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.

fog_magic_first_edition_cover_shot

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.

182fxk7ft8j2ejpg

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.

s-l300

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.

enough-rope

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.

51glauewphl-_sx335_bo1204203200_

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…

220px-inalonelyplacebook

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.

511wvi51vnl-_sx324_bo1204203200_

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.

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…

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):

Screen Shot 2017-08-01 at 09.29.15Screen Shot 2017-08-01 at 09.29.46

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 —

Charcoal Burners, Black Sails & Magic

Uskglass Charcoal Burner

Admittedly I’ve not left the house since I got here, but don’t let my indolence fool you! I am ready to rise to the opportunity and sure enough, I will be. Thanks to Cailleach’s Herbarium mentioning it on Facebook, I got on the waitlist and now have ticket in hand to attend ‘The Supernatural in Early Modern Scotland’ this Friday. A workshop at The Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Edinburgh, it looks to be a fascinating day (see the whole list of speakers here).

So many interests colliding in useful ways! It’s great to have the feeling you’re in the right place at the right time.

And speaking of collisions: the above illustration is of course the lovely Charles Vess. It’s for the last story in Susanna Clarke’s collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu. In my usual way I had hoarded the last few stories last summer, thinking when I read them there would be no more of her writing to read as she has nothing else out at present (yes, that’s how my brain works). I didn’t know the interest I would develop in charcoal burners in the meantime! So it was the first thing I read when I got back here. A delightful tale with saints (including Brigit), Uskglass and of course the titular charcoal burner.

Total collision count: dissertation subjects, two forthcoming conference papers, and the new all-consuming medieval project, Rauf Coilyear. I’m teaching Rauf in the upper division medieval class this fall. I love it when a plan comes together.

Meanwhile I am playing dolls with Miss C and catching up on Black Sails with my sweetie. Life is good.