I'm reading The Universal History of Numbers by Georges Ifrah a few pages at a time. If you were like me, you had an elementary school teacher who reprimanded students who used fingers to count; but really it's a good way to reinforce understanding. Moreover, finger-counting has been used in remarkably complicated systems for calculations by many cultures over millennia. Ifrah illustrates one discussion with an image based on this early Renaissance painting of the 6th C philosopher and mathematician, Boethius, which is part of a fresco on the north wall of the Ducal Palace in Urbino. The portrait set me thinking that it would be worthwhile to pay attention to Finger Counting and Hand Diagrams in medieval illuminations in order to read them correctly.
Picturing a World
Website alerts: Oh, my! Two things I love already, Narnia and book sculptures. And now, voilà: Instructions for making your own sculpture of Lucy's first visit to the lamppost, complete with PDF's of some of the elements. I'm not a crafter, but, I might just make up a story about someone who is.
For those who want to take such things to a professional level, moreover, Su Blackwell has a new book out, Into the Dark Woods, which comes with an booklet of instructions for making the sort of talismans she included to illustrate her retold fairy tales. Well worth mooning over.
Blog post alert: A post on James Leman, Silk Designer at Spitalfields Life recounts the career of an 18th C silk designer and reproduces several double-page spreads from his album of samples. The album is now at the Victoria and Albert and is obviously a great straightforward historical resource. It can also prompt suggestions for stories.
Blog post alert: I have always adored scale models; and as technology improves, virtual reconstructions get better and better. The History Blog just sent me to a fabulous one of a Bavarian Celtic village and fort. What better way to learn about construction details or imagine a character arriving at a new town (or home)?
I have just reread Diana Wynne Jones's Deep Secret in the 2002 paperback edition with Charles Vess's perfect cover (a favorite author, favorite illustrator). What fun, then, to find this preliminary sketch with Vess's notation, "Irene—I like this idea: the hotel lobby w/ s/f con people (as well as our principle [sic] characters) checking in as Rob the centaur bursts from air. This is a pure white background w/ design elements a la Saturday Evening Post. Charles"
The solid black silhouette startled me first when I saw a stick figure in a 14th C bas-de-page illustration. I can't remember ever seeing anything like it in a medieval manuscript. Then I realized it was a mouse. A mouse with a catapult! A mouse attacking a castle! A castle held by a cat? Turn the page and there's more. It's really like a cartoon strip running along the bottom of eight pages of this 14th Book of Hours. The sense of humor is recognizable from the period; so is a narrative sequence in these decorations. But those black mice! Something for fantasy or historical fiction, for doggerel verse or a children's book (provided, I suppose, that you brought the cat back to life), or, for that matter, a little serious historical research.
A look at Christmas ghost stories this year somehow sent me to Tales of Moonlight and Rain by the 18th C Japanese master, Ueda Akinari. In his introduction, the translator, Anthony H. Chambers draws on an analysis of Chinese stories about anomalies—the weird, the uncanny, the ghostly—to derive a typical structure for Akinari's tales (see pp. 22–24). Following it step by step can turn into a dandy writing exercise.
I was so taken with Chris Wormell's illustrations for Northern Lights by Philip Pullman, that I pre-ordered their new collaboration on Lyra's Oxford even though I treasure a first edition of the 2003 book with John Lawrence's woodcuts. The new one will be out soon. You can get a taste of it at Take a Look at Lyra's Oxford. Incidentally, The Artworks website looks like a source of inspiration for story ideas or details. More soon.
Blog post alert: Alert, alert! Ancient ghost discovered on Assyrian exorcist's cuneiform tablet! That it was found it at all is marvellous. That there were magicians and exorcists with libraries 3,500 years ago –well, how's that for inspiring historical fantasy?
I'm having fun. One by one, at intervals to stretch it out, I'm reading stories in Jonathan Strahan's anthology, The Book of Dragons, illustrated by Rovina Cai. Recently, I read "Pox" by Ellen Klages, an author new to me. I loved it, and what a great pleasure to find that one of the delightful characters, Franny Travers, also appears in Klages' novella, Passing Strange.