Mistress Masham’s Repose – T. H. White, 1946 – the funny bits

Not a proper post, just a listing of some place-names:

  • Biggle
  • Bishop’s Boozey
  • Bumley-Beausnort
  • Duke’s Doddery
  • Dumbledum-Meanly
  • Dunamany Wenches
  • Gloomleigh
  • Idiot’s Utterly
  • High Hiccough
  • Maid’s Malplaquet
  • Malplaquet-in-the-Mould
  • Malplaquet Middling
  • Malplaquet St. Swithin’s
  • Mome
  • Monk’s-Unmentionable-cum-Mumble
  • Ort

And the sequence of interactions between the Professor and the Lord Lieutenant:

The Professor had found the Lord Lieutenant out of bed. The latter happened to be the Master of the Malplaquet Hounds, the one with the electric bell-indicator which Maria had coveted for Gull Island, and he had evidently been having a Hunt Ball or a Farmers Dinner, for he was dressed in a scarlet tail coat with violet facings, and was wearing the buttons of the Hunt, awarded only For Valor. He had changed into mauve carpet slippers with his monogram worked in gold.

He was a tall man with an anxious expression, and he had a walrus mustache which he had to lift with one finger, when he wanted to eat.

He took the Professor into the Dining Room, and gave him a glass of port, while the latter told his story.

The Dining Room had a polished mahogany table with a sideboard to match, and fourteen chairs ranged round the walls, where the servants had to say their prayers every morning. The wallpaper was dark red and there were oil paintings on the walls. There was a picture of the Lord Lieutenant on a Borzoi-looking horse, by Lionel Edwards, with a lot of hounds wandering about among its legs. There was one of the Lady Lieutenant, on a roly-poly one, by Munnings, and another of some of the little Lieutenants, on anatomical ones, by Stewart. There was a baby Lieutenant, on a rocking horse, and several generations of Grandpa Lieutenants, on mounts called Mazeppa, Eclipse, or the Arab Steed. Some of the pictures were of mares and stallions by themselves, and these included honest creatures by Romney, fiery creatures by Delacroix, sagacious creatures by Landseer, and dotty animals with distended nostrils by anonymous eighteenth-century artists. The only person not on a horse was the Hon. Lettuce Lieutenant, the eldest daughter, who had made the mistake of being done by Augustus John. He had left it out on purpose, out of spite.

The Lord Lieutenant said: “But I say, I mean to say, do you mean to say, old boy, that this vicar of yours and that charmin’ Miss What’s-her-name have been maltreatin’ the gel in the what-do-you-may-call-it?”

“I have been trying to tell you …”

“But, good Lord, my dear chap, you can’t do that sort of thing in the nineteenth century, or the twentieth, or whatever it is. I mean, you take the first two figures, and add one, or subtract one, I forgot which, for reasons I never could fathom, possibly owin’ to these X’s which those chaps are always writin’ on monuments, and then it is different. Now, take horses …”

The Lord Lieutenant poured himself a glass of port, inserted it neatly under his mustache, and eyed the Professor warily across a silver horse full of walnuts.

“There you are, you see. All hearsay. Now, take horses. You are always meetin’ chaps who say they know of a horse that trotted thirty miles an hour, but when you ask them was it their horse, they say it was some other chap’s horse, and there you are. Now …”

“Good heavens …”

“Here, have a cigar. We keep them in this filly here, for parties. Look, you just press her tail down, like this, and the cigar comes out of her mouth, like that, oh, I’m sorry, and at the same moment her nostrils burst into flame, so that you can light it. Neat, isn’t it?”

The cigar shot out of a gold-plated steed, hitting the Professor on the nose, while a musical box inside the creature’s stomach played the last bars of “A-Huntin’ We Will Go.”

“I came to ask …”

“My dear old boy, look here, be advised by me. You drop the whole thing. You’ve got it muddled up. Perfectly natural, of course; no criticism intended. Anybody could get muddled on a thing like that, I should have done myself. But when you’ve been a Lord Lieutenant as long as I have, or a Chief Constable, or whatever I am, you’ll know that the first thing a Lord Lieutenant has to get hold of is a motive. Can’t have a crime without it. I assure you, it’s an absolute fact. First thing a criminal must do is get a motive. It’s in a book I read. Printed. Now what motive could Miss What-you-may-call-it possibly have for wanting to hand-cuff young Thingummy in the what’s-it?”

“Whereabouts, eh? Gypsies, I daresay. Wonderful chaps with horses. Now …”

“Not roundabouts!” shouted the Professor. “Whereabouts …”

“Here, have some coffee. We keep it in this copper horse here, with the methylated lamp under its tummy. You just twist his near fore, like this, and it pours out of his ear, like that, oh, I’m sorry, and the sugar is strewed about in this silver-plated stable here, to represent bedding. Pretty, isn’t it?”

The Professor mopped the coffee off his knees despairingly, while the coffeepot played “John Peel.”

“I have a right as a citizen of this country to ask for police protection, and it is your duty, as the Lord Lieutenant, to investigate the grounds …”

“Good Lord, old boy, you can’t have police protection here. What’s the good of sending old Dumbledum to protect you? Besides, I happen to know he has a lumbago. His wife sent up to borrow a smoothing iron only this evening. And who, may I ask, would stop all the motor cars, and take their licenses and that, if Dumbledum was protecting you all the time?”

“Dumbledum …”

“Here, have a chocolate. We keep them in this china hunter here, for convenience. You just lift its tail, like this, and the chocolate comes out there, like that, oh, I’m sorry, and he plays the ‘Meynell Hunt,’ only some of the notes are missing. Useful, isn’t it?”

The Professor fished the chocolate out of his coffee with fury.

“And another thing, old boy. What about witnesses? That’s one of the first things you have to have in a crime, believe me, as a Lord Lieutenant—unless you go in for circumstantial evidence, as we call it, or whatever they call it. Witnesses! It’s vital. You can’t do anything, hardly, without them. Look at that fellow who blew the other fellow up, unless it was himself, in the garage, or the swimmin’ bath, or whatever it was, only the other day. He had dozens of witnesses. Blew them all up as well. You see? I mean, you could almost say that you can’t do a crime without ’em. And where are yours, do you suppose?”

“I have a witness, Mrs. Noakes.”

“And who is Mrs. Noakes, when she’s at home?”

“Mrs. Noakes is the cook at Malplaquet.”

“Good Lord, not Mrs. Noakes! Mrs. Noakes is Mrs. Noakes? Why, I know Mrs. Noakes as well as me own mother. That’s an extraordinary thing, I must say, I mean that she should be her! Well, I remember her quails in aspic, in the old Duke’s day, poor fellow, yes, and her oyster soufflé. An invaluable woman. Often we tried to get her to come over to us, but she preferred to stay. Family feelin’. Now, take horses …”

“Not horses!”

“Well, hounds then.”

“Not hounds!”

“Yes, hounds. Take hounds. A hound will eat almost anything.”

“Here, have a cigarette. We keep them in this platinum polo pony here, for sentimental reasons. It’s an old pony of my own, poor chap. Dead, of course. Must have been dead about forty years by now. You just lift up the polo stick, like this, and he opens his mouth, like that, and out comes a cigarette, oh, I’m sorry, use a napkin, and, as you see, he plays ‘Old Faithful.’ Sad, isn’t it?”

The platinum pony had shot out a stream of about fifty cigarettes, knocking over the coffee and the port into the Professor’s lap.

He leaped to his feet, banged the table, and shouted wildly: “I demand a hearing! I refuse to be pelted with these articles!”

Then he folded his arms and sat down on a comic cushion, which began to play “Boot, Saddle, to Horse, and Away.”

“Good Lord, old boy, what are you sitting on that for? You aren’t supposed to sit on that. It’s supposed to be a sort of trick, to catch people …”

The Professor hurled the cushion on the floor, which made it play again, swept several horses out of the way, and shook his fist under the Lord Lieutenant’s nose.

“No good browbeatin’ me, old boy. Everybody always browbeats Lord Lieutenants. Doesn’t do a bit of good. To tell you the bitter truth, I simply don’t believe a word you say. Tryin’ to pull me leg. Won’t work. Now, if Mrs. Noakes was to tell me all this about dungeons and things, I’d believe her like a shot. I’d believe her if she told me that a mince pie was a ham omelet. But when a chap like you comes along, jabberin’ about roundabouts …”

“But I tell you that Mrs. Noakes will corroborate what I say …”

“Produce her, then. Produce your witness. That’s what we say, in the Law, you know. Produce your witness.”

“How can I produce her when she’s an old woman with a bad leg five miles away in the middle of the night?”

“There you are, you see. As soon as we get down to brass tacks, you always say it can’t be done. Like trottin’ at thirty miles an hour. I say I’ll believe Mrs. Noakes, you say you can’t produce her. I say I don’t believe you, you start chuckin’ cushions about. Now, take horses …”

The Professor clutched his whiskers.

“Take horses. You can always believe a horse. I always say to everybody, Give me a horse, and I’ll believe it. If a horse says there is wire in that gap, believe me, my boy, there is wire in it. Or take hounds. I always say to everybody, Give me a hound, and I’ll believe it. If a hound says there is a fox in that gooseberry bush, or in that hatbox, or wherever it is, believe me, my boy, there is a fox in it. Always believe a horse or a hound.”

The Professor had sunk back in his chair, pulling his hair out in tufts, when there was a gentle scratching on the door.

“That’s one of the hounds,” said the Lord Lieutenant happily. “Let him in, there’s a good fellow. I suppose I must have fourteen or fifteen of them round about the house, in various places. They sit under all those chairs at dinner and wait for biscuits, like dear old Lord Lonsdale. Always believe …”

A footman, however, opened the door, and announced deferentially: “A strange dog, me Lord.”

Captain was standing politely on the mat, with a shopping basket in his mouth. When he saw the Professor, he wagged his tail and came in.

The Professor read the letter in the basket and passed it to the Lord Lieutenant.

“Read for yourself.”

“Dear me, a letter from the dog. Interesting, very.”

He produced an eyeglass from his waistcoat pocket, disentangled the ribbon from his mustache, fixed it in his eye, and began to spell the letter out.

“ ‘Kind sir come back at onct …’ Bad spelling, that. Should be an S in it. However, you can’t expect good spelling from a dog. It’s not their nature. ‘… as them as what you knows of sir is up to triks again, namely that here Vicar and his fly by nite’—Good Lord, that will be Miss What’s-her-name, just like you said—‘and have gorn off’—good heavens—‘gorn off to cut Maria’s throat’! Poor child, poor child, good gracious, this is shockin’! ‘So please to come at onct’—I should think so, too—‘as If not it may be two late and Tell His Lordship’—that will be me, I expect—‘to bring the Army’! My stars, thank heaven the hound has come in time! Always believe a hound! How clever of him to write it. Must have learned it in a circus or somewhere. Bring the Army, he says. Yes, of course. The Army. Fancy cutting a child’s throat like that! Well, we must act. Action. Let me see. Where’s Kingdom? Somebody fetch me Kingdom. Oh, there you are, Kingdom. Here, Kingdom, get me some people on the telephone. Get me the Army and the Navy and the Air Force and the Fire Brigade and the Home Guard and the Rural District Council and the St. John’s Ambulance Association. Get me. Here, get me the telephone. I’ll do it meself.”

The butler carried in a telephone in the form of a plastic Derby winner, and the Lord Lieutenant began to shout commands into its mouth, occasionally applying its tail to his ear.

“Is that the Exchange? Where is the Exchange? Why not? Well then, why didn’t you say so? Get me Mr. Winston Churchill. Certainly I said Mr. Winston Churchill. Give him to me at once. Who the deuce are you, Sir? I tell you I’m the Lord Lieutenant. No, I’m not. Yes, you are. An imposter? So are you. That settled him. What? My good man, what’s the use of Mr. Attlee? Get me Mr. Churchill, like I said.”

Well, they dissuaded him from recalling Mr. Churchill at last. After that, he wanted to have General Eisenhower, Field Marshal Montgomery or Scotland Yard. The Professor cunningly went aside and wrote a message, which he persuaded Captain to deliver, saying that though the Far Eastern Battle Fleet might be very useful, yet they themselves, being on the spot, would be sure to get there sooner. The Lord Lieutenant was delighted by this second example of canine sagacity, and agreed to send at once for P. C. Dumbledum. The posse was collected without further argument.

The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing – Margot Livesey, 2017

I no longer remember where I heard about this book, but the title grabbed me. I enjoyed it, especially the analyses of great novels, but it didn’t quite deliver on the explanation of how the machinery works. There were some useful tips – now I want to read Forster’s Aspects of the Novel for his description of flat characters who can become three-dimensional – and I’m also going to seek out Livesey’s novel The Flight of Gemma Hardy, which is a reworking of Jane Eyre. (Tangent: the Wikipedia article on Aspects of the Novel has two great quotes, one from Maughm – “I learned that the only way to write novels was like Mr. E.M. Forster” – and one from Woolf – “So then we are back in the old bog; nobody knows anything about the laws of fiction.”)

A few bits I took away:

  • Livesey says memorable characters need attributes that convey their attitude: “No amount of details—eyes, teeth, hair, jobs, dreams, relationship to mother, history of dog ownership, horoscope—will avail unless it conveys attitude. Indeed, long lists of detail without affect may simply make the task of imagining the character harder, for both writer and reader.” This sounds plausible but I want to chew on it a bit.
  • “Dialogue is a wolf in sheep’s clothing—often pretending to be woolly and vague, actually all teeth and meaning.”
  • She explains why re-reading can be exciting by distinguishing between two kinds of suspense: what’s going to happen, or how and why it happens.
  • I was intrigued by her suggestion that fiction can sometimes be made more believable by employing what she calls “antifiction” – techniques that make the narrative “messier, more confusing: in other words more lifelike.”

A great list of signals that indicate you’re reading fiction, specifically about the introductory paragraph of Ulysses:

1. There is no visible narrator.
2. The act of writing is concealed. We are made to believe that the words sprang up on the page without effort.
3. Characters are shown to us through action and dialogue.
4. There is no initial attempt at explanation.
5. There is considerable specificity of detail and a kind of heightened density to the style.
6. Both narrator and characters are unnaturally eloquent.

And finally, she asks an artist friend, Gerry Bergstein, why one would rewrite a famous book and he tells her:

1. To provide a contemporary update of older themes that often contradicts the original
2. Sheer love
3. To make a cultural critique
4. To demonstrate political, or other forms, of social evolution
5. To distill the earlier work
6. To develop the traditions of a beloved forebear
7. Any combination of the above
8. As a joke

But that leaves off what I’m afraid is the most frequent reason, even if it’s unconsciously motivated and not sheer crassness: To get more attention than naturally accrues to a less-famous creator.

Subsequently I searched for reviews, and found this very helpful one, which contains a list of other writing books I could add to a request list:

  • Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House
  • Nancy Kress’s Beginnings, Middles, and Ends
  • Sarah Painter’s Stop Worrying, Start Writing
  • Robert Boswell’s The Half-Known World
  • Graywolf Press’s The Art Of series
  • Tin House’s Between the Covers podcast
  • Ursula LeGuin’s Steering the Craft
  • Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction

The Lie that Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction – John Dufresne, 2003

Books about how to write are a sub-genre of self-help for me, in the sense that I rarely do the exercises or whatever the author recommends, and typically the content immediately falls out of my head – but reading one gives me some short-lived motivation to do better. Take-aways – specific tips, ideas or techniques – would be gravy. This one was particularly enjoyable not for its overall structure (it’s a bit of a grab-bag) but because Dufresne uses a lot of great quotes. I did record a few tips as well, and I was led to it in the first place by the Wikipedia article on eye dialect (Dufresne’s arguments on why to avoid it are very cogent).

Excellent-sounding quotes (which Jonathan is helping me verify – any unsourced quotation should be viewed with suspicion, even in the world of print – see Nice Guys Finish Seventh) kick right off with the epigraph!

  • Lao Tzu: “A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” confirmed from Verse 27 of the Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell translation
  • Willa Cather: “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened.” confirmed from O Pioneers!, part II section IV
  • “Eudora Welty tells us about learning as a child that books were written by people and being disappointed that they were not natural wonders like trees or dogs.” Actual quote is “It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass.” confirmed from One Writer’s Beginnings
  • “Stanislavski said that without truth, clichés will fill up every spot in a character (and in ourselves) that is not already solid with living feeling.” confirmed from An Actor Prepares, chapter 2 section 3
  • Garry Winogrand: “Nothing is quite so mysterious as a thing well-described.” Wow, Jonathan reached out to the Quote Investigator, who researched it and wrote it up – the actual phrasing is “There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described,” which is less compelling to me at least… Thank you so much, Garson!

That last one segues into the good writing advice gleaned from others. He mentions Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern, quoting Stern’s warning about the “Weird Harold” story, “focused on a character who is strange and different” – I hadn’t heard of the book, which has excellent reviews, so I’ve requested it through my library. They have a great feature where you can set a hold to activate after a certain date. I put in for January so as to spread out the reading-a-writing-book juice.

Even the jacket blurb led to something else. Steve Yarbrough, quoted praising this book, compared it to Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town – I read the title essay linked here, and although I don’t really follow the argument on a first read, it’s intriguing. The public library system doesn’t hold that book but the academic one does; on the post-pandemic reading list it goes.

More great advice, from Elizabeth Bowen on dialogue: “It should be brief; it should add to the reader’s present knowledge; it should eliminate the routine exchanges of ordinary conversation; it should convey a sense of spontaneity but eliminate the repetitiveness of real talk…” and “All good dialogue deals with something unprecedented.”

His own dialogue advice is also great, and in fact I used this bit just now: “Beginning a line of dialogue with one word or two, then a comma before the content, though it is the way we talk, does not work well in dialogue. (I first heard this advice from George Garrett at a writers’ conference, and it’s the best single bit of wisdom I know of for improving dialogue.)”

That was an easy sell, but I am having a hard time with “Don’t tag an adverbial clause depicting action to a line of dialogue” because I do it all the time. “If it’s important, it should not be subordinated to a line of speech. If it’s not important, it gets cut.” Characters do not have to “earn the write [sic] to speak by behaving as well.” Hmm… I will think on that. I should certainly edit a bunch of them out, now that I recognize it as a tic.

The other writing bits I noted are his use of synapses as a metaphor for gaps between scenes: “Like the gap in a spark plug. No gap, no fire, no ignition, no motion.”

You can learn more about the structure of a short story by reading Checkhov’s ‘Heartache’ than you can in a semester of Creative Writing 101. If you read like a writer, that is, which means you have to read everything twice, at least.

A more general observation: “When you have seen something beautiful, you have looked at it beautifully. When you look closely at things, you see what is unique about them, what is surprising and deserving of your attention.”

Finally, I learned about:

  • William Carlos Williams’ flower study poems (Daisy, Primrose, Queen Anne’s Lace, Great Mullein) – I don’t think they are as carefully observed as he does but I enjoyed reading them.
  • Dufrese says the Jale people (who are more typically called Dani) have no word for green – Wikipedia says only two color terms, mili for cool/dark and mola for warm/light shades, but it’s complicated and very interesting!
  • GIQ – giant imperial quart, Worcester slang for a large beer
  • Newfoundland was its own country (a dominion of the British Crown) from 1907 until 1933
  • Finally, from his delightful ode to reference books in general and cookbooks in particular I learned about mannish water, stamp and go, ackee, and swamp cabbage!

Reading Project Gutenberg books on various devices

During the pandemic, the two Forbes Library book groups that I coordinate (Great Books, and Nature and Environment) are reading books in the public domain so that we can get them online without waiting lists. I wanted to compile some directions to send to group members but haven’t found a good one-stop resource, so I’m attempting one here. Please add a comment if you have better resources or if any of this is incorrect.

I will send out links to the main download location for the book, which is in pattern gutenberg.org/ebooks/[book number]. Here we use Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2084. Note that if you do an Internet search for a title, the result you’ll often get will be the link directly to the HTML version (“Read this book online”): https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2084/2084-h/2084-h.htm. That’s great for reading in a web browser, but if you have an e-reader or tablet you can download a file that you can read more easily.

Click the link to download the EPUB file for Android (Google Play Books) or Mac (iBooks or Apple Books). Use the Kindle link for Kindle. You can choose the Box, Google Drive, or OneDrive icons to download directly into those cloud services rather than onto your hard drive.

  • On an Android phone or tablet, or on a Chromebook, use the Google Play Books app. The simplest way is to visit https://play.google.com/books on a computer first and click Upload Files. You can upload from the local computer or from Google Drive. After you select the file (epub in this case, but you can also upload PDFs), it will take a minute to process. Once complete, the book is in your Play Books library under Uploads and can be accessed from any device which has the Play Books app installed.
  • On a Mac or iPad, use the iBooks or Apple Books app. Click File/Add to Library and browse to the file you downloaded (epub in this case, but you can also upload PDFs). [I don’t have an iPad to test on; you should be able to import there as well or visit the mobile version of Project Gutenberg, https://m.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2084.mobile]
  • For Kindle, plug the device into your computer and drag-and-drop the downloaded .mobi file into the Documents file on your Kindle. Or you can send it to your Kindle via email.

The Art of Frugal Hedonism: A Guide to Spending Less While Enjoying Everything More – Annie Raser-Rowland with Adam Grubb, 2017

I think I heard about this from the same source as Quit Like a Millionaire, but this one I loved. I borrowed it from the library but will put a copy on my to-buy list. There’s a nice website and ooh, an interview I plan on watching!

The book is similar in tone and optimism to my favorite financial blogger, Mr. Money Mustache, but even more focused on relishing day-to-day pleasures and the natural world. Some of the chapter titles capture this attitude: “Recalibrate your senses,” “Enjoy excess” (they throw a banana party when they have a glut of them), “Revel in the good brain chemistry of resourcefulness,” “Indulge your curiosity,” “It won’t be dull. We promise,” “Put on your favorite power anthem, and be the zeitgeist,” “Free up your frivolity,” “Sup at the cultural buffet,” and the last one, “Look up, think about constellations. Look down, think about magma.”

It’s Australian, so I learned the word “jaffle” (a toasted sandwich – now I want one of the cool fluted grills).

In the “Don’t be a sucker” chapter, about resisting advertising:

Be more content. Okay, easier said that done, but as author Douglas Rushkoff writes in his book Coercion, “the more fun you’re having in life, the more satisfied your are with yourself, the harder a target you are to reach.” You may have observed that people with an air of contentment with life, a mind fascinated by ideas, and strong connections with other people and the natural world are less susceptible to advertising. So make like a content person, and ignore the billboard! You are above such piffle!

In the frivolity chapter, contrasted to light-hearted spending:

Living light-heartedly is an altogether different beast. It involves being a bit philosophical about bad things that happen, so that they don’t dominate your mind or outlook. Or retaining the ability to take delight in fleeting moments. Or recognizing that being frivolous, spontaneous or playful with other humans and within your own head is a totally free present you can give to yourself and the people around you as often as you like. This stuff is the real assertion of freedom from the drabber elements of daily life: don’t get it confused with frivolous spending.

The Chronicles of Narnia – C. S. Lewis, 1950 – 1956

I was just going to add notes to the listings in the monthly round-up (November and December 2019), but they started getting long! Looks like I last re-read these 18 months ago, which is probably a typical interval for me over my lifetime as I love them so much. For such short books it’s amazing how they still elicit new reactions and thoughts

  • The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, 1950. I craved making Mr. Tumnus’ tea—I thought the sugar-topped cake would be a pound cake, but most of the recipes dreamed up online are more of a fruit cake. I might make the cinnamon tea cake here and dig into some of those other posts!
  • Prince Caspian, 1951
  • The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, 1952
  • The Silver Chair, 1953. This time around I noticed how the suspense often resolves quickly, not the typical ratcheting-up, things-get-worse-and-worse techniques I associate with modern fiction (even for children). Near the end, this little drama happens in one paragraph: “The tide was running up the valley like a mill-race, and if it had come to swimming, the horses could hardly have won over. But it was still only a foot or two deep, and though it swished terribly round the horses’ legs, they reached the far side in safety.” And earlier, when the witch-snake almost overpowers Rilian, similarly it’s wrapped up in one page. The suspense still works but it’s not gory or drawn out. It reminded me of Lucy resisting the temptation to cast the “become the most beautiful” spell in Voyage of the Dawn Treader. In the world of Narnia our protagonists encounter perils and make wrong choices without the worst quite happening. It makes sense that Lewis wrote Perelandra, an Eve story with a happy ending.
  • The Horse and His Boy, 1954. Calormen is clearly larger and more populous than Narnia. It took a long time for the Narnia-centrism (beyond the general racism) to jump out to me, partly I suppose because Narnia is cognate to England and that cultural viewpoint is the water I’ve been bathed in since childhood. On the mostly accurate charges of sexism and racism, Devin Brown tries to marshall a defense of Lewis, but it goes deeper than he admits. [note from future (Jan 2020) reading: Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book nails it]
  • The Magician’s Nephew, 1955. Same thought writ large: this is the creation story of “Narnia” (ie this whole world and possibly universe), with Aslan singing the very mountains into existence—but what about all the other lands/nations we’ve encountered: Archenland, Calormen, the Lone Islands, even Bism deep in the earth…?
  • The Last Battle, 1956. Again the end of Narnia-the-world is centered on Narnia-the-tiny-country. But on the good side, I noticed afresh how important this book was to me in shaping my ability to identify and avoid/deflect a certain kind of person. The monkey Shift manipulates his friend Puzzle the donkey by playing the martyr, telling him he’s doing things “for your sake,” asserting his special ability to do or know certain things. My impression is that Shift must be modeled on Mrs. Moore (a very interesting aspect of Lewis’ life, although there’s plenty of controversy about her character), but I only find references to her inspiring the “all-I-want” woman in The Screwtape Letters. Lucy defends Puzzle against those who blame him for going along with Shift (bringing disaster), but the text is ambiguous enough that I took away the need to develop and trust your instincts. Combined with the storyline of Emeth (the Calormen soldier who’s told that his sincerity in searching for truth meant that he was really a follower of Aslan rather than Tash), The Last Battle actually contributed to my religious skepticism/atheism.

Someday I want to write an essay about Narnia and Christianity—a topic that’s been explored in depth by many, but I’ve never seen my take fully represented. That will entail yet another re-read. I’m already looking forward to it!

The Changeling King (Estranged #2) – Ethan M. Aldridge, 2019

The first book in the series blew me away. This one (the second in at least a trilogy?) I loved also, but of course it didn’t have quite the same element of surprise: I knew it would be great, and it is. The characters of the brothers-by-Fay-kidnapping continue to evolve, and the human parents and especially older sister Alexis get to take the stage as well. Alexis is who I would have wanted to be as a kid, and she gets to learn magic too! My favorite detail is the visual representation (drawings in speech bubbles) of the spells, and the ways that Alexis’ attempts go awry but are still useful. The view of Fay society and class struggle is great. I’m looking forward to the next volume, but it must take Aldridge a really long time to do the amazing art!

Average Rating:

4.2 rating based on 1,169 ratings (all editions)

ISBN-10: 0062653911
ISBN-13: 9780062653918
Goodreads: 41212409

Author(s): Publisher: HarperCollins
Published: 10/1/2019

After years of pretending to be human, the changeling Edmund Carter has assumed his rightful role as Cinder, king of the World Below. But not everyone at the royal palace is happy about his return.

Meanwhile, Ed is adjusting to human life in the World Above. His birth family treats him with a kindness he never knew growing up in the Fay court, but Ed misses the sense of purpose he had as a knight.

When a mysterious new threat emerges in the World Below, Cinder must call on Ed and their older sister, Alexis, for help. But nothing can prepare them for the family secret that awaits at the end of their perilous quest.

Estranged – Ethan M. Aldridge, 2018

Fantasy is my favorite genre, but my bar for good fantasy is so high (and gets higher as I get older) that I very seldom find anything new to like, and only even try if the reviews are stellar. So when I say I loved loved loved this graphic novel, I mean it. Thank you Twitter, since it was a re-tweet of Aldridge’s amazing sketch of Lloyd Alexander’s Taran holding Hen Wen that led me to his work. Estranged is about a human child kidnapped by fairies and his changeling twin. They meet and team up, which seems like an obvious idea but which I’ve never seen done before, and Aldridge subtly shows the similarities and differences in their personalities and how their different environments shaped them. The art, pen-and-ink and watercolor, is gorgeous, but the writing is equally strong. There are great sibling and love relationships, themes of belonging and being yourself, a non-binary character who’s an enchanted living candle (another very cool idea!), strong female characters, a dragon in subway tunnels…. and hurray, a sequel is coming out in October!

Average Rating:

4.0 rating based on 3,249 ratings (all editions)

Goodreads: 31193404

Author(s): Publisher: HarperCollins
Published: 8/7/2018

Edmund and the Childe were swapped at birth. Now Edmund lives in secret as a changeling in the World Above, with fae powers that make him different from everyone else—even his unwitting parents and older sister, Alexis. The Childe lives among the fae in the World Below, where being human makes him an oddity at the royal palace, and where his only friend is a wax golem named Whick.

But when the cruel sorceress Hawthorne takes the throne, the Childe and Edmund realize that the fate of both worlds may be in their hands—even if they’re not sure which world they belong to.

The Book of Delights – Ross Gay, 2019

It may have been through Gretchen Rubin that I first heard of this book, but it’s been popping up everywhere. I loved these “essayettes”! So many delightful little and large observations on pleasures to be found in the everyday. His existence as a black man in America informs the book in fascinating ways but it’s also universal, an embrace of the world as it is in all its flawed beauty without sugar-coating. Very funny too; one of my favorite stories is of a TSA worker who is so impressed that Ross is being flown somewhere to “read palms.” I love that he wanted to do one essay per day but gave up on that goal and ended up with about 100 for the year—easygoing in the best way, not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, and still succeeding in savoring and sharing so many experiences.

He’s great with images like “A fly, its wings hauling all the light in the room” and with pile-on sentences that romp around an idea:

It is a sweet correction this computer keeps making, turning pawpaw into papaw, which means, for those of you not from this neck of the woods, papa or grandpa, which a pawpaw grove can feel like, especially standing inside of it midday, when the light limns the big leaves like stained glass and suddenly you’re inside something ancient and protective.

But what I have learned is the worry one might have about one’s child, perhaps most especially one’s black or brown child, speaking “improper” English, wearing “improper” colors, having “improper” etiquette, or displaying “improper” tastes, which, in the case of my dad and I, really meant behaving in the style or manner of black people, the idea of black people, which really meant one’s black or brown child being perceived as the idea of black people, the prospect of which, for my father, thought I never heard him say it plainly, must have been a terror.

He extrapolates wonderful metaphors from the natural world:

…It has occurred to me that among other things—the trees and the mushrooms have shown me this—joy is the mostly invisible, the underground union between us, you and me, which is, among other things, the great fact of our lives and the lives of everyone and thing we love going away. If we sink a spoon into that fact, into the duff between us, we will find it teeming. It will look like all the books ever written. It will look like all the nerves in a body. We might call it sorrow, but we might call it a union, one that, once we notice it, once we bring it into the light, might become flowers and food. Might be joy.

And if I think I’m in a hurry, or think I ought to be, and quickly walk by to peek at the beds, the teeny bindweed sprouts will sing out to me, “Stay in the garden! Stay in the garden!” And I often oblige, despite my obligations, getting back on my hands and knees, my thumb and forefinger caressing the emergent things free, all of us rooting around for the light.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter on loitering, and its lovely synonyms “linger, loaf, laze, lounge, lollygag, dawdle, amble, saunter, meander, putter, dillydally, and mosey“:

…another of the synonyms for loitering, which I wrote as delight: taking one’s time. For while the previous list of synonyms allude to time, taking one’s time makes it kind of plain, for the crime of loitering, the idea of it, is about ownership of one’s own time, which must be, sometimes, wrested from the assumed owners of it, who are not you, back to the rightful, who is.

Gay will read at the Juniper Institute next month, and I hope to go!

The Case of the Comical Commonplace Collection: guest post by Jonathan Caws-Elwitt, founder of the Della Street Irregulars

Editor’s Note: These Erle Stanley Gardner snippets appear more or less in the order in which I unearthed them, which in many cases does not reflect the order of publication of the Perry Mason novels. I did not always reference which book each quotation came from (which I would have if I’d anticipated the scope of this project), and for that I apologize. All the excerpted passages are Gardner’s, apart from the spoof excerpts that are duly attributed to me (and my occasional little faux-Gardner asides whose inauthenticity will, I trust, be obvious in the context). All the commentary is my own.

—Jonathan Caws-Elwitt Continue reading “The Case of the Comical Commonplace Collection: guest post by Jonathan Caws-Elwitt, founder of the Della Street Irregulars”