Well, it’s another week in which I’m a bit late for my regular posting, and I’ve been meaning since several days to write an update regarding this, but have been rather slammed. Lots of this has been for great reasons, though, such as children going back to school. This meant I had to temporarily tweak my schedule to accommodate morning rides, which will end when the snow and ice go away, and the feel of that is definitely in the air, but still a ways away here in the Great Land. In Los Angeles they have 80° and lots of Lower 48 states are already playing frisbee, though we get to go snowshoeing for a bit more. (It’s fun, you should try it!)
This weekend I’ll be hard at work cleaning up a project I’m finishing – more on that to come – and then I’ve got a big schedule next week. So I will probably be absent then as well, but have been making notes for lots of other posts, including the Image of the Month, some quirkage, book and product reviews, food, lovely-smelling magazines, music and more. I think I will be able to peep into Twitter and post a few archival links and reminisce a bit, plus check out what others are creating and talking about.
I’ll leave you here with a selection from some of the music I’m currently listening to, plus links to a couple of my favorite blogs (including at least one book review). Hope you all are doing well and thanks so much for coming to check us out. See you soon!
It has been a lovely month, with memories of Mary Stewart to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the beloved author’s birth. Known for her groundbreaking fusion of mystery and romance set in exotic locales, Stewart is also widely adored for her interpretation of Merlin—and setting up of him as the main character—in her best-selling series, The Merlin Trilogy.
The Crystal Cave, first in the trilogy, provided for me an amazing transport into a new but old world, some of which I began to discuss last week, and continue today, below. This concludes our “Month of Mary Stewart” series as a small gift to the author’s memory, with long hope that all the characters she has brought to life will remain as bright sparks—Merlin’s favorite element—”clear and brightly colored.”
Month of Mary Stewart: Distant Scenes of Memory
And so there I stood, on a precipice between times, knowing I was about to launch forward into something entirely new, even though it wasn’t entirely new—it was to be my own experience of Merlin, mine, and Merlin, not so much Arthur, as my mother’s stories had always stressed, even when she spoke of the background tales, such as Tristan and Iseult’s romance or the brothers Balin and Balan, and of course, Galahad, Gawain and Lancelot.
Inviting Merlin into my room and my life gave me greater views into worlds I had heretofore only seen in glimpses, and I began to write in greater earnest. I also begged my mother to deliver me upon the doors of every library she was willing to drive me to as I sought to collect any book remotely related to Merlin and Arthurian legends that our system owned. I think she knew she had opened these doors, for she never complained about the ferrying schedule and its frequent jaunts.
I actually did write about many other topics beside Merlin, perhaps reflective of his own study of subjects in addition to magic. And it seemed to me like such magic that I could enter into the lives of so many other people who existed in other realms, unaware I was watching them. I even began to spy on ghosts, writing into my journal the secret passageways they traveled in order to pass through veils, mists dividing time and spheres.
I had been writing poetry for some time and the epigraph at the start of The Crystal Cave, Edwin Muir’s “Merlin”—
O Merlin in your crystal cave
Deep in the diamond of the day,
Will there ever be a singer
Whose music will smooth away
The furrow drawn by Adam’s finger
Across the memory and the wave?
Or a runner who’ll outrun
Man’s long shadow driving on,
Break through the gate of memory
And hang the apple on the tree?
Will your magic ever show
The sleeping bride shut in her bower,
The day wreathed in its mound of snow
and Time locked in his tower?
—and Stewart’s magician gave me the courage to directly address Merlin in my search for him in all these and other shrouded locales. He remains extant in a collective memory, my part of which sought him out, asking when, when, Merlin, will you unfurrow the world’s brow, or is the best part of any era—the “diamond of the day”—long gone, accessible only to you? Will you breach Time, will anybody ever be able to move fast enough to greet you, accompany you into the world we have now and in which we need your healing arts?
I had always been a very creative child, so it came as no surprise that Merlin appeared in my dreams, and I woke once to write out the words, I seemed to sense him in his oaken shadow. I had detected him very close by and felt more as if I had been transported than dreaming, though conventionality dictated I chalk it up to what my mother labeled “a strong imagination.” Within it I explored what Muir calls the “gate of memory,” wanting to know what could be discovered in the shadows of our past experiences. In search of this and more, I wrote out thousands and thousands of words discovered, experimented with, targeted, discarded, twisted, conjured—all in a quest of sorts, to find this figure I knew I had encountered already.
I wrote Mary Stewart a letter and received a reply. Sadly, I no longer have the wonderful, typewritten return message, though I recall her encouragement of various interpretations of Merlin and best wishes with my own writing. Printed on House of Letterawe letterhead, it traveled the world with me for some time as I often pulled it out as part of my Merlin conversations with people intrigued by tales that swirled around their own memories, and I have been encouraged by how many are genuinely interested in not what is the past, but indeed our past.
“[T]he recent past is misted, while distant scenes of memory are clear and brightly colored.”—Merlin, The Crystal Cave
This week’s “Image of the Week” entails a mixture of sorts: between a cover crush and look back in time, as well as my own experience of how an image can lead to something that touches one much more deeply. For it is the cover of Mary Stewart’s The Hollow Hills that initially beckoned to a teen me, transporting me deeper into the world of Merlin, surrounding me even more with the magic of his time.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, my mother told me stories of Arthur and Merlin as I grew up, and was delighted to see The Crystal Cave on the booklist we received the summer before I began high school. We were meant to choose three works and be able to discuss and write about them during the school year—I rejected The Crystal Cave in favor of The Turn of the Screw. Disappointed, she purchased the books I listed, but also, unbeknownst to me, the entire Merlin Trilogy: the aforementioned initial installment as well as The Hollow Hills and The Last Enchantment. I rolled my eyes when I saw them, but allowed her to line them up on my night table bookshelf anyway.
As it happens, I was a compulsively clean child and habitually performed such chores as pull my bed away from the wall to wipe down the floorboard or ensure there was no developing mark from the mattress. So it was that one day I pulled the table away from the wall to get at the dust behind it, when the books on the lower level attracted my attention—the shifting probably upset them—and I crouched to pick them off the floor.
It was a moment that lasted a couple of hours, for I glanced at the cover of The Hollow Hills—was it providence that I happened to pick that one up first?—and began to look deeply into the image as it motioned, called to me, pulled me toward the dusky swirl of a time I could easily melt into, felt I could become part of.
The figure on the cover was not difficult to take in. Handsome, with tousled red hair and rosy cheeks, he gripped a sword and held himself in a defiant stance, as if he were perceiving enemies in the distance and taking measure of his next actions. He seemed to me immensely strong, somewhat daunting, but still someone I wanted to be in the presence of. As a rather quiet child, my mind instinctively flew to the query of what birthed such potency, and I drew open the leaves.
It was Arthur, of course, and the second book in the series, but I do recall flipping through and reading passages here and there, wondering which one of them might tell me more about the world of such a man and how he came to be.
[B]elow me the grass, grey with rime, was barely distinguishable in the thick mist that held the whole place shrouded, from the invisible sea below the invisible cliffs to the pale blur where the winter sun fought to clear the sky. Below the blanket of mist the sea was quiet, as quiet as it ever was on that raging coast.
Then, on the third night, the wind came. A small wind from the west, that crept across the battlements and in under the doors and set the flames fluttering blue round the birch logs.
As a reader, I had always been able to close my eyes and envision what the words communicated, as if I were watching a big screen behind my lids—at least most of the time—and the images in my mind on this day, brought forth by words more beloved than ever, were enchanting. The castle Tintagel I had dreamt of, the furious wind on a night portending the greatest event for the future of an empire. Something passed through my very soul on that afternoon, and I felt—in words as close as possible to the experience I lived—as if I had made a discovery of utmost importance, that I had uncovered something from my past and simply could not stop now. I must, I felt then, continue on this path and retrieve what it is I knew I had lost.
As I gazed once more upon the cover, the storm raging behind King Arthur seemed not unlike the one I had just witnessed, with a red sky over the castle, beckoning him to his destiny, the same he was directed to that squally night that the baby he, the one for whom the storm summoned, is carried away from his birthplace to his very purpose, to his future.
Why had I never been this mystified by the tales my mother told me? She was an able storyteller, and a gifted reader: her out-loud recitations of Poe were absolutely ghostly and filled with mysterious meaning. Well, she liked King Arthur—King Arthur—but she absolutely adored Poe, who I never took to quite as she did. Perhaps there was a connection between the darkness of his images and the ghosts she regularly told me about and I shrunk from. Her stories were delicious but frightening, and despite her assurances that the manifestations I frequently encountered couldn’t hurt me, I resented their invasion of my space (though I may not have had those words at the time) and how their almost-constant presence assaulted my very being. Only my room—the smaller one I had longed for years to move into, away from the large one I shared with my sister—offered a haven from them, and perhaps, in addition to natural inclination, was why I took such meticulous care of it.
I invited Merlin to my room. Merlin, protector of the future high king, magical, mysterious, occupant of memories that returned in a flood, present in a dissipating mist and the once invisible internal landscape existing amongst a raging sea.
The mist was lifting, drawing back from a sparkling sky. Faintly, high over the castle promontory, grew a hazy moon of light. Then the last cloud blew clear, billowing before the west wind like a sail blowing towards Brittany, and in its wake, blazing through the sparkle of the lesser stars, grew the great star that had lit the night of Ambrosius’ death, and now burned steady in the east for the birth of the Christmas King.
As you have likely figured, I love books. Since childhood I have reveled in the feel of a book in my hands and been drawn by the stories within. The Crystal Cave was one such force. Having grown up hearing my mother tell tales from King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, I thought I’d had enough, at least at that point, and stowed the trilogy she’d purchased (anyway) on the shelf in my night table. When dusting one day the book did what you hear about in films: it called to me. I tried to clean around it but the world within was relentless, beckoning, pulling, whispering my fate. I remember still being crouched on the floor next to my bed as I reached the fourth of fifth chapter.
For my money, this is what a book should do–get a hold on you and resist letting go. One author remarked that one of the greatest compliments he can get is when someone says they lost sleep reading his work. Dinner burns; you hang onto the strap in the Metro with one hand, open book in the other; errands fall by the wayside; or you keep thinking about what happened last and when a free moment comes once more, you head for that book. There are a lot of ways to feel the pull and I know many of you share the sentiment when I say it is a wonderfully delicious sensation.
Later, in university, I was so fortunate to enter the classroom of an amazing professor whose classroom style, wealth of information and sheer love of literature–you could feel it in the air and settling on your being–was so infectious that she practically had followers. OK, that’s an exaggeration, but I was delighted to discover I was not the only one who had found one day that something was different about our love of reading. It had reached a whole new level. Perhaps we understood about the key she had just handed us, that she was teaching us how to unlock the door to yet more worlds. There’s no way to teach anybody everything there is to know about literature in four years, and I do admit to having been a bit burnt out toward the end, but what I learned about it, what else I can see and gather from what is present in any story–and not–made it all the more rich and rewarding. Many others know more than I do, and so the learning process continues, and will, until I am no more. She gave that to me, to us.
It’s a great honor for me to be able to perform even a fraction of what this gifted professor did. Reading is so important in life, the earlier the better, for practical as well as “leisurely” reasons, and if I am able to open up this world to anyone, even lead them to a fantabulous story they remember for life, I consider that a great success. It reminds me of a poem a friend once gifted me inside a greeting:
To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.–Ralph Waldo Emerson
So it starts with practicality: great recommendations toward books worthy of the time, money and energy readers invest in them. I only review works that meet this criteria.
That said, what exactly does it take to meet this criteria? Any given reviewer, myself or anyone else, has his or her own tastes, some of which may overlap with others’. Ultimately it comes down to the question Would you tell others they should read this? with a breakdown to the following points:
The blurb describes a plot that captures my attention and develops within the book in a well-written, logical and authentic style. It is researched well.
The work maintains a reasonable balance between being reader- and writer-friendly. That is to say it doesn’t spoon feed me information or isn’t dumbed down, but also doesn’t rely on referential material the author is withholding or unreasonably expecting me to know already.
Characters are developed and meaningful; I grow to care for and remember them long after the book is finished.
The language is lovely—the words needn’t be posh or expensive, but they are more than mere vehicles for the transit of information. Instead they touch me in a way that draws me in and makes me think. I also appreciate words that flow like water off my tongue as I read them aloud.
I become so invested with the book I don’t want to put it down.
Economy: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” As short as Hemingway’s six-word short story is, it tells a tale that even can be interpreted in more ways than one, and that impresses me. It’s a somewhat extreme example of how someone can say a lot with very few words, but it gets the point across rather well, no? I very much admire authors who can do this.
Literary techniques are utilized so seamlessly the links they create seem part of the natural landscape
While this is not an exhaustive listing, it covers the major areas where I look for quality. Of course, some books touch each of us on different levels, which is one reason I enjoy reading reviews as well as writing them. This enables me to get a glimpse through the eyes of another onto the world we share, the same books we may experience. Some books find their way to a special spot in my reader’s heart, such as The Crystal Cave and the rest of The Merlin Trilogy. No matter how often I read them, I am transported and the world outside pauses as I join this one, as happened to me first during that long-ago teenage day.