by Catriona Mills

Strange Conversations: Part Three Hundred and Forty-Nine

Posted 1308 days ago in by Catriona

In which I ask Nick about a piece of writing.

NICK: It was very good indeed.
ME: I wish you’d give me feedback without prompting, sometimes.
NICK: Well, yes. I’m very passive in that way.
ME: And I wish you’d occasionally give me feedback that doesn’t involve weasel words.
NICK: Using weasel words is what sets us apart from the animals. Except for the weasels.
ME: Shut up now.
NICK: Very well.
ME: Damn you.

Vale, Diana Wynne Jones

Posted 1308 days ago in by Catriona

I heard about Diana Wynne Jones on the weekend, during Earth Hour. We were sitting on the back verandah in the light of some leaf-shaped candles when Nick, reading his iPad, told me that she’d died.

I texted my older sister, another fan. “Diana Wynne Jones has died,” I wrote.

She didn’t reply. But she rang the next night to tell me she’d been at a dinner party. She’d read my text out loud to a room full of historians and one psychologist. Most of them weren’t familiar with Diana Wynne Jones, though one said he had enjoyed her books “when I was a child”.

“He can’t have been a real reader,” said my sister. “Real readers enjoy her books now.”

Then we chatted for an hour about how many times we’d read each book.

“I’ve only read The Pinhoe Egg about four or five times,” said my sister. “But it hasn’t been out that long. It’ll catch up to Charmed Life.”

I’ve written elsewhere on the blog about my feelings for Diana Wynne Jones. Only on Friday, I was talking about the delight of finding two of her books that I didn’t already own.

But, now, I think I’ll just follow the footsteps of other fans, and show you rather than tell you what Diana Wynne Jones meant to me as a reader.

Vale, Diana Wynne Jones.

Strange Conversations: Part Three Hundred and Forty-Eight

Posted 1308 days ago in by Catriona

In which Nick has the courage of his convictions.

ME (reading student assessment): These students were eight years old when they first read Harry Potter. I was twenty three.
NICK: There’s life in the old girl yet.
ME: Really?
NCIK: Of course.
ME: No, I mean really? That’s how you choose to respond to that comment?
NICK: It’s for your own good.
ME: How, precisely?
NICK: So that you don’t feel bad about yourself, and start thinking, and … well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Strange Conversations: The Song Lyric Edition

Posted 1309 days ago in by Catriona

ME: I have no idea what he’s singing.
NICK: I’m sure it’s about his tax return.
ME: Yes, but you thought the sun was a truck that brought you beer.
NICK: And I still do.

Lifeline Bookfest 2011 (January)

Posted 1310 days ago in by Catriona

Two months ago, Lifeline held their January Bookfest. It was shortly after the city drowned, and shortly before the months began haring past as though they’d made a bet to see how fast they could get to 2012.

I roused sufficient energy to write my name and the date in these, and to enter them all in Delicious Library. But since then, these books have sat in an increasingly unsteady pile under my desk, on the grounds that they were going to be blogged about one day.

Today is that day.

They’ve all been banished to various shelves around the house, some scientifically, some on the grounds that “Eh, you fit there. That’s good enough.” So now is the time to show you all how terribly restrained I was this year.

I’m always delighted to find a new Trollope, though rarely surprised, since the man wrote, at a conservative estimate, 1.5 million novels. This is one I’ve never read, and (in all honesty) won’t be reading any time soon. But I like to have them on my shelves for that day when I do feel like an orgy of mid-Victorian prose.

And two Chalet School books! One feels like a victory, so this feels like—is there something better than a victory? A rout, maybe?—this feels like a rout. And they’re early ones, too: when the school was still in Austria and we hadn’t moved on to the second generation of Chalet School girls. Sadly, one (A United Chalet School) is one of those annoying volumes that Armada produced where they only published half the novel, and coyly invited you to buy the second half separately.

Sods.

The L.M. Montgomery is the second of these little paperback collections of short stories that I’ve found at the Lifeline BookFest. Short stories aren’t really my cup of tea, but I’m a completionist at heart (or a completist? I can’t remember which Tim suggested last time he corrected my misuse of this word), and they’re worth having for that sake alone. But they also tempt me to pen a journal article on Montgomery’s cannibalism of her own early prose for her novels. Maybe one day I’ll get around to that.

Paula Danziger is someone about whose presence on my shelves I’m a little ambivalent. (Now, there’s some complicated syntax for you.) I loved the books when I was a pre-teen, but, then, I also loved Judy Blume, and I’ve somehow stopped myself from re-buying those. And, while they’re charming and make me want to live in Woodstock, Danziger’s books are pretty light reading when you’re (ahem) 34.

So why do I buy them when I see them? I don’t really know. I justify them on the grounds that they’re only tiny volumes, and I sometimes get a blog post out of them. But I wonder if that’s enough, when the bookcases are groaning and creaking all over the house.

The Rip Van Winkle, though: I was never leaving that behind. It’s one of a collection of classic children’s literature in facsimile reprints. I have about a dozen of them (maybe less) and I can never, ever resist them.

The Dana Girls mystery (Secret of the Swiss Chalet) was, as it turns out, a book I really didn’t need to buy.

(I already own it. Don’t tell Nick.)

The Scott Westerfeld is another series that I’ve shamefully not read. But I have Uglies on my shelf, and I wasn’t leaving Pretties there to be snatched up by someone who might, you know, read it or something.

The Diana Wynne Joneses, though, are my greatest triumph of this sale. I don’t own either of them already, and it’s a rare day these days that I find a secondhand Diana Wynne Jones book that I don’t already own. I had to banish the His Dark Materials trilogy to the spare room to make room for these on what is now a dedicated Diana Wynne Jones shelf, and I still can’t fit on Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Still, if anyone deserves a dedicated shelf, it’s Diana Wynne Jones.

The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants is one of the mystery books of this sale: I don’t really know why I bought it, except that I always like to make my own mind up about hit books, and I don’t see why I can’t still do that here, even if I am about ten years behind the times. Still, Nick was relieved when I told him I’d decided to put the three sequels back.

Speaking of books I’ve shamefully never read, I’ve never read From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler. But now I own it, I can pretend I’ve read it, even if I don’t quite get around to it yet. I won’t pretend to have read it by reading the synopsis on Wikipedia, though. (That’s how I finished the Vampire Academy series, after the books got longer and my patience got shorter.)

Half the books in this pile have some degree of familiarity: The Worst Witch (really, far too young for me these days, but how charming!), Susan Cooper’s King of Shadows (never read it, but The Dark is Rising haunted my childhood, flanked by Lloyd Alexander and Alan Garner), Peter Pan (which I already own, but which comes with Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, which I don’t own), Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (which joins If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller and The Literature Machine in a corner of the study).

And then there’s Michael Molloy. I’ve bought a number of his books lately, and haven’t read a single one. If I read one and think it’s rubbish, I’m going to be really annoyed.

And, finally, some more speculative buys (except for the Charlaine Harris short stories). Celadine, for example, which is both an unknown quality and the sequel to a book i don’t own. And another Michael Molloy, but how beautiful is that artwork? I call all books of this nature “research”, though I doubt whether my novel will ever see the light of day again. (Poor lovely.) But the Richard Newsome really is research, because he was the inaugural winner of a prize that my fiction is (if it were a bit better) eligible for, and I wish to figuratively pick his brains. To be honest, it doesn’t look like my sort of thing, but I’ll give it a go.

When I was showing Nick my purchases that afternoon (a post-BookFest tradition), he audibly gasped when I showed him the Fu Manchu Omnibus. Sure, it’s horrifically racist by modern standards, though very much of its time. But the man happily watches and roars with laughter over The Talons of Weng-Chiang. And how can you have Li H’sen Chang without Fu Manchu?

I told him it was more than flesh and blood could stand, good Victorian scholar and feverish consumer of popular culture that I am, to leave that beautiful book behind me on a trestle table and just walk away.

Little Treasures: Part Three

Posted 1310 days ago in by Catriona

Once we’d had time to look through (and swiftly re-pack) the Little Golden Books that Nick’s mother passed on to us, we rummaged through the other enormous box of books (knowing that there was at least one, if not two, more still waiting in her entranceway for us).

And that’s where we found the real treasures:

Sure, I normally prefer to read books that are slightly more in focus than this, but Asterix is Asterix, fuzzy or otherwise. And look how those books have been loved: half to death, poor darlings.

But then there are these magnificent creatures:

These are Nick’s father’s hardcover Tintin books, from the 1950s and early 1960s, and they are gorgeous, from their red cloth spines to their thick, matte pages. It’s not a complete set, but each one is a gem.

I promised Nick that these would go on a shelf, not in a box in the garage. Now it’s only a matter of deciding which books currently on the shelf will be sacrificed to make space. Whichever books draw the short straw, I hope they realise it’s nothing personal: we can’t all be vintage Tintins.

Little Treasures: Part Two

Posted 1321 days ago in by Catriona

One of the boxes that Nick’s mother passed on to us contained piles and piles of books for children in the early stages of literacy: mostly Little Golden Books, but a small number of other picture books. We have no children and so have no idea what to do with them. Back they’ll go into the box and thence to the garage. But in the meantime, I couldn’t help but boggle over the illustrations for some of them.

Some are worn by the passage of time, giving them a new, slightly disturbing ambience:

Some (why is his navel smiling at me? Why?) would have frightened child-me into never eating sentient food again:

Some are plotting to eat my brains:

Some seem to have generated a forceful if childish disapproval:

Some are beautiful:

Some have been loved too hard and still bear the scars (get it? “Bear” the scars?):

Some have a charm that is distinctly old fashioned:

Some seem to authorise cruelty to animals (and who, I’d like to know, twisted that rabbit’s head round like that?):

And some make me wonder what drugs people were on in the 1980s:

Oh, wait: I remember. Cocaine.

Little Treasures: Part One

Posted 1322 days ago in by Catriona

A couple of weeks ago, Nick’s mother unloaded boxes and boxes of Nick’s old toys and books on us, assuming (quite rightly) that it makes more sense for us to store them than for her to continue to keep stuff for a son who moved out nearly a decade ago. So our living room is currently filled with boxes of old toys, Little Golden Books, and various other items that the young Nick valued highly.

Most of it, once it’s been pulled out of the boxes and exclaimed over, will be put right back into the boxes and stored in our garage. Some, like Nick’s late grandfather’s war memorabilia (including his medals and New Zealand Air Force leather flight cap) will be stored slightly more reverently, inside the house.

But some of the items are little treasures, and will find a place in house that’s already (to be brutally honest) part secondhand bookstore and part op-shop toy department.

Most of the treasures are books, but some are toys. Some of the toys are treasures in and of themselves, like this little tin castle (previously belonging to Nick’s uncle), with its drawbridge, tiny arrow slots, and gorgeously battle-scarred walls:

But most are probably only treasures to ourselves, like this little Eternia reunion going on in the study:

(Those of you in the know will have noticed that He-Man’s battle barge has had its wings snapped off at some point. But he’s still the mightiest warrior in the universe, so don’t let that lull you into a false sense of security.)

Or the green lion, from Lion Force Voltron:

Lack of the other lions means we can’t form Voltron himself—we can only form his left arm, which is less than useful, since he was right-handed.

And then there are the new stern guardians of our living room, the Transformers:

These have been well loved indeed, to the point that there really isn’t more than meets the eye to poor Ratchet any more: he can barely sustain vehicle form, let alone transform.

But they do look rather wonderful standing in ranks on the bookshelves, flanked by Royal Albert music boxes, West German pottery, and various Warhammer figurines:

And my favourite of the treasures (apart from the little castle) has pride of place in the centre of their ranks. The greatest Decepticon of them all: Starscream.

Oh, Starscream. Who could not love you, what with the way you used to tell Megatron to his face that you were just waiting for him to screw up, so you could take control of the Decepticons? And then he did! And you took command of the Decepticons. Sure, he came back as Galvatron and obliterated you, but up until then, you were doing really well for yourself.

Oh, Starscream. I do love you.

Sometimes, I look at the Transformers on my bookshelves, He-Man in the study, Paddington Bear on the DVD stand, and I think, “Maybe I should decorate my house like a grown up?”

Then I realise that it’s 2011. Displaying toys made in 1985 is how I know I’m a grown-up.

I, For One, Welcome Our New Rat Overlords

Posted 1323 days ago in by Catriona

Nobody panic, but I think the rats have taken charge:

They have the power now.

Christmas Books

Posted 1329 days ago in by Catriona

With all the natural disasters, exploding laptop batteries, exploding fridges, and other generalised excitement that this year has thus far flung in our faces, I never did have a chance to post about my exciting little pile of Christmas books.

Last year, I don’t think I received a single book for Christmas. This year, there were books ahoy, and then I went and bought myself more books.

Behold!

Hmm. Actually, the only one of those that’s a Christmas book is Struwwelpeter, which my mother bought me for reasons that are probably best known only to her. (Though it is rather a lovely little facsimile edition. Since she didn’t buy me any grooming products, I probably shouldn’t really take it personally.)

The others are all books I bought myself for various reasons—mostly because I have a compulsion to buy books.

The George Orwell books are all for my forthcoming study guide to Animal Farm (and, by the way, if you know a high-school student who’s having trouble coming to terms with the complexity of Orwell’s anti-totalitarian novella, do I have the book for you!), and the Alberto Manguel is something I’ve been meaning to read for years (though I imagine my main reaction will be a deep and life-altering state of jealousy, since I don’t actually own a barn in the French countryside that I can transform into the perfect library. Why? Why is this something that it denied to me? Is it because I don’t live in France?).

But this next batch totally contains Christmas books!

Well, one Christmas book. Nick bought me one of the Patricia Wredes: The Thirteenth Child. Then I bought myself two more Patricia Wredes at Galaxy Bookshop, and this sent Nick into a post-Christmas meltdown, because he’d apparently ticked the wrong book off his “List of things Treena has mentioned in passing that she’d quite like for Christmas” and was convinced I was buying a book I already had.

Needless to say, I was right and he was wrong. And it may be needless to say that, but I tend to say it quite often anyway.

Oh, and the Salman Rushdie? That’s the sequel to Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which remains one of my favourite books and one that delights me every time I read it. Luka and the Fire of Life is not, to my mind, quite as sparkling and gorgeous and caustic as Haroun, but I enjoyed it immensely.

Stitch & Bitch was a Christmas present from my sister, along with a pile of delicious (and extremely luxurious) hand-dyed Japanese wool, which I’m currently knitting into two shawls, in the hopes that this will somehow bring about a nice, cool, entirely non-Brisbaney winter.

A sort of wool-based cargo cult, if you like.

And the graphic novels are also from Nick (bless him! Now I have the bridge between the last time I bought a Jack of Fables trade and when I started buying them in the monthly issues. So far, the monthly issues were just proliferating unread on my bookshelf, because I was missing an entire arc and, as fast as Jack of Fables moves, that’s the equivalent of missing half a season of Deadwood and still thinking you can follow Al Swearengen’s machiavellian plotting).

He also bought me the Michael A. Stackpole, At the Queen’s Command. Apparently (for no, I have not yet read it), it’s alternate history, set during the American Revolutionary War.

I said, “Oh, good! I do hope we win this time.”

Strange Conversations: Part Three Hundred and Forty-Seven

Posted 1329 days ago in by Catriona

ME: I must be such a trial.
NICK: No, you’re not. You’re the opposite of a trial. A test. No. No, wait! Those are the same things, aren’t they?

The Sheer Horror of 1920s' School Stories

Posted 1334 days ago in by Catriona

Part of the fun of reading old books is finding the unconscious traces of old social, economic, even sartorial practices—like reading a nineteenth-century novel and discovering that train timetables were much more malleable than they are today. As long as you’re not reading this on a railway platform while waiting for a train that’s thirty-five minutes late, this is all great fun.

Then sometimes you read something that reminds you that our (over-inclusive pronoun warning!) ancestors were, well, jerks.

Like these passages from Elinor M. Brent Dyer’s The Rivals of the Chalet School (1929), in which another English headmistress has the temerity to bring her school to the banks of the Tiern See, in the Austrian Tyrol, inspiring a seemingly unnecessary degree of homicidal insanity from the pupils of the incumbent Chalet School.

Cornelia Flower, another American child, jumped to her feet. ‘Let’s swear a feud against them,’ she said.

‘Mademoiselle said we weren’t to,’ objected Margia.

‘Well, call ourselves the Ku-Klux-Klan, and then it isn’t a feud,’ put in Evadne. ‘it’s fighting for our right—and things.’

Margia knew very well that it would mean a feud only under another name, but she easily stifled the voice of her conscience, and nodded. ‘It seems an idea. What can we do? What did the American Ku-Klux-Klan do?’ (p.50).

You … what?

But, wait! Margia clearly doesn’t know what the Ku-Klux-Klan do. She doesn’t even know that the second wave of the Klan is peaking in the very 1920s in which she is speaking, rather than being the historical entity that she seems to think it is. So maybe we should cut her some slack. Let’s wait and see what she thinks after she reads about the Klan in that well-known and unbiased historical text, Elsie’s Motherhood (1876), fourth in the long list of Martha Finley’s rather dreary Elsie Dinsmore books.

The account of the doings of that far-famed ‘Klan’ as given in Elsie’s Motherhood thrilled them all, though they sometimes stumbled over the long words used and were bothered by the very elaborate style of the book.

‘Cut all that,’ commanded Margia when the reader came to any preachy bits. ‘Get on to the fun.’ (p.52)

It’s true, the ‘preachy bits’ really slow down the otherwise exciting record of homicidal xenophobia.

After Kaffee und Kuchen, they returned to their amusement, and by the time the bell rang for them to go upstairs and change for the evening, they knew all they wanted about the original Ku-Klux-Klan.

‘Only we can’t go round beating people or sticking up coffins against their back-doors,’ said Margia regretfully.

‘No; but it gives us a general idea of what they did,’ said Evadne. (pp. 52-53)

You … what?

I’ll tell you something, Margia. With an attitude like that, there’s an organisation coming your way in the next decade that you’re going to just love.

(All quotes from the 1952 Australian Dymock’s edition of the text.)

(For the record, Finley’s book doesn’t present the main characters as sympathising with the Klan, nor does it suggest that the Klan was a good or a necessary force during the post-war Restoration. So the blame is more on the schoolgirls themselves than on poor, dreary, pious Elsie Dinsmore.)

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