by Catriona Mills

Articles in “Books”

Yet More Random Bookshelf Weirdness

Posted 25 September 2008 in by Catriona

Photographing the bookcases in the spare room brought these two books to my attention, again.

Firstly, the book I mentioned briefly in the last post: Dragonfall 5 and the Hijackers.

I think we all have the same question, here: why is that otter wearing a crown?

The blurb makes it a little clearer:

Tim and Sanchez and Old Elias dislike the planet of the Waterworld intensely; it’s cold and wet and dark, and the sea otters who live there are bossy. But the vintage spaceship, Dragonfall 5, has been hired by the sea otters to transport their Princess, and the family crew badly need the money. As if matters weren’t bad enough, just after the starship finally takes off, a strange noise comes from the hold and the Dragonfall family find themselves looking at a band of very large and unfriendly hijackers!

Oh no!

Actually, the only way this book could be cooler is if the large and unfriendly hijackers are also crown-wearing sea otters.

Then there’s this one:

In this case, the blurb doesn’t really help at all:

Moon serpents!” Astronaut Bud Barclay gasps into the microphone of his space suit. Tom Swift Jr.‘s investigation of the phenomenon reveals that the giant, writhing reptilian forms are caused by gas vapours. When Tom captures a sample of the gas in a metal flask for analysis, he shoots up from the moon’s surface into space! Through quick thinking the young scientist-inventor rescues himself and realizes that he has discovered a new powerful energy, which he calls Serpentilium.

At this time, a large railway network is in the market for an advance method of rail travel. A contract will go either to Swift Enterprises or to a rival firm, Cosmosprises—whichever designs the best super-speed train.

How Tom, using Serpentilium, develops his invention and defeats Cosmosprises’ evil attempts to win the prized contract makes exciting reading for all Tom Swift Jr, fans.

Well, it might have made exciting reading, if you hadn’t given away all the key plot points, blurb.

Mind, the back cover describes this as a “series of jet-paced Science Adventures featuring the amazing Tom Swift. Racy, exciting and futuristic—these stories are specially written for young science fiction fans.”

Racy? Really? Hmmm.

The fact that they’re “racy” does make me more inclined to read Tom Swift and His Megascope Space Prober, Tom Swift and His 3-D Telejector, and Tom Swift and The Captive Planetoid.

I imagine it’ll turn out to be much like the time I read the novelisation of the 1980 Flash Gordon film by Arthur Byron Cover and found out not only that Ming the Merciless was sleeping with his daughter, but also that Dale Arden had broken up with her boyfriend because she was tired of participating in the threesomes he insisted on.

I don’t remember that from the film.

Magical Mystery Bookshelf Tour Stage Eight: Last Stop in the Spare Room

Posted 25 September 2008 in by Catriona

I don’t know why I always feel compelled to apologise for these posts, but I shan’t this time. This ends the tour of the spare room, which means we’re on the home stretch (only the living room and the study to go! And, frankly, I’m not sure about the study.).

Plus, it will probably be another two months before I get around to another such post.

Besides, this should be a short stop, because these are mostly Nick’s books. (Warning: Robotech novelisations ahead!)

To be honest, there’s not much I can say about these first two shelves:

Because they’re almost entirely Nick’s Doctor Who New Adventures and Missing Adventures. I can’t honestly remember ever reading one of the New Adventures, though I do find the idea of the Bernice Summerfield novels (a former companion of the Doctor’s, who became the main protagonist of the series when Virgin Books lost the right to publish Doctor Who novels, after the BBC decided they wanted to publish them in-house) rather fascinating, since it’s one of the few instances of a companion being shown to have their own exciting, adventurous life after separating from the Doctor.

I did, however, read a few of the Missing Adventures: I gave up after three, if I recall correctly. (And gave up almost as quickly on Star Trek novelisations.)

I did read Christopher Bulis’s State of Change, with the sixth Doctor, Peri, and the Rani in an ancient Rome in which Cleopatra and Anthony had beaten Augustus at the Battle of Actium. Or something along those lines—I forget the details, now.

And I read Stephen Marley’s Managra (an anagram of anagram), with the fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane, but, sadly, I remember almost nothing of the plot—except that Sarah loses her memory at some point.

And I’m sure I read Paul Cornell’s Goth Opera, with the fifth Doctor and his standard companions, but it thoroughly confused me. It was a sequel to Blood Harvest, which I hadn’t read, and, though they do say you could read them independently, I’m not sure that’s the case. It did involve a vampire Nyssa, though.

And none of that is as geeky as this next shelf:

Robotech novelisations: yep, that’s geeky. (They’re not mine. Honestly.)

On the plus side, lying on its side in front of the Robotech books is one of Nick’s Dragonfall 5 books: he’s been picking these up occasionally for nostalgic reasons—apparently, he read them and loved them when he was younger.

And I probably shouldn’t be quite so snooty about Robotech since I once bought a book, also on these shelves, called Shakespearean Detectives. Apparently, it’s a sequel to a book called Shakespearean Whodunnits, which I don’t own. On the other hand, I do own one of Simon Hawke’s Shakespeare and Smythe mysteries, in which Shakespeare, oddly enough, solves mysteries in his spare time.

(I am a little embarrassed about Shakespearean Detectives, though.)

On the other hand, if anyone could tell me how I came to own a collection of Sven Birkerts’s reviews, I’d be grateful for the information. It’s not even as though it’s The Gutenberg Elegies (although I am a little sick of people suggesting that the Internet is responsible for the decline of reading, especially since the word “reading” is often so unnuanced in these debates. I mean, pornography aside, the Internet is largely a textual medium, not a visual one. But I don’t mean to start a rant here.)

At least this next shelf redeems things a little:

Look: there’s some Terry Eagleton, and Deny All Knowledge (a book of critical readings of The X-Files), and Nick’s copy of J. C. Herz’s Joystick Nation. So we’re not just a household filled to the rafters with Robotech novelisations—we do have some more serious books lying around.

The serious books just happen to be out-numbered by Robotech novelisations. And, really, doesn’t that make life more fun?

On that note, let’s play spot the Paul Cornell novel that was made into two of the better episodes from season three of Doctor Who!

Magical Mystery Bookshelf Tour Stage Seven: Now We Reach The Point of True Chaos

Posted 24 September 2008 in by Catriona

This is still the spare room, but this bookcase is overloaded to within an inch of its life. Really, I need to stop complaining about this and do something. But it’s no longer a matter of not wanting to buy any new bookcases: now I’ve genuinely run out of walls to put them against.

I could move to a bigger house, I suppose, but that seems like going too far.

I’m not serious. Really. The situation’s not that bad—but I would love a room where I could have floor-to-ceiling bookcases. With glass doors, to keep the dust down. And maybe cupboards underneath, to store magazines and so forth.

A library, basically. One day, I shall have a room in my house that I can legitimately call the library. One day.

In the meantime, I have a bookcase that’s carrying three times the load of books that it should be:

Actually, this shelf’s not so bad. (Ooh, pretend that you can’t see that collection of Walt Disney’s Annette at the back there—I genuinely have no idea why I bought those. They’re funky, though. Could they qualify as retro decorating items, do you suppose? No, didn’t think so.)

But what annoys me every time I look at this shelf is that I don’t have room for a dedicated detective-fiction bookcase. I’d really like that, because I have a fair number of mysteries (some blended with other genres, some classic), and they’re scattered all over the house: Reginald Hill here, along with Val McDermid (only the Kate Brannigan stuff, which I rather enjoy but don’t actively seek out: I stay away from the Lindsay Gordon mysteries, because they’re a little nasty for me), P. D. James on a lower shelf (I went through a P. D. James phase about a year ago, but I stopped after a while because I realised that Adam Dalgliesh inspired almost homicidal feelings in me. Once I realised that I was shouting, “Why would you propose to her, you daft twat?! She’s leaving because you’ve never even made time to have dinner with her, and you’ve only met her half a dozen times!” at the book while reading, I understood that they weren’t great for my blood pressure), Agatha Christie in the hallway along with my classic Victorian detective fiction, and poor old Rex Stout (bless you, Rex! You were the greatest of them all!) and Dorothy L. Sayers in the living room.

And that’s not even including the various one-offs and minor authors scattered around the place, or the genre-bending detective fiction, such as Simon R. Green’s Hawk and Fisher books on the next shelf down, or Glen Cook’s Garrett, P. I. series and Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy stories, which are in the hallway.

Sigh. One day. When I have my library, which I’ve just decided will have a skylight. A lead-light skylight. And one of those ladders on wheels—although Nick will never use one of those. I might need to rethink this fantasy.

But I’ve just noticed that this second shelf also has my copies of Mary Grant Bruce’s Billabong books. I don’t have a full collection—in fact, I was horrified to find out how many of them there are after I’d bought half a dozen; it was like buying a fantasy novel and then realising the cover indicates “Book One of the Twenty-Seven Book Cycle of the Mist Queen,” and thinking “Dang.” But I’d never read them, and I felt that having grown up in Australia, I should have read them.

I still haven’t read them. Naturally. But I will one day.

I like the new covers for Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series, there in the middle of the shelf under Kim Wilkins’s The Resurrectionists—that’s another book I haven’t read. I did start it, and I’ve read (and loved) the Gina Champion Mysteries (over to the left on the same shelf) because she’s an excellent writer. That’s the problem; she’s too good at writing scary stories. I read the first fifty-odd pages and decided there was no way I could use this as bedtime reading. (Actually, the first Gina Champion book, Bloodlace, terrified me, and they’re written for teenagers.) But I do mean to read the trilogy written around European folklore and, in fact, have the second one, Giants of the Frost, somewhere on this shelf.

And, hey, Garth Nix! That’s the Keys to the Kingdom series (I have the Abhorsen trilogy, in the living room), but I haven’t—surprise, surprise—read them yet. But I have a reason this time! I mean, a good reason. I bought these ones secondhand, and they only had volumes two and three: Grim Tuesday and Drowned Wednesday. So until I bother to buy the first one, Mister Monday, there’s not much point reading these two. Actually, it would probably be counter-productive.

I love the look of those Trixie Beldens, though. I think that’s a complete set: a complete set of the 1970s’ versions, anyway. I had to pick them up piecemeal, but I think I’ve found them all. And those books in front of them are the Dana Girls Mysteries, by the same “author.” Although, now I look closely, that’s only my paperback Dana Girls books. I wonder where I put the half-a-dozen 1970s’ hardbacks that I have?

Oh, who knows where anything is in this completely anarchic cataloguing system?

I see that that’s where I’ve put my Kim Harrison books, though. I was rather enjoying the first one, because the world-building was quite fascinating: essentially, when a genetically modified virus devastates the human population, the vampires, werewolves, witches, and so forth have to come forward in order to help keep basic systems operating (and thus ensure their own survival). But then I became distracted in the middle of the second one, put it down, and then never picked it up again.

I do like the titles, though: they’re all based on Westerns (in fact, I think they’re all Clint Eastwood Westerns): titles such as A Fistful of Charms and For A Few Demons More. I was rather irritated when The Outlaw Demon Wails—best title ever!—was renamed Where Demons Dare in the U. K. People in the U. K. are still going to get a joke based on The Outlaw Josey Wales, surely? I did!

Okay, this post has become far more verbose than intended. But the point of the next two photographs is to show that each of these overloaded shelves:

Also has a whole set of books behind the ones visible at the front of the shelves:

Oh, and perhaps you’d be kind enough to ignore the fact that I own four Pollyanna books, not just the original? Even though the later ones are written by different authors? I don’t quite know why I own four Pollyanna books—especially since all I can think about these days is that scene in the first League of Extraordinary Gentlemen where she points out that even though she’s been ravished by a demon, she’s determined to remain optimistic.

Seriously, though, there has to be something going on behind those books. No-one is that cheerful all the time without some reason. Perhaps she has a secret Lithium habit. Or is bonking the gardener (television has taught me that that’s a traditional way of alleviating boredom for upper-class housewives. Television can’t be wrong!). Or she has a carefully hidden gambling addiction and is over-compensating for the fact that she’s sold all the plate.

There has to be something, though.

On the other hand, now I look at exactly which books are hidden behind the front rows, I’m starting to see the benefits of double-stacking the bookcase.

I don’t intend to get rid of my David Eddings books, because they were gateway fantasy for me. (I first read them with my best friend when we stayed at her father’s house in Sydney for a week. She’d been reading them there and was on book two or three, so I started with book one, and we read through them together, pointing out the bits we especially liked.

But I don’t re-read them: I find the politics—including gender politics and racial issues, especially the fact that the crueler, evil races of this world are apparently Asian, while everyone else is happily Caucasian—questionable.

(It reminds me of when they filmed Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea for the Sci-Fi Channel and cast Shaun Ashmore as Ged. Really, you only needed to have skimmed the books to realise they were some of the least white books around! Le Guin herself rants, and quite rightly, about it here, if you haven’t come across this debate before.)

And on the shallowest level possible, I’m happier having Steven Brust and Charles Stross evident in the living room and hallway and these ones tucked away at the back of a bottom shelf in the spare room.

Magical Mystery Bookshelf Tour Stage Six: Still In The Spare Room

Posted 24 September 2008 in by Catriona

I’ve been neglecting the Magical Mystery Bookshelf Tour recently: I don’t know why. Perhaps I’m worried about boring people.

Or perhaps it’s that we’re heading into the thoroughly chaotic bookshelves, which are going to confuse people and give them a poor opinion of my organisational skills. (For the record, I labour under a combination of fairly poor spacial-organisation skills—all those years of just shoving everything under my bed, I suppose—and a partner who won’t throw anything, and I mean anything, away.)

Or perhaps it’s as simple as the fact that I’ve been busy and sick, and trying to concentrate on formal publications rather than on taking photographs of my bookshelves.

But in the rundown to mid-semester break—one more class!—I think I can spare some time for photographing my lovely, lovely books.

(Also? I love my camera. These photographs are so much clearer than the earlier ones.)

I’m not showing what’s on the top of these bookcases, because it’s old stuffed toys: not many in total, but including my childhood toy, who now looks less like the beloved companion of a young child and more like the survivor of a horrific accident that included fire and traumatic amputation—he’s homemade, and while he once had little denim boots, they were made to cover his original red-felt boots, which wore away. Since his denim boots have worn away as well, he now has what look like mangled stumps on the ends of his legs, complete with dangling red strands of felt. Poor thing: I led him a hell of a life, I think. He came everywhere. And was frequently left behind, as well. I think he’s earned a nice, quiet retirement on top of a bookshelf in my spare room.

This bookshelf, though, has largely been made over to Nick’s books. Nick, being a science-fiction geek and artist, has an enormous collection of tall hardbacks—and I’m quite pleased about that, frankly, because modern bookshelves aren’t really constructed to take ordinary books. It seems to me that if you want bookshelves that will take standard paperbacks/those slightly larger paperbacks we get now/trade paperbacks, you actually have to make one yourself.

And if you do buy them, and deal with these absurdly large shelves, then the temptation is to cram more and more books on top of the existing books, to fill up the gaps—as you’ll see on a slightly lower shelf.

Actually, I probably didn’t need to mention that these are mostly Nick’s books: the fact that one of them is called The Cult of Mac probably gives it away. And, mind, he bought that book before he got his iPhone, which is the point at which he really drank the Kool-Aid. Before that, he spent so much time with his iMac that I used to called it his iMistress, but now—now it might actually be time for deprogramming.

(I kid, honey. Now, go with the nice man.)

But on these shelves you can really see the chaos that is my idea of organising bookshelves. I can see there my Beverly Cleary (Ramona! Ramona used to annoy me, somewhat—she was a brat—but they were books that showed clearly, and without the abject sentiment of, say, Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, how a family could have two working parents and yet struggle financially, often in quite minor ways, it seemed, that nevertheless added up to serious difficulties. I don’t remember that being prevalent in the other fiction that I read at the time.)

I can also see some Colin Watson (one of the Inspector Purbright mysteries, not a Lucy Teatime novel) and some E. Nesbit on the far left (so that’s where I put those! I was wondering), but behind those is an entire shelf of books that hasn’t seen the light of days in years, probably. No wonder I keep forgetting what I have and rebuying at book sales.

But it’s this last shelf that really, to me, encapsulates one of the problems with spending thirteen years in academia: we just generate so much paper.

The homogenous pile of paper on the left is all the course readers that Nick and I have required either as students ourselves or for the various courses that we’ve taught over the years. We can’t bring ourselves to throw them away, because there’s valuable material in there: photocopies of articles and books chapters, and even some primary texts, that we’d otherwise have to go and gather again if we ever need to re-consult them.

But the truth is that, without some sort of indexing project, we tend to forget what’s in there. And so we never do consult them. But we won’t throw them out, either. The same is true of the files on my desk and on the various bookshelves in the study and for the archive boxes full of the side effects of the research process that we both have stored under our desks.

Of course, the fact that I’m someone to whom reading is roughly analogous to breathing and who prefers to buy than to borrow books doesn’t help matters.

But I’d be remiss to leave this bookcase without pointing out that it is perhaps the geekiest case in the house.

Not only is this where we store RPG manuals (and, sadly, those White Wolf books are mine, though Nick’s the one who bought the Dungeons and Dragons set at an Alumni booksale, despite the fact that we don’t play that version of D&D):

But Nick’s Doctor Who books themselves take up half a shelf.

I’m not even going to go into the manga books. Really, how many books on how to draw robots (and alluring manga-style women) does one man need?

Intending to Read

Posted 16 September 2008 in by Catriona

I’ve been marking, marking, marking—first fifty first-year assignments and now twenty second-year assignments—all while still shaking off a cold that’s given me a hacking cough and an interestingly husky voice. I suppose I could start a second career as a lounge singer, if I never manage to shake off this cold.

I’m really hanging out, at this stage, for the mid-semester break. I’m exhausted and I’m sure my students must be. But that’s still nearly a fortnight away.

So I haven’t had any energy for blogging the last couple of days—though I do feel guilty about that—and I haven’t had much time for reading, either.

I know things are in dire straits when I don’t have time for reading.

But I’ve been intending to read. So the house is littered with the various books that I’ve either rapidly skimmed through (because I’ve read them before, and they’re an easy way to escape) or that I’m intending to read, but haven’t managed to get to.

I’m not counting The Little, Brown Handbook over on the back of the other sofa, because I haven’t been reading that for pleasure.

But next to me I have a Georgette Heyer, because she’s light and easy, meaning I can dash through a chapter as a relaxing activity before sleep. No reading before sleep means a disrupted night, sadly.

And on the back of this sofa, I have five Diana Wynne Jones books: The Year of the Griffin (because I managed to get through the prequel, The Dark Lord of Derkholm, last week), Charmed Life, Mixed Magics, Howl’s Moving Castle (man, I love that book), and Conrad’s Fate.

I did manage to read Conrad’s Fate over the weekend—I’ve owned it for years—in between marking, and thought I’d read through the rest of the Chrestomanci books. Instead, they keep falling on my head when I’m watching television.

And the sequel to Howl’s Moving Castle, Castle in the Air, is on the washstand in the breakfast nook.

There are also two more of Diana Wynne Jones’s books on the bedhead: Black Maria, which I’ve only read once and want to re-read, and The Pinhoe Egg, her most recent one. I’m partway through that one, but it’s not proving very good bedtime reading, because I’m enjoying it too much. I keep wanting to read more, and I’m not getting the relaxation that bed reading should provide.

(I also have Jacqueline Rose’s The Haunting of Sylvia Plath on the bedhead: I read that as an undergraduate—in Honours year, I think, which would make it a decade ago—and I don’t think I was clever enough then to appreciate it. But I’m too tired at the moment to do justice to it. So it’s optimistically open about three pages into the introduction. I do mean, one day, to read all the main biographies back to back, because the difficulties of writing biographies of Plath fascinate me. But that’s a project for another time.)

Also on the bedhead is Garth Nix’s Sabriel. Now I have read that before and I loved it; I enjoyed it so much that, even though I own both the sequels, I couldn’t bring myself to read the second one, Lirael, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to put it down, and I was supposed to be completing my Masters. Or my Ph.D.—I forget which one, now. The same problem is coming up now: I really want to re-read Sabriel, but I know I can’t spare that much time and that, once again, I’ll have to ignore Lirael. Maybe I should designate those as my Christmas reading? After all, I made it all the way through Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell a couple of Christmases ago. Lirael shouldn’t be a challenge.

I also have a handful of books about late-Victorian detective fiction lying around, for a journal article that I was writing against the clock and ended up having to abandon when the the cold really took hold. I’ll write it up for another journal at some point, and make a better thing of it, but abandoning it did feel like failure.

So it’s not that I’m lacking the inclination to read. Or the means.

And I’m not lacking the inclination to blog. Or the means, I suppose.

For the first time in, I think, my life, I seem to be too tired to read properly.

It’s a tragedy.

I blame this horrible cold.

But I’m going to have to do something about this, before the entire basis for my sense of self—which is to say, “I read, therefore I am”—crumbles.

I suppose finishing The Pinhoe Egg would be a good start.

Humiliation, Round Four: The Results

Posted 8 September 2008 in by Catriona

And the slightly belated results for this round of Humiliation are in. Finally, I am the most humiliated!

Catriona, Dune: 4 points
Tim, Little Women: 3 points
Leigh, The Wind in the Willows: 3 points
Nick, The Eyre Affair: 3 points
Wendy, Vanity Fair: 2 points
Matt, Gulliver’s Travels: 2 points
John, The Grapes of Wrath: 1 point (hardly humiliated at all, really)

I would like to take this opportunity, though, to point out that everyone who has any interest in books at all should read The Eyre Affair, because it’s awesome.

Humiliation, Round Four: The Voting

Posted 6 September 2008 in by Catriona

Apologies for the lateness of this posting. But now I’ve helped slay the dragon, this seems like the logical next step.

The nominations for this round are as follows:

I have never read Frank Herbert’s Dune.
John has never read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.
Tim has never read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.
Wendy has never read William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.
Leigh has never read Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows.
Nick has never read Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair.
Matt has never read Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

Voting, as always in the comments thread below.

Lost in Austen

Posted 5 September 2008 in by Catriona

Thanks to Laura, who commented on this post about Jane Austen sequels, I’ve now found out about this:

Lost in Austen.

According to Wikipedia—and why wouldn’t we believe what Wikipedia says?—it’s a four-part series about an Austen fan who switches places with Elizabeth Bennet via a magical door in the former’s bathroom.


I honestly don’t think my life could have been complete had I never found out about this. Sure, I may have had professional success, perhaps children, a successful personal relationship, many joys—but there would have been an aching hole and, since this scenario depends on me never finding out about Lost in Austen, I would never have known why that hole was there.

Okay, that was marking-induced, semi-hysterical hyperbole. (And let that be a lesson to you, Nick: he tried to claim earlier that “I don’t like cushions” was hyperbole, instead of a negative comment on my decorating abilities.)

But, hyperbole aside, I would very much like to see this programme.

I mentioned it to Nick, and his response was “That looks as though it would be rather fun”—whereupon I stared at him incredulously for about five minutes before exclaiming, “Have you seen my Jasper Fforde novels?”

It also stars Jemima Rooper, whom Nick and I always refer to as “the lesbian ghost,” which I’m sure is so discriminatory a comment that we could be sued in a number of countries. But, though we’ve seen her in a few things—and, unexpectedly, saw her topless in the second part of Perfect Day recently—we always remember her as Cassie’s dead girlfriend in Hex.

I’ll be honest: I don’t know much more about this programme than that the general synopsis hits some primal, geeky, nineteenth-century fiction and fantasy-freak fan-girl button at the base of my spine, making it impossible for me not to watch it.

(I’m also mildly surprised that everyone is thinking “Pride and Prejudice meets Life on Mars“ when I’m thinking “Wasn’t there a sub-plot in a later Thursday Next novel where they ran Pride and Prejudice as a Big-Brother-style reality-TV show?”)

But if you want the opinions of people who know much more about both Austen and the programme than I do, the Austen Blog has been keeping an eye on it, and the fabulous John Sutherland has a piece in the equally wonderful Guardian.

I’m going to watch it regardless.

Humiliation, Round Four: The Nominations

Posted 4 September 2008 in by Catriona

I think, in the wake of Classic Books That Must Be Read!!!, that it’s time for another round of Humiliation.

Same rules as before: in the comments thread below, nominate a book that you haven’t read, but that you think everyone else has.

Nominations need to be in by 9 a.m. Saturday morning (6th of September).

Once all the nominations are in, I’ll open a separate thread for voting. As always, you’ll receive one point per person who has read your nominated book.

The winner in this good-natured game is the most humiliated!

Classic Books That Must Be Read!!!

Posted 3 September 2008 in by Catriona

When we were in high school, a friend and I put together a list of “Classic Books That Must Be Read!!!”—sadly, complete with the three exclamation marks.

I found it this evening, in—and I’m embarrassed to admit this—a pseudo-hatbox with cherubs printed on it. (In my defense, I bought it when I was much younger and didn’t have any taste.)

There are seventy-five books on the list, so perhaps it’s not the best idea to transcribe the entire list here.

I notice I haven’t read all seventy-five, though. Frankly, there are some on the list that I have no intention of reading and some that I have read but wish I hadn’t.

I haven’t read Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which comes in at the bottom of the list because we’d clearly forgotten Edward Albee’s name. (Most of the books are alphabetical by the author’s last name). On the other hand, I have read Pollyanna—and have no idea how that made it on to the list. Certainly, it’s a classic children’s book, but it’s also thoroughly irritating. Nevertheless, I’ve read it, and there were two advantages: I was able to spend eighteen months making fun of it when I taught an Academic Research course, and it also gave me a good giggle in volume one of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

I have never read Heidi, which turns up just above Pollyanna—I don’t think there’s much likelihood of my reading Heidi at my age. (On the other hand, I do own a copy of Swiss Family Robinson, which is also on the list, and I fully intend to read that at some point.) But, to balance that, I have read King Solomon’s Mines, which was less racist than I had anticipated (while still being rather racist) but no less sexist.

I’ve never read Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, and I do regret that. I don’t regret it much, mind, because I still have time to read it. And, on the other hand, I’ve never read Black Beauty—at least, I’m fairly sure I haven’t—and I consider that a plus.

(What is it about children’s books and general cruelty to animals? Watership Down was devastating and as for Colin Thiele, I think he must have killed a dog off in every single book he ever wrote. Was he badly bitten as a child? That’s the only explanation I can think of.)

Oddly enough, I seem to have ticked Brideshead Revisited off the list, and I have no memory whatsoever of ever reading that book. I remember reading The Loved One for school: I adored it, but I was the only one who did. And I have a copy of Scoop that I’m saving for when I have a free afternoon. But I have no memory of Brideshead Revisited—except that I remember Sebastian’s bear is called Aloyisus. Is that sufficient cause for claiming I’ve read it?

I notice we’ve put Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoyevsky down without specifying particular works. Perhaps we intended to read all of them? Well, Dickens only has fourteen novels, if you don’t count the Christmas novellas and the incomplete Edwin Drood. I’ve certainly read some of them, and really should read the rest. I might save The Old Curiosity Shop for when I need a good laugh. But I don’t know if I’m ever going to get to Notes from Underground, Crime and Punishment, or The Brothers Karamazov.

(Confession: I have read none of the great Russian works. Not even Anna Karenina. I know I should, and I will. But as of now: not one. I have read a number of Boris Akunin crime novels, though, so I’m not without some Russian novels under my belt.)

I’ll freely admit that I’ve never read Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, though my mother keeps recommending it. Nor have I read Frank Herbert’s Dune, which would probably be a good candidate for a future round of Humiliation. I did try to read Dune, but I just couldn’t manage it.

I also note that we’ve added “Lawrence of Arabia,” apparently under the illusion that that was the book title rather than the author. Either way, I don’t think I’ll regret it much if I never read The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

On the plus side, I have finally read The Great Gatsby—but only because I had to. And I have read Heart of Darkness, Paradise Lost, and The Three Musketeers.

I suspect that this is now less of a reading list and more of a time capsule. I have no intention of working my way through many of these items, though I think that, now, more are read than unread.

I wonder, too, whether we consulted other people when we put this list together—I don’t recall whether someone else recommended Dostoyevsky or whether that was our pretentious teenage selves talking.

It’s nice to have this list, and to see what we thought were the Classic Books That Must Be Read!!!

But I don’t think it’ll be keeping it near me, to cross items off as I go.

I’ve read many books over the years, generally at the expense of doing all the other things that you’re supposed to do to “get a life.”

I see no reason why I shouldn’t read many more in the years to come.

But I doubt any of them will be Heidi.

We'll Miss You, Pauline Baynes

Posted 2 September 2008 in by Catriona

I can’t believe that I only found out today that illustrator Pauline Baynes died a month ago.

But it’s fitting, with my current re-reading of the Narnia books, that I should find this out today.

Baynes didn’t only illustrate Narnia, of course. She was a favoured illustrator of Tolkien’s work and her illustrations appear on nearly every Puffin children’s fantasy book produced in the 1970s, as in this edition of one of Mary Norton’s later Borrower books:

Or this one of George Macdonald’s lovely The Princess and Curdie, the sequel to The Princess and the Goblin:

I actively seek out editions with Pauline Baynes illustrations, so central is she to the ideas about what fantasy should look like that I absorbed in my childhood.

But she is best known, perhaps, for her Narnia work. I know I’ve been carrying around these full-colour images from a commemorative calendar since about 1991.

We’ll miss you, Pauline Baynes.

Lessons I Have Learned From Reading C. S. Lewis's Narnia Books

Posted 2 September 2008 in by Catriona

Since books taught me all I needed to know about navigating my way through girls’ boarding schools, especially if they exist in the 1930s, I assumed that reading the Narnia books would give me the necessary information to become royalty in an imaginary universe—or at least to rule wisely, once that state of being comes about.

If I never unexpectedly become High Queen of a fantasy kingdom (and if that’s the case, I’ll be rather annoyed, frankly), at least I’ll have grasped the following important points:

1. Wardrobes are inherently untrustworthy. Not only do they sometimes contain fantasy kingdoms, which is confusing if you’re only trying to locate your winter clothes, but they also sometimes don’t contain fantasy kingdoms.

I know! It seems unfair to me, too.

In fact, sometimes the same wardrobe can randomly switch in a matter of moments between being a magical gateway to another kingdom and a space-wasting repository for clothes that, let’s face it, I’ll never wear again.

This has taught me two things.

Firstly, if someone walks in on you while you’re trying to see if your wardrobe is the magic kind, it can be very embarrassing. Especially if you’re in your twenties at the time.

Secondly, it’s safer just to keep your clothes in random piles on the floor, and save yourself the heartache.

2. Bears are stupid. So are giants. Giant stupidity is worse, however; giants are prone to bursting out of the woods at completely the wrong point during a battle, causing horrific casualties to their own side.

At least the worst a bear will do is suck on its own paws when it’s supposed to be acting as a marshall during your duel with a usurper. This will, necessarily, make the entire army look gormless, but it probably won’t be fatal.

(Except perhaps to the bear, depending on whether you’re a beneficent monarch or not.)

3. Spending your childhood and much of your adult life as rulers of a fantasy kingdom and then unexpectedly finding yourself falling out of a wardrobe back into your adolescence in 1940s’ England presents no problems at all for your mental health.

You won’t find it difficult to head back to boarding school when you’ve been accustomed to subduing giants on your northern border or partaking in tournaments in the Lone Islands.

You won’t end up in trouble from shouting “Uncover before your queen, knave!” to people whom you pass in the street.

You won’t have any trouble whatsoever reconciling the fact that you’ve lived several extra decades and are now a child again, despite the fact that you remember those decades in sharp detail, right down to the specific occasion on which you lost one of your chessmen while playing in the orchard outside your castle.

Clearly, anyone who suffers a psychotic break under such trifling circumstances is not fit to be a king or queen, anyway.

4. Kissing a badger is not a girlish thing to do if you’re a king. (Or, presumably, a girl.)

This dictate refers specifically to a kingly salute to the badger’s forehead. The books are rather silent on whether snogging a badger is a girlish thing to do.

(Note: this blog does not recommend snogging badgers. In fact, underlying every entry on this blog, no matter how far removed the subject matter may seem, is a strong recommendation not to try and snog a badger.)

5. Foreigners can’t be trusted, especially if they dye their beards scarlet.

The problem is that you can’t always tell which people are the foreigners (unless they dye their beards scarlet).

Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve don’t count as foreigners, to begin with. But the Telmarines—who are as human as anyone, being descended from pirates who happened to find their way through a gap in reality—do count as foreigners. At least, the bad ones do. And no-one ever explains whether the people from Archenland are also Telmarines, or where the Calormenes come from.

At this point, it’s often easier to give up and just stick to trusting badgers.

6. Bears that have lived on honey are fruit are apparently delicious, whereas bears that are meat-eaters taste rather revolting.

You’ll have to trust the books on this one, since I have no intention of attempting to eat a bear (for, oh, so many reasons. I mean, have you seen a bear? They’re enormous!).

7. But the most important lesson is this: if you’re too interested in boys and nylons, you’ll never be allowed back to Narnia, even if you die in a railway accident.

I understand the embargo on boys (although I’m not sure if the embargo applies to both genders, or whether the embargo also applied to girls) but I’ve never really understood what’s so sinful about tights.

Still, better safe (and cold in winter) than sorry, eh?



Recent comments

Monthly Archive