January Books

Non-fiction: 3
Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, by Jane Hirshfield
Patrick Troughton: The Biography of the Second Doctor Who, by Michael Troughton
Watching the English, by Kate Fox

Fiction (non-sf): 6
L’Équation Africaine, by Yasmina Khadra
War and Turpentine, by Stefan Hermans
Quoth the Raven, by Jane Haddam
Rather Be The Devil, by Ian Rankin
Five Escape Brexit Island, by Bruno Vincent
The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield

Theatre: 1
You Can’t Take It With You, by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman

sf (non-Who): 10
It Can't Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis
Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
The Fall of Hyperion, by Dan Simmons
Orlando, by Virginia Woolf
"Gonna Roll the Bones" by Fritz Leiber
An Old Captivity, by Nevil Shute
The Story of General Dann and Mara's Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog, by Doris Lessing
The Island Of Doctor Moreau, by H. G. Wells
Daystar and Shadow, by James B. Johnson
Woman on the Edge of Time, by Marge Piercy

Doctor Who, etc: 4
Who Killed Kennedy: The Shocking Secret Linking a Time Lord and a President, by “James Stevens” and David Bishop
The Talons of Weng-Chiang, script by Robert Holmes
The Tree of Life, by Mark Michalowski
Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen, by Douglas Adams and James Goss

Comics: 2
Ys de Legende: v 1 Verraad, by Jean-Luc Istin and Dejan Nenadov
Providence, Act 1, by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows

~7,300 pages
7/26 by women (Hirshfield, Fox, Haddam, Setterfield, Woolf, Lessing, Piercy)
1/26 by PoC (Khadra)
2/26 reread (The Fall of Hyperion, Who Killed Kennedy)

Reading now
Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
A Tangle Of Fates, by Leslie Ann Moore

Coming soon (perhaps):
He, She and It, by Marge Piercy
The Universe Between, by Alan E Nourse
Toast, by Charles Stross
Planesrunner by Ian McDonald
Hoger dan de bergen en dieper dan de zee: kroniek van een migrant, by Laïla Koubaa
"Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones", by Samuel R. Delany
Seventeen Equations that Changed the World, by Ian Stewart
Gulliver's Travels, by Jonathan Swift
So, Anyway…, by John Cleese
Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch
Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, by James Finn Garner
Julian, by Gore Vidal
Free Radical, by Vince Cable
Contes Fantastiques Complets, by Guy de Maupassant
The God Instinct by Jesse Bering
The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver
Robot Visions by Isaac Asimov
Wit, Wisdom and Timey Wimey Stuff – The Quotable Doctor Who by Cavan Scott
Doctor Who Storybook 2009 by Keith Temple
Parallel Lives, by Rebecca Levene, Stewart Sheargold and Dave Stone
Torchwood: Rift War by Ian Edgington

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Doctor Who: The Early Adventures, Season 1

Getting back to the Big Finish plays I have bought but not written up, here are four First Doctor stories featuring the surviving original companion actors, released back in 2014. All but one of these is directed by Ken Bentley.

Domain of the Voord, by Andrew Smith

I think the only previous attempt to bring back the Voord (from The Keys of Marinus) was a story in the 1966 Doctor Who Annual. (Apparently they have returned again since 2014, in both comics and audio; and there are references to them being pitted against Irish Wildthyme in the Death Zone on Gallifrey.) Here Andrew Smith has provided them with a rather good and interesting background and origin story, which goes some way to explaining their need to invade. There’s a great soundscape depicting the unlucky planet that is the subject of their intentions, and William Russell and Carole Ann Ford give Ian and Susan the full welly (and also sub for Hartnell and Hill). However I found the plot in the end a bit creaky – in particular, the absence and then the return of the Doctor and Barbara was a bit handwavy. Fan opinion seems sharply divided on this one: I thought it was decent but not excellent.

The Doctor's Tale, by Marc Platt

Now it’s William Russell and Maureen O’Brien, in a pure historical story of the Crusaders type, visiting the little-known interregnum between the reigns of Richard II and Henry IV in 1400. Alice Haig is very endearing as Richard’s very young queen, Isabella, and Gareth Armstrong gets to be Chaucer. But I felt the script came down too heavy on the religion and politics of the day, basically endorsing the Lollards as the good guys and the Church (embodied by John Banks as Bishop Arundel) as the baddies. In my home town, kids still get beaten up for being perceived to be on the wrong side of that argument.

The Bounty of Ceres, by Ian Potter (directed by Lisa Bowerman)

Apparently the first time Peter Purves and Maureen O’Sullivan have worked together since they were on TV! I rather liked this base-under-siege story, with what appears to be a clumsy removal of the Doctor from the story actually turning out to work rather well in plot terms. There’s some fun continuity in that the story is set in our future but in the past for both Steven and Vicki. Julia Hills puts in a good commander, Richard Hope is an intriguingly demented Scottish scientist, and the soundscape again is well done.

An Ordinary Life, by Matt Fitton

This was my favourite of the four. Peter Purves and Jean Marsh reprise Steven and Sara, maroon in London in the 1950s (distant past for both) where they are taken in by a family of recently arrived Jamaican immigrants (played by Ram John Holder, Sara Powell and Damian Lynch). But they are not the only recent arrivals to worry about, and the bleak and constrained docklands become the place of conflict among humans and between humans and something else. Holder’s total confidence is particularly engaging.

So, in general thumbs up, with reservations about the politics of the second of these.

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Monday reading

Woman on the Edge of Time, by Marge Piercy
A Tangle Of Fates, by Leslie Ann Moore
Gone With The Wind, by Margaret Mitchell

Last books finished
Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen, by Douglas Adams and James Goss

Next books
He, She and It, by Marge Piercy
The Universe Between, by Alan E Nourse
Toast, by Charles Stross

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Quoth the Raven, by Jane Haddam

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Now she looked down at the piles of pink message slips spread out across her desk and sighed. Back then, it had never occurred to her to do the obvious and apply for admission. Half a dozen students in her own high-school graduating class had been taken on as commuters, all tuition paid by the Crockett Memorial Valley Scholarship Fund. Maybe it was the fact that those students had all been from the other side of town, where houses were neat and conscientiously painted and fathers were present and meticulously sober, that had made her believe, unconsciously, that she was not qualified to be among them. Maybe it was just that, in that time and in that place, “secretary” was the job most women were taught to aspire to. Either that, or “teacher.” Miss Maryanne Veer had never suffered from the delusion that she had the talent to be a teacher.

I’ve tried two other books in this series of murder mysteries featuring retired Armenian-American FBI agent Gregor Demarkian, and neither quite gelled for me, but I must say this worked very well – a campus mystery, where the traditionally low stakes of academic politics have escalated to murder. The mystery is carefully laid out and worked through. I did raise an eyebrow at the sexual politics of the student lifestyle, which seemed to me closer to the 1950s than the 1990s when the book is set, but perhaps I don’t know enough about Pennsylvania. Anyway, the best Haddam I’ve read so far; try it if you like.

This was the non genre fiction book which had lingered longest on my shelves. Next on that list is Baptism in Blood, by the same author, but I’m going to hold off on reviewing it until I have finished all the books I acquired in 2010.

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Choosing choice: why I would vote to #RepealThe8th

Some time this year, Irish voters will have a chance to repeal Article 40.3.3° of the Irish Constitution, inserted by referendum in 1983. It reads:

The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.

This embedded a ban on abortion into the Irish constitution. Many on both sides of the debate, including the Catholic Church, assert that this ban is in line with traditional Christian teaching, particularly in Ireland. The word “medieval” is sometimes used on the pro-choice side.

This is very unfair to the medieval Irish.

A brilliant 2012 article by Maeve Callan of Simpson College, Indiana, “Of Vanishing Fetuses and Maidens Made-Again: Abortion, Restored Virginity, and Similar Scenarios in Medieval Irish Hagiography and Penitentials.” (Journal of the History of Sexuality vol 21 pages 282-96 – summarised here, but the whole thing is worth a read) recounts the records of four medieval Irish saints who miraculously “cured” unwanted pregnancies, one of them being no less than St Brigid of Kildare. Prof. Callan also transcribes the medieval Irish recommendations of what penance to impose on a woman who confesses to abortion – in one text, less than half the penance for carrying a child to full term and giving birthfrom Classical times. I don’t go all the way with those who see Numbers 5:11-31 as a text allowing the local priest to terminate an embarrassing pregnancy by magic ritual, but I can see their point. (Going a lot further back, the origin of pregnancy itself is murkier still.)

The second thing that troubled me, frankly, was that although some of my closest friends were also pro-life, many of the other pro-life activists who I dealt with were simply on a completely different political wavelength to me in many other respects, and in addition some of them were not very nice people at all; meanwhile most of the people who I generally had more in common with politically and personally were also pro-choice. (The National Union of Students had a joke: “How many pro-lifers does I take to change a lightbulb?” “The lightbulb may not be working, but I’m going to ignore that and tell you about a much more important issue.”) I have never minded being a maverick, but I started looking around and wondering if it was them or if it was me, and I came to the conclusion that it was quite probably me. I strongly relate to this moving account by an evangelical American former pro-lifer of her growing awareness that the supposedly “pro-life” movement was in reality anything but. (See also U.S. Congressman Tim Ryan.)

So I underwent a quiet change of mind, with no particular need to speak out on it one way or the other. Since the proposition that full human life begins at conception is not tenable, all we are left with is the question of where and when to draw the line, which is obviously a matter for legislation and not the constitution. The issue was not raised once as an issue when I last stood for public election, in 1996, and I doubt that I will ever stand for election again. On the other hand it became increasingly clear to me that a healthy society is a society where everyone is able to make free choices about how they shall live: most fundamentally, whether and how to have children. The State should in general stay out of people’s decisions about fertility, except in so far as it prevents abuse and maximises the available options. Talking to people who have directly made the decision themselves one way or the other reinforced my change of mind.

Many years on, becoming a parent has confirmed my scepticism of the pro-life agenda. I love both of my daughters very dearly. But life with them has not always been easy. I would not condemn any prospective parent who had the opportunity to avoid such an experience of parenthood, and took it. (See also this piece on the Eighth Amendment debate by the father of a girl with Down Syndrome.) This is a very different issue from fatal fetal abnormality, of course, an issue which in my view unhelpfully restricts the discussion even though it is the least defensible aspect of the Irish situation. We need to emphasise the right to choose parenthood positively, a point made quietly but well by Rachel.

Even more so when I consider the awful prospect that either of my daughters might become pregnant, which could only come about as a result of molestation; both are physically mature, but neither is remotely capable of consent. I have no doubt at all that we would exercise our legal authority to have such a pregnancy terminated. A consistent pro-lifer would have to argue that our potential grandchild should not have to pay the penalty of its father’s crime or its mother’s incapacity. Such arguments frankly do not interest me in the slightest.

Coming back to Ireland, it’s clear that on its own terms the Eighth Amendment has failed. (And I could write a lot more about the crazy times of the 1983 referendum, the Kerry Babies and Ann Lovett, but that will have to wait.) Thousands of Irish women every year still go to England, or to other countries, or get pills mailed to them, to terminate their pregnancies. The defenders of the Eighth Amendment seem to have little to say about that. If the intention was truly to stop abortions from happening, the effect has been to ensure that unwanted pregnancies are restricted to women without the necessary resources to end them. (A similar point is made in this piece by a Texas woman who found Texas had placed so many obstacles in the way of getting a legal and necessary abortion that she had to go to another state.) And, of course, another effect of the Eighth Amendment is that medical care for women fails them because necessary abortions are banned, most notoriously and fatally in the case of Savita Halappanavar.

In four Irish referendums since 1983, two attempts to strengthen the ban by excluding the threat of suicide have been rejected by voters (in 1992 and 2002) while two proposals to recognise reality by formally permitting women to travel abroad for abortions and to access relevant information have been approved (both in 1992). Really it is ridiculous, in any field of policy, for this level of fine detail of women’s rights to be regulated by the blunt instruments of constitutional amendment and referendum.

Ireland now faces another vote on abortion. The new Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has committed to holding another referendum. A specially convened Citizens’ Assembly recommended last June that Article 40.3.3° be replaced by a new text explicitly allowing for legislation on abortion. The parliamentary committee charged with the subject last month recommended the straight repeal of Article 40.3.3° without any new text (rightly so; any new text will quickly become a traumatic litigation playground). High profile politicians including opposition leader Micheal Martin and government MEP Brian Hayes have endorsed the straight repeal option. The tide appears to be turning.

And who knows, maybe it will even reach Northern Ireland next?

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War and Turpentine, by Stefan Hermans

Second paragraph of third section:

Het is 1976, zomer, de zomer die in het geheugen van een generatie zou worden geprent door de uitzonderlijke warmte en droogte. Hij is oud; hij heeft de afgelopen dertien jaar aan deze memoires geschreven, met tussenpozen. Soms liet hij het schrift ook weken liggen, een enkele keer zelfs een half jaar; dat was toen hij over zijn derde kwetsuur moest schrijven, en het verraad van de officieren, zoals hij het noemde. Naast hem liggen zijn decoraties, die heeft hij vandaag weer even bovengehaald omdat de herinneringen zo levendig waren. Toevallig is met de beschrijving van het eerste weerzien met Maria ook dit tweede cahier bijna vol; de resterende lege bladzijden volstaan niet om alles weer te geven. Hij aarzelt, legt de pen neer, haalt een mapje van onder zijn bureaulegger, begint aan een brief:

Mijn dierbare Gabrielle,
als ik aan de dood van uw dierbare zuster peins….

Hij legt de pen weer neer, er komen geen woorden.

It is 1976, summer, a summer that will be etched into the memory of a generation as exceptionally hot and dry. He is old; he has spent the past thirteen years working on these memoirs, on and off. There were times when he left the notebook unopened for weeks, once for as long as six months — that was when the time came to write about his third wound, and the officers' treachery, as he called it. Beside him are his medals, which he went looking for today because his memories were so vivid. Coincidentally, his first encounter with Maria Emelia has brought him almost to the end of this second notebook; there is not enough room on the remaining pages to tell the rest of the story. He hesitates, puts down his pen, pulls a folder from under his blotter, and starts a letter:

My beloved Gabrielle,
When I contemplate the death of your beloved sister …

He puts the pen back down; the words won't come.

Someone kind recommended this to me on Facebook, and because of the lousy archiving there I can't now see who it was. Good call. It's a very moving memoir by Hertmans of his grandfather's experiences before, during and after the first world war in Belgium. The first and last parts are presented as factual narrative, but the large middle section is a fictional reconstruction of what happened to his grandfather (though no doubt based on such documentation as is available).

It struck particularly close to home in that on his first day at war in August 1914, young Urbain actually marches with his fellow-troopers from his home in the west of the country through our home village and ends up spending a few nights in the village further east where my daughter now lives. I scratched my head about the geography – it is stated that he marched through Steenokkerzeel, then Oud-Heverlee, then Leuven/Louvain, which is not a very direct route:

But if we bear in mind that the E40 was not built until the late 1960s, and that the other main roads would have been full of refugees fleeing westwards, it actually makes sense that to reach Leuven the troops would have made a southern detour. When they reached the Statiestraat, now the Bondgenotenlaan (the long street going at just north of three o'clock from the centre of Leuven) it was completely empty. It must have been a very tough march. Google says that the whole march from Dendermonde to Hakendover, given the route taken through Londerzeel, Steenokkerzeel, Oud-Heverlee and Leuven, would take almost 17 hours on foot today. (Over an hour is added by the detour to Oud-Heverlee, but as I said I think the press of traffic on the main roads would have been pretty severe.)

Apart from that local colour, the first part on impoverished Flemish life pre-war is heartfelt, the general portrayal in the second part of how Flemish soldiers were treated by francophone officers during the horrible events of the war gives one some understanding of how the war experience led to the growth of a Flemish consciousness (the officers consistently mispronounce Urbain's surname, Martien, to end "-shan" rather than "-teen"), and the third part recounting Urbain's subsequent love life (he becomes entangled sequentially with two sisters, and basically marries the wrong one) is very moving as well.

There's also food for thought in the close Belgian relationship with England, Liverpool figuring particularly strongly – a reservoir of historic goodwill which has been stupidly squandered by the current British government.

Well worth getting.

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Lord John Stuart and his Brother, Lord Bernard Stuart

The morning after Hamilton, Anne and I had hoped to get down to the Dulwich Picture Gallery to see the Tove Jansson exhibition; but time was against us, so we settled for the National Gallery instead, just a short walk from the place we were staying opposite Foyle's.

I confess that I had never actually been to the National Gallery before, and we only had an hour and a half. So it was a quick zoom through to The Ambassadors, The Rokeby Venus, and The Sunflowers, and whatever else we could fit in.

In the Van Dyck room, one portrait jumped out at me: Lord John Stuart and his Brother.

These two kids are both wealthy, privileged teenagers, cousins of the king (and his wards since the early death of their father), about to set off on a three year tour of Europe. John, on the left, is 17 and Bernard, on the right, is 16. You can tell that they are brothers, and indeed you can tell that they are related to the king from their noses. Van Dyck never got around to finishing the background, but concentrated on the swagger and fine garments of his subjects, the two youngest of the many children of the Duke of Lennox. I don't think the effect is as flattering as they no doubt thought it was.

The portrait was painted in 1638. Soon after they returned from Europe, England was at war, and both boys were knighted in 1642 and soon were made generals, despite their total lack of any relevant experience. And both were killed in combat at the age of 22ish, John at the battle of Cheriton in 1644, and Bernard at the Battle of Rowton Heath in 1645, just before he would have been created the Earl of Lichfield. In 1066 And All That, W.C. Sellar memorably described the Cavaliers as "Wrong but Wromantic", and this portrait beautifully illustrates that. (He also described the Roundheads as "Right but Repulsive"; from the Irish perspective, I'd agree with half of that.)

Lots more to see in the National Gallery; but someone wise once advised me to look out for the one thing that jumps out at you when you are at an exhibition, and this was what jumped out at me this time.

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Hamilton in London

Anne and I went to see Hamilton in London on Tuesday night – tickets booked a year ago, which turned out to be absolutely lousy timing from the work point of view where things are exceptionally busy right now, but there you go.

The show really is fantastic. I was lucky enough to get to the Chicago run just over a year ago; I enjoyed that a lot, but I enjoyed London more (in fairness a couple of principals were absent the day I attended the Chicago show). I thought that London had dared to differ a bit more from the Broadway original, which is not a bad thing at all. My one complaint is that the sound mixing in London was not always good enough to hear all of the words properly; I had a similar complaint about Chicago but I think London was a bit worse in this regard. (There are three minor changes to the lyrics for the English audience.)

One bit of staging that I missed in Chicago – it may have been there but I wasn’t alerted to it until Sarah Whitfield’s lecture at Eastercon last year – is the strong suggestion that Hamilton and Laurens may be a bit more than best buddies. (As of this writing there are 66,587 Alexander Hamilton/John Laurens bookmarks in An Archive Of Our Own.) I think the London space is slightly bigger as well, though the ensemble filled it with whirling bodies.

There are a lot of strong performances, particularly:

Jamael Westman in the title role takes Hamilton on a very clear journey from awkward, hungry student to cocky right-hand-man to politician undone by his own hubris. He doesn’t dominate the stage as I imagine Lin-Manuel Miranda may have done; instead he is the leading character of a strong ensemble. He is the least experienced of the leads – only 25, in his first major role, more than a decade younger than Miranda – but we’ll hear more of him. Here he is, not throwing away his shot.

Giles Terera as Aaron Burr differed even more from the Chicago and Broadway performances. With his long face and lugubrious expression, he starts off as comic foil to Westman’s Hamilton, only gradually darkening to become his nemesis. Anne got an extra bonus when Terera fixed her directly with his steely gaze when singing “Dear Theodosia”. (In the clip of the Schuyler sisters below, he is standing on the left at the start.)

Michael Jibson as King George carried off beautifully the nuance of portraying the character just a short walk from where the real George III lived, rather than in the country that broke away from his rule. He too used the performance space to interact electrifyingly with the audience. Jason Pennycooke is impressive as both Lafayette and Jefferson – not quite as show-stealing as Chris De’Sean Lee’s Jefferson was in Chicago, but maybe a bit more thoughtful in implementation. Anne also thought that Obioma Ugoala was very good as Washington. It’s the one role where I felt the Chicago counterpart, Jonathan Kirkland, was better; which is not a complaint.

The three female leads, Rachelle Anne Go as Eliza, Christine Allado as Peggy/Maria and in particular Rachel John as Angelica were superb – I had forgotten how much of the narrative Angelica carries in the second half. There was a real feeling of character arc for her and even more for Eliza. And to single out one of the ensemble – Leah Miller is great as the bullet in the duel scenes. (In the two clips, she is the shortest of the dancers, with big hair, who comes into view immediately behind Burr at the start of the Schuyler sisters’ song.)

I felt a real energy in the room – perhaps it all still seems new to the performers, barely a month into the run, and of course the audience all knew the sound track well but were excited by the live version. I was surprised (and pleased) by the fact that probably three quarters of the audience looked younger than us. (I think the last public performance I went to was a Mary Black concert in Brussels where I was perhaps a little below the average age…)

We stayed in an AirBNB just opposite Foyle’s, over the Phoenix Theatre, and walked the two miles to the Victoria Palace Theatre and back – “Hamilton West End” is a bit of a misnomer; I booked the accommodation without checking where the show was actually taking place!

Anyway, in short, we loved it.

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An Old Captivity, by Nevil Shute

Second paragraph of third chapter:

He said quietly at last: “I hadn’t reckoned on that. That makes it very difficult.”

A fascinating book by Shute. His usual competent engineer hero is tasked with organising an archaeologist’s air photography mission to Greenland, sponsored by the archaeologist’s rich elder brother, and to his dismay accompanied by the archaeologist’s daughter. The planning and implementation of the expedition are lovingly detailed; the year is roughly 1937 (the book was published in 1940, but there is no mention of impending war).

And then three quarters of the way through, we have a sudden shift; and our competent engineer hero falls into a coma and dreams of a past life as a Scottish slave among the Viking settlers of Greenland, with the professor’s daughter being his lover’s reincarnation. That part of the story told on its own could easily fall into total cliche, but the fact that we have had a couple of hundred pages of technical exposition beforehand makes it tremendously effective. A very pleasant surprise. Well worth getting.

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Ys de Legende: v 1 Verraad, by Jean-Luc Istin and Dejan Nenadov

Second frame of third page:

Antonius Avea: I’m going in on my own.
Soldier: But…

Another one of the comics I picked up at a convention a couple of years ago, this time translated from the original French Ys, la légende, tome 1: Trahison, by French writer Istin and Serbian artist Nenadov. I have to say that to be honest I found it relatively standard Celtic fantasy, if rather well drawn; Gradlon, our Pictish hero, is visited in old age by the Roman Antonius Avea and tells his life story, which culminates in a rather gory birth scene at the end of this first volume. I’m not going to rush to seek out the rest.

My next non-English language comic is Hoger dan de bergen en dieper dan de zee: kroniek van een migrant by Laïla Koubaa, which I am looking forward to.

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Monday reading

Woman on the Edge of Time, by Marge Piercy
A Tangle Of Fates, by Leslie Ann Moore
Gone With The Wind, by Margaret Mitchell

Last books finished
The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog, by Doris Lessing
Providence, Act 1, by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows
Patrick Troughton: The Biography of the Second Doctor Who, by Michael Troughton
Watching the English, by Kate Fox
The Island Of Doctor Moreau, by H. G. Wells
Daystar and Shadow, by James B. Johnson
The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield

Next books
He, She and It, by Marge Piercy
The Universe Between, by Alan E Nourse
Toast, by Charles Stross

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Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang (script)

Second scene of third episode:


(LEELA peers out of the window. She hears the front door shut, then turns around.)

LITEFOOT: Nobody out there now! Fellow must have got wind of .. .

(He breaks off mid-sentence with a groan. There is a rustling sound in the hall.)

LEELA: Professor?

(She goes towards the door.)

Are you there, Professor?

(She is almost at the door when it swings open. MR. SIN is standing there, a knife glinting evilly in his hand. He moves purposefully towards LEELA. For a moment she is frozen with fear, then she grabs a carving knife from the side-table.

As MR. SIN moves stiffly towards her, she hurls the knife at him, with expert precision. It thuds into MR. SIN's throat but, to LEELA's amazement, it seems to have little effect. The weird little mannequin continues to shuffle towards her.)

I’ve written about the TV version a couple of times before. Back in 2007, I said:

The Talons of Weng-Chiang, from 1977, is the climax of the great Holmes/Hinchcliffe era of Doctor Who (also the last directed by the superb David Maloney), and is as good now as I remember it being when I was nine. (I admit I have also seen it a couple of times since, once in the company of a girl from Manila who giggled pleasingly at the line about the Filipino army advancing on Reykjavik.) Thanks to my background reading I was now alert to look out for a particular shot at the start of episode 4 which had escaped my notice previously (on the DVD commentary track, Louise Jameson laughs loudly). There is so much great stuff here: Leela and the Doctor are both alien to Victorian London, so Jago and Litefoot are effectively the viewpoint characters; Deep Roy, later to play hundreds of Oompa-Loompas in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, turns in a great Mr Sin. Yes, the ethnic stereotypes are rather regrettable (and quite apart from the Chinese, I would draw the attention of Irish viewers to Chris Gannon’s Casey), but the setting and drama are just fantastic.

And in 2010, I wrote:

I always loved The Talons of Weng-Chiang, and rewatching it made me realise once again how brilliant it is. (I know, I said this about The Deadly Assassin too, but it’s true in both cases.) There are two big problems with the story: the fairly useless and unterrifying giant rat, and the racism including having the lead Chinese role played by a non-Chinese actor. However, the settings are beautifully done, the plotting is tight enough, Magnus Greel’s distorted face is truly horrible, and everyone takes it seriously and does it well. The script has some particular delights: “I can play the ‘Trumpet Voluntary’ in a bowl of live goldfish”; “sleep is for tortoises”; etc.

It is fantastic that Big Finish have manged to take the Jago and Litefoot partnership and turn it into a thumping success, starting with last year’s Companion Chronicle, The Mahogany Murderers, and then on to this year’s mini-series with another one promised for next year. I’ll be buying it.

The script, published in 1989, is really for completists only, but I would say two things: first, two of the most problematic elements of the TV series – the use of a white actor to play Li H’sen Chang, and the rather poor implementation of the giant rat – are of course invisible in the script (the racism, alas, survives); but second, so is the gorgeous staging which made it such a vivid experience when I was nine. A nice bit of nostalgia which you can get here.

I have listened to most (but not all) of Big Finish’s Jago and Litefoot audios, now sadly terminated by the loss of Trevor Baxter last year, and enjoyed them a lot.

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You Can’t Take It With You (1938); and play by Hart and Kaufman

You Can’t Take It With You won the Academy Award for Outstanding Production of 1938; there were nine other nominees, but the only one I was aware of was the Pygmalion with Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller. It got nominations in six other categories, Frank Capra winning for Best Director.

The only film from the same year that I can remember having seen before is The Lady Vanishes, which I hunted down long ago because supporting characters Charters and Caldicott briefly got their own TV series in the 1980s. IMDB’s two ratings systems rank different Cary Grant / Katherine Hepburn films as top of the year, Holiday and Bringing Up Baby.

Here’s the official poster:

Like It Happened One Night, which won four years earlier, it’s a screwball comedy directed by Frank Capra and scripted by Robert Riskin, in which a rich kid falls in love with someone deemed unsuitable by the rich parents. This time round, the rich kid is a boy rather than a girl, the audience’s sympathies are with his lover’s family, and the setting is fairly static, entirely in New York and mainly in the Vanderhofs’ zany household. (Several of the actors, notably Jean Arthur, James Stewart and Edward Arnold, were reunited the next year for Capra’s Mr Smith Goes To Washington.) Like Cavalcade, which won five years earlier, it is adapted from a stage play of the same name; the adaptation is a lot more substantial here, though the crucial film set of the Vanderhofs’ front room remains very stage-like.

I cannot find any useful trailers online. There are three scenes on Youtube, of which only this one, the confrontation between Grandpa Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) and the one-scene character Mr Henderson from the IRS (Charles Lane), is really representative (also lifted fairly closely from the original play):

The only really unsuccessful part of the film is the extended first scene between the key love interests, Tony (James Stewart) and Alice (Jean Arthur); she is his secretary and they are in lurve, but there’s a mild undercurrent of coercion to the seduction. Tony deliberately invites his parents to meet Alice’s family on the wrong day, causing immense embarrassment (and farce). There’s also an unnecessarily excruciating scene in a posh restaurant (followed by a nice one with musical kids in a park). Tony’s behaviour towards Alice would not pass muster today.

There’s a somewhat mixed picture on disability as well. Grandpa Vanderhof spends the entire film on crutches, in the script due to having broken his ankle sliding down the bannister, in reality because Lionel Barrymore was losing the use of his legs due to arthritis and had suffered a hip injury on top; I think this is the first time we’ve seen a visible disability in a lead role in an Oscar-winning film. On the other hand, he callously makes fun of the estate broker Blakely’s facial tic.

For the first time in an Oscar-winning film, we have African-Americans in serious speaking parts. (Cimarron had a comic black boy, Mutiny on the Bounty had Pacific Islanders and a Hispanic actor playing a Pacific Islander.) Rheba (the Vanderhofs’ maid) and her boyfriend Donald are specified as black in the oniginal theatre script, and in the film are portrayed by Lilian Yarbo and Eddie Anderson. They are somewhat comic parts, but no more so than the white actors. Yarbo is particularly good; it seems that this was the peak of her career. The point is made that the posh Kirbys are uncomfortable with the casual relationship the Vanderhofs enjoy with the servants. However, Rheba and Donald are not invited to join family meals as far as we can see.

Alice’s sister Essie, whose dancing is a constant part of the scenery, is played by Ann Miller in one of her first screen roles, demonstrating the talent that would make her so famous as a dancer in the decades to come. She was only fifteen when the film was made, and apparently found the constant dancing physically very exhausting; the scenes with her and her xylophone-playing husband Ed (played by Dub Taylor) are appropriately chaste.

This is the first time I’ve had cause to comment on the animals in an Oscar-winning film. There are two notable performances. Jimmy the crow went on to appear in all of Frank Capra’s future films, including It’s A Wonderful Life. This was his first film appearance; he also appears in The Wizard of Oz as the crow which lands on the Scarecrow. He is impressively unflappable and even runs errands for the firework makers in the basement.

But I also have to give a shout to the very patient kitten who is used by Essie and Alice’s mother Penny as a paperweight for her (unperformed) theatre scripts. (Slightly puzzled that Spring Byington, as Penny, got the only acting Oscar nomination for the film.)

Having expressed my dissatisfaction with the romantic leads, I think the older male leads knock it out of the park. Edward Arnold, who I don’t think I’d heard of before, plays Tony’s father, Anthony Kirby senior, with much the strongest character arc of the plot, a grasping capitalist who manages to find his soul after a night in prison and the gift of a harmonica. Lionel Barrymore, who we last saw six years ago as the dying accountant Kringelein in Grand Hotel, plays a completely different character here in Grandpa Vanderhof, the patriarch of a chaotic household who brings redemption to all. The climax of the film is when they bond by playing the harmonica, the young lovers’ reconciliation being rather a distraction. (NB that Lionel Barrymore plays the grandfather of Jean Arthur’s character, though in fact he was only 22 years older than her.)

In general, the charming chaos of the Vanderhof household is tremendously attractive, with Essie’s dancing, her husband Ed’s vibraphone, Mischa Auer as the Russian dancing teacher Kolenkhov (“It STINKS!”), Penny the budding playwright, Samuel S. Hinds as Penny’s husband Paul, Halliwell Hobbes as Mr DePinna who arrived as the iceman and moved into the basement to make fireworks with Paul, Rheba and Donald. (It turns out that Grandpa has been earning enough money on the side by appraising stamp collections to keep the taxman happy.) The comic punchlines of the fireworks explosion, the drunk tank and the court room are beautifully set up. The fireworks in particular must have been technically very challenging.

This is the best discovery among the Oscar winners that I have yet made. I had literally never heard of this film before a few weeks ago. It was surprisingly difficult to track down (which is my excuse for the poor quality of the screenshots above). I guess somehow it didn’t become one of the popular multiple repeat movies of the television era. True, there is no standout gutwrenchingly strong performance, and perhaps no single particularly memorable line, but there are many better-known films of which this is also true. Well worth hunting down. I really enjoyed it, and watched it a second time with Anne and F.

Incidentally, on the Vanderhofs’ mantelpiece there is a photograph of Chekov.

Next up in this sequence is Gone With the Wind, which I have never seen.

As for the play on which the movie was based, here’s the opening of the third scene (actually Act II):

As curtain rises, GRANDPA is seated R. of the table, PAUL above table, and a newcomer, GAY WELLINGTON, is seated L. of table. PENNY stands with one of her scripts at L. of table and ED is standing to R. of table. DONALD stands back of GAY WELLINGTON holding tray of used dinner dishes. GAY is drinking as curtain rises. ED stands R. holding type stick.

GAY. All right, I said to him, you can take your old job . . . (She drinks.)
PENNY. I’m ready to read you the new play, Miss Wellington, any time you are.
GAY. (Pours.) Just a minute, dearie. just a minute. (Drinks again.)
(ED preoccupied with type stick.)
PENNY. The only thing is—I hope you won’t mind my mentioning this, but—you don’t drink when you’re acting, do you, Miss Wellington ? I’m just asking, of course.
GAY. (Crossing to PENNY.) I’m glad you brought it up. Once a play opens, I never touch a drop. Minute I enter a stage door, the bottle gets put away until intermission.

The drunk actress Gay Wellington (and another comic turn, the Grand Duchess Olga) were among the cuts made by Riskin as he adapted the play for the screen. Kirby’s background is much less developed in the play – the whole subplot involving property transactions, and the character of Mr Poppins, are inserted by Riskin into the film. The Vanderhofs have pet snakes rather than a raven. (Though I’m glad to say that the kitten is original.)

The guts of it are all the same, and one can see why the play won a Pulitzer as an uplifting tonic in depressing times. It’s a bit more misogynistic (as I said, two extra female characters who are only there as figures of fun, and Mrs Kirby gets a harder time) and more racist (Donald gets treated worse). There is a hilarious sequence during the Kirbys’ disastrous visit to the Vanderhof household, where Penny gets the Kirbys to play a word association game:

KIRBY. Will you go on, Mrs. Sycamore? What was the next word?
PENNY. (Reluctantly.) Honeymoon.
KIRBY. Oh, yes. And what was Mrs. Kirby’s answer ?
PENNY. Ah—”Honeymoon—dull.”
KIRBY. (Murderously calm.) Did you say—dull?
MRS. KIRBY. What I meant, Anthony, was that Hot Springs was not very gay that season. All those old people sitting on the porch all afternoon, and—nothing to do at night. (Realizes she has gone too far.)
KIRBY. That was not your reaction at the time, as I recall it.
TONY. (Crosses in a step.) Father, this is only a game.
KIRBY. A very illuminating game. Go on, Mrs. Sycamore!
PENNY. (Brightly, having taken a look ahead.) This one’s all right, Mr. Kirby. “Sex—Wall Street.”
KIRBY. Wall Street? What do you mean by that, Miriam?
MRS. KIRBY. (Nervously.) I don’t know what I meant, Anthony. Nothing.
KIRBY. But you most have meant something, Miriam, or you wouldn’t have put it down.
MRS. KIRBY. It was just the first thing that came into my head, that’s all.
KIRBY. But what does it mean ? Sex—Wall Street.
MRS. KIRBY. (Annoyed.) Oh, I don’t know what it means, Anthony. It’s just that you’re always talking about Wall Street, even when (She catches herself.) I don’t know what I meant.. . . Would you mind terribly, Alice, if we didn’t stay for dinner? (Rises. GRANDPA and KOLENKHOV rise. Also ESSIE, ED and PAUL.) I’m afraid this game has given me a headache.

I can see how what plays well on Broadway might not always survive to Hollywood. This was difficult to get hold of, but worth it.

Winners of the Oscar for Best Picture

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014) | Spotlight (2015) | Moonlight (2016) | The Shape of Water (2017) | Green Book (2018) | Parasite (2019)
2020s: Nomadland (2020) | CODA (2021) | Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)

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“Gonna Roll the Bones” by Fritz Leiber

Second paragraph:

Those were stone-solid enough, though. The fireplace was chin-high at least twice that long, and filled from end to end with roaring flames. Above were the square doors of the ovens in a row — his Wife baked for part of their living. Above the ovens was the wall-long mantelpiece, too high for his Mother to reach or Mr. Guts to jump any more, set with all sorts of ancestral curios, but any of them that weren’t stone or glass or china had been so dried and darkened by decades of heat that they looked like nothing but shrunken human heads and black gold balls. At one end were clustered his Wife’s square gin bottles. Above the mantelpiece hung on old chromo, so high and so darkened by soot and grease that you couldn’t tell whether the swirls and fat cigar shape were a whaleback steamer plowing through a hurricane or a spaceship plunging through a storm of light-driven dust motes.

I reviewed this for my website in 2005, and I wrote then:

“Gonna Roll The Bones” by Fritz Leiber won the Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novelette presented in 1968, beating Harlan Ellison’s story “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes” in both cases.

More significantly, perhaps, it was one of thirty-odd stories included in Harlan Ellison’s famous Dangerous Visions anthology. This book dominated the awards that year, with five stories nominated in all three short fiction categories for the Hugo and winning two (beaten in the third by Ellison’s own superb “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream”) and four nominations again scoring two wins in the Nebula awards (with the other short fiction award there being taken by Michael Moorcock’s outstanding time-travel tale, “Behold the Man”). Although looking back at it now, it’s difficult to appreciate quite what made the stories seem so radical almost forty years ago (some find them dated, others incomprehensible), it’s reasonable to suppose that “Gonna Roll The Bones” owed at least some of the credit for its awards to reflected glory from the rest of the collection.

It also of course owes something to Leiber’s general popularity and the contribution he’d made to the genre over the years. He had started early: researching this piece, I found a quotation which is a bit marginal to “Gonna Roll The Bones” but sufficiently interesting to include here:

Young Fritz (twenty-five, a University of Chicago graduate, and entering his father’s profession) has one of the keenest minds I have ever encountered… His understanding of the profound emotions behind the groping for cosmic concepts surpasses that of almost anyone else with whom I’ve discussed the matter; and his own tales and poems, while not without marks of the beginner, shew infinite insight and promise.

The quotation is from an unsent letter found, after he died, in the writing desk of H.P. Lovecraft.

The funny thing is that “Gonna Roll The Bones” is not really such a special story. Ellison says in his introduction that “it singlehandedly explains why lines of demarcation between fantasy and science fiction can seldom be drawn”. No it doesn’t; its a straightforward fantasy story, with a couple of references to spaceships and Martian creatures for background colour. I think it is a better story than “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes” which it beat for both awards; but I think that several of its other competitors have shown better staying power – Philip K Dick’s “Faith of our Fathers”, nominated for the Hugo, where Dick managed unusually successfully to marry his usual themes of paranoia, drugs, and the questionable nature of reality with an actual plot which makes sense; and two Nebula nominations by Roger Zelazny, the grim romances of “The Keys to December” and “This Mortal Mountain” (the latter a superb tale let down badly by a silly ending). I noted this also with Leiber’s “Catch That Zeppelin”, which won both Hugo and Nebula a few years later. Interesting that Leiber, who was born in 1910, was the second oldest of the contributors to Dangerous Visions (the oldest by some way was Miriam DeFord, born in 1888!).

Having said that it’s not such a special story, “Gonna Roll The Bones” is still a Leiber story, and is best read for style not content. With the first paragraph, a single 60-word sentence, you’re in the action:

Suddenly Joe Slattermill knew for sure he’d have to get out quick or else blow his top and knock out with the shrapnel of his skull the props and patches holding up his decaying home, that was like a house of big wooden and plaster and wallpaper cards except for the huge fireplace and ovens and chimney across the kitchen from him.

It breaks all the rules of good sentence structure and does so with vivid, graphic effect; I can’t do it better justice than Michael Swanwick, who wrote:

Fast and cocky, dancing on the fine line between virtuosity and failure, it evokes folk-tale archetypes and harsh realism both white simultaneously throwing the reader bodily into the story with a quick tour of the protagonist his house, and his predicament. A bravura performance such as this could be sunk by a misplaced comma. But nothing is out of place, unsure, or unclear.

The story is full of arresting images – the dice whose faces look like miniature skulls; the sinister presence of the Big Gambler, and the dice hanging in his eye sockets, “rattling like big seeds in a big gourd not quite yet dry”; the last sentence as well – “Then he turned and headed straight for home, but he took the long way, around the world.” And the description of the gambling in The Boneyard is unforgettable.

The theme of a mortal man playing games with the devil for high stakes, is a very old one: cards and chess (The Seventh Seal) are popular candidates, but dice have a history here too, long pre-dating the Flying Dutchman – I’ve even found a twelfth century example (from Caesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogue on Miracles) – and, stretching a point, the Book of Job can be considered a taproot text. (Bill and Ted, of course, beat Death at both Twister and Battleships in the course of their Bogus Journey). According to Leigh Hidell on rasfc, Leiber got an important piece of jargon wrong at the climax of the story – you don’t “crap out”, you “seven out”. Of course, as Frank M Robinson points out, the addiction that he was “really” writing about was alcohol, not gambling.

But I feel that despite the superb style and the passion of the central narrative, the story is let down by a few important details. First of all, the symbolism of what’s actually happening in The Boneyard isn’t very clear. The Big Gambler, vividly and unforgettably portrayed, is the Devil, of course; but then who is Mr Bones, the proprietor? If he is Death, then why is it not he, rather than the Big Gambler, who is represented by a skeleton? Are the chips meant to be other damned souls, or what? And what about the poet chap who gets gratuitously killed off – does he represent anyone in particular, or just local coloration? Perhaps I demand too much of my allegories, but this left me unsatisfied.

Second, the characters are all pretty unlikeable. Joe Slattermill sets off to deceive his wife, who he beats; she and her mother and even the cat are all pretty unpleasant house-mates anyway; the denizens of The Boneyard are just plain evil. In the hands of another author, it would be very difficult to care what happened to these people (as Dorothy Heydt might put it).

Third, the framing narrative simply adds to my confusion about What Is Really Going On. So the whole thing was a spell put on Joe by his Wife, his Mother and (for some reason) the cat, “to let him get a little ways away and feel half a man, and then come diving home with his fingers burned”? So where does the bread come into it? And if the Big Gambler was in fact just magicked bakery, then where did the rest of the crew in The Boneyard come from, especially the poet chap? Leiber himself provides an answer of sorts in his Dangerous Visions Afterword, but it doesn’t really help me:

The story of the bogeyman is the oldest and best in the world, because it is the story of courage, of fear vanquished by knowledge gained by plunging into the unknown at risk or seeming risk… For the modern American male, as for Joe Slattermill, the ultimate bogey may turn out to be the Mom figure: domineering-dependent Wife or Mother, exaggerating their claims on him beyond all reason and bound.

This must surely carry the blame for inspiring some of the tedious rants of Dave Sim in the later issues of Cerebus the Aardvark. I have big difficulty in seeing Joe Slattermill as a sympathetic representation of the American Everyman, and I do hope Leiber didn’t really mean this.

More helpfully, Leiber goes on to characterise the story as an “American tall-tale”, so my desperate attempts to Make Sense Of It All may have been misguided from the start, and I should just have sat back and allowed the narrative to wash over me.

Michael Swanwick subsequently wrote to me wondering…

…if your attempt to unravel it as an allegory didn’t mislead you. I’m sure Leiber had answers for your questions, but I doubt they would have much enriched your reading. Having spent a great deal of time trying to write stories very much like this one, it seems to me that while there must be such underlying explanations as a kind of logical skeleton to such a story, its virtues are much more visceral or even epidermal — surface pleasures, such as a child might get from it. Or maybe jazz would be a better analogy. There are structural depths, but they exist only to make what you hear possible.

He may well have been right.

The point that jumped out at me much more on this reading is the sheer misogyny of the story. I muttered above about the unnamed horror of the Wife and Mother; here are the two young women in the Boneyard:

Back a little from the other end was the nakedest change-girl yet and the only one he’d seen whose tray, slung from her bare shoulders and indenting her belly just below her breasts, was stacked with gold in gleaming little towers and with jet-black chips. While the dice-girl, skinnier and taller and longer armed than his Wife even, didn’t seem to be wearing much but a pair of long white gloves. She was all right if you went for the type that isn’t much more than pale skin over bones with breasts like china doorknobs.


Snapping his fingers at the nearest silver change-girl, Joe traded all his greasy dollars for an equal number of pale chips and tweaked her left nipple for luck. She playfully snapped her teeth toward his fingers.

I bet she did.

Other 1968 Hugo Best Novelette finalists: “Wizard’s World”, by Andre Norton; “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes”, by Harlan Ellison; and “Faith of Our Fathers”, by Philip K. Dick, the latter two being also in Harlan Ellison’s famous Dangerous Visions which I reviewed as a whole here.

Other 1967 Nebula Best Novelette finalists: “This Mortal Mountain”, by Roger Zelazny; “The Keys to December”, by Roger Zelazny; “Flatlander”, by Larry Niven; and “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes”, by Harlan Ellison, all collected in Nebula Award Stories 3 which I reviewed here.

Other 1968 Hugo winners: Lord of Light, by Roger Zelazny (best novel); “Weyr Search”, by Anne McCaffrey and “Riders of the Purple Wage”, by Philip Jose Farmer (best novella, joint winners); “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison (best short story)

Other winners of 1968 Nebulas: The Einstein Intersection, by Samuel R. Delany (best novel); “Behold The Man”, by Michael Moorcock (best novella); “Aye, And Gomorrah”, by Samuel R. Delany (best short story).

Next up is Delany’s “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones”.

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Orlando, by Virginia Woolf

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Orlando’s day was passed, it would seem, somewhat in this fashion. About seven, he would rise, wrap himself in a long Turkish cloak, light a cheroot, and lean his elbows on the parapet. Thus he would stand, gazing at the city beneath him, apparently entranced. At this hour the mist would lie so thick that the domes of Santa Sofia and the rest would seem to be afloat; gradually the mist would uncover them; the bubbles would be seen to be firmly fixed; there would be the river; there the Galata Bridge; there the green-turbaned pilgrims without eyes or noses, begging alms; there the pariah dogs picking up offal; there the shawled women; there the innumerable donkeys; there men on horses carrying long poles. Soon, the whole town would be astir with the cracking of whips, the beating of gongs, cryings to prayer, lashing of mules, and rattle of brass-bound wheels, while sour odours, made from bread fermenting and incense, and spice, rose even to the heights of Pera itself and seemed the very breath of the strident multi-coloured and barbaric population.

This is quite different from a lot of Woolf’s other work – much more accessibly written in some ways, and yet also the least naturalistic in that her title character is apparently immortal (or at least lives from the Elizabethan era until the end of the story in 1928) and changes gender, first from man to woman, and then more arbitrarily as the centuries pass. Of course, this doesn’t reflect the lived reality of the genderfluid, but it’s a really interesting approach to writing about the issue in a way that expresses some part of that lived reality, set against the cultural changes of the past 350 years. The Victorians come off as particularly awful, which may well be fair enough but of course is also a reaction against the obsessions of Woolf’s parents. I enjoyed it, in a different way to Woolf’s other work. Try it yourself if you like.

Loses significant points for racism, alas. The head of a decapitated Moor is a plaything throughout the book, and the sections in Constantinople are distinctly Orientalist. Woolf’s artistic sensibility was concentrated on England.

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Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, by Jane Hirshfield

Second paragraph of third essay:

Unease about translation does not just cover the exporting of texts into another language; their importation too can be problematic. Translation’s very existence challenges our understanding of what a literary text is. Further, by asserting that things worth knowing exist outside the home culture’s boundaries, translation challenges society as a whole. Translated works are Trojan horses, carriers of secret invasion. They open the imagination to new images and beliefs, new modes of thought, new sounds. Mistrust of translation is part of the instinctive immune reaction by which every community attempts to preserve its particular heritage and flavor: to control language is to control thought. The realization lends an extra dimension to the well-known Italian saying, “Traduttore, traditore” (Translator, traitor).

I’m not hugely into poetry, but I certainly don’t dislike it either, and this is a good approachable set of essays looking at what poetry is and what poets do, informed (often convincingly) by the author’s Buddhist philosophy. The chapters on translation are particularly good – it’s an issue I grapple with daily in my working life, though of course not usually for poetry.

I knew a lot of the poets quoted, but not necessarily the poems used; the ancient poetry is particularly gripping because of the distance from us in time. I love the eroticism of an Egyptian woman’s poem translated by Ezra Pound, and would be interested to find out more about the original:

I find my love fishing
His feet in the shallows.

We have breakfast together,
And drink beer.

I offer him the magic of my thighs
He is caught in the spell.

The more contemporary poet who particularly caught my attention was Czesław Miłosz:

Okno Window
Wyjrzałem przez okno o brzasku
i zobaczyłem młodą jabłonkę
przezroczystą w jasności.

A kiedy wyjrzałem znowu o brzasku
stała tam wielka jabłoń obciążona owocem.

Więc dużo lat pewnie minęło
ale nic nie pamiętam co zdarzyło się we śnie.

I looked out the window at dawn and saw a young apple tree
translucent in brightness.

And when I looked out at dawn once again, an apple tree laden with
fruit stood there.

Many years had probably gone by but I remember nothing of what
happened in my sleep.

Anyway, well worth getting.

This was both the top unread book acquired in 2010 on my unread shelf, and also the non-fiction work that had lingered there longest. Next in those piles respectively are Free Radical by Vince Cable and the Contes Fantastiques Complets by Guy de Maupassant.

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