Log in

Planting a tree

I've just ordered a Victoria Plum tree as a birthday gift for Brian, although it will be a little late as it should be delivered towards the end of November, and probably won't fruit for at least a couple of years. But better late than never. Both of us love Victoria plums, and he has fond memories of a plum tree in an aunt's garden when he was a child. They are self-fertile, apparently, although having the Mirabelle the other side of the garden should help to improve the yield.

When it arrives we will plant it near the house, more-or-less where an old plum tree stump used to be that supported ivy until I had it taken out last year. Meantime I will go and buy and spread some well-rotted compost to improve the soil.

I've ordered from Victoriana Nursery, as recommended by Audacious Veg. Sorry RHS. It was your catalogue that inspired the thought, but I don't really need to pay you £65 plus delivery for a tree in a pot when I can pay £20 to a recommended nursery.


Edward Hollis - How to Make a Home (2016)

This pretty little book caught my eye as I was browsing one of the bookshops at Tate Modern last week. It's one of a series published by The School of Life, which dedicates itself to developing emotional intelligence with the help of culture. I shall certainly be looking at their other titles with interest bye-and-bye.

This one deals in six brief chapters with ideas of "home", taking in a wide range of homes from (predictably) Frank Lloyd Wright through Winston Smith's flat in 1984 to (less predictably) street life in Bangkok. It is brief, pleasurable, engaging. Sufficiently so that I can in all honesty just recommend you read it, rather than requiring me to take the time to write a full review.

I am minded to work at least some of the homework. I may report back.

The third volume of Walton’s trilogy, Necessity, was finally published this year, so I reread the first two and then read on. To be fair, I really ought to reread Necessity before I write this …
       Walton continues her run of books that feel important to me. This trilogy is so many things. It is classic ‘what if’ science fiction based on a ridiculous premise. It is a vigorous argument with and feminist critique of Plato. It is a picture of and an argument for the benefits of a culture that pursues excellence rather than money or glory. It’s a love letter to philosophy and philosophers and art, and perhaps (as was her earlier novel, Among Others) also a love letter to science fiction fandom. It is a strong denunciation of ideology (specifically, religious ideology) as a guide to human action. It is probably other things too, but that will do for now.
        I wish I did have time to reread Necessity, because the first two volumes both feel stronger for rereading, and if the third seems weaker by comparison it may just be because it hasn’t benefitted from a reread.
        In The Just City the goddess Athene creates the Just City, trying to follow Plato’s instructions in the Republic. What could possibly go wrong? The tale is told by the god Apollo, by one of the Masters who works to build the city, and one of the Children who is brought to the city to be raised from the age of ten to pursue excellence and live justly. The Philosopher Kings picks up the tale to explore what happens when the Children reach maturity and become the ‘philosopher kings’, inheriting and questioning the goals of the previous generation. Finally, in Necessity, we step both forward to another generation and back to the founders of the city to open the story into a wider frame. All ends in the best tradition of science fiction happy endings: there will be a future for the Just City that inherits its past, but it will not be a future that anyone intended.
        I loved this trilogy. I would love everyone to read it, and argue with it, and write fan fiction set in Walton’s universe, and use it as a springboard to learning about the history of philosophy and art, and change their lives to pursue excellence and try to live justly. I think I live in a culture that does some of these things, some of the time. I can live in hope that we will do more bye-and-bye.
There's a cedilla under the c in Marcal by the way.

Subtitled "a story about women and economics" this is a peculiar book. It argues that economics as it is practiced is based on the existence of a fictional "economic man" and that when this collides (as it has) with a culture that defines man and woman and all their qualities in opposition to each other, so that "woman" is excluded from the definition of "economic man", the result is disastrous for our understanding of the world and ourselves, and for the management of our affairs.

It very convincingly contrasts the personal with the political.

I find it a very convincing argument (albeit one with which I am in prior agreement, so am obvioulsy biased), interestingly made, with some very quotable quotes, but you do rather have to fight through the rhetoric to get to it. It is very self-consciously told as a story about a story, and the relatively simple point made by each individual chapter is sometimes somewhat obscured by the telling.

You don't have to read this book to get Marcal's headline point, but there is a lot of interesting detail, interesting (and referenced) facts, and some lovely, and informative, one-liners. It's also very short and to its point, which is useful in a world of bloated texts.

"Seventeen percent of unemployed British women quit their last job in order to care for someone else. For men that figure is one percent." (page 173). That one has a particularly personal resonance for me right now.

She says nothing about solutions. Her story is told to highlight the problems. Solutions are up to us. Recommended for everyone who thinks there is something wrong with the way we allocate resources in this world.

Lynn Johnston - With this Ring (2003)

In this volume there are three generations of love and marriage. Elly and John are supporting each other, John's father, two adult children and an almost-teen, and they have a lot on their plates. Grandad has found a new love in the winter of his life. John has a new car. Son Michael is marrying Deanna (and manages to do so twice, in fact, though Johnson doesn't bother explaining how they get away with that). Daughter Elizabeth has moved in with an abuser, and is resolutely refusing to face the fact. Not-quite-teen April is negotiating growing older. Elly is coping with the mother of the bride, helping the couple furnish their new apartment, hoping Elizabeth is making good decisions, and mourning the childhood of her youngest daughter. There are glimpses of friends, supportive and otherwise. The dogs provoke alternative affection and frustration. Tender and funny, as usual, without shirking the difficult bits of family life and being human.

Daughter and Dystopian Litarature

Daughter's reading list for A level English Literature includes (though is not limited to) a section on Dystopian Literature: An Introduction:

Burgess - A Clockwork Orange
Orwell - Animal Farm AND 1984
Collins - Mockingjay
James - The Children of Men
Roth - Divergent
Mitchell - Cloud Atlas
Atwood - The Handmaid's Tale
Dick - Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep
McCarthy - The Road

And The Giver by Lois Lowry which I have never heard of.

Pity she's not going to read any of them for her A level as she has switched to Further Mathematics. I was quite looking forward to discussing these with her.
Borrowed from oreouk, to whom much thanks.

We have been reading Lynn Johnston's delightful cartoons since B picked up the first ones and brought them home to me whlle I was pregnant with daughter. We read them to and with daughter as soon as practical, and now it is a family tradition that she gets a new one every birthday and Xmas, on condition that B and I can read them too. If you have a family and are not familar with Johnston's work, may I recommend that you change that state forthwith? The online comic is here: http://www.fborfw.com/

Over the years Johnston has examined family life - at least as it was lived in some Canadian families since the 1970s - from birth to death and in every role and at every stage of life in between. Some aspects are culturally specific, but the minutiae of family life may be fairly universal, and I certainly recognise her characters and situations from my own life and experiences. I rate her alongside Gary Trudeau as a chronicler of the Twentieth Century. After 35 years Johnston is still going strong, and I plan to carry on reading her at least as long as she chooses to carry on drawing.

This very large book took quite a bit of reading, but it was worth it. It comprises 256 large-format pages: a long autobiographical essay by Johnston (62 pages) on how she conceived and developed the For Better or For Worse strip; 66 pages of Sunday colour half-page strips; and 127 pages of black-and-white strips about A Teenager in the House. The latter in particular resonated!

You don't need this particular book to get to know Lynn Johnston's families, and it may not be the best place to start. But for someone who knows them well it was very well worth reading.
Peter S. Beagle is one of the great writers, and this collection of seven stories and four fables includes some great writing. I am very glad to have finally read it - it has been on my shelves waiting for me for many years. Even when I took it down it took me a while to read: it was my bedside book from June to the end of August, and I only read the final story last week after we returned from holiday.

I have just leafed through to remember the stories again, and indeed, many of them will be memorable, particularly Salt Wine which I think is an excellent story in all ways and the highlight of the collection. In other cases I fear however that excellent writing is put to less than excellent ends. Don't get me wrong: I immersed myself fully in the stories as I read them, and wept or grinned or triumphed for the characters as led by the story. It is only with hindsight and in memory that I find the tragedies and high emotions rendered somwhat bathetic or mildly absurd.

Perhaps I am no longer the right reader for these kinds of tales. I hope that those who are find and enjoy them while they still can.

Edit: Includes Two Hearts, the sequel story to The Last Unicorn.

Friday Journal - films

I'm not going to review these, but wanted to note two excellent films I would watch again.

House of Flying Daggers is a tragic love triangle, with beautiful costumes, choreography and landscape.

The Wind Rises is a partial biography of a life lived to an ambiguious end. It also has a tragic love affair. It is an animation by Studio Ghibli, and very beautiful.

(I'm finding that as more and more film plots annoy me the look of the film is becoming the thing that I value.) 

Friday Journal - tv

I don't normally do TV reviews, but considering that TV is getting more hours of my attention than books these days that seems unfair. So, since I'm stuck at home while the handrailer (yes, a word) replaces spindles in the banisters, and had some thoughts last night after watching the final episode of...

Supergirl Season 1 - 20 episodes

Charming YA SF in comic (graphic novel) mode, more than a bit sentimental. Brian has fond memories of Marvel comics and enjoys picking up on the canonical references, which I can't. And I get (at least some of) the celebrity culture jokes, which he doesn't. But we both find it whiles away an enjoyable hour when we are in the mood. Melissa Benoist as Kara/Supergirl is charming in both personas, Mehcad Brooks as Jimmy Olsen is one of the prettiest and nicest men ever, and Calista Flockhart as Cat Grant rocks. All the main characters work for me, though some of the lesser were a bit off. The laws of physics take a bit of a beating, which is fair enough because this is a comic. But if you want women as independently motivated adults to save themselves and the world while being amply supported by (mostly) beautiful men and not too much of the kissy kissy you could do a lot worse. As sf fantasies on tv for women go I like it more than Charmed or Stargate SG1, and although at best it is not as good as the best of Buffy it generally comes off better than the worst. We will be looking for Season 2 when it comes out (in the US in October).

Elementary Season 1 - 24 episodes.

This is a bit odd, I think, but maybe that is just me. It is yet another take on Sherlock Holmes, this time with Sherlock wrestling with his inner demons in New York, and the sidekick is Dr Joan Watson. Again, Brian has detailed knowledge of the literary roots for reference, in the Conan Doyle stories and many of the homages. I have read some of them, but was never that much bothered. Both of us watched Sherlock recently, and having come to dislike that rather a lot we watched the first episode of this with some apprehension. But we found it quite different and liked it enough to carry on.

Each episode of Elementary features Sherlock and Watson using specialist knowledge and deductive reasoning to solve murders, and each episode advances the relationship between Sherlock and Watson, though the balance between murder and relationship varies from episode to episode. If I had to guess I'd say that across the series about a quarter of the dialogue is between Sherlock and Watson about their personal preoccupations and the relationship between them, and about a third between them about the case-of-the-week, with all the rest of the characters and exposition fitted into the remainder. Brian likes the deductive reasoning. I like the relationship and tensions between Sherlock and Watson. Both of us like the speciailist knowledge. I'm not sure the mix actually gels together all that well. In particular, there is usually one or more set pieces where someone, usually Sherlock but sometimes Watson or one of the policemen, explain to the murderer what they did and why - this often comes across as hurried and unconvincing. Nevertheless, I enjoy each episode, although I'm not blown away.

I enjoy the way the characters are drawn. Sherlock is very stiff and abrupt, and speaks in (more-or-less) British grammar, which I like both as a reference to the original stories and as a way of characterising him. He wears tight formal shirts with button-down collars when he's out and about. At home we see him working out doing strength exercises: crunches and planks. Watson, by contrast is a native New Yorker, speaks in soft tones, and is very fluid and flexible. She wears workout gear at home, and does yoga. She goes out in mini dresses with soft cardigans and high heeled boots.  I like Watson well enough, and don't actually like Sherlock very much; but then, you are not supposed to.

Most of the sets are pretty standard (for tv) urban exteriors and interiors. But the two spend a lot of time in the brownstone house they share, and here the camera lingers, sepia toned, on wooden floors and and the pattern of light and shadow from the sun, tv screens and fire; on Sherlock seated with his back to the camera tracking five tv screens simultaniously; on Watson framed in doorways or seated cross-legged on the hearthrug, back to the fire. Think Dutch interiors paintings: Vermeer and the like. I've found that the images stay in my mind long after the dialogues and plots are forgotten. Like Breaking Bad, the visuals are a major reason why I have been happy to stick with the series, and maybe even tip the balance between staying and leaving when other aspects do not quite convince.

SWA Art Show, The Mall Galleries, London

My friend Jackie Duckworth has a picture in the SWA art show - a notable achievement! So Brian and I went along to have a nice evening out and to give her moral support. Promise of canapes had nothing to do with it, honest Gov, coff coff.

So off we went for an evening in London like the ones we used to have when we were young. We took train and tube to Westminster, and walked along Horse Guards parade enjoying the summer evening (the Queen has beautiful gardens: https://www.flickr.com/gp/57536449@N07/592f7A) to get to the Mall. Canapes consisted of olives, crisps and cashew nuts, but there was wine and fizz. And Jackie and Tim being quite rightly pleased and proud. And another friend, with whom we completed the evening by walking up to Chinatown afterwards for very nice dim sum. There was also a charity auction for Breast Cancer Now, but with a bad auctioneer, which was an awful shame for the charity and for the artists who had donated work because I think it could have raised much more money than it did. I considered but refrained from taking photos, which is bad manners in art galleries, but noticed several other people doing so while most of us were distracted by the auction.

There was some stunning stuff on display, not just by Jackie. Some of the works are shown on the SWA website (http://www.society-women-artists.org.uk/annual-exhibition/swa-members-galleries/2016-members-gallery.html), but not everything from the exhibition is there. I particularly liked Raquel Alvarez Sardina's quinces (there were three - the on-line gallery shows one), Soraya French's The Rehearsal, and a bronze of a hawk by an artist whose name I can't remember. Brian liked Patricia Clements Still Life With Tablecloth.

And I was particularly and personally pleased by the work of Cathy Read, who has been wandering round the City and seeing some of the same things I see, and painting some of them. She had three paintings in the show, but the one that caught my attention is shown on her website. Do go take a look - you'll see what I mean. http://cathyreadart.com/

And do go and see Jackie's hawk if you can. The exhibition is on until September 8th August (thanks John), I think (though the SWA website is disorganised and doesn't seem to give the exact dates).

Books to good homes?

Various Aristotle, Dante, Euripides, Machiavelli, Plato, Voltaire - classic remnants of my pseudo-intellectual youth...

Bill Bryson - A Short History of Nearly Everything
Margery Fisher - ...Intent Upon Reading

Iain Banks - The Quarry
Terry Pratchett - Snuff

Yell quickly because off to the charity shop they go next week.
I got my copy signed by Marie Brennan at Forbidden Planet a few weeks ago.

Lady Trent does some science and some adventuring, gets her fame, her new husband, and ultimately her name. Still liking these a lot.
In 1933 a letter to a women's magazine sparked the creation of a Co-operative Correspondence Club for women, that ran fortnightly until 1990. In the days before photocopiers and without access to duplicators, women hand-wrote or typed manuscripts for circulation round the group (the BSFA would recognise this as an Orbiter). Some of the material ended up at the Mass Observation Archive at the University of Sussex, and Jenna Bailey wrote first her Master's thesis and then this book based on it. The book looks at different aspects of the women's lives, using their own writing: birth, the War, marriage, everyday life, employment and growing old.

One of its members was Elaine Morgan, who wrote The Descent of Women.

The subject is fascinating to me in particular as I look for correspondences and differences between the CCC and TWP. About which I shall have to write some more some other time.
Through May and June this year I read and wrote for this blog about 13 books by Octavia E. Butler.

I first met Octavia E. Butler's books around 1980, and I had these 13 books by her on my shelves, including her last novel, Fledgling, waiting to be read for the first time. I was interested to see how memory matched rereading, how the books stand up to the lapse of time, whether the reasons I had bought, read and valued them stand up to the test of time. How did I fare? How does Butler fare?

Both of us fared very well. This was worth doing, for each book and individually, and for the whole. I read three books that I think deserve classic status, several more that are important and should be remembered, and none that failed my personal tests for a book worth reading now.

I remembered reading the five Patternist books in their time, but had very minimal memories of them. They are interesting as science fiction novels, and I suspect would stand well alongside their peers (alas for the time to reread some of her contemporaries as part of this exercise). As literature, however, I think I read a writer's apprentice works, and if they were the sum of her work I would not particularly recommend their rereading.

Kindred was the literary masterpiece that integrated her skills and subjects and allowed her to move on. Kindred remains powerful and astonishing to this day, and should be remembered and reread for a long time to come. But it is still a part work, incomplete, leaving Dana and Kevin with a new understanding of their past and present, but not showing a way into their future.

After Kindred, the Xenogenesis and Parable books are about building futures in the wreck of the present. They stand individually as both science fiction and as literature, with Parable of the Sower as the best of them. But as series both are incomplete, and I speculate for different reasons. I wonder if Xenogenesis is incomplete because to write the Oankali view would require Butler to write the alien, and she couldn't find a way to do that? And notwithstanding the ending of Parable of the Talents, I wonder if the Parable series is incomplete because, knowing what she knew about humanity, Butler had lost faith in the future and perhaps also in her own ability to write it?

After Parable of the Talents we waited seven years for Fledgling, which was her final novel. In Fledgling Butler again integrates her previous work into something new. She writes both the alien and a hopeful vision for the future. And she puts both on trial. And concludes with the judgement that both can go forward even if they must do so on the basis of a flawed and violent present. I think this is another classic to match Kindred on the shelves.

I wish that Butler had lived to give us the books she would have written next. A writer this good who had found a hopeful future and a way to write about it would have been a prize worth having.

I am glad Butler lived to give us the books she did, and I'm glad that she is remembered.

Note: ISFDB identifies 14 books: 12 novels, and 2 collections written from 1971 and published up to 2014. One of the collections - Unexpected Stories - was published in 2014 as an ebook. It is not available in the UK and I haven't been able to get hold of a copy. It has Childfinder, the story she originally sold to but never published by Harlan Ellison for Last Dangerous Visions, alongside another story, A Necessary Being. I read the first (1995) edition of the other collection, Bloodchild and Other Stories, which has two editions, with two additional stories from 2003 in the 2005 later edition that I haven't read.

Laurie J Marks - The Moonbane Mage (1990)

I just found this again. I got about two-thirds of the way through it a few months ago, then I went through a period of eye trouble and didn't read paper books for a while. Back to normal, and to paper books...I didn't seek it out, and hadn't remembered I was part way through it. Now that I've picked it up again, I remember it, and where I am in it. I have absolutely no interest in reading the rest of it.

There's nothing wrong with the book. It's a straightforward 'arrogant adolescent learns better' adventure - second published novel, loose sequel to the first - by a writer whose later Fire / Water / Earth Logic I gulped down in 2008. Viewpoint male character acquires and learns to value a female peer, lots of heightened emotion and adults being brutal to the kids.

By all means read it if this kind of thing is still your thing. It's not mine any more.

The photo I didn't take

Yesterday, in the park, watching for five minutes as coots quarrelled, rearing out of the water and showing their breasts to each other, diving and driving at each other head outstretched to the other's neck or head, while four cootlings swam in circles nearby. There were at least five adult birds involved in this: sometimes two birds one on one, with one episode where there were two separate pairs squaring off beside each other; sometimes three birds, with two apparently co-operating to challenge a third; and at least one episode where four of them were squaring off together.

At one point when the kerfuffle was down to two birds for a moment the behaviour changed and it looked like one was treading the other.

So presumably this was challenge to mate and actual mating. But we were on the path, too far away for the camera.

Octavia E. Butler - Fledgling (2005)

Another beautiful book, first edition by Seven Stories again, crediting Butler with 14 books (which must be including separately published shorter works or collections) but naming only four. Published seven years after Parable of the Talents, (which it tells me won the Best Novel Nebula in 1999) and identified as "a novel". Brief blurb summarises plot, but leaves more for the reader to discover than some of the earlier lengthy synopses, and tells us that it "tests the limits of otherness and questions what it means to be human". Butler's last published novel.

First person female narrative, past tense, but this direct to the reader, without a framing journal. Shori, a fifty-three year old vampire, is the product of a genetic manipulation programme to enhance her ability to move around by daylight. But she has just woken up with no conscious memories at all and doesn't know who she is or why she is as she is. She acts on her instincts to survive and re-establish her identity.

Butler likes catastrophic adulthood rites, and here is another. It turns out that Shori-before-the-event was in fact still a child, and the events that have catapulted her into the story have also initiated premature adulthood. When she finds her family and her world again she can't just settle back into childhood and being looked after. She must be an adult actor, tackling the issues around those events head on with more than her own survival at stake.

Here is yet another take on ideas of family. This one is analytical rather than taking families for granted. The issues of identity and trust that confront Shori are important to most of us in various ways, and Butler shows how they weave themselves into a sense of self, and literally gives them their day in court to be examined.

A familiar false note is that this is another book where family is sufficient to itself and the story. Once again, the mechanisms of the state that normally impinge on people's daily lives do not trouble the characters, who can suffer or perpetrate the murder of family members and the destruction of property without attracting any interest from anybody interested in law enforcement.

The importance of touch and sex to the characters is familiar, but a new element is attention to the sense of smell. This is done well, but not as well developed as it could be.

This is a story supremely well told. This is superb science fiction for the twenty-first century.


I mentioned that this is an analytical book. One thing I have had to think about while reading Butler's work is whether I am reading myself and my own preoccupations disproportionately into the books. There is a risk I have been doing this, but this is the book where I had to stop on the way and think "is this me, or is this Butler?". I don't think it's me. I think this is a book in which Butler slows down to examine things she has previously taken somewhat for granted. I think the book gained from that, with the immediacy of action and emotion balanced by a somewhat reflective tone even in scenes of heightened emotion.

I wish this wasn't Butler's last novel. I wish we had more.
This entry is handicapped by lapse of time. Most of these Butler blog posts have been written within a couple of days of finishing the book, and before reading the next one. This one got away. I finished it before Swecon in mid-June, and reading Fledgling since has undoubtedly influenced it, so it is not getting quite the standalone review it deserves.


Published by yet another new (for first edition) publisher, Seven Stories Press, "a novel" from the author of and five years after Parable of the Sower in 1993. The blurb credits all eleven previous books, specifying a previous Seven Stories edition of PotS. I have the beautiful first edition of PotT, and the publsiher tells me it "...celebrates the usual Butlerian themes of alienation and transcendence, violence and spirituality, slavery and freedom, and separation and community, to astonishing effect..."

The story is told in two voices: Lauren Olamina's journal gets most of the words, continuing the story from PotS; but with each section introduced by her variously-named daughter interjecting from an adult and divergent perspective. Both views are partial.

In PotS the Earthseed community led by Olamina established a fledgling village. In PotT the community first prospers, and is then destroyed, and Olamina loses almost everything. At the start of the book we find out immediately that she has a daughter. At the end we know about both lives, and the relationship between them.

I read this book as conceived in anger.

I can"t talk about this without spoilers....so this next bit is under the cutCollapse )

There are no easy answers here. Butler writes out much of her anger through the book, and at the end there is a grudging acceptance that things are as they are: recovery without justice; hope without foundation; surivival without reliance on family as its bedrock.

This is Butler's 'If':

"Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools"


Caroline M

Latest Month

October 2016