Signs and Symbols Around the World, by Elizabeth S. Helfman

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Hieroglyphic writing included many signs that can be called pictographs. They are simplified pictures of things, some of them quite recognizable. But hieroglyphic writing was not picture writing in the same sense as American Indian picture writing. It was more than that, and it was much more complex.

Elizabeth S. Helfman (1911-2001) was my second cousin once removed. Her maiden name was Seaver and her father, my grandmother’s first cousin, was a well-known architect in western Massachusetts. She was trained as a teacher, and married an artist; she wrote a load of non-fiction books for younger readers, and also published one fantasy short story in 1987, which got a couple of best-of anthology reprints.

This is her top book on LibraryThing, due no doubt to a reprint in 2000, and was easy enough to get hold of. It’s a breezy account of how signs and symbols have been used from ancient times to the present day (ie 1973), going through hieroglyphs, pictograms, trademarks, alchemy, and her own particular enthusiasm, Blissymbolics, a writing system designed for people with communication difficulties (simple enough, but alas too advanced for my own daughters). The book is endorsed by Margaret Mead, yes, the real one. You can get it here.

Probably nobody else will do this, so here is her complete bibliography as far as I can establish it from the Library of Congress.

  • Trudy, the motherly hen; illustrated by Grace Paull (New York: J. Messner [1954])
  • Patsy Pat, a duck’s story. Photographed by Grete Mannheim (New York: Dutton, 1958)
  • Get ready to read (New York: Platt & Munk [1960])
  • Words, words, words; picture stories, rhymes and word games to build vocabulary in the early school years (New York: Platt & Munk [1960])
  • Water for the world, illustrated by James MacDonald (New York: Longmans, Green, 1960)
  • Land, people, and history (New York: D. McKay Co., 1962)
  • Milkman Freddy, illustrated by Zhenya Gay (Chicago: Melmont Publishers [1964])
  • Rivers and watersheds in America’s future (New York: D. McKay Co., 1965)
  • Strings on your fingers; how to make string figures, by Harry and Elizabeth Helfman, illustrated by William Meyerriecks (New York: William Morrow, 1965)
  • Signs and symbols around the world (New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Co. [1967])
  • Wheels, scoops, and buckets; how people lift water for their fields, illustrated by Eva Cellini (New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard [1968])
  • Celebrating nature; rites and ceremonies around the world, with drawings by Carolyn Cather (New York: Seabury Press [1969])
  • This hungry world (New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard [1970])
  • The Bushmen and their stories, with drawings by Richard Cuffari (New York: Seabury Press [1971])
  • Our fragile earth (New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Co. [1972])
  • Maypoles and wood demons; the meaning of trees, with drawings by Richard Cuffari (New York: Seabury Press [1972])
  • Signs and symbols of the sun (New York: Seabury Press [1974])
  • Apples, apples, apples (Nashville: T. Nelson, ?1977)
  • Blissymbolics, speaking without speech (New York: Elsevier/Nelson Books, ?1980)
  • Memories and shadows (South Thomaston, Maine: Produced in association with the Conservatory of American Letters and Northwoods Press, ?1990)
  • On being Sarah; illustrated by Lino Saffioti (Morton Grove, Ill.: A. Whitman, 1993)

And her one fantasy story, “Voices in the Wind”, which can be found in the following anthologies:

  • Spaceships and Spells, eds. Martin H. Greenberg, Charles G. Waugh, Jane Yolen (1987)
  • Demons and Dreams: The Best Fantasy and Horror 1 aka The Year’s Best Fantasy: First Annual Collection, eds. Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling (1988)
  • Visions of Fantasy: Tales from the Masters, eds. Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg (1989)

I’m very grateful to her son Robert Helfman for pointing me to these.

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Best Related Work Hugo, 2022

As previously, I’m not going to record my own preferences here, just the fact that I’ve read this category.

Being Seen: One Deafblind Woman’s Fight to End Ableism, by Elsa Sjunneson. Second paragraph of third chapter:

Your fingertips have been dulled over decades of use, used to blunt force instead of sensitive consideration of the subtle differences in a texture. You have no idea how to find the world beneath them until you’ve tried.

The Complete Debarkle: Saga of a Culture War, by Camestros Felapton. Second paragraph of third chapter:

Part 1 of our Debarkle saga is estories [sic] about the past. Most of them take place this century but some of the precursors to the events in our saga take place in the Twentieth Century. I can’t hope to do justice to the full breadth of science fiction’s history but I will be looking at selected events from that history that have repercussions to later events. What follows in this chapter is a whistle-stop tour over many decades up to the early 1990s to just briefly touch on some elements of the past that will re-appear later. We’ll touch briefly on the roots of early fandom but mainly highlight some parts of US history that will be important later.

Dangerous Visions and New Worlds: Radical Science Fiction, 1950 to 1985, edited by Andrew Nette and Iain McIntyre. Second paragraph of third essay (Radioactive Nightmares: Nuclear War in Science Fiction, by Andrew Nette):

One of the most chilling takes is American academic Mordecai Roshwald’s novel Level 7. An unnamed soldier is assigned to the lowest level of a massive selfsuffcient underground military complex, where he and hundreds of others are expected to reside forever. Known only as X-127, he is a “push-button offensive initiator” of his nation’s arsenal of intercontinental nuclear missiles. The story is told via X-127’s diary: his low spirits at never seeing the sun again, doubts about his job, the physical adjustment to living four thousand feet—over twelve hundred meters—underground. The monotony of level 7 life is interrupted only by the occasional directive from the speakers of an intercom system, their sole means of communicating with the other levels. The several hundred men and women of level 7 develop a strange ersatz version of society, complete with marriage and their own mythology to justify life underground to the children that will come from these unions. Then the order comes to launch the missiles.

“How Twitter can ruin a life”, by Emily St. James. Second paragraph of third section:

It’s incredibly hard to imagine “Attack Helicopter” receiving the degree of blowback it did in a world where Twitter didn’t exist. There were discussions of the story on forums and in comment threads all over the internet, but it is the nature of Twitter that all but ensured this particular argument would rage out of control. Isabel Fall’s story has been held up as an example of “cancel culture run amok,” but like almost all examples of cancel culture run amok, it’s mostly an example of Twitter run amok.

Never Say You Can’t Survive, by Charlie Jane Anders. Second paragraph of third chapter:

I had a severe learning disability in elementary school— I nearly flunked out of first grade, second grade, and third grade. I couldn’t hold a pencil right, no matter how many times people showed me, and when I tried to put words on paper, the outcome was an unreadable jumble. I sat and stared at my blank notebook page, inhaling the scent of stale PB&J crumbs and spilt chocolate milk, while the teacher got more frustrated and the other kids made fun of me.

True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee, by Abraham Riesman. Second paragraph of third chapter:

His schemes for departure from the comic-book trade in the 1940s and ’50s were varied, but they all hit dead ends for one reason or another: tragic luck, infertile business climate, deficit of inspiration, what have you. As a result, he never quit his day job. Timely Comics, or whatever it was called on a given week, continued to churn out four- color narratives, and Stan was back to being in charge of the whole line, despite his still- young age. Fago was relieved of his duties as head editor and would later note that Goodman, whatever his flaws, seemed to trust Stan. “Goodman never interfered with what Stan was doing,” Fago said. “He had faith in Stan. He knew Stan was in control and that his work was good.” Stan had associate editors, but was firmly in charge and trusted his gut instincts while navigating the waters of the adolescent comics industry— waters that would soon become dangerously choppy.

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The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit, by Simon Bucher-Jones (and Matt Jones)

Next in the excellent Black Archive line of short books about individual Doctor Who stories, this looks at a two-parter from Series 2 of New Who, a story where the Tenth Doctor and Rose are stranded on a planet orbiting a black hole which imprisons, well, the Devil. The author, Simon Bucher-Jones, has written several Who novels, and also did the Black Archive book on Image of the Fendahl (and a more recent one on The Hand of Fear). He does not mention if he is related to the author of the TV story, Matt Jones, but their surname is the fourth most common in England and the most common surname in Wales, so chances are that they are not.

I don’t seem to have made a note about this story when it was first broadcast. When I first rewatched it in 2013, I wrote:

 I fear this is becoming a boring refrain, but I had forgotten how good The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit actually is. I think it is our first proper base-under-siege story in New Who (perhaps arguments can be made for The End of the World or Dalek, but I won’t) and perhaps it’s a return to that comfort zone of Old Who, with the difference of a more diverse base crew than Old Who would have had (the black guy would never have been in command in the old days, and the smart woman would never have been chief scientist). The scarily different bit is not so much the monster – though it is well done, both the descent to the pit and the technical realisation of a superhuman incarnation of evil – but the Ood, who are very creepy indeed. Having a slave race never works out well in Who, but here the message is that by exploiting the Ood, humanity has opened a potential route for its own destruction. Terrific stuff.

Rewatching it now, I was again pleasantly surprised. David Tennant is always watchable, but here the chemistry between him and Billie Piper is at its peak. It also struck me that the plot element of the TARDIS being lost on a world where a more cosmic battle is playing out had been done before, and worse, in Frontios.

This is not one of the small (but growing) number of New Who stories to have been novelised, so I’ll jump straight into the Black Archive book, which is short and punchy.

The first chapter reflects on just how few New Who episodes are set on other planets, compared to most of Old Who (apart from the Pertwee era), the reasons for this, and how this shapes the sort of programme it becomes.

The second chapter, the longest in the book, goes in depth into the physics of black holes and how they are portrayed in fiction, notably in The Three Doctors in Old Who as well as the Disney film. I had not realised, or had forgotten, that the term “black hole” was coined as late as 1967, only a few years before The Three Doctors was shown.

The third chapter, almost as long, looks at the Devil as portrayed in Christianity, and satanic creatures as portrayed in science fiction (rather than fantasy) in general and Who in particular. Its second paragraph is (with footnotes):

As Sherlock Holmes – with whom the third Doctor has often been compared (as the Master has with Moriarty)119 – remarked, ‘The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply.’120 The Doctor might well have said in The Daemons, and almost will say in The Satan Pit, ‘The universe is big enough for us. No Devils from before it need apply.’
119 While the fourth Doctor dresses like him in The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977), the third arguably does so all the time: while he doesn’t affect a deerstalker like the theatrical or televisual Holmes, he does have an inverness travelling cape.
120 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘The Adventure of The Sussex Vampire’, The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes p73.

The fourth chapter looks much more briefly at the Ood and the problematics of slavery.

The fifth and final chapter looks even more briefly at the Doctor’s fear of domestication, ie of settling down with Rose, even though he obviously loves her.

A first appendix apparently has a graph in the paper version, absent from the electronic publication, listing all of the alien planets to date in Doctor Who.

A second and final appendix very briefly goes back to the Beast, making the connection with Sutekh and with Abaddon in Torchwood, points that I felt could actually have been folded into the third chapter.

As usual with these books, recommended, even though there’s very little about the production process of the TV show in this case. You can get it here.

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September 2016 books

This is the latest post in a series I started in late 2019, anticipating the twentieth anniversary of my bookblogging which will fall in 2023. Every six-ish days, I’ve been revisiting a month from my recent past, noting work and family developments as well as the books I read in that month. I’ve found it a pleasantly cathartic process, especially in recent circumstances. If you want to look back at previous entries, they are all tagged under bookblog nostalgia.

Lots of travel this month, starting rather sadly with a weekend trip to Brussels to say farewell to Ian Traynor. Back at home we had the traditional Dorpfeest, including children’s toy and game sale, and display by local artists including Anne:

Lots of travel, starting with a trip to London (and Oxford), including the Bagpuss and Clangers exhibition with S and little W (who has got a lot bigger since).

This was followed by a grim work trip to Dublin and Serbia in which my back was hurting so badly that I barely staggered out of bed to my meetings. At the end of the month I went to Amsterdam with my brother, mother and sister, and then on to Albania for my first meetings with the Foundation of which I am a trustee.

I read 18 books that month.

Non-fiction: 1 (YTD 32)
A History of the World in Twelve Maps, by Jerry Brotton

Fiction (non-sf): 5 (YTD 25)
Brother and Sister, by Joanna Trollope
Even Dogs in the Wild, by Ian Rankin
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce
Nemesis, by Philip Roth
The Dinner, by Herman Koch

sf (non-Who): 5 (YTD 72)
The Apex Book of World SF: Volume 4, ed. Mahvesh Murad
One Does Not Simply Walk into Tudor, by Ivery Kirk and Luna Teague
Cauldron, by Jack McDevitt
Unquenchable Fire, by Rachel Pollack
The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke

Doctor Who, etc: 4 (YTD 33)
Short Trips: A Day In The Life, ed. Ian Farrington
Independence Day, by Peter Darville-Evans
Return to the Fractured Planet, by Dave Stone
In The Blood, by Jenny Colgan

Comics: 3 (YTD 22)
Paper Girls, by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang
Prisoners of Time, by Scott and David Tipton
Toch Een Geluk, by Barbara Stok

6,200 pages (YTD 53,100 pages)
6/18 (YTD 57/183) by women (Trollope, Murad, Kirk/Teague, Pollack, Colgan, Stok)
2/18 (YTD 12/183) by PoC (Murad, Chiang)

Great to return to Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which you can get here; great to read Nemesis, by Philip Roth, which you can get here. Unimpressed by Peter Darville-Evans’ Independence Day, but you can get it here.

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Saturday reading

Current
The Monk, by Matthew Lewis (a chapter a week)
Half Life, by Shelley Jackson
Directed by Douglas Camfield, by Michael Seely
The Happier Dead, by Ivo Stourton

Last books finished
Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card
CBT Workbook, by Stephanie Fitzgerald
A Modern Utopia, by H. G. Wells
Mythos, by Stephen Fry
Dangerous Visions and New Worlds: Radical Science Fiction, 1950 to 1985, eds. Andrew Nette and Iain McIntyre
The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century, by Amia Srinivasan
True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee, by Abraham Riesman

Next books
Queen of the States, by Josephine Saxton
Monstress, Volume 6: The Vow, by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

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The Island of Missing Trees, by Elif Shafak; and a brief note on the Green Line in Nicosia

Second paragraph of third chapter:

The heat had started in the small hours of the morning, swiftly building up. Around ten o’clock, it had fully erupted into being, just after Turks and Greeks on each side of the Green Line had finished their morning coffees. Now it was past noon and the air was stiff, difficult to breathe. The roads were cracked in places, the tar melting in rivulets, the colour of charred wood. A car somewhere revved its engine, its rubber tyres struggling on the sticky asphalt. Then, silence.

A novel set in Cyprus and London, by well-known Turkish writer Elif Shafak, telling several parallel stories of forbidden love and tragic death from the points of view of the protagonists and also from the perspective of the fig tree in their garden, both on the smaller island and a shoot from it that is planted in the London garden. I confess that because I am already familiar with the history and current situation of Cyprus, I was not very surprised by any of it, and I found the imagery frankly a bit clunky (eg the parallel between the fig tree, buried for its own protection, and the corpses of civilians killed in 1974, thrown down a well to protect their killers). But if the novel brings the island’s story to a new generation of readers who aren’t as familiar with it, that’s fine by me. You can get it here.

Reading it did make me dig into the archives and find the original Green Line map of Nicosia as drawn by a British officer, Major-General Peter Young, in 1963, and compare it with the current situation (ie since 1974) on OpenStreetMaps. It’s striking that in the city centre, very little has changed at all, and there’s not a lot of difference in the nearer suburbs either. Further out, of course, is a different matter.

I used to have fantasies of some day opening a long-shut cupboard in the Green Zone to find a bunch of tapes of lost Doctor Who stories, abandoned by some luckless TV technician in 1974, but in fact now that I’ve established that the Green Zone in Nicosia is still basically where it was when established in 1963, I accept that this is never going to happen, especially not to me.

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I am the Master, by Peter Anghelides et al

Second paragraph of third story (“Missy’s Magical Mystery Mission”, by Jacqueline Rayner):

And so Daphne (‘Mrs N’ to her clients, although she wasn’t married), scrubbed Tivone of Enfis’s bathroom, steam-cleaned his oubliette and de-crumbed his toaster, hoping all the while her cheerful chat, homemade oat and raisin cookies and occasional casual mentions of how every person was worthy of rights and respect would make his heart shine, just a little bit. In return, Tivone of Enfis gave Mrs N a Festival of Snowtide bonus and a personalised bolo-card, included her in Team Tivone awaydays, and had refrained from having any of her relatives killed (although admittedly she didn’t have many relatives and if they’d shown any signs of seditious behaviour they’d have been for the chop, however well their sister / aunt / second-cousin-once-removed dusted his ornaments).

Six short stories about different incarnations of the Master, by Peter Anghelides (Delgado!Master), Mark Wright (Pratt/Beevors!Master), Jac Rayner (Missy), Mike Tucker (Ainley!Master), Beverley Sanford (Simm!Master) and Matthew Sweet (Dhawan!Master). I thought they were all pretty good; I expect that Matthew Sweet’s Soviet-era riff on a well-known novel, “The Master and Margarita”, will sail over some people’s heads but I enjoyed it too. Recommended. You can get it here.

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The Pilgrimage of Egeria

Books read:

The Pilgrimage of S. Silvia of Aquitania to the Holy Places (circa 385 A.D.), trans. John H. Bernard, with an appendix by Sir Charles William Wilson. Online here.
The Pilgrimage of Etheria, trans. M. L. McClure and C. L. Feltoe. Online here.
The Pilgrimage of Egeria: A New Translation, by Anne McGowan and Paul F. Bradshaw. You can get it here.

Second section of third chapter in the original Latin (as given here):

Hac sic ergo iubente Christo Deo nostro adiuta orationibus sanctorum, qui comitabantur, et sic cum grandi labore, quia pedibus me ascendere necesse erat (quia prorsus nec in sella ascendi poterat, tamen ipse labor non sentiebatur, ex ea parte autem non sentiebatur labor, quia desiderium, quod habebam, iubente Deo videbam compleri): hora ergo quarta pervenimus in summitatem illam montis Dei sancti Sina, ubi data est lex, in eo id est locum, ubi descendit maiestas Domini in ea die, qua mons fumigabat.

Second paragraph of third chapter, as given by McGowan and Bradshaw (who put footnote references at the start of the sections to which they refer, rather than the end):

2 So, by the will of Christ our God and helped by the prayers of the holy ones who were accompanying [us], and with great labor, it was necessary for me to ascend on foot because it was not possible to ascend in the saddle (however, the labor itself was not felt, but the labor was partly not felt because I saw the desire that I had being fulfilled by God’s will), at the fourth hour then we arrived at the summit of the holy mountain of God, Sinai, where the Law was given, that is, at the place where the glory of the Lord descended on that day when the mountain smoked.
2 The reference to the necessity to go on foot indicates that Egeria generally rode during her journeys, presumably on a donkey or mule, or possibly on a camel across desert regions; see also 7.7; 11.4; 14.1. For “the fourth hour,” see the Preface, p. vii, on the Roman divisions of the day. “When the mountain smoked” is a reference to Ex 19:18.

Same passage as given by McClure and Felton:

By this way, then, at the bidding of Christ our God, and helped by the prayers of the holy men who accompanied us, we arrived at the fourth hour, at the summit of Sinai, the holy mountain of God, where the law was given, that is, at the place where the Glory of the Lord descended on the day when the mountain smoked.1 Thus the toil was great, for I had to go up on foot, the ascent being impossible in the saddle, and yet I did not feel the toil, on the side of the ascent, I say, the toil, because I realized that the desire which I had was being fulfilled at God’s bidding.
1 Exod. xix. 18.

Same passage as given by Bernard:

And so, Christ our God commanding us, we were encouraged by the prayers of the holy men who accompanied us; and although the labour was great – for I had to ascend on foot, because the ascent could not be made in a chair – yet I did not feel it. To that extent the labour was not felt, because I saw that the desire which I had was being fulfilled by the command of God. At the fourth hour we arrived at that peak of Sinai, the holy Mount of God, where the law was given, i.e., at that place where the majesty of God descended on the day when the mountain smoked.18 
18 Exod. xix. 18.

Egeria is one of the really fascinating characters of late antiquity. She seems to have been an independent woman of means, from southern Gaul or possibly northern Spain, who went on a long journey to the Holy Land some time in the late fourth century – staying in Jerusalem for three years! – and wrote a detailed account to her lady friends back home, which survives in one eleventh-century manuscript (there are a couple of fragments elsewhere). The start and end of the document are lost, as are a couple of bits in the middle, but basically it’s in two halves: her journeys around Egypt, Palestine and Anatolia, and her description of Christian rituals in and around Jerusalem.

I mean, this is just extraordinary, isn’t it? Here we are in the not-quite-yet-fallen Roman Empire, and a single woman (if rich enough) can safely travel (well, with the occasional military escort) from one end of the Mediterranean to the other, to practice a religion which was actually illegal only a few decades earlier. It’s a fairly dry travelogue – no banter or hassle, just going from holy place to holy place to talk to the holy men and sometimes holy women – but the mind boggles that it was possible at all. There is only one other named living person, an old friend who she meets at the shrine of Thecla:

Nam inveni ibi aliquam amicissimam mihi, et cui omnes in oriente testimonium ferebant vitae ipsius, sancta diaconissa nomine Marthana, quam ego apud Ierusolimam noveram, ubi illa gratia orationis ascenderat; haec autem monasteria apotactitum seu virginum regebat. Quae me cum vidisset, quod gaudium illius vel meum esse potuerit, nunquid vel scribere possum?

For I found there someone very dear to me, and to whose way of life everyone in the east bore witness, a holy deaconess by the name of Marthana, whom I had known at Jerusalem, where she had gone up for the sake of prayer; she was governing cells of apotactitae or virgins. When she had seen me, surely I cannot write down what her joy and mine could have been? (McGowan and Bradshaw)

I was also fascinated by the second part, about the rituals of Jerusalem – and again, bear in mind that Christianity had only emerged a few decades previously as an official and powerful cult; this is all pretty new stuff, rather than ritual hallowed by millennia of tradition. The birth of Christ is celebrated on the Epiphany. Lent is a period of fasting which ends before Easter. Different churches in the Greater Jerusalem area all get their turn during the eight day period of the major feasts. I found the language arrangements particularly interesting:

Et quoniam in ea prouincia pars populi et grece et siriste nouit, pars etiam alia per se grece, aliqua etiam pars tantum siriste, itaque quoniam episcopus, licet siriste nouerit, tamen semper grece loquitur et nunquam siriste: itaque ergo stat semper presbyter, qui episcopo grece dicente siriste interpretatur, ut omnes audiant [ut omnes audiant] quae exponuntur.

Lectiones etiam, quecumque in ecclesia leguntur, quia necesse est grece legi, semper stat, qui siriste interpretatur propter populum, ut semper discant. Sane quicumque hic latini sunt, id est qui nec siriste nec grece nouerunt, ne contristentur, et ipsis exponitur eis, quia sunt alii fratres et sorores grecolatini, qui latine exponunt eis.

And because in that province some of the people know both Greek and Syriac, others Greek alone, and others only Syriac, and because the bishop, though he may know Syriac, however always speaks Greek and never Syriac, therefore a presbyter always stands by, who, when the bishop is speaking in Greek, translates into Syriac so that everyone may hear what is being explained.

The readings also that are read in church, because they must be read in Greek, someone always stands there to translate into Syriac for the sake of the people, so that they may always learn. Indeed, those who are Latin here, that is, who know neither Syriac nor Greek, lest they be disheartened, also have things explained to them, because there are other brothers and sisters who are bilingual who explain to them in Latin. (McGowan and Bradshaw)

Egeria herself would have been a Latin speaker; I wonder what the real balance of Syriac/Aramaic to Greek as native language was among the worshippers, beziehungsweise the inhabitants, of Jerusalem at the time.

I probably didn’t get as much out of this as someone who was really into the subject of early Christianity would do. I still found the narrative a breath of fresh air. We tend to think of early Christianity as being the dry-as-dust Church Fathers arguing with each other. This is a genteel lady wandering around the countryside and taking notes for her friends back home. It’s a wholly different perspective.

All three translations are worth looking at, but I think the most recent (McGowan and Bradshaw) is the best, and also has the most up-to-date speculation about the author. John Bernard’s St Silvia appears to have been someone else entirely, and McClure adn Feltoe have gone for a less documented spelling of her name.

I latched onto Egeria following a totally different train of thought. John Bernard, her early translator into English, also had a minor role in Irish history as leader of the Southern Unionists at the moment when their cause became utterly lost; he was Protestant Archbishop of Dublin and then Provost of Trinity College. While doing my PhD I went through his papers searching in vain for insights into his attitude to science. His notes on the fourth-century pilgrim would have been a more entertaining read.

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Speech and silence

Last week I had a work trip to Switzerland and Montenegro. (For unrelated reasons; the two appointments just happened to fall on adjacent days.) The last time I was in any German-speaking country was in February 2020, changing planes on the way to and from Gallifrey One; the last time I was in the former Yugoslavia was a year before that.

And gosh, it was quite a morale booster to feel that travel to other language zones is now possible again. Of course, I live in Flanders and work in Brussels, and in 2020 we went to my sister in Burgundy and on to Geneva, so French and Dutch have been constants in my life; but I also speak German fluently, and my Serbian / Croatian / Bosnian / Montenegrin is at advanced tourist level, so this was my first chance to speak those languages in a long time.

Speaking a familiar but different language is like changing gear mentally, or perhaps like driving a very different car, where the controls may be in a completely different place to where you normally find them. I joke that on some days when I go to work, I will have spoken three languages before I sit down at my desk (to family and train conductors); and on other days, I may not have spoken to anyone at all!

I’ve had the opposite side of the coin this week. When I went to hospital with COVID in November, they picked up a lump on my larynx, and after various backs and forths they removed it surgically (with a LASER) on Monday. Nothing alarming; a granuloma probably caused by acid reflux. My first time under a general anæsthetic, and that eerie experience of feeling the bathwater of consciousness draining away. (But where does it drain to?)

I’m fine – hardly even any physical discomfort (does the larynx even have pain sensors?) but the kicker is that I have to rest my voice until tomorrow, so I’m on my third day of enforced silence. I had to skip the British embassy reception for the Queen’s Jubilee last night, and a much anticipated conference today – not a lot of point in going to such events if you can’t talk to people. And for work I have been typing frantically into the chat during Zoom meetings, rather like a hybrid panel at a science fiction convention, but less fun.

Looking around for wisdom on this topic, I found a blog post by Hannah Little (hi, Hannah!) about the theories of why the human larynx is located lower in the throat that its equivalent in other primates. She cites an hypothesis of Mark Jones that the lowered larynx reduces the amount of lung compression needed to achieve speaking pressure, creating the ability to be louder and have lower resonances. That was in 2010 and doesn’t seem to have been published yet, but I find it convincing.

On the plus side, I took an extended lunch break yesterday to visit B. She was able to talk a little when she was two, but has not said a word for the last twenty-two years. She is still very capable of communicating – she was glad to see us, and also made it clear when she thought that our walk in the park was over. As ever, I need to improve my selfie game. And I am looking forward to talking again for myself tomorrow.

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May books

Non-fiction 16 (YTD 45)
Carnival of Monsters, by Ian Potter
Thursday’s Child, by Maralyn Rittenour
Pigs Might Fly: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd, by Mark Blake
Queens of the Crusades, by Alison Weir
A Norman Legacy, by Sally Harpur O’Dowd
Tower, by Nigel Jones
The Pilgrimage of S. Silvia of Aquitania to the Holy Places (circa 385 A.D.), trans. John H. Bernard, with an appendix by Sir Charles William Wilson.
The Pilgrimage of Etheria, trans. M. L. McClure and C. L. Feltoe
Signs and Symbols Around the World, by Elizabeth S. Helfman
The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit, by Simon Bucher-Jones
The Pilgrimage of Egeria: A New Translation, by Anne McGowan and Paul F. Bradshaw
Terrorism In Asymmetric Conflict: Ideological and Structural Aspects, by Ekaterina A. Stepanova
Marco Polo, by Dene October
The Halls of Narrow Water, by Bill Hall
Never Say You Can’t Survive, by Charlie Jane Anders
CBT Workbook, by Stephanie Fitzgerald

Poetry 1
The Sun is Open, by Gail McConnell

Non-genre 1 (YTD 9)
The Island of Missing Trees, by Elif Shafak

SF 11 (YTD 43)
The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, by Becky Chambers
Light from Uncommon Stars, by Ryka Aoki
A Master of Djinn, by P. Djélì Clark
Flicker, by Theodore Roszak
Stardust, by Neil Gaiman
Demons and Dreams: Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror v. 1, eds. Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
She Who Became the Sun, by Shelly Parker-Chan
Mort, by Terry Pratchett
Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card
A Modern Utopia, by H. G. Wells
Mythos, by Stephen Fry

Doctor Who 3 (YTD 18)
Unofficial Doctor Who Annual 1987, ed. Mark Worgan
I am the Master, by Peter Anghelides et al
Doctor Who – Marco Polo, by John Lucarotti

9,700 pages (YTD 31,500), median 322 (YTD 205)
median LT ownership 83 (Queens of the Crusades / Never Say You Can’t Survive); YTD 72.5
15/32 (YTD 47/120) by non-male writers (Rittenour, Weir, Harpur O’Dowd, 3x Egeria and commentators, Helfman, Stepanova, Anders, Fitzgerald, Shafak, Aoki, Datlow/Windling, Parker-Chan)
4/32 (YTD 16/120) by non-white writers (Shafak, Aoki, Clark, Parker-Chan)

329 books currently tagged “unread”, 3 less than last month

Reading now
The Monk, by Matthew Lewis (a chapter a week)
The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century, by Amia Srinivasan
Half Life, by Shelley Jackson

Coming soon (perhaps)
The Happier Dead, by Ivo Stourton
Queen of the States, by Josephine Saxton
Monstress, Volume 6: The Vow, by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
No-Nonsense Guide to Global Media, by Peter Steven
Junker: een Pruisische blues, by Simon Spruyt
Killdozer!, by Theodore Sturgeon
Intimacy, by Jean Paul Sartre
The Darwin Awards, by Wendy Northcutt
Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie
Make Your Brain Work, by Amy Brann
Lenin the Dictator, by Victor Sebestyen
Fugitive Telemetry, by Martha Wells (2021)
The Massacre of Mankind, by Stephen Baxter
Roger Zelazny’s Chaos and Amber, by John Betancourt
The Harp and the Blade, by John Myers Myers
The Revolution Trade, by Charles Stross
The Light Fantastic, by Terry Pratchett
“Tangents”, by Greg Bear
Mr Britling Sees it Through, by H. G. Wells
End of the World Blues, by Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Manifesto, by Bernardine Evaristo

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August 2016 books

This is the latest post in a series I started in late 2019, anticipating the twentieth anniversary of my bookblogging which will fall in 2023. Every six-ish days, I’ve been revisiting a month from my recent past, noting work and family developments as well as the books I read in that month. I’ve found it a pleasantly cathartic process, especially in recent circumstances. If you want to look back at previous entries, they are all tagged under bookblog nostalgia.

We spent the first half of the month in Loughbrickland as usual, and saw the Red Arrows fly over Tyrella Beach:

We met the Tandragee Man.

My cousin L asked me to be godfather to her baby E, and I accepted.

Taking a winding way back to Belgium, we encountered dead King John, live Chris Priest and Nina Allan, and Stone’enge.

I read 26 books that month.

Non-fiction: 2 (YTD 31)
Drama and Delight: The Life of Verity Lambert, by Richard Marson
Ghastly Beyond Belief, eds. Neil Gaiman and Kim Newman

Fiction (non-sf): 1 (YTD 20)
The Beggar Maid, by Alice Munro

Play scripts: 7
Dido, Queen of Carthage, by Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nashe
The First Part of Tamburlaine the Great, by Christopher Marlowe
The Second Part of Tamburlaine the Great, by Christopher Marlowe
The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe
The Jew of Malta, by Christopher Marlowe
Edward the Second, by Christopher Marlowe
The Massacre At Paris, by Christopher Marlowe

sf (non-Who): 11 (YTD 67)
The Host, by Peter Emshwiller
Merchanter’s Luck, by C.J. Cherryh
The Last Theorem, by Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl
Oracle, by Ian Watson
A Voyage to Arcturus, by David Lindsay
Robot Dreams, by Isaac Asimov
The Sea and Summer, by George Turner
Planet of Judgement, by Joe Haldeman
The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny, Vol 3: This Mortal Mountain
Cuckoo Song, by Frances Hardinge
Watership Down, by Richard Adams

Doctor Who, etc: 3 (YTD 29)
Short Trips: Seven Deadly Sins, ed. David Bailey
Atom Bomb Blues, by Andrew Cartmel
Tears of the Oracle, by Justin Richards

Comics: 2 (YTD 19)
Alice in Sunderland: An Entertainment, by Bryan Talbot
Les Lumières de l’Amalou, by Christophe Gibelin and Claire Wendling

6,600 pages (YTD 46,900 pages)
4/26 (YTD 51/165) by women (Munro, Cherryh, Hardinge, Wendling)
0/26 (YTD 10/165) by PoC

I hugely enjoyed returning to Watership Down, which you can get here, and discovering Edward II and The Jew of Malta, which are included here, and Alice in Sunderland, which you can get here. On the other hand, as usual for that author, I bounced off Merchanter’s Luck by C.J. Cherryh; you can get it here.

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The Hear Here exhibition in Leuven

There’s an exhibition on in Leuven at present featuring fifteen works involving sound in one way or another, in different historic locations around the city. F and I did it in two hours this afternoon; it is only on until 6 June, so you will need to hurry.

The standout exhibit – for me and for other visitors whose photos I have seen online – is a piece called “Clinamen” by Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, a couple of dozen porcelain bowls gently colliding in a pool located in the Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-ter-Koorts chapel. Really rather soothing.


The best of the others is called “Antenna”, by Floris Vanhoof: a grand piano stood on its edge, being “played” by the signals picked up by a large hexagonal antenna on top of it, in the Bac Art Lab at Vital Decosterstraat 102.

I have to say that some of the rest left me rather unmoved, but those two pieces alone are well worth looking at. You can pick up a guide at the tourist office in Leuven, as long as you get there before the exhibition’s last day, tomorrow week.

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Saturday reading

Current
The Monk, by Matthew Lewis (a chapter a week)
Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card
CBT Workbook, by Stephanie Fitzgerald
A Modern Utopia, by H. G. Wells

Last books finished
A Master of Djinn, by P. Djélì Clark
Terrorism In Asymmetric Conflict: Ideological and Structural Aspects, by Ekaterina A. Stepanova
Marco Polo, by Dene October
Flicker, by Theodore Roszak
Stardust, by Neil Gaiman
Demons and Dreams: Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror v. 1, eds. Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
She Who Became the Sun, by Shelly Parker-Chan
The Halls of Narrow Water, by Bill Hall
Mort, by Terry Pratchett
Never Say You Can’t Survive, by Charlie Jane Anders

Next books
The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century, by Amia Srinivasan
Half Life, by Shelley Jackson

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Stardust: film and novel

Stardust won the 2008 Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form, beating the first season of Heroes, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Enchanted and The Golden Compass. It was way ahead at nominations stage and while it had a closer run on the final ballot, it was ahead on every count. I have seen none of the other finalists; from the long list, I have seen the Zemeckis Beowulf and Vadim Jean’s Hogfather, and would confidently put Stardust way above both.

It rates 6th on one IMDB ranking but only 28th on the other. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and Transformers are both ranked ahead of it by IMDB users but were way down the Hugo ballot. No Country for Old Men won that year’s Oscar.

Lots and lots of crossovers with Doctor Who and with previous Oscar and Hugo winners. The one actor who ticks all three boxes is however invisible here: Ian McKellen is the narrator, having previously been Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings films; he would go on to be the voice of the Great Intelligence in the 2012 Eleventh Doctor story, The Snowmen.

Here after appearing in two Oscar winners is Peter O’Toole as the dying King, having previously been the tutor of The Last Emperor in 1987 and Lawrence of Arabia in 1962.

The bishop is played by Struan Rodger, who had been the voice of the Face of Boe in the Tenth Doctor stories Gridlock (2006) and New Earth (2007), went on to be the voice of Kasaavin in the Thirteenth Doctor story Spyfall (2020) and appeared on screen as Ashildr’s butler Clayton in the Twelfth Doctor story The Woman Who Lived (2015); but many years before was also Sandy McGrath in Chariots of Fire.

Rupert Everett, who plays Secundus, the first prince to be bumped off, was Marlowe in Shakespeare in Love.

David Walliams, who is Quintus, another dead prince, here, played the cringing alien Gibbis in the Eleventh Doctor story The God Complex.

Mark Williams is the man-who-is-really-a-goat here, was in both Shakespeare in Love as Nol and in several Eleventh Doctor stories as Rory’s father.

Spencer Wilding, one of the pirates, has played several roles in Doctor Who but is heavily masked in all of them.

Last but definitely not least, Robert de Niro is Captain Shakespeare here; we have previously seen him in two other Oscar winners, Mike in The Deer Hunter and the young Don in The Godfather II.

For once, I had actually seen this in the cinema when it first came out. It is great fun, even if all of the speaking characters are white and almost all of them are slim and beautiful. Claire Danes and Michelle Pfeiffer do convincing English accents. The cinematography is lovely, the acting spot-on, and the script sufficiently funny that we almost accept the skeeviness of much of the plot – that our hero forcibly abducts our heroine in order to trade her, as property, to buy his way into a relationship with the woman he thinks he wants; and how come Una can’t rule Stormhold in her own right as the only surviving child of the old King?

Robert de Niro completely steals the show as the cross-dressing pirate airship captain, making us wonder why we care about these young folks, just about managing to rise above the stereotypes. I really enjoyed watching it again.

The second paragraph of the third chapter of the original novel is:

The eighty-first Lord of Stormhold lay dying in his chamber, which was carved from the highest peak like a hole in a rotten tooth. There is still death in the lands beyond the fields we know.

When I first read it in 2007, I wrote:

A very enjoyable fairy tale by Gaiman. As ever I find myself spotting similarities with Sandman (in this case, the supernatural siblings, and the half-human heir), but I felt he had rung the changes here rather effectively, and the story combines lovely incidental detail with a good sound (if traditional) plot. Great fun.

I had forgotten just how different it is from the film. It’s darker and sexier, as you would expect from Gaiman; the fallen star breaks her leg as she lands at the start of the story, and is disabled for the rest of the book; there are many more diversionary adventures and no big fight scenes; the pirates play a much smaller role; and of course it feels more English than you get from the Scottish and Icelandic filming. I still enjoyed it though. You can get it here.

Next up is WALL-E, followed by Slumdog Millionaire.

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Tower, by Nigel Jones

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Blatantly ignoring the sacred rule of holy sanctuary, Henry [II] had Hubert [de Burgh] dragged from a chapel in Brentwood, Essex, where he had taken refuge. The fallen nobleman was placed on a ‘miserable jade’ with his legs tied under the nag’s belly and ‘ignominiously conveyed to the Tower’. Here, where the constable had so recently commanded, Hubert was clapped in chains and thrown into a dungeon. The old man — he was in his sixties — stayed until pressure from the Church made Henry change tactics. He returned Hubert to the chapel, but placed guards around the building to ensure no food was brought in. Hubert was literally starved out, and a blacksmith summoned to clamp the old warrior back in irons.

I bought this when we actually visited the Tower in 2017, partly out of general interest but mainly because I wanted to get a little more on the gruesome death of my ancestor and namesake, Sir Nicholas White, while a prisoner in the Tower of London in 1592 (or possibly 1593).

It’s a rollicking good book on British political history between the construction of the Tower in the eleventh century, and its transformation from security asset to tourism spot in the nineteenth century, and how that affected the building – most often of course as a prison and place of execution for those who had fallen out with the state, but also as a centre of administration, in particular as the location of the Mint.

But the gore is the point. Two kings of England were murdered there in the late fifteenth century (Henry VI and Edward V). Two of Henry VIII’s queens were executed there (Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard). Thomas More ends up there. So does Samuel Pepys, for a while. Unfortunately Jones doesn’t mention either Sir John Perrot or my ancestor who was brought down in his wake.

I’d hoped for a little more. A book about the exercise of state coercive power and government-sanctioned violence could surely have interrogated these concepts a bit. There’s also a whole city outside the gates which underwent its own transformations – there are a couple of moments when the two intersect (the Peasants’ Revolt; the Great Fire) but otherwise thebook treats them rather separately. So it’s a good starting point, but I’m going to have to dig further.

You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2017. Next on that pile is The Revolution Trade, by Charles Stross.

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A Norman Legacy, by Sally Harpur O’Dowd

Second paragraph of third chapter:

There is a record of King John of England staying with Balthazar [Whyte] at Ballymorran Castle, one of the homes of the Whyte family, in July 1210 on his second expedition to Ireland.

Sally is my fourth cousin once removed; her mother was from the de Burgh Whyte branch of the family (like Lady de la Beche, Amy Dillwyn and Gladys Sandes) and her first cousin once removed works in Brussels (C, sister of K and mother of F2). This is a slim book (160pages) which pulls together the basics of the Whyte family history, which theoretically goes back to the Norman invasion of Ireland, and goes through our common ancestors to the present day.

It’s a labour of love, and while I disagree with some of the statements (there is, in fact, a Kingsmeadow House in Waterford; also, rather than dating from 1752, the “de Burgh Whyte” surname doesn’t seem to have been used before the 1840s), I found some new material too. There’s not a lot to say about the more obscure ancestors, but Sally bulks it out well with information about the genealogies of the women they married, which in most cases is as firm (or as nebulous) as what we have on the Whytes.

The most interesting suggestion is that my 8xgreat-grandfather Andrew Whyte/White, son of the Elizabethan Sir Nicholas White and father of the seventeenth century Sir Nicholas White, died in the service of the Crown in 1599, despite having previously fallen under suspicion for papistry. I need to dig into this more, but there seems to me to be an indication that he was spying on Irish exiles in, wait for it, Leuven. His father had died a prisoner in the Tower of London just a few years earlier.

Probably the most famous person directly mentioned here is Keith Kyle, a fairly prominent lefty British journalist of the later twentieth century, who married Sally’s older sister; here he is reporting from Brussels sixty years ago this month on the UK’s first bid to join the EEC.

As I said, a labour of love. You can get it here.

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The Sun is Open (and Type Face), by Gail McConnell

Third page:

our house was on a street that 
slanted at the bottom a 
carriageway you didn't cross 
four lanes all going fifty to 
a roundabout nearby the dog 
next door was Honey 
a lab as old as me who loved 
to lie on the just 
cut lawn and sniff her tail 
going in the afternoon sun

I like to track the winners of the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize because of my own past association with it, and was really interested to see that earlier this month it went to a book of poetry, The Sun is Open, by QUB-based writer Gail McConnell. In fact the 119 pages of text are one long poem broken into chunks, playing with text and with font colour, processing the writer’s reaction to going through a box of her father’s things, long after he died in 1984 at 35, shot dead by the IRA while checking under his car for bombs, in front of his wife and his then three-year-old daughter.

Gail McConnell barely remembers her father and has no memory of that awful day, but of course it has affected her whole life, and the poetry captures that disruption and the effect of engaging with her father through a box of personal souvenirs, most notably a diary and a Students Union handbook from his own time at QUB. There is some incredible playing with structure – quotations from the box are in grey text, documents are quoted in fragments to let us fill in the blanks, at one point the page fills with vertical bars to symbolise the prison where her father worked. It’s provocative and unsettling, and meant to be. You can get it here.

This moved me to seek out an earlier poem by Gail McConnell, Type Face, which you can read here. It’s funnier, though the humour is rather dark; the theme is that it explains her reaction to reading the Historical Enquiries Team report into her father’s murder, and discovering that it was written in Comic Sans. The third verse is:

‘Nothing can separate me from the Love of God
in Christ Jesus Our Lord’. Nothing can, indeed.
I am guided by Google, my mother by Christ.
Awake most nights, I click and swipe.
I search and find Bill McConnell Paint and Body.
Under new management!!!!! Northeast Tennessee.
Where is God in a Messed-up World? Inside the Maze.
(My phone flashes up a message like a muse.)
Straight & Ready: A History of the 10th Belfast
Scout Group. (35) (PO) (IRA)
– for more and a photograph, push this link>>
the maroon death icon on CAIN.ulst.ac.uk
You visited this page on 06/02/15.
And here I am again.
And in The Violence of Incarceration
(Routledge, 2009), eds. Phil Scraton
and Jude McCulloch (page thirty-three), he
‘oversaw, but later denied in court, the brutality
of prison guards, [and] was executed by the IRA
on the 8 March 1984.’ (He’d been dead two days
by then.) Execute. Late Middle English:
from Latin exsequi ‘follow up, punish’.
There’s a listing on victims.org.uk,
‘an [sic] non-sectarian, non-political’ nook
complete with Union Jack and Ulster flag
campaigning pics, the Twitter feeds and tags,
a calendar and videos. Powered by WordPress.
And then there’s Voices from The Grave (and this
one’s hard to bear, though can I say so? I don’t know.
I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.)
I won’t write down the page. But something in me,
seeing that crazed portrait – something’s relieved.

Really good stuff, and very different in presentation from The Sun is Open. Both are recommended.

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July 2016 books

This is the latest post in a series I started in late 2019, anticipating the twentieth anniversary of my bookblogging which will fall in 2023. Every six-ish days, I’ve been revisiting a month from my recent past, noting work and family developments as well as the books I read in that month. I’ve found it a pleasantly cathartic process, especially in recent circumstances. If you want to look back at previous entries, they are all tagged under bookblog nostalgia.

July started with my personal Brexit bonuses as I gave talks on the subject in Birmingham and, more exotically, Portland, Oregon. Pleased with this picture of one of the Cascades, probably Mount Rainier, from the plane.

On the Portland trip I started off with a couple of days in Washington, taking in a Chinese TV interview on the issues of the day.

I also had work trips to Belgrade (not as enjoyable as usual) and to Dublin (more fun), and we finished the month in Loughbrickland at the start of our holiday.

Thanks to various daytime travels, I read 30 books that month.

Non-fiction: 9 (YTD 29)
Fanny Kemble and the Lovely Land, by Constance Wright
The Cuckoo’s Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage, by Cliff Stoll
Hamilton: The Revolution, by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter
Boy, by Roald Dahl
Empire of Mud, by J.D. Dickey
Between structure and No-thing: An annotated reader in Social and Cultural Anthropology, ed. Patrick J. Devlieger
Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, by Svetlana Alexievich
Tove Jansson: Work and Love, by Tuula Karjalainen
Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Fiction (non-sf): 5 (YTD 19)
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: A Novel in Cartoons, by Jeff Kinney
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules, by Jeff Kinney
Tales from the Secret Annexe, by Anne Frank
A Delicate Truth, by John le Carré
Holes, by Louis Sachar

sf (non-Who): 9 (YTD 56)
The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester
The Secret History of Science Fiction, ed. James Patrick Kelly & John Kessel
Gráinne, by Keith Roberts
Corona, by Greg Bear
Islands in the Sky, by Arthur C. Clarke
The Sands of Mars, by Arthur C. Clarke
Earthlight, by Arthur C Clarke
Galileo’s Dream, by Kim Stanley Robinson
Doctor Dolittle in the Moon, by Hugh Lofting

Doctor Who, etc: 4 (YTD 26)
Short Trips: A Christmas Treasury, ed. Paul Cornell
The Algebra of Ice, by Lloyd Rose
Dead Romance, by Lawrence Miles
Lethbridge-Stewart: Beast of Fang Rock, by Andy Frankham-Allan

Comics: 3 (YTD 17)
The Divine, by Boaz Lavie, Asaf Hanuka and Tomer Hanuka
Invisible Republic, Vol 1, by Corinna Bechko and Gabriel Hardman
Bétélgeuse v.5: L’Autre, by Leo

7,500 pages (YTD 40,100 pages)
6/30 (YTD 47/139) by women (Wright, Alexievich, Karjalainen, Frank, Rose, Bechko)
2/30 (YTD 10/139) by PoC (Miranda, Coates)

The two best of these were about race and America, the Hamiltome, which you can get here, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and me, which you can get here. I bounced off the Diary of a Wimpy Kid, but you can get it here.

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Queens of the Crusades, by Alison Weir

Second paragraph of third chapter:

His [Henry II’s] father, Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, was a vassal of the King of France and had been nicknamed ‘Plantagenet’ after the sprig of broom — Planta genista — that he wore in his hat (the name was not adopted as a royal surname until the fifteenth century). Henry II and his sons founded the Angevin royal dynasty, but the county of Anjou was lost to England in the thirteenth century, so modern historians have come to use the surname Plantagenet for them and their descendants, who ruled England until 1485.

A good chunky book about the queens of England from Eleanor of Aquitaine (Henry II) to Eleanor of Castile (Edward I), including therefore also Berengaria of Navarre (Richard I), Isabella of Angouleme (John) and Eleanor (here Alienor) or Provence (Henry III). Weir has already published entire books about two of these (the first of the Eleanors and Isabella) and they rather dominate the narrative; in particular, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who is everyone’s favourite of course, dies on page 186 of a 400-page book.

As narrative history it feels fairly complete. I am much more familiar with Eleanor and her children than with the second half of the story, and it filled in some gaps in my knowledge; in particular, I had no idea that Berengaria of Navarre had quite an interesting career as dowager queen, living another 30 years after Richard I was killed. The details of Henry III’s hapless reign were also largely new to me.

However, it would have been interesting also to interrogate the role of women in medieval politics. All of these queens were sometimes able to exercise legal authority and issue their own decisions; at other times they were not. What was the difference? What were the expectations of women in public life at that time? Weir does describe how the queens are portrayed in art, but without a lot of context for us to see how this compares with the portrayal of other women, or indeed men.

So, a slightly old-fashioned book, but full of interesting stuff. You can get it here.

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The Eighth of March 2: Protectors of Time

A set of three plays from Big Finish all starring women from the Whoniverse – in fact, all bringing women characters together from the TV shows who did not meet on screen, or only met once – produced for International Women’s Day this year (they did the same in 2020, but I don’t seem to have reviewed that box set, though I enjoyed it too).

The first of these, Stolen Futures by Lizbeth Myles, is a sequel to the enigmatic Fourth Doctor story Warrior’s Gate, directed by Louise Jameson, following Lalla Ward’s Romana and John Leeson’s K9 as they start to liberate the Tharils from oppression, with Big Finish stalwart John Dorney and Louise Jameson’s ex David Warwick in the cast. It may not make much sense to you if you don’t remember Warrior’s Gate, but I do remember Warrior’s Gate and I really loved it; a strong concept and a strong script.

I’m apparently in a minority in not loving the middle play, Prism by Abigail Burdess. It brings together Georgia Tennant as Jenny, the Doctor’s Daughter, and Michelle Ryan as Lady Christina de Souza, in an adventure with a large, possibly very large diamond. I had some difficulty following the plot and the two leads are very similar to each other in character and voice.

But I felt we were cooking on gas again with the last of the three, The Turn of the Tides by Nina Millns (like Abigail Burdess a new writer for the Whoniverse). Here we have Katy Manning’s Jo Jones (nee Grant) and Anjli Mohindra’s Rani Chandra reunited, in the Amazon, with a UNIT character who I confess I had forgotten about, facing global catastrophe. It’s very much in tune with the times and also a nice nostalgia moment for Jo and (vicariously) Sarah Jane Smith.

Anwyay, all three are recommended, and you can get them here.

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Saturday reading

Current
The Monk, by Matthew Lewis (a chapter a week)
Flicker, by Theodore Roszak
Demons and Dreams: Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror v. 1, eds. Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
A Master of Djinn, by P. Djélì Clark

Last books finished
I am the Master, by Peter Anghelides et al
The Island of Missing Trees, by Elif Shafak
The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit, by Simon Bucher-Jones
Doctor Who – Marco Polo, by John Lucarotti
The Pilgrimage of Egeria: A New Translation, by Anne McGowan and Paul F. Bradshaw

Coming next, perhaps
Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card
Mort, by Terry Pratchett

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The brief cinematic career of Sally Seaver (1928-1963)

In my genealogical researches, the only relative on my father’s side to have made even a minimal impact in the entertainment industry who I’ve found is Sally Seaver, my third cousin, the second oldest of the great-great-grandchildren of William Charlton Hibbard and Sarah Anne Smith (she had an older sister, Janet). Born in 1928, two weeks before my father (her father Talcott Seaver was his second cousin), she had a brief career in Hollywood; she was announced as the female lead in the 1950 Kim, starring Errol Flynn and a very young Dean Stockwell, but that didn’t work out and the part went instead to Laurette Luez.

Sally then had four very small parts in films in 1952-1953:

In Aladdin and his Lamp (1952), she is credited as a dancing girl, but does not actually dance;
In Skirts Ahoy! (1952), she is one of a large number of extras in the women’s naval training station scenes;
In The Merry Widow (1952), she is one of many girls at Maxim’s under the spell of Fernando Lamas as Count Danilo;
And finally in Off Limits aka Military Policemen (1953), she is one of many women fighting for the affections of Bob Hope, as “Maddy”, her only speaking part.

Here they are.

I do see a bit of a resemblance with my aunt Ursula, who was herself at one time a professional singer.

Sally died in 1963, aged only 35. She was married four times, and I am in touch with her son Michael from her first marriage, her only child, who helped me identify her in these scenes. I actually made contact with him through myheritage.com – the only person who I’ve got to know through that site. Michael is the oldest of the 3xgreat-grandchildren of William and Sarah Hibbard; my niece S, born more than sixty years after him, is the youngest and likely to stay that way.

(click to embiggen)

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Unofficial Doctor Who Annual 1987, ed. Mark Worgan

Second paragraph of third section (“Rogues: The Battling Time Lords”, by Rob Levy):

While planning Season 8, producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks decided to give Jon Pertwee’s third Doctor his own proper archenemy. Using the Sherlock Holmes/Professor Moriarty template as a guide, they birthed the Master, a mysterious antagonist that was the antithesis of the Doctor in almost every way.

Another of the unofficial Doctor Who annuals for the years when Old Who missed out, this time featuring the Sixth Doctor and (mostly) Peri and (sometimes) the Ainley!Master. Shorter than the Unofficial 1972 Annual. Two successive stories feature carnivorous plants, which is a bit of an editorial slip. The one I liked best was “A Weaponised Personality” by Christopher Swain-Tran. Out of print.

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Pigs Might Fly: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd, by Mark Blake

Second paragraph of third chapter:

The year of 1966 would be a causal one for rock music and popular culture as a whole. The Beatles released Revolver – an album filled with exotic sounds that reflected the group’s LSD experiences – Cream, rock’s first so-called super-group, began inventing heavy metal; while Jimi Hendrix wowed London’s clubland with his dazzling, pyrotechnic approach to playing the electric guitar. In London, a collision of fashion, art and music was slowly taking effect, and would peak during the following year’s so-called Summer of Love.

Inspired to get this by the V&A exhibition a few years back. Starts with an in-depth account of the Live 8 reunion, which I read while rewatching the actual event. It’s more comprehensive and detailed than Nick Mason’s book, but less funny; it does address some points that Mason doesn’t, notably how the band handled rapidly becoming rich but also looking at the importance of the Cambridge roots (which Mason wasn’t part of) and the art that went with the albums and concerts (which Mason wasn’t as interested in). Very detailed, but didn’t quite sing to me. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2019. Next on that pile is The Harp and the Blade, by John Myers Myers.

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June 2016 books

This is the latest post in a series I started in late 2019, anticipating the twentieth anniversary of my bookblogging which will fall in 2023. Every six-ish days, I’ve been revisiting a month from my recent past, noting work and family developments as well as the books I read in that month. I’ve found it a pleasantly cathartic process, especially in recent circumstances. If you want to look back at previous entries, they are all tagged under bookblog nostalgia.

The major development of June 2016 was the Brexit referendum, which of course went the wrong way. I wrote to over a thousand British friends in the days immediately before, pleading with them to vote Remain; I led with the likely impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland, which really was not too hard to foresee. Shell-shocked the day after, I wrote this reaction with a colleague, most of which turned out to be right. I am still resentful and angry about Brexit, though I am also pretty clear that it will not be reversed any time soon. What a shame.

My major trip of June 2016 was to Northern Ireland for my great-aunt’s 100th birthday. She is still going strong and will turn 106 next month. (Sadly her oldest daughter, on the left here, has since passed away.)

I had two work-related trips as well, one at the start of the month in London, where I took in a Comics Museum exhibition of the work of Doctor Who illustrator Chris Achilleos:

And one at the end of the month to Barcelona.

It was also the month of the Belgium/Ireland match in the European Championships; out local pub allowed space for our Irish neighbours and us despite the general Belgitude.

Despite everything I read 22 books that month.

Non-fiction: 3 (YTD 20)
Between Light and Shadow: An Exploration of the Fiction of Gene Wolfe, 1951 to 1986, by Marc Aramini (not finished)
SJWs Always Lie: Taking Down the Thought Police, by Vox Day (not finished)

The 4-Hour Workweek, by Timothy Ferriss

Fiction (non-sf): 5 (YTD 14)
Selected Stories, by Alice Munro
The Unicorn Hunt, by Dorothy Dunnett
The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas
Dark Horse, by Fletcher Knebel
The Commissioner, by Stanley Johnson

sf (non-Who): 10 (YTD 47)
Space Raptor Butt Invasion, by Chuck Tingle
The Builders, by Daniel Polanski
Perfect State, by Brandon Sanderson
Slow Bullets, by Alastair Reynolds
Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson
Nethereal, by Brian Niemeyer (did not finish)
Traitor’s Blade, by Sebastien de Castell

The Hidden War, by Michael Armstrong (did not finish)
Frankenstein Unbound, by Brian W. Aldiss
Peter & Max, by Bill Willingham

Doctor Who, etc: 3 (YTD 22)
Short Trips: 2040, ed. John Binns
Loving the Alien, by Mike Tucker and Robert Perry
The Mary-Sue Extrusion, by Dave Stone

Comics: 1 (YTD 14)
The Unwritten Vol. 6: Tommy Taylor and the War of Words, by Mike Carey

6,200 pages (YTD 32,600 pages)
2/22 (YTD 41/109) by women (Munro, Dunnett)
1/22 (YTD 10/109) by PoC (Dumas)

Enjoyed re-reading The Count of Monte Cristo, which you can get here, and Dark Horse, which you can get here; best new read was the Selected Stories of Alice Munro, which you can get here. Several awful books in the Hugo packet, thanks to Puppy infestation; no names, no publicity.

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My TV appearances this month (so far)

BBC Northern Ireland elections special, part 1:

BBC elections special, part 2:

Second bite:

I was in the radio studio for Part 3. Here’s Part 4:

And more:

And Part 5 the next morning:

And finally:

And more:

Al-Jazeera on Northern Ireland:

And also Al-Jazeera on Sweden and Finland joining NATO:

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Thursday’s Child: One Woman’s Journey to Seven Continents, by Maralyn Rittenour

Second paragraph of third chapter:

When he married Hilda, she wanted everything for her two sons, and she exerted her all-powerful influence to detach my father from his family and his regimental friends, starting with his only child. She believed, wrongly, that having been on the other side during the war, she would not be accepted by his family. He sent a letter, which I received just as I was leaving for Switzerland and my mother and stepfather for Singapore. He wrote that he never wanted to see me again, that I preferred my mother and was only interested in his money. He had already paid for the year in Switzerland but would not give me another penny. Under English law at the time, it was perfectly legal to abandon a child of sixteen unless he or she was physically or mentally disabled. Everyone, including his family, assumed this was a temporary aberration, being infatuated with his new wife, and he would come to his senses before long. [Spoiler: he didn’t.]

Maralyn is my second cousin, the third oldest (second oldest living) great-grandchild of our Whyte great-grandparents, born in 1938. I only remember meeting her once, but I’ll certainly get back in touch after having read this very entertaining memoir. My parents, aunt and grandmother get passing mentions; she writes a lot more about her own family, the MacDermots, and other relatives who we both knew and know.

Having been disinherited after her parents’ divorce at the behest of her stepmother, Maralyn worked at a variety of jobs, starting with nannying for her uncle who was the British Ambassador in Indonesia, culminating in a series of semi-diplomatic roles in New York and then retirement in the Hamptons. She has been married twice; her first husband died dramatically in a canoeing accident, her second much later in life of natural causes.

She has clearly kept a diary, or at least good records, of everything that has happened to he since she was a teenager. The theme of the book is supposedly her travel to various parts of the world, including Antarctica, and indeed she has a sharp eye for detail, especially nature and landscapes and the things that happen to you on a long sea voyage, but the heart of the book is really her own friendships and family relationships.

Obviously I got this out of personal interest, but I think it would be an entertaining read even if you are not related to the author. You can get it here.

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Carnival of Monsters, by Ian Potter (and Robert Holmes, and Terrance Dicks)

Next in the series of Black Archive monographs on Doctor Who is the second story from Season 10, where the Doctor has been liberated by the Time Lords from his exile on Earth and is once again able to travel the Universe. I missed it on original broadcast, but devoured the Target novelisation as a kid, and also enjoyed the re-showing of the TV story in 1981. When I came back to it in 1987, I wrote:

I’ve tended to rather rush through writing up the Pertwee stories I have been watching, as they are much of a muchness, but this is different. I remember back in 1981 when it was re-broadcast, we really wondered why – surely there were other, better Pertwee four-parters out there? The Terrance Dicks novelisation is only average. It seemed as if Carnival of Monsters had been chosen mainly because it followed on in continuity directly after The Three Doctors. Spoiled as we were by the Hinchcliffe and Williams years, Carnival of Monsters did not seem all that special.

I must say that now it does. The 1973 season was probably Pertwee’s second best (after his first, the 1970 season) and Carnival of Monsters is surely the best story in it – followed by Frontier in Space and Planet of the Daleks, which are both OK but not spectacular, and ending with  The Green Death which is also a good one, particularly because it gets rid of Jo. The one thing that lets it down is the visual effects, rather a lot of dodgy CSO being used. But if you can shut your eyes and pretend you are still six during those bits, the rest is fantastic – Robert Holmes at his very best in the script, Michael Wisher in pre-Davros days as the main villain, Ian Marter in pre-Harry Sullivan days as a minor character, a real feeling of several different completely alien cultures (the two classes on Inter Minor and the Lurmans), and an absence of the blatant padding that mars so many Pertwee stories. A special shout to Cheryl Hall, later the girlfriend of Citizen Smith, as showgirl Shirna.

And there’s a couple of serious reflections in there too – the MiniScope itself is a futuristic development of the zoo, and gives rise to a rather caricatured discussion of conservation versus entertainment’ more seriously, Inter Minor is clearly a communist totalitarian state, threatened to its very foundations by any influence from the outside. [2022: I would not describe it as “communist” now.] Michael Wisher’s character Kalik is the conservative brother of the unseen president Zarb. It’s nicely observed, although not all conservative backlashes end with the leader of the hardliners being eaten alive by a Drashig. Shame.

When I came back to it again for my Great Rewatch, I wrote:

And Carnival of Monsters takes us to an alien planet, with one of the great Robert Holmes scripts: he specialised in having a couple of characters whose dialogue informs us all about their world, and here he does it twice over, with Kalik and Orum (and to an extent Pletrac) revealing Inter Minor to us, and Vorg and Shirna representing the outside world. The idea of a closed and bureaucratic society dealing with the decadent entertainment possibilities of its neighbours is a rather good one. The first episode is especially good with no apparent connection between Inter Minor and the SS Bernice, until Vorg’s hand removes the Tardis.

Michael Wisher is excellent as the villainous Kalik. Maybe they should bring him back to, I dunno, play a mad scientist who invents the Daleks. I love Cheryl Hall as Shirna as well, though admittedly more for her costume than her acting. The Drashigs rather let it down though. And I noticed a continuity goof: as Jo flees from being thigh-deep in the marsh, her trousers dry instantly (and her close-fitting pockets don’t seem to contain the bulky set of skeleton keys).

Rewatching it now, I was impressed by the theatricality (in a good way) of the story. The scenes on Inter Minor all take place around the MiniScope. Cheryl Hall, only 22, is really impressive in a generally good cast. I did twitch at the racism of the S.S. Bernice sections, but it’s reasonable to say that this is counterpointed by the Inter Minor setting, which is not a communist state but an authoritarian racist apartheid society. I loved the line, “Give them a hygiene chamber and they store fossil fuel in it”!

The second paragraph of the third chapter of the novelisation is:

‘My dear fellow, do you really think that’s necessary?’

When I reread it in 2007, I wrote:

A good Robert Holmes script, turned into an average Terrance Dicks novel. I remember seeing this one in 1981 during the “Five Faces of Doctor Who” repeat season; wonder how well it would stand up to re-watching now?

In Dicks’ defence, I would say that he adds some extra bits of background colour to make Inter Minor more fully realised than it was on screen. I enjoyed returning to both the story and the book. You can get the book here.

I’ve greatly enjoyed Ian Potter’s Who-related fiction – several audio plays and a couple of short stories – and was curious as to how he would approach the task of writing up this story. He’s done a great job. I will quote the body of the first chapter in full, because it’s a good statement of how writing about Who can work at its best.

One of the great things about Doctor Who is that it is constructed by many hands for many audiences. It was built to entertain viewers of different ages and consequently has to work on several levels at once to engage them all. That gives us a lot to latch on to.

Carnival of Monsters (1973) is a story all about levels, but it’s not the vision of an auteur with a single story or underlying message to relay. It’s a show full of episodic set pieces having fun with us and with itself that also happens to be a story full of messages.

Once we get into critical analysis of any work of art, we inevitably open ourselves up to the accusation that we’re seeing things in the work that ‘aren’t there’. Our own expectations, prejudices, historical perspectives and personal contexts will always colour our responses and interpretations. I happen to think that’s fine. That’s viewing for you – you bring yourself to the show. I also make no apology for the fact that the discussion of the programme you’re now reading will end up longer than either the programme’s script or its novelisation, and will probably take longer to read than the programme takes to view. There’s always more in a script than is on the page, more in a production than ends up on screen, and more than one way to reinterpret it in print.

Some of the things I hope to explore in this brief look at Carnival of Monsters will be ideas that were quite deliberately placed there by one or more of the show’s many creators. Some will be things that may have slipped in without the creators’ knowledge. Some will have arisen simply through the circumstances of the production, or the climate of the time. Others are perhaps more visible now than they were then. I hope you’ll forgive me missing out or under-emphasising any aspects that interest you.

The second chapter records the extensive source material available about how the show was made. Part of the script was used for Malcolm Hulke’s book on TV writing, including the classic stage direction “‘A STREAM OF INCOMPREHENSIBLE BUT OBVIOUSLY REVOLUTIONARY GOBBLEDEYGOOK.”

The third chapter looks briefly at the soundtrack. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

The great triumph of the soundtrack is [Brian Hodgson’s] unearthly Drashig roars which combined treated versions of Hodgson’s own voice, his corgi bitch, an Australian butcherbird and, as Barry Letts recalled it, a squeal of car brakes. Whether deliberately, to help blend the elements, or just as result of slowing down tapes, the roar also has a curious long reverb, suggestive of a large echoing space. Perhaps the one weakness of the Drashig sound effects is that this reverb remains constant whether the Drashigs are in open country, within the SS Bernice hold, or roaming the Inter Minorian city.

The fourth chapter looks at the logistical considerations that led to the S.S. Bernice sections being on film and the Inter Minor scenes on video.

The fifth chapter looks in depth at the theatricality point I made earlier, for good and ill (mostly good), and how the editing process contributed to the final effect (more than usually so).

The sixth chapter looks at how the editing process affected the plot, with a few loose ends left dangling (most of which I must admit I did not notice on any of the four times I watched it).

The seventh chapter looks at Robert Holmes’ potential inspiration for the story. The one taproot text that is (plausibly) identifies is Frederik Pohl’s “The Tunnel Under the World”. Potter also makes the interesting observation that Holmes saw military service in Burma in the second world war, and therefore would have had first-hand experience both of the Raj and of the bubbling marshes that feature in so many of his stories – a really interesting point that I had not thought of before.

The eighth chapter looks at the extent to which the story is commentary on TV, on Doctor Who and on itself.

The populations of Inter Minor and the SS Bernice are not massively dissimilar: both locations feature a pair of male and female travellers, a handful of authority figures, and about six non-speaking characters who do all the work for them and mostly end up as disposable foot soldiers for the elite. The extent to which this is the writer drawing a deliberate parallel or devising drama for each recording block with similar available resources is up for debate, but Holmes definitely seems to repeatedly invite us to draw connections between the worlds.

The ninth chapter looks briefly at the political satire in the script, with reference to Britain’s relations with the EU and to pandemics.

The tenth chapter looks at the story’s approach to racism, both on Inter Minor and the Raj, and packs a lot of things to think about into a few pages.

The eleventh chapter looks at the story’s unusual use of vertical perspectives in filming. (Actually this did not completely convince me.)

The twelfth chapter looks at language, specifically the language of the chickens, and Polari.

The thirteenth chapter looks at the extent to which the story resets the narrative of Doctor Who as a whole.

The fourteenth chapter looks at the story’s longevity and popularity, especially the Drashigs.

The fifteenth chapter tries to establish the dates on which the story is set, at length.

An appendix, as long as the main text, compares the early and final versions of the script. Unfortunately in the electronic version of the book we can’t see the struck through text which indicates deletions.

This is generally very good, breezy and enlightening, and you can get it here.

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The Goddess Nehalennia

The goddess Nehalennia was worshipped in ancient Roman times by the people of the Schelde delta; what is now Zeeland in the Netherlands. She is always depicted with a basket of fruit and/or loaves, and a dog. Nobody knows why.

She had been largely forgotten by history until 1645, when a massive storm shifted the coastal dunes revealing a lost temple near the town of Domburg. Dozens of votive plaques to Nehalennia were found, all showing her with her dog and her basket of apples. It is thought that sailors threw them overboard, or otherwise dedicated them, at the start of a voyage to pray for safety.

The many votive plaques were stored in the church in Domburg. One night in 1848 the church was struck by lightning, caught fire and collapsed, destroying the ancient limestone within. (I am not making this up.) Only one of the ancient tablets to Nehalennia survived, because it had been lent to scholars in Brussels and had not been returned following Belgian independence. The sole surviving tablet is now in the Cinquantenaire Museum, and I went to see it with little U at Christmas time.

Since 1970, more tablets to Nehalennia have been coming to light a bit further along the coast at Colijnsplaat, where local pagan enthusiasts have now built a small Roman-era-style temple to the goddess, which I visited last September.

It includes both a genuine Roman Nehalennia tablet and a more modern vision of the divinity.

Local pagans use the building for weddings and other celebrations. It is good to see the memory of a powerful woman being revived and venerated, even if she probably never existed.

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Saturday reading (late)

Current
The Monk, by Matthew Lewis (a chapter a week)
I am the Master, by Peter Anghelides et al
Flicker, by Theodore Roszak
The Island of Missing Trees, by Elif Shafak

Last books finished
Queens of the Crusades, by Alison Weir
The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, by Becky Chambers
A Norman Legacy, by Sally Harpur O’Dowd
Tower, by Nigel Jones
The Pilgrimage of S. Silvia of Aquitania to the Holy Places (circa 385 A.D.), trans. John H. Bernard, with an appendix by Sir Charles William Wilson.
The Sun is Open, by Gail McConnell
The Pilgrimage of Etheria, trans. M. L. McClure and C. L. Feltoe
Signs and Symbols Around the World, by Elizabeth S. Helfman
Light from Uncommon Stars, by Ryka Aoki

Next
Demons and Dreams: Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror v. 1, eds. Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card


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