by Catriona Mills

Random Weirdness from the Bookshelf

Posted 23 July 2008 in by Catriona

The strange phobias of the 1950s:

From Nigel Kneale’s The Quatermass Experiment: A Play for Television in Six Parts (London: Penguin, 1959).

Humiliation, Round Two: The Re-Humiliating

Posted 23 July 2008 in by Catriona

I hope people are keen to humiliate themselves all over again. This time, I plan to pick something other than a Victorian novel, I think.

(Aha! I’ve just thought of the perfect book.)

But first, a recapitulation of the rules.

The aim of the game is to reveal a gap in your knowledge, by admitting that you haven’t read a book that everyone else has read.

All you have to do is pick a book that you haven’t read but that you can confidently assume that everyone else has read. Your success in the game depends on the number of other people who have read the book; obscure titles won’t get very far.

Scoring is straightforward on the individual points system: you receive one point for every player who has read the book that you nominate.

Last time we played the game, it involved a lot of flipping back and forth through the comments for everyone to keep up with the titles. So I’m going to run the game in two rounds this time.

First, add a comment below stating which book you haven’t read.

Don’t comment just yet on whether you have read other player’s books.

Because we have to cap the player list at some point—or the game gets to confusing—I’ll close the nominations tomorrow night at 6 p.m. This way people won’t have to keep checking whether any new books have been added to the game.

Then I’ll open a new thread, with a list of players and books. We can then comment on which books we have and haven’t read, and I’ll tabulate the final scores once all the participants have commented.

Strange Conversations: Part Twenty-Seven

Posted 22 July 2008 in by Catriona

After yesterday’s introductory lecture, the first for the new semester:

NICK: How did the lecture go?
ME: Quite well, I think—but I can’t be sure.
NICK: I’m sure it went well.
ME: You can’t be sure: you’ve never heard me lecture.
NICK: Oh, I hear you lecture all the time.


A Public Service Announcement

Posted 21 July 2008 in by Catriona

Many of you might have seen Nick’s public Pownce note to this effect, but if not, check out the lovely freebies at Tor Books.

They have .pdf and .html files (and other formats that I don’t recognise) for a wide number of books (I’ve just downloaded Jo Walton’s Farthing, and am super excited: I loved her Tooth and Claw) and a range of desktop wallpapers, some of which are so lovely that I’ve bumped the James Jean cover to the ninth Fables trade that I’ve had on my desktop for about a year.

But they’re only available until the 27th of July.

So, Does Anyone Fancy a Round of Humiliation?

Posted 21 July 2008 in by Catriona

For those of you who haven’t read any of David Lodge’s novels, Humiliation is a game invented by his Brummidge professor Phillip Swallow when he was a postgraduate student, but debuted in the novel Changing Places, later in Swallow’s career.

It’s also a central example in Pierre Bayard’s How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, for reasons that should become apparent even if you haven’t read Bayard.

In Humiliation, players nominate a well-known book—usually one of those books that everyone is supposed to have read—that they themselves haven’t read, and receive a point for each participant who has read it.

(And, in fact, this post can’t fail: either we have a round of Humiliation, which will be good fun, or everyone ignores me, and then I’m humiliated, which means I don’t have to change the title of the post. Win-win situation!)

According to Pierre Bayard, “It is hard to imagine a more perfect encapsulation of the way our displays of culture in social settings, before the mirror of others, awakens unreasonable feelings of shame” (122).

But I don’t think this game should shame us: even Bayard mentions that such shame is “unreasonable,” because, of course, he argues that actually reading a book is less important than being aware of its place in the collective library.

(More accurately, I suppose, with Humiliation we are dealing with the third of Bayard’s three categories of libraries, the virtual library, or “the realm in which books are discussed, in either written or oral form, with other people” (125n): this is, he says, a “a mobile sector of every culture’s collective library and is located at the point of intersection of the various inner libraries of each participant in the discussion” (125n), where the inner library is “a subjective part of the collective library and includes the books that have left a deep impression on each subject” (73n). So, in this case we bring our awareness of the book’s position in the collective library to the virtual library.)

But I do admit to a certain feeling of uncertainty about this game—or, more accurately, about playing it on the blog.

But then, why? We can’t read everything, not matter how bibliophilic our instincts.

For example, look at the table of contents to Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon—just the TOC, not any of the actual text. He names in the TOC twenty-six authors: Shakespeare, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Montaigne, Moliere, Milton, Samuel Johnson, Goethe, Wordsworth, Austen, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Dickens, George Eliot, Tolstoy, Ibsen, Freud, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Kafka, Borges, Neruda, Pessoa, and Samuel Beckett.

Of those twenty-six authors, I haven’t read any works by eleven of them, including two who, frankly, I hadn’t heard of before this point. (I’m not saying which authors I haven’t read, but feel free to guess.)

Another two authors I can’t remember reading works by, but can’t be sure that I haven’t.

And yet, I read a great deal and, it seems to me, rather widely. So am I humiliating myself by admitting to not having read certain books—or, at least, not having read them yet?

I’ve surely admitted to not having read books on the blog before. But the point of Humiliation is admitting to not reading books that, by certain rather nebulous standards, you should have read.

And as Bayard points out, the better-known the book, the less risk to the game. The key example in Changing Places is an American professor—who, the character narrating the game says, “has a pathological urge to succeed and a pathological fear of being thought uncultured” (cited in Bayard 123)—who insists that he has never read Hamlet. But, as Bayard says, there is really no risk here: “For one thing, no one is likely to believe him. And for another, the play is so well known that it is not necessary to have read it to speak about it” (124).

So I’ll humiliate myself.

Good nineteenth-century scholar that I am, I’ve never read The Mill on the Floss.

(And now, the panic: I have read other Eliot.)

Anybody else want to play?

Doctor Who: The Finale (Warning: Spoilers)

Posted 21 July 2008 in by Catriona

To assuage the impatience of all of us who are still burning to discuss the Doctor Who finale, this is the place. Or, at least, the comments thread is the place.

But be warned: here be spoilers.

If you haven’t seen the episode and don’t want to spoil yourself (and I recommend not spoiling yourself in advance), don’t go near the castle. I mean, the comments.

Live-Blogging Doctor Who: Planet of the Ood

Posted 20 July 2008 in by Catriona

I’m running a little late on this live-blogging, thanks to a slightly delayed dinner (leftover salads and sliced meats with pita bread—yummy! I would have pavlova for dessert, but I had it for breakfast. I do like my unusual breakfast foods, and there’s only so long I can resist pavlova for.)

So I’m not live-blogging the weather this time, and actually have no idea what the temperature is supposed to be. I suppose I’ll find out tomorrow.

Ah, here we go—creepy Ood advertising campaign. The Ood themselves are creepy—and fifty credits seems very low for a slave. I do like the Andy Warhol-style Ood pictures on the wall behind this man . . . who’s just been killed by a red-eyed Ood. Whoops.

Also, I keep typing “Ood” as “Oood,” which is annoying, because my spellchecker doesn’t recognise either spelling.

Mystery tour? I’m not sure that’s a great idea.

Oh, poor Donna—she’s so excited. And now the Doctor’s excited about the snow—the first time in years he’s seen snow that isn’t actually the detritus of a spaceship and its dead occupants.

This reminds me of the opening of “Seeds of Doom,” where Sarah Jane was promised the beach and popped out of the TARDIS in a polka-dot bikini.

Ah, Tim Mcinerny (don’t correct my spelling!)

And I missed the dialogue about the TARDIS versus that lovely retro-styled rocket that had Nick salivating.

Oh, dying Ood in the snow. I can buy not calling the Ood an “it,” but how does the Doctor know it’s male? Are all Ood male? Or does he have some distinguishing feature that reveals his gender.

Oh, well—he’s dead now, poor bloke.

Donna’s so sweet, really. This first encounter with an alien species (apart from the Rachnos and the Adipose, and she doesn’t get close to the latter) is touching, even if they do leave him sprawled in the snow.

I do get a little bored with the repeated “We’re not married” refrain, but Donna, to me, is the closest to an old-school companion that we’ve ever had (in my opinion, which I’m not asserting is humble.)

Oood hunt: this is creepy, especially since this Ood doesn’t just have red eye but is also rabid—and in conjunction with the sales pitch about “if your Ood is happy, you’ll be happy” is becomes truly disturbing.

Oh, poor bald Tim Mcinerney. Never mind: let us sit upon the floor and tell sad stories, shall we?

The comedy Ood voice is so sad—hey, for five extra credits, would you like to humiliate your slave? But the sexy female voice: I don’t even want to think what kind of fetish prompted that as a viable sales pitch.

Oh, are the bees disappearing? I wonder if that will be important later.

They drop a lot of these early Donna mannerisms—she’s just responded to an Ood calling her “Miss” by saying “Do I look single?” Well, Donna, you are single. You get quite cranky if people assume you’re married to the Doctor—by the later episodes, and I’m glad of it.

Ew, slavering rabid Ood. I’m not a big fan of slavering on television: it’s a good thing I’ve finished my dinner.

And now the guards have whips. Charming.

It’s true: the Doctor didn’t question the Oods’ status in the last two-parter. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but that really isn’t like the Doctor.

Ah, mysterious warehouse bathed in red light. I’m not good at delayed gratification: I want to see what’s in the pit now. And I’ve just noticed that the mysterious song that we heard around the dying Ood has started up again now we’re in the warehouse.

Ah, evil executive who also taunts his enslaved workers? I wonder if we’re supposed to sympathise with him?

Donna’s a Hammers fan? Cool. I think it’s a shame we never get a rousing chorus of “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.”

Oods in shipping containers: this series hits quite hard with the social commentary at times. The hardest one to watch I think is still “Turn Left,” which we don’t hit for another couple of months, but this warehouse full of silent queues of slaves is hard to watch.

Oh dear: the head of Security is a bloodthirsty psychopath. I didn’t see that coming. Still, this scene with the Dcotor being chased by the giant hook is well done.

Hang on: the Ood that Donna’s trapped with have red eye.

DONNA: Oh no you don’t.
NICK (as Eric Cartman): Pink eye!

So the Ood aren’t locked into these containers? They’re standing there in ranks? Man, that’s depressing. It’s also looking a bit silly, now they’ve all got red eye.

The Doctor seriously misreads that PR woman’s sympathies. Of course she agrees with what they’re doing—she knows exactly how they’re being treated, so why would she suddenly think, “Hey, you’re right! This isn’t cool!”

More Ood song—it’s hard to judge this, but . . . the Doctor can hear the song because Timelords, like the Ood, are telepathic. But Donna can’t hear it, because she’s isn’t. But we can hear the song—as part of the soundtrack, but as diagetic music not extradiagetic music. But then when the Doctor enables Donna to hear it, it becomes different, more prominent. So am I misreading the earlier examples of music, as when the Doctor comments on the song of the dying Ood? Is that not Ood song? And if it is, should we be able to hear it, when we’re not psychic?

Anyway, these poor sad Oods have their brains in their hands. Well, their hindbrains.

NICK: This is completely daft, though.

It doesn’t seem as though this is a practical evolutionary decision. I can see why it’s what breaks Donna, though—this idea of lobotomising them to make slaves is grotesque.

I like Donna’s insistence that a creature with its brain in its hands would have trust anyone it meets: it’s a neat argument, but I still don’t think that it’s a sensible step for evolution to make, even on a planet where the Ood seem to be the only lifeforms.

Oops, the Ood in the salesrooms all have red eye, now.

I’ve lost any sympathy I might have had for that PR woman—hang on, she was killed by an Ood while I was typing.

I think I’d find this factory setting more alienating and frightening if it didn’t look exactly like the back of the engineering buildings at university.

See, now the evolutionary system is just becoming more disturbing: if a creature with a separate hindbrain and forebrain would be at constant war with itself, why would evolution take that particular step?

Oh, never mind.

Now Donna and the Doctor are being menaced by red-eyed Ood.

The fact that the Ood can turn the red eye on and off, apparently at will, is the creepiest part of this episode, I think.

And now everyone is converging on Warehouse 15, for the final showdown. That means we finally get to see what’s in the big, eerily glowing, red pit.

Ah! Giant brain! Ew.

Of course, looking at the episode again, I should have guessed that it would have been some kind of brain, but I don’t think I did guess the first time around.

So, hang on—Tim Mcinerney was saying earlier that they Ood roamed the ice like animals, when they found them. But then they found a giant brain?

(Oh, ew—some guy’s just been thrown into a giant brain. That can’t be good for the brain. Or the guy.)

So, they found a giant brain. And they applied a damper to lower the telepathic field? So they knew that the Ood had a sophisticated way of communication? So, were they animals? Or not? Or was Mcinerney lying when he said they found them as animals?

Nick won’t watch this next bit. It is rather disturbing, when he peels his own scalp off. What gets me, though, is when he vomits up the tentacles. That’s revolting.

Ew, and then he vomits out his hindbrain. I’d completely forgotten that bit.

Donna’s point that her established moral code is crumbling under the new experiences to which the Doctor is exposing her is an interesting one: the Doctor’s claim that not knowing right from wrong is “easier” is just lazy.

The music for this episode is rather lovely, I think—but then I’m partial to choral music.

The Ood are thanking the Doctor and Donna and promising to sing of them forever—but they didn’t really do much, did they? The Ood pretty much had it under control.

And that’s “Planet of the Ood”!

Next week, Martha! Martha! Martha! And Mike from The Young Ones as a Sontaran.


Posted By Request

Posted 18 July 2008 in by Catriona

Admittedly, only at the request of one person, but that person is extremely important and shall everything she asks for (up to free babysitting—an easy promise to make from one-thousand kilometres away—but excluding blood transfusions. It helps that you’ve never asked for one.)

Obscure Words: An Ongoing Series, If I Don't Forget or Get Bored

Posted 18 July 2008 in by Catriona

I was reading through L. M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle tonight—a book I mentioned on the second stage of my bookshelf tour—and came across the following passage:

Some nights the whole outer world seemed to be given over to the empery of silence; then came nights when there would be a majestic sweep of wind in the pines; nights of dear starlight when it whistled freakishly and joyously round the Blue Castle; brooding nights before storm when it crept along the floor of the lake with a low wailing cry of boding and mystery. (Angus and Robertson, 1980. 241)

Now, I’m not saying that’s the best prose in the world: in fact, I think “dear starlight,” at least, is a horrific phrase, hatefully twee.

But what struck me was “empery.” I’ve never consciously seen the word “empery” before—and I’ve read this book before.

(My spellchecker hasn’t seen it, either—but then my spellchecker also isn’t familiar with the word “twee,” which just proves that it’s never watched Eurovision.)

So I looked it up.

It wasn’t in my Concise OED, and I don’t think that’s because at home I have to settle for The Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary, my copy of the Concise OED itself now living permanently in my office at work.

So I looked it up in the online OED, which tells me that it is both a verb and a noun.

As a verb, it has, apparently, only one definition and only one citation: listed as “obscure, rare” intransitive verb, it means “to exercise supreme power; to lord it.” For support, the OED cites a quotation from Arnolde, 1502: “Alsoo emp’ryng vpon ful many cristen lordis.”

But I’m not sure we’re talking about a verb here.

And the noun has a much longer entry.

The noun, the OED tells me, is now only poetical or rhetorical; that makes me feel a little better about never hearing the word before.

First and foremost, it means “the status, dignity, or dominion of an emperor,” an obsolete usage. Here, the OED offers me citations ranging from one dated 1297 (which includes archaic characters that I’m fairly sure my computer won’t reproduce without effort) to, of course, Shakespeare, from Titus Andronicus (1588, I. i. 201): “Thou shalt obtaine and aske the Emperie.”

But as a subset of this definition, the OED offers “In wider sense: Absolute dominion.” And here the citations run from Udall in 1548—“Ryches, honoure and emperye”—to my old favourite George Macdonald in 1882—“A wider love of empery.”

And as a second subset of the same definition, we have “In the sense of L. imperium: The authority with which an officer or magistrate has been lawfully invested; legitimate government,” also an obsolete usage. Here, the citations range from Chaucer in c.1374 to Bridge in 1642: “If a Prince should [. . .] change the form of the Common-weale from Empery to Tyranny.”

But it wouldn’t be the OED if there weren’t a set of secondary definitions:

2. a. The territory ruled by an emperor. b. In wider sense: The territory of an absolute or powerful ruler.

2a is listed as “also figurative”: does that mean the first is purely literal?

For these secondary definitions, there are citations ranging from Coke in 1550—“Constantyne [. . .] conquered the whole empery”—to Keats’s “Lamia” (1820)—“A want Of something more, more than her empery Of joys (ii.36)—to Hartley Coleridge’s Poems (1833)—”‘Tis all thy own, ‘tis all thy empery.”

Which of these relates to Montgomery’s use?

No idea: I distracted myself.

But isn’t it interesting?

Surfing in Your Spare Time is Dangerous

Posted 18 July 2008 in by Catriona

Thankfully, I don’t actually have a credit card and still have a sufficient sense of self preservation, which has so far stopped me from organising a debit card.

But it’s still dangerous.

It’s not dangerous in an exchange-rate sense: not right now.

But it’s dangerous in the sense that books look sexy on the site seduces you into thinking that maybe you really do need a trilogy of novels set in a boarding school with a haunted east wing.

At least, that was what I ended up considering last time I was browsing the site.

But this time, I’ve come across Cara Lockwood, and I’m even more conflicted.

According to her Wikipedia page, she’s published a number of novels that I’ve never heard of.

Keep reading, and you’ll find that apparently the novels “most identify with the multicultural Asian chick lit genre” and that the most successful of them “was made into a Lifetime Original Movie starring Denise Richards and Dean Cain.”

Which really begs the question of why I’m even flicking through her various publications.

I have no opinion whatsoever of Lifetime Original Movies—never having seen one—but I have little interest in chick-lit; I read and enjoyed both Bridget Jones books and Helen Fielding’s first novel, but generally find that I can’t sympathise with chick-lit heroines any more than I can sympathise with the characters from Sex and the City. We just don’t speak the same language.

But those aren’t the books I’m looking at.

No, the problem is that I ran across The Bard Academy series.

Perhaps if I give you the titles it will explain why I’m putting these on a mental “think I sort of want them” list: Wuthering High, The Scarlet Letterman, and Moby Clique.


According to the Wikipedia page, these novels “update” the author’s favourite classics.

That’s something that always worries me. It seem to tie in with the models of literary criticism that I, at least, was taught at high school, centring on my favourite fallacy: “universal themes.” I don’t believe in universal themes.

Oh, sure: issues such as love and hate, ambition and jealousy, pride and despair have been explored in literature for as long as we’ve had literature. (Note to Hollywood: that doesn’t mean that Grendel’s mother is supposed to look like Angelina Jolie.) But their manifestation, their presentation, their significance—these change radically depending on a number of variables, of which the period of composition is only one.

But I’m hoping . . . a little . . . that Wikipedia is being slightly ingenious in presenting the novels this way.

Because according to Amazon, it’s not that simple.

The protagonist is sent to a strict boarding school, because she wrecks her father’s car and runs up enormous bills on her stepmother’s credit cards?

Not interested.

The school is staffed by the ghosts of writers who died before their time, including Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, and Charlotte Bronte?


Of course, they might not be my kind of thing at all.

But speaking as someone who also wants Simon Hawke’s out-of-print Time Wars series—purely because they have such titles as The Ivanhoe Gambit (1984) and The Dracula Caper (1988)—and who reads anything that Jasper Fforde publishes, I think probably need to take the risk.

Magical Mystery Bookshelf Tour Stage Four: The Spare Room

Posted 16 July 2008 in by Catriona

I had thought to move on to the living room after the hallway, but I have a feeling I should get the spare room over and done with: it’s a disaster area.

To be fair, the spare room is home to a couple of our more specific collections, namely Nick’s art books and my girls’ school stories, which are the books I’m dealing with below.

But it’s also the place where we store books that we have no other space for (namely, everything I’ve bought in the last eighteen months or so) or that we don’t re-read very often (like Nick’s New Adventure and Missing Adventure Doctor Who books). Almost every shelf is double-stacked to some extent, and finding anything is a nightmare.

(Actually, I thought my Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf—which I still haven’t found—was bound to be in there, but I couldn’t locate it. That doesn’t mean it isn’t in there, of course.)

So the spare room it is, but it will take a while: there are five bookcases in there, all heavily stacked.

But I’m starting with a small shelf, one of the few shelves to be limited to a single genre: girls’ school stories. It’s largely impossible to make out specific titles, but that’s fine. After all, many of the books are completely interchangeable in terms of plots and characters. Plus, I’ve added some close-up photographs, for reasons that should become apparent.

Yes, that is a bright-green wig in a fetching 1960s’ style bob over that flower vase. How I come to own one of those is a long and not very interesting story. Still, it makes an interesting objet d’art, in its way.

Nick’s X Files figurine, on the other hand, led to the following conversation the first time my parents came to stay with us:

MAM: What’s that on the bookcase?
ME: Alien corpse. Why?

(And if you think that’s geeky, bear in mind that this is only one of a matched pair of bookcases: the other one has, in relative positions, a baseball cap with a propeller on the top and a figurine of Deanna Troi.)

Really, though, the top of this bookcase just shows that these books are outgrowing the small space I allocated them, even though I haven’t been actively seeking to increase the collection in recent months. (I think part of the problem is that there were so many girls’ school stories published: it’s almost impossible not to find them in bookstores and sales.) I found an old photograph recently, when we’d first moved into the house, and there were only enough of these books for a single shelf: perhaps that’s evidence that I do need to keep a grip on my avarice?

Even though I say the books are more or less interchangeable, those paperbacks standing upright on the bookcase’s top are some of the most sought-after among girls’ school story collectors: the Chalet School series. Obviously, these are inexpensive reprints (mostly Armada paperbacks from the 1970s) not collectors’ editions, but the series itself is one of the most heavily collected, along with the Abbey School series two shelves down.

The Chalet School series ran for decades in the hands of Elinor Brent-Dyer: Wikipedia lists fifty-eight books by Brent-Dyer from The School at the Chalet (1925) to Prefects of the Chalet School (1970)—Brent-Dyer herself died in 1969— as well as eleven books by other authors that slot into the original series, and Merryn Williams’s Chalet Girls Grow Up (1998), which, they carefully point out, is not recommended for young readers, and caused enormous consternation among Brent-Dyer fans because of its representation of infidelity, suicide, and marital rape among characters from the original series.

(Actually, if you have time—and are interested—the debate about Williams’s book on the U. K. Amazon site is fascinating.)

The Chalet School books themselves are intriguing, although often in a disturbing way. I was fascinated, initially, by the discrepancy in numbers between English girls and local students in the school, by the fact that English was not the dominant language in the school, and by the focus on Austrian culture. And the late Austrian books, with the increasing encroachment of Nazism, both in terms of actual soldiers and in terms of the spread of Nazi ideology among German and Austrian students, were genuinely distressing.

But then the school moved the Guernsey (after the Anschluss in 1938), then to the England-Wales border, and ultimately to Switzerland in the 1950s. With World War Two, the school shifted noticeably to a more uniformly British institution, and by the time they moved to the Swiss Alps, the tone was more reminiscent of the Enid Blyton-style “teaching foreign students the English code of honour” approach than it was to the tone of the early books. I found that a shame.

Ah! There are the Abbey School books, on the top shelf to the far left. This isn’t nearly as extensive a series: thirty-eight books, from The Girls of the Hamlet Club (1914) to Two Queens at the Abbey (1959), although Elsie J. Oxenham was extremely prolific outside this series, as well.

These aren’t always school stories, strictly speaking: many include the term “Abbey School” in their title, but so few of them take place explicitly at school that they’re often referred to as the Abbey Series.

But they have two fascinating points. The first is Oxenham’s involvement in the revival of English folk dancing (which is also an element of early Chalet School books, but falls away fairly quickly). I have no idea how accurate the details are, but the accounts of folk dancing are extraordinarily detailed, right down to music and steps.

The second is the Abbey itself: two of the primary characters are cousins, one of whom inherited a manor house and one a ruined abbey. It’s the Cistercian abbey of Grace Dieu, which my sister-in-law (whose specialty is Cistercian nuns) tells me is an actual abbey. Reverence for the abbey is threaded through the books—which also foreground Christian faith far more than most school stories—including a focus on the daily lives of monks in an order far less prominent, to the average reader, than the Dominicans or the Franciscans. It may only be a hook to drag in new readers, but it’s fascinating.

More so, certainly, than your average Enid Blyton (which are on the bottom shelf at the far right), although I own to a sneaking interest in the construction of Whyteleafe school in the Naughtiest Girl series (which is also the basis of my favourite in-joke in Green Wing.)

But what I love most about these books is their sheer beauty:

They’re just gorgeous to look at; Jan of the Fourth, there, was the first one that I bought in this new cycle of collecting (back in 1999), and I bought it purely because I loved the original dust cover.

And look at Margaret Plays the Game! Although that one is interesting textually, as well; it’s written as a schoolgirl version of a Sir Walter Scott novel that the six-form girls are acting out, in a truncated form, as the end-of-year play, and the association between Scott’s nineteenth-century rewriting of mediaeval codes of honour and the codes of honour pertaining among schoolgirls is intriguing.

Even the ones that have lost their original dust covers are beautiful objects:

In fact, those two on the far left were part of Nick’s inspiration for the design of this site.

But if you want real beauty, you have to look at the covers of early Angela Brazil editions:

These are so stunning that it’s a shame I can’t display them with their covers facing outwards rather than their spines. Although they don’t always reflect the contents: Leader of the Lower Fourth is about a rather bolshy lower-school girl who doesn’t see why the upper school should run everything and organises a revolution among the younger girls, while the singer on the second cover is a rough-mannered New Zealand girl who is gradually civilised, apparently through some magic in the English air.

And it wouldn’t be a post on school stories if it didn’t end on a thoroughly bizarre note:

Why are those two girls climbing into a trunk? No idea. But don’t tell Matron!

Strange Conversations: Part Twenty-Six

Posted 15 July 2008 in by Catriona

While briefly watching NCIS and cursing Michael Weatherly:

ME: You leave David McCallum alone!
NICK: Yeah! He was Steel, for god’s sake.
ME: And Illya Kuryakin.
NICK: Yeah.
ME: The only way he could be cooler would be if he’d also played Steed.
BOTH: Or Doctor Who.

How Romantic

Posted 15 July 2008 in by Catriona

We were watching Bones last night, and the husbands of one murdered woman and one missing woman were assisting with enquiries by pulling out cherished photographs of their loved ones.

After a brief pause, Nick turned to me and said, “You know, I really should carry photographs of you in my wallet.”

Magical Mystery Bookshelf Tour Stage Three: Last Time in the Hallway, I Promise

Posted 15 July 2008 in by Catriona

I would love to fit more than three bookcases in the hallway but, alas, it’s only a thin hallway and a relatively short one. Odd, really: I would have thought the primary purpose of a hallway was for the storage of books. Well, that and to allow access to other rooms, I suppose.

The relative narrowness of the hallway is also the reason why these photos are also taken on a funky angle: artistic impulses don’t really come into it, compared to the pressures of a narrow space and a linen cupboard digging into your shoulder blades.

The picture on top of this bookcase is a photograph taken by one of Nick’s colleagues—or former colleagues, perhaps. I never met him, so I’m uncertain. I believe it’s a Shinto temple, but I’d have to ask Nick to be certain, and he’s otherwise occupied creating music on his iMac (meaning I’m writing this post with my own headphones on and, should I need to speak to him, would have to send him an instant message. Odd, but it works for us, mostly. Plus, I have a glass of a rather nice Peter Lehmann white—a riesling, I think—and the opportunity to update my blog, so I’m perfectly content.)

If I’d been able to take this photograph from the other side, the Georgette Heyers wouldn’t have been quite so prominent—but that’s a confession of weakness I’m going to leave for a lower shelf, which will speak for itself.

The Steven Brust is Nick’s: he’s always telling me to read Brust because I’d enjoy him—although his claims that “It’s The Three Musketeers! But with elves!” reminds me a little too forcibly of this Penny Arcade comic. I’m sure I would enjoy Brust, but somehow I’ve never actually got around to opening one.

Ooh, look: I Capture the Castle. I’d forgotten I had that. I really enjoyed it—which isn’t a surprise, since I loved One Hundred and One Dalmatians, far more than I enjoyed the movie. In fact, that book inspired me with a desire for my own Dalmatian, but I had to settle for an imaginary one in the end. Actually, I still don’t have a real Dalmatian . . . although I suppose, technically, that the imaginary one is still around, somewhere.

I bought the Noel Coward short stories at, of course, a Lifeline Bookfest, but have never read them. At the time—and we’re talking the dark reaches of last year, here—I felt it behooved me to move out of the nineteenth century, and read some of the great writers of the early twentieth century: I’d never moved past a small amount of Mitford and an enormous amount of Wodehouse. So now I have shelves stacked with Vita Sackville-West, E. F. Benson, Ethel M. Dell, Rosamund Lehmann, and the like, most of which I’ve not read (or only read half of, as with George du Maurier.) But I’ll get around to them, someday.

The naked woman at the end is the illustrated spines of Casanova’s memoirs. Unfortunately, I could only buy half the set in this rather lovely Johns Hopkins UP edition, so I only have half a naked woman on my shelf. It’s the top half, but I don’t know if that’s better or worse.

I hadn’t realised how much of the next shelf was devoted to Nick’s books: I’ve never read Robert Heinlein, Piers Anthony, or Robin Hobb. I have read Neil Gaiman’s Stardust—and loved it, of course, despite the rather melancholy flavour—but even that’s Nick’s copy.

But the second shelf here is all mine, and while I’m an admitted fantasy fan, this is more specifically what I love: classic children’s fantasy. I’m not sure there’s much that’s truly classic missing from this shelf (except Lewis Carroll, who’s in the living room), although it’s not a complete collection of any of the authors.

But look at these lovely things!

Running from left to right, I have on this self alone

  • George Macdonald (including At the Back of the North Wind, although my personal favourite, by far, is The Princess and the Goblin)
  • Susan Cooper (we’ll just skip over the recent film adaptation, shall we?)
  • L. Frank Baum (I think I made my passion for Baum fairly well understood in the comments thread to this post)
  • Lloyd Alexander (but not, alas, a complete series)
  • Alan Garner (I adored The Owl Service and Elidor, particularly)
  • Mary Stewart (I don’t know how widely her children’s fantasy is read these days, but I’ve cherished my copies of The Little Broomstick and Ludo and the Star Horse for at least twenty years: these are still those original editions)
  • Hugh Lofting (although I wonder, sometimes, whether I’d let children of mine read them, especially the first one, where they visit Africa. I’d certainly not stoop to the bowdlerised versions, though)
  • C. S. Lewis
  • Elisabeth Beresford (ah, would that we all could womble free)
  • Madeleine L’Engle (more sci-fi, I know, but A Wrinkle in Time is still one of my all-time favourites. I think the others in the series are on a lower shelf of this bookcase)
  • E. Nesbit

In fact, I should have more Nesbit. I’m sure I just bought The Would-Be-Goods, Five Children and It, and The Phoenix and the Carpet. I wonder where I put those?

Even the non-fantasy books on this shelf are classics, like Richmal Crompton and Helen Cresswell.

Oh, look, an entire shelf of Georgette Heyer books. I wonder how they got there? Let’s just move on, shall we?

In my own defense, can I just say that the Anne McCaffrey and Warhammer books are absolutely Nick’s? I’ve actually never read any McCaffrey, which is a little odd for a fantasy reader my age. At least, I’m fairly certain that I haven’t read any. I wonder?

Mind, many of the other, more obscure books on these shelfs are also Nick’s, including the Ken MacLeod and Snow Crash; that’s my copy of The Diamond Age, but I’ve not read it yet. And, sadly, those are my copies of David Eddings at the end. I have neither bought nor read any of his books in years . . . but I have read up to the end of the second Sparhawk series, which is what’s on that shelf.

On the other hand, there are my Scarlet Pimpernel books! I haven’t read those in years: I don’t think I have all of them, but I’m not certain how necessary it is to read them in order. I really must pull those out again, although they’re an unfortunate mix of inexpensive and fragmentary paperbacks and one fascinating, plump little hardback that’s been roughly treated and poorly rebound.

Most of these are Nick’s too, especially the Will McCarthy: I’ve not read McCarthy, but Nick swears by him, having read Bloom. He writes just the type of science fiction that Nick adores.

At the opposite end of the shelf, there are my Glen Cook novels. I have a number of the novels from the Black Company series—and must get back into them, actually—but what really fascinated me was the Garrett, P.I. series, the hard-boiled detective working in an insane fantasy world. I’m not sure why they appealed to me so much; I’ve never been an enormous fan of hard-boiled detective fiction, because of the complicated gender politics associated with thinking of women as broads and dames (the main reason, actually, why I never got into Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber), and the plots are sometimes rather incoherent right up until the parlour scene. They just thoroughly appealed to me. I might re-read those, actually, once I’ve finished this journal article.

I’m past apologising for the carpet, since this photograph makes it quite clear that I really should have vacuumed. But at least this shelf shows some slightly more high-brow reading tastes. (Not that I’m ashamed of my low-brow tastes.) I mean, look! There’s Kurt Vonngeut (honestly, I really must gather my entire collection together: they’re scattered all over the house), Vikram Seth, and Umberto Eco (now there’s another book I must re-read: I’ve not read The Name of the Rose in at least ten years.)

Sure, there’s also Helen Fielding, but she is funny. I’ve not read the Olivia Joules book, and haven’t the faintest idea what it’s like, though: I picked it up in a Lifeline store, figuring I’d get around to it sooner or later. That was only six months ago, so I’ll probably read it sometime within the next four or five years. (There are, perhaps, some disadvantages to organising your house as though it were a small lending library.)

And my Anne Tylers! I can’t even say what I like about her, although The Accidental Tourist is wonderful . . . and devastating. I think it’s the evocation of the minutiae of life that appeals to me, but I won’t deny that I need to be feeling fairly emotionally robust to deal with some of them, especially Breathing Lessons.

Perhaps that’s why they’re on the bottom shelf, near the grubby carpet.

More Musings on Advertisements

Posted 14 July 2008 in by Catriona

In no particular order of importance:

I’ve always enjoyed Mars advertisements, but this new one, with the people sprouting dragons’ or bats’ wings, isn’t a patch on the old one with the aliens at the low-gravity pool party. That filled me with a deep sense of envy.

On a different note, though: you really shouldn’t fold your girlfriend up and stick her in your front pocket. That’s . . . in fact, that’s not a girlfriend: that’s an aid. Or a toy, if you prefer.

I also don’t understand the new QUT advertisement: it makes sense that they’re trying to promote the idea that attending university will give you direction, but the image of the boy pushing the trolleys? I don’t understand what they’re trying to suggest with that. Are the trolleys emblematic of your career, and his sharp control of them—mainly, his ability to stop them scraping the car—indicative of the skills that he will learn at university? Or is it a suggestion that if you don’t attend university, you’ll end up pushing trolleys for a living?

I think the strangest advertisement I’ve seen recently, though, is the ad. for V with the tortoise that works as a lifeguard. I assume it’s an American ad., based on the female lifeguards’ red swimming costumes. But I’m not entirely certain what it’s trying to suggest: that drinking V will somehow negate a large body mass and physical awkwardness? Actually, that could be useful. Still, if I’m ever in trouble in the surf (impossible: too many sharks), I hope I don’t need to rely on the services of a tortoise.



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