Review: The Latin Letters of C. S. Lewis, ed. and trans. Martin Moynihan

May I tell you a cute story? It’s very cute, and I can’t proceed with this review until I tell you the cute story, so if you are not in the mood for a sweet story, you should depart precipitously. Once upon a time there was an Italian priest called Don Giovanni Calabria who read C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters and loved it. He wanted to write to C. S. Lewis to express his admiration for the book, but he didn’t speak English, and he suspected (rightly) that C. S. Lewis didn’t speak Italian. Knowing that Lewis was a scholar of the classics and knew Latin, he wrote to him in that language, and they carried on a correspondence! In Latin!

Lewis and Calabria corresponded periodically over the course of seven years, from Calabria’s first letter to Lewis until Calabria’s death in 1954, after which Lewis continued writing now and then to another member of Calabria’s congregation. Their relationship is touching. They always write to ask each other for prayers, and they ask each other for guidance on theological questions. It is sweet.

As sweet as this is, I don’t know that I’d have been interested in these letters if they had just been published in English. Most of the letters are from Lewis to Calabria, rather than the other way around, so you don’t have a good sense of the correspondence as a whole. The letters discuss the wars, schisms in the church, and the moral tone of the present century, but they are short and cannot explore the issues deeply.

However, I read the Latin half of the letters, and that was fun. The editor helpfully put the Latin and English text on facing pages, so when I got confused about syntax or vocabulary, I could refer to the translation to set me straight. I most pleasingly referred to the translation more rarely as I carried on reading, which made me feel great about myself and totally ready to translate Ovid’s Metamorphoses which I am absolutely going to do one of these days because I love Ovid and Fagles didn’t translate him.

Two books I didn’t like (sad, sad)

I put the words “sad, sad” in the title line here, but that was silly.  I am not sad at all.  I am still very happy, because as you may recall, THE SAINTS WON THE SUPER BOWL, causing me to tear up happily every time Drew Brees opens his mouth (he’s such a sweet dear) or every time I see a picture of all the confetti and rejoicing.  And everyone is all “If only my daddy were alive to see this day,” and New Orleans is throwing the biggest party possibly every thrown, like even bigger than that party in “Death in Venice” with the elephants, and somebody predicted on Saturday that Porter would not be able to block Wayne effectively, and (he did though)—

(Dear Crazy Jenny, Hush about the Super Bowl.  Kisses, Sane Jenny)

So here are some books that I did not enjoy so far in February.

Clara Callan, Richard B. Wright

When I first read about this book, I discovered within myself a love for epistolary novels that was greater (I thought) than my unlove of novels set during the Great Depression. But do you know, I was completely wrong.  I mean if there was ever going to be a Great Depression book that I could manage, it should have been this one.  It is epistolary, it focuses on the relationship between two sisters, and one of the sisters becomes, I swear to you, a radio soap opera star in New York.  Those are some ingredients that should mix together to create a book that I would love – but they did not.

So I’m swearing off Great Depression books forever, unless you tell me with great conviction that you have a Great Depression book that transcends its Great Depression-ness and manages to be amazing anyway.  And not dreary.  And it obviously can’t be set in England or it doesn’t count.  Any thoughts?

Other reviews:

an adventure in reading
Books for Breakfast
Kristina’s Book Blog

Gray Horses, Hope Larson

I read this for the Graphic Novel Challenge, making it my one, two, third book read for the Graphic Novel Challenge, and the second one about which I was just not that crazy.  I wanted to like it because I have read nice things about Hope Larson’s Salamander Dreams, which the library didn’t have but they did have this.  Lesley read it and said there wasn’t enough to it, for a book, and I said, I don’t care what you think, I’m reading it anyway.  And no, she was totally right.  There is not enough to it.

Noemie is a French exchange student trying to find her way in an American city, and she has vivid dreams where she has a horse and helps a kid.  Back in real life, she makes a friend, and a dude follows her and takes her picture and leaves the pictures for her to find, which she finds sweet.  That is not romantic at all; it is completely creepy.  In fact I always felt that the creepiest deed committed by the Big Bad Villain of Season Two of Buffy was when he drew pictures of her sleeping and left them on her pillow.  This doesn’t feel so different from that; except that when the Big Bad Villain of Season Two of Buffy behaved in this manner, steps were taken.

I read this for the February mini-challenge, graphic novels with animals in, hosted by (fellow Louisianian & Super Bowl celebrator & I’m really shutting up about this now) Chris at Stuff as Dreams Are Made On.  But I am going to read that Darwin book if I can get it, and that will be for the mini-challenge too and hopefully I will enjoy it more.

Other reviews:

A Life in Books
A Striped Armchair
The Zen Leaf

Tell me if I missed yours!

P.S. Okay, I am a little bit sad.  A very little bit sad, though still mostly happy about the Saints.  I am a little sad because I found out today that I didn’t get into one of my grad schools.  Mostly I am still pleased about the Saints, and I reminded myself of this by watching Porter and Shockey give man hugs, and by watching Drew Brees holding his little son.  But a small part of me is a bit sad that I didn’t get into one of my grad schools.

Review: Can Any Mother Help Me?, Jenna Bailey

In 1935, a mother wrote in to a British motherhood magazine saying this:

Can any mother help me?  I live a very lonely life as I have no near neighbors.  I cannot afford to buy a wireless. I adore reading, but with no library am very limited with books.  I dislike needlework, though I have a lot to do!  I get so down and depressed after the children are in bed and I am alone in the house….Can any reader suggest an occupation that will intrigue me and exclude ‘thinking’ and cost nothing?

In response, a group of women formed a privatecorrespondence magazine.  They submitted articles about their lives; the articles were bound into a magazine and sent around to each woman in turn.  They wrote comments on each other’s articles, offering advice and support.  The correspondence magazine lasted for over 50 years and was a lifeline to the women involved.  Can Any Mother Help Me? excerpts articles the women wrote about their children, the war, family sickness, marital problems, etc.

The book was fascinating – it reminded me so much of blogging!  The women who participated in the magazine would put in little notes on the articles, “love what you have written!”, etc.  Before each excerpt, Jenna Bailey included a biography of the woman who wrote it, to put the articles in the broader context of the author’s life.  Although there isn’t enough room in the book to give a lot of information about each woman, their descriptions of their lives are still vivid and individual.  I liked Yonire and Accidia the best as writers, but I enjoyed many of the stories.

If I were doing the Women Unbound Challenge – which I am not, I swear I can resist the temptation to enter these things because I have no idea whether I will be able to finish them – but if I were, I’d include this book as part of it, because, you know.  Hooray for women supporting each other!  (Thanks to Tara for the recommendation.)

This review seems a smidge perfunctory, but that is only because I am currently in the middle of The Mask of Apollo, a book by Mary Renault that I have been saving and saving for many years and finally decided to read and it is wonderful.  I wish I could travel back in time and give Mary Renault a hug.  Should be finished with it soon though my review may be delayed as my little sister just got back into town and we have A LOT of stuff to catch up on, like going to the mall and trying on prom dresses, and talking about who we would cast in the movie versions of every book we have read since we last saw each other, and eating Mexican food and going out for cheese fries, and watching Doctor Who and Angel and Better Off Ted – y’all, there are many things we are going to do.

In other happy news, my parents got a puppy.  She is the sweetest little puppy, though I am glad I am grown-up and not at home and thus no longer responsible for cleaning up after a brand new puppy, or for puppy-proofing all my things.  I named her Jasmine (Jazz for short!), and her proper name is Jasmine Mouton because she looks like a little sheep when she romps all over the house.  Of course, after we had already agreed on the name, I discovered she was born on Oscar Wilde’s birthday.  BORN ON OSCAR WILDE’S BIRTHDAY Y’ALL.  If I had known this, I would have pushed to name her Ada Leverson.  Ada Leverson Puppy.

See that koala bear in the corner?  Jasmine loves it.  We caught it at a St. Patrick’s Day parade a few years ago, I believe, and it is nearly as big as she is, but she still carries it all around and worries at it and tries to rip its ears off.  I think that means affection, from a puppy?  Anyway she is extremely sweet and seems very, very clever.  She is already starting to head for the back door when she needs to go out, though of course once she is out, all she wants to do is to chew on the air conditioning and run under the house.  We hope she grows too tall for under the house VERY SOON.

The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers, ed. Barbara Reynolds

This is the first volume of Dorothy Sayers’s letters, actually. It’s properly called, The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers: 1899 – 1936: The Making of a Detective Novelist.  I am displeased at having two colons in the title.   You know what was most satisfying about this book?  How when I got all through with it, I kept remembering bits of it and thinking, Darn, wish I’d marked that passage, and then glancing back through the book and finding that I had.  Hurrah for me!

Dorothy Sayers was an interesting lady, and this book covers the period of her life with which I am most familiar.  She goes to school, she goes to Oxford (before the women actually, you know, got degrees at the end), she works as a teacher, she works in publishing, she works in advertising, she finally settles down to being a writer.  I found these career difficulties rather soothing, as I am having a hard time of adulthood so far.  It is nice to know that someone whose writing I admire had the same difficulties.

Barbara Reynolds, the editor, also a Sayers biographer, does a brilliant job of selecting and editing the letters.  I expect most times when people produce volumes of letters, it’s for the sake of scholars.  I know that my Oscar Wilde letters book contains zillions of letters of no particular importance or significance to someone not researching him (and probably loads of people who are).  And I can see why people don’t do volumes of letters like this very often, for a more casual audience, because really, how much of a readership can they expect in that case?  But it’s lovely when they do it, and Dorothy Sayers was an excellent letter-writer.  These made me want to read a proper biography of Dorothy Sayers, and I shall as soon as I go to the library.

So this is the best Dorothy Sayers story I know so far.  Ready?  Okay.  Once upon a time she had an affair with a writer called John Cournos.  He sounds terrible.  “John was ‘nice’ enough Friday week in a general way, but I fear he has no sympathy with Lord Peter, being the kind of man who takes his writing seriously and spells Art with a capital A.”  Anyway she was madly in love with him and wanted to get married and have babies, but he kept saying he didn’t love her, she wasn’t interesting, and he  just wanted to get laid.  She refused to use contraception, and he refused to have sex without it, and what with one thing and another they broke it off.  And he made fun of her for writing detective stories.

(Do you know that Edna St. Vincent Millay poem that says He laughed at all I dared to praise / And broke my heart, in little ways?  I love that bit.  I bet that is just how Dorothy Sayers felt.)

Anyway, she went off and had an affair with a guy she didn’t care much about, and although they did use contraception, she still got pregnant; and he went off and married a detective novelist and told her, essentially, that if she’d had sex with him he would have married her and it was a test and she failed.  Cad.  She had the baby in secret and fostered it with a cousin and never told her parents.  It’s not clear to me yet whether she ever told the baby; later on in his life, she and her husband (not the baby-daddy; a different person) “adopted” him, and he was told to regard her as his adopted mother.  Which must have been strange.

She never told her parents.  I mean, I think her life would have been easier if she had, but serious props to her secret-keeping ability.  She would write them letters that referenced the cousin, Ivy, who was keeping the baby, along with some other children, and even referenced the baby, without saying it was hers.  Behold:

I think [Ivy] would be sorry to give up the children and the girl would hate leaving her – though no doubt she will have to sometime.  The baby, I gather, can, if necessary, be disposed of, if time is given to make arrangements.

(But don’t worry.  Ivy sorted out her living arrangements and carried on fostering John Anthony.)

There are also a quantity of letters to John Cournos, written after she had the baby and he got married, where she tells him her secret and they apparently rehash their whole affair.  Terrible idea!  I wanted her to stop, as he had obviously won the break-up, but she carried on writing to him.  I can’t blame her, poor baby, with that enormous secret on her mind.  Eventually she fictionalized him as Philip Boyes in Strong Poison and poisoned him with arsenic, and I imagine it was tremendously satisfying.

He got revenge by fictionalizing their affair in one of his books, and talking all about all the stuff they did and quoting from her letters like a cad, but you will be pleased to hear, it was terribly dull and silly and only had the effect of making him look like a prat.  But at least he didn’t burn all her letters like some writers I could mention who didn’t want to look bad even though they are bad, yes Ted Hughes, I am talking to you (it was journals really, in Ted Hughes’ case).

It was interesting too, reading about her work on the Harriet Vane books, especially Gaudy Night.  It is fun reading about the process that created characters and books – I suppose because in spite of what Barthes says I am still intrigued by knowing what the author intended, especially here when she managed it so nicely.  Sayers sounded rather apologetic when she sent Gaudy Night to her publisher, saying that it wasn’t really one thing or another, but it had to be written.  It must have been a hell of a thing to get finished, and I felt triumphant on her behalf that it turned out so good.  And apparently nobody liked Harriet Vane!  I can’t imagine why.  Harriet Vane is utterly one of my favorite characters ever!  But here’s the evidence:

You are one of the very few people with intelligent sympathy for Lord Peter and his Harriet.  Most of them beg me not to let him marry ‘that horrid girl’.  They don’t understand the violent conflict underlying her obstinacy – I am glad you do.  There’s stuff in Harriet, but it isn’t the conventional heroine stuff, you see.  My only reason for holding her up is that the situation between her and Lord P. is psychologically so difficult that it really needs a whole book to examine and resolve.

And, on writing Gaudy Night (I sympathize!):

I think I have got over most of the technical snags in Gaudy Night now, but the writing is being horribly difficult.  Peter and Harriet are the world’s most awkward pair of lovers – both so touchy and afraid to commit themselves to anything but hints and allusions!

On the mysteries question:

I have also been annoyed (stupidly enough) by a lot of reviewers who observed the identity of the murder was obvious from the start (as indeed it is also in Unnatural Death and The Documents in the Case).  Personally, I feel that it is only when the identity of the murderer is obvious that the reader can really concentrate on the question (much the most interesting) How did he do it?

And why.  Sensible woman.  I can’t proceed to her next volume of letters until I’ve read some of the works referenced therein, her plays and Christian writing.  I love reading letters.  Do y’all have any suggestions of interesting letters I can read?  I’ve done Tolkien, I’m in the midst of Sayers right now, and of course I’ve done the lovely Browning letters.  Bless.

While I’m on letters, this is brilliant.  Van Gogh’s letters are all nicely digitized, in facsimile and in translation, and with useful notes as well as images of any pictures he references.  The Van Gogh Museum is made out of win.

Several books at once

Ack, I am so behind on reviews.  I am working on a project that requires a lot of attention (fortunately I can work on it while still watching classic Doctor Who), which is the excuse I’m using for my negligence.  Feel free to be distracted from this by a picture of my beautiful hat:

Hatty hat 007

Gerald Morris’s The Squire’s Tale and The Quest of the Fair Unknown

Essentially, Gerald Morris writes very sweet retellings of King Arthur legends from various sources, making fun of impractical chivalry rules and having Gawain be the coolest knight of all the knights.  Instead of Lancelot, who starts out really lame and gets much less lame as time goes on.  Every time he writes a new one, I’m afraid he’s going to have Mordred show up, which finally did happen in The Quest for the Fair Unknown (or maybe it happened before?  I haven’t been reading his new books faithfully because they have insufficient Gawain & Terence in them), and now I am far too worried to read any future books in case Arthur dies.  DO NOT WANT.  (The ostrich approach to literature.)  Oh, and Gerald Morris’s books are for children, and rereading them as an adult I find they are a smidge simplistic.  Still charming though and if I have children I will assuredly procure these books for them.

Gerald Morris’s early books (including The Squire’s Tale) are better than his later ones.  This is because he started with all the best stories.  The Squire, His Knight, and His Lady is best of all, because it is Sir Gawain & the Green Knight.  And who doesn’t love that story?  So The Quest of the Fair Unknown, you know, it had moments that were really fun, but none as good as those early stories that were all about Gawain and Terence.  However, the covers I am linking to are all pretty and matchy, and they make me want to buy all of Gerald Morris’s books at once.

P.S. It is possible that part of the reason I am writing these half-assed reviews is that I am addicted to TVTropes.org.  Don’t go to that website.  I am not even going to provide a link to it.  I am telling you that if you enter you won’t be able to get out again.  Hey, did you see my hat (above)?

Nick Bantock’s Griffin and Sabine, Sabine’s Notebook, and The Golden Mean

Did you ever read these books?  Essentially these two people Griffin and Sabine, are mentally connected.  Sabine can see the pictures that Griffin draws, and one day she writes to him.  They write each other angsty letters about the power of love and how much they miss each other; they overcome a bunch of obstacles and eventually find each other and have major reunion snuggles.

Which I realize doesn’t sound all that great.  If you were to accuse these books of being short on plot, you would be correct.

But.  But but but!  Here is why it is that great!  Because the letters are there, in the book!  Griffin and Sabine are both artists, so they create beautiful postcards and envelopes, which are eye candy for me, and sometimes you get to take the letters out of the envelopes.

And yes, okay, mostly the letters themselves are not thrilling (it gets more interesting when they introduce a villain character), but you get to TAKE THEM OUT OF THE ENVELOPES.  It is like The Jolly Postman for adults.  With darker, edgier art.  And did I mention that there are actual letters that you can physically take out of the envelopes?  Envelopes containing removable letters?  GLORIOUS.

Speaking of glorious, did you see my hat?  Wasn’t it good?

84 Charing Cross Road & The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, Helene Hanff

My sister has this magical ability to get people to do things for her.  It is amazing.  Everyone in my family does stuff for her even when we have just said, “No!  Lazy!  Do it yourself!  My God you are so lazy!”  Like, we’ll both be at my parents’ house, and I’ll be curled up comfortably on the couch reading something, and she’ll be all, “Why are you reading that?  It looks stupid.  What’s it about?  Sounds stupid.  You should be reading something with quality like Whatever Happened to Janie.  Will you get me a bowl of ice cream?  Please?  I really want some ice cream.  Please?” AND I WILL.  She has a power that other people don’t have.

She is on this spree of reading Caroline B. Cooney books right now.  The last few times we’ve gone to my parents’ house, she has used her powers to get everyone in the house helping her look for all the books in the Face on the Milk Carton series.  My parents have a lot of books, and my sister has taken this opportunity to complain about as many of them as possible. It’s been all, “Why do you have seven copies of The Trumpet of the Swan?  Look!  Here is another copy of The Castle in the Attic!  Why do you own Izzy Willy Nilly when it’s awful?  How can you possibly have TWO COPIES of The Clan of the Cave Bear and not one single copy of Whatever Happened to Janie!  I should be reading Kafka!”

In the midst of all this, I discovered that my parents own (as well as thousands of copies of the Narnia books, a displeasingly high number of Hemingway books (one), loads of Georgette Heyer, E.B. White’s oeuvre, though apparently not the middle two books in the riveting Janie series) Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street.  Hooray for my parents and their house with its gravitational pull on books!

84 Charing Cross Road is a book of letters between Helene Hanff, an American writer, and a bookshop on Charing Cross Road that supplied her book addiction.  Over the years, she became very friendly with the chief purchaser, Frank Doel, his family, and the staff at the little bookshop, sending them sweets and eggs and nylons while Britain was still on rations.  It’s terribly sweet, how everyone writes to each other (bother email!  why don’t we write letters anymore!).  Anyway, in The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, Helene comes to London herself, too late to see the bookshop in action, but she writes about all the things and people she does see (finally!  finally!).

I love these books.  I imagine the bookshop to be exactly like Henry Pordes, my favorite of the Charing Cross bookshops.  I spent absolutely hours there the first time I was in London – there’s a massive collection of literary biographies and letters by the front window, which I love, and I love the narrow staircase down to Litrature and History (I got a book about the scandalous and beautiful Lady Colin Campbell (doesn’t she look like she was wicked fun!) there, and idiotically left it in England.

If I cried while reading this book (and I don’t say that I did!), it is because I miss London.  I miss London!  Why am I not in London?  Helene gets to do everything, and I didn’t enjoy Duchess as much as I should have, because I was green with envy and cross when Helene didn’t go to the places I want to go.  However:

Ena was shocked that I hadn’t been to a single gallery [insane!  INSANE.] and firmly dragged me to the National Portrait Gallery after lunch – where I amazed myself by going clean out of my mind meeting old friends face-to-face.  Charles II looks exactly the dirty old man he was, Mary of Scotland looks exactly the witch-on-a-broomstick she was, Elizabeth looks marvelous, the painter caught everything – the bright, sharp eyes and strong nose, the translucent skin and delicate hands, the glittering, cold isolation.  Wish I knew why portraits of Mary and Elizabeth always look real and alive, and portraits of Shakespeare, painted in the same era and the same fashion, always look stylized and remote.

I stared at every face so long we never got out of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  We’re going back next week for the eighteenth and nineteenth, I am now determined to see everybody.

Well.  Quite rightly.  Oh how I miss London.  I miss the lovely National Portrait Gallery, that amazing, enormous picture of Lady Colin Campbell, and the Brownings in their opposite-side frames, and John Donne looking mysterious and sexy; Branwell Bronte painted out, and Emma Hamilton all coy and pretty.  I miss how present the past is, in England.  Helene Hanff always has this effect on me, because she appreciates it so much herself.  She writes to one of the girls at the bookshop:

Please write and tell me about London. I live for the day when I step off the boat-train and feel its dirty sidewalks under my feet.  I want to walk up Berkeley Square and down Wimpole Street and stand in St. Paul’s where John Donne preached and sit on the step Elizabeth sat on when she refused to enter the Tower, and like that.  A newspaper man I know, who was stationed in London during the war, says tourists go to England with preconceived notions, so they always find exactly what they go looking for.  I told him I’d go looking for the England of English literature, and he said:

“Then it’s there.”

Okay, I confess.  I cried when I read that.  I miss my lovely London.  Reading this book, it seemed perfectly viable to just drop everything, abandon my lease, and go live in London with my friend Marie until she or the visa people kicked me out.  I would come back destitute, but first I would have been there again, eating picnics on the South Bank and seeing magnificent masterpieces of art for free.

Wonderful Sphinx

The other day I was reading through my blogroll, and the double-barrelled Elaine Simpson-Long – who reads L.M. Montgomery’s journals and so shall I soon, I dearly hope, and who lives in Colchester, my old Colchester, darling Colchester! – had received a cute pink copy of one of Ada Leverson’s books.  From Bloomsbury which apparently has put it back into print as part of a series of delightful charming books that I want to read all of.  (Pls ignore that sentence.)

Ada Leverson is amazing.  Out of all of Oscar Wilde’s friends, Ada Leverson is maybe my favorite.  I do not go on and on about her the way I do about sweet faithful doglike devoted Robbie Ross, but that is only because she was mysterious and hard to know, and so it is hard to find out all about her; and also because Ada did not get UTTERLY PERSECUTED by Bosie after Oscar Wilde died, the way Robbie did, and thus I don’t have to go on and on about her in tones of righteous indignation.

Still, in the last analysis, I like her best.  Robbie was a sweet dear but he did do that slightly inexcusable thing with those boys that time, and Ada has no such dreadful advantage-taking blot on her record.  I think that she and Oscar Wilde had a very sweet relationship.  He called her “Sphinx” and told her often and at length how great she was (poor baby in not a very happy marriage, I’m sure it was much needed), and she wrote amusing pieces in Punch poking fun at him, which he loved.  When he was out on bail in between trials, Ada Leverson let him stay secretly at her house, and she didn’t make him talk about the trials, one bit, just carried on amusing him and finding him amusing.

Here are two excerpts from letters & reminiscences that are a perfect example of their friendship (I think). When Oscar Wilde got out of jail, Ada and her husband Ernest (really!) were among the first people he saw.  Afterwards he wrote to her:

Dear Sphinx, I was so charmed with seeing you yesterday morning that I must write a line to tell you how sweet and good it was of you to be the very first to greet me.  When I think that Sphinxes are minions of the moon, and that you got up early before dawn, I am filled with wonder and joy.

I often thought of you in the long black days and nights of my prison life, and to find you just as wonderful and dear as ever was no surprise.  The beautiful are always beautiful.

This is my first day of real liberty, so I try to send you a line, and with kind regards to dear Ernest whom I was pleased to see again, ever affectionately yours, Oscar Wilde

I am staying here as Sebastian Melmoth – not Esquire but Monsiour Sebastien Melmoth.  I have thought it better that Robbie should stay here under the name of Reginald Turner, and Reggie under the name of R. B. Ross.  It is better that they should not use their own names.

Later, Ada wrote about seeing him again:

We all felt intensely nervous and embarrassed….He came in, and at once he put us at our ease.  He came in with the dignity of a king returning from exile.  He came in talking, laughing, smoking a cigarette, with waved hair and a flower in his buttonhole, and he looked markedly better, slighter, and younger than he had two years previously.  His first words were ‘Sphinx, how marvellous of you to know exactly the right hat to wear at seven o’clock in the morning to meet a friend who has been away.’

Typical self-concealing Sphinx, she hardly says a word about herself.  But it’s obvious, don’t you think, how fantastic she thought he was?

…I wanted to end on that happy note, but when I was pawing through my book of Oscar Wilde’s letters that I love but feel guilty for having, I found this letter that Oscar Wilde’s wife, Constance, wrote to their psychic, when Oscar Wilde was in jail, and everything was just going spectacularly to hell.  And it’s the most pitiful thing I think I’ve ever read in my life.  Poor dull little Constance.

My dear Mrs. Robinson, What is to become of my husband who has so betrayed and deceived me and ruined the lives of my darling boys?  Can you tell me anything?  You told me that after the terrible shock my life was to become easier, but will there be any happiness in it, or is that dead for me?  And I have had so little.  My life has been all cut to pieces as my hand is by its lines….Do write to me and tell me what you can.  Very sincerely yours, Constance Wilde

I have not forgotten that I owe you a guinea.

Oh I do not care much for dull serious Constance, and it was mean never letting the boys ever see their father again, but still this letter hurts my heart.

On Agate Hill, Lee Smith

A book I acquired in spite of my firm and as-yet-unbroken book-buying ban.  My lovely grandmother (my mum’s mum) sent it to me, all shiny and beautiful and hardback, along with an equally shiny and beautiful and hardback book about Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots not liking each other (I am excited about this as it has been quite some time since I read anything about the Tudors).  My grandmother loves to read.  She inherited booklust from her father, my great-grandfather, who loved Rafael Sabatini and who gave a copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to my grandmother when she turned eight, which has now been passed on to me and I keep it on the special shelf in my bedroom where I keep my most excellent books.

But this is neither here nor there.  I am just feeling sentimental today about how good my family is – very very good, for the interested – extremely large also, I have more first cousins than Nia Vardalos in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.  Roman Catholics FTW.

On Agate Hill is all about a girl called Molly Petree, born on a ruined plantation in North Carolina, where, she says, “I live in a house of ghosts.”  She lives on this plantation, at the mercy of the adults that come and go in her life, until an old friend of her parents’ comes to take her away, to be educated as a lady in a posh school; this doesn’t really take, and she carries on living her wild life and trying to find the things that she wants.  “I am not a lady,” she says, “and now that I have gone through the fire, I believe I can do whatever I want.”

I like On Agate Hill because it is epistolary, and it has different narrators – the idea being that the documents were all found in an old house and given to a history student, and she is sending them on to her professor.  I thought the beginning bits, on the plantation, went on just a smidge too long, but I loved the middle section when she was at school.  This part of the story is told in letters she writes to her friend Mary White, and in diary extracts by her headmistress, a woman who sees in Molly all the freedom that she won’t allow herself, and resents her bitterly for it.  And then later on Molly writes about her impulsive, passionate marriage, and how it ends in tragedy.  All v. fascinating.

Although I do not usually like Southern novels, I became completely absorbed in this one, and I kept putting it down to do other things, and then picking it back up five minutes later because I wanted to know what would happen.  A lot of bad things, it turns out, but it’s okay, because the book is imbued with Molly’s indomitable nature, and whatever happens, you get the feeling Molly will manage it.  She’s a delightful character – a woman of her times, but also a woman of her own making.

Bits I liked:

Later in camp he will write a poem named The Tented Field which will be printed in newspapers all over the country including the Edgefield Examiner then clipped and folded and carefully saved in Mammas lavender silk purse along with those other clippings I have here now in my collection of phenomena.  Papa will be shot through the ear at Pocataligo, wounded in the leg by a minie ball at Hawes Shop, and finally killed at Bentonville where he will be blown to smithereens by a bursting shell then gathered up in pieces and buried beneath a green willow tree as in a ballad.  He would have liked that, Uncle Junius said.  Bloody symbolic fool.

And this, from Molly’s headmistress at the school she attends, is one of the character’s earliest diary entries, and I just thought it captured her so well, and made her strong dislike for Molly sad, rather than detestable.  I think I liked this so much because you have a lot of Evil Headmistresses in literature, but anyway here it is:

But he did not release  [my arm], pulling me toward him & into the house where to my surprise he exercised his Conjugal Rights upon the hall bench in broad daylight.  He seems to be quite worked up, in general, by all that has transpired.  I occupied myself by reciting the beginning of Paradise Lost all the while, finishing about the same time he did….I am locked in a golden chest, I am bound round & round by a silken rope.  Simon Black should not trust me.  Nobody should trust me!  For I am filled with the most base & contradictory impulses, no matter how I struggle to be worthy of God’s love, & do His bidding in this world, & live up to my Responsibilities.

I am glad I am born now.  And not during the Civil War or Reconstruction or even World War II.  And here is what other people thought of this book:

A Life in Books
Booknotes by Lisa
The Magic Lasso

Let me know if I missed yours!

An open letter to Patrick Ness, author of The Knife of Never Letting Go

Wow, Patrick Ness, color me super impressed.  Way to create a distinctive, consistent, memorable voice for your protagonist.  That isn’t easy.  I have not read a book where I enjoyed the narrator’s voice so much since, mm, The Book Thief, and before that The Ground Beneath Her Feet.  Which are two of my all-time favorite books.

The Knife of Never Letting Go is based on a fantastic premise, that the aliens in this settled world have given the settlers the disease of Noise, which killed all the women and left the men able to hear each other’s thoughts; and then the youngest boy in the settlement of Prentisstown finds a girl.  A live girl!  The book is fast-paced and exciting and frightening.  The title is perfect.  The relationship between Todd and Viola is utterly real – all the relationships are, actually, and even though this is a plot-driven book, damn, Patrick Ness, you just nail those emotional moments every single time.  Like this?  (Major spoilers in the block text below, so skip to the subsequent paragraph if you haven’t read the book.  Even if you don’t care about spoilers – if you haven’t read the book, you won’t know how great this is because all the context isn’t there, but trust me, it is great.)

Ben nods again, slow and sad, and I notice now that he’s dirty and there’s blood clotted on his nose and he looks like he ain’t eaten for a week but it’s still Ben and he can still read me like no other cuz his Noise is already asking me bout  Manchee and I’m already showing him and here at last my eyes properly fill and rush over and he takes me in his arms again and I cry for real over the loss of my dog and of Cillian and of the life that was.

“I left him,” I say and keep saying, snot-filled and coughing.  “I left him.”

“I know,” he says and I can tell it’s true cuz I hear the same words in his Noise.  I left him, he thinks.

Ouch.  Also, chills.

And you know what else, Patrick Ness?  Since I have gotten started talking about the good things about your book, and how it’s just everything that’s great about being great?  What else is, hooray for you, portraying a gay couple without making a big thing of it – we know they’re a couple because they act like a couple, not because you (the author) gets all THESE ARE TWO GAY PEOPLE THAT ARE GAY; they are just a couple, and that is nice, and it is normalizing, and there should be more of that going on in literature.  Oo, and, okay, also?  Aaron was about the dreadfullest villain I ever read about in my life.  (That isn’t a spoiler – you can always tell he’s insane.)

Here’s the thing, Patrick Ness.  You already did it!  You already created Todd’s voice!  You did it using only your words!  Your achievement is a remarkable achievement, because it is damn hard to create a voice like that, and you did it ever so beautifully.  Why, why, why did you need to do that silly dialect thing?  “Yer” is not necessary!  “Cuz” is not really necessary either!  And I can assure you that there is no possible world in which “conversayshun” would ever be necessary, because that is how the word is already pronounced.  It’s not an accent.  It’s how you say the word.  And “an asking” instead of “a question” is both silly and jarring.  It mildly chagrins my dazzle to see you relying on dialecty crutches this way, when Todd’s voice, and the atmosphere of the world you’ve created, are already just about perfect.

Since I am having a moan anyway, here’s my other (teeny-tiny) gripe, which contains massive spoilers.  I feel like the Big Prentisstown Reveal could have happened sooner.  At least part of it could have happened sooner.  I say, tell about how they killed all the women earlier on in the book (have one of the townspeople tell Todd, or something) – we pretty much figure that out anyway, right?  It’s part of the emotional arc of the story, but it’s not the central part.  The reveal you want to save for close to the end is that Prentisstown keeps on killing their own, to allow the boys to become men.  That is what’s crucial to the events that occur immediately after Ben tells it to Todd – plotwise and emotional-story-arc-wise.  Plus, if we already had the reveal about the women, we would think, okay, we’re done, now we know why nobody likes Prentisstown, and then the other thing would really slap us in the face, because it is pretty chilling.

(I mean, it wouldn’t slap me in the face.  I would already know because I would have read the end (as indeed I did!) and found out what was what.  This was helpful to me in making judgments about where each reveal should have occurred.  Reading the end: the Way, the Truth, and the Light, verily I say unto ye.)

Once I get started complaining, I can’t stop, so here’s my last complaint.  Patrick Ness, WHY ARE YOU BRITISH?  And also WHY DID I NOT READ THIS BOOK SOONER?  My sister has just now returned from Ireland, and if I had read this book like, like two days sooner, I could have told her to buy me the sequel, which is out in the UK now but not out in the US until September.  I really loved the books I read last week, but I would have loved them a few days later, and then I could have had The Ask and the Answer on Thursday when my sister comes all the way properly home.

To conclude, Patrick Ness, you are awesome, and future books would not suffer if you eighty-sixed the fakey dialect bit.  Also (spoilers!  Spoilers!), given that this book turned me into an emotional wreck, you, um, you could go ahead and have it turn out that Ben is still alive.  And, um, I mean, Cillian too.  That would be fine.  It wouldn’t mess up anything!  I would be happy!  Todd and Ben would be happy!  We would all be happy!  I wouldn’t feel like you had cheated!  Just if you wanted to have it turn out that way.  I only mention it.

Kisses and hugs,
Jenny

Other reviews:

things mean a lot
Bart’s Bookshelf
books i done read
Becky’s Book Reviews
Confessions of a Bibliovore
Fantasy Book Critic
Librarilly Blonde
The Well-Read Child
Wands and Worlds
YA Reads
YA Fabulous
Karin’s Book Nook
The Page Flipper
Reading the Leaves
Bookannelid
Lisa the Nerd
Kids Lit
Bitten by Books
Books and So Many More Books
A Hoyden’s Look at Literature

Let me know if I missed yours!

C.S. Lewis: Letters to Children, eds. Lyle W. Dorsett & Marjorie Lamp Mead

So my life has been in a smidgy bit of an uproar lately, for various reasons – my library card expired, for one thing, right on the day that half my books were due to get renewed!  I had no idea the expiration date was so soon; it feels like I just renewed it a few weeks ago.  And, see, I have this friendly blue library card with an elegant number that I have memorized, and it has one of the earliest extant drafts of my signature, which I had only invented recently when I got the card in 2001.  However, the library has since “upgraded” to fancy new white library cards that are just so cold and hateful and soulless, and every time I see them my brain is all NOT THE MEAN WHITE CARD DO NOT WANT, and the last time I got my library card renewed, the librarian tried to take my old card away and give me a nasty new one, and it was such a narrow escape, you have no idea.

This time I was prepared.  I said a whole lot of words to the library guy to convince him of the sincerity of my desire to keep my exact particular library card FOREVER.  “BECAUSE I KNOW THE NUMBERS BY HEART,” I explained to him urgently, not giving him my card when he put out his hand for it.  (I kept having visions of him snipping it smartly in half before I could stop him, and it was like watching someone CUT UP A CHILD.  It’s just so irrevocable.  Once you have cut a child in half, it’s too late to fix it!  You cannot tape it back together and keep using it!)

And he didn’t say anything, just kept waiting for me to hand him my library card, and I believe I said something along the lines of, “No, seriously, listen, I understand that there is a new library card in town but I cannot bear to lose this library card.  We have been together all these years and we just can’t be parted, you see, because it would be far too painful, a brutal separation really, and CAN’T YOU UNDERSTAND THAT, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD?”  As I mopped up my tears and prepared to ululate martyr’s funeral style, to make sure he understood the serious mourning I would have to go into if he took my friendly blue library card away, the library guy looked to his colleague for assistance, and his colleague said, “Um, yeah, she can keep that one if she wants it.”  OH AND I DO.

Well anyway, it was very stressful, as you can imagine, in spite of the very validating realization that I have only accrued $13.30 in fines since three years ago when my card last had to be renewed.  So I sensibly bought myself some spiritually soothing books to get me through these and other difficulties.  I got a large green book with a soppy nature drawing on the front that is a compendium of C.S. Lewis’s religious writings – I need some of these, and the book cannot help the soppy drawing – and I got The Essential Rumi, which I love so much I haven’t yet figured out how to address it on this blog, and I got C.S. Lewis: Letters to Children.

Phew.  That was a long introduction for a very slim book.

Those of you who read this blog regularly may know that I have a rocky relationship with C.S. Lewis.  The longer we are apart, the more he bothers me.  I am sensibly buying a lot of C.S. Lewis’s books, so that I will be statistically more likely to read his stuff frequently, because in reality I love him an awful lot.  And this book, his letters to children, mainly about his Narnia books, is exactly the reason (well, one of many) that I love him.  He does not patronize, and it’s so easy to patronize a kid.  He writes in a serious but good-natured way, and answers their questions very politely.  Behold an excerpt:

Dear Lucy,

I am so glad that you like the Narnian stories and it was nice of you to write and tell me.  I love E. Nesbit too and I think that I have learned a lot from her about how to write stories of this kind.  Do you know Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings?  I think you wd. like it.  I am also bad at Maths and it is a continual nuisance to me – I get muddled over my change in shops.  I hope you’ll have better luck and get over the difficulty!  It makes life a lot easier.

It makes me, I think, more humble than proud to know that Aslan has allowed me to be the means of making Him more real to you.  Because He could have used anyone – as He made a donkey preach a good sermon to Balaam.

Perhaps, in return, you will sometimes say a prayer for me?

With all good wishes,

Yours sincerely,
C.S. Lewis

I have this book of letters that J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, and the editors of it have cleverly chosen a selection of letters relating to Lord of the Rings.  I bought it one time when I was in California learning Chinese (not very successfully though I can still count quite high), and although I do not count myself among the die-hard Lord of the Rings fans in my family (didn’t even read it until the films came out – I know, I know), I was captivated by Tolkien’s letters about it.  I wish someone would do a similar thing with C.S. Lewis and letters relating to his writing.  Not just Narnia but all of his writing.  How good would that be?