2nd May 2016: My Goodreads review of Petrarch’s letters

Five hundred and ninety years before I was born, Petrarch died in the middle of writing me a letter.

What do you mean it wasn’t to me? It totally was. It was addressed to “Posterity”, and if I’m not his posterity then I don’t know who is.

Petrarch was warm and friendly and playful and he cared about people and he loved books and the ancient world, and he wanted to live in any age but his own, and to make his own age better and different. And he succeeded in fascinating ways that he couldn’t see in making it better and different. He fell in love with Laura and wrote a bunch of very clever poems to her, but his real relationships were his passionate (but neither sexual nor romantic) friendships with other scholars.

In this volume there are adorable letters to Boccaccio, and there are sad letters about being old and ill (and how awful doctors were, and it was 1370, so actually he wasn’t wrong) and lovely letters in response to fan letters from young admirers, and charming letters to patrons, and grumpy letters to the pope (he wasn’t about to go to Avignon again at his age!) and you don’t want to start here. Start with book 1 of his Familiar Letters and read them all slowly, and when you get here you’ll cry too, because he’s been dead since 1374, and it’s not that you didn’t know that before you started reading, it’s just that by then you’ll be his posterity too. I could do with some company here, actually, mourning Petrarch. Appreciating Petrarch. (I’ve written a ton of poetry about him. It’s on my webpage.)

I began to read these letters because Steven Greenblatt mentioned (in The Swerve), in an offhand and slightly patronizing way, as if it was weird and charming but also childish and eccentric, that Petrarch had written letters to Cicero, in response to reading Cicero’s letters. And my immediate response was a deep feeling of kinship with Petrarch because as a teenager I had done the same thing. In Latin. Of course in Latin. And yes, I knew Cicero was dead, and so did Petrarch, but Petrarch and I know something about time and death and art that Greenblatt doesn’t, quite. I did not triage the Petrarch letters and find the Cicero one, I started at the beginning and read all of them over the course of two years, and I am so glad I did.

Thank you Aldo S Bernardo for translating them, thank you Italica Press for putting them out in relatively affordable e-book editions, thank you Steven Greenblatt for getting me interested in the first place, and thank you Petrarch for starting the Renaissance and saving the world.

Posterity remembers, cares, is deeply grateful, and loves you ridiculously much. I don’t know what you’d think of me as a woman with a classics degree and a poet, because that was too much out of your imagination of the world. But neither of us is what Cicero was expecting either. You have to take what posterity you get.

Posted in Books, Human culture, Life as it blossoms out in a jar or a face

1st December 2015: 51 Today

AM is here and I’m going out for breakfast and later today for dinner with Z as well, and the book is done, and I have such great family and friends, and being fifty-one is lovely so far.

I won’t be doing my regular birthday list of what I published and the awards I won when I was fifty, because I think there’s a slippery slope with that at one end and the Sad Puppies saying everyone campaigns at the other, and that makes it very important that everyone does not campaign, or do anything that remotely could be claimed to look like it, this year especially. It was a fun thing to do on my birthday, looking at achievements for the year, and I’m sorry to stop, but never mind. Here’s the summary: Two novels out, another completed, a Tiptree award, a Locus award, the ALA stuff, and a bunch of nominations. Completely awesome actually.

Places I visited for the first time when I was fifty:

Salisbury, Wiltshire
Colorado Springs
Spokane, Washington
Lyon
Avignon
Nice
Canton, Ohio

Posted in Life as it blossoms out in a jar or a face, My Books

29th January 2015: Everything alive and dead to weep as one

There’s a family anecdote about me that I’m not sure whether I actually remember or whether I just remember being told about it lots and lots of times. I was four or five, and we went to St David’s Cathedral, on the very tip of West Wales. When we were there, we were shown the tomb of Giraldus Cambrensis, Gerald of Wales (1146-1223) — whereupon I burst into inconsolable tears. I’d read his book, and I hadn’t known he was dead.

My family thought this was hilarious. My aunt still does. She told Ada this story in the summer when we were in Llandaff cathedral. Ada didn’t think it was funny, or even strange. This is because I still do this, and she does too.

I almost always cry on reaching the end of a biography — though at this point it’s not like I didn’t know Voltaire was dead. But yet, but yet… Emilie du Chatelet is dead too. It’s not shock that brings tears to my eyes. But it is grief. And it is real, even though they’ve been dead for centuries and they were dead this morning too.

Sometimes it feels as if everyone is dead and I have to remind myself that there are many awesome people still alive right now.

But I keep on reading biographies, or worse, collections of letters. Oh my goodness, Petrarch. Petrarch lived through the Black Death, and he lost friend after friend, and then two of his best friends got killed by bandits just outside Florence, and he’d just been writing to them! And eventually I will reach the end of his letters, and I will cry. I’d cry if I saw his grave, too. I’m not crying for Petrarch right now, even though he’s dead right now, because right now I have multiple volumes of his letters to go, so it is as if he’s still alive and still writing them.

I think that’s true in a way, our acts build the future and that’s our legacy, and writers are still alive in their writing. When we went to Shakespeare’s tomb when we were in Stratford in the summer (Greer really wanted to) it was strange, because in the church they were acting as if he was dead, but I knew he was still alive in the theatre. Sometimes the too too solid flesh is the least of it. Voltaire too.

But yet…

I don’t know whether, when, as a little kid, I wept for Giraldus Cambrensis, I understood the distance between the twelfth century and the twentieth century. I did, I think, understand that Gerald was describing a Wales different from the one I lived in, and that times had changed. I think what I didn’t understand was human mortality, that somebody who had been alive when castles and abbeys were new couldn’t still be alive now. I am aware of that now. But I’m still sad about it, and also deeply irritated. Death is a bug. It’s stupid. Why shouldn’t people live eight hundred or a thousand years?

Also, when people talk abour genealogy and looking up their ancestors, although their ancestors always sound really cool, I am never even slightly moved to look up mine. I have enough relations already. Why would I want more? They’d only laugh at me. I’d rather have Giraldus Cambrensis.

Books obliquely recommended in this post:

Giraldus Cambrensis Journey Through Wales.
David Bodanis Passionate Minds.
Petrarch Familiar Letters (available in 3 volumes, of which I have just started the second).
Voltaire Philosophical Dictionary (Definitely the best place to start with Voltaire. It’s funny and warm.)

Posted in Books, Human culture, Life as it blossoms out in a jar or a face

1st December 2014: Best birthday present ever

So Marissa Lingen gave me a book.

And lots of people have given me books before, and sometimes books I really really wanted, like the time my aunt gave me The Silmarillion when I was fourteen, and I had wanted it so much it hurt for the whole month before.

But this is a book I didn’t know I wanted, because I didn’t know it existed. Indeed, it didn’t exist, and maybe it doesn’t now — it’s really not a book, I suppose it’s a very special kind of birthday card.

It’s a theme anthology, specially for me, on the subject of “Things Jo Walton Likes”, with stories specially written by some of my friends. Mrissa had the idea and organized it, and here it is, with stories by her and Ada and Alec and Lila and Jon Singer and Jon Evans and  Tim Cooper, and oh that came out a funny mix of LJ names and real names but there we are, it’s late, and I’m fifty now, I can do that if I want to.

So it’s an anthology of stories about things I like, written by people I like and who like me, and especially for me. And that’s — I mean, wow. Not only is this the best birthday present ever, I think it’s probably the best birthday present possible. I mean Z gave me a mug with an octopus on that disappears as your tea cools, and that’s pretty cool, but it can’t even compete, and Rysmiel gave me my traditional every-zero-year birthday pin up of a naked man (this time Voltaire to go with Samuel Delany) but even that pales by comparison.

I’m just overwhelmed. And I haven’t even read it yet.

Posted in Books, Life as it blossoms out in a jar or a face

1st December 2014: Half a century

I am fifty, except that, like Neil Gaiman, I still feel twelve.

AM is here, Marissa Lingen and family are in town, we have plans with Z tonight and a party next weekend.

Fifty is an odd age, awfully old, but yet still relatively young. And I have done so much and seen so much and been so lucky, and yet done so little and have to much left to do and see and look forward to.

Novels

My Real Children Tor, May. Corsair, August.

Stories

Sleeper Tor.com August

Poetry

Hades and Persephone Tor.com April

On the Impending Death of Iain Banks Moral Relativism Magazine

Non Fiction

What Makes This Book So Great, January, Tor.

Reprints and Translations

“Sleeper” in French, in Utopiales 14 anthology.

“Turnover” at Lightspeed

My Real Children in Italian

Among Others in Japanese, French, Croatian, Chinese, Lithuanian

Sold But Not Yet Published

An Informal History of the Hugos Essay collection.

Pending from Previous Years

The Just City coming out in January
The Philosopher Kings coming out in July

The Small Change books in French and Polish
Among Others in Korean

In progress

Necessity

Poor Relations

Awards

Kurd Lasswitz Preis

Award Nominations

Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice for MRC

New Places Visited

North America: San Diego, Las Vegas, Santa Fe
Europe: Venice, Bologna, Nantes

Posted in Life as it blossoms out in a jar or a face, My Books

30th September 2014: A Kind of Rissole

One of the things I am reading is Boccaccio’s Decameron. It’s a fascinating collection of medieval stories, comparable to the Canterbury Tales but more Italian and with more sex. The frame story is that seven young ladies and three young men go off together to a country house to escape the Plague — the Black Death, which is ravaging Florence. There they elect one of their number Queen (or King) for the day, and amuse themselves by telling stories. The book is divided into days, and there are ten stories told each day. Sometimes there’s a theme, like “tricks wives play on husbands” or “tricks husbands play on wives” or and sometimes there’s no theme. The storytellers are lightly characterised in the frame and through the stories they choose. It’s very funny, and there’s lots of sex, and the book has been scandalous for centuries.

I’m reading a free translation, and I am well on into volume two — I’ve been reading it for ages, one story at a time. (I’ve been doing a thing recently where I’m reading about a dozen things that fall well into sections, and in between reading longer things I’ll read a section each of those things. It’s great when I’m travelling. It’s one of the fun things about the Kindle.)

This is a Victorian translation of Boccaccio, but that has been fine, until I came to a fun story about an idiot being tricked into looking for a magic stone. The people gulling the idiot tell him about a wonderful country where macaroni and ravioli spill out freely for the taking. And there’s a footnote by ravioli, which the Victorian translator assumes the Victorian reader will not recognise — and probably rightly. I remember the first time I had ravioli, and my grandmother’s Cookery Year definitely thinks of it as something exotic, though not quite in italics. What surprised me wasn’t the existence of the footnote but the content. “Ravioli: A kind of rissole”.

A rissole is… I expect that to my readers it’s far less common than ravioli. It’s “a small croquette” according to Wikipedia, usually rolled in breadcrumbs. It’s like a fishcake except that it can be made of meat. It’s much bigger than ravioli — about the size of a meatball or a small burger, and indeed it can be thought of like an old fashioned down market burger, using unidentified meat and spices and maybe onion, sometimes tasty but best not inquired into, frequently seen in school dinners, generally fried. I don’t dislike rissoles, though I don’t make them or seek them out.

But they’re not ravioli or anything like ravioli — except that ravioli too has meat in the middle, and if the outside of ravioli is delicious pasta instead of measly breadcrumbs, well…

So I looked up the translator. He was James Macmullen Rigg, 1855-1926. There’s not much about his life, just a note that he was an English historian, biographer and barrister, the son of a Methodist divine and his sister was a headmistress. James Macmullen Rigg wrote a book about St Anselm, he did masses of work for the Dictionary of National Biography, he translated the Decameron and also Pico’s nephew’s life of Pico, which I am thrilled to discover is available online in multiple useful e-formats, yay. (Research is its own reward, I’m really glad to have that.)

But imagine him, a man in his thirties in the eighteen eighties, son of a prominent Methodist. I see him with a full beard and a perplexed expression. How absolutely desperate he must have been, trying to come up with some kind of equivalent to ravioli or an explanation for it. There he was, he spoke Italian, he’d probably been to Italy and eaten ravioli. In Italy they’d been eating ravioli since Boccaccio’s day, but in the intervening five centuries it hadn’t made it to Britain, and he must have doubted it ever would. There he was, a long way through this major project of translating this really scandalous book, getting across the humour and the innuendo and the descriptions, but honestly, how could anyone convey ravioli to his likely audience? I see him trying over and over, crossing things out, writing long descriptions, and at last, sleepless and hungry, giving up and resorting to “a kind of rissole”.

Posted in Books, Human culture

17th July 2014: Things you didn’t know about Heraclitus

I was re-reading Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies before falling asleep, and indeed, as you will see, after falling asleep. I think I may have mentioned that I read until I am asleep, and then after I am asleep I close the book and remove my glasses and turn off the light.

So I was reading about Heraclitus, and I came to the sentence “He got this idea from the oriental…” and I thought “Oh what an unfortunate word, maybe it was OK in 1943 when he wrote it but how could I not have noticed it on previous reading, oh dear!” and continued reading “…the oriental Cao Li, the woman whose trip from China through India and Persia to Greece and back may have been the original inspiration for Journey to the West“.

The book then went on to discuss: the influence of Buddhism on her and her on Buddhism, and her version of Buddhism on Heraclitus; whether Plato’s ideas on agape and female philosophers were influenced by Heraclitus’s writings about Cao Li (he couldn’t have been influenced by her directly because none of her writing was in Greek); how Zola wrote a novel about her relationship with Heraclitus; how Western philosophers had traditionally tried to diminish her original thought; how recent work showed her thought was truly original and not just Chinese commonplaces; how difficult it is to discuss historicism and cultural change with respect to China; how significant her work was to Chinese philosophy; how much more important her work was to Heraclitus (who admitted it) and indirectly through him via Plato to Western philosophy; and whether or not she and Heraclitus had a romantic as well as an intellectual relationship.

When I woke up I was deeply disappointed to discover that, in the text as printed, the word “oriental” was actually followed by “despotisms”.

Posted in Thessaly, Whimsy

28th May 2014: Vorfreude


That’s word of the week — it’s pronounced vor-FROY-dah and it means the intense anticipatory joy of looking forward to future joys. It’s German, and it seems weird to me that English has borrowed schadenfreude and not vorfreude — so I’ve borrowed it myself and plan to use it a whole lot.

I discovered it yesterday when a German fan emailed me to say that his copy of My Real Children had arrived, and used it as a subject line.

The trip so far has been really great. Yesterday afternoon we went out to lunch with Warren and discovered a really excellent gelateria, Dolce Gelateria near the Christopher Street subway stop. It’s really great — equivalent to Fous Desserts in Montreal and as good as all but the very best gelato places in Florence and Rome. Also, they had something I’ve never had before and Ada had only had once, olive oil gelato. It had all the delicious richness and taste complexity of olive oil, and the creamy sweetness of gelato. Incredible. We plan to go there again on Thursday after BEA, and I commend it to your attention if you are in New York.

Also, in the same neighbourhood I discovered the US’s strategic cheese reserve, and a very cool Czech bistro with excellent spaetzle, and an awesome fun letterpress place with terrific original things. (You know what I love? Everything has a website now, so you don’t have to memorize everything. I just found those to share with you by googling what they were plus “Greenwich Village”.)

I mentioned Dolce Gelateria in the questions after my reading at the Word, a lovely bookstore in Brooklyn. One of the great things about this tour is getting to visit thriving indie bookshops, and it just makes me happy to see them. Last night’s reading went well and was a ton of fun. Ada sang, I read and answered questions, Ada sang again and then I signed. This not only gave the attendees more variation than just listening to me, and excellent thematic music, but it had the unexpected bonus of energising me during the process, so that I was far less exhausted afterwards than I usually am, so that was great. We plan to repeat this fun program at other bookstores, so for those thinking of coming to the Wellesley Books reading tonight, there will definitely be music. After the event we had dinner in a neighbourhood bistro with a few friends, and that was lovely too.

And today we are zooming up to Boston.

And I feel such vorfreude for the rest of this trip!

Posted in Life as it blossoms out in a jar or a face

5th May 2014: When you’re happy and you know it…

When I was four years old and went to school, they put me in Mrs Caulfield’s class with older kids because I could read. Everyone else had been in school for a year already, and they knew how school worked. I had to figure it out as I went along. Sometime the first term Mrs Caulfield taught us a song. “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.” You had to sing, and you had to clap. And I just sat there, thinking, as the song moved on to “stamp your feet” and so on, and eventually she asked me why I wasn’t participating, and I said that I was thinking about whether I was happy, and if so, how I knew it. And poor Mrs Caulfield, with whom I now have a great deal of sympathy, told me to just do it anyway, even if I wasn’t sure, because it was only a song. I joined in the singing temtatively, despite grave inner reservations. But I wouldn’t clap my hands. I didn’t mind giving instructions (“IF… THEN…”) but I wasn’t going to obey them if it wasn’t true.

I’ve acquired slightly better social skills since, but I’ve also thought about this a great deal since, indeed, since I was four years old I have thought quite often about the issue of eudaimonia, recognising and acknowledging happiness.

I was just making some plans around Worldcon with friends, and I just realised that this is the most organized summer of my life, in terms of knowing when I am going to be where and when and with whom.

It’s also shaping up to be the best summer of my life, in those same terms, so much of what I’m doing is so great, and with so many different excellent people.

And the more I think about it, the better it seems that I am thinking that this is going to be the best summer of my life when it is in fact my fiftieth summer — I’m going to turn fifty in December. I am making plans, and offering hospitality, there’s going to be the signing tour, and cooking, and beaches, and castles, and a British Worldcon, and Shakespeare, and art, and a trip to Italy, and spending time with so many amazing people — and it just doesn’t get any better than this. And this is my real life. When I’m not running round having fun with people, I’m home writing. And I love writing. This is so great. This is what I always wanted to do when I grew up.

I am so incredibly lucky.

Fortunately, Mrs Caulfield taught me how to express it.

Posted in Human culture, Life as it blossoms out in a jar or a face

8th April 2014: Culture, or how I discovered Bach

I think it was 1994, and I was twenty-nine. I was in a charity shop in Lancaster, one of the smaller ones, down at the bottom of Penny Street. Ken and I wanted some more music both of us could write to — we were working on GURPS Celtic Myth. Z was a little kid. And it was the time when everybody was switching over from vinyl to CDs and getting rid of their vinyl. We still had a record player, and this was the beginning of me buying all the vinyl everyone else was upgrading from.

I’d heard of Bach, of course I had. I’d heard Cassandra Mortmain in I Capture the Castle say that he was like being repeatedly hit over the head with a teaspoon. As you can imagine, that was a little offputting. But I’d also generally heard “Blah, blah, high culture, boring, blah, pretentious, Radio 3, blah, Bach…” which didn’t do anything for me either. The thing that encouraged me to shell out an entire pound on the 2 record LP of Four Orchestral Suites (which I still own and still play all the time, though not as often as Three Double Concertos or the Brandenburg Concertos) was Civilization. Civ I, that is, the original Sid Meier game Civilization.

In Civ 1, there are 21 Wonders of the World, which each have various game-influencing effects. There are seven ancient, seven medieval and seven modern. They mostly have expiry dates — for instance Copernicus’s Observatory gives you twice as much production in your city until the invention of electricity, and Isaac Newton’s College doubles your science input until the invention of nuclear fission. You can build J.S. Bach’s Cathedral, and it makes two people in each city happy. It doesn’t expire. In the manual it says “The inspiration provided by Bach’s beautiful music does not end.” And that was intriguing. And it turns out to be correct.

So I bought the record, and listened to it, and I got into Bach in 1994 the same way I got into Leonard Cohen in 1988 and Bob Dylan in 1982, buying all the albums and listening to them over and over and telling my friends how great he is. And I discovered this weird thing where some people think that classical music has snob appeal and almost nobody loves it — some people appreciate it, and some people only pretend to, but appreciate is as far as you’re supposed to go. Very few people want to have conversations about which Brandenburg is the best. (Third!) I love Bach with no music appreciation vocabulary and uncritically.

Ever since that day in 1994 I have been one of the two people in every city made happy by it.

Posted in Human culture