May 2012

Books read in May:

  1. The Wee Free Men. Terry Pratchett.
  2. Zoo City. Lauren Beukes.
  3. Flight of Blue (beta). A. E. Howard.
  4. House of the Scorpion. Nancy Farmer.
  5. Tales of Beedle the Bard. J. K. Rowling.
  6. Luka and the Fire of Life. Salman Rushdie.
  7. Tongues of Serpents. Naomi Novik.

Best new read: House of the Scorpion
Best books in a series: Tongues of Serpents

Of course, I have lots of new books to add to my unread books because today is my birthday. It’s been a lovely day so far (despite the weather), with presents, a yummy French toast and bacon breakfast, and watching Wall-E while the steak for dinner marinates in a Make-Me-Crazy-Marinade from my new Los Barrios Family Cookbook: Tex-Mex Recipes from the Heart of San Antonio (thanks Mom and Chris!), to be followed by birthday drinks at the pub with friends.

Also, thanks to Kelly I have my very own medieval tapestry pillow cushion, inspired by the ‘Hearing‘ tapestry in the Cluny Unicorn Tapestries. Hooray!

I think Twenty-Seven is going to be a good year. Not a prime number, but divisible by nine and three, which are also good numbers. Here’s to another year!

Sea, earth, sky

The past week summer has come to Scotland. Today, Kelly and I walked a portion of the Fife Coastal Path. Five hours, starting at exploring the St Monans Kirk, then hot chocolate at the Cocoa Tree and a peek in St Fillan’s Cave in Pittenweem, lunch at the Wee Chippy in Anstruther, and three miles of stunning coastline from Anstruther to Crail.

The tide was out, so I clambered across rocks to get a closer look at these birds. I’m still not sure what they are… Meanwhile, Kelly supervised:

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Luka and the Fire of Life

Opening line: ‘There was once, in the city of Kahani in the land of Alifbay, a boy named Luka who had two pets, a bear named Dog and a dog named Bear, which meant that whenever he called out ‘Dog!’ the bear waddled up amiably on his hind legs, and when he shouted ‘Bear!’ the dog bounded towards him wagging his tail.’

Dog the bear was a dancing bear, and Bear the dog could sing in tune; Luka had rescued both from the cruel circus master Captain Aag. When Luka’s father Rashid Khalifa, the Shah of Blah, the most renowned storyteller in Alifbay, falls gravely ill, Luka follows his father’s death-shadow into the World of Magic. Together with his friends Dog and Bear and with the dubious aid of Nobodaddy, the death-shadow, Luka journeys through the World Magic seeking the Fire of Life that would save his father, undo his friends’ enchantments, and ultimately save the World of Magic itself. Unfortunately, the Fire of Life is at the very peak of the Mount Knowledge, guarded not only by the Mists of Time, El Tiempo the Whirlpool, the Trillion and One Forking Paths, and into the Heart of Magic. If Luka gets through all of that, then he still has to meet the Aalim, representing the Past, Present, and Future, who guard the Fire of Life jealously. Oh, and one other thing: the Fire of Life has never, successfully, been stolen before.

Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie is the sequel to Haroun and the Sea of Stories, but you don’t necessarily have needed to read one to read the other. Whereas Haroun goes to the moon to the Sea of Stories in his adventures, Luka stays ‘on earth’, so to speak, to travel in the World of Magic. (‘The Torrent of Words, by the way, thunders down from the Sea of Stories into the Lake of Wisdom, whose waters are illumined by the Dawn of Days, and out of which flows the River of Time.’) For Luka, the World of Magic takes on videogame-like qualities: he must acquire certain things to give him ‘lives’, he must advance through various levels and find the ‘save’ button so that that if he ‘dies’ he doesn’t have to go all the way back to the beginning. In essence, the World of Magic is read or navigated by Luka by what is familiar to him — in the Real World he plays lots of video games, so when faced with a Magical World, he interprets what he sees by what he knows. Likewise, the World of Magic is clearly the world of Rashid Khalifa’s invention, created by all of the stories he has told Luka. It is a very imaginative story, with plenty of allusions to other stories — both new and old, from Doctor Who to ancient Sumeria.

Personally, I prefer Haroun and the Sea of Stories to Luka and the Fire of Life, but I think that is mainly because I am not quite the intended audience for Luka. Having never been big into video or computer games, the structure of the World of Magic didn’t resonate with me. My favourite section was when Luka and his companions travelled through the Heart of Magic and came across the valleys of old, forgotten gods of mythology. No longer believed in in the Real World, the gods of various mythologies had retreated to the World of Magic, where they can still live on in stories. Rushdie’s commentary about the different gods (ranging from the Greek and Roman to Chinese, Korean, various Native American and African, Aztec, etc.) was particularly amusing, and the portrayal of Coyote was the best of all.

This books is well suited to the 8-12 age-group, and for any pretend-grown-ups who enjoy creative storytelling and Salman Rushdie.

Back from London

My apologies for not posting the last week. You see, I was in London. My writing partner-in-crime and fellow book connoisseur, Kelly is visiting from Texas. So this is what we did:

Monday. National Gallery. Dinner at the Texas Embassy Cantina.

Tuesday. V&A. Lunch at Le Pain. Frozen yogurt from Snog. Bookstore. Natural History Museum. Dinner at Wild Honey. Phantom of the Opera.

Wednesday. British Museum. Picnic lunch. Westminster Cathedral. Dinner at the Crypt in St Martin-in-the-Fields.

Thursday. Sherlock Holmes Museum. Royal Academy of Music Museum. Regent’s Park. The Globe and a tour of The Rose theatre. Evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral. Dinner at Wagamama.

Friday. The British Library. Get on train at King’s Cross Station and return to bonnie Scotland.

As you can see, we were quite busy. Summarising it all in detail will simply take too long. I’m becoming quite the tour guide of London, however, so maybe you should just come and visit?

Tales of Beedle the Bard

Opening line: ‘The Tales of Beedle the Bard is a collection of stories written for young wizards and witches.’

The Tales of Beedle the Bard is a modern ‘edition’ of the original runic texts, ‘translated’ by Hermione Granger and with an introduction by J. K. Rowling. After each of these short tales are Professor Albus Dumbledore’s notes. In this ‘edition’ you can find ‘The Wizard and the Hopping Pot’, ‘The Fountain of Fair Fortune’, ‘The Hairy Heart’, ‘Babbity Rabbity and her Cackling Stump’, and ‘The Tales of Three Brothers’. Each story is a delightful fairy tale that can easily be read alongside our own, mundane ‘Muggle’ tales.

I read The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J. K. Rowling in preparation for chairing a panel at the recent Harry Potter conference held at my university. Overall, I felt that it was a charming book to read. I liked Dumbledore’s notes after each story and JKR’s introduction. I used inverted commas for ‘translated’ and ‘edition’ in my description above because, of course, the entire work is a work of fiction written by J. K. Rowling. I’m somewhat disappointed that she didn’t play the ‘these stories were translated by Hermione Granger’ farther. There were no notes or commentary from ‘Hermione’ at all. I would have liked to see JKR’s ‘introduction’ recast as the preface, and see an introduction written by ‘Hermione’ about her translation techniques and the literary background to the tales, and then to see her footnotes alongside Dumbledore’s in his notes. But alas, no such paratext exists. Yes, I am fully aware that it is my role as an academic, and a medieval one at that, that sees me automatically looking for meaty introductions and extensive footnoting in translated editions.

My favourite story of the collection was ‘The Fountain of Fair Fortune’ and ‘The Tale of Three Brothers’.


My coworker and I both exclaimed in surprise when a bird dropped from the sky. It landed head first right in front of the museum doors. We watched it, at first thinking it was dead, but then it moved. Our doors are automated and open outward, and the bird wasn’t making to go anywhere. As a result, we were worried that the doors would knock it and hurt if further. So I went out a side door, scooped up the bird by sliding a couple of ‘Wet Paint’ signs under it, and carefully transferred it to the bushes. It merely looked up at me, dazed.

I was wondering just now, since I was planning on checking on the bird when I go out for my lunch break — what other animal would do this? Any other large predator would have either killed and eaten the bird or ignored it. Could we say that compassion, not just for fellow members of our species but for other creatures as well, is one of the qualities that separates humankind from simply being another kind of animal?

And if compassion is a quality that defines one as human, how then do we cultivate that quality in our lives?

Jamming with rhubarb

Last week ushered in the third season of my jamming career. Last year’s jamming season was so productive I haven’t had to buy a single jar of jam all year. This year, two jamming sessions later and I’ve already filled half of my store of empty jars. I’m going to need more before the summer is out!

The main jamming ‘fruit’ this early in the year is rhubarb. Our garden happens to have a rather large rhubarb patch — yes, nearly 4 square metres. I’ve made two batches of rhubarb and strawberry jam: ‘Divine’ Rhubarb Jam and ‘Indulgent’ Rhubarb Jam.

‘Divine’ Rhubarb Jam is an adaptation of Vanilla Garlic’s Rhubarb Crisp with Rosemary. Ros and I used that recipe to make a rhubarb crumble for the first time last year. We were apprehensive, mixing rosemary with rhubarb and strawberry? But one bite had us swooning in our seats, declaring forevermore to refer to this recipe as ‘Divine Rhubarb Crumble’. Being as we still had a lot of rhubarb later in the summer, and I was feeling more confident in my jamming skills to experiment, I adapted Garrett’s recipe for the crumble filling into jam. I’ve made it again this year, not even bothering with plain rhubarb jam.

Divine Rhubarb Jam

1kg rhubarb
200g strawberries
1kg jam sugar
3tsp rosemary
50ml lemon juice

Chop the rhubarb and strawberries into small chunks. Mix in rosemary. Pour some of the fruit mixture into the bottom of your stainless steel or copper pot, cover with a layer of jam sugar, and repeat until you have layered all of the fruit and sugar. Pour the lemon juice on top. Let it sit for a couple of hours, preferably overnight. The sugar and lemon juice will draw the juices out of the rhubarb, creating a nice syrup.

Give it a good stir and then bring slowly to a rolling boil. Stir constantly to keep from sticking and also to break up the fruit chunks (stir less if you want chunkier jam). Let boil for 10 minutes before testing for a setting point. Once the setting point has been reached, pour immediately into sterilised jars, and seal.

Let cool, and wait for the satisfying pop the lids make when they are properly sealed.

Spread on toast with salted butter, and the result is simply divine…

What is in the ‘Indulgent’ Rhubarb Jam, you ask? Well, let’s just say it was inspired by another one of Garrett’s recipes.

12 jars of rhubarb jam is enough for one season, however. I’m going to wait until the gooseberries are ready for picking before I make any more jam. Those should be ready in another couple of weeks. But what to do with all this rhubarb in the meantime? I’m thinking of buying a demijohn or two, and trying my hand at rhubarb wine

A few happy things

May continues to refuse to be spring. My PhD work is currently leading me through a muddy, muggy swamp. To counter these disheartening things, I am remembering little things that make me happy.

Like tea.

Like singing.

Like making jam. (More on this in another post.)

Like talking with kitties — even if they aren’t my own.

Like reading good books.

Like gardening. I’ve cleaned up my flower patch in the back and transplanted the violas from the front garden to the back — the front garden gets too much sun and they needed rescuing.

Like clothes hanging on a line on a rare sunny day.

Like knitting — even if the hat I’m making might be too small for me.

Like having a clean, tidy house. (This one is harder to maintain.)

Remembering to do some of these things, making time to do things that make me happy, is key to emerging from the swamp with my sanity intact and healthy. Some things I’m better at making time for than others… but every little bit helps.

The House of the Scorpion

Opening line: ‘In the beginning there were thirty-six of them, thirty-six droplets of life so tiny that Eduardo could see them only under a microscope.’

One of those droplets is Matteo Alacrán, the clone of the dictator of Opium. El Patrón is a drug lord, dictator, and lord of an empire that forms the border between the U.S. and Mexico (now called Atzlán). Nothing goes in or out of Opium without El Patrón’s knowledge; El Patrón never lets anything go. El Patrón is 134 years old.

Matteo knows that he is different. What he doesn’t know is how different he is.

You see those shiny things on the cover of The House of the Scorpion? Those are awards, and Nancy Farmer deserves every single one of them. This novel is so beautifully and poignantly written, the world so evocative, that my mind was turning over phrases and scenes when I wasn’t reading the book. I didn’t want it to end; in fact, it’s one of the few books that once I finish reading it, I go back through and reread sections of it, unwilling to let it go just yet. The summary I gave was purposely very sparse — it is better if you go into it knowing as little as possible. Just know that this is Young Adult Science Fiction at its best.

Earlier this week I read Zoo City by Lauren Beukes, an urban fantasy novel set in South Africa. I didn’t like it very much, but I wondered whether it was because I couldn’t identify with the setting. I’ve since handed it over to my Zimbabwean friend (who went to uni in South Africa) to see what she thinks. By the same token, I wonder if my love for The House of the Scorpion is influenced by my familiarity with the borderland of Mexico and the U.S. I grew up in South Texas; I’ve tasted most of the foods mentioned, know the legends of La Llorona and the chupacabras, heard the cadence of Spanish in my head. While I read it, I was in the desert where it is harsh and warm, instead of in Scotland, where it is cold and wet and windy, feeling like November instead of May. It was familiar. It felt like home.

Now, this isn’t to say that I have to be personally familiar with a setting to enjoy a book set in a certain place. I do read predominantly fantasy and science fiction after all — considering that most of the books I read are set in places that don’t actually exist, having to be personally familiar with a setting to enjoy such books is nigh impossible. It is more likely that I don’t like urban fantasy. It shows Nancy Farmer’s skill that she can recreate a setting with which I am so familiar and I still love it. Granted, it is a setting with which she is familiar, too.

After finishing it yesterday, I went online to see what other titles by Nancy Farmer I might want to read. To my surprise and delight, I found that there is a sequel to The House of the Scorpion coming out possibly later this year! Being as The House of the Scorpion was published in 2002, I wasn’t expecting there to be a forthcoming sequel. Be assured, I will be waiting in anxious anticipation.