by alien coffee, of course.  Until the word processor talks back and calls her Captain.

Most of these are stories often seen in DWJ collections, and they're all pretty good.  But to my mind, "Dragon Reserve, Home Eight" is the best one!

Monday, March 12, 2018

Reading Ireland: The Third Policeman

The Third Policeman, by Flann O'Brien

Flann O'Brien was a pen name for Brian O Nuallain (O'Nolan) -- he seems to have had a few.  He was born in 1911 in an Irish-speaking home, where his father was reluctant to send the children to an English-speaking school; they could all speak English just fine, and he preferred that they be taught in Irish, but such a school was not to be found.  O'Brien became a comic, satirical writer -- and he drank a lot -- and The Third Policeman was his last novel, written in 1939 but not published until 1967, after his death. The blurb on the back cover says O'Brien was "one of Ireland's great comic geniuses" along with Joyce and Beckett.

The narrator, who never gets a name, is a young man, a fanatic scholar of the great philosopher de Selby, and he's going back to the family farm after university.  He's an orphan and the farm is run by one John Divney, who suggests they remedy their lack of money by killing and robbing Mathers, the local miser.  The narrator ends up in a conversation with Mathers' ghost, and then enters a two-dimensional police station, where two officers interrogate him about bicycles, teach him Atomic Theory, and plan to hang him for murder.  Also eternity is down the road a little ways, and the narrator has conversations with his soul, whose name is Joe.  The whole narrative is punctuated by long footnotes about de Selby's discoveries and writings, and in the end the narrator goes to find Divney...

I did not exactly find this novel to be comic or funny.  It's surreal and weird and odd, and interesting, but I wouldn't call it funny.  Maybe I don't have the right sense of humor.  I liked it fine, and I do think it fits with Beckett.  I haven't read enough Joyce to be able to compare (and my knowledge of Beckett dates from college and is rusty).

Friday, March 9, 2018

March Magics: Mixed Magics

 Mixed Magics, or, short stories of Chrestomanci

Yay, Chrestomanci stories!  DWJ wrote more Chrestomanci stories than anything else, but there are not enough of them.  The four short stories:

"Warlock at the Wheel" stars the Willing Warlock from Charmed Life, who escapes from the law to our world.  He steals a car, and from then on it's pretty much O. Henry's "Ransom of Red Chief," as a demanding little girl and her giant guard dog torment the poor Warlock into a breakdown.  It's funny, especially for younger kids ($5 says it also started as a bedtime story!), but not stellar.

"Stealer of Souls" is a fairly recent story, published in 2000 and only in this collection.  Tonino Montana visits Chrestomanci Castle, and Cat is charged with looking after him (this takes place some time after Charmed Life and just after Magicians of Caprona).  Cat is an utter brat about this and dislikes Tonino, but then they are both kidnapped by a terrifying evil wizard who has spent the last couple of hundred years collecting lives from nine-lifed enchanters.  With their memories stolen, and forced to cope on their own, Cat and Tonino become a team.  I love this story; I think it's a great addition to the Chrestomanci tales.

"Carol Oneir's Hundredth Dream" is another particular favorite of mine.  It's from 1986, which means it was written just before (or I think more probably at the same time as) The Lives of Christopher Chant, and in the timeline it takes place right after "Stealer of Souls."  Carol is only about eleven, but she's a highly successful professional dreamer.  When all of a sudden she can't dream any more, her father calls up Chrestomanci for a consultation.  Chrestomanci expertly dissects Carol's dreaming methods and delivers her from her stage mother as well.

There are two fun elements about this story: DWJ both explained and poked fun at her own writing methods with Carol's dreaming cover story and her real, inner thoughts -- which are both true, despite the contradictions.  Then, Carol's father is the Oneir who smashes Christopher's head with a cricket bat....and "oneiric" means "having to do with dreams."

"The Sage of Theare" is also one I'm very fond of.  In an extremely orderly parallel world, the gods are worried about the prophesied Sage of Dissolution, who will destroy them.  In a bid to stop him, the sun god finds curious little Thasper and takes him to another world, but that causes some serious difficulties.  Chrestomanci has to help Thasper and deliver a stern lecture to the gods.  This story is a standard selection and appears in a lot of the DWJ collections.

So, three really great stories and one fairly good one.

What's My Spin Number?

And the number is....3!

I will therefore be reading And So Flows History, by Hahn Moo-Sook.  It's a three-generational Korean family saga that starts in the late 19th century and continues until, I think, the end of World War II.  It was published in 1947 and does not include the ideological battles that turned into the Korean War.

Hahn Moo-Sook was quite a young woman when she wrote the book; she must have been about 30, and a young mother, when it was published.  Her daughter, Young-Key Kim-Renaud, is the translator.  (To clarify, on the book, Hahn's name is written in the Asian way, and Kim-Renaud's in the Western way.)

Should be interesting!  I'm supposed to finish and post by April 30th.  Surely I can manage that.  And it will count for South Korea in my Read All Around the World Project too!