April 2010

  1. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.
  2. Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card.
  3. Sir Orfeo, edited by A. J. Bliss.
  4. Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie.
  5. His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik.
  6. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin.
  7. Knife by R.J. Anderson.

This list does not include the book I abandoned part-way (Good News to the Poor by Tim Chester, because I couldn’t stand his writing style), nor does it reflect the bits and pieces I’ve read for work. The past couple of days I’ve been reading out of M. K. Pope’s From Latin to Modern French with especial consideration of Anglo-Norman: Phonology and Morphology, all for a single footnote on the development of intervocalic consonants in the French language. This is PhD. Perhaps at the end of the year I ought to post a bibliography of all of the work-related sources I’ve consulted during the year.

I finished Knife by R. J. Anderson last night. She is a new author that I heard of via her involvement in the forum for Megan Whalen Turner’s books. Considering that she is a fan of one of my favourite authors, I thought I’d give her a chance. In Knife, the faeries of Oakenwyld have lost their magic, and they are slowly dying. Knife’s duty as Queen’s Hunter gives her freedom the other faeries don’t have, leading her to come into contact with humans, which is forbidden. As she begins to question the queen’s edicts, the Oak’s history and the future of her kind, Knife finds that ‘loyalty’ is a very complicated issue indeed.

Knife is Anderson’s first published novel, and it reads like one for the first few chapters, but overall it is well done. About half-way I did wonder how on earth she was going to hold the different story threads together; since this is the first book in a series, I presume that the hanging threads will be developed and resolved in the subsequent three books. Though the faeries in Knife are not the faeries that I study, I enjoyed reading Anderson’s interpretation of them. It is also uncommon to find YA books about disabled characters (at least, that I’ve seen), and this is something that Anderson handled very well. For my American readers, the U.S. title is Faery Rebels: Spell Hunter.

A willing spirit

I have gone to doctors since age 13 complaining of excessive tiredness. Obviously over the past decade or so I have still accomplished much, despite being tired; yet it is tiring in itself to always feel like I am trying to do everything with less than enough energy. Sarah claims that I need to sleep more—9 hours, instead of the recommended 7.

How is it possible to regiment my day further than it already is, with two hours less? From when I wake up to when I finally go to bed, I am constantly doing something. I read books. I read news articles. I read encyclopedia entries and essays. I read the dictionary. I read blogs. As Kali has noted, often with bemusement, my curiosity is insatiable. I am a reader.

And where does writing fit in? I started on a story recently, one that has been percolating for the last couple of years. I have an outline, now I need two consecutive hours every day to work on it. ‘You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you,’ says Ray Bradbury, and I agree.

Simply put, going to bed earlier means not doing as much. But there is always more to read, to write, to learn. It comes down to this: I must either read or write. I cannot do both, despite my efforts to the contrary.

Ah, life. I yearn for more of it, and then find myself too tired.

This sacred body

We sang in the ‘Bodies service’ today, a thanksgiving service commemorating those who have donated their bodies to medical research at the university. The families and friends of the donors are invited and all of the medical students and staff have to attend.

It was a Christian service, but the chaplain acknowledged that many present may not be Christian. As my thoughts drifted between Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and about the resurrection of the body, I realised that religious people would be less likely to donate their bodies, or organs, to medicine than non-religious people. As far as I know, Muslims and Jews do not donate their bodies, and if some Christians are opposed to cremation, then they would also recoil at any perceived destruction or desecration of the body after death. But if you do not believe this, if the body becomes a mere shell to be discarded after death, then it would be easier to donate. If you’re not using it anymore, it might as well be put to good use. Though my own feelings on the matter are conflicted, I find this realisation saddening: for Christians, at least, are we not taught selflessness? If we trust in God to recreate decayed flesh, to bring up the bodies lost to the sea or in fire or in accidents, couldn’t we also trust God to recreate a body that has been donated for the betterment of humankind?

The speaker quoted from ‘Mediation XVII’ by John Donne:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

He also quoted a poem written by a donor to a medical student. It echoed Christ’s words at the Last Supper: ‘This is my body, given for you…’

‘Gender-bending’

This past weekend I went to a postgraduate conference hosted by my university’s medieval institute on gender and transgression in the Middle Ages. None of the papers were very relevant to my research, except to make plain that there will definitely be room for a paper of my own next year on the gender dynamics of fairies. The papers were interesting, though, and Saturday was sunny, so in between sessions I went for walks around town. It ended up being a pleasant day.

Though my flare up in March has died down, I’m still quite low on energy. Most days I am rather tired when I finish walking home. On some days (like today), I wish that dinner were already made when I get home. And on those days (today included), I am reminded of Judy Brady’s essay “I Want a Wife” (1971). I don’t have one, incidentally, nor a personal chef, and so it was up to me to make my own Lentil Soup with Lemon, with spinach leaves topped with feta and olives and a drizzle of lemon juice, and fried cinnamon apples on the side.

(I might be cooking for only myself, but it might as well look pretty. I apologise for the less-than-scenic background.)

And on the subject of gender, I have finished rereading The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. I saw that there was a 40th anniversary edition, a nice hardcover with maps and extra notes in the appendices, and immediately lifted my ban on buying new books to purchase it. It is still one of the best treatments of gender in fiction that I have read; at the very least, in science-fiction. Genly Ai is a Terran envoy sent to the planet Winter, where humans are gendered only a few days every month—quite literally gender-bending, because they can be either gender each month. I put another one of the signed bookplates from Le Guin in the anniversary edition, so I won’t be loaning it out. It’s a good thing I have my paperback edition with me, too: my friends need not worry about being deprived of such a wonderful work of literature.

A godless country

One of my former history professors and I were chatting about my future in academia during one of the coffee breaks at the conference today. He asked where I was from in the States and said, ‘Oh yes, San Antonio. The Riverwalk. I’ve been there.’ Everyone who’s visited San Antonio has. I told him that the Riverwalk had been expanded, mentioning offhand that my church used to be at the end of the Riverwalk but isn’t anymore.

‘Americans take religion much more seriously than we do,’ he said. ‘I expect that Americans find Britain to be a very godless country.’

Occasionally I speak my observations even when doing so is treading onto dangerous ground—hoping that objective truth will save me, and if not, the stereotype of the ignorant (and/or arrogant) American. I said, ‘I wonder if it has something to do with Britain having a state church. When you have to choose to have a church, you take it more seriously.’

‘Yes. It is a classic example for not to have an established religion,’ he answered.

It was time to go back into the conference room then, so I didn’t have a chance to remind him that freedom from a state church was one of the foremost reasons people crossed the terrible, wide sea to a new world.

As for whether I find it ‘very godless’—I suspect Britain is no more and no less godless than the U.S., or any other country on this earth.

In other thoughts

Each day this week I have been convinced it was some other day. Today is Friday but I haven’t any idea if it actually feels like a Friday.

Today is the Battle of Flowers in San Antonio and I am nostalgic for Mexican food, mariachis, cascarónes, flower tiaras and the cadence of Latino speakers. In the theme of being a vagabond, it is somewhat odd to realize that I feel nostalgia for a heritage so clearly not my own. I remember once in high school being told to ‘blend in’, but I was the only white girl in the room. Even if I blend in more here in Scotland, Texan Latino culture was the context for much of my childhood. I hope I can rightly claim nostalgia for the riot of color and taste and sound, spinning in the skirts of flamenco dancers and fluttering with confetti on a hot sunny day.

This week has been full of Bartleby moments—‘I prefer not to’. Partly because I am nursing some allergies/cold/sinus-like thing, because the weather has been variable, because the week itself has been variable, and because I am being coaxed back into the realm of Orion. This time, I may or may not be writing things down…

Luke glanced up at the clock and went to buy his ticket. A woman sat on the bench next to the machine, her gaze fixed on the edge of the platform. She sat slightly hunched forward with her hands clasped on a rumpled skirt. A small duffel bag sat between her feet. She didn’t have a coat. He recognized her, though not at first. She was supposed to be in Germany.

“Annie?” he asked.

Word-hoard

Today I went back to the dictionaries. There are few things as mentally stimulating as going through the Dictionary of the Scots Language, the Dictionary of the Welsh Language, and two etymological dictionaries, one for modern German and the other an Old English-German dictionary, and finding what you are looking for. And there are few things as intellectually satisfying as finding that your German, while rusty, can still puzzle out that ‘elf’ comes from Middle Low German, from Middle High German, from Old Icelandic, from Latin, and to find that the German dictionary supports your thesis by saying that elves were rather dangerous, that the idea of graceful, friendly elves comes from the Romantics…

Unoccupied space

All the ash still in the sky from Eyjafjallajokull makes for a lovely hazy sunset: peach clouds, blue sky, a glimmer of Venus and a crescent moon. The sky is darkening and still I find myself gazing at it.

There were indeed dragons in Ireland, and fairies and ghosts and giants besides. Some of these giants included Helen Cooper, Derek Pearsall, Maldwyn Mills, Ad Putter and, well, everyone. They were all citing each other in their papers and meeting the postgraduates during coffee breaks. Helen Cooper assured me that there is plenty left to do on fairies, even if she just finished supervising a PhD thesis on them, and that if I ever come down to Cambridge to be sure to come on a Wednesday so as to go to their medieval seminar. I’ll keep that in mind whenever I get around to planning a big research trip.

Object of Unoccupied Space

I was a little sad to leave the warmth and sunshine that bathed Ireland that one weekend, and return to the damp cold blowing in from the North Sea, but today was cloudless and the townspeople restless. For the first time since… I don’t know, September? the group of us sat outside in the garden for lunch. Still unable to focus, I took a walk down to East Sands where it seemed every family with small children was building sandcastles or wading in the water. I watched a sailboat go out into the harbour and then I made a garland out of daisies. It being a sunny Friday, the group of us at 66 found ourselves sitting once more in the garden, sharing a strawberry danish between the four or five of us. While we talked, I fiddled with some wire I found on a chair, and made an Object of Unoccupied Space. I would quote from The Dispossessed by Ursula K Le Guin, but I’ve loaned out my copy, so just believe me when I say that I was imitating Takver.

At last, at last, I have begun to watch Doctor Who. It a new season, a new Doctor, and so I can begin without feeling like I’m missing anything. I already can’t wait until tomorrow’s episode…

Reverdie

The days are getting sunnier, bluebells and daisies are popping up here and there between bunches of daffodils, and the used-book tables are once more being set up on Market Street. It was nice enough to go for a pastoral this afternoon—there was hardly any wind and the sea was calm and clear. A boy was playing the bagpipes and could be heard all the way out to the end of the pier and back to the office.

Quite unintentionally, I have had a vegetarian week. I discovered No-Cream Pasta Primavera and Asparagus Pasta in the process and am well-pleased. Also unintentionally, I keep calling the band ‘Florence and the Machine’ by the wrong name in my head; instead, they have become ‘Florence and the Nightingales’. Oh well. I am consoled by the ever-so-hilarious image of Victorian headbanging.

I am off tomorrow to go medieval romancing in Ireland for a conference. There will be fairies, ghosts, and maybe even a dragon.

Not just a bean

Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card is the first book of a series parallel to the Ender Quartet. While Ender’s Shadow covers the same events in Battle School as Ender’s Game, it does so from the viewpoint of Bean, a scrawny little Napoleon in the making. Like Ender, Bean was admitted into Battle School early and pushed through the system at a breakneck pace. Unlike Ender, it seems Bean’s worst horrors happened before going to Battle School, not after.

The problem with rewriting the same novel from a different character’s point of view is that you have to make sure all the facts line up. Card did this well for the most part, but on a couple points he didn’t. Mainly, he spent so much time in Ender’s Game developing a society in which religion is discouraged and mistrusted, and yet one of the main characters in Ender’s Shadow is a nun, Bean frequently spouts Bible stories (though one of the last times he does this is so poignant I’m glad it was included), and a Muslim student is seen praying (the same student who, in Ender’s Game, is careful to hide his faith). I also disagree with both Card’s ideology about the nature of families and how he presents it as being universal; his belief about family seems to fit more with Aeschylus’s Oresteia than the modern day or the future.

However, despite getting annoyed at Bean’s long-winded monologues of perfection (the joy of reading the thoughts of a character who is always right), I did like this book. Orson Scott Card is a good story-teller, he raises good questions, has built an interesting universe. Even when I wasn’t reading, my thoughts wandered back to Battle School. I will probably even read the rest of the Bean quartet, because I want to know what happens on Earth while Ender is away, what happens to the rest of the students at Battle School, what happens to Peter. Sometimes it’s enough to have an author from whom you know what to expect when you pick up one of their books: perhaps a bit too much stream-of-consciousness, but a working world and an interesting story.

And though it hardly needs to be said, I like Bean, but I love Ender more.