Nice Matters


Nan gave me the Nice Matters Award back in August. I’™m sorry it’™s taken so long to write about it, Nan, but I’™ve been thinking about posting about it since then. Nice Matters can be thought of in different ways ‘“ ‘œnice’ things, or the significance and importance of being ‘œnice’.

The dictionary definition of ‘œnice’ includes ‘œagreeable, delightful, respectable, good in any way, something done with great care and exactness, accurate, and good-natured.’ So I’™ll disregard and indeed ignore one of my English teachers at school who told us not to use the word ‘œnice’ as she thought it was a neutral word and didn’™t signify much at all. The concept of ‘œNiceness’ is good and it does indeed matter.

I am honoured, Nan ‘“ thank you. I don’™t know Nan personally but judging from her blog I think that she is a thoroughly nice person.

 

Outmoded Authors – Ivanhoe – Introduction

I’ve now started my choice for the Outmoded Authors Challenge as Dorothy’s post on Scott’s Waverley has encouraged me to start my reading of Ivanhoe. Currently I’ve been reading books for the R.I.P. Challenge and being a bit disappointed with Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination had turned to modern books and Ivanhoe had slipped down my list of books to be read.

I’ve never read Scott before and didn’t really know what to expect. So far Ivanhoe has had me chuckling. I’m delighted to find it so entertaining and thinking I wish I’d read this before. My copy was published by the Odhams Press Ltd in the 1930s and has this line drawing of Sir Walter Scott as a frontispiece. From the Foreword:

“Certainly there have been few more lovable, more unselfish figures than the lame Laird of Abbotsfield.”

It continues promising a enthralling tale of the “triangular love drama of Ivanhoe, Rowena and Rebecca, the pomp and chivalry of the Lists and the adventures of Robin Hood, Friar Tuck, and the merry gangsters of Sherwood Forest.”

So, a complete change of mood from Poe and modern fantasy novels.

Ivanhoe is set in the time of Richard I, also known as Richard the Lionheart (1157 – 1199), over 100 years after the Norman Conquest of England, when there was still opposition between the conquering Normans and the native Anglo-Saxons. Scott’s introduction(dated 1830) to the novel (written in 1819) follows the foreword in which he explains why he has decided to write a novel based on English history instead of Scottish – he felt he was “likely to weary out the indulgence of his readers, but also greatly to limit his own power of affording them pleasure”, as, “when men and horses, cattle, camels and dromedaries, have poached the spring into mud, it becomes loathsome to those who first drank of it with rapture.” In other words he didn’t want to bore his readers with more of the same and he fancied a change himself.

Scott called his novel Ivanhoe, as it has “an ancient English sound” and because it didn’t convey anything at all about the nature of the story. A rhyme including the name had come to his mind “according three names of the manors forfeited by the ancestor of the celebrated Hampden, for striking the Black Prince a blow with his racket, when they quarrelled at tennis.”After the Introduction there is a “Dedicatory Epistle to the Rev Dr. Dryasdust, F.A.S.”, which Scott uses to expand his reasons for writing an English historical romance and apologises in advance should the antiquarian think “that, by thus intermingling fiction with truth, I am polluting the well of history with modern inventions, and impressing upon the rising generation false ideas of the age in which I describe.”

The novel eventually starts on page 29, where follows long and detailed descriptions of the location of the story; of the continuing hostility between the Normans and the Anglo-Saxons; and of the first two characters that we meet.

To some extent this reminded me of the rustic characters in Shakespeare’s plays, provided for comic relief, but as I’ve only just got on to Chapter Two perhaps I shouldn’t be too hasty in my views. Anyway, so far I’m finding this book refreshingly very different from the books I’ve read recently, although that’s not to say that I haven’t enjoyed those, because I have enormously. But it’s a relief to find that I’m enjoying Ivanhoe, as I had thought it might be a bit dry. If I start to write in long, complicated sentences, with detailed descriptions I can blame it all on Scott.

R.I.P.Challenge update

When I decided to join the R.I.P. II Challenge I thought I’d only read one book for Peril the First. The book I chose is Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination. So far I’ve read a few of the stories. I’ve always found short stories to be a bit of a let-down and I’ve found some of these a bit too short to create an eerie, scary atmosphere. Admittedly they are written in a very formal and somewhat objective style, but I’m not getting that feeling of nervous tension I experienced when reading Season of the Witch, which I wrote about here.

I picked up Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott in the library, just on the strength of the cover and the title alone, usually an unwise basis for choosing a book. But I’m about halfway through and it’s really good, a combination of mystery and historical investigation, with alchemy, Isaac Newton and a love story thrown in for good measure. It moves between the present and the 17th century.

So, I ‘ve now decided to go on to Peril the First, which is to Read Four books of any length, from any subgenre of scary stories that you choose. In addition to Ghostwalk, I’ve just bought The Book of Air and Shadows, by Michael Gruber, which is described on the book cover as “a modern thriller that moves deftly between the 21st and 17th centuries”, (I like the 17th century).

The fourth book is a book of faerie tales – Susanna Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu and other stories, because I enjoyed her book Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

The little ginger cat in the photo is a bookmark that I’m fond of as it reminds me of our cat Lucy – her photo is somewhere over on the left.

Booking Through Thursday

Comfort Food

Okay . . . picture this (really) worst-case scenario: It’™s cold and raining, your boyfriend/girlfriend has just dumped you, you’™ve just been fired, the pile of unpaid bills is sky-high, your beloved pet has recently died, and you think you’™re coming down with a cold. All you want to do (other than hiding under the covers) is to curl up with a good book, something warm and comforting that will make you feel better.

What do you read?

(Any bets on how quickly somebody says the Bible or some other religious text? A good choice, to be sure, but to be honest, I was thinking more along the lines of fiction’¦. Unless I laid it on a little strong in the string of catastrophes? Maybe I should have just stuck to catching a cold on a rainy day’¦.)

If I’m feeling really miserable there is nothing that I could read that would make me feel better. I just wouldn’t be able to concentrate on reading; if it was a cheerful or funny book that would make me feel worse and if it was a sad, tragic book that would just pile on the agony.

If it was just a rainy day and I feel a cold coming on that would be different. But I wouldn’t go for “comfort reading”. I’d want a book to interest me and take me out of myself, something I hadn’t read before. There aren’t many books that I actually do re-read as there are so many other books and life is too short to read all the books that catch my eye. I looked through the lists of books I’ve read in the last few years and there are some that I’ve marked “re-read” but only a few that have made it and those were ones that I hadn’t read for some years and it was like reading new books, although I knew where they were going and it was the details of getting there that I’d forgotten. This means that I could more slowly and actually enjoy the writing.

R.I.P. Challenge Tales of Mystery & Imagination

I found the unexpected when I started to read Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales. I was disappointed. They had built up I my mind as scary, creepy tales, partly as a result of my mother saying not to read her copy of Tales when I was a child. Of course I got it out of the bookcase when she wasn’t around and had a peek inside and was scared and put it back quickly before she caught me. I hadn’t looked at the book since.

The first one I read, William Wilson, just wasn’t scary at all. I didn’t find it mysterious, or very imaginative either. I read this a few days ago and on reflection it wasn’t as bad as I first thought. It’s about the nature of personality and how we can’t see or come to terms with our own nature.

If you don’t want to know the story then you’d better not read any further, but I did find it predictable and so there was no suspense or shivery feelings for me in this tale.

William Wilson, not his real name, meets another William Wilson, not his real name either, at school and becomes convinced that his namesake is making himself into a perfect imitation, which he detests and he left school to get away from him. Three years of ‘folly’ follow and then at Eton during an evening of ‘debaucheries’ when the wine flowed freely at a ‘party of the most dissolute students’ he re-encounters his double. He continues in this vein whilst at Oxford University descending to yet greater depths of depravity, and then flees to Paris, Vienna, Berlin and Moscow in attempts to shake off the presence of his tormentor, all the time demanding, ‘Who is he? – whence came he? – and what are his objects?’

Finally in Rome, having ‘indulged more freely than usual in the excesses of the wine-table’ he determines to confront him ‘Scoundrel! Impostor! Accursed villain! You shall not – you shall not dog me unto death! Follow me, or I will stab you where you stand!’ They struggle – he stabs him. Then, and this is where I think the tale is so predictable and I had seen it coming from way back, he sees a large mirror and the reflection of his antagonist who whispers ‘In me didst thou exist – and in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself.’

So I thought I’d try one I’d heard of and read The Fall of the House of Usher, having a vague memory of seeing an old black and white movie with Boris Karloff opening a huge, ancient door, covered in cobwebs and creaking loudly on its hinges, at the dead of night. I’ll write about what I made of this in another post.

Speaking of Love by Angela Young

I enjoy reading Angela Young’™s blog Writing, Life and the Universe and so of course I just had to read her book, Speaking of Love. I found it a moving book, but never sentimental and as stated on the book cover it is:

‘œ ‘¦ a novel about what happens when people who love each other don’™t say so. It deals passionately and honestly with human breakdown. And it tells of our need for stories and how stories can help make sense of the random nature of life.’

This is a story told by three people ‘“ Iris, her daughter Vivie, and Matthew. It takes place over three days leading up to the story-telling festival where Iris is performing. Iris and Vivie are estranged and gradually the reason is revealed as all three characters tell their stories. As the book starts Matthew and his dad Dick are about to travel to the festival, Iris is already there and Vivie, living in London is having a crisis in her life, unbeknown to the others. Matthew and Vivie had been childhood friends, living next door to each other at the time when Iris first suffered a breakdown, which is later revealed to be schizophrenia.

This is also a book about story-telling, indeed the book is structured into separate tales which interlink and finally unite. Along with the stories of the three characters’™ lives there are also the stories that Iris tells. These are reminiscent of folk and fairy tales. Appropriately, Iris treasures the book of fairy tales that had belonged to her mother. I must have read all the books of fairy tales in the junior library as a child – I loved them. So it was with nostalgia that I read Iris’™s stories such as ‘œEarth and Sea’, the story of the fisherman, his wife and Murmurina their daughter, ‘œborn with a fat fishtail that glistened where she should have had legs’ and who ‘œmade ‘˜O’™ shapes with her mouth when she should have had a voice’.

The story-telling motif also runs through Dick and Matthew’™s journey to the festival. Dick has planned it to take place over three days, stopping over night at various places and using only the minor roads. I liked the comparison of travelling in this way as ‘œdarning’ by going under and over the motorways and A roads.

The main theme is the effects that not communicating has on the people we love. Iris’™s father is locked in his grief after the death of his wife and Iris believes he blames her for her mother’™s death; Iris isolated by her illness can’™t communicate her love to her daughter; Matthew, who learnt at the age of twelve that ‘œif you say how you feel you lose control over what happens next’ couldn’™t tell Vivie he loves her; and Vivie knew that ‘œyou had to be on guard because you never knew when your own insides ‘“ or anyone else’™s insides ‘“ might spill out.’

The book explores the difficulties and effects of living with someone with schizophrenia, burying frightening experiences and the way we lose control over events. Dick sums it up in his advice to Matthew:

‘œThe real risk, it seems to me, lies in not talking about the things that matter the most. That’™s what made Iris ill. What we don’™t say doesn’™t go away. It stays inside and after a while of not being spoken about it turns against us. ‘¦ The things we don’™t talk about fester and then they infect us. They eat away at us like a cancer.’

The book is full of beautiful descriptions ‘“ of trees, particularly the laburnum (the “story-telling tree”) and gardens in East Anglia, of the mediaeval castle over looking the Bristol Channel and the festival performers and the landscape of England as Dick and Matthew travel across country, which brings the story alive.

The opening sentence sums up Iris’s story “I have come home, after a long and difficult journey.” Everything after that is the story of how she got there. A book worth reading.

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman – August Books Part Two

The trilogy is made up of Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. Taken together the books form a grand epic, encompassing parallel universes and their inhabitants. It’s a fabulous story, featuring armoured bears who talk, witches, spectres, angels, and tiny hand sized creatures who fly on the backs of dragonflies.

I think of it as a modern myth, not just for children, but for all ages (although I wonder what age this would best suit – not for young children, I wouldn’t have thought). Karen Armstrong in her informative and most helpful book A Short History of Myth writes, ‘We are meaning-seeking creatures … mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence, helping us get beyond the chaotic flux of random events, and glimpse the core of reality.‘ Concerning the novel and myth she writes:

Yet the experience of reading a novel has certain qualities that remind us of the traditional apprehension of mythology. It can be seen as a form of meditation. Readers have to live with a novel for days or even weeks. It projects them into another world, parallel to but apart from their ordinary lives. They know perfectly well that this fictional realm is not’real’ and yet while they are reading it becomes compelling. A powerful novel becomes part of the backdrop of our lives long after we have laid the book aside.

Yes, these books are exactly that. I read the books between July and August and they are all compelling reading, both in terms of storyline (with many parallel worlds) and in ideas. I am still contemplating the ideas and themes. My copy of Karen Armstrong’s book is in a Limited Signed Edition of Box Sets and includes an essay by Philip Pullman, which I had forgotten was there. In it he writes, ‘A myth is intoxicating, because it is something other than just a story.‘ How right he is and what a good description of his own trilogy.

I find it impossible to do justice to the plot in this post. I think the best thing is to read the books and look at Philip Pullman’s website. This is my brief and inadequate summary:

The main characters are Lyra and Will, who are from different worlds and the story is essentially about their journey into adolescence, from innocence into knowledge. ‘Dust’, seemingly similar to the idea of original sin, plays a large part in this. Once children reach adolescence Dust is then attracted to them, as they lose their innocence. The first book concerns the search for the source of Dust in Lyra’s world.

Will is introduced in the second book, The Subtle Knife. The action takes place in several universes and Will becomes the bearer of the Subtle Knife, which enables him to cut windows from one universe into a parallel one. In one of these worlds he meets Lyra and they join forces.

Daemons, representing the soul, feature in Lyra’s world where they are separate physical entities. A daemon takes the form of an animal or bird and in children can change form until the child becomes an adult. Then he or she assumes a form reflecting the person’s personality, for example a daemon in the form of dog reflects a faithful person, a cat an independent person, etc. In Will’s world (our world) the soul is an integral part of a person, and is invisible and non-physical.

The Amber Spyglass completes the trilogy, climaxing in a perilous journey through the Land of the Dead and the greatest war ever between the worlds and heaven, with the defeat of heaven and the death of ‘God’ in the form of the Ancient of Days, who is not the Creator, but a demented and powerless being, whose form loosened and dissolved: ‘A mystery dissolving in mystery.

The trilogy abounds with themes, alluding to Milton’s Paradise Lost in a retelling of the Creation and the Fall, where the ‘Authority‘ (the Ancient of Days) is a fallen angel and Lyra is seen as a second Eve. The relationship between the body and soul is evident through the concept of daemons, introduced in Northern Lights and this is developed throughout until it becomes explicit in The Amber Spyglass, particularly in the description of the passage through the Land of the Dead. Lyra has to leave her daemon behind and it’s at this point that it becomes evident that Will’s soul or daemon is also unable to travel with him. Lyra lives up to her name here (Orpheus in Greek mythology is able to charm beasts with his lyre), where she is able to win round the harpy ‘No-Name’ and release human beings from the Land of the Dead.

The question of the nature of consciousness and when it becomes self-consciousness for example during adolescence is explored. Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden, when they become self-conscious and aware of evil and sin. Dust which is invisible to the human eye is the physical representation of original sin. It is attracted to adults and is the means of conferring consciousness and wisdom. It seems to me to be based on the biblical account of God creating Man from dust and also on the concept of dust being dirty and thus sinful, but it is also the element that indicates a living being.

Of course, one thing that comes to mind in reading these books is the question of their relationship with Christianity. I’m not surprised to read that they have attracted much criticism as being anti-Christian. One of the characters is Mary Malone, an ex-nun who has lost her faith on her realisation that there ‘wasn’t any God at all – The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that’s all.

Philip Pullman’s view expressed in an interview in Surefish (Christian Aid) in November 2002 – (see here) is that he is telling a story. He is not Mary, she is a character in his book  – he is somewhere between being an atheist and an agnostic.

Another enlightening interview was recorded between Pullman and Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2004 – see here.

Other interesting articles I found are an interview Telegraph in January 2002 and one on the BBC website dated March 2004.