Ooooh! A post about fantasy.

A new Ellen Kushner! And a selection to read here! Excited as I am, I’m going to hold off on buying it, because this is the time of year when I start saving up stuff-I-want for the Christmas list. Sir John and his family believe in Lists, so no one will be disappointed by getting socks or a lava lamp, and sometimes I have a terrible time coming up with things I can ask for. But this will be great.

One of the (many) things I love about the Riverside world is that Kushner managed to insert a fantasy-inflected academic novel inside the “fantasy of manners,” in Fall of the Kings. It’s a convincing academic world, one in which people care, passionately, about history and mathematics, about knowing, where it’s clear what history is good for in practical, political terms, but also where the past is, simply, interesting, where academic politics get in the way of research, where the joys of research are in themselves magical. There is “real” magic, yes; but Kushner seems to grasp that learning is itself magical and does not need to be overly-equipped with Major Arcana like the Holy Grail, or magical critters of every possible stripe.

The contrast I’m thinking of is a book I would like to like, which came highly recommended by a friend; I enjoyed the beginning because it gets Oxford and the Bodleian down so perfectly, and I can easily swallow enchanted manuscripts (aren’t they all?). But when it comes to vampires and the rest of the exotica, my willful suspension of disbelief breaks down. I suppose I was scarred by Bram Stoker, but to me vampires are icky and I cannot face any of the vampire-hero fiction. Well, OK, I tolerate Harry Dresden’s brother Thomas, but the whole point of Jim Butcher’s Dresden series is how incredibly over-the-top every single book is. Disbelief never even gets off the ground. My interest is always “how is he going to get out of it this time?”

So Ellen Kushner’s evocation of a world where magic is nearly gone, deliberately suppressed, but can be approached through beat-up old books by scholars who know how to interpret their language and symbolism, that floats my boat. That’s my world . . . plus a little something. It’s the world I glimpse when reading my own old romances, the world that’s just around the corner from this one, where the magic lies in grasping what was magical for people of 500 or 700 years ago. Scholarship, when it’s well-done, creates (or re-creates) something that is akin to fantasy. And Kushner, I guess, creates fantasy that is akin to scholarship. Minus the footnotes, but we have Susanna Clarke for that.

And now, back to my own efforts at creation. Revisons of the MMP-Octopus. Someday all the bits of that project are going to see the light of day.

Sod’s law

It looks like there might be some marginal entries on this page of a manuscript, but the photo I took is blurry. And I didn’t re-take that particular page, even though I have multiple good pictures of the previous page, and multiple good shots of a single comment on another page.

Why?  Why did I not notice that that one was blurred, or that there was something there I might want a decent shot of?

Why aren’t all my photos in focus, in the first place?

Grumble grumble grumble.

Maybe someday I’ll get another look.  For now, I’m going to have to finesse this.  Please let the reviewers not pay too much attention to the paragraph in which the finessing happens.

Tea/coffee, English/Continental, Pym/Thirkell

I have long been a tea drinker. I normally make tea in the morning (loose if I have a little leisure, a bag if I’m running out the door or am just too groggy), and read while I drink it and wake up. One of my great pleasures when traveling alone is to take a cup of tea back to bed and read or write in bed, which I cannot do at home since Sir John and I live in different time zones.* At least, I do this when I’m traveling alone in England, where hotel rooms are always equipped with an electric kettle, or in the U.S., where there is always a coffee maker that can usually be coaxed to produce hot water that doesn’t taste too much like coffee if I take the thing apart and clean it.

However, Barbara Pym’s observations in Excellent Women about tea on the Continent still apply in the present day: “When it comes, it’s a pale straw-colored liquid . . . and the tea’s in a funny little bag . . and they may even bring hot milk with it.” As to the pale liquid, I might add that you’d be lucky; usually you get a pot of slightly-more-than-lukewarm water and the funny little bag still in a paper wrapper, and you have to inflict the making of pale and unsatisfactory fluid on yourself. The same points apply to many restaurants and cafes in the U.S.**

Thus, on my recent trip, after a couple of unfortunate mornings with straw-colored liquid, I resigned myself, with increasing pleasure, to cafe con leche rather than tea. It was of course necessary to get dressed and leave my room for this, because Continental hotel rooms do not provide kettles or coffee makers.**** I never thought of the French and Spanish as a batch of morning people, but apparently they achieve some minimal level of functionality before caffeine input in the morning, at least when they’re not in their own homes. (Getting the cafetière going is a recurrent trope in the modern novels I have been reading lately.)

After a week of cafe con leche in a southern Spanish plaza, tea chez moi just didn’t taste right. And so I thought that perhaps this year, my “something new and different” that “you didn’t do as a normal part of the work routine when you weren’t on leave” could be cafe con leche. It did occur to me that I run the risk of turning into an Angela Thirkell character:

“Eccomi! said Mrs Grant, throwing both arms wide so that her necklaces and her bracelets clanked and clattered in sympathy. “Eccomi!” she said again, stretching her hands towards her friends as a shipwrecked sailor might stretch towards his rescuers. “Sir Edmund! You remember me. Felicia Grant.” Sir Edmund said with great truth that no one could ever forget Mrs Grant. “Ah, we were younger then,” said Mrs Grant. “We meet now nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita. But in sunny Calabria age has no terrors. A crust, a clove of garlic, what more is needed? Brother Sun and Brother Sleep.” Noel said under his breath And Brother Mosquito Net, which made Lydia laugh.*****

There are other risks, it turns out. Coffee-making is just too complicated for my early mornings. Tea involves putting on the kettle, scooping leaves into the strainer, and pouring hot water until the cup is full. I can cope with that, and there are bags to avoid the scooping step if I’m really groggy. But coffee requires finding the grinder, beans, filter, and filter-holder, and getting them assembled in the proper order. The beans go in the grinder, not the filter or the holder. Then it’s necessary to grind them menace the cats with Terrible Cat-Eating Machinery, which they flee; with luck they don’t knock anything over during their escape from the kitchen.******  Ground coffee goes in the filter, not into the cup or the filter-holder. The water has to be measured, and the milk heated, but preferably not boiled. After Caffeine, I could probably manage just fine. Pre-Caffeine is another story.

I can tell you that my respect for baristas has increased dramatically over the few days I have been trying to prepare coffee in the morning. No doubt there are shortcuts and gadgets that could change this picture. But the idea was to add pleasure, not to complicate my life. So I’m going back to tea. Coffee will just have to be reserved for Continental breakfasts taken on the Continent, where someone else operates the machinery.*******


*Same house. Different time zones. I’m New Brunswick, he’s Vancouver.

**At Peet’s Coffee, they know to put boiling water*** on a tea bag. They even sell loose tea. The place could just be called Peet’s Caffeine.

***I even know that water for tea should ideally be just off the boil, but let’s not get unduly fussy. I’d prefer the water be too hot than too cold.

****The Mercure at CDG had a kettle. No cups, or tea bags, or coffee packets. Perhaps you have to ask for the kettle set-up, as you ask for down-free pillows or a lighter blanket. Vive la France!

*****Angela Thirkell, County Chronicle (1950; rpt. Moyer Bell, 1998), 160. Mrs Grant also appears in The Brandons, but I think I must have purged my copy on account of its being excessively battered, while the library can supply me with a sturdier copy.

******Without luck, there’s more mess to clean up than just spilled coffee grounds.

*******If I’d thought ahead, I might actually be spending my sabbatical abroad, but (as usual) the home situation is just a little too complicated to allow us to pack up and move for a year. Too many cats, too much house. I am not Excellent Woman enough for that; or maybe I am, precisely, Excellently presiding over my own home instead of gallivanting adventurously abroad. Perhaps I should have studied anthropology like Helena Napier, instead of getting involved with English Literature.