by Catriona Mills

Articles in “Reading”

Feminist Literary Criticism From the Pen Of L. M. Montgomery

Posted 31 October 2008 in by Catriona

From Emily’s diary:

We have The Idylls of the King in English class this term. I like some things in them, but I despise Tennyson’s Arthur. If I had been Guinevere I’d have boxed his ears—but I wouldn’t have been unfaithful to him for Lancelot, who was just as odious in a different way. As for Geraint, if I had been Enid I’d have bitten him. These ‘patient Griseldas’ deserve all they get.

L. M. Montgomery’s Emily Climbs (1925), Angus and Robertson, 1981. 228.

Well, I’m with you, Emily—except that I dislike the term “deserve all they get” almost as much as I despise the phrase “she had it coming.”

But I’m with you on the biting front, since Geraint, in Tennyson’s version, does the following things:

  • sets Enid a test involving her willingness to wear her poorest dress for her trip to Camelot: they marry when she ‘passes’ the test.
  • immediately assumes that she is being unfaithful when she worries that his attention to her is causing him to ignore his responsibilities.
  • keeps her with him constantly on his travels but refuses to speak to her or to listen when she speaks—including becoming infuriated with her when she warns him of ambushes.
  • kills so many bandits that he has Enid herding a growing number of horses while he still won’t speak a word to her.
  • only believes in her fidelity when he hears the sounds of her being beaten by another man, the Earl Doorm, for refusing to marry him.

Oh, yes: someone’s a candidate for biting.

I understand Tennyson is largely basing this version on the events of “Geraint and Enid” from The Mabinogion, but presumably the protagonist in that also needed biting.

Tennyson, of course, is also a product of his time, and is drawing on such Victorian stereotypes of patient, uncomplaining wives as the Conventry Patmore-inspired “angel in the house.”

Compare, for example, Enid’s tramping around in the wake of her sulking husband with the advice given to a correspondent who signs herself “Hopeless Polly.” Writing what sounds like a desperate letter to The London Journal (which didn’t republish the original letter) in 1863, she is met with the response that “[i]t is a sad case, but the old story of a drunken husband and a patient, meek, and enduring wife. Make another effort, and if that fails, another, and another after that” (cited in Andrew King’s The London Journal, 1845-83: Periodicals, Production and Gender, Ashgate, 2004. 203).

Or you could bite him.

So, no, I don’t have much patience with chivalric romances, always excluding the perpetually joyous passage in Chretien de Troyes’s “The Knight of the Cart” in which Lancelot, trying to keep in sight the window from which Guinevere is watching him, to draw inspiration from her face, tries to fight with his back to his opponent:

When Lancelot heard his name, he turned around promptly. And when he did so, up in the tower galleries he saw seated the one he most desired to see in the entire world. From the moment he caught sight of her, he did not turn or take his eyes or his face from her, but defended himself from the back. Meleagant pursued him as closely as he was able, pleased at the thought that his enemy could never now withstand him.

The maiden then again shouted from the window. “Oh Lancelot, how can you act so foolishly? You once were the epitome of all valor and excellence. I do not think or believe God ever made a knight equal to you in courage and renown. Now we see you at such a loss. Turn round to the other side where you may always see this tower. Sight of it will help you.”

Lancelot was so ashamed and disgusted that he despised himself. He knew well, as did all the men and women there, that he had been receiving the worst of the combat for some time.

From Chretien de Troyes’s “The Knight of the Cart.” In The Complete Romances of Chretien de Troyes. Trans. David Staines. Indiana UP, 1993. 215.

You prat, Lancelot.

Nor do I care for the type of mainstream Victorian texts that position women as helpless, fragile flowers.

Thankfully, many Victorian texts are radical on the subject of gender roles, including many of the canonical works.

Tennyson, though, is not much of a feminist.

L. M. Montgomery, on the other hand, had a broader approach to women’s intelligence and desire to be financially independent than is evident simply in Anne’s later life.

Much as I love Anne of Green Gables and think it may be Montgomery’s most accomplished novel, I remain unconvinced that it is her most interesting.

Conversation With A Geek

Posted 29 October 2008 in by Catriona

NICK: I’ve discovered a new way to read the old classics.
ME: The what?
NICK: The old classics.
ME: I don’t know what you mean by that.
NICK: You know—books written more than three years ago.
ME: Ah. So, “the classics,” then.
NICK: Yes.
ME: How, then?
NICK: An iPhone app.
ME: Right.
ME: But it’s not as though you needed an easier way—they’re scattered all over the house!
NICK: Yes, but if it’s on a computer, it’s more interesting.


Posted 27 October 2008 in by Catriona

I keep coming across the phrase “kittle-cattle.”

I remember seeing it in Anne of the Island, the fourth Anne book, in which Anne attends Redmond College to gain her B. A. (before marrying a country doctor, having seven children, and never using her education again): when Anne publishes her first piece of fiction, her housemate describes authors as “kittle-cattle.”

I came across it again in Dorothy L. Sayers’s Murder Must Advertise, when Wimsey intends to use it in a margarine advertisement, but the account manager tells him he can’t call the customers “cows.” (Or was that another advertisement? Was the “kittle-cattle” slogan the one where the margarine manager was obscurely worried that it was “Scottish”? I can’t recall now, and it’s too early to look it up.)

And I’ve just come across it again in a Georgette Heyer murder mystery (which I’m re-reading, because I’m strangely exhausted and can’t concentrate on new fiction for my late night reading).

It’s never occurred to me to actually look up what the phrase means, until I read it in Heyer this morning and thought, “Sod it. I have no idea what that phrase means. Where’s my Brewer’s hiding?”

Apparently, though, Brewer’s can’t help me. I’ve looked under “kittle” and I’ve looked under “cattle”—given the book’s odd indexing system—and I can’t see anything.

It’s not like Brewer’s to let me down—except on the indexing front.

It’s even rarer that Benet’s lets me down, but there’s nothing in there, either.

How odd. Maybe I did try to look it up, couldn’t find it in either of my mainstays, and forgot about the entire attempt, because it’s an intensely boring story not worthy of a paragraph on the blog?

Still, the Internet will help me.

According to this site, it’s an adjective, archaic, meaning “difficult to deal with.”

That would never have occurred to me, but it fits with the way in which I’ve seen it used in various texts.

(I would have assumed it was a noun, before looking it up, but I can see it’s an adjective if I think of the Anne of the Island example: “Authors are kittle-cattle.” Sorry: slipped into marking mode for a minute there, impelled by the reproachful looks from the enormous pile of marking on my right hand, which thinks I should be paying attention to it. Which I should.)

Apparently, it has a sixteenth-century origin, from “kittle” (now chiefly Scottish and dialectical) meaning “to tickle.”

So, essentially, if something or someone is “kittle-cattle,” it’s a ticklish situation. That is interesting.

(And that, in a nutshell, is why I usually blog in the evenings. Not a morning person, me.)

Inappropriate Quotation Marks

Posted 26 October 2008 in by Catriona

I’ve become a little obsessed with odd punctuation over the last two semesters: in fact, I actively seek it out, to use as material in my lectures (due ascribed to the original source, of course).

Which led me directly to many happy hours at The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks.

But what’s bothering me at the moment—and I must keep a copy of this for one of the punctuation lectures next semester, if I give them—is the label to my current batch of coffee.

I’m intermittently eager to buy fair-trade coffee. I say intermittently, because sometimes the budget simply won’t allow it, and I have to stick to the regular, exploitative type.

This, of course, is straight hypocrisy. I know why fair-trade coffee is more expensive and that’s why I like buying it. So much coffee is grown in Third World countries (on a slightly unrelated note, a coffee shop at the university, which makes the best coffee on campus, sells Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee: according to their brilliant sign, the Blue Mountains are “generally” located past Kingston. I wonder where they go the rest of the time?). And coffee is a crop that can have a devastating effect on local ecology, especially as demand rises and farmers struggle to produce larger and larger crops.

I wonder sometimes whether my coffee-related guilt (and associated budget-related, exploitative-coffee guilt) arises partly out of the face that coffee is such a yuppie drink, evocative of the economic exploitation of poorer countries for the leisure and pleasure of richer ones, just as we used to do (perhaps still do) with tea.

I still drink it, though. And I make an effort to buy fair-trade coffee.

I have fair-trade coffee now, and that’s what’s worrying me. Because it’s slathered in inappropriate quotation marks in questionable places.

For example, the company tells me on one side of the packet that their commitment to their customers is “coupled with ‘state of the art’ roasting facilities.”

I don’t see why that would be ironic, but I can think of some horrifying ideas . . .

This coffee is also organic, though I don’t care one way or the other about organic production. Perhaps I should, but I’ve not given it any thought. Still, when I do, apparently “The Australian Certified Organic label is your ‘Guarantee of Integrity’,” so that’s nice.

But it’s the last section that’s worrying me:

By purchasing products marked with the Fairtrade label you are ensuring the poorest workers and farmers in the developing world are getting a ‘fair go’. The label guarantees that products have been ‘fairly traded.’ Funds generated support education, healthcare and improving work practices.

Now, granted, this isn’t the best-punctuated passage I’ve ever read. I’d have a comma after the introductory phrase in the first sentence and it looks as though the list at the end lacks parallel structure, though they may actually mean that the funds “support improving work practices,” clumsy though that phrasing might be.

(I’m also skipping over the implications of the “fair go,” which I’ve never cared for. It’s not only a cliche, but it’s also shorthand for something too complicated for any two-word phrase to express. Hence the shorthand. Yet, it seems to me that the shorthand version is increasingly used unthinkingly, divorced from any of the more complicated connotations: shorthand, like windmills, does not work that way. But that’s not the point here.)

But it’s the quotation marks that get me here.

Excluding, perhaps, the reference to the “poorest workers and farmers” and the information about where the funds are distributed, it seems that the terms “fair go” and “fairly traded” are actually the most important in the passage.

So why are they in inverted commas?

Are they ironic? Is the coffee not, in fact, fairly traded? If so, what on earth does that rather pretty badge on the front of the packet mean?

I imagine, of course, that this is an attempt to use quotation marks as a means of adding emphasis to a phrase. Naturally, that’s annoying, too.

But not as annoying as the fact that every time I open the pantry door I have to think, “But how is ‘fairly traded’ ironic? And why?”

Still, I suppose it’s not as bad as that sign I once found that read “Employees Must Wash ‘Hands’.”

Speaking Of Books We Think We Know

Posted 25 October 2008 in by Catriona

“Why, that’s Cruella de Vil,” said Mrs Dearly. “We were at school together. She was expelled for drinking ink.”

I don’t remember that bit from the Disney movie.

(Nor am I quite sure why that’s an expellable offense—but, then again, it never happened in any of the school stories I’ve read.)

From Dodie Smith’s The Hundred and One Dalmations. Illustrated by Janet and Anne Grahame-Johnstone. Penguin (1956), 1968. 14 (quote), 16 (illustration).

Man, I Love James Jean

Posted 23 October 2008 in by Catriona

And I wish he weren’t leaving Fables.

Now, James Jean isn’t the only reason why I read Fables: he does the covers, which are amazing, but wouldn’t be sufficient reason for me to read the comic every month. If Bill Willingham’s writing and (guest artists aside) Mark Buckingham’s art weren’t also superb, the covers alone wouldn’t make me buy the books.

But they are one reason why I buy the monthly comic instead of, as I usually do, waiting for the trade to come out.

I mean, look at this cover for the eighth trade, which wraps up some of the main storylines from the first fifty issues:

Or the third cover for the Flycatcher story arc, “The Good Prince”:

Poor Fly. I do love you. You’re the Fables version of Ellsworth in Deadwood—the only genuinely decent person in a fairly messed-up environment.

Or how about some of the covers from the most recent story arc?

I don’t actually have much more to say on these; I suspect they either speak for themselves or they don’t.

But, for me, there is a reason why James Jean is the only comic-book artist whose work is hanging in my bedroom.

Further Random Weirdness From The Bookshelf

Posted 14 October 2008 in by Catriona

(I’m going to run out of modifiers if I keep posting random bookshelf weirdness: so far, I’ve used “more,” “yet more,” and “further.” Hmm—I might need to find a thesaurus.)

And I’m blatantly recycling material, here, because I mentioned these Dragonfall 5 covers last time I did random bookshelf weirdness. But I didn’t post pictures, and these covers really deserve immortality.

But I’m going to start with a pretty one: the later ones are all 1980s’ covers (not a great time for the illustrating of children’s science-fiction novels), but this one is a 1970s’ edition, with a gorgeous cartoony cover. It’s only a pity that the paperback is so battered:

Look how fabulous that spaceship is:

Alas, that degree of pretty didn’t last into the next decade. Look, for example, at Dragonfall 5 and the Super Horse:

That is one terrifying super-intelligent cyborg-horse. (Which begs the question of whether there is such a thing as a benign super-intelligent cyborg-horse.)

And the cover to Dragonfall 5 and the Haunted World bemuses me:

Now, I could say that science is not my strong point, but it would be something of an understatement. Nevertheless, I have a haunting suspicion that that rocket-powered hang-glider is actually attempting to travel in two directions at once.

Certainly, it looks as though those engines are going to send it flying backwards, not matter how intensely the pilot stares forwards.

But this? This is hands down my favourite cover of the four, even including the lovely 1970s’ one:

There’s a cow at the end of that rope but, oddly, the cow’s not what I’m interested in here.

In fact, I doubt anyone walking into a bookshop in 1985 and coming face to face with this cover would care about the cow.

And, no, I’m not trying to tiptoe around a crass joke.

I just can’t figure out whether man is a space cowboy or a space rodeo clown. Perhaps in the depths of space there exists a civilisation that has streamlined the two occupations?

That doesn’t explain why he has a weathervane on his head, though.

Why I'm Partial to John R. Neill

Posted 12 October 2008 in by Catriona

I’m been on something of an Oz kick, lately, re-reading some of the later books (well, later than The Wizard of Oz and The Marvellous Land of Oz, anyway).

And it’s reminded me how much I enjoy the work of the later Oz illustrator, John. R. Neill.

L. Frank Baum allegedly quarrelled with the original illustrator, W. W. Denslow, after completing the first book; Denslow’s lovely original evocation of Dorothy and her three friends can be seen here, and it is gorgeous. The film version owes more to Denslow’s conception than it does to Neill’s, though Neill illustrated many more books than did Denslow—and despite the fact that Dorothy in the film is apparently ten years older than the six-year-old girl (or so) girl pictured here.

Denslow’s illustrations were also immensely popular, and Neill’s early illustrations show a degree of continuity, especially in the presentation of Dorothy’s closest companions: the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Woodman.

But I was reading, last night, the eleventh book in the series, The Lost Princess of Oz. After this one, Baum wrote only three more Oz books, so by this point the conception of Oz is both fairly complete and relatively stable. Dorothy is no longer moving between America and Oz, but living in the palace with Ozma. Auntie Em and Uncle Henry have been brought in to live in a small cottage outside the Emerald City. Button-Bright, Trot, Betsy, Cap’n Bill, Hank the Mule, Scraps the Patchwork Girl, Tik-Tok, Ojo and Unc Nunkie, the Nome King, the Sawhorse—all the primary characters are established within the boundaries of the fairy kingdom by this point.

But an essential aspect of the Oz universe is the clash between the mundane and the fairylike. This lessens in later books, once all the primary characters are drawn to the Emerald City and Oz itself is cut off from the greater world. But it’s still part of the essential world-building. Dorothy—while brave, clever, and adventurous—is essentially an ordinary little girl who has extraordinary adventures.

Denslow’s illustrations don’t, for me, quite capture this aspect of the books, because of their cartoony nature. They do capture the whimsical feel of Oz, but not the clash of cultures.

But Neill’s do, as an illustration I found in The Lost Princess of Oz made me realise.

Scraps, as I mentioned before, is the Patchwork Girl, created from an old patchwork quilt by Margolotte, wife of the Crooked Magician, Dr Pipt, to act as a servant. Entirely unwilling to serve, she ends up living in Ozma’s castle.

She’s not a realistic figure and, like the Scarecrow who admires her, she isn’t presented realistically:

But there’s a scene in the beginning of The Lost Princess of Oz where Scraps, having fought with the Woozy and had her suspender-button eyes scratched off, is dragged by Button-Bright to Auntie Em for some restorative stitching, and Neill provides this illustration:

This, to me, is an extraordinary encapsulation of the clash of our world and Oz. Denslow’s world of heavy outlines and solid colours is not suited to such an evocation of the way in which Oz embraces the extraordinary, in the sentient, cotton-stuffed Scraps, and the ordinary, in the worn housewife, formerly of Kansas, and somehow manages to make them operate as part of a single kingdom.

Fabulous Children's Books: The Slightly Less Disconnected and Ranty Sequel

Posted 11 October 2008 in by Catriona

This is the post that I’d originally intended to write last night, before I became distracted and a little cranky.

This, though, is less ranty. This is a disconnected (though slightly less disconnected than last night’s effort) run through some of my favourite children’s books—only some, but there isn’t room for all of them.

Some of them, though, are not books that I re-read regularly. This one, for example, I haven’t read in years:

Looking the author up on Wikipedia, I discovered he apparently writes “acclaimed spy thrillers,” which makes this book—a strange fantasy in which a boy living in Cornwall begins to experience memories of living in the advanced, subterranean world of Egon—an even odder addition to his oeuvre.

When I did read, though, I loved it. The Egonians are significantly advanced, physically and mentally, compared to humans, but sometimes bring humans down into their world. When they return them, they replace their memories of Egon with false ones, so when the protagonist’s memories start resurfacing, he can initially make no sense of them.

I remember, too, a strange streak running under the story: the Egonians—whose awareness of their bodies is such that they can immediately sense when something is ceasing to work effectively—cannot feel pain, and their reactions to the inherent fragility of humans disturbed me somewhat as a child.

Perhaps I should re-read this one; it has been quite some years.

Or perhaps Lewis Carroll? But I’ve not included Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass here, though—as a good fantasy fangirl and researcher in Victorian fiction, I love them both.

But this is a far more anarchic work than either:

This, alas, is a cut-down version of Carroll’s original two volumes, Sylvie and Bruno (1889) and Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893).

The novels take place partly in a fairyland called Outland—where a revolution is underway to oust the Warden, Sylvie and Bruno’s father, and replace him with the tyrannical Sub-Warden—and partly in England, where the highly moral young doctor Arthur Forester is more or less successfully wooing Lady Muriel, daughter of the Earl of Ainslie. The two parts are linked by an unnamed narrator, suffering from an unidentified illness that Wikipedia suggests might be narcolepsy. (They don’t give their source, but it’s an interesting idea, given that the narrator regularly drops into dozes, in which he sees the fairy children.)

This cut-down edition only includes the Outland material, which seems distinctly counter to Carroll’s intentions. Unfortunately, the two novels are rarely reprinted, and this seemed a better cover to include than my Complete Works of Lewis Carroll, where I have the two novels in their complete form. Plus, I love the Harry Furness illustration on the front there.

The novels are odd ones; Carroll himself called them “litterature” (no, that’s not a typing error), according to this fascinating article from Tom Christensen’s Right Reading site. The temporal, physical, and narrative shifting from Outland to England; the long, intruded, moralising passages on inherited wealth, the affectations of High Church practice, or alternative ways of organising the animal kingdom; the highly sentimental plot with Arthur and Lady Muriel, their brief marriage, and Arthur’s eventual fate—all these confused me as a child-reader.

But I was fascinated by the books, nevertheless. And I remain fascinated with them, especially now I have a more thorough understanding of how Victorian literature shifts and develops.

Or L. Frank Baum?

I’ve only bought this edition recently, actually, and now want to collect all of them in these facsimile hardbacks: I also have The Tin Woodman of Oz (1918) in this edition.

Ozma of Oz (1907) fascinates me: I’ve heard The Wizard of Oz (1900) called the first American fairytale (though I can’t remember where I heard that: if anyone knows, let me know so I can attribute it correctly), but the books seem to me to be analogous to Carroll’s Alice books, in one significant way: both books take a distinct step back from the standard Victorian model of immature femininity, of the angelic child, Dickens’s Little Nell or Stowe’s Little Eva.

Dorothy Gale—and, gradually, the other child-characters who are shifted from America to Oz, like Button-Bright, Trot, and Betsy—is, like Alice, unwilling to accept adult authority simply because it is adult authority, especially when the Wizard, like so many of the other authority figures, turns out to be a humbug.

Ozma of Oz was one of the books that inspired the 1985 film, Return to Oz and, while I know so many people hold the Judy Garland film dear, I much prefer the sequel, which seems to me truer to the nature of the books: terrifying, often cruel and arbitrary, and ultimately centred on the bravery, intelligence, and tenacity of a young girl.

Ditto George MacDonald:

There’s little, I suspect, that I can say about MacDonald that isn’t covered by the fact that his devotees include C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Madeleine L’Engle.

(Sadly, I haven’t included A Wrinkle in Time in this list, though I should have. Or the Narnia books. Or The Hobbit. There simply isn’t room for everything.)

At the Back of the North Wind seems to be the most frequently reprinted—and perhaps most frequently cited—of MacDonald’s fantasies, where others—such as The Day Boy and Night Girl (1882) or “The Light Princess” from Adela Cathcart (1864)—are rarely reprinted or re-read. But The Princess and the Goblin (1872) is by far and away my favourite, even more so than the sequel, The Princess and Curdie (1883).

On a slightly unrelated note, the other thing that intrigues me about George MacDonald is how much he looked like Rasputin. That’s one intense-looking writer of whimsical Scottish fantasy stories for children.

Do people still read Mary Stewart?

I have another of hers in the same series of reprints: The Little Broomstick (1971). Apparently, this, Ludo and the Star Horse (1974), and A Walk in Wolf Wood (1980) are her only children’s novels. I’ve never read the latter, but I adored the other two, especially Ludo, which tells the story of a young boy living in the Tyrol, who follows the family’s old horse (on which their livelihood depends) out into the snow one night, and ends up travelling with him through the land of the Zodiac.

Nick didn’t care for this book, at all, because it does have a melancholic ending. I still maintain, though, that it’s one of the most unusual fantasies I’ve ever read. (And, yet, part of the reason why I’m so fascinated specifically by children’s fantasy is because it’s often so innovative compared to fantasy novels written for adults.)

But I can’t end without this book:

This picture doesn’t do justice to how battered my poor copy of The Land of Green Ginger is. According to the Wikipedia page, it’s rarely been out of print since it was published in 1937, which doesn’t surprise me, except that I don’t think I’ve ever seen a copy in a bookstore or a booksale. If I had, I would certainly have bought one to sit alongside this beloved paperback, which is more sellotape than anything else.

No one’s bookshelf is complete without the adventures of Abu Ali (son of Aladdin, but too nice to be a satisfactory heir), Silver Bud, Mouse, Boomalaka Wee, and, of course, the Friend of the Master of the Horse.

I wish I had more room here. I haven’t mentioned Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll books, or Lucy M. Boston’s Green Knowe series, or Diana Wynne Jones (though no convincing is required there, surely?), or Mary Poppins, or the Wombles, or Helen Cresswell’s Bagthorpe Saga, or any of a hundred other fabulous children’s books.

But I have talked myself out of the cranky mood that Harold Bloom and A. S. Byatt put me in yesterday.

After all, I have all these lovely books. And no one can actually prevent me from reading them as often as I wish, whatever opinion they might subsequently entertain about my intelligence or my maturity.

Fabulous Children's Books: A Ranty and Disconnected Introduction

Posted 10 October 2008 in by Catriona

(I’d intended this as a piece on some of my favourite children’s books, but I’m a little cranky, and it ended up a long rant. It also became a little disconnected and rambling, but that’s nothing new. Add in the book pictures, and it would have been longer than the live-blogging posts. So I’m doing this in two parts, with a much calmer piece, with lovely illustrations, to follow this.)

I’m not sure what made me think of this at this moment, but it’s always annoyed me when the discussion about what adults gain from reading children’s books starts up again.

The keenest example of this recently has been the Harry Potter series, of course: Harold Bloom and A. S. Byatt both criticised these books, and both articles irritated me immensely.

(On a sidenote, I’m also bewildered by this comment in Bloom’s article: “It is much better to see the movie, ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ than to read the book upon which it was based, but even the book possessed an authentic imaginative vision.” I wish he had qualified this statement. The Wizard of Oz, the book, is a gorgeous fantasy, as are most of the sequels, though some, notably the fourth book, Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, are somewhat mean-spirited. This statement, positioned as an inarguable fact, thoroughly confuses me: I can’t find the justification for it.)

I’m partly irritated, of course, by the way in which criticism of these books in these articles is collapsed into a distaste for cultural studies: Bloom casually employs the term “dumbing down” in discussion of “the ideological cheerleaders who have so destroyed humanistic study,” while Byatt talks about “the days before dumbing down and cultural studies.” I’m not even a cultural-studies practitioner, and this frustrates me. I don’t see the necessity for anger when, firstly, cultural studies is a well-established discipline that, like every other discipline, produces extraordinary and insightful criticism and, secondly, when cultural studies exists alongside literary studies, rather than being the latter’s replacement. But that’s another argument for another time.

Do I think the Harry Potter series is flawless? Of course not. But I enjoyed them.

And I recognised, as I read them, that they were written for children. J. K. Rowling has never claimed to be writing for adults, nor has she claimed that the books works on more than one level as, for example, Alice in Wonderland and The Simpsons are often described as doing.

But this entry isn’t about Rowling. I’ve mentioned before—probably ad nauseum, if I know myself—how my own appreciation of the Harry Potter books is filtered through the experience of giving them to a group of children highly uninterested in reading at all. No amount of criticism (no matter how cogent) can influence me more than that group of absorbed children.

No, my response here is to whether adults who read Rowling—and, by extension, other children’s fiction—are “childish adults,” as Byatt’s article puts it.

Well, I wouldn’t have thought so. But I’m not a disinterested party here.

I have shelves crammed with children’s books, and I buy more regularly. Some of them, admittedly, are books that I read as a child, so my reading of them now is a re-reading, with all the nostalgia that such a process implies. But I also regularly buy new children’s books. Gath Nix, for example, I didn’t discover until I was an adult and, in fact, his first book—excluding the Very Clever Baby series, which is too young even for me—wasn’t published until I was fourteen.

And Garth Nix is coded “young adult.” The books are shelved in the “young adult” section of bookstores and libraries, and the assumption is that they will be read by young adults—and, apparently, I no longer count as one, now I’m in my thirties.

(And that’s fair enough. I suppose. I should never have admitted to turning thirty.)

I bought my sister—six years my senior—two young adult fantasy novels for her birthday last year, having them sent to her directly through Dymocks. One of them, Garth Nix, was fine. But the other—I’ve forgotten the title, now—wasn’t available, and the lovely girl in the store rang me to suggest some alternatives, which led to the following conversation:

LOVELY SALES ASSISTANT: Well, I’ve heard good things about this book [also now forgotten], but it might be a little younger than the Nix. It’s aimed at seven to eight year olds.
ME: Oh, yes, that might be a little young.
LOVELY SALES ASSISTANT: How old is your sister?
ME: Thirty-seven.

I can understand the lovely sales assistant’s confusion: she legitimately assumed, given my selection, that I was buying for a younger sister.

But I don’t understand the disdain and, sometimes, outright scorn and anger that often accompanies diatribes about adults enjoying children’s books, or the same diatribes that always arise about genre fiction.

I don’t understand the rebranding of the Potter books in “adult” covers. I just bought the colourful children’s ones.

I don’t understand Byatt’s assumption that to enjoy children’s books, one must have a childish brain or be immature.

And, above all, I don’t understand why it matters.

I understand why books are coded “children’s” or “young adult.” (I’m less certain by the bookstore distinction between “literature” and “literary fiction.”)

But I don’t understand why people should feel pressured into saying, “Oh, I know it’s a children’s book [detective novel, romance, fantasy novel], but . . .”


Posted 9 October 2008 in by Catriona

I discovered an interesting fact today, while reading an Encyclopaedia of English Literature during a quick lunch.

Arthur had a sword called Excalibur.

No, that’s not the interesting fact I’m trying to impart here. I’m just establishing the well-known details first.

In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account, Excalibur was called “Caliburn.”

Arthur also, in this account, had a shield called Pridwen, on which was painted an image of the Virgin Mary.

He also carried, in his right hand, a spear.

Called Ron.

Don’t believe me? Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account is quoted here, which is convenient, because I can’t find my copy:

Arthur himself put on a leather jerkin worthy of so great a king. On his head he placed a golden helmet, with a crest carved in the shape of a dragon; and across his shoulders a circular shield called Pridwen, on which there was painted a likeness of the Blessed Mary, Mother of God, which forced him to be thinking perpetually of her. He girded on his peerless sword, called Caliburn, which was forged in the Isle of Avalon. A spear called Ron graced his right hand; long, broad in the blade, and thirsty of slaughter.

Now, I don’t know the etymology of the word “Ron.” If anyone does, I’d be thrilled to hear it. At the moment, I’m too busy giggling to look it up.

I do know that if I were Pridwen, I’d be pretty annoyed that Excalibur hogs all the glory while no one remembers my name.

But if I were Ron?

Ooh, I’d be furious with whoever named me.

Magical Mystery Bookshelf Tour Stage Ten: The Living Room, Small Bookcase Edition

Posted 8 October 2008 in by Catriona

This is one of my smallest bookcases, so this is only a brief pitstop on the tour. Although it is worth noting (continuing my current obsession with anything to do with my camera) that I kept the camera settings on Portrait this time, so rather than normalising the light, it’s keep that yellowy sunset light that’s filtering in through the living-room windows, which is rather a nice effect.

The top shelf is my beloved reference shelf:

I can’t fit all my references books on here, despite the large gap: that’s for my copy of The Oxford Concise Australian Dictionary, which, since I’ve been marking, is currently on my desk. (Ideally, I should have a dictionary on my desk permanently, but there’s no room for one. My Oxford Concise English Dictionary, however, is on my desk at work.)

But there are lovely books here, including four companions to literature: The Oxford Companion to English Literature, The Oxford Companion to Edwardian Fiction, The Cambridge Companion to English Literature, and The Feminist Companion to Literature, which I bought for $4 at a Brisbane City Council Library book sale, and adore.

I know all this information can also be found on the Internet, but at least these books are written by recognised figures in the field.

Plus, they look impressive.

This is also the shelf where I keep my two primary go-to reference books: Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable and Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopaedia. If it isn’t in Brewer’s, then it’ll be in Benet’s, and the latter, at least, has a comprehensible indexing pattern.

(I’ve never quite recovered from the time I tried to look up a simile in Brewer’s. A student wanted to know where the phrase “as dead as a doornail” originated, so I looked up “doornail.” Plausible, right? But Brewer’s told me to “See under AS.” Who indexes similes under their conjunction? That makes no sense!)

I could spend the rest of this post raving about reference books, so I’d best restrain myself now. But I will point out that English Through The Ages is a chronological dictionary, listing words under their earliest-known use in the language (cool, huh?) and the battered-looking volume on the left is my lovely Victorian dictionary, in a crumbling leather binding.

(My parents bought that for my birthday a couple of years ago. But it was part of a job lot, so my birthday that year also brought me a dozen other books, a pair of matched, khaki-coloured flower vases (which are now in the spare room, holding up a green bob with a pirate skullcap on top of it and a baseball hat with a propeller attached to the top), and a set of brass canisters, battered but with a lovely patina. My parents are a little like that, now they’ve discovered the joy of auctions. It’s analogous to the time they bought me a gorgeous brass-bound trunk for Christmas, discovered it had three dozen items stacked inside it, and wrapped those up for Christmas, as well. One of them was a ceramic elephant. Enough said, really.)

(I keep the ceramic elephant in the living room. Next to the Dalek.)


The second shelf in that picture is almost all mid-twentieth century Everyman reprints of Victorian novelists who might have been read from the 1920s to the 1950s, but are a little hard to track down now. There’s some Charles Reade, some Clara Reeve (though she was eighteenth century) and Edward Bulwer Lytton.

I must own three dozen Lytton. I’m not sure why, but it does mean I own a copy of Paul Clifford—which I’ve just found in the study with a stuffed Snoopy figure in front of it, which would be hilarious if it had been intentional. And that means I own a copy of the worst opening sentence in English literature.

People know Paul Clifford starts “It was a dark and stormy night,” but do they know it actually gets worse from there?

It was a dark and stormy night, the rain fell in torrents except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

Nice comma splice, Sir Edward. It also looks to me as though someone pointed out to him at some point that places other than London also have streets.

But leaving Lytton behind for a moment, the next shelf is yet another of the dozen or so places in the house where I keep my detective fiction:

This, at least, is the only place where I keep my Rex Stouts. I can’t explain how fabulous Stout is (with the proviso, of course, that you actually like detective fiction). And one of the great joys of my life is the fact that the Canadian adaptations were both fabulous and accurate. I know that does happen (the BBC Pride and Prejudice springs to mind, and their Vanity Fair was good, too), but it doesn’t happen often enough.

Yes, I’m looking at you, recent adaptations of Agatha Christie novels.

I’m also rather enamoured of how all the Harry Potter novels look lined up together. I also like the books (really, though, would it have hurt for the last book to have a little less whingy, rainy summer holiday and a little more of what the fabulous and lovely Neville was doing at Hogwarts?) but I’m happier when a book I enjoy also has a pretty cover.

On that note, that is the ugliest of the four or five copies of Dracula that I own.

Sadly, my verbosity is running to an end (convenient, since I still have to cook dinner), because the last shelf is mostly Nick’s books.

Iain Banks (and Iain M. Banks), Lois McMaster Bujold, Julian May, and Bruce Sterling: all are Nick’s.

That is my hardback copy of the Hitchhiker’s trilogy, though—well, the original four volumes of the trilogy, anyway. I’ve been trying to forget the fifth book: so depressing. Even Adams admitted it was a bit much. But Nick tells me someone is planning on writing a sixth addition to the series; since that person obviously isn’t Adams, I have no interest in such a project.

We’re all sad that there’ll be no more Douglas Adams books, but if you bring in someone else to write them, then there still won’t be any more Douglas Adams books.

Am I being too cranky about this?

Never mind me: I’ll solace myself with my copy of “City of Death”: “What a wonderful butler! He’s so violent.”

Magical Mystery Bookshelf Tour Stage Nine: The Living Room

Posted 3 October 2008 in by Catriona

Every time I look at the bookshelves in the living room, I wonder whether or not I should arrange them so that the most intellectually impressive books are in there (why, yes, I am secretly pretentious) or, at least, the books that I read most often.

But, then, I suspect that the Magical Mystery Bookshelf Tour has, if nothing else, revealed the fact that my bookshelves have absolutely no organising principle behind them, at all.

But I do have a reason for showing the top shelf of this bookcase:

A reason apart from the fact that it shows a number of books, that is.

I feel my poor little donkey, over there on the far right, deserves his own picture on the blog. Yes, his legs are actually kept on with packing tape. I bought him twenty-two years ago (well, at that age, I had him bought for me by my parents) in a shop in Jerusalem: he’s made of olive wood. He’s lovely—a little naive in style, perhaps, but a lovely donkey. But his legs are highly fragile: they’ve been glued back on more times than I can remember. Eventually, I just gave up: hence the packing tape. One day, I fully intend to actually take that tape off and glue his legs back on. Again.

In the interim, I think he deserves a small degree of Internet celebrity.

What? Oh, the actual books.

This top shelf, actually, is a straightforward mix of the absolutely essential (Douglas Adams); the unread and occasionally embarrassing, if seminal (Brian Aldiss); Nick’s books, which he keep bullying me to read, but I never seem to get around to it (Steven Brust); and the fascinating series that I started and enjoyed, but gave up because I became inappropriately fond of the brainwashed rapist, could see his eventual fate coming, and didn’t really think I could face it (Lois McMaster Bujold).

That last category is, I grant you, rather specific.

Ooh, speaking of books that are seminal and yet rather embarrassing since I’ve never actually read them:

There’s C. J. Cherryh! My sister is something of a devotee of Cherryh’s work, and I myself have to admire the the fact that she became irritated with the way in which her strong heroines were always depicted on the covers in gold bikinis, and wrote a series about giant cat people as a way of saying, “Right. Stick that in a gold bikini.”

(I bet there’s an edition of the Chanur series somewhere where the characters are depicted in gold bikinis.)

But I find her books incomprehensible. And I say that in an admiring way: she throws the reader in the deep end of an entirely fictitious world, complete with plausibly alien language patterns, and you have to struggle to the surface before you can even figure out the plot.

Well, I’m not a good swimmer, apparently.

(How was that metaphor? Too tortured? Also, don’t tell the people whom I want to award me a Ph.D. in English Literature what I just said. Okay?)

At least, I can’t seem to stick with the books long enough to slip into their mode of thinking. But I want to, so I keep buying them. Hence the huge number of unread, secondhand paperbacks on that shelf.

Actually, speaking of just plain embarrassing, there are some Michael Crichton books.

Can I get away with blaming those on Nick? Nope, didn’t think so. They definitely shouldn’t be out in plain sight. (Though, I have to say, the Jurassic Park ones are miles better than the movies, especially in terms of strong female characters.)

I do like those Diane Duane young adult books, though: the So You Want To Be A Wizard series. Unfortunately, Duane suffers from similar-name syndrome, probably because she writes Star Trek novelisations, and so does Diane Carey, whose work is not nearly as good.

Another example of similar-name syndrome is Elizabeth Moon (good) as opposed to Elizabeth Lynn (not so good). There’s another example, but I’ve forgotten it. And Nick’s not helping:

ME: Can you think of that other example of authors with similar-name syndrome? I’ve forgotten.
NICK: Male or female?
ME: I’ve forgotten!

The Philip Jose Farmer books are others that I haven’t read in years, and may never read again. I’m keeping them, though, because the concept of the Riverworld fascinates me. As far as I can remember, though, they went a bit pear-shaped at the end. Maybe there were dinosaurs? And Hitler showed up at one point, I seem to remember. Odd. But clever world-building.

In my defense, I should point out that the Laurell K. Hamilton books actually are Nick’s. No, seriously: I’m not trying to blame him for something embarrassing that’s actually mine. I have read most of those, though: I think I gave up before Obsidian Butterfly. We both gave up: they started shakily, with an interesting premise but a tendency to info-dump in a frustrating fashion, then steadied up for a little while, then took an entirely unexpected (unexpected by me, anyway) turn into out-and-out porn. At least the Merry Gentry books started out as porn.

Still, at least there’s nothing to be ashamed about with Ursula K. Le Guin.

I think I’ve mentioned before how much I enjoy Garth Nix’s books, perhaps during the spare-room portion of the tour, which is where my copies of the Keys to the Kingdom series are.

And then we just slide straight into Terry Pratchett, and there’s not much I can say about him that I didn’t cover in my post about how much I hope to grow up to be Granny Weatherwax.

The next shelf, though, is almost al Nick’s, including the E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith (already canvassed over at Smithology more comprehensively than I could manage here), the S. P. Somtow, and the Vernor Vinge.

Those are my Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles, though. Ah, Cimmorene: you were a proper princess, but I never did figure out how you worked out the age imbalance at the end of the last book. (How’s not for an entirely obscure non-spoiler?)

I also loved Sorcery and Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot: Being the Correspondence of Two Young Ladies of Quality Regarding Various Magical Scandals in London and the Country (now that’s a good title), which she wrote turn and turn about with Caroline Stevermer (whose A College of Magics I have somewhere, but, surprisingly, haven’t read yet.)

That reminds me: I have the sequel to Sorcery and Cecilia—I must (no, you know how this goes) get around to reading that.

And then there’s nothing left but Diana Wynne Jones:

Well, Diana Wynne Jones and Phillip Pullman. I had a (friendly and intellectual) disagreement with my sister about these. She felt that the His Dark Materials trilogy was anti-humanist, if I haven’t misrepresented her: that, essentially, he didn’t seem to like people. Similarly, she couldn’t read further than The Ruby in the Smoke in the Sally Lockheart series, because she disliked the way in which he constantly tore down and devastated the heroine.

Now, I’m not going to touch the argument about His Dark Materials, but I can’t say that I entirely disagree with the one about Sally Lockheart.

And yet, to a certain degree, that’s why I liked them. True, I had to stop reading halfway through The Tiger in the Well because my entire body was crunched up into an agonising ball at the thought of what horrible thing could happen next.

But isn’t that something extraordinary?

I read. I read an enormous amount. And few of the books I read inspire that sort of visceral response (though that may have something to do with the books that I select).

Basically, I’d sum the Sally Lockheart Mysteries up this way:

I’ve spent three years reading and researching penny-weekly serials. And most penny-weekly serials are bad.

Awesome, yes. But bad. Because they’re written under enormous time constraints for little remuneration.

Even when they’re doing something intriguing with the conventions of the form, they’re often bad: verbose, implausible, and silly.

The Sally Lockheart Mysteries are penny-weekly serials (not penny dreadfuls: chronologically, they take place between the great days of the penny dreadfuls and the late, boys’-own-adventure-style penny bloods) written by someone who can actually write.

And when that happens, you can’t giggle at the travails of the heroine, once again kidnapped by her own father who doesn’t know who she is and has already failed (twice) to seduce her. (This doesn’t happen in any Pullman novel, but does happen in Eliza Winstanley’s “The Strollers.”)

When that happens, you’re forced into accepting that the heroine’s travails are terrifying.

That doesn’t mean they’re easy to read, though.

On a lighter note, those tiny little figures on the shelves are, in fact, Warhammer figurines.

That’s really just an excuse to exploit the macro function on my camera again.

No shelf is complete with dwarfs wielding fearsome weapons.



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