Show Notes: The Bookshelf #001

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Show Summary:

Claire Mabey (Curator of Writers for the New Zealand Festival of the Arts) talks tarot cards, medieval vomit, and feminist witches, in this inaugural episode of The Bookshelf, our (much-needed) escape into the written word. Pre-recorded on Easter weekend, with the theme “three books that have absolutely nothing to do with COVID-19.”

Books Reviewed:

  • Medieval Bodies: Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages, by Jack Hartnell (Amazon link)
  • Lolly Willowes, by Sylvia Townshend Warner (Amazon link)
  • The Creative Tarot: A Modern Guide to an Inspired Life, by Jessa Crispin (Amazon link)

Show Notes:

  • Our theme for the week: Nothing At All To Do With Coronavirus
  • [2:20] Medieval Bodies: Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages, by Jack Hartnell
  • [4:48] Choose Your Own Adventure books (Wikipedia link)
  • [7:28] “How many knuckles” is our new way of measuring book length
  • [9:04] Lolly Willowes, by Sylvia Townshend Warner (Amazon link)
  • [11:08] The Corner That Held Them, by Sylvia Townshend Warner (Amazon link)
  • [11:08] How was Lolly Willowes received upon publication?
  • [14:41] The Creative Tarot, by Jessa Crispin (Amazon link)
  • [17:24] How do people apply tarot to their everyday life?
  • [22:06] Is The Creative Tarot a good entry point for beginners / interested people?

Comments & Requests:

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Transcript:

Click to expand transcript

The Bookshelf #001

Jimmy
We are back with The Bookshelf, our quick but sorely-needed escape into the written word. I’m chatting with Claire Mabey today, she’s the director of Verb Festival and the Curator of Writers for the New Zealand Festival of the Arts. She also has pretty decent taste in books, which is thankfully what we’re about to talk about! Gday, Claire.

Claire
Kia ora Jimmy!

Jimmy
How’s it going?

Claire
Good. Thanks. Just, you know, bit of Easter fun.

Jimmy
Yes, happy Easter! Any plans amidst the lockdown?

Claire
We’re eating all my baking. Basically, we’re just going – lots of buns, and our toddler’s just starting to discover what chocolate is, which is probably quite problematic.

Jimmy
Seems like a double-edged sword.

Claire
Yeah, yeah. He knows where it’s hidden now.

Jimmy
That’s the key thing. You’ve got to find a good hiding place and ration it out.

Claire
I don’t think there is any good hiding place from toddlers, they just have this uncanny skill for finding everything you don’t want them to find.

Jimmy
They’re like tracking dogs.

Claire
Yeah, exactly. Truffle sniffers.

Jimmy
Yeah. So we’re talking about books today, I would describe my theme request for this segment, particularly, as ‘unhelpfully vague’. I don’t know if you’d agree about that?

Claire
It was so vague, but then, you know, I always have issues distilling down a few books for a segment. So I’m not sure if more detail would have helped me out. But I think perhaps the vagueness is quite suitable for today’s times.

Jimmy
It is, it is, I think so. It seems like a time where we can broaden our tastes and what we’re taking in in terms of books or any sort of media, I think. And to clarify the guidance I gave Claire was ‘find me three books that have absolutely nothing to do with Coronavirus’. So we’re gonna, we’re gonna test out that direction. What’s the first title?

Claire
Well, okay, so I’ve got three really different books, and they’re all books that I’ve either finished recently or have had for quite some time that I go back to all the time. The first one is called Medieval Bodies: Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages, and it’s by Jack Hartnell. And I’ve been going on and on about this book to various people for a while now, I bought it probably three or four months ago from our local bookshop, and I bought it purely because of the title and the cover, because I do that, I think covers are awesome. And this cover is basically a human torso and head stretched up and it’s been embellished with imagery from medieval visual culture. So it’s a super beautiful cover. And as an object, this book is – if you’re a bit like me and you kind of need to have the real book and you are a book hoarder – this book is super beautifully produced. The paper is amazing. The font is gorgeous, there’s lots and lots of colour reproductions of all of the artwork that Jack is talking about.

Jimmy
Interesting. So it’s almost more of a sense of craft with the actual book itself, in addition to the story.

Claire
Yeah, absolutely. It’s completely beautifully made. And I guess you’d expect that from an - essentially an art history book. For example, all of the headings are in gold. So it’s a little bit like an illuminated manuscript which had gold kind of lettering and little details through it. So it kind of is trying to mirror the - the subject, I guess. And the book is exactly what it says it is. So it’s an exploration of the medieval relationship and understanding and portrayal of bodies. And the way that the book is structured is it goes through body parts. So it starts off with kind of a great, an introductory chapter that kind of tells you how he’s going to go about this exploration. And then it goes from the head to your senses, to skin, to bone, to the heart, to blood, hands, genitals, and then through to the feet. So it kind of explores the body from the head to the toes. And it’s amazing - I kind of can’t get enough of this book. I’ve been - I haven’t been reading it in a linear way; I’ve been kind of popping in and out. So I started off with the heart, actually, and then I’ve kind of been hopping around it. And you can do that with a book like this because it’s a—

Jimmy
It’s a little bit of a Choose Your Own Adventure, isn’t it?

Claire
Yeah, a little bit. Yeah, a little body adventure. But I guess the thing about this book is that he is a really brilliant writer. He’s not - it’s not a dense and very academically impenetrable thing. It’s beautifully written. So it’s a very interesting and easy way into looking into the - to the way that mediaeval people thought about medicine, and how intertwined the physical was with the spiritual and the emotional. That’s quite interesting I think - that mediaeval understanding of the way our bodies work was completely different to the way that we think now, because of all of our kind of medical and scientific knowledge. But I think the stories - I’m a bit of a nerd and I love the mediaeval period for the stories and the kind of, the ways that people thought I think are really fascinating. And this book kind of brings all of the best of that out, through art, and through literature, and through artefacts, and through historical findings and the way that we try and interpret them. So I think this is just a really interesting book for everybody. I think even if you kind of couldn’t care less about the mediaeval period, I think you’ll find something interesting in this.

Jimmy
Yeah it’s interesting, it’s about - theoretically about the body, but it’s really about the way that people thought, which is quite an interesting tour, I guess. And you’re saying it, everyone might like it. I mean, does it get squeamish? If you’re squeamish, would you - would you want to avoid it? Or is it - it doesn’t dive too deep into the body?

Claire
It’s pretty - no, to be fair, some of it is pretty brutal - like the blood chapter, they really describe bloodletting or phlebotomy, which was the act of slicing through veins to let some blood out, which was supposed to help kind of realign your humours.

Jimmy
Seems legit.

Claire
Yeah, yeah. And so there are some quite kind of visceral descriptions going on. But on the whole, you can probably avoid those bits if you - if you do have a bit of a squeamish tummy.

Jimmy
Gotcha. And is it a big book? Big - is it gonna take a while to finish? I guess you can dip in and out so it doesn’t really matter as much.

Claire
Yeah, it’s quite - it’s relatively big. I’d say it’s like a good two knuckles worth.

Jimmy
We should make that our official measurement. How many knuckles is this book?

Claire
Yeah! So it’s not huge and you can - yeah, exactly. You can kind of take it at your own pace, which is what I’ve been doing. I’ve been reading it in chunks. And it’s amazing. Oh, I’ve just come across a chapter I haven’t read yet called The Anal Art.

Jimmy
Well, that’s the bedtime - the bedtime reading I guess.

Claire
Yeah, wow. And some of the - I mean, honestly, should I read just a little bit just to give you a flavour.

Jimmy
Please do.

Claire
This is amazing. So this is a - what looks to me like a translation of an Icelandic verse. So the Icelandic literature is incredible in itself. So this literal translation is: “a huge vomit that gushed over Ármóðr’s face, and inside his eyes and nostrils, and into his mouth; it poured down over his breast so that Ármóðr approached suffocation.” That’s just a little fragment.

Jimmy
Delightful.

Claire
Amazing. So that’s about the act of regurgitation, I think.

Jimmy
Right. The stories from the vomitorium. So that was - that’s Medieval Bodies by Jack Hartnell.

Claire
Yep. Highly recommend.

Jimmy
Okay. Now, number two - what have you got?

Claire
Okay, this is a really different kind of book. This time it’s a novel. So we’re going from nonfiction to fiction. And I recently discovered this novel. It’s called Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townshend Warner - and Sylvia Townsend Warner is an author who has kind of floated around my peripheral understanding for quite some time, but I’ve never gotten into her work. And the reason is, usually I’m reading kind of contemporary new work for - for my work purposes, and I don’t often get to read kind of historical books or - or books from authors who have passed away. But this time has been great for me to indulge in some interests. And this book is honestly one of the most amazing novels I’ve ever read. And I was gutted I haven’t discovered who this author earlier, to be honest. So Sylvia Townshend Warner was writing in the kind of late 1800s, early 1900s. And this particular novel was published in 1926 - so just kind of pre-war really, in between the wars. And it’s about Lolly Willowes, who is a spinster. And she decides to leave her quite well-meaning but suffocating family, and go and live in the village of Great Mop. So it’s an English novel, and it’s very English in its aesthetic, I’d say. And she becomes a witch. And she just decides she’s always kind of known that she was not of the Christian mould, and when she gets to Great Mop, she allows herself to explore her true self. And becomes - happily becomes a witch. And that novel is incredible in that it’s - her style of writing is so beautiful and interesting. And for the time, I think it must have pushed certain boundaries in a way that is - still feels really relevant and exciting now. And I think that’s quite a rare author. So I just love this novel intensely, and I can’t wait to read more of her work. So I’ve just ordered another book of hers called The Corner That Held Them, which is about nuns. I’m also really interested in the lives of nuns, so I can’t wait to see how she tackles that.

Jimmy
Interesting - so when we say witch, we - the book doesn’t delve into magic, it doesn’t delve into that side of things? She’s a witch in the - in the heathen sense?

Claire
Exactly, she kind of - I mean, it slightly insinuates magic. But more in that, that term that we might understand from the historic view of what a witch was, which was devil worship, essentially. So she - the book even evolves into a conversation with the actual devil by the end of it. And she goes to a Sabbath celebration, which is kind of all of - Great Mop, the village she moves to, turns out to be kind of full of witches. She has this instinct to go there, and it draws her there. And the village has a Sabbath kind of celebration, where they stay up all night and worship the devil. And she is - the kind of suggestions of her witchery is that she’s always been fascinated by herbs, and their medicinal uses. So it’s that kind of - yeah, it’s that heathen kind of knowledge, that rejection of the Christian worship, and that sense of also being a woman alone. It was just so unusual for, you know, women alone back in those days were kind of seen as outsiders, or there was something different about them. So I suppose it’s really playing on the idea of the spinster as being - having other interests that might not be so wholesome.

Jimmy
Oh, oh, no, not other interests… couldn’t let the women have other interests!

Claire
She also - she also has a cat called Vinegar, who just kind of finds her. So she kind of totally embodies that whole woman alone, cat lady thing.

Jimmy
Right, but only one cat.

Claire
Only one, yeah.

Jimmy
And do you know how the book was received back in the day? Do you know if there was controversy at all about it?

Claire
That’s a good question. I think that it was well-received. I think that she was quite celebrated at the time, but I do know that she was quite under-read subsequently. Like, she hasn’t been as revered and celebrated in the UK, where she was from and which she was writing about, as others might have liked her to be. So, the novelist Sarah Waters, who’s a contemporary novelist who’s brilliant - she’s written an introduction to these reprints of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s work, and kind of states that. She says that she’s one of the most shamefully under-read great British authors of the past 100 years. So I think these reprints might be giving her a kind of - another wave of appreciation.

Jimmy
Yeah, it seems like that. Okay, so that’s Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1926 novel, Lolly Willowes, and Willowes has an ‘E’. So W I L L O W E S. And now we’re talking about The Creative Tarot.

Claire
Yeah, so this is perhaps a little bit related to Lolly Willowes, maybe in that sense of kind of - we’re looking at potentially what used to be thought of as a dark art.

Jimmy
Well, as long as it’s not related to Coronavirus, you’re, you’re all clear on the theme.

Claire
So The Creative Tarot is a book I’ve had for ages now. So it was written by Jessa Crispin, who was the founder and editor of Bookslut.com, which is no longer in existence, but it was an absolutely amazing source of book reviews of books that weren’t really often reviewed anywhere else. So she was - Jessa was really looking at works in translation. So lots of books that were published around the world, that wouldn’t really be reviewed very much in English publications, and a lot of books by women and marginalised people. So I think Jessa is a really incredible writer and thinker. She’s quite often now writing for The Guardian, for example, with lots of opinion pieces that have a very feminist slant on things. She does a monthly newsletter, if you subscribe to her website, where she kind of writes an essay, and they’re always really interesting thoughts on kind of contemporary culture and what the patriarchy is still doing out there in the world. So she’s an interesting person. And The Creative Tarot is her way of applying the tarot to your creative life. So it’s totally designed for people who have a creative pursuit or are working in creative fields. And it’s a way of problem-solving using the Tarot deck.

So the way she’s written it is, she’s got a few pages per card, and that’s - the tarot is essentially a storytelling tool, I think, and I think that’s how Jessa sees it and how she explains it. You’re kind of telling yourself a story. And that story, because it comes from you, can be applied to your particular life and problem. So she tells a story about every card and how that relates and what its kind of central meanings are. And then further to that, she gives recommended materials for every single card. So for example, recommended materials for the card ‘The 10 of Swords’ are: Rock n Roll Suicide, a recording by David Bowie; Child With Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, a photograph by Diane Arbus; The Liver is the Cock’s Comb, a painting by Arshile Gorky; and Ariel, a book of poetry by Sylvia Plath. So she kind of gives you artists’ work to go and delve into, and kind of find reflection and meaning in those works as well as the tarot card, which can help inspire you and push your problem solving in that kind of artistic framework.

Jimmy
It’s really interesting, isn’t it, because I think people - myself included - things of horoscopes and tarot as quite a passive pursuit. So they’re vague and you can apply them to whatever and you just sort of slot them into your life, however you see fit. But this is almost using it as a tool, a creative tool.

Claire
Absolutely. That’s exactly what this is, it’s a creative tool. And that’s how I’ve been using it for years now. Same with the horoscope. I’m just - I kind of find it, I find it interesting: that view of the tarot and the horoscope as vague, because I feel like what these tools are is allowing you to kind of reflect in quite a focused way. So it gives you a framework to focus in on a particular question or problem. Often if I’m reading the tarot, I don’t even think of anything in particular, I just allow the story to - allow the story that I’m telling with the cards - I usually do a three card draw - to allow it to bring out whatever is actually in my unconscious that maybe I haven’t actually realised is worrying me. So I tell a particular story and then I think, “Oh yeah, this is completely what - this is reflecting what this problem is” - and it helps you kind of reframe things or look at things differently, and it pushes - I always find it pushes you forward. It doesn’t kind of settle into a vagueness, it actually settles into a focus.

Jimmy
It’s getting an outside perspective, isn’t it?

Claire
Yeah, exactly. And that kind of … everything about the tarot and about the horoscope too - and I’ve actually got a tarot deck created by Jessa Crispin, and that includes the horoscope cards, which is a really interesting way of doing the tarot and incorporating that kind of horoscope set of personalities and meanings and questions. But I think using this kind of way of looking at the world is really interesting. And it’s just gonna be quite refreshing and curious. And I think the way that Jessa adds all of that artistic context and further reading is what makes this book quite special and different to other books on the tarot that I’ve read. It really makes it an artistic tool rather than a spiritual or psychological, I guess, or therapy-driven tool.

Jimmy
Right. And so if there’s anyone out there, say, somewhat like me, who was always a sceptic of tarot as you’d traditionally think of it - how based on tarot is the book, as opposed to a really interesting exploration of culture and creative output?

Claire
Well, I think the tarot is, in itself, an interesting exploration of culture, because I think the tarot … the way that tarot came about - and she actually gives you a really decent chapter on the history of the tarot - is a story of cultural production. So I think it’s quite hard to extrapolate the tarot cards, and their creation, and why they were made and what they were used for, from the contemporary use, because I’m not sure if that’s changed that much. But, in the way that Jessa writes about each card, her style of writing is extremely - very contemporary and modern. So she’s not talking to you in symbols and what might sometimes feel quite an archaic style. She’s talking to you in a very contemporary way. So, for example, I can read a little bit that might give you a flavour:

So she says about the Four of Ones (I’ve just kind of randomly selected one): she says “The Four of Ones is the ideal, a place that is orderly, but is still inspiring, and implies a need for beauty as well as a need for community. This can be as drastic as picking up all your things and moving to a new city. Certainly places like Paris between the wars and New York in the 1940s and 1950s beckoned artists, not only with the cheap rents, but also with the idea that you could go there to meet all kinds of like-minded folks and rub elbows with the greatest artists of their time.”

So that’s just a really tiny paragraph from a few pages on that card. But it gives you a sense that she’s actually relating things to the way people actually behave. So she’s relating things to history and the human condition. It’s very real, it feels very relevant.

Jimmy
And so in that way, relating it back to concrete examples, it’s almost if you are interested in the topic, but you’re looking for an entry point, it might be a pretty decent entry point into tarot?

Claire
Yeah, definitely, I think. I mean, this book is the book that got me into it. I really wasn’t much of a tarot person before this. But I had read a lot of Jessa’s other work, particularly the Feminist Manifesto book. I just found this incredibly useful and interesting. And I think I’ve definitely been using it for quite a few years regularly, like I’d say at least kind of every couple of weeks, I’ll dive into it just to kind of unstick myself from something. And it’s always worked. And I think because it does have that very real life application - and also just leads you on to reading something new, or looking at a piece of art, or listening to a piece of music that you might not have encountered much before - and even just that act of external inspiration can help.

Jimmy
Absolutely, absolutely. And similar to Medieval Bodies, is it one you can dip in and out of?

Claire
Yeah, definitely. I mean, that’s the kind of way that you do tarot. Because you’re - should I say randomly? - selecting cards. You’re randomly selecting cards out of a pack, you know, it is kind of a random thing. So it’s fun. It’s good fun. You can think of it just as a harmless exercise that may bear fruit.

Jimmy
Absolutely. In the spirit of experimentation, maybe get a deck and draw some cards and see what happens. Okay. So that is that was The Creative Tarot by Jessica Crispin - Jessa Crispin, sorry. We also talked about Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner and Medieval Bodies by Jack Hartnell. All of those will be in the show notes at minaalradio.com/thebookshelf.

Thanks for that Claire. Enjoy the baking.

Claire
My pleasure. Thanks. Yeah, got another batch of hot cross buns to make.

Jimmy
Perfect. The Kiwi Easter.

Claire
Yeah.