Seven Books That Made Me

I have been tagged repeatedly in this meme (and the music one, and there ought to be an art one, too).  I hate lists. I hate the inherent [ahem patriarchal, capitalist, etc] need to rank and rate and declare bests, that divides us into endless competition. But as the latest tagger, Helen Grant suggested, it’s interesting to hear what has influenced your friends. So in that light, a random selection of books off the cuff, not the ‘best’ or the ‘highest rated’ but some that have had an impact on making me who I am.

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I don’t remember a lot of the details of this book, but it’s the first one I can remember changing me. Much of my childhood passed in an unremembered Zen state of being, but I distinctly recall excitedly asking my cousin as he got into the car with us (my mother, brothers and I), ‘Do you like fog? I like fog!’ because the book had so captivated me. I still love fog. I am fortunate to live in two areas prone to fog, mist and the haar, so make of that what you will. Books that fired my imagination enough to make me want to live there also included My Side of the Mountain, set in the Catskills. Huh: half the year, I live there.

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Yes, I wanted to be Jo, like so many young women. Her life (and her author’s) gave me a model to believe it could be possible for a girl with no experience to speak of or connections with famous people — that one could just make up the things and write about them and make books. I cannot read the book even now without crying. And I still haven’t totally forgiven Amy. Like the Alice books, indelible.

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My copy was plain: a turquoise cover with the title and Anna Sewell’s name in white, a knobbly texture. It was a book I read and re-read constantly. That kicked off my horse mania: I read every book in the library on horses. Seriously, every book. I still feel angry that the librarians (or my teachers?) forced me and my best friend to read books that were not about horses (did they ever do the same thing to boys? I doubt it). I read a book on Annie Sullivan. It was fine. But then it was back to horses. This is why I trust my obsessions.

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I think there is an age at which many young girls diverge from the common path: some go to Plath. I went to Parker. I liked Plath, but Parker was the one for me. At an age when one is too young to know the truth of her mordant wit, one fancies she does. She is wrong. When she is older, one understands more clearly why Parker hid her sorrow behind wit so it wouldn’t frighten the mens. Also I guess I can’t squeeze in Barbara Pym this time so she’s here too. And Anita Loos. And of course Austen. And Gaskell…every funny woman.

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It’s a bit unfair to make Marie stand in for a whole host of medieval books, but there it is. You’d have to understand my distaste for what I thought of as ‘medieval’ once upon an ignorant time — this is why I have such sympathy for my students’ eye rolling. Oh, but you don’t know, I tell them — and then of course I show them. My madeleine-in-the-tea moment might have been Beowulf, but Marie made me change my mind about the stereotypes. Medieval romance seemed the least interesting thing out there. It’s still not my favourite thing, but Marie told her tales — even the wretched Arthuriana — with such verve and a lack of sentiment that I even decided to retell her tales. Likewise many medieval women — Hrotsvita and Silence and Christina of Markyate and more…

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Likewise standing in for all the great crime dames like Patricia Highsmith and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Hughes’ masterpiece is a genius dissection of a serial killer that predates the much more lauded Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson. Where the latter gives a (surprisingly shallow) insight into the mind of a serial killer with a great deal of sympathy for him — Thompson seems to admire Lou Ford’s smug disdain for the world — Hughes lays open the brutal mind of Dix Steele with insight and understanding. There is a kind of sympathy for the mess of desires and ambitions he has, but there is no doubt about his chilling nature from page one. Hughes was way ahead of her time and still doesn’t get the acclaim she deserves. If she’d written only this book I’d call her a genius — but she’s written several excellent books.

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Seven tomes already and I’ve barely scratched the surface. This is why I don’t like lists. They are always inadequate. So this last one stands in for all the books of the fantastic I have read and loved. It’s also to make plain that the influences go on. While we gild the memories of some books from childhood to give them lustre, books can continue to change life. I’ve written conference papers and essays on this immense novel — and finally admitted I am probably writing a book on it. I love its world, I love Clarke’s loving scholarship of it. You never know when a book will sneak up on you and nudge you to another path. This one’s put me to work in a delightful way — I even get to use my medieval scholarship a bit.

MAMO: Rome

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Good news! Just got word that my presentation ‘A Chieftain Unchosen: Examining the Raven King through Medieval Prophecy’ has been approved for MAMO: The Middle Ages in the Modern World conference, which will take place in Rome in November. Yay! One of my ulterior motives for saying no to other things is to make sure I can afford to go to this one as I hope to see not only the fabulous Alessandra Bava but also pal Dan Curley (and ROME!).

Yes! This is another paper on Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Yes! I am trying to finish up another essay on the novel this very day (or maybe tomorrow — always take another day to look at it). Yes! This pretty much seals the deal that I am actually writing a whole book about this novel. Heh. This is how things sneak up on you.

Perhaps I am just part of the prophecy, too…

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Out Now: Tarot in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Mythlore36.2My essay “The Unlikely Milliner & The Magician of Threadneedle-Street” has been published in Mythlore: A Journal of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Mythopoeic Literature. Click the 1st link to read a free PDF; click the 2nd to find information on ordering the issue (you can get it through your library, too).

There’s a whole special section on tarot edited by Emily Auger (whom tarot folk likely know well), as well as pieces on Tolkien, Lovecraft, Le Guin and Sayers.

Here’s the abstract for the essay which may intrigue your interest:

Susanna Clarke uses the tarot in her novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell much as she uses history: twisting it to open up spaces for magic and playfulness. She offers modifications on the traditional Tarot de Marseille that accurately predict the narrative events, yet deftly obscures the outcomes by leading the readers (and the characters) to jump to the wrong conclusions.

With another conference paper proposed on the novel, I guess I’m going to have to admit to maybe writing a book about this book…

Horror, The Fall & other news

Mark E Smith of the FallOut now:

Over on the Fox Spirit Books blog I get to kick off Women of Horror month with a piece on The Haunting of Hill House, one of the finest novels ever written. Go read it (my piece and the novel).

I have a piece ‘The Three Rs’ over at 3AM Magazine. I had written for another thing that fell apart but it suited as a kind of encomium for Mark E. Smith. More to come doubtless as there are many things floating around in my head.

Chapter 4 of Madonna of the Wasps is out: chapter 5 at the end of the month. If you want to have a print copy, I have good news coming soon.

You listened to the radio show, right? Feel free to let WGXC know you liked it.

UPDATE: I am always forgetting to share my History Witch posts: most recently Sounding Out the Water Elf (another bit in my thinking about the sound of charms which I’ll be talking about at the Harvard conference in April).

NEXT WEEK: The SpeakEasy dames and I will be guest hosts at Ione’s Annual Dream Festival next week. If you’re on Facebook, join us talking and thinking about dreams and how they affect our waking lives. Some of the posts will be here as well. Starts on Monday!

Forthcoming Publications:

Twice Reviled: Medieval Fact & Fantasy.’ Out of the Cloister: Lone Medievalists Making the Middle Ages Matter: forthcoming piece on what it’s like to be the lone medievalist in a department as well as a fiction writing-lit prof (hint: even people in academia like you to stick to one category or the other).

The Unlikely Milliner & The Magician of Threadneedle-Street.” Mythlore: A Journal of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Mythopoeic Literature: forthcoming essay on the use of tarot in Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell — yes, yet another piece on that book so I suspect I may well end up writing a book about it.

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Travel: after a break of [cough] years, I’ll be heading to Kalamazoo for the annual Medieval Congress. Looking forward to my first paper on Rauf Coilyear, one of my new obsessions. I feel a little sad because I think the last time I was at the ‘Zoo was when I got to hang out with Kathryn Fernquist Hinds, who died suddenly this week. Her husband Arthur has asked those honouring her memory to make donations in her name to Planned Parenthood or the ACLU. You might also want to read her books.

I hope to go to MAMO as well: this year it will be in Rome. We shall see. Finances always questionable — and of course, I need to get accepted! But a scheme afoot to catch up with Alexandra Bava naturally and Dan Curley who I think might be there as well in November.

[Fill in the elventy thousand things I have forgotten to mention or haven’t finished]

Oh, and I have more Edinburgh pictures to share: must remember to do so!

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My Schedule @Worldcon75

header-1200x200WorldCon in Helsinki is coming up shockingly soon. Hope to see you there. I’m unlikely to have much time to post while I’m there, but I’m sure to be tweeting. I hope to meet up with a lot of friends I’ve not seen in a while (relatives, too!). My schedule is conveniently grouped for single day attendance (though I’m arriving Wednesday night):

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For the academic track I will be talking once again about Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (yes, when I get obsessed, I stay obsessed to adapt John Irving’s words). The title of my presentation is ‘Lollard Magician: Jonathan Strange & the Reform of English Magic’ so you can get a sense of where it’s going (assuming you know who Wycliffe is).

But I better get back to finishing it —

Why Women Witches?

Over at my History Witch column, I explain something that I’ve come to call ‘The Great Conflation’ or what Michael D. Bailey theorised about how a Dominican theologian might have inadvertently changed history, leading to the specific gendered nature of the witch hunts of the Early Modern era and the so-called Age of Enlightenment. Of course I have been spurred to finally write this in anticipation of the last [sob!] episode of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell this weekend. Those who have shaken fingers at me will be glad to know I ordered a copy of Susanna Clarke’s novel despite my usual trepidation about modern doorstop novels.

If you have an interest in history or magic or both, you may want to check out my essay.

Yes, I may overuse this lovely meme of Mr Norrell expressing the cri de coeur of introverts everywhere, but so what?

FYI if you haven’t done so already, check out John Reppion’s posts at the Daily Grail on the magic & fairy traditions touched on by Strange & Norrell.