Friday, February 5, 2016

Agent Carter, Nancy Wake, and Why I'm Not a Feminist

When I sat down to watch Marvel's Agent Carter series several months ago, I was looking forward to some light cheesy fun. Like everyone else, I'd been sucked in by the premise: ladylike, yet sassy British spy fights crime in the aftermath of WWII, while wearing an endless array of gorgeous '40s fashion--what's not to like?

What I didn't expect was unremitting feminist propaganda, very self-consciously built into the show at every level, from the premise up: Stuck holding down a desk job at the SSR after her hour of glory in World War II, Agent Carter follows the adventures of Peggy Carter as she attempts to save the world...right under the noses of her misogynistic boss, her chauvinistic co-workers, and a world rampant with casual sexism!

Now I may not be a feminist, but I don't live under a stone. I live in the same world you do, and that means I'm constantly brushing up against feminist ideology. From The Empire Strikes Back to Edge of Tomorrow, for example, the movies I like usually include it to some degree. I'm used to it. I expect it. I make allowances for it.

But Agent Carter was something else: a show that was fundamentally about nothing but feminism versus sexism, and how evil the latter is, and how all-pervasive it supposedly was in the 40s. With little or no character arc for its leading lady, a plot with the substance of Kleenex, and episodes that consisted of little more than a tiresome series of men being either evil or irresponsible buffoons, Agent Carter demonized the world of the past to such an absurd degree that it rendered itself incapable of even making an intelligent case for feminism. If you reduce your opponents to straw men, then you will not be able to defend your own position very well, hmm?

Small examples abound in the series. Men constantly patronise leading lady Peggy Carter by calling her "darling", assuming that she gained her rank during the War by sleeping with officers, or telling her that "you're so much better at that sort of thing [filing papers, a stereotypical secretarial job] than I am." Peggy successfully manipulates her boss into giving her a sick day by delicately hinting she's on her period, the mere mention of which causes widespread alarm and disgust in the office. And in the radio show based on the in-universe adventures of Captain America, "Nurse Carver", the Peggy Carter character, having been demoted from strong and tough special agent to stereotypically feminine nurse, spends the whole time screaming for Captain America while being menaced by Nazis.

And then there are the bigger things. I'll take one that irritated me most. One of Peggy's coworkers, the attractive and sensitive Daniel Sousa, permanently on crutches after a war wound, is actually nice to her. Literally: the only guy in the office who doesn't see her as less than the carpet beneath his oxfords. Sousa constantly shows her friendship and takes her seriously as an agent. Could it be? Are the producers actually permitting a male character to exist who isn't a sexist jerk?


Eventually, (first-season spoilers!) the SSR come to suspect that Peggy has turned her coat and has betrayed them. They lock her in a small room and interrogate her aggressively--and it's Daniel Sousa who leads the interrogation. The reason? Sexism: his previous regard for her wasn't a real respect for her as a person, but idolisation based on a maddona-whore complex. Soon convinced that she must be a traitor and is sleeping with the enemy, Sousa viciously attacks her instead, earning himself a scorching pscyhoanalytical tirade from the self-righteous Peggy. "To you I’m [...] the girl on the pedestal, transformed into some daft whore."

ME (trying to be helpful): You know, this has been done before. Shakespeare already made this point back in the 1500s, in Much Ado About Nothing. And A Winter's Tale. And Othello. And then there was the Tale of Gereint and Enid in The Mabinogion from the 1300s. And then--

AGENT CARTER PRODUCER #1: Did someone hear something? Something about white male Christian authors writing plays and books on this problem of idealism and unrealistic expectations for the last seven hundred years?

AGENT CARTER PRODUCER #2: It can't be true! We know that feminism and respect for women was born fully-fledged for the very first time in 1996! We know that in the 1940s all you were allowed to do was answer phones; certainly we have no examples of women back then doing skilled craftsmanship or important academic work, being elected to Parliament, or leading thousands of Resistance troops!

AGENT CARTER PRODUCER #1: Oh, well then. I guess it must just have been a loud wind.

Seriously! We've talking about this for years.

Wait, maybe I'd better explain something.

I'm not a feminist.

No, I actually mean that.

There are many reasons why this is so, but here's the main one: Scripture teaches that the relationship between man and wife is a picture of Christ and the Church. Christ is the Head of the Church. And as the Church submits to Christ, so a woman should submit to her own husband.

Because every married relationship is a picture of Christ, and because feminism tells us that men and women are functionally equal even within marriage, so that the Bride should not consider herself obliged to submit to the Head, I believe that therefore, feminism is at root and by definition dedicated to telling a lie about Christ and the Church. It symbolically raises humanity to equality with God.

Another reason I'm not a feminist is the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. Within the Trinity, all the members are equal in a sense: all of them are equally God, equal in glory and blessedness. This is the ontological equality of the Trinity. But at the same time, the members of the Trinity are not functionally, or economically equal (to use the technical term). Scripture teaches this when it tells us that Christ did not see equality with God as something to be grasped, but humbled himself to death, even to death on the Cross. In the same way, a human man and wife, or a human father and child, or a human elder and parishioner, or a human magistrate and subject, or a human employer and employee, are all ontologically equal (holding equal status and worth as human beings), but are economically or functionally inequal.

(Requisite disclaimer: Of course, none of this means women have less worth than a man, or must submit to a misbehaving or abusive head. The Trinitarian argument affirms the ontological equality of women, and the spousal argument affirms a woman's binding authority over her children, since she represents the authoritative Body of Christ. Finally, the doctrine of the Fall of Man teaches us that no earthly authority is perfect, and the doctrine of interposition tells us that lesser authorities have the right and duty to resist tyrannical greater authorities.)

If Agent Carter had wanted to make a real defence of feminism, it should have forgotten about the strawmen and tried engaging with a real argument. Or the least it could have done was try to reflect historical reality, as did a biography I just finished reading aloud with my sisters.

Nancy Wake by Russell Braddon

Nancy Wake was a feminist.

She was also a WWII special agent.

She was definitely a gorgeous, feminine woman.

She faced baddies and sexism and defeated both with gunfire, judo, and jawdropping charm, smarts, and luck.

And the best part?

She was real.

When Nancy Wake died in 2011, the most-decorated servicewoman of WWII (with three Croix de Guerres, a Resistance Medal, a George Medal, an Order of Australia, and a Medal of Freedom), it was amazing to see her all over the news around the world. Her story has been told many times, but my favourite so far is the biography by Russell Braddon. When we were invited to an Australia Day fancy dress party recently, I suggested one of my sisters should dress up in 1940s attire to honour her. Then, because neither of my sisters knew who I was talking about, I sat them down and we read Braddon's biography aloud together.

Nancy Wake grew up in Australia, but soon set off travelling the globe as a reporter. In Paris, her path crossed with the wealthy Marseilles industrialist Henri Fiocca. After a whirlwind romance, they married, and in 1939 Nancy found herself living in the lap of luxury with an adored husband, two spoiled dogs, and limitless supplies of champagne and caviare in Marseilles.

It lasted a few short months before the Nazis invaded. France capitulated after a few months and after a brief stint driving an ambulance on the frontlines while her husband fought in the ranks, Nancy returned to Marseilles to get used to life under the collaborationist Vichy government. Before long, she began to help interned Allied officers to escape across the Pyrenees to which involved her more and more deeply in the French Resistance. Her husband, still running his business, financed her to the tune of millions. The Gestapo called her the White Mouse and put her at the top of their "Most Wanted" list with five million francs on her head.

Finally Marseilles became too hot to handle her, and Nancy was forced to flee across the Pyrenees to England, while the Gestapo captured her husband. There she spent some months training for the Special Operations Executive, and parachuted back into France a few months before D-Day. She wore high heels on the drop. Working in the Auvergne, she was soon the commanding officer of over 7,000 Resistance fighters. After leading them through several pitched battles and too many skirmishes to count, and killing enormous quantities of Nazis (one with her bare hands), she wrapped up her wartime career by liberating Vichy itself.

Braddon's book was written in 1956, just a decade after the setting of Agent Carter, but it tells the story with unabashed, pro-feminist glee throughout. Nancy Wake outwitted would-be seducers and killers. She manipulated a Gestapo officer's sense of chivalry to get him to carry her suitcase for her--then at the psychological moment, hinted that it was full of black-market pork, so that he was obliged to get it safely through customs for her rather than risk being caught carrying it. In training to become an SOE agent, she refused to get out of bed at 5am for physical training, simply claiming to be ill--and got away with it.

One thing that impressed me about Nancy Wake's feminism was that this was a feminism that rolled up its sleeves and did the work, accepting the consequences, rather than throwing a tantrum and insisting the world remake itself to suit her. I was fascinated to note what Wake had to forego in order to do all the amazing things she did. Leading 7,000 Resistance fighters was no cakewalk. Once she cycled 200 kilometers inside 3 days and returned to her men a physical wreck. She learned to walk with a constant slouch to try to disguise her curvaceous figure. She learned the filthiest language of the Marseilles fish-markets, and employed it plenteously to keep her men in line. When peace finally came, she wore a hat and a dress for the first time in months to meet some of her colleagues for drinks at a hotel. At first, they failed to recognise her. In many ways, she bought her power and influence at the cost of her identity.

Interestingly, her men still never forgot she was a woman. Her bodyguard of Spanish refugees from Franco's regime were aggressively protective and gallant, whether blasting her way through a Gestapo checkpoint or stopping at a restaurant to order her a meal. On such occasions, they would sweep the whole building, interrogate the owner, and then stand around her bristling with guns and belligerent chivalry while she ate.

I suppose they all had madonna-whore complexes.

Although Wake told Braddon not to make the story too gritty--"My war was full of laughter," she insisted--there's plenty of darkness peeping around the edges: death, torture, and rapes perpetrated by both sides. There's language, there are off-colour songs, and if you dig into other biographies, it isn't much of a surprise to learn that one close associate and friend of Wake's was flamboyantly homosexual and that Wake herself, after a turbulent upbringing with an emotionally distant and very religious mother, ran away from home and abandoned her faith. So this is not a clean, tidy, homeschool-girl kind of story.

"I don't see why we women should just wave our men a proud goodbye and then knit them balaclavas."
But then, nor is it a feminist fantasy that delights in bashing misogynistic strawmen. What it is, is a true story, a tale of incredible daring, excitement, and humour, about the 1940s as they really were.

And it's a story that licks Agent Carter hollow. If you haven't already, I highly recommend reading Russell Braddon's biography of Nancy Wake.

Find Nancy Wake at Amazon or The Book Depository.

Here is a shorter and more colourful biography of her life. Warning: language.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Song of Roland, trans. Dorothy Sayers

Just a reminder: If you're participating in the Song of Roland read-along, you still have until January 31st to blog your thoughts and add them to the linkup! If you're reading Roland and not going to bother blogging your thoughts, that's fine too and I'm so glad you decided to join me on this journey. It's been fun!

Roland was my choice as Annual Epic this year for two reasons. Reason the First, I wanted to make this year's Annual Epic a readalong, and I thought this would be a reasonably quick and easy epic for everyone to join in on. Reason the Second, I've been busy researching the Crusades all year for OUTREMER, and I knew that The Song of Roland would be a good refresher course on two highly relevant medieval institutions: knightly chivalry (which it basically codified) and the long-standing struggle between Islam and Christendom.

When I first read this epic, I recall being somewhat bored and squicked by all the battle scenes. And while I hoped that re-reading the poem this year would reveal new depths, I never expected to love it as much as I did.

The Plot

For seven years, Charlemagne and his knights have been making war against the Paynims in Spain. Both the king and his army are growing weary--so when messengers arrive from Marsilion, Paynim king of Saragossa, the last city to continue to hold out against the Christian warriors, offering to make peace, Charlemagne is eager hear him.

When Charlemagne's nephew and greatest knight Roland nominates his stepfather Ganelon to travel to Saragossa as an envoy to the famously treacherous Marsilion, however, trouble erupts. Ganelon knows he's walking into danger, feels his honour insulted by the insinuation that he is expendable, and has never liked Roland anyway. So when he reaches Saragossa, he hatches a wicked plot to betray Roland, the Twelve Peers of France, and the rearguard of Charlemagne's army to the Saracens. Since Roland has spearheaded all Charlemagne's victories across Europe, Marsilion is easily convinced to commit to the attack.

As the Saracen trumpets sound in the hills, Roland's friend Count Oliver urges him to sound his horn to call for aid. But Roland refuses...

(Spoilers follow).

Chanson de Geste

The Song of Roland is primarily an epic war story. This was typical of the chansons de geste of this period, of which Roland was the earliest and the best. Nevertheless, when I read it first, I didn't think much of the genre. Unlike the romances of the High and Late Middle Ages, which I already knew and loved, there was no fantasy, very little magic, and very little surrealist adventure. There wasn't even a love story, unless you count Roland's rather spiritless fiancee who keels over and dies at the end when she hears the bad news.

Since it seemed to be missing everything I thought of when I thought of chivalry, I wasn't sure how The Song of Roland was supposed to be such a seminal medieval text on the subject. This time around, however, I'd learned enough about the time period Roland was written in (the late 1000s; most likely, from internal evidence, the 1090s-1100s) to realise that in fact, the chanson is about very little else. This is feudal idealism reduced to its barest-bones elements.

Those elements include all sorts of things, but primarily revolve around a whole series of strong, courteous, and loving covenantal bonds. You have the relationship between knight and lord (Roland and Charlemagne), the relationship between peer and peer (Roland and Oliver), the relationship between Christian and Church (Roland and Turpin), the relationship between Christian and God (as at Roland's death scene), and of course, the relationship between warrior and armaments (Roland's sword, horn, and horse are all characters in their own right). These close and earnest relationships, all revolving around a concept of virtue for Christ's sake independent of pragmatic success, are the soul of chivalric idealism.

And all of this is depicted with maximum battlefield mayhem and an infectious, almost shockingly youthful spirit exulting in colour, sound, speed, and defiance.

Roland Makes a Call

When I first read the poem and for a long time afterward, I felt quite positive that the central character was an idiot. The situation is spelled out quite clearly at the beginning of the second act. Roland has a legendary horn (the Olifant), his level-headed friend Oliver, and a modest force containing France's best warriors. The Saracen hordes suddenly ambush him with the vanguard of a much greater force. Oliver begs Roland to blow the Olifant and summon Charlemagne to their help. But although he guesses Ganelon has betrayed him, Roland refuses, right up until he is staring disaster in the face. When he does blow the horn, it's too late: Charlemagne returns, only to find his men slaughtered to the last man.

It seemed to me--and the poem certainly leaves that interpretation open--that Roland was acting out of pride. If he'd listened to Oliver to begin with, surely there would not have been such a senseless loss of life. Right?


And yet...

As I returned to the poem this year, I was astonished to find my opinions changing. The reason for this is simply the sheer amount of study I've done into the history and feudal structures of this period. To my surprise, Roland's reasoning began to make sense to me.

(Explanatory interjection: The battle of Ronceveaux was a real historical event occurring in AD 777. However, The Song of Roland was written at least three centuries later, drawing upon an elaborate body of legend; it was not intended to be historically accurate, and tells us far more about the attitudes and accoutrements of the 1090s, when it was written, than it does about the 770s).

Roland argues that he would be dishonoured if he asked for help. This is not convincing to us moderners because we have such a low regard for those who let their actions be influenced by the opinions of others. We idealise self-deprecation, real or feigned. However, realistically, Roland has a job to do: Protect Charlemagne's vulnerable rear, allowing him to retreat to safety in France. More than that, Roland is obligated to Charlemagne under a complex web of familial, ecclesiastical, civil, and spiritual bonds. And finally, he literally has one job. He is a man of war and of nothing else. If he fails as a rearguard, it's not as if he can take up carpet-laying or lawn tennis and make a meaningful contribution to society in some other way.

In other words, Roland will indeed look bad if he recalls Charlemagne, and for very good reason. The whole deal is that he is supposed to be guarding the retreat at the cost of his life. In his eyes, any circumstances short of utter disaster cannot justify disrupting his liege lord's retreat and embroiling him in a whole new battle.

And the circumstances when Roland and Oliver first discuss the matter are, in fact, far short of utter disaster. Roland is massively outnumbered, it's true. But although one might call Oliver's position the more realistic one, the fact is that in the military history of the Middle Ages it was commonplace for very small forces to utterly rout very large armies. And Roland's men are not mere mortals: they are paladins, the Twelve Peers of France, renowned in story and song, practically superpowered, and they have God on their side ("the paynims are wrong, and the Christians are right" is the poem's refrain). If Dorothy Sayers is correct in believing that The Song of Roland was edited into its final form during or shortly after the First Crusade, then the 1098 Siege of Antioch, which culminated in a crushing victory waged by the outnumbered, starving, disease-ridden, exhausted, underequipped and besieged Crusaders against the Turkish hordes of Kerbogha, was still headline news. That Roland hoped to fight off a vast Saracen army is less shocking than the fact that Godfrey, Raymond, and Bohemond actually did.

Now Oliver's arguments in favour of calling for help certainly have weight. His advice is sound, and is meant to sound convincing, all the more so since circumstances prove him right. His disagreement with Roland causes both of them sincere grief as the disaster unfolds--Oliver can't resist saying, "I told you so" and bewailing the defeat; Roland must watch his dearest friend perish by his bad choice. And yet, desperately as we feel for them, the whole point of the poem is that, right as Oliver may be, Roland's choice is by far the nobler. Even though it leads him to defeat, it allows him to die well, fulfilling his feudal obligations to king, companions, church, and Christendom.

War for Christ's Sake

In addition to doing a really splendid translation of the poem, Dorothy Sayers has also written an Introduction which is worth its weight in gold. I am tempted to summarise the whole thing (with its insightful comments on feudalism, courtesy, the contrast between the constitutional, limited monarchy of Charlemagne as compared with the totalitarian rule of the Muslim rulers, and so on), but it would be better for you to read it all yourself. I do, however, want to quickly sum up Sayers's evaluation of the larger themes of the poem.

The first thing we learn about Roland as a character is that he loves fighting perhaps a little too much. Marsilion is easily convinced to kill him in hope that without his firebrand influence Charlemagne will weary of fighting and go home. And it's certainly this love of fighting that influences him to fight it out with the Saracens at Ronceveaux. Again, this is a real ambiguity within the poem, intended to add nuance to the issue: when Roland insists that they cannot make peace with Marsilion at the first Christian council scene, does he have a point, or is he just a war-hawk, hawking war? Does it better fit a Christian knight to turn the other cheek when struck, or to hit back twice as hard?

And this ambiguity is an ambiguity that the medieval world felt deeply, if Roland himself did not. Of Tancred of Hauteville, a prince of the First Crusade, it was said that he was tormented by the irreconcilable tension between the ruthless actions required of him as a knight and the charity commanded of him by the Lord. The noble class was devoted to war and was supremely good at it. They loved it, they and their people survived a thousand perils by waging it, but they had not yet nailed down a theological justification for it, and they often felt themselves irretrievably sinful for engaging in it (especially against fellow Christians). Though St Augustine had roughed out the doctrine of just war centuries prior, it actually took centuries more, and multiple wars for survival against Islam, for the doctrine to be nailed down. By the time of the Reformation and of Cromwell's disciplined and godly New Model Army, it had been determined that turning the other cheek was an appropriate response in private quarrels, but that Scripture allowed for just war to be waged in public quarrels, under certain circumstances and according to certain Scriptural principles: that it was right and would in some cases be a sin not to resist Nazis, ISIS, Ned Kelly, and the like with lethal force in defence of innocent lives.

But this actually took centuries to reason out. We see in The Song of Roland a turning-point in this history (another of the reasons why I believe it was written partially in response to the First Crusade), because it so confidently argues for the necessity of just war. The discussion is nuanced: Roland's love of fighting is certainly problematic--but so is Charlemagne's wish for peace.

Roland's sacrifice at Ronceveaux ensures the happy ending, because it obliges Charlemagne under the feudal structure to take revenge. In a totally awesome epic duel at the end of the book, Charlemagne faces the emir Baligant, a kind of Mahometan overlord from Egypt. In accordance with the poet's conception of just war, Charlemagne uses a lull in the duel to offer to make peace if Baligant will convert to Christianity. When he refuses, Charlemagne vows "Never to Paynims may I show love or peace." Sayers argues that this is the decision the king should have made when Marsilion first sent envoys to sue for peace (unlike Baligant, Marsilion had already established himself as lacking in honour and unlikely to keep his promise to convert). Ganelon and Marsilion's plan was to bring about false peace between Christ and Termagant by depriving Charlemagne of both Roland and the will to fight. Their plan fails: Charlemagne comes to realise his mistake, and the end of the poem finds him being roused from sleep by the angel Gabriel to ride out on yet another campaign against the Saracens.

The ultimate war in The Song of Roland, Sayers argues, is between Christ and Termagant, between Christ and Mahound. As long as those two shall be at war, so their true and faithful vassals must also war. Only genuine conversion--which we see in the case of Marsilion's queen, Bramimond--is capable of bridging this antithesis.

Of course, then we also see the forced conversions of the commoners of Saragossa. They certainly didn't have their theology all ironed out there, did they!

The Fighting Archbishop

One of my favourite characters this time around was the fighting Archbishop, Turpin. The poet goes to some pains to make sure we know what an awesome fellow Turpin is: a fierce fighter (he's given pride of place as the third most deadly Christian warrior), as well as a charitable and wise churchman (who dies doing a good deed). Before the battle starts, Turpin gives a sermon to the troops:
"Barons, my lords, Charles picked us for this purpose;
We must be ready to die in our King's service.
Christendom needs you, so help us to preserve it.
Battle you'll have, of that you may be certain,
Here come the Paynims--your own eyes have observed them.
Now beat your breasts and ask God for His mercy:
I will absolve you and set your souls in surety.
If you should die, blest martyrdom's your guerdon;
You'll sit on high in Paradise eternal."
The French alight and all kneel down in worship;
God's shrift and blessing the Archbishop conferreth,
And for their penance he bids them all strike firmly.
This was one of the most fascinating parts of the whole poem to me. Now, it's easy for Protestants and modernists to skip to the last two lines of the poem and say (as many have said to me), "See, this is the problem I have with the Crusades: religiously-sanctioned violence, the Church telling people that killing paynims is a one-way-ticket to heaven."

And just a few days ago, someone suggested that perhaps the medieval church actually picked up that idea from Islam, which does have a theology of entrance-into-Paradise-via-holy-war.

Well, not so fast.

For one thing, the medieval church knew incredibly little about Islam. The Roland poet actually believed Muslims worshipped three gods: Termagant, Mahound, and Apollyon. He even missed the memo about the Muslims not worshipping images. So I'd be surprised if Urban II, the pope who called the First Crusade, even knew about jihad.

Let alone incorporating it into his preaching. The Crusades were a movement that lasted two hundred years as a visible phenomenon and then continued to haunt the western imagination right up to Henry VIII (who planned to go on Crusade with the king of France until they fell out), or some say Napoleon. Ultimately, the Crusades gave birth to the indulgences, which were granted for the very first time ever to those who would go on Crusade; but this wasn't until the 1200s or so, at least a century after this poem reached its final form. At the time of the Roland poet, Crusading appeal had more to do with assisting the Eastern Church, visiting the great relics and shrines of the "Holy" Land, and exercising your talents for mayhem in a way that you didn't have to feel guilty about afterwards. This of course did result in some pretty ghastly behaviour, but it was not actually a "kill a Paynim, get a hundred years off Purgatory" deal. Even in the 1200s, many crusaders never actually saw military action; they fulfilled their oaths simply by mobilising.

The actual attitude at the time of the First Crusade is the one depicted in Turpin's speech above. Take a closer look. Turpin does not promise that everyone who fights in the battle will go straight to Paradise on condition of fighting in the battle. The condition is not fighting, but repentance. This is not a works-righteousness deal. It's grace and hope: so long as you are repentant, you can be confident that if you die today you will go to Paradise.

But yes, there is something more, and that something is a condensation of just-war theory. Killing Paynims is not a neutral action; at this stage the medievals had no concept of neutrality, barely even a sacred-secular distinction. Nor is it depicted as an evil action: Turpin tells them to go and do it as their penance. It is, of course, therefore depicted as a positive good. Why? Because there is no peace between Christ and Termagant. Marsilion has sworn to take no prisoners. It is kill or be killed. There is a context, the poet argues, in which war becomes a positive good deed (it was "for the love of Christ", the chroniclers say, that their princes set out on crusade). It was possible to be a knight for Christ; to make war, and to keep Christ's commandment. That, it seems, was a turning-point in western thought.

I think they were right there, but I also think the "being-killed" option should have been explored more fully. It was perhaps the great downfall of the Crusading movement that with a few perishingly rare exceptions (St Francis of Asissi,, the Christians refused to consider getting martyred preaching the gospel to Islam as a viable option. All the same, there's a good Scriptural case to be made for taking up arms in the physical defence of Christ's Church. Certainly this was something the Roland poet has no doubts about. When Turpin shish-kebabs a Paynim knight, the French cheer him on with a shout of, "Right strong to save is our Archbishop's crook!" To the Roland poet, Turpin is simply the opposite of the proverbial Christian who is "too heavenly-minded to be any earthly good". Shepherding the flock includes defending them physically.

Living with Violence

One of the many fascinating things in this poem which struck me this time round was the attitude shown by men of war towards their profession. I'm interested in this because our generation is so much, much more insulated from real-world violence than was the generation of the First Crusade--even as the violence decorating our TV and cinema screens becomes progressively more fantastical and outrageous. A friend recently summed up my thoughts on this pretty well when he said:
In modern America, we are less familiar with martyrs, but crowds of people still flock to movie theaters to be entertained by fake blood and fake death. Today’s children have probably seen more murders than the ancient Romans, but are also more sheltered and isolated from real death than any generation in history. This is a problem, because regardless of how well we protect our children from images of violence, we must prepare them for actual violence.
This was why I was so interested to see how the Roland poet would handle this topic. I'm also fascinated by the fact that according to contemporary scholars studying war, the average man can only take 100 days or so of combat before he becomes psychologically incapable of continuing. And yet the noble medieval classes started at 15 and saw combat pretty regularly, in some cases into their 50s and 60s. Many of them would have seen more than 100 days' worth. How did they cope? 

Well, perhaps those that lost their nerve met a sticky end in battle. But by and large, they seemed to be pretty psychologically toughened to it. Even if the Roland poet was not a trained warrior himself (and he almost certainly was), he was writing for a warrior class that would have known if he was making stuff up. His heroes commit feats of rather graphic violence against their enemies--and their enemies (also "good knights and gallant", because there is no glory in defeating a mean foe) respond in kind. No one has PTSD, least of all Roland, who genuinely loves his job. But at the same time,
They search the field for their maimed and their dead,
With grief and sorrow the eyes of them are wet,
With love and pity for their kindred and their friends.
The acts of violence are not as perverse as some I've read of in modern YA fantasy, in which authors straining for gritty authenticity overreach themselves and achieve only buffoonery. Rather, "Grim is the battle and terrible and rude." Violence may be these people's business, but they acknowledge that it is a terrible business.

Blubbering Like Schoolgirls

And it elicits a terrible emotional toll. When Charlemagne discovers Roland's body on the hilltop, he tears his beard and weeps without restraint. Then he faints. Then a hundred thousand of the French also faint. Perhaps the most vivid thing you'll learn about medieval knights from this chanson de geste is the fact that they did not exactly have stiff upper lips. As Sayers says in her Introduction,
There are fashions in sensibility as in everything else. The idea that a strong man should react to great personal and national calamities by a slight compression of the lips and by silently throwing his cigarette into the fireplace is of very recent origin. By the standards of feudal epic, Charlemagne's behaviour is perfectly correct. Fainting, weeping, and lamenting is what the situation calls for.
This is something I've witnessed in studying the real-world history as well, and I've wondered if this ability to display grief so freely was perhaps part of the secret of their mental toughness. Certainly, a Roland, or a Lancelot, who mowed down his enemies with the sang-froid of a modern-day film star, would be a terrifying person, a sociopath. But you could break down into hysterics back then, and everyone would be cool with it. As a friend pointed out, CS Lewis noticed it too:
"By the way, don't 'weep inwardly' and get a sore throat. If you must weep, weep: a good honest howl! I suspect we - and especially, my sex - don't cry enough now-a-days. Aeneas and Hector and Beowulf, Roland and Lancelot blubbered like schoolgirls, so why shouldn't we?"


Thus far my rambling thoughts on The Song of Roland. Re-reading this story was a wonderfully rich experience which I can't hope to recapitulate. I feel I've hardly touched upon some of the most basic aspects of the poem; but I hope I've been able to illuminate some less well-known corners.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this story. It has an infectious enthusiasm, a vivid youthfulness, and some of the most epic death and duel scenes I've ever read. For a thrilling tale of knights and honour, you can't possibly do better!

What were your thoughts on The Song of Roland? Share them via the linkup by February 1!

Find The Song of Roland on Amazon, The Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Bells of Paradise: Now Available on Preorder!

Today, I'm delighted to announce that The Bells of Paradise, my next fairytale novella, is now available on preorder at Amazon!


Only a madman would go into Faerie of his own accord.

The one thing John the blacksmith loves more than his peaceful, hardworking life in Middleton Dale is the tailor's free-spirited daughter Janet. But unlike John, Janet dreams of adventure beyond the Dale. And when her dreams lead her into Faerie to be captured by a dangerous witch, John realises he must dare the perilous realm of the Lordly Folk to free his bride.

A poignant and profound retelling of the Grimms' fairytale Jorinda and Joringel, set in the fantastical realms of Elizabethan folklore. Novella, approximately 25,000 words.

Releases on Kindle February 27, 2016 - Now available on preorder


The Bells of Paradise is inspired by Elizabethan folklore and literature, including a favourite song: the Derbyshire carol Down in Yon Forest. Purchase or preorder The Bells of Paradise by March 5th* to receive a free mp3 download of Tasmanian singer-harpist Christina Baehr's ethereally beautiful recording of this carol!

* A coupon code and link will be included in your ebook file and will be accessible upon release on February 27th, 2016.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Best of 2015

I'm back! I meant to put this post up about a week ago, of course; but our Internet was suspended (long story short: some of rural Australia has terrible internet services) and only got turned back on this morning. That suited me fine: I don't plan to blog much in January, since I am taking a month off--from blogging, from OUTREMER, even (partly) from reading.

Except for The Song of Roland, of course. Hey, you know we're having a read-along, right? Click here to find out more!

In 2015, I set a Goodreads reading challenge of 90 books to match my previous number-of-books-read-in-a-year record, set in 2012. Since then, I'd read 73 books in 2013, and 80 in 2014. Needless to say, I was astonished to blow my record out of the water: 2015 closed with a grand total of 119 books read, which you can see on Goodreads here!

How did I do it? Well, partly it was because this year I logged a number of novellas and shorter books. Partly it was because I got a lot more serious about my reading this year--and was stricter about setting myself page quotas, and using every spare moment to read, and having more books on the go at once. I also had a number of categories of books I wanted to read: for example, throughout the year, I was almost always reading a non-fiction book for research on OUTREMER. I worked through some biographies of notable Christian women. I kept up a steady stream of vintage/classic reads to review for Vintage Novels. I explored some more indie authors. I explored some contemporary YA and historical fantasy. I added some regular devotional reading. I started a weekly read-aloud time with my sisters. And I got halfway through the Oxford Book of English Verse.

Sometimes I'd be reading six or seven books at once.

The upside to this was that I got through a really good amount of reading, including some tomes. The downside was that I was racing every spare moment to read as much as I could, which made what's normally a relaxing pastime somewhat more stressful.

Favourite Re-Reads

You can't really get the most out of a book until you've read it multiple times. I re-read 20 books this year, of which I've selected 5 highlights:

Plenilune by Jennifer Freitag

I'll be honest with you: I usually don't re-read anything within twelve months. But after last year's love affair with this gorgeously-written drama, I wanted to give it the second, more leisurely read it deserved.

Multiple people have commented that my writing has improved since I read Plenilune, and I think they are quite right. I've learned a lot from Jennifer Freitag, and I'm agog to see what she comes up with next.

Sick Heart River by John Buchan

Revisiting John Buchan books that I devoured with little appreciation in younger years is one of the delights of my life. Sick Heart River, his last novel, filled me with a new appreciation of his wonderful writing style. And its meditation upon sickness, age, and death--from one of the healthiest and most masculine authors I've ever read--is uniquely courageous and moving.


Beowulf in Four Translations

This year I finally got the chance to do something I've dreamed of for ages: re-read Beowulf not just in the Heaney I grew up on, but also in translations by other people, including some favourite authors. I got through four translations in five days, came to understand the poem in all sorts of new and fascinating ways, and had epic fun.
The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A McKillip

This classic fantasy novel was my first introduction to McKillip. I finally re-read it on a whim, and it was even better than I remembered.

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Revisiting Austen is another chief delight of my life. Persuasion, again, was even better than I remember.


Favourite New Reads

My New Reads were a bit patchy this year, since I tried to branch out into some genres and styles of book that I don't normally touch. Here are some of the standouts:




Non-Fiction of the Year

I read a lot of good non-fiction this year, much of it as research for OUTREMER and The Prince of Fishes. I also read a lot of intimidating and chewy non-fiction as well. But I'm going to go easy on you and nominate a Non-Fiction of the Year that you're going to enjoy reading.

William Dalrymple's From the Holy Mountain was funny, vivid, scholarly, and spectacular. I can't afford to travel through the Levant myself yet, but this book, as well as being a pleasure to read, was full of fascinating information. I grew up believing the Middle East to be the boring site of boring Bible stories populated by dull and holy prophets and kings, for which I blame my exceedingly dull Bible knowledge textbooks, but books like this give you an amazing sense of the weight of history, culture, and romance in this part of the world. Do read it!

Fiction of the Year

Sorely tempted as I am to nominate Beowulf or Persuasion for this slot, I usually try to name something I've read for the first time this year. That determined, 2015's Fiction of the Year may come as a surprise.

I never thought I'd find myself naming a Tim Powers book Fiction of the Year, but I really enjoyed Hide Me Among the Graves. The reason? It focuses on the life of a favourite poetess and heroine of mine, Christina Rossetti. Christina Rossetti has gone woefully underappreciated over the years, with many feminist scholars turning up their noses at her devout Christian faith and many devotional poems. I'm not sure Powers appreciates Rossetti in the same way I do, and as with all Powers's books, the dark horror aspects of the novel (it's Christina Rossetti BATTLING VAMPIRES!) makes me reluctant to recommend it without significant content and thematic warnings, but for me it was worth it just to see Christina Rossetti getting some of the love and respect she deserves.

2015 in Writing

I can't close this partial postmortem on the year without saying something about my writing. The year was incredibly productive as far as word output goes: I wrote from scratch three novellas, which together totalled about 74,000 words, and then finished the writing year just shy of 158,000 words on OUTREMER. Which means a total output of 232,000 words in varying stages of polish. No wonder I need a holiday!
The highlight of the year, of course, was publishing Pendragon's Heir, my debut novel, in March. I'm so grateful for how that project came together, and for everyone who helped on it, and for everyone who's reviewed it or spread the word about it. And I'm so thrilled that everyone has enjoyed it so much. 

In August, I went on to publish my second fairytale novella, The Prince of Fishes, set in a clockpunk version of 700s Byzantium! I haven't been so diligent with marketing this one, but it was good fun to research and write, and stretched me as a writer in a number of different ways. It was written at least partly to help me begin researching and worldbuilding for OUTREMER, in fact, and at this stage I'm envisioning setting them in the same "universe"--so although the stories aren't otherwise linked, might I suggest that if you're champing at the bit for OUTREMER, you might enjoy getting a taste upfront with The Prince of Fishes!

I originally intended to publish my third fairytale novella, The Bells of Paradise, in November. But last-minute plot tweaks ate up my time, and then I decided to put it off till the new year. So: look out for a release date announcement later this month! Bells might just be the best thing I've done yet.
In October, I officially announced my next big project, OUTREMER. I'd been researching it all year, and spent several months wrestling with the plot outline, before starting work on the first draft at the end of September. My aim was to write 50,000 words per month--which I managed to accomplish, picking up another NaNoWriMo win on the way. I'm still less than halfway through the thing, but still couldn't be more excited about it. By mid-2016, DV, I'll complete the first draft.

In December, we had the 2015 Blogger Awards! I was nominated in most categories, I think, made finalist for Best Character, Best Book, and Best Author, and actually garnered two wins. One of those was Best Character for Perceval from Pendragon's Heir (which, perhaps I'm biased, but I thought he deserved that one! I don't know if I'll ever again write a character as much fun as Perceval!). The other, which was a complete shock, was Best Author for The Prince of Fishes. That was an incredible thing to wake up to on Christmas morning, and a very encouraging way to round out the year!

Finally, a request. This is partly on behalf of myself...but also partly on behalf of any author whose work you may have recently enjoyed. If you've enjoyed reading any of my published works this year--or if you have anyone's books on your year-end Best-of list--can I suggest taking a moment to go to Amazon and leave a star rating and even the teensiest of reviews? All authors need word-of-mouth and good review stats on Amazon in order to sell more books, or to gain the traction necessary to advertise their books more widely. So please, if you've enjoyed reading one of my books this year--or if you've enjoyed reading any books at all--do take a moment to visit Amazon and leave an honest review.

So that was 2015! This year is already shaping up to be a busy one, but I have books to read, books to write, books to publish, and life is good. See you in a couple of weeks with the Bells of Paradise release announcement!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Announcing the Song of Roland Read-Along!

Regular Vintage Novels readers will be aware of my Annual Epic tradition. I love epic poems, but I've found that they slip down more easily if you devour them in the shortest possible time. In previous years, I've taken a holiday right after Christmas to chew through such immense tales as the Orlando Furioso, Jerusalem Delivered, The Faerie Queene, and most recently The Kalevala. This has been huge fun to do on my own...but of course what I've always secretly wished for was to make it a party, potentially with in-jokes and fangirling.

That's why, this year, I've decided to make my Annual Epic a read-along! This year I want to get through a fairly short and easy epic, the seminal chanson de geste The Song of Roland.

The Song of Roland is a very influential text of the medieval imagination and the concept of chivalry. Charlemagne is considered by many the first king of the medieval age. His knights were considered the first knights of the feudal system. And the conflict depicted in The Song of Roland between Christian Franks and Muslim Saracens was in many ways the defining conflict of medievalism, a conflict that had begun before Charlemagne's time (his grandfather, Charles Martel, was the victor of the Battle of Tours in 732, when the Muslim invasion of Europe was finally turned back) and at the time the poem was written between 1040 and 1115, was entering a new stage in the Crusades. 

Like many epics, it's one I've already read, but this year as I chew through OUTREMER, I want a refresher course on chivalry as it was seen in the 1000s. And you're all invited to join in!

I plan to keep this pretty low-key, because January is my downtime and I know that like me, you probably don't want to be stressing out over deadlines this time of year. So:

Join the Party!

1. Get your hands on a translation of The Song of Roland. Everyone agrees the Dorothy Sayers version (available on Open Library) is best, but if you can't lay your hands on one of these quickly, John O'Hagan's is online at the Internet History Sourcebook, and CK Moncrieff's at Project Gutenberg.

2. (Optional) If you have the opportunity, listen to George Grant's lecture (available through the King's Meadow Study Centre) "The Chivalric Code: Quest for Honor and Virtue", which explains the background and impact of the poem on the medieval concept of chivalry.

3. Beginning Christmas Day or thereabouts, begin reading through The Song of Roland. You have all of January to do this, though I anticipate being able to knock it out in about a week.

4. Use the hashtag #readroland to tag your thoughts, reactions, enthusing, or to share articles/commentary on social media. 

5. When you're done, blog your thoughts and add the link to the linkup below by February 1st to go into a drawing to win a celebratory mp3 track of Alfred's War Song by Kemper Crabb!

EDIT: Congratulations to Emily of The Hero Singer for winning the mp3 of Alfred's War Song! If you didn't manage to add your thoughts to the linkup in time for the drawing, feel free to do so at your leisure; I'd still love to see them!

Friday, December 18, 2015

Robbery Under Arms by Rolf Boldrewood

Today I want to review a classic Australian novel, Rolf Boldrewood's Robbery Under Arms.

First, though, a couple of announcements. I omitted to mention it in my last post, but: For those of you champing at the bit for OUTREMER, I've been Tweeting one-and-two-liners most weeks. Click here to see them all!

Second: Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my Annual Epic tradition. I usually keep which epic I'm reading a bit of a surprise--but this year I'm announcing it up front, because some friends wanted to do a read-along! So: this year I'll be re-reading The Song of Roland in the Dorothy Sayers translation, and you're all invited to join me! Grab yourself a copy if you want to be in it (try Sayers, Moncrieff, or O'Hagan), and I'll be back with more details right before Christmas.

Onward to the review...

I've been putting off reading Robbery Under Arms for a shamefully long time. All my brothers read it growing up, some of them multiple times, and raved to me about it. I even picked it up and tried reading it once or twice, but wound up getting distracted. Earlier this year, however, I found myself recommending it to a fellow-writer who planned to set his next book in 19th-century Australia. At the same time I was planning to start a weekly read-aloud time with my sisters. Reminded that only half the family had read it, I chose this one to begin with.

Robbery Under Arms is the classic Australian novel of bushranging--bushranger being the Australian term for an outlaw. The story is narrated from jail on the eve of his execution by Dick Marston, a New South Wales bushman whose father enlists him, along with his brother Jim, to help him in a particularly daring theft of livestock. Taking charge of the heist is the mysterious but gentlemanly Captain Starlight. One misstep, arrest, sentencing, and jailbreak later, Dick and Starlight rejoin the gang spoiling for action and determined to earn the price already on their heads, by trying their hand at robbery under arms.

With every step deeper into crime, the Marston Gang knows they have less and less chance of escaping a life that has itself become a prison. Will any of them make it across the sea to America and the honest life they so desperately wish for?

This was a long, episodic, rambling story, full of escapades and adventures and so it was no surprise to discover that it was originally published as a magazine serial. It roams all over New South Wales and Victoria, providing a vivid picture of the gold rushes, horse-races, and country life of the mid-1800s. Since it was first published in the 1880s, I half-expected the book to be more English-colonial than Australian in tone, but I was surprised by how much hasn't changed in the last 130 years. I was, for instance, particularly amused to discover the word invite used as a noun meaning invitation--"Well, I'll come and dance at your wedding if you'll send me an invite"--(for authentic Strine, pronounce it with the accent on the first syllable: INvite).

Stylistically, I regret to inform you that this book's melodramatic tones of anguish and lament occasionally caused Heartless Laughter amongst self and siblings. The narrator pauses pretty regularly to bewail his lot; and I suppose it's necessary, since these are not Shining Heroes but actually rather heartless murdering rascals. Likewise, Boldrewood goes out of his way to depict them doing good things--rushing off to save a house of ladies from some more authentically villainous bushranging associates, for instance.

Never seen it, but it looks sensational, doesn't it?
Nevertheless, it wasn't the melodrama which bothered me so much as what eventually emerged as the book's repeated theme: that it's a shame society treats criminals so harshly (imprisonment, hanging) since that removes any incentive for them to change their ways and become pillars of society. I was mildly surprised to find this emerging as such a strong theme, given that the Boldrewood himself--or to use his real name, Thomas Alexander Browne--was himself a police magistrate and JP. And I was disappointed by the ending, which seemed less full of repentance than of remorse. Generally, therefore, I found the book's whole concept of justice and forgiveness confused. Justice--in terms of the state's scripturally-defined role as bearer of the sword--is about ensuring that evildoers suffer the consequences of their evil deeds; not (as many modern criminologists assume) rescuing or rehabilitating them from those consequences.This is not to say that a Biblically-constituted commonwealth would never pardon an evil-doer, if he showed evidence of repentance. But the care of souls is the province of the church, not the state.

Despite this reservation, my sisters and I thoroughly enjoyed this story. We already knew of it as one of the great novels of colonial Australia (the other, Marcus Clarke's For the Term of His Natural Life, is another I'm looking forward to reading soon). What I didn't know was that it's been argued that Robbery Under Arms--which made quite a hit in its native Australia--also had an influence on Owen Wister's seminal Western, The Virginian. Does that make the Australian "western" a precursor to, rather than an echo of, the American western? (C'mon, say yes, and we'll let the Kiwis have the pavlova. Deal?)

Find Robbery Under Arms at Amazon, The Book Despository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.

Friday, December 11, 2015

#DesertIslandReads + Writing Update

So, it's probably time to pause the reviews and give a quick update. It's December, which means two things: National Novel Writing Month is done, and Christmas is coming! In Australia, of course, this also means the weather is heating up and people are beginning to sniff the air expectantly, scenting Christmas barbecues, January vacations, and sunburns on the beach.


I feel I've been in a bit of a slump lately--most of the books I've been reading have either been very well-written but soulless (Erin Morgenstern's Night Circus, for example), or sincere yet unimpressive. The exception is Thomas a Kempis's medieval devotional classic The Imitation of Christ, which is terrific. I'll look forward to reviewing this in more depth later, but for now I want to say that it's wonderful. Having been written over 600 years ago, it's like taking a giant step away from our all-encompassing culture of modernity, in order to view it and critique it through other eyes.

And it's also beautiful.


Elisabeth Foley recommended the 1959 flick North West Frontier earlier this year, and I was interested because it's got one of my favourite actresses, Lauren Bacall, in it. The real star of the whole show, however, turned out to be the steam-train engineer, Gupta, who has to be one of the most immediately lovable fictional characters I've come across.

Another noteworthy flick was Pixar's latest, Inside Out. As with Up, it's beautifully-conceived, beautifully-told, unconventional and yet gloriously well-crafted. I was thoroughly impressed by this poignant and family-affirming exploration of depression, empathy, and joy.


'Tis the season for Christmas music! Most recently I've been enjoying my friend Christina Baehr's haunting harp and voice arrangement of one of my favourite Christmas carols, Down in Yon Forest, newly released as a single. 

The same carol also features as the title track for Kemper Crabb's Downe in Yon Forrest. Subtitled "Christmas From the Middle Ages", this album is a sinewy mix of traditional tunes and instrumentation with a little avant-garde prog-rock styling. To say nothing of the sitars. Featuring lesser-known traditional hymns like Of the Father's Love Begotten and Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence, as well as a truly epic rendition of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, this album has stood up to much repeated listening and continues to be a favourite.


Finally, the update you've all been waiting for! Outremer continues to unfold into a messy first draft. November was, of course, National Novel Writing Month, which didn't go quite according to plan. For one thing, I only had 13 writing days in the whole month. For another, I started the month with great enthusiasm, knocking out a number of 5,000-word days (and even one 6,000-word day), but after a week or two of that, began to feel slightly burnt out. As a result, as soon as I hit my wordcount goal of 50,000, I decided to stop and take a week off. I'm glad I did, because December has seen me back in form.

I think I'll be taking most of January off, though. It's been a big year.


Oh hey, and I was tagged at Fulness of Joy to list 8 "desert island reads". Here goes!

(I'm going to cheat and not include the Bible. That doesn't count, sort of like how underwear doesn't count when you're talking about packing outfits for a trip away from home. Nor am I going to include Basic Survival Handbook: Pacific Island Edition, or Thompson's Practical Guide to Shipbuilding, because GK Chesterton already thought of that joke.)

1. The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
Since I first read it, this has always been my favourite book. I actually haven't read it for nearly ten years now, because I felt if I went on reading it annually I was going to end up getting every word by heart. But I do mean to read it again sometime in the next couple of years, and if I'll be stuck on a desert island for the rest of my life, I want it there with me.
2. The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser
Another beloved fantasy tome, I felt the first time I read it that I was only scraping its surface. On my desert island, I suppose I would have the time--in between building treehouses and milking goats and what-not--to reread this four or five times, until I began to feel more familiar with it.
3. The Oxford Book of English Verse, edited by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch
Even though I would still wake up in the morning and curse it for not including more John Donne or Christina Rossetti poetry, it's still the best single collection of poetry I have, and I'm not actually 100% sure how I managed to survive without it until this year.

4. The Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin
A desert island just might be the only way I'll ever find the time and pluck up the courage to tackle this magnumopus.
5. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
True, it's Mansfield Park and Persuasion that I love best. But I think if I was going to be face being stranded on a desert island for the rest of my life, I'd want something a bit more charming and bubbly to keep me going from time to time.

6. Till We Have Faces by CS Lewis
This would come because, like The Faerie Queene, it's a book with apparently limitless re-read value. Each time I've read it--three or four times by now--it's revealed new intricacies, new dimensions. It would definitely have to come.
7. Orthodoxy by GK Chesterton
And five minutes after I was shipwrecked I would be kicking myself for not bringing The Man Who Was Thursday instead. Still, I'd probably be able to make the best of the bad bargain...!
It is horrible, I haven't had room for John Buchan, or PG Wodehouse, or Angels in the Architecture, or any of my other favourites. And I'm assuming neither my Crusades reference library nor my wifi would be available--but still, I would be bringing along this WIP, and an endless supply of paper and pens (that doesn't count as a "book", right?!), and it should keep me quite happily occupied for years.

Consider yourself tagged, if you wish! What books would you want with you on a desert island?


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