Category Archives: Books

And Then I Read: A YEAR IN PROVENCE by Peter Mayle

Cover Illustration by Ruth Marten.

I seem to have drifted into mainstream summer reading territory with this book, and I quite enjoyed it. After fifteen years in advertising, the author decides to buy a house in the French countryside of the LubĂ©ron, known for it’s small picturesque villages, wine production, and excellent food. It seems an idyllic place to live and write about, and it is, but there are some caveats. The old stone farmhouse is in a perfect spot surrounded by a national park so it can’t become too developed, but the house needs lots of work. Hiring locals to do that work is the first of many friendships forged and humorous adventures and escapades survived. Mayle writes about the people of his new home with wit, insight and love. Yes, he’s highlighting their quirks, faults and bad behavior at times, but also their passions, warm-hearted generosity, and kindness. There are plenty of gastronomic adventures, lessons in growing and harvesting wine grapes, local festivals and customs, and Mayle has many funny things to say about both his own English foibles and habits as well as the French ones.

The writing of this book is a great pleasure to read and savor. If only the amazing meals and drinks came with! Highly recommended. Two more in the same vein are waiting.

And Then I Read: ELECTRIC EDEN by Rob Young

I don’t read much non-fiction, but this one is right up my alley. It was recommended by Charles Vess and Michael Kaluta, and it’s an in-depth study of the many threads of British music that draw on traditional folk tunes and songs for inspiration. I well remember the folk revival of the 1960s, which brought British artists like Donovan, John Renbourn and Bert Jansch to my ears alongside many US acts, but a few years later I was also discovering an earlier British folk revival in the works of classical composers like Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst. This book covers both, connects the two, and fills the years between and after with an entire evolution of folk influences that began with the late 19th century song-collectors like Vaughan Williams, and continued through all kinds of musical interpretations well into the 21st Century.

Some of the names and songs were known to me, many were not, and a discography at the back gave me a chance to find music by those I didn’t know on YouTube to sample. It prompted purchases of some, like John Martyn’s first album, Nick Drake’s third and Van Morrison’s second, and the enjoyment of many other artists I didn’t know. The stories are well told, though sometimes tragic as artists took paths leading to poverty or self-destruction, or had unexpected tragedy thrust upon them, and the interweaving of the many careers and personalities across the face of Britain, Wales and Scotland is well done by author Rob Young. At times his style is a bit show-offish, as in the first chapter, but it’s also colorful and very well researched, including his finding of some artists who had disappeared from public knowledge.

While the sixties are at the center of the story, there’s plenty of artists and stories from later decades as well, with the discography running up to 2009. In some cases, I liked the stories better than the music, but it was all interesting and fun to explore. If you like groups like Pentangle, Fairport Convention, The Incredible String Band, Steeleye Span, and artists like Maddy Prior, Nick Drake, and Sandy Denny, their stories are here, and many more you may not have heard of, but might like. I’m still exploring the discography myself.

Highly recommended.

Rereading: SMITH OF WOOTTON MAJOR & FARMER GILES OF HAM by J.R.R. Tolkien

Cover art by Pauline Baynes.

I bought this paperback collecting two short stories by Tolkien wonderfully illustrated by Pauline Baynes in 1973, when it was already on an eighth printing. Both had been issued separately as hardcovers.

“Farmer Giles” was written in 1937 when Tolkien was 45, after he’d already completed “The Hobbit,” which was published that year, though “Farmer Giles” was not published until 1949. It has no direct connection to Tolkien’s other works, though it certainly draws on the English history, people and countryside he knew well, and also the mediaeval works of literature he studied and taught. Farmer Giles is a simple country man, a farmer of modest means who, almost by accident, repels a giant who wandered down to his farm from northern mountains. Giles has a dog, who warns him of the giant’s approach, and he goes out with his only weapon, a very primitive gun, to try to scare off the threat to his crops and livestock. The gun goes off and happens to hit the giant, who takes it as a vicious insect bite, but that’s enough to turn him back toward home.

Word of this spreads, until even the king of the area of England that Ham is part of hears of it, and he sends Giles an old but beautiful sword from his armory as a thank you gift. A few years later, a large and fiercesome dragon comes to the area, after hearing the giant’s tales of how food-rich and peaceful it is. Farmer Giles soon finds himself being promoted as the person to repel the dragon, a task he does not want. I will leave the rest to you to read.

“Smith of Wootton Major” was written much later, and published in 1967, after Tolkien’s fame was massive and his place in literature well established. It’s a very different kind of story, wise and insightful, but somewhat melancholy, definitely the work of an older man.

In another small English village, a Great Cake is baked every 24 years by the town’s Master Cook. The one baked as the story opens has a special prize in it, a magical star from the kingdom of Faery. A boy named Smith, whose father was the village smith, as he would be, accidentally eats the magic star, and later wears it on his forehead, where it is mostly invisible to others, but somehow imbues the boy with magic charm. Later, Smith finds it can bring him into the land of Faery, and when he has time away from his job, he travels widely in that mysterious and magical country. Eventually he learns many things about himself and the origin of the star.

Both these stories are charming, the many illustrations are excellent, adding a great deal to the reading experience, and though this is minor work compared to the author’s major opus, “The Lord of the Rings,” it’s still well worth reading.

Highly recommended.

And Then I Read: THE PERRELY PLIGHT by Peter John Stephens

I remember seeing this book in our school library as a child, and I might have read it before, but it did not seem at all familiar this time. I know I would have been attracted to the beautiful pen and ink drawings like the one on the cover. The book was inspired by the author’s real life visit to historic Sturbridge Village, Massachusetts, a living museum town.

The story focuses on two families in Sturbridge, the Martindales, an important doctor’s family in town, and the Perrelys, who live outside town in The Hollow, and who have a bad reputation. Mr. Perrely is a traveling salesman, his wife is a native American, and their children are not in school. Young Gib Martindale becomes interested in the Perrelys when he meets their daughter Djulih, and soon uncovers mysterious connections between the two families. Gib’s grandmother has conniptions even hearing the name Perrely, but Gib finds old family records in his attic that talk of a quarrel between two sons leading to the estrangement of these two branches of the same family. Djulih’s brother Philander is older than Gib, and is solitary and hard to know, but the two boys do have some interests in common, like wildlife. When Philander is accused of setting a barn on fire and stealing some gold coins, Gib knows it can’t be true, and the ensuing trial of Philander brings both boys into a great deal of turmoil and trouble. Can the old quarrel between the families be bridged to save them?

This is the kind of mystery I like best, not a murder mystery but one with plenty of puzzles to solve and hidden secrets to uncover. Recommended.

And Then I Read: THE TOUGH GUIDE TO FANTASYLAND by Diana Wynne Jones

Cover art by Walter Velez.

The title of this book suggests it’s a parody of the “Rough Guide” travel books, but inside it’s more of an encyclopedia of people, magical beings, places, elements, hazards and so forth you might meet on the book’s suggested tours of Fantasyland. In this way, it’s almost a cross between a Dungeon-master’s guide, a Berlitz phrase guide, and a humorous encyclopedia with lots of in-jokes for those who enjoy reading fantasy. Many references are fairly obscure, but if you’ve read Tolkien, you’ll get a lot of it. The problem is that, as in trying to read an actual encyclopedia, there’s no plot. It’s amusing at times, certainly, but you can only read so many entries at a time. It took me several weeks to get to them all, even though the author is a favorite. There’s a fair amount of repetition and cross-referencing, and by the end of the book you have a pretty complete idea of what the tours it describes would be like, but I’d rather have read a book telling the tale of one of the tours, and having the “Tough Guide” used by the characters, as seen on the cover. Some entries are quite entertaining, others are predictable. One of my favorites is on Horses:

“Horses are of a breed unique to Fantasyland. They are capable of galloping full-tilt all day without a rest. Sometimes they do not require food or water. They never cast shoes, go lame, or put their hooves down holes, except when the Management deems it necessary, as when the forces of the Dark Lord are only half an hour behind. They never otherwise stumble. Nor do they ever make life difficult for Tourists by biting or kicking their riders or one another. They never resist being mounted or blow out so that their girths slip, or do any of the other things that make horses so chancy in this world…”

And so it goes on to the conclusion that these horses are actually bred from plants!

Fun stuff, but not as much fun as a real Diana Wynne Jones novel. Mildly recommended.