Monday, September 20, 2021

Blogging and Patience

I was thinking about the crazy tangle of string our lives resemble. They're not the clean, arrow-straight trajectories from place to place, or event to event, we like to imagine. They are, in fact, more like a labyrinth that appears to wind back on itself indefinitely, until we finally shuffle off our mortal coil. Even then, I'm guessing the pressure of uncompleted tasks will loom right until the end. And if we want to take a broader bird's eye view of human life where individuals are part of a greater whole, our descendants will pick up the slack and keep going. 

Two brothers named John-Roger and Peter Macmillan wrote a book named 'You Can't Afford the Luxury of a Negative Thought.' They remind readers that we aren't ever finished with ourselves, and never will be. 'We've yet to meet a person who has said for any length of time, "I'm done."' 

Wherever we find ourselves is the goal of some former moment in our lives. I love the end of hiking trails, where there is always something like a lookout with a lovely kiosk on a high peak with an amazing view. Yet in life as a whole, when we arrive, there is always more path snaking away in the distance which we didn't notice before. The Macmillan brothers have a blunt way of reminding us to enjoy the journey and stop pining for the destination. 'If you don't have fun getting there, you probably won't have much fun there. Your fun muscles will have atrophied.' 

Point taken.  

Like many others, I've suffered from the impatience of wanting tasks and projects to be finished. Done and dusted, ticked off, ready to put out into the world for feedback. Whether it's writing a book, article or assignment, decorating a room, driving to a destination or cleaning the kitchen after tea, my favourite stage of the proceedings is 'Over and Done With'. An unfinished feeling hanging over my head isn't one I've ever been fond of. It's sticky, unsettling, and hard to shake off. But what if the very nature of life means we can never completely shake it off?

I'm trying to make peace with this sense of unease. And I've decided part of the benefit of keeping this blog is that it's never finished. Sure, any number of individual posts get churned out, but there are always new ideas to write, fresh books to read, photos to snap and ideas to record. I've no idea what future posts and updates are going to look like. And I guess that's how it should be. Maybe it's good for us to have some open-ended hobby to remind us that life may be more of a curly scramble with no clear end in sight, than a clearly marked hiking trail.

I really like a growing-older meme I once saw. 'They tell me I'm over the hill, but I can't remember ever being at the top.' I'm taking this specific reflection as a pause along the way to peer out at the view I can see, and stop and reflect. Then I'll be off again with my book chat, lists and challenges.

How about you? What are you in the middle of, for I know there is always something.  

(This might be a good moment to mention the new Follow.It button in my toolbar, in case you're inclined to wish for notifications of this blog's updates in your emails. The old system bit the dust, and we bloggers were forced to search for something new to enable followers to keep being informed when we share new content. Hence, the delightfully straightforward Follow.It. You won't miss a post, and on the other hand, you won't receive any non-post related material. Win win.)    

Monday, September 13, 2021

'Crusoe's Daughter' by Jane Gardam

In 1904, when she was six, Polly Flint went to live with her two holy aunts at the yellow house by the marsh -- so close to the sea that it seemed to toss like a ship, so isolated that she might have been marooned on an island. And there she stayed for eighty-one years while the century raged around her, while lamplight and Victorian order became chaos and nuclear dread. Crusoe's Daughter, ambitious, moving and wholly original, is her story.


This was a core syllabus book from my first year of English at Uni. I didn't remember much about it, except that we were set to read it alongside the famous classic it was drawn from; Robinson Crusoe. When I saw it at a second hand bookshop, I really wanted to remember what it was all about, and whether or not I enjoyed it. 

In 1904, a compliant six-year-old named Polly Flint is taken to a lonely yellow house near the sea to live with her two spinster aunts, bleak Aunt Mary and gentle Aunt Frances. Also under the roof is their maid Charlotte, whose smile always appears false, and Mrs Woods, a dour widow whose presence Polly can never quite figure out. 

As she grows older, it dawns on Polly that she's being brought up in the shadow of an extinct time period. Mary and Frances live as if hazy Victorian mores have made a massive stamp on them. While the world is evolving into the 20th century, vague values of a different era are still trying to be cranked to life beneath their roof, although nobody seems to realise that's the case. It gradually dawns on Polly that if she'd been a boy, money might have been forked out for an education and profession. As it is, the aunts raise her in a vacuum where nothing happens, but seem to think they've done perfectly right by her. 

Polly has access to her dead grandfather's library, and bonds with Daniel Defoe's character Robinson Crusoe as her ultimate hero of all time, even though others including Dickens (and me!) find him dry and dull. Crusoe's appeal to Polly is not his sexless, white masculine status, but his existence on an island of his own, knowing that his only way to survive is to declare it's God's will. She adopts him as her spiritual counterpart and derives a lot of comfort from their mutual isolation; Crusoe's being his location and Polly's being her life in general. She invests so much into Crusoe that in her later years, she invents literary projects of her own just to feel as if she's doing something to fill her days. 

At one stage, Polly visits the Thwaites (sort of extended family) who run a commune for arty, intellectual people. Lady Celia Thwaite believes her mission in life is to help geniuses, which she does by providing this turf for them to veg out, doing Polly knows not what. Nearly live the wealthy Zeit family who laughs at aestheticism and find the commune amusing. Polly observes them all, and rather than making judgments one way or another, she makes quiet, dry observations which the reader can assess if we want to take the trouble. Or we may choose to simply accept what we see, as Polly does. Her most common statement is, 'Yes, I see.' All through the story, although people either put each other on pedestals or cut each other down, Polly just observes. 

The commentary on the nature of different relationships and the proper pecking order happens through this sort of observation. For example, the stately aunts decide to make their maid, Charlotte, a cup of tea after a grievous loss, but need her to rouse herself to set a fire before they can do so!

Polly has a few brushes with romance. There's Paul Treece, a promising young literary talent from a modest farming background, and his Uni chum, the pleasant but inscrutable Theo Zeit. Polly unrestrainedly gives her heart to one of them, but realises she had no idea what he was thinking, if he ever did himself. (Yeah, what was he thinking?!)

Jane Gardam's skill with the pen kept wanting to make me read more. The aspects of a person's appearance or character she chooses to highlight through Polly's eyes are so fresh and unique. Her evocation of the First World War and its effect on the poor soldiers is stunning. And she's able to make characters who appear for just a few pages seem super interesting and revealing. 

My 1988 read didn't make me want to go straight off to hunt for more Jane Gardam titles, but my 2020 read has. Still, I don't envy my teenage self, for having to write something academic about such elusive, sensual writing. It's a will-o'-the-wisp of a book, if ever one was, and I'll bet I didn't get very far. But I really enjoyed it. 


Monday, August 30, 2021

'What Katy Did' by Susan Coolidge

Twelve-year-old Katy is constantly making and quickly breaking resolutions about how she will change her ways and treat others, especially her five younger brothers and sisters, with more respect and compassion. When Katy meets her Cousin Helen, an invalid, Katy is awed by her kindness, prettiness, and generosity. Katy is determined to become more like Helen, a resolution that lasts only a few hours. Soon, however, Katy gets a chance to become more like cousin Helen than she ever wished as she finds herself confined to her bedroom for four years as a result of an accident.


Caution: Very minor plot spoilers about halfway down. 

I'm currently re-reading many of the beloved old childhood and YA classics on my shelf, and haven't cracked open the covers of some of them for decades. What a treat books such as this one are, as if someone from a bygone era is extending some goodness and wisdom forward through the decades, even centuries, to cheer us up. 

This book introduces the original and unruly Carr family. Doctor Philip Carr is a widower with six kids, Katy, Clover, Elsie, Dorry, Johnnie and Phil. This book focuses on the eldest sister Katy, who is messy, curious, bold and sociable. She has great intentions to be a useful and dependable person, but her impulsive, boisterous nature keeps sabotaging her. Then in one split second she suffers a serious accident, as a consequence of her own rebellious action. Katy faces a long recovery period in her bedroom, flat on her back for a good portion of it. 

The poor girl is devastated and in great pain, feeling at the age of 12 as if the best of life must have passed her by. Yet there is not much she can do but take each day as it comes. Little by little, it becomes clear that the trial itself is smoothing down Katy's rough edges and helping her to become the person she aimed to be when she kept falling short of the mark she set. She still has her passionate nature, but without the mobility to please herself each moment, it's easier to direct her good intentions in purposeful ways that may benefit others. Nothing encourages productive thought more than enforced reflection time. 

There are many instances of how small, everyday pleasures, such as a pretty dressing gown, tasty snack or neat bedroom, may make a far greater impact than their modest nature may suggest. Also loads of excellent supporting characters, including the perpetual invalid, Cousin Helen, who intentionally chooses a bright and merry attitude until it's second nature. This young woman spreads sunshine through the pages. There's good Aunt Izzie, who devotes her life to helping her widower brother with his kids, and is taken for granted all round until the crunch comes. And wistful, left-out younger sister Elsie, who feels as if she fits nowhere. (This little girl stirs me most.)

Okay, I have one major gripe with the premise on which the whole plot hinges. I find it super implausible that Aunt Izzie wouldn't have mentioned the problem with the swing. She says, 'That swing is not to be used until tomorrow. Remember that, children. Not till tomorrow. And not then, unless I give you leave.' The narrator goes on to explain that Miss Izzie Carr expected compliance without needing to justify every order. But as a long-time homeschooling parent, I'm positive in real life Izzie would have added, 'Because the staple is broken.' It would have taken an extra split second and put undeniable weight behind the urgency for obedience.

Here are a few of the ways she could have added it.

'Alexander says the roof staple has come loose, so it'll be dangerous right now.' (About seven seconds.)

'It's damaged, so don't go near it.' (About three seconds.)

Or simply, 'It's broken.' (Barely more than a second.)

 I appeal to all parents, teachers, care-givers, older siblings and baby sitters. Would you have dreamed of holding back the vital information that the swing is broken? In fact, I think it would have rolled off her tongue so naturally, it would have taken more effort not to say it.     

But I guess Susan Coolidge thought she had no other option for her story to work the way she wanted it to. The only alternative would be that Aunt Izzie does explain why, but Katy doesn't hear any of it, in which case the all-important willful disobedience theme is shattered. And then the adults would be culpable for not making extra sure everyone hears the vital instructions. I can't see how Coolidge could have written the story other than as she did, but it really doesn't sit well with me.

What I do love are descriptions such as this one of Katy's bureau drawer. 'All sorts of things were mixed together as if someone had put in a long stick and stirred them all up. There were books and paint boxes, and bits of scribbled paper and lead pencils and brushes. Stocking legs had come unrolled and twisted themselves about pocket handkerchiefs, ends of ribbon and linen collars. Ruffles all crushed out of shape stuck up from under the heavier things, and sundry little paper boxes lay empty on top, the treasures they once held having sifted down to the bottom of the drawer and disappeared beneath the general mass.' Hmm, I've never seen anything like that! Have you?    

I hope I haven't been describing this book as if it's some moralistic, nineteenth century hammer, because there's far too much mischievous movement, flashes of humour, and raw honesty for that. None of the Carr children are goody-two-shoes, least of all Katy. I've decided Susan Coolidge is a great addition to my list of bad-mood busting authors, which is steadily growing. 

Stick around, because I'll soon be adding my thoughts about the rest of this series. 


PS, Maybe Aunt Izzie had already explained about the broken swing to the younger siblings several times, and Katy came in just in time to hear one more directive without the reason added to it. That could be more plausible, but I suspect I'm now way over-thinking this and had better stop. 

Monday, August 23, 2021

'An Episode of Sparrows' by Rumer Godden

A much-loved English novel reminiscent of The Secret Garden

Someone has dug up the private garden in the square and taken buckets of dirt, and Miss Angela Chesney of the Garden Committee is sure that a gang of boys from run-down Catford Street must be to blame. But Angela's sister Olivia isn't so sure. Olivia wonders why the neighborhood children—the “sparrows” she sometimes watches from the window of her house —have to be locked out of the garden. Don't they have a right to enjoy the place, too? But neither Angela nor Olivia has any idea what sent the neighborhood waif Lovejoy Mason and her few friends in search of “good, garden earth.” Still less do they imagine where their investigation of the incident will lead them—to a struggling restaurant, a bombed-out church, and at the heart of it all, a hidden garden.


Rumer Godden is an author who always gives us more to ponder under the surface than is evident in her often simple stories. If we're willing to dig, there'll always be something mystical, or some spiritual application or observation.

This one begins in the early 1950s, soon enough after the war that there is still plenty of evident street damage, including demolished buildings. The setting is Catford Street, an area of London which is one step up from a slum. It's full of desperate people struggling to make ends meet and barely succeeding. 

The 'sparrows' of the title are not actual birds but children aged between 5 and 15. This age demographic are neglected, semi-waifs, generally as unheeded as the little grey birds, and left mostly to their own devices to pop up again as young adults expected to do a hard day's work. They're only noticed when they intrude on adults' attention by making nuisances of themselves, in which case they're treated like pests.

The main character is a thorny and shameless little street thief named Lovejoy Mason, who's been dumped by her mother on the family they were boarding with. Lovejoy pilfers a packet of what turns out to be flower seeds. Disgruntled at first, she decides to poke them in some earth to see what will happen. Thus begins Lovejoy's unexpected passion for horticulture and her decision to plant surreptitious flower gardens in old bomb sites left by the war. She's fascinated by what seems to her the miraculous alchemy of the earth. But finding more seeds and more suitable plots is her greatest challenge, and she'll even stoop to stealing money from a church!  

The story becomes quite a micro-war of its own, as Lovejoy gains and loses ground. Some boy gangs have their eye on the same plots of ground for hang-outs, and she finds an unexpected ally in Tip Malone, a 13-year-old gang leader whose softer side is unexpectedly stirred by her plight. Their friendship is super cute, as Lovejoy assumes more and more from Tip, making us wonder how far she can stretch his good nature until it snaps. 

Lovejoy's reluctant guardians provide a great secondary plot, as the proud Mr Vincent Combie (whose real name is George) is a chef who establishes his pride and joy, a classy restaurant, slap bang in the middle of Catford Street, where he lives. He struggles to accept the fact that his ideal clientele probably won't go near such a forlorn district. In this way, Vincent's restaurant is perhaps a grown-up equivalent of Lovejoy's flower garden. The question is how far can such dreamers make any headway in their grim reality? 

One of my highlights is Miss Olivia Chesney, a middle-aged nonentity who knows how to sympathise with the plights of underdogs. She realises there's a fine line between total blarney and a kind of faith in what they hope and believe is going to happen. 

The other highlight is the prickling of Lovejoy's hardened conscience, especially when she sets out to rob the local Catholic Church and develops a fascination with a Madonna and Child statue. Godden puts it this way. 'The statue seemed to find something in Lovejoy that matched it.' This is so often the case with the arts; including books, music and visual art of all types that touch our hearts. Readers, viewers and listeners each bring something of their own to click into place with what their creators intended. Or else they have that germ activated by whatever they read, perceive or hear. 

Just as Lovejoy experiences this phenomenon with the statue, perhaps a similar thing occurred in my spirit prompted by this book itself along with many others. I trust it will be the same for many other readers too.  



Friday, August 13, 2021

Remarkable Causes of Death in Books

This list was inspired by today's date which you see above. Just for the record, I have no superstition regarding Friday the 13th whatsoever, but traditional bad luck day will suffice as well as any other for a list of this nature. There have been many weird and unique causes of untimely deaths in some of my favourite stories, which deserve to be highlighted. I consider these people to be victims of extreme misfortune, as opposed to their own stupidity. (That gets into Darwin Award territory, named after the great scientist because the victims unwittingly remove themselves from their gene pool through natural selection. But that's a list for another day maybe.)

Warning: Beware of spoilers, in a list of this nature!

 1) Remy Legaludec (murdered by powdered peanut shavings)

His employer, Leigh Teabing, is a kindly, Tweed-suited British professor on the surface, but a heartless crook in his secret life. When Remy, the faithful manservant, gets too close to some shocking truths, Teabing uses his severe food allergy against him. He simply sprinkles some peanut shavings from the bottom of a bag into a bottle of cognac. It's the perfect crime, since it's totally invisible and even allows Teabing to take a swig himself before handing the deadly weapon on to poor old Remy. Causing intentional anaphylaxis is a vicious action indeed. I'd recently discovered my own toddler son's severe peanut allergy while reading this book, so this particular incident from The Da Vinci Code stuck in my mind. 

2) The Wicked Witch of the West (melted after being drenched by a bucket of water)

It turns out this woman is so foul that any contact with the cleansing property of H2O is bound to finish her off. But Dorothy doesn't realise this when she loses her temper and heaves the contents of that mop bucket over her oppressor. It's a brilliant stroke of luck, since she and her friends aimed to assassinate the witch all along, but just couldn't figure out how to do it. I guess the fact that their enemy had no blood flowing in her veins could've tipped them off that she was no predictable mortal being. Toto discovers this earlier, when he bites her leg. Good riddance. (My review of the book is here.)

3) The Wicked Witch of the East (crushed by a house landing on her)

Same book, different baddie. This menace just happens to be standing in the wrong place at the wrong time when a house which has been sucked up in a cyclone all the way in Kansas comes down and squashes her. Oops.

4) Hamlet Senior (poison poured in his ear as he napped)

The king of Denmark is having a doze in his own orchard when his nasty brother creeps over with a potent poison vial and does the dirty deed. It's a terrible way to die, since the concoction curdles the king's blood and makes his whole body erupt into boils. Claudius simply wanted the chance to reign as king himself, and it works. He even makes a successful move on his brother's widow. But the poor gentleman's ghost spends a lot of effort trying to help his son figure out exactly what happened, so justice may be served. 

5) Peter Pettigrew (strangled by his own artificial hand)

The little rat-faced wizard is a victim of what appeared to be one of Lord Voldemort's rare generous gestures to his followers. But it turns out old Voldy had an ulterior motive in giving Pettigrew an awesome silver hand. Any time he was to show the slightest tinge of mercy toward Harry Potter and his cause, his own digits were hexed to take him straight out of the picture. And Pettigrew momentarily relaxs his grip while trying to strangle Harry, who has just reminded him of the debt he owes him when Harry spared his life once before. 

6) Heathcliff (the big old meanie died of love - pure and simple)

The formidable oppressor of two family lines receives ghostly visitations from his one true love, Catherine Earnshaw, to such an extent that he neglects to eat or sleep. His triumphant, joyous, self-induced hunger strike has just the effect he'd hoped for. And the servant, Nelly Dean, sort of knew it all along, but she also knows she'd appear crazy to say so. (See my review of Wuthering Heights.)

7) Beatrice Burnley (plummeted down a well)

Poor Ilse's mother in L.M. Montgomery's Emily of New Moon is simply walking home from a day out when she falls down a well in the dark. The accident is witnessed by nobody, and her volatile husband assumes she did the dirty on him and eloped with another man, leaving her baby behind. But nope, Beatrice lies down in her watery grave for thirteen years, until some sixth sense of Emily Byrd Starr helps locate her remains. (I guess this scenario begs a question based on the classical tree in the woods conundrum. If a person falls down a well in the darkness with nobody to witness, does her scream make a sound? I'm pretty sure it would! This is grim material for a kids' book, but very memorable. Review not too far away.) 

8) Mr Krook (Spontaneous Human Combustion) 

The old owner of the creepy rag-and-bottle shop in Dickens' London simply bursts into flames. Two young clerks, Guppy and Jobling, detect some sort of strange, oily ash in the air and assume it's an overdone steak or two from the kitchen of the local pub. Little do they know it's the vaporised remains of Krook himself. It's very bad timing for them, since they had an appointment with him that very night, to acquire a crucial document. (See my review of Bleak House.)

9) Moaning Myrtle (Came face to face with a basilisk in the loo)

Such an encounter is sadly fatal, and Myrtle's guard was down, because she was hiding from school bullies in a cubicle. Alas, the biggest menace of all was at large, slithering through the pipes. Poor Myrtle never gets over the unfairness of it all. She's doomed to haunt that toilet block and Hogwarts' plumbing forever after, but does try to make the most of it by chatting up any cute boys she encounters in her life, or rather her existence. 

10) Sisera (Head nailed to the ground with a tent peg)

There are several gruesome Biblical causes of death, but I'll choose just one to round my list up to ten. This Canaanite military commander makes the fatal mistake of accepting hospitality from an unassuming Hebrew woman. Jael, the lady, gives him warm milk and a cosy rug. She assures him he can lie down safely in her tent dwelling, but as soon as the exhausted soldier is dead to the world, she creeps over with the hammer and peg and swiftly impales his temple to the ground. For that, Jael is celebrated through church history as one of the brave women of the faith! 

Do you feel regret for my poor choices. Please feel free to suggest any other bizarre and remarkable literary deaths that may spring to your mind. And enjoy Friday the 13th, if that is your thing. 

Friday, August 6, 2021

'The Last Battle' by C. S. Lewis

Or 'The One with the Dressed Up Donkey.'

Note: This discussion is full of spoilers beneath the headings, so tread carefully. 

Hooray, 'Further up and further in,' is the motto of this story. We've made it to the end of our Narnia Business with this suitably shocking and somewhat controversial finale. 

In Narnia, some wicked chicanery is afoot. A heartless ape named Shift discovers a lion skin and decides to dress his gentle donkey friend Puzzle up as the great Lion Aslan, to fool the masses. The future of honest Tirian, the young current king, is in jeopardy as a result of this stunt. 

On earth, seven friends of Narnia, who have all had major roles there in the past, sense that things might be amiss. They're anxious to find a way for some of their number to help, and guess that it might have to be Eustace and Jill, the youngest and most recent visitors among them. 

What I enjoyed more than before.

(Okay, just to make this super clear, for the first few characters on my list, I don't enjoy the dudes themselves, but the wonderful way they're written, which is too good to place them beneath my 'What I wasn't a fan of...' heading. I don't like them one little bit, but I do love their roles in the story.) 

1) Shift the ape. This guy is completely depraved, of course. He's a villainous cheat who preys on the trusting nature of the general public with deliberate intent to hoodwink them for his own benefit. But Shift's eventual plight is a great example of the proverb, 'What goes around comes around,' or, 'He who lives by the sword will die by the sword.' Shift treats Puzzle as his puppet, then lo and behold more crafty and cunning minds than his own wise up to him and decide to exploit him in the exact same way. He becomes fodder for the god Tash. It's what he deserves. 

2) Puzzle the donkey. Lewis clearly nudges us to feel sympathetic affection for this woeful little pushover, but I find it hard to muster. Shift knows that any of Puzzle's objections mean absolutely nothing, so he's putty in those big old ape hands. People like Puzzle, who let their friends do their thinking for them, are dangerous. Feeling dumb is no excuse for having no backbone. Even when you feel thick as a plank, you can still say, 'Nope, I hate the feel of this, so count me out.' In fact Eustace begins to point out this very thing, but Jill shushes him in Puzzle's defense, because he's such a cute, furry little donkey! Come on Jill, anyone who lets his mate dress him up as the anti-Christ deserves a bit of straight talk.

3) Rishda Taarkan and Ginger the cat. I admit to a grudging respect for this duo, because of their class act and their style. But they are heartless crooks who make the fatal mistake of being way, way, way too presumptuous. People such as these guys who consider themselves superior and enlightened may be in for a shock. Be careful of what you dismiss as archaic or irrelevant, especially if you go through the motions of calling on its name!

4) Emeth the Calormene soldier. (Now, I really did love this guy, so my amendment is finished from here on out.)  I'm certain he has offered relief and hope to anxious and perplexed readers ever since Lewis wrote him in at the very end of Narnia. The state of a person's thoughtful, seeking heart is stronger than mere semantics. Lewis seems to suggest through this earnest and devout young man that whoever chooses to focus on the beauty and truth evident before them as their guiding light, may safely trust everything will work out okay, because Aslan IS beauty and truth. That sounds so controversial but maybe the simplest and most comforting suggestions often do. Emeth is a breath of fresh air and I love this book just for him. He's a great case in point for anyone who's ever considered that some apparent 'baddies' (mentally fill in your own label) seem more pure-hearted and righteous than other apparent 'goodies' (once again, add your label).

5) I appreciate the fact that all the nonsense about Aslan and Tash being one and the same was such a red flag for Tirian and his gang. For, 'How could the terrible god Tash who fed on the blood of his people possibly be the same as the good Lion by whose blood all Narnia was saved?'    

6) The positive slant on the heavenly twist. No matter how shocked we may feel about discovering the Pevensies and Co were all killed in a violent train smash, Lewis has given us an analogy of heaven worth holding on to. There's such a lot to love about it, from the fact that they initially don't even realise they're deceased, to each unfolding vision of new Narnia being an even more perfect image than the one before, like a set of Babushka dolls. Then there's the cool way everyone discovers they can run up massive waterfalls without getting puffed out. I love how Lucy challenges the others to try to feel afraid, and Eustace actually puts it to the test and fails, to his great delight. 

What I wasn't a fan of this time round.

1) The Problem of Susan. This was the name of a short story by Neil Gaiman, and since his phrase instantly pops up on search engines, I'm obviously not alone in feeling bad. All through this series, I've related to anxious, motherly Susan and identified with her personal weakness for letting fear get the better of her. She was a true follower of Aslan, present to comfort him before his slaughter at the hands of the White Witch, and as beloved a monarch as her brothers and sister. To read such an off-hand announcement that she's decided to forget all about her life in Narnia in favour of 'nylons, lipsticks and invitations,' is a cruel cut from Lewis. 

To begin with, it seems vaguely misogynistic, because many young women are interested in these things, which surely doesn't signify their spiritual health is in jeopardy. After all we've been through with Susan, it seems a poor reason to consider a formerly beloved sister and comrade a write-off. And it bothers me that none of her loved ones even seem to care that Susan has been left behind, but simply dismiss and criticize her before galloping off to enjoy the new heavenly Narnia without her. 

I suspect whatever point Lewis was trying to make about backsliders, he let down many fans of Queen Susan the Gentle. He surely didn't mean it to come across as callous and wholesale abandonment on their part, but it feels this way for Susan fans. He sacrifices a main character to make one of his points without realising how much many of us readers love her!    

2) The negative slant on the heavenly twist. I cried as a kid, over these deaths, and considered it a mean trick of Lewis' to all his readers. The odd references to the sharp jolt and excessive speed of that train were leading to a bombshell with big repercussions. Our main characters were denied the chance to reach adulthood, although Lewis might shrug that off in light of the grand scheme of things. But in addition, I couldn't help imagining the implications for loved ones left behind when their lives were cut so tragically short.

 I guess Susan will inherit everything in her parents' will, because there's no Peter, Edmund or Lucy to benefit, but imagine her grief at losing them all in one freak swoop. (Indeed, Gaiman imagines her going to the morgue to identify all their bodies.) 

There's also poor Harold and Alberta Scrubb, who have just lost their only son; a heartache we wouldn't wish on anyone, even tiresome parents like those two. Same with Jill Pole's parents. The whole scenario is so brutal that all these years later, I still wish Lewis had taken a more merciful approach, and let the characters return to live out their full lifespans, die of natural causes, and then be reunited with Aslan in the new Narnia way down the track. After all, in Narnian/heavenly time, it doesn't matter one iota.    

Some great quotes.

Tirian: Do you think I care if Aslan dooms me to death? Would it not be better to be dead than to have this horrible fear that Aslan has come and is not like the Aslan we have believed in and longed for? It is as if the sun rose one day and were a black sun. 

Shift: What do you know about freedom? You think freedom means doing what you like. Well, you're wrong. That isn't true freedom. True freedom means doing what I tell you.

Tirian had never dreamed that one of the results of an Ape setting up a false Aslan would be that people would stop believing in the real one. 

Poggin: Ho, ho, ho, it'll be a surprise for the Ape. People shouldn't call for demons unless they really mean what they say. 

Jill: I'd rather be killed fighting for Narnia than grow old and stupid at home and perhaps go about in a bath chair and then die in the end just the same. 

Jewel the Unicorn: If Aslan gave me my choice, I'd choose no other life than the life I have had, and no other death than the one we go to!

Mixing a little truth with a great lie is very effective.

Bear: But I thought... Shift: You thought! As if anyone could call what goes on in your head thinking. 

Tirian: Eustace, do not scold like a kitchen girl. No warrior scolds. Courteous words or else hard knocks are his only language. 

Tirian: Courage, child. We are all in the paws of the true Aslan.  

Peter: My sister Susan is no longer a friend of Narnia. (Saddest words of the whole series to me.)

Aslan (to Emeth): Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I count as service done to me. He and I are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. 

Emeth: But I have been seeking Tash all my days. Aslan: Beloved, unless thy desire had been for me, thou would'st not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek. 

Jewel: This is the land I've been looking for all my life, though I never knew it til now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this.    

Thanks to anyone who's read along with me!    

Friday, July 30, 2021

Roses in Literature

Is anything else quite like a rose? They are likely to appear somewhere on the top ten of anyone's favourite flower list, if not the very first. No doubt this is because they please our senses. They look gorgeous, their petals are soft and silky, and their distinctive scent is not only heavenly but different for each colour. Yet their thorny stems give them an unpleasant side, as anyone who's ever been pricked can testify. Since I've had my fair share of bleeding fingers from vase accidents, I've decided roses are a lot like people. There is both good and bad, nasty and nice, lurking within the same individual. And this dual character emerges in our favourite stories.  

I'll start off with some romantic rose incidents to make us heave sighs of contentment.  

Wives and Daughters

The sweet heroine Molly Gibson presents a rose to Roger Hamley, the young man she has secretly loved for many years. He's about to depart on a long scientific expedition to Africa and it's a farewell gesture. Tragically, the author Elizabeth Gaskell died suddenly before writing the final chapter. But she'd revealed to her publisher that she intended for Roger to bring the dried rose back to Molly, as proof of his deep and enduring affection for her. (My review is here.)

Romeo and Juliet

 This play's famous line about roses has reached proverb status. It's Juliet's heartfelt declaration to Romeo that his belonging to the despised Montague clan means nothing to her, for wouldn't a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Technically, Juliet is probably correct, which accounts for the fame of her speech. But some people argue that the phonetic sound of words does count for something, hence roses may indeed lose an edge of their charm if they were called skunkweeds or cabbages. I'm never drawn into philosophical disputes of this nature, since neither side tends to back down and both seem to present a fair case. 

Jo's Boys

It's the final novel of Louisa May Alcott's famous series. Meg's son, Demi Brooke, offers his sweetheart Alice Heath three white roses in the form of a tight bud, a half unfurled flower and a full-blown beauty. He writes a note inviting her to pin one or more of them on her dress at a busy function, to silently signal whether or not she might be inclined to accept his marriage proposal. Or if we're really splitting hairs, this actually is his marriage proposal, and the presence of the roses will be her reply. Cop-out or not, it's a lovely chapter in an entertaining book. (Here is my chat/review)

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

This Anne Bronte novel is regarded as one of the earliest and most influential feminist texts. Toward the end, heroine Helen Huntingdon virtually proposes marriage to Gilbert Markham, the man she loves. She plucks a half blown winter rose and offers it to him, declaring that since it has withstood hardships of its own which no summer flower could possibly bear, this rose represents herself. She explains it in such a meaningful way, he'd be a blockhead not to twig. In this way, Helen shows that a woman can make a bold and decisive move in a tasteful and thoughtful manner. (My review is here.)

Okay, now for some other stories which highlight a more sinister or negative side of roses. I guess we may claim that these authors have chosen to emphasize the thorns. 

Alice in Wonderland

Everyone knows the Queen of Hearts will lose her cool big time, because her gardeners have accidentally planted white roses, but she wanted red. Now the poor guys are hurrying to paint them fast, to avoid having their heads snipped off. This incident has become a great analogy for any time somebody attempts to hide the truth or cut corners. (Here's my visual write-up about hanging with Alice)

Moby Dick

Captain Ahab has declared war on the big white whale, but whenever the good ship Pequod encounters another vessel, it's such a rare occurrence the crew record it with great significance. The stinkiest whaling ship they ever come across is named The Rosebud, and it's full of rotten fish carcasses. Surely this is Herman Melville's way of pointing out that names and reputations can be deceptive. (My review is here)

A Tale of Two Cities

The formidable Madame Defarge always adds a rose to her hat to signify the presence of possible spies or supporters of the French monarchy to her cutthroat band of revolutionaries. In this manner, she deceptively uses an object of great beauty for shady or hostile purposes. Madame Defarge trusts that nobody will ever figure her system out, and nobody does, because a lovely rose disarms everybody. So take care folks! (Here is my review)

Beauty and the Beast

This classic fairy tale ends well, but its famous rose causes devastation at the start. A loving merchant plucks a beautiful rose to bring home to his precious daughter, because it's the only treat she requested. Alas, he chooses the wrong person's garden to snip from. That rose tears a family apart. Poor Belle is estranged from her father and forced to live as a prisoner of the beast in whose garden it grew.  

So those are my choice of several books focusing on some of the best of worst moments of this most classic flower, and I love them all. But my favourite rose story of all combines both petals and thorns in a masterly manner.

Imagine a drumroll please ...

The Little Prince

The charming titular character has left behind a dear friend on his tiny planet, who he adores although sometimes she annoys him chronically. It's a beautiful rose, who is believed to represent the real life woman loved by the author, Antoine de Saint-Exupery. In the story, the Little Prince assumes his own rose friend is unique, and he's deeply crestfallen to discover that there are millions of others just like her on planet earth. But after some reflection, he decides that his own friend really is as totally special as he first thought, because she is his rose. It's one of the loveliest reminders to treasure our friends and family because of all we've been through together. (More in my review.)

My take-away from roses is that we must be gracious enough to accept the bad along with the good. Sure, we can enjoy their beauty and fragrance, but we must be prepared to take their thorns in our stride too, for they are part of the rose's nature. And if we extend this understanding to a flower, let's do it with our fellow humans too. Now, over to you.  If you can think of any other memorable story incidents involving roses spring to mind, do leave a comment.