What’s New for the 5th of February: Catherynne Valente’s Winter Pleasures, an essay on Breton music, Terri Windling on hearth and home, spies, behind-the-scenes movers and shakers, some other classical traditions, and other matters

Recently I packed up and sold the house where I’d lived for many years: a 16th century, thatch–roof cottage in a small English village on Dartmoor. The cottage was hugely significant to me, for I’d lived there much of my adult life, but in the house’s own story, spanning four centuries, my two decades were a drop in the bucket. The cottage felt strange on my last evening there, emptied of furniture and books; only the goblin murals on the kitchen walls remained of the life I’d known there. — ‘The Folklore of Hearth and Home’  by Terri Windling as published on her exemplary site, The Journal of Mythic Arts.


There aren’t many open fireplaces in Kinrowan Hall as they’re quite horrid at keeping the heat from escaping a room but those that are very important to the well-being of both the inhabitants here and guests that visit us — the public ones to be found in the Green Man Pub near the oversized chair we call the Falstaff Chair, in the Kitchen where it’s big enough to haunch of meat and finally in the Robert Graves Memorial Reading Room. Particularly at this time of year, I find open fire and the good things I associated with it are crucial to me not being grumpy.

So I spend a lot of time near those fireplaces, particularly the glass fronted one in our quarters on the fourth floor here. (Being senior staff definitely has its privs.) On a cold blustery winter night, nothing is as good as Catherine and I reading in our own space wth a warm, dancing fire that has our feline companions,  Kail and Fianna, spread out before it. Bliss! Even more blissful is the dram of the peated Svensk Rök which I’ve decided is my favourite whiskey right now is  it’s as good as any Islay malt I’ve had recently. It’s from the Mackmyra distillery which is in Gävle where the straw goat gets burned well before its time every year.

Tonight however, I’ve been working on the next edition. I found a look by one of my favourite writers on her winter pleasures, two revotdings devoted to Winter music, an article from elsewhere on some Breton musicians and that’s just a few of what’s here this time…


In looking at The Time Quartet, Naomi has a confession to make: ‘As far as I am concerned, Madeleine L’Engle’s books should be required reading in all schools, as they open doors — not only in the imagination, but also in the academics, math and science especially. These wonderful tales could inspire the next Einstein to take the proper courses and feed his mind. I enjoyed the journeys that Mrs. L’Engle’s works took me on, and yet, I am saddened by the fact that I never read them as a child. I will rectify this mistake by introducing my own children to them posthaste!’

For a bit of popcorn reading, let’s turn to Richard’s review of Adam Hall’s The Striker Portfolio: ‘Adam Hall’s espionage agent Quiller is the sort of man who makes Jason Bourne look like a strip-mall rent-a-cop. He makes James Bond look like a school crossing guard. He makes, well, you get the idea. Quiller is hard, and he’s grim, and the world he moves through (unarmed) is as hard and as grim as he is.’

Robert has a new book for us, The Skill of Our Hands, from Steven Brust and Skyler White, but suggests that you may want to read up on its predecessor, The Incrementalists for some background. Of the present volume, he says: ‘Call it “slipstream”: it’s not exactly science fiction, although it could be; nor is it fantasy, although it has elements of that, in the gritty, contemporary, urban vein; and anything it takes from mainstream fiction is more from the realm of Pynchon than Hemingway.’

Speaking of Pynchon, Robert has some thoughts on Against the Day: ‘Let’s get the basics out of the way right off the bat: this is a huge book, it is superbly written, it wanders, it sprawls, the cast of characters seems to keep growing and growing, bizarre things happen, and the explanations for them, when there are any, are as bizarre as the events themselves. That’s pretty much a capsule description of any novel by Thomas Pynchon.’

At the other end of the stylistic spectrum, we have Ernest Hemingway. Robert reviews one of his posthumous books, Under Kilimanjaro: ‘The name “Kilimanjaro” calls up our most vivid images of Africa, the great mountain rising above the teeming savannas as Gregory Peck struggles up its flanks. That is, indeed, an image that comes to us from Ernest Hemingway, by way of Hollywood. Under Kilimanjaro, one of Hemingway’s posthumously published works, gives a somewhat different picture of Africa, the mountain, and Hemingway himself.’

Vonnie says Patricia McKillip’s Something Rich and Strange ‘is nearly a prose-poem. The writing is lyrical, the events mysterious, the metaphors shadowy and aquatic. The plot suffers from it, as it does from turning the ocean into a character. This is a diffuse mystery, and the reader has to trust the writer that a point will eventually emerge from the pages. McKillip is both good enough and well-known enough to entitle her to our trust, but at its best, this novel is not a page-turner. Even more so than most of her books, the best way to enjoy Something Rich and Strange might be to read it aloud, enjoying the leisurely trip rather than racing to the destination.’


With all stories circulating lately about espionage and counter-espionage, we thought it might be fun to take a look at a classic in the genre, Antonio Prohias’ Spy vs. Spy: The Complete Casebook: ‘Those of us who remember Mad magazine in the 1960s and ’70s also remember “Spy vs. Spy,” Antonio Prohias’ ongoing series about the Black Spy and the White Spy (and sometimes the Gray Spy, a female counterpart, as well) who spent their time thinking up outlandish, Rube Goldberg-style ways to do each other in. (The Gray Spy, when she appeared, invariably won these contests — Prohias was chivalrous as well as funny.)’


Catherynne Valente’s Winter Pleasures is a very loving story on why she loves Winter: ‘I love the winter, so I tend to revel in it: making snowmen with marzipan and blackcurrant faces (which my dog promptly eats off), pumpkin coffee and snug scarves, wrapped up and warm by the wood stove, typing away at the latest book and knitting during down time.’


Chuck has a choice bit of Celtic music for us: ‘On Midwinter Night’s Dream, Boys of the Lough include Aly Bain (fiddle), Cathal McConnell (flute, whistles, song), Dave Richardson (concertina, mandolin, cittern, accordion), and Christy O’Leary (uilleann pipes, whistles, song). They call on Christmas and winter traditions of Ireland, Scotland, Shetland, and Sweden to put together a fine CD.’

Midwinter: A Celebration of the Folk Music and Traditions of Christmas and the Turning of the Year is the longish title of a Free Reed offering that Mike finds to his liking: ‘I approached this collection with equal amounts of caution and intrigue. However, from the first few tracks I immediately warmed to Midwinter and any caution was quickly abandoned as I became increasingly captivated.’

Robert brings another nod to the season with a review of Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Cantus Arctcus  and other works: ‘Like many contemporary European composers, Rautavaara has followed his own way in his compositions, and consequently is impossible to classify, although one can hear whispers of antecedents in many of his works.’

Robert also takes a look at music from the classical tradition — actually, a couple of classical traditions, and not Western ones. First, Volume XI of John Noise Manis’ massive series on the Gamelan of Central Java: Music of Remembrance: ‘This volume of the series Gamelan of Central Java presents an interesting conundrum: in a cultural tradition that has ideas of death, dying, and commemoration that differ radically from those we in the West hold, what is music suitable for remembrance?’

Next, he looks at what we may take as an example of the Indian avant-garde: ‘ Narayan was the first to perform the sarangi as a solo instrument; initially meeting with a less than enthusiastic reception, he persevered, adapting the sarangi and bow to meet his own demands as a soloist. After several years of experimentation and public performance, he became an overnight sensation in 1957, and an acknowledged master of Indian art music. This recording of the Raga Puria-Kalyan presents him in top form.’


Our What Not comes courtesy of Kithfolk which has a great article on some choice Breton music: ‘The first time I heard Breton music, I almost murdered someone. I literally lurched out of a deep sleep ready to hack off a head, thanks to the blaring bombarde and binou pouring out of my husband’s speakers. But then—THEN—I heard this singing. It was raw, abrasive, cutting, and absolutely stunning. That singer was Breton legend Érik Marchand, and it is because of that moment of hearing his voice that I fell in love with Breton traditional music (despite the bombarde and binou, which—little-known fact—were the principle reasons why Rome tried to destroy Gaul).’


Our coda this week is about how silence shapes sound, with a nod to the season, specifically in the form of Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus. Robert notes that Rautavaara’s use of silence differs from, say, that of Morton Feldman: in Cantus Arcticus, silence becomes subject matter, evoked by sound, an experience in its own right. And then, as its subtitle promises, it becomes a “concerto for birds and orchestra” — but there is still that silence, under all. See how all that silence works out in a performance.

About Iain Nicholas Mackenzie

I’m the Librarian for the Kinrowan Estate. I do love fresh brewed teas, curling, English mysteries and will often be playing Scandinavian or Celtic  music here in the Library.

I’m a violinist too, so you’ll me playing in various contradance band such as Chasing Fireflies and Mouse in the Cupboard as well as backing my wife Catherine up on yearly Christmas season tours in the Nordic countries.

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