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The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

Second paragraph of third chapter:
I yank my stockings up from sagging around my feet – the trouble of all fat, short women around the world. Then I rehearse what to say, what to keep to myself. I go ahead and punch the bell.
This is a novel about the early 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi; against a background of racist violence, three women (two black, one white) collaborate to publish a first-person account of domestic work in their town, and more or less get away with it. I liked the central concept of story-telling being in itself liberating, and the human geography of racial division is vividly and movingly captured. Many of the white women in the book are almost as nasty to each other as they are to their black servants. I did wonder how long our heroes would really have got away with it, though; the entire black population of the town knows what they did, and it doesn't take much for these things to leak.

This was my top unread book by a woman and also my top book acquired this year. Next on those piles are Hermione Lee's biography of Virginia Woolf and Ben Okri's The Famished Road.

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Second paragraph of third chapter:
If there is a more driven person in human history than Genghis Khan (about 1162–1227) we should pray we don't bump into him on a dark night.
From the makers of the quiz show QI, a collection of biographies of famous people, more or less tied together by themed chapters, very much going for the gosh-wow trivia, none of it all that memorable to be honest.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2012. Next in that list is the anthology Brave New Worlds, edited by John Joseph Adams.

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Sunday reading

Current
Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (a chapter a month)
Synners, by Pat Cadigan
Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman
Life During Wartime, ed. Paul Cornell

Last books finished
How The Doctor Changed My Life, ed. Simon Guerrier

Next books
The Famished Road, by Ben Okri
The Dancers at the End of Time, by Michael Moorcock
Alexander the Corrector: The Tormented Genius Whose Cruden's Concordance Unwrote the Bible, by Julia Keay

Along the Dijle with Bo

It was Open Monument Day today in Flanders, and I decided to go for a guided walk along the river Dijle through the middle of historic Leuven. About a dozen of us gathered at the Sint Jan de Doperkerk (Church of St John the Baptist) to be greeted by the bubbly and enthusiastic Bo, a medieval history graduate who has set up a tour company to explore the city.

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Second paragraph of third chapter:
William Cecil's Irish correspondence began in earnest within months of his appointment in early September 1550 as secretary of state and a privy councillor. By comparison with Elizabeth's reign, Cecil's Irish correspondence in the early 1550s is slight: all that have survived are the less than two down letters written by members of the Tudor administration in Ireland to the young councillor. Still, this number is greater than all of the surviving letters which three of Edward's other councillors who maintained Irish correspondence — William Paulet, Edward Seymour, and John Dudley — received from Ireland in Edward's reign combined. Some letters offered observations on the state of politics and society in Ireland, reporting back what had been heard or witnessed; others contained the hope that Cecil would, through his influence with the sovereign and his access to the corridors of power in England, further one's own (or one's client's) political position or economic well-being. In these respects, Cecil's Irish correspondence was no different from the many other communications which he received as principal secretary and later as lord treasurer. What made this correspondence so markedly different, however, was that it almost invariably contained suggestions for how best to effect the 'reformation' of Ireland — that is, to improve, strengthen, and extend Tudor rule in the kingdom. Roughly half the kingdom lay beyond the effective control of the crown, with large swathes of territory in the north and west still under the control of dozens of more or less independent Irish chiefs. Areas answerable to the crown outside the English Pale and the major cities and towns, moreover, often bore little resemblance to English norms, inviting usually negative comparisons with society in England. The letters that Cecil received from and about Ireland and the kingdom's affairs thus regularly carried with them a prescriptive quality and an urgency for action absent from most of his other correspondence. It was through this medium that the secretary became acquainted with the realities of Tudor rule in Ireland.
I'm pretty sure I met the author at the conference on Elizabeth I and Ireland that I attended in 2009. This is a great analysis of the historical evidence for the interests and policies of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, the Queen's chief minister, towards her other kingdom, firmly rooted in the manuscript records of the reign, which Burghley himself ensured would be preserved to the present day. The extract above fortunately happens to encapsulate the core theory of the book: that Burghley was deeply interested in all parts of Ireland, both the Pale and the wilder regions, and his overall policy objective was to bring about better government; he was more committed to the surrender and regrant policy as the bedrock of the new Kingdom of Ireland than to colonisation, but he still accepted that colonisation had its place.

I'm still trying to get to grips with the nature of the Dublin Castle government in the Ireland of this period. I think there may be good comparisons to be made with contemporary weak states, where the population as a whole may accept the country's borders as a definite political framework, but that doesn't necessarily translate into loyalty to the authority of the government sitting in the capital city, and in particular local chieftains resort to coercion to settle their differences because there is no reason to expect anyone else to take much interest. The Irish situation has the extra wrinkle that the Dublin Castle government had no secure funding of its own and therefore remained very vulnerable to royal whim, and the people causing them problems locally often had sufficient standing to appeal over their heads to London and nudge the royal whim in their favour. There's a lot of detail but it's all very fluent.

My own interest is of course my ancestor, Nicholas White, who was a close contact of Cecil's from the early days until things went wrong for him in the early 1590s. There are lots of juicy quotes to mine here, but two points I particularly wanted to note. The first is that the Palesmen in general referred to themselves as English, and never as Irish. I guess we tend to project nineteenth-century concepts of nationality back into the past. But it's clear that White and his contemporaries thought of themselves, and were thought of by others, as members of the English nation who happened to reside in the Kingdom of Ireland. White was occasionally derided by his rivals from England because he was from Ireland, but he was never described as being Irish - it's a subtle difference but I think an important one.

The second is that I'm still not much the wiser about the circumstances of White's fall from grace. There's a tantalising hint that his evidence was crucial to the conviction of Sir John Perrot. It looks as if Cecil did very little to help him once he ended up in prison in London, despite their long personal history of friendship. More research needed, I think.

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Second paragraph of third story ("The Man with the Knives" / "Der Mann mit den Messern"):
`It makes me sick,' said Jupp quietly. `I've been working on the logical assumption that people who've paid for their tickets really want to see a show where life and limb are at stake — like at the Roman circuses — they want to be convinced of at least the possibility of bloodshed, know what I mean?' He picked up the knife and tossed it neatly against the top crossbar of the window, with such force that the panes rattled and threatened to fall out of the crumbling putty. This throw — confident and unerring — took me back to those hours of semi-darkness in the past when he had thrown his pocket-knife against the dugout post, from bottom to top and down again. `I'll do anything,' he went on, `to give the customers a thrill. I'll even cut off my ears, only it's hard to find anyone to stick them back on again, *and I'd rather be a prisoner of war again than live without ears* [this phrase omitted from my Penguin translation]. Here, I want to show you something.' He opened the door for me, and we went out into the hallway. A few shreds of wallpaper still clung to the walls where the glue was too stubborn for them to be ripped off and used for lighting the stove. After passing through a mouldering bathroom we emerged onto a kind of terrace, its concrete floor cracked and moss-covered. Jupp pointed upward."Zum Kotzen", sagte Jupp leise. "Ich bin von der einleuchtenden Voraussetzung ausgegangen, daß die Leute, wenn sie an der Kasse ihr Geld bezahlt haben, am liebsten solche Nummern sehen, wo Gesundheit oder Leben auf dem Spiel stehen — genau wie im römischen Zirkus —, sie wollen wenigstens wissen, daß Blut fließen könnte, verstehst du?' Er hob das Messer auf und warf es mit einem knappen Schwingen des Armes in die oberste Fenstersprosse, so heftig, daß die Scheiben klirrten und aus dem bröckeligen Kitt zu fallen drohten. Dieser Wurf — sicher und herrisch — erinnerte mich an jene düsteren Stunden der Vergangenheit, wo er sein Taschenmesser die Bunkerpfosten hatte hinaui und hinunterklettern lassen. "Ich will ja alles tun", fuhr er fort, 'um den Herrschaften einen Kitzel zu verschaffen. Ich will mir die Ohren abschneiden, aber es findet sich leider keiner, der sie mir wieder ankleben könnte; und ohne Ohren leben — da wäre ich doch lieber in der Gefangenschaft geblieben. Komm mal mit.' Er riß die Tür auf, ließ mich vorgehen, und wir traten ins Treppenhaus, wo die Tapetenfetzen nur noch an jenen Stellen hafteten, wo man sie der Stärke des Leimes wegen nicht hatte abreißen können, um den Ofen mit ihnen anzuzünden. Dann durchschritten wir ein verkommenes Badezimmer und kamen auf eine Art Terrasse, deren Beton brüchig und von Moos bewachsen war. Jupp deutete in die Luft.
I'm very familiar with the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, the political foundation affiliated with Bündnis 90/Die Grünen, and have actually written for them. However, I didn't know a lot about Böll himself, except that he wrote a book about visiting Ireland in the 1950s and won the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1972, it turns out). I acquired this collection of short stories years ago and got around to reading it last month.

I must say they blew me away. They are mostly very short indeed - 26 stories in 185 pages, so roughly 7 pages each on average. They were published between 1947 and 1951, mostly in 1950. They cover the horror of being a German soldier in the war, and of being a German after the war; of the disintegration of civilisation and humanity, and the dreadfulness of being oneself an integral part of that. It's unflinching and unsentimental, and full of memorable images (not all of which seem to have got translated) - the shreds of wallpaper, for instance, in the paragraph above. Most of the stories are vignettes, but some have a distinct twist in the tail. I'll look out for more by Böll; his best known books are The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum and The Clown.

This was the non-genre fiction book that had lingered longest on my shelves. Next on that list is Dear Old Dead, by Jane Haddam.

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The Shining Man, by Cavan Scott

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Hilary had snatched the phone from its cradle as soon as it rang, her shoulders slumping when she realised it wasn't her daughter on the other end of the line.
Cavan Scott has done a lot of Who spinoff fiction, often in collaboration with Mark Wright; my favourites are the Big Finish Six/Seven audio trilogy Project: Twilight / Project: Lazarus / Project: Destiny, the Big Finish Five historical The Church and the Crown, and a Third Doctor story with David Troughton, The Prisoner of Peladon. The late Sarah Jane audio Wraith World, also a good 'un, is closest to The Shining Man in theme.

This is one of three 12th Doctor novels released earlier this year - I mistakenly thought it was the first in sequence, but actually it is the second, set after the TV episode Thin Ice and the novel Diamond Dogs, and also referencing the excellent P.J. Hammond first-season Torchwood episode Small Worlds. It combines several great hooks: the liminal interaction between today's world and a nearby parallel and supernatural dimension; the pervasiveness of the Internet; and children who fear that they have been abandoned by their parents. The mood is dark and scary but ultimately resolved very satisfactorily.

I thought it caught Capaldi's characterisation of the Doctor particularly well, giving Bill rather less to do, but I note that this is a minority view among reviewers and certainly those of us who miss Bill already will enjoy a bit more time in her company.

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Second frame of third chapter ("Moomin and the Farm"):
There are four extended narratives of around 80 frames each here, which I guess would have run for about three months each in 1961. The first is "Moomin the Colonist", a story of colonialism which would have been inspired by the winds of change; the Moomins settle a new continent and come into conflict with their neighbours (who are in fact their old neighbours from Moominland, also attempting colonisation) - the indigenous inhabitants are barely seen. The other three, "Moomin and the Scouts", "Moomin and the Farm" and "Moomin and the Goldfields" are all faintly surreal but not all that adventurous.

I bought this collection when I went to the Adventures in Moominland exhibition in January, and am actually a bit miffed - I should have spotted that it is not by Tove Jansson but by her brother Lars, and on checking inside it turns out to be the seventh of ten (so far) collections of the Evening News comic strips about the Moomins, of which only the first four contain Tove Jansson material. Next time I have a chance I shall try and get one of the earlier volumes.

This was my top unread graphic story on LibraryThing. Next in that list is The Autumnlands, Vol. 1: Tooth and Claw, by Kurt Busiek.

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Second paragraph of third chapter:
My music studies were a big excuse for my being homeschooled, so I would theoretically have more time to practice and become a world-renowned soloist, traveling around the world in a red velvet coach. Unfortunately, I didn’t take it seriously enough to earn the coach, and my parents didn’t force me to try. Which I’m thankful for. I’ve met a lot of those kids whose parents crammed something down their throats trying to make baby geniuses. Even by my maladjusted standards, those kids were maladjusted.
This was one of the potential nominees for the Best Related Work Hugo last year whose place was taken by the slating of that category - not far behind Letters to Tiptree in total nominating votes. It was also second in the File 770 straw poll.

To be honest, it's mostly a fairly standard celebrity memoir. Day is funny and nerdy; I knew her from her appearance in the last season of Buffy (which she barely mentions) and from the Hugo-winning Doctor Horrible's Sing-Along Blog; I also enjoyed the first part of her web series The Guild. Those who are more interested in her work than I am will really enjoy the book, and I found it entertaining enough.

I said "mostly". There is an impassioned chapter about the impact of Gamergate on Day's life. Within minutes of her making a public comment on how Gamergate was affecting her personally, she was doxxed by Gamergate activists as a blatant act of intimidation. It's a strong first-person account from someone who has considerable emotional and material resources, and still found it very difficult to cope with the impact. Shame on those who have nothing better to do than intimidate uppity women out of a shared space.

I'd still have voted for Letters to Tiptree, but this deserved a place on last year's ballot.

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The Fall of Arthur, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Second section of Part III ("Of Sir Lancelot, who abode in Benwick"):
There Lancelot     over leagues of sea
in heaving welter     from a high window
looked and wondered     alone musing.
Dark slowly fell.     Deep his anguish
He his lord betrayed     to love yielding,
and love forsaking     lord regained not;
faith was refused him     who had faith broken,
by leagues of sea     from love sundered.
This is minor Tolkien, an uncompleted epic poem about the end of Arthur's reign, not far from the version recounted by Malory - which I know only via T.H. White, who was working on The Sword in the Stone at about the same time. One would like to find a direct link, but Tolkien stopped working on The Fall of Arthur in 1937 and The Sword in the Stone was not published until 1938 (Tolkien had read it by April 1940) - and of course the later part of the Arthur legend was not reached by White until the complete Once and Future King came out in 1958.

The poetry is firmly rhythmic and alliterative - apparently R.W. Chambers, having been lent the manuscript, declaimed it with gusto to an empty railway carriage on his way back to London - and poor old Guinevere gets a lot more characterisation and agency than in most other versions of the story. But the most interesting part of the plot was never reached.

The poem itself is only 44 pages; the rest of the book is bulked out with essays by Christopher Tolkien (who is now 92) on his father's approach to the Arthurian legends, and on the links between the unfinished Fall of Arthur and the Silmarillion - in particular, the motif of the legendary figure who sails off into the West, which it is argued is drawn directly from Arthur and/or Lancelot to Eärendil and/or Tuor. Another parallel that struck me is that in the part I of The Fall of Arthur, the king is fighting enemies to the East.

Anyway, a nice addition to my Tolkien shelves.

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Sunday reading

Current
Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (a chapter a month)
Synners, by Pat Cadigan
Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman
How The Doctor Changed My Life, ed. Simon Guerrier

Last books finished
Pelléas and Mélisande, by Maurice Maeterlinck
The Fall of Arthur, by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Blue Bird, by Maurice Maeterlinck

Next books
The Famished Road, by Ben Okri
The Dancers at the End of Time, by Michael Moorcock
Life During Wartime, by Paul Cornell

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I am way behind in bookblogging - my last review here was seven weeks ago! So I'll hope to work through some of the backlog over the next while, going backwards rather than forwards.

I'm starting off with a mini-project which I carried out in the last week: the most popular three works by Belgium's only winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Mariuce Maeterlinck. (The total tally is eleven, ten men and and an institution, four for Peace, four for Physiology or Medicine, and one each for Chemistry, Physics and Literature.)

Maeterlinck lived from 1862 to 1949; he was born to a French-speaking family in Ghent, qualified as a lawyer, started writing in 1889, mainly for the stage, and won the Nobel prize in 1911. Hi lived in France from 1897 (apart from fleeing to American in 1940) but never took French citizenship, remaining Belgian. I knew very little of him before I picked up the three most popular of his works (as measured by LibraryThing); the one thing I could point to was Sibelius' 1905 incidental music for the play Pelléas et Mélisande, whose first movement, "At The Castle Gate", was the theme music for the BBC astronomy programme The Sky At Night, as presented for so long by Patrick Moore.



Pelléas and Mélisande/Pelléas et Mélisande

Second speech from Act I Scene III (Arkël, king of Allemonde, is reviewing recent family developments with his daughter Geneviève, whose son Golaud has recently married Mélisande, found mysteriously in the woods. Geneviève asks Arkël what he things about it all. He replies):
ARKËL: Nothing. He has done what he probably must have done. I am very old, and nevertheless I have not yet seen clearly for one moment into myself; how would you that I judge what others have done? I am not far from the tomb and do not succeed in judging myself…. One always mistakes when one does not close his eyes. That may seem strange to us; but that is all. He is past the age to marry and he weds like a child, a little girl he finds by a spring…. That may seem strange to us, because we never see but the reverse of destinies … the reverse even of our own…. He has always followed my counsels hitherto; I had thought to make him happy in sending him to ask the hand of Princess Ursula…. He could not remain alone; since the death of his wife he has been sad to be alone; and that marriage would have put an end to long wars and old hatreds…. He would not have it so. Let it be as he would have it; I have never put myself athwart a destiny; and he knows better than I his future. There happen perhaps no useless events…. ARKÉL: Je n'en dis rien. Il a fait ce qu'il devait probablement faire. Je suis très vieux et cependant je n'ai pas encore vu clair, un instant, en moi-même ; comment voulez-vous que je juge ce que d'autres ont fait? Je ne suis pas loin du tombeau et je ne parviens pas à me juger moi-même... On se trompe toujours lorsqu'on ne ferme pas les yeux pour pardonner ou pour mieux regarder en soi-même. Cela nous semble étrange ; et voilà tout. Il a passé l'âge mûr et il épouse, comme un enfant, une petite fille qu'il trouve près d'une source... Cela nous semble étrange, parce que nous ne voyons jamais que l'envers des destinées... l'envers même de la nôtre... Il avait toujours suivi mes conseils jusqu'ici; j'avais cru le rendre heureux en l'envoyant demander la main de la princesse Ursule... Il ne pouvait pas rester seul, et depuis la mort de sa femme il était triste d'être seul; et ce mariage allait mettre fin à de longues guerres et à de vieilles haines... Il ne l'a pas voulu. Qu'il en soit comme il l'a voulu : je ne me suis jamais mis en travers d'une destinée ; et il sait mieux que moi son avenir. Il n'arrive peut-être pas d'événements inutiles...
This is one of Maeterlinck's earliest plays, first performed in 1893, and must have contributed richly to his reputation. The title of the play makes it easy to guess the plot. Although Golaud falls in love with Mélisande in the second scene and marries her, in fact she and his brother Pelléas end up fatally attracted to each other, and Golaud kills them both when he finds out. (Actually it's not clear if the wound or childbirth is the cause of Mélisande's death, but basically he stabs her and she dies.)

It's a pretty basic narrative - doomed adulterous love is one of the oldest cliches in the book, but I guess it resonated well in the 1890s. I wasn't overwhelmed by its elaboration in the script. Mélisande literally comes out of nowhere (she is cited in TV Tropes as a classic Fragile Flower); she seems to exist purely as an object of romantic interest for the two male leads. Pelléas is not much better. Golaud is more interesting than either of the title characters, as he works through disbelief, revenge and ultimately repentance, but that's not saying much. At the same time there's a lot of symbolism, especially around water (and Mélisande's entangling hair), that a good director could turn into something pretty memorable, especially if armed with Sibelius' incidental music.

The Debussy opera, based closely on Maeterlinck's script, is performed more often these days than the original play but I found a review of a Canadian production last year that seems to have worked.

The Blue Bird / L'Oiseau Bleu

Second speech from Act II Scene II (Tyltyl and Mytyl are looking for the Land of Memory and think they may have found it):
MYTYL: There's the board!... MYTYL: II y a l'écriteau!...
This play is about the original Blue Bird of Happiness, which Tyltyl and Mytyl are sent to find by their neighbourhood fairy. Each scene takes them to a different allegorical place - the Fairy Bérylune's palace; the Land of Memory where the children meet their dead grandparents and siblings; the Palace of Night; the Forest, where the trees that have been attacked by the children's woodcutter father come alive; the Palace of Happiness; the graveyard where the dead are rising (or perhaps not); and the Kingdom of the Future, inhabited by the souls of children waiting to be born. Massive spoiler alert: it turns out that they had the Blue Bird of Happiness at home all along, and in the last scene it escapes and the play ends with the children breaking the fourth wall asking the audience to help find it again.

This play was first performed in 1908 in Moscow, and became a Broadway hit in 1910, presumably jogging the minds of the Nobel committee (it is the most recent work by Maeterlinck mentioned in their citation). There's a lot more to work with than in Pelléas and Mélisande. Reading through it, I thought how expensive it would be to stage - each scene needs to an elaborate set, different from the rest; the first scene features the magical animation and personification of Tylo the dog, Tylette the cat, and the concepts of Bread, Sugar, Fire, Water and Milk; and there are lots of birds, some of them blue. Tylette the cat is a great villain, conspiring with Night against the children and the dog. The ending is pretty weak but the journey is rather entertaining. I'm not surprised that a Japanese anime studio managed to spin 26 episodes out of it in 1980 (on Youtube, dubbed into Italian, starting here). It would be easy to do this wrong, but fun to try and do it right.

Not surprisingly it has been filmed several times. Here is the 1918 silent version:


Here is the 1940 version starring Shirley Temple:


And here is the first of several parts of a widely panned 1976 version directed by George Csukor and starring
Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Fonda, Ava Gardner and Robert Morley, with a young Patsy Kensit as Mytyl:


The Life of the Bee / La Vie des Abeilles

Second paragraph of third chapter ("The Foundation of the City", about how bees build hives):
Here, in the new abode, there is nothing; not a drop of honey, not a morsel of wax, neither guiding-mark nor point of support. There is only the dreary emptiness of an enormous monument that has nothing but sides and roof. Within the smooth and rounded walls there only is darkness; and the enormous arch above rears itself over nothingness. But useless regrets are unknown to the bee; or in any event it does not allow them to hinder its action. Far from being cast down by an ordeal before which every other courage would succumb, it displays greater ardor than ever. Scarcely has the hive been set in its place, or the disorder allayed that ensued on the bees' tumultuous fall, when we behold the clearest, most unexpected division in that entangled mass. The greater portion, forming in solid columns, like an army obeying a definite order, will proceed to climb the vertical walls of the hive. The cupola reached, the first to arrive will cling with the claws of their anterior legs, those that follow hang on to the first, and so in succession, until long chains have been formed that serve as a bridge to the crowd that rises and rises. And, by slow degrees, these chains, as their number increases, supporting each other and incessantly interweaving, become garlands which, in their turn, the uninterrupted and constant ascension transforms into a thick, triangular curtain, or rather a kind of compact and inverted cone, whose apex attains the summit of the cupola, while its widening base descends to a half, or two-thirds, of the entire height of the hive. And then, the last bee that an inward voice has impelled to form part of this group having added itself to the curtain suspended in darkness, the ascension ceases; all movement slowly dies away in the dome; and, for long hours, this strange inverted cone will wait, in a silence that almost seems awful, in a stillness one might regard as religious, for the mystery of wax to appear. Ici, dans la demeure nouvelle, il n’y a rien, pas une goutte de miel, pas un jalon de cire, pas un point de repère et pas un point d’appui. C’est la nudité désolée d’un monument immense qui n’aurait que le toit et les murs. Les parois, circulaires et lisses, ne renferment que l’ombre, et là-haut la voûte monstrueuse s’arrondit sur le vide. Mais l’abeille ne connaît pas les regrets inutiles; en tout cas elle ne s’y arrête point. Son ardeur, loin d’être abattue par une épreuve qui surpasserait tout autre courage, est plus grande que jamais. A peine la ruche est-elle redressée et mise en place, à peine le désarroi de la chute tumultueuse commence-t-il à s’apaiser, qu’on voit s’opérer dans la multitude emmêlée une division très nette et tout à fait inattendue. La plus grande partie des abeilles, comme une armée qui obéirait à un ordre précis, se met à grimper en colonnes épaisses le long des parois verticales du monument. Arrivées dans la coupole, les premières qui l’atteignent s’y cramponnent par les ongles de leurs pattes antérieures; celles qui viennent après s’accrochent aux premières et ainsi de suite, jusqu’à ce que soient formées de longues chaînes qui servent de pont à la foule qui s’élève toujours. Peu à peu, ces chaînes se multipliant, se renforçant et s’enlaçant à l’infini, deviennent des guirlandes qui, sous l’ascension innombrable et ininterrompue, se transforment à leur tour en un rideau épais et triangulaire, ou plutôt en une sorte de cône compact et renversé dont la pointe s’attache au sommet de la coupole et dont la base descend en s’évasant jusque la moitié ou les deux tiers de la hauteur totale de la ruche. Alors, la dernière abeille qui se sent appelée par une voix intérieure à faire partie de ce groupe, ayant rejoint le rideau suspendu dans les ténèbres, l’ascension prend fin, tout mouvement s’éteint peu à peu dans le dôme, et l’étrange cône renversé attend durant de longues heures, dans un silence qu’on pourrait croire religieux et dans une immobilité qui paraît effrayante, l’arrivée du mystère de la cire.
I found this much the most digestible of the three books - perhaps I'm just not very good at seeing the potential in theatre scripts. It's quite short, and it's basically about bees. Maeterlinck was a keen bee-keeper, he knew what he was writing about (in this case at least - a later book about termites was allegedly plagiarized), and his enthusiasm is infectious. As the quote above demonstrates, it's a detailed, lyrical and rather passionate work, if somewhat anthropomorphic.

The downside is that, like a lot of nature writing of the time (the book was first published in 1901), it is a rather politically conservative text. There is no room here for departure form the natural order; although queens may be overthrown and replaced, this happens only as part of the set natural cycle of returning to the status quo. Bees manifest the importance of knowing your place and sticking to it. I was irresistibly reminded of Laline Paul's The Bees, one of the first books I read for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, which turns exactly the same setting into a revolutionary parable.

And in conclusion, I think Maeterlinck's conservatism is the reason I can't get excited about him (just as it was probably what moved the older Carl Bildt to recommend him for the Nobel Prize). Pelléas and Mélisande follow their own instincts rather than the rules of polite behaviour, and die horribly. The Blue Bird is actually to be found at home rather than on an extensive quest. The bees are a perfect hierarchical society. Some of it is told very well, and it has provided a hook for other creators to hang great work on. But it's not really my cup of tea.

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The Trip, directed by Tracy Mathews


The Trip — a 48 Hour Film: Winner of Best Film Washington, DC from Tracy Mathews on Vimeo.

Most impressed by my colleagues in Washington DC, who won last month's 48 Hour Film Project (48HFP), a competition in which groups must create a short film from scratch in a single weekend, with this short (6 minutes plus credits) film about time travel made from scratch over a weekend. It's a very nicely done piece, set in the very near future, about a widower who travels back in time to see his wife again. Best of luck to the team as they take it to Filmapalooza in Paris in March.

August Books

Non-fiction: 5 (YTD 34)
The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, by Erving Goffman
QI: The Book of the Dead, by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson
William Cecil, Ireland and the Tudor State, by Christopher Maginn
You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), by Felicia Day
The Life of the Bee, by Maurice Maeterlinck



Fiction (non-sf): 2 (YTD 15)
The Help, by Kathryn Stockett
Children are Civilians Too, by Heinrich Böll



sf (non-Who): 5 (YTD 56)
The Moon Stallion, by Brian Hayles
Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid
Pelléas and Mélisande, by Maurice Maeterlinck
The Fall of Arthur, by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Blue Bird, by Maurice Maeterlinck



Doctor Who, etc: 6 (YTD 39)
Decide Your Destiny: Claws of the Macra, by Trevor Baxendale
Decide Your Destiny: Judoon Monsoon, by Oli Smith
Decide Your Destiny: Empire of the Wolf, by Neil Corry
Short Trips: Transmissions, ed. Richard Salter
A Life of Surprises, ed. Paul Cornell
The Shining Man, by Cavan Scott



Comics: 3 (YTD 17)
Aliénor: La Légende Noire, vol 1, by Arnaud Delalande and Simona Mogavino, art by Carlos Gomez
Aliénor: La Légende Noire, vol 2, by Arnaud Delalande and Simona Mogavino, art by Carlos Gomez
Moomin: The Complete Comic Strip vol. 7, by Lars Jansson



4,500 pages (YTD 40,400)
4/21 (YTD 47/163) by women (Day, Stockett, Mogavino x2)
1/21 (YTD 15/163) by PoC (Hamid)

Reread: 0 (YTD 8)

Reading now
Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (a chapter a month)
Synners, by Pat Cadigan

Coming soon (perhaps):
The Famished Road, by Ben Okri
The Dancers at the End of Time, by Michael Moorcock
Alexander the Corrector: The Tormented Genius Whose Cruden's Concordance Unwrote the Bible, by Julia Keay
1434: The Year a Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance, by Gavin Menzies
The Past Through Tomorrow, by Robert A. Heinlein
Caprice and Rondo, by Dorothy Dunnett
Antarès, Tome 2 by Leo
The Last Castle, by Jack Vance
Thorns, by Robert Silverberg
A Man of Parts, by David Lodge
A Crocodile in the Fernery: An A-Z of Animals in the Garden, by Twigs Way
Wild Life, by Molly Gloss
Virginia Woolf, by Hermione Lee
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl
Dear Old Dead, by Jane Haddam
Corum: The Prince in the Scarlet Robe, by Michael Moorcock
Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle
Guided by the Beauty of Their Weapons: Notes on Science Fiction and Culture in the Year of Angry Dogs, by Philip Sandifer
The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses, by Kevin Birmingham
The World of Yesterday, by Stefan Zweig
Brave New Worlds: Dystopian Stories, ed. John Joseph Adams
The Autumnlands, Vol. 1: Tooth and Claw, by Kurt Busiek
The Fall of Hyperion, by Dan Simmons
How The Doctor Changed My Life, ed. Michael Coen
Life During Wartime, by Paul Cornell

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