A Year-Long War and Peace Readalong

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Staring a 1455 page book straight in the eye, so to speak, is incredibly daunting. I wonder if it is realistic that I will stick with it? Like many classics, War and Peace is a book I have always felt I needed to read at some point in my life. And while I greatly enjoyed Anna Karenina last year, this book beats that one by many, many hundreds of pages.

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At only 4 very short chapters in, though, I know what will sustain me throughout this year-long readalong and it is what I remember from Anna Karenina: the way Tolstoy describes his characters intentions, their inner thoughts as well as their outward appearance. I am a visual person. It’s how I learn things. I need to see and do a thing to make it stick, to make me understand it. Tolstoy’s descriptions of the myriad characters that populate his books allow me to see them visually creating a life for them in my head, which is how I have experienced reading since childhood; descriptions of time, place and intimate surroundings rounding off the pictures I need in my head.

Because there are 361 chapters in this book the readalong host Nick Senger has created a ‘chapter-a-day’ reading schedule and my expectations are high that I will finish. The character list for War and Peace is a page and a half, but I know I will ‘see’ them all. It is early yet, but the characters have drawn me in with their appearance, their humor and their thoughts.

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Some characters we are introduced to so far:

Prince Vasily always spoke listlessly, like an actor repeating a part in an old play…like a wound-up clock, saying by force of habit things he did not even expect to be believed.

Anna Pavlovna was brimming with zest and animation, despite her forty years. To be an enthusiast had become a social attitude with her, and sometimes, even when she did not feel like it, she became enthusiastic in order not to disappoint the expectations of those who knew her.

[Prince Andrei Bolkonsky]…it was obvious that he not only knew everyone in the drawing room but was so thoroughly bored with them that he found it tedious either to look at them or listen to them. And among all those faces he found so tiresome, none seemed to bore him so much as that of his pretty little wife.

Princess Ellen smiled; she rose with that same unchanging smile, the smile of a perfectly beautiful woman, with which she entered the drawing room….Ellen was so lovely that not only did she show no trace of coquetry, but on the contrary, appeared to be almost embarrassed by her undeniable, irresistible, and enthralling beauty….[She] leaned her plump bare arm on a little table….The whole time the story was being told, she sat erect, gazing now and then at her beautiful round arm resting lightly on the table, or at her even more beautiful bosom, on which she readjusted the folds of her gown…

Ippolit struck one not so much by his remarkable resemblance to his beautiful sister, as by the fact that despite this resemblance he was surprisingly ugly. His features were the same as hers, but while his sister’s face was lit up by a perpetually beaming, complacent, youthful smile, and her body was of a singularly classic beauty, his face was overcast by an idiotic and invariably peevish, conceited expression, and his body was thin and weak. His eyes, nose, and mouth all seemed to be puckered into a vacant, bored grimace, and his arms and legs always fell into unnatural positions.

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It’s rather unwieldy to read this in mass market form!

Have you read War and Peace? What did you think?

We are using this hashtag on Twitter for daily quotes from the book if you want to see what we’re up to! #warandpeacereadalong.

Classics Club Spin #22

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Classics Club Spin #22

 

2020 is an exciting year for my Classics Club list as I have 9 more to go to be finished by September 13th and I will make it! So for this Spin I am only using those 9, repeating them twice and adding 2 of those titles at the end to round out to 20.

Briefly, for those who are unfamiliar with the Classics Club, it’s a website curated by a dedicated group of classics lovers to encourage everyone to read more classics. And several times a year they host a Spin to keep us on our classic-reading path.

When you join the Classics Club you list a minimum of 50 titles you commit to reading in a five-year period. For the Spin you chose 20 of those titles and number them, 1-20. On a scheduled date (12/22, this year) the Spin Gods will announce their chosen number; that number corresponds to the number on your list and that is the title you read by, in this case, January 31, 2020.

My list for Spin #22:


1. Middlemarch
(1874)
2. Room with a View (1908)
3. Mary Barton (1848)
4. Wives and Daughters
(1866)
5. Portrait of a Lady (1881)
6. The Ambassadors (1903)
7. First Men in the Moon (1901)
8. The Invisible Man (1897)
9. To the Lighthouse (1927)
10. Middlemarch (1874)
11. Room with a View (1908)
12. Mary Barton (1848)
13. Wives and Daughters (1866)
14. Portrait of a Lady (1881)
15. The Ambassadors (1903)
16. First Men in the Moon (1901)
17. The Invisible Man (1897)
18. To the Lighthouse (1927)
19. Portrait of a Lady (1881)
20. Middlemarch (1874)

This time around I can honestly say I have no favorite, but am excited to read any and all!

Good luck to all who are participating.

 

The Christmas Banquet, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1844)

Who is this impassive man? We seem to know him well, here in our city, and know nothing of him but what is credible and fortunate. Yet hither he comes, year after year, to this gloomy banquet, and sits among the guests like a marble statue. Ask yonder skeleton–perhaps that may solve the riddle!

 

xmasbanquetThis is one of the oddest Christmas stories I’ve come across. There is nothing warm and fuzzy, or “feel good” to lend this story any kind of familiarity of tales typical of the season. While I will say the body of the short story involves some philosophic contemplation the ending is confusing enough to leave one with the question, “what just happened?”

The premise involves a wealthy man and his last will and testament. He has bequeathed a yearly Christmas dinner at his home and has charged two stewards with care of the guests. Their task is to find the ten most miserable people in the city and invite them to spend Christmas together; their misery is proof that even on this holiest day of hope sadness, bad luck, emotional, financial and physical pain still exists.

That the pitiful group assembles in a dining room looking more fit for a funeral than a Christmas dinner is not by accident. This dinner is the deceased’s protest against those religions that find “sunshine in the world.” As such, the dining room is lit by torches and hung with dusky purple curtains and wreaths of artificial flowers like those strewn over the dead.

The main reservoir of wine was a sepulchral urn of silver, whence the liquor was distributed around the table in small vases, accurately copied from those that held the tears of ancient mourners. Neither had the stewards…forgotten the fantasy of the old Egyptians, who seated a skeleton at every festive board, and mocked their own merriment with the imperturbable grin of a death’s-head.

Was the skeleton at skeletonthe head of this table shrouded in a black mantle the benefactor of the dinner? The narrator tells us that one of the stipulations of the testator is that he be present and permitted to sit with his guests. And if the banqueters want to lift the veil in hopes of some answer to the age old question regarding life after death, his open and staring eye sockets would make the answer clear.

Included in the decorations is a wreath. The stewards say it is designed to crown the guest with the “wofullest” story. The conversations and introductions begin and we see representatives of all those who will appear at the dinners to come. The invitees suffer from depression, chronic diseases of the heart and other organs of the body; there are hypochondriacs, and those whose disappointments in life have created obsessions of murder and treachery against their neighbor; one lamentable soul feels he was born with a message for humanity, but doesn’t have the confidence to say it; a woman with the slightest defect in her eye which so affronts her ideal of perfection that she feels compelled to hide herself away in solitude.

The last guest walks in and whatever malady he is suffering from is not apparent causing suspicion and consternation among the others. He is young, healthy, successful and looking more suited to a merrier holiday table. Some of the guests want to know why the dead founder doesn’t shake his skeleton finger at Gervayse Hastings and point him the way out. The stewards assure them of his right to be there saying only, “not a guest at the table is better entitled to his seat.”

As the years pass the Christmas dinners continue without a repeating guest–there is that much misery in the world. There is sometimes an instant after each tells their story that a momentary gleam of inner light descends upon the speaker and the physical or emotional malady ceases in some kind of understanding. But the moment is lost when one of the more cynical of the group breaks the spell in laughter or rude comment.

It is not quite true there were no repeat guests. Gervayse Hastings was invited every year. And as the decades passed and he aged physically his vitality was retained and he was still met with same response. “Has he suffered? Has he sinned? There are no traces of either. Then wherefore is he here?” It is true he is prosperous and in robust health with financial and personal success. But they notice a distance, a coldness that feels physical and makes them shrink from him, makes them draw back their hand extended in greeting.

Hastings is aware of this coldness of heart and how people respond. He tells them he feels nothing, that his heart is but a vapor and though from the outside people think he has everything, on the inside he is hollow. He feels no human emotion, not even toward those he should love. “Neither have I myself any real existence, but am a shadow….” At the moment of this admission the ligaments of the skeleton come apart and the bones fall away. And as the guests take their eyes from the skeleton and back to Hastings, he has ceased to live. If only he could have “imbibed one human grief” he might have been saved.

Of such persons–and we do meet with these moral monsters now and then–it is difficult to conceive how they came to exist here, or what there is in them capable of existence hereafter. They seem to be on the outside of everything; and nothing wearies the soul more than an attempt to comprehend them within its grasp.

And so ends this very Gothic Christmas story that feels straight out of Edgar Alan Poe!

 

My Thoughts

Last year I read Dicken’s, A Christmas Carol for the first time. This year I looked around my shelves for a Christmas story that wasn’t obvious or well-known and found this title in a collection of Hawthorne’s short stories and decided to take a look at it. I know from reading several of his novels he creates characters in turmoil, whose lives are dark and somber, though I didn’t expect those sensibilities in a Christmas story. But this one is classic dark and somber Hawthorne and I have to say it worked for me.

While the story itself is a little extreme, I do like the aspect of the story that describes the pain and suffering many people struggle with at this time of the year. They may seem like they have it all together, but in reality they are hurting as much as someone who is physically wounded. Hawthorne may have exaggerated the story to get this message across, but after close to 200 years his point is still relatable.

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Wishing everyone a merrier Christmas than what was experienced above!

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__________________

Title: The Christmas Banquet
Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
Publisher: Penquin Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 1844
Pages: 20

Ceremonials of Common Days is Reprinted!

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The new and the old

 

This collection of the Ceremonials of a Year is an Anthology of the Wonder of Common Days. The Ceremonials of a year are accumulative; they can never be concluded, as long as one lives on earth. A Ceremonial may be interpreted as a spiritual obeisance to the created beauty of the world. From the Forward

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A few months ago I was contacted by a woman named Michele Lamond who wanted to reprint Abbie Graham’s Ceremonials of Common Days. Originally published in 1923 it was due to come into the public domain and she wanted to use a quote from one of my posts on the back of the reprinted edition. I was only too happy to give permission and was thrilled that this beloved book would now be widely available.

Having just received the new edition I am happy with the more modern format and engaging graphics.

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The book celebrates simple loves of daily life as the seasons turn: lighting the first fire of winter; celebrating ink and letter-writing as a means of “conquering distances;” the Coffee Ceremonial that acknowledges this “gregarious beverage” which Graham observes in the morning that follows the first night of camping; and the Ceremonial of the Roads–in praise of rambling–in which Graham quotes Thoreau; and many more ways of honoring ordinary life. There is a page at the end of each season for readers to create their own ceremonials.

On Thanksgiving Day I celebrate the Ceremonial of Being Glad for People. A year is a lean year or a year of plenty in proportion to the poverty or richness of its fellowships….Thanksgiving is an articulate season, a time for expressing the unspoken things of the heart. The Ceremonial of Being Glad for People was the initial ceremonial. Because of it, the other ceremonials were made necessary. From Autumn

Revealing a kind of quiet bygone age of simple observation, generosity to others and a slower pace of life, yet Graham calls for being fully engaged in a world where the mundane is not taken for granted, but celebrated in grand style.

The holidays are coming and I say, “Celebrate the Ceremonial of the Stocking Stuffer!”

Available from:
Michele Lamond, Proprietor
NelliesNotecards.com
Venice, Florida

Happy Thanksgiving to Friends everywhere…

 

 

 

 

A Single Thread, Tracy Chevalier (2019)

And now for something entirely different!

singlethreadAs most of you know, this blog reflects a passion for classic literature–in particular, my love for the 19th and early 20th centuries knows no bounds. Every once in awhile, though, I read a review on someone’s blog of a more modern novel that for whatever reason piques my interest. When I read Sandra’s (A Corner of Cornwall) review of A Single Thread, by Tracy Chevalier, something compelled me to read it.

I enjoyed the book immensely. It was just what I’d hoped it would be as a respite and a calm pause to break the day to day turbulence of the news cycle that I often get caught up in. The book is a wonderful character driven account of a subset of people engaged in activities that were new to me and a main character whose emotional journey truly captivated me.

But I enjoyed this book so much more for two items in the story making me realize I probably would never have recognized them had I not started this blog. But first, a brief review.

A Single Thread is a simple story of a woman’s loss and grief and the will to find meaning in a life she otherwise never would have chosen. The book opens in 1932 and centers on Violet Speedwell, an English “surplus woman,” grieving the loss of her brother and fiancé who both died in the Great War. Like many women of a certain age whose prospects for marriage are minimal due to the number of men who died, she is finding it difficult to construct her future. She lives with her mother, herself grieving the loss of her son, and their relationship is difficult and strained. Violet puts in for a job transfer to the nearby cathedral town of Winchester, where she finds herself drawn to the community of embroidering women who make kneelers and seat cushions for the church, which she comes to see as a way for her posterity to be marked.

Violet embodies the great emotional and financial difficulties of these single women within a society that is not sure where they belong or how to treat them, as she struggles against village gossip, physical violence and familial ignorance. In the end, Violet, as we would say today, ‘finds her people’ in the most unlikely characters and creates a family support system that includes biological family and neighborhood friends. For a much more in depth and engaging review, please go to Sandra’s post.

As I read I was surprised by two references that brought to mind some of the reading and writing I have created on this blog as I pursue classic literature.

While I have never been to the city of Winchester, I am aware of a special object mentioned in the novel that it is known for that I recognized from my participation in Witch Week 2017. The theme for that year, “Dreams of Arthur,” gave me the idea to do a piece on King Arthur’s Round Table. A model of sorts exists in the Great Hall at Winchester Castle, believed to have been made in about the year 1290. The table top is 5.5 meters in diameter, weighing in at about 1200kg. It is without its table legs and hangs on the west wall. The artwork on the top dates later, to the reign of Henry VIII and shows a Tudor rose in the center and Henry as King Arthur surrounded by the 24 names of Arthur’s knights. When I saw it mentioned in the novel, with a bit of pride I realize my contribution to Witch Week gives me a secret connection to Winchester Cathedral and its Round Table, whether I have ever been there or not!

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The second reference is to a book one of the characters is reading, Gilbert White’s, The Natural History of Selborne, that celebrates the natural world around the town. Last summer I saw it sitting on a bookstore shelf and found myself immersed in his descriptions of the animals and plants of Selborne and although here, too, is a place I have never been, I was drawn to it as I am with one of my favorite natural histories of a place (I also have never been to), Aldo Leopold’s, The Sand County Almanac, a natural history around Leopold’s home in the state of Wisconsin. I bought the Selborne book laughing to myself at how odd I am, excited about my discovery and wondering if anyone had ever heard of it. Then to find it referenced in a contemporary novel, I was pleased, and the laugh was on me!

I don’t judge my interest in the past and whether or not it has relevance to anything important in the world or my life in the present. After all, I majored in Medieval history. And I don’t know why I am so drawn to the late 19th century now. But the pleasure of seeing these connections in my reading after over four years of concentrating on the classics, gives me a certain satisfaction that history is not a void, but full of threads that from time to time connect themselves into my present. And it is then I know all this immersing myself in a time period long gone is worth it.

_______________

Title: A Single Thread
Author: Tracy Chevalier
Publisher: Viking
Device: Hardcover
Year: 2019
Pages: 336

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (1818)

“Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated;…perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.”
Mary Shelley

“Alas! I had turned loose into the world a depraved wretch, whose delight was in carnage and misery…”
Victor Frankenstein

 

frankensteinThe catalyst for Frankenstein Mary Shelley explains, is that she and her husband Percy were visiting the home of Lord Byron one dark and stormy night, when Byron laid down the challenge that each must tell a ghost story. Byron and Percy were able to create a story on the spot, but it took Mary a few days. In fact, she dreamed it. The result is one of the world’s most well-known classic tales of necromancy and Gothic story-telling.

As often happens when I read a classic novel that has seen countless film adaptations, I was very surprised that the book tackles far more than just the ‘monster parts.’  Shelley proposes thoughtful and deep topics and asks questions about personal responsibility, the quest for life’s purpose and leaves me wondering whether a monster has a soul?

Frankenstein is told as a story within a story by Robert Walton who is at sea and is corresponding with his sister, Margaret. But when the ship gets stuck in the ice floes of the Arctic, in the span of a few hours two very odd things happen. First, the crew spots a huge human-like creature driving a sledge with a pack of dogs passing at a distance. The next morning, they find another man, but more normal-looking, who is also driving a sledge, floating near them on the ice. He is near dead. The crew rescues him, revives him and while recuperating tells Walton how he came to be floundering on an ice floe in the middle of the Arctic. Walton records the tale for his sister in a journal. Frankenstein is the story of Victor Frankenstein, youthful scientist and budding necromancer whose interest in natural philosophy takes a turn from the traditional path of changing lead into gold to the perilous route toward creating life from death.

At university, Victor studies physiology, anatomy, the life process and the progression of death; he visits charnel houses and sees how the body corrupts and wastes away after the bloom of life.

After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter….It was already one in the morning….I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

After two years of working toward this goal of animating life from death Frankenstein succeeds. But instead of celebrating the work, he is horrified. He has created a creature, a monster. He cannot sleep for the nightmares that consume his waking and sleeping hours and falls into a many-month illness. From the very beginning that sparked the life of the monster, Victor is unable to accept responsibility for what he has created or the repercussions of the monster’s actions. This weakness in character will hound him for the rest of this life.

Meanwhile, the monster flees the town. He is a fully formed human-like man and as he roams the countryside coming into contact with people he not only sees, but feels their fear and disgust. He shows up near Victor’s home and kills his younger brother. Victor is still at university when he hears William has been murdered; he knows it is the monster. Unable to confess to the authorities what he knows for fear of being branded insane, he keeps quiet. An investigation and trial is held for the murder and through circumstantial evidence Justine, a trusted family servant of the Frankenstein’s is convicted of the crime and hanged. “The first hapless victims of my unhallowed arts.”

The monster is desperate for a place of refuge and finds it in an abandoned hovel near a cottage. The cottage is occupied by a brother, sister and their father. Through watching the interactions of the siblings as they care for their blind father he learns how they take care of one another, how they speak in kindness toward each other and what it means to be part of a family. Aware of his physical deformities he knows to keep out of sight, but he takes a chance on the father when the children are away during the day and forms a friendship with him. But the day comes when the children see him and the family flees the cottage. Brokenhearted, the monster understands his kindness or concern for others will always be outweighed by his physical appearance. There is no place on earth for him.

Where were my friends and relations? No father had watched my infant days, no mother had blessed me with smiles and caresses;…From my earliest remembrance I had been as I then was in height and proportion. I had never yet seen a being resembling me, or who claimed any intercourse with me. What was I?

The monster finally confronts Frankenstein and describes his life, how he came to speak, to think, to understand society by watching this family. And now, by bitter experience he will never be able to live as they do, in a family or as a common man.

Remember, that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Every where I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably  excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.

He pleads with Frankenstein to make him a companion like himself, so he can live as he sees others doing.

You must create a female for me, with whom I can live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for my being….I now indulge in dreams of bliss that cannot be realized

What I ask of you is reasonable and moderate; I demand a creature of another sex, but as hideous as myself….we shall be monsters…Our lives will not be happy, but they will be harmless, and free from the misery I now feel.

The monster compels Frankenstein to this task and promises to live in secret, perpetrating no violence to any animal and away from any human contact.

Victor Frankenstein indeed created a monster, but what is amazing about this one is his heart, soul and intelligence. He has the potential to be every bit as kind and compassionate, moral and honest as any other man, yet he will never be accepted because of his physical appearance. No matter his good works or heroic deeds, his physical presentation will always negate his integrity.

My Thoughts

Victor Frankenstein turns his back on what he created. He abandons him on the first night, but once he hears his story, it is obvious this is a feeling, thinking human-type being, deserving of assistance, mercy and companionship. Would someone who created life really reject it like he did? The monster may be hideous to look at, but inside he is made like any other human being with the full capacity of feelings and outlook on life.

Would you reject a “nonperfect” child and would you expect it to fend for itself? Or is this something entirely different? Because the monster is not a helpless baby, but came into the world fully formed, who learned to speak, to cultivate his intelligence, to live in the world through observation, because he was made with wisdom already intact. Does he have a soul? He acts like it. He quickly becomes Victor’s intellectual equal. And Victor is given ample opportunity to make things right for him, instead he gives into fear.

Hounded for years by the being he created, Victor dies on the ship still unrepentant and without accepting any responsibility toward the monster; even as he lay dying he just wants the wretch dead.

The fate of the monster is sealed at Frankenstein’s death. Walton hears noises coming from the room where Frankenstein has died. He sees that it is the monster lamenting his existence that there will now never be redress against the man who created him.

Frankenstein forced him to a life of misery and neglect and now he will end his own on a “funeral pile triumphantly, and exult in the agony of the torturing flames….my ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds. My spirit will sleep in peace….”Frankenstein1818.jepg

Shelley goes through such pains to tell the monster’s story and she imbues the creature with humanity and sympathy as with any other human being. She shows his compassion, his intelligence; he is creative, hard-working and capable of contributing positively to society. He develops the full capacity of feelings, agency and responsibility for others and this is to me the tragedy of Frankenstein and his monster.

Because the monster is a victim. And it is easy to interpret Frankenstein as a warning for these modern times as science advances toward cloning and other forms of creating genetically modified life. Can we use Frankenstein as a forewarning to illustrate imagination gone wrong, to get us to think about the results of such experimentation and to ask how and what we are responsible for when we take these steps? Is creation and human life about outward appearances as we go about creating perfect people? What do we owe to them when they turn out to be not so perfect?

Once I falsely hoped to meet with beings, who, pardoning my outward form, would love me for the excellent qualities which I was capable of unfolding. I was nourished with high thoughts of honour and devotion….When I run over the frightful catalogue of my sins, I cannot believe that I am the same creature whose thoughts were once filled with sublime and transcendent visions of the beauty and the majesty of goodness. But it is even so; the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil. Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation; I am alone.

___________________

 

Title: Frankenstein
Author: Mary Shelley
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1818
Pages: 185

Challenges: RIPXIV, Classics Club, Roof Beam Reader’s TBR Pile Challenge

Witch Week 2019 Begins: Villains!

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…Witch Week, when there is so much magic around in the world that all sorts of peculiar things happen…
Witch Week by Diana Wynne Jones

 

Witch Week, the annual celebration of favorite fantasy books has begun! Originally developed by Lory of Emerald City Book Review, the mantle was passed to Chris of Calmgrove and Lizzie of LizzieRossWriter.

For the next week, October 31st through November 5th, writers will be posting and discussing this year’s theme: Villains! This year is hosted on Chris’s blog and is where all the action will take place.

I am honored to be part of this wonderful event with a post up today on the White Witch of Narnia, the MOST high Villain 🙂

Here is the rundown of events for the week. So head on over WitchWeek2019 central.

Day 1: 31st October
Laurie Welch of Relevant Obscurity will look at a particular antagonist in the first published instalment of C S Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.
Day 2: 1st November
Villains in graphic novels are examined forensically by Lizzie Ross.
Day 3: 2nd November
Joan Aiken’s villains in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence are discussed by yours truly.
Day 4: 3rd November
Shakespeare has a full gallery of veritable baddies, some of whom are on the distaff side, as Sari Nichols of The View from Sari’s World will demonstrate.
Day 5: 4th November
Diana Wynne Jones’ Aunt Maria, from her novel Black Maria, is put under the spotlight by fantasy author and blogger Jean Lee.
Day 6: 5th November
Discussion of DWJ’s epic fantasy Cart & Cwidder.
Day 7: 6th November
Wrap-up post and the unveiling of the theme for Witch Week 2020, which will be hosted by Lizzie Ross.

Let the mayhem begin!