Fairy Tales: Trailblazing George McDonald

George MacDonald impacted a generation of British fantasy writers. C.S. Lewis references him quite often, maintaining that MacDonald "baptized" his imagination long before C.S. Lewis returned to the Anglican Church. 

I determined to finally read Phantastes, the book that inspired C.S. Lewis and others. 

I now understand what it is MacDonald did. 

In truth, the book isn't much in terms of plot. The narrator enters Fairy Land, where he encounters a number of people and monsters and locations and stories told within stories. There is no clear narrative arc--that is, certain encounters never seem (on the surface) to be paid off. 

On the other hand, for someone familiar with C.S. Lewis and Lewis's opinion of MacDonald--and MacDonald's biography--the religious themes are clear; in many ways, the book resembles Pilgrim's Progress, being the tale of a man undertaking a journey that will fundamentally change his moral character and enlighten his mind. 

However, MacDonald is far less heavy-handed. He is also entirely unapologetic. MacDonald doesn't attempt to explain the link between Fairy Land and God (as C.S. Lewis did). All things are God's creations. End of argument. 

What makes MacDonald so entirely extraordinary is (1) the effortless description. Fantasy readers will recognize the people and locations and tropes and motifs. Like C.S. Lewis and Tolkien--and the Romantic poets--MacDonald knows his fairy tales so well, he can use them with entire unself-consciousness. The scenes roll off the page, becoming more and more solid while growing more and more fantastical. 

(2) The lack of ickiness. 

The book has a surreal quality shared by dreams and fantasy art, yet it is not icky, as dreams and Surrealism (for instance) can be: Dali without the gross aspect. 

I don't know how MacDonald does this--he utilizes horror in his writing with the same ease as fantasy, dream states, tragedy, and realism. MacDonald is one of the few writers to provide a death (one of the stories within a story) that uplifted me rather than leaving me vaguely unsettled, depressed, or, even, deliberately spiritual. Simply, "Ah, yes, of course." 

Phantastes is a bit dense on the exposition side and, as mentioned above, there isn't much of a narrative arc (that I could figure out). To experience what MacDonald does in Phantastes without the long passages, I recommend The Golden Key: A Victorian Fairy Tale by George MacDonald, illustrated by Ruth Sanderson. 

The combination of text and illustrations is impressive. Even more impressive is that the illustrations are entirely in black & white and yet, combined with the text, they exude color. 

A beautiful volume and a testament to the key or light that MacDonald provided so many writers. 

D is for Detached Irony

What I read: Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser.

I chose Sister Carrie because I had the vague idea that I'd seen a William Wyler movie based on one of his novels. Wyler did in fact make a movie of Sister Carrie (no, not the one with the high school burning down), but I haven't seen it. I did see Dodsworth directed by Wyler (novel by Sinclair Lewis), so I was sort of right!

On the other hand, I was completely wrong about Sister Carrie's content, which I assumed was about a nun. In fact, Sister Carrie is rather like an Americanized Tess of the D'Urbervilles except that instead of being an angelic innocent who falls into trouble after trouble after trouble, Carrie is an amoral innocent who takes whatever comes along, trouble or not.

Sister Carrie is WAAAY more interesting than Tess.

Beyond having an innocent heroine, the novels also share a sense of inevitability or fate. However, in Hardy, this sense of fate is tied to God or the universe or something "out there" while in Dreiser, the fate of Carrie and her lovers is tied to their personal inability to act. They are quintessentially amoral beings who react to whatever is in front of them. Carrie doesn't choose to become one man's mistress and another man's bigamist wife and then dump them. She simply takes whatever presents itself. 

The road to hell isn't paved with good intentions; rather, the road to hell is paved with no intentions at all.

Like I said, WAAAY more interesting than Tess.

The tone of the novel actually reminded me more of restoration comedies than Hardy. The novel is very much a character study, and Dreiser goes out of his way to give us Carrie's mentality without much moralizing; however, a consistent acerbic tone underlies the prose. I used "detached irony" for the post title because I couldn't come up with a "D" word that meant "sardonic and cynical without being totally pessimistic; also rather droll but not really funny and just a tad moralistic." 

2023: I haven't read Dreiser since, but I still consider Sister Carrie one of the great classics, rather like Middlemarch, which I haven't reread since college. 

In the world of "it is TOO worth reading the classics--hey, I got that reference in pop culture," Detective Goren makes a reference to Sister Carrie in the episode where he confronts Nicole Wallace regarding her fake identity.  

Slamming Doors and Removing Shoes: Cultural Instincts in Art

In the Season 2 episode of Frasier, "Roz in the Doghouse," Roz gets offended when Frasier questions why Bulldog wants her to work on his show. To demonstrate how mad she is, she stomps to the door and slams out of the apartment!

Well, that's the plan anyway. She's on crutches, so she has to slowly hobble her way to the door, yelling as she does: "I'm out of here!" She reaches the door! 

And then she has to come back because she forgot her purse. 

I always think of this episode when I'm watching Asian dramas and people take their shoes off while they are in the middle of a fight. 

Yup, he paused to slide off his shoes.
It isn't the same thing precisely. Roz is deliberately provoked and provoking. 

The shoe-taking-off is instinctual. In one episode, a character rushes home to stop a family confrontation and...he slides off his shoes at the door. He doesn't draw attention to the fact. He simply does it. 

The point of similarity is that Roz is enacting an understood cultural performance. In anger, one stomps away and slams the door! It is a known behavior pattern. 

Likewise, taking off one's shoes is ingrained. It's habit but it also can be performed: quickly, as the image shows here, or thoughtfully, as occurs in other dramas.

As Agatha Christie would say, "People can't help but give themselves away even when they are trying to hide stuff."

Like Victorians swooning on couches, people communicate in and use the cultural language they know.

Fairy Tales: Little Red Riding Hood, Danger Danger Danger!

Jerry Pinkney
Little Red Riding Hood is like Hansel & Gretel, a basic tale that is usable and transferable--from urban locations to countrysides, from modern suburbia to historical landscapes. 

More like Hansel & Gretel than Goldilocks, it doesn't lend itself to "nice" endings, tea parties where the grandmother and wolf and Red Riding Hood sit down together, non-ironically. 

Hansel & Gretel are little sociopaths. Little Red Riding Hood isn't, but in most versions, she is a hard-headed survivalist. (In the earliest versions, she is eaten and...that's the end, folks!)

James Marshall

Consequently, cute tales that lessen the wolf's dangerous nature miss the essence of the tale, which can be linked, historically, to tales of rabid dogs in medieval times. Life is not safe, states the tale and Stephen Sondheim concurs. 

Enter the woods, explore the limits of safety and civilization, you may very well get eaten.

Or, if you are the wolf, axed to death and/or shot dead. (See the wolf's legs in Marshall's illustration.)

At the very least, you will be irrevocably changed.

No matter what: danger danger danger! 

More Chivalry Examples from Coach

I discuss chivalry in Elementary, Castle, Person of Interest, and Coach

Here's another example from Coach

Dauber is explaining to "walk-ons"--students who want to try out for football despite not being recruited--how to apply. They have to fill out ALL the paperwork. 

He finishes his instructions and asks if there are any questions. An attendee raises his hand.

"Do we have to fill out all the paperwork?" he asks in complete innocence. 

Any teacher who has just finished explaining an assignment in detail knows the frustration such a question arouses. Where have you been? I just SAID...

Dauber doesn't roll his eyes. He doesn't raise his voice. He doesn't get upset.

"Good question," he says sincerely. "You must fill out ALL the paperwork..." 

Dauber is kind--however, his behavior here is the deep chivalry of taking the event as it is. It is kindness that adheres to a consistent standard. Less about emotive compassion. More about "here's what I need to do right now." 

I once must stood in line at the Help desk at Staples and listened to a Tech customer service guy explain to a customer for nearly 5 minutes that yes, it is strange that the software would cost more than the hardware but that is the way things are and here are your options

For nearly 5 minutes, he said the same thing over and over and over again to the same belligerent series of question. The customer never stopped, pondered, and made a decision. He just kept complaining. Yet the Tech service guy never raised his voice. He never rolled his eyes. He never got upset. 

My hero!

The same episode as Dauber's chivalrous kindliness includes Leonard Kraleman, the guy with the "body of a real plucky kid" who tries out for the team and gets hammered--"but he kept getting up!"

C is for Continuous Catastrophes: Cussler

What I read: Raise the Titanic! by Clive Cussler.

If you are a fan, the below review is mostly negative but ends nicely. By all reckonings, Cussler was a generous and lovely man.

I got through two chapters and gave up.

To be fair, Clive Cussler writes a type of story that doesn't interest me (it doesn't offend me--it simply doesn't interest me). An Alpha male runs around saving people and bedding women. In the meantime, he solves international/political/military problems. The books are story-oriented rather than character or plot-oriented. So instead of the narrative being the result of characters' internal or external choices OR the result of a model arc, such as a mystery or romance, the narrative is a series of events: this happens, then this happens, then this happens, then this happens.

I never have been able to read The Da Vinci Code, not because it offends me (although I think silly history is, well, silly history) but because it is this type of novel. In general, the opening action sequence for this type of novel fails to  hook me. I don't care about the characters; I don't care if the world is ending; I don't care if there's a conspiracy going on somewhere. (I can usually watch this type of movie, by the way; I just can't read the books.)

I'm also not a fan of Cussler's writing style--see below. 

2023: I determined to try Cussler again and got about three pages into Trojan Odyssey--after I skipped the Trojan War stuff, which was amazingly tedious (says this fan of ancient history), and started Chapter 1.

I then went looking for a non-Dirk Pitt series. I discovered that Cussler wrote a great many books with a great many people. 

Here is where things got interesting. My main problem with Cussler's writing is not just how "tell"-oriented it is but how humorless it is. I don't mean that characters don't tease and make jokes. I mean, the people are so...joyless and bland. 

His co-writers, however, are able to create basic characterizations and effuse them with interest and a twinkle in the eye. 

Here's a comparison. First, Cussler:

Summer Pitt...ignored [the shark], concentrating on her study of the Coral Reefs inside Navidad Bank seventy miles northeast of the Dominican Republic...Summer loved the sea...She often imagined herself as a mermaid...Summer knew the [eels] looked frightening only because that was their method of breathing...Summer roamed over the old wreck, carried by mild current, looking down and trying to picture the people who had once trod her decks. She sensed a spiritual sensation. It was as if she was flying over a haunted graveyard whose inhabitants were speaking to her from the past...Curious and with an ample supply of air in reserve, she swam over to the entrance of the cavern and peered into the gloom..Through the mask, Summer's gray eyes mirrored skeptical interest. --Trojan Odyssey: A Dirk Pitt Novel

Setting aside a few modifier issues, I come away with no clear idea of Summer's personality. Although the above passage covers 10 pages, I learned little more about Summer than that she is very pretty, even if the "baggy dry suit" hides her features. 

I don't require biographical information or deep thoughts from a text. Just some sense of the character's overall attitudes, voice, or perspective. Summer is a hard worker--I think. At one point, she stops "concentrating" and looks about "casually." But let us allow that she works hard. Is she the Temperance Brennan type of hard worker? Or the Patrick Jane type? She loves the sea, and the text implies that she is imaginative but other bits of the text imply that she takes an only-the-facts-please approach. 

Summer comes across, frankly, as a young woman written by a man who likes to write about adventurous men but is trying to broaden his character list, so he created his usual adventurer and gave that adventurer "girlish" characteristics.

Here is a passage from one of Cussler's co-writers:

Sam Fargo...glanced over at his wife, who stood up to her waist in oozing back mud. Her bright yellow chest waders complemented her lustrous auburn hair. She sensed his gaze, turned to him, pursed his lips, and blew a wisp of hair from her cheek. "And what are you smiling at, Fargo?" she said. 

When she'd first donned the waders, he'd made the mistake of suggesting she looked like the Gorton's Fisherman, which had earned him a withering stare. He'd hastily added "sexy" to the description, but to little effect. --Spartan Gold by Clive Cussler and Grant Blackwood

Within one page, I know that Remi, the wife, is, yes yes, lovely, but also a straight-shooter who has a decent relationship with her husband. And Fargo is a relatively relaxed guy who sometimes puts his foot in his mouth. 

The difference in style is noticeable, even if the co-writer keeps within the genre and outline established by Cussler.

Clive Cussler, who died in 2020, wrote over 30 books. And at least two were made into movies. Nothing I write here will hurt his sales. I say, "Congrats, man!"

In any case, Cussler proves one of my fundamental beliefs: there may be better and best ways of writing. In the end, writers and readers gravitate to what they prefer. Not all adventure writers are the same. Not all adventure readers are the same. Not all adventure books have to be the same.

That's a lot of room on those shelves!  

Stop the Christie Murder: Murder on the Links

These posts are based on my fan-fiction approach to Agatha Christie's mystery novels: a group of murder prevention detectives enter each novel to stop the crime. 

See Mysterious Affair at Styles


Murder on the Links is a Christie murder whose solution lies in the past--Poirot recognizes that the current apparent crime resembles a murder from 22 years earlier.

22 years earlier, Madame Jeanne Beroldy arranged with her lover, Georges Conneau, to kill her husband. Conneau tied her up, then knifed her husband. Madame Beroldy told the investigators that thugs broke into her home and committed the deed. The investigators didn't buy it. For one, Conneau did not tie her wrists tightly: the lack of bruises was suspicious. The police arrested Madame Beroldy but couldn't arrest Conneau, who had already fled the country. By fully blaming Conneau, Madame Beroldy managed to achieve an acquittal.
Twenty-two years later, Conneau returns to France, married with a grown child. He encounters Madame Beroldy, now going by Madame Daubreuil and with a grown child of her own. She recognizes her erstwhile lover, who could still be arrested for his part in the prior murder, and she begins to blackmail him. 
Along with his current, strong-willed wife, Conneau determines to fake his death using the same method as before: he will tie up his wife, this time remembering to bind her wrists tightly; she will tell the police that thugs broke in; the body of a tramp with a disfigured face will be found on the adjoining golf links. People will believe Conneau is dead.

Conneau's plan goes wrong when he gets murdered instead.

It seems rather stupid of Conneau to (1) return to a place where people know him; (2) duplicate the same crime as before. But, as Golden Age mystery writers like Dorothy Sayers and profilers like John Douglas point out, criminals do in fact do this: they go back to what is familiar--not necessarily to the scene of the crime but to the surroundings and people and methods that worked for them in the past. They keep, for instance, drowning their brides in the bath--or poisoning their neighbors and children and everybody else within reach with strychnine.

The bike race is in the Poirot movie, not the book.
My investigators are primarily concerned with preventing the current crime--the original crime is a different matter--and the easiest prevention method is recognition. One of my investigators shouts out in the middle of town or the middle of a hotel (or a bike race), "By gum, you are Georges Conneau! I say, you're Madame Beroldy! Isn't one of you supposed to be in jail?"

Since my investigators are required to behave in realistic, organic ways, the question then becomes, How plausible is recognition after twenty-two years? (The Poirot movie uses a ten-year gap.)

The Beroldy case would have
equaled the Crippen case in coverage.
I suggest that even in 1923, recognition of an advertised criminal from 1913 or 1903 would be more than likely. The same urge that pushes Conneau back into his prior habits would send him into the same business circles. Even before social media, newspaper articles, especially for popular cases, were common currency. 
As a prior post about Monk points out, people have the capacity to suppose and assume and suggest and speculate any number of possibilities. If the public can suppose that Jack the Ripper was an aristocrat, public gossip about "that guy who moved into that villa last month" would eventually deliver the link to Conneau (as well as a dozen other possible links).

In any case, once Conneau is recognized, Daubreuil loses her power over him. He doesn't try to run away and nobody gets knifed in the back. 
Of course, Conneau ends up in jail! But eh, my investigators don't care about that, only in stopping the murder.

A different set of "sub-text" investigators would have to go back twenty-two years to stop the original murder from taking place.

Fairy Tales: Andrew Lang's Own Tales

Andrew Lang is best known for his collections of fairy tales--Lang's Color/Rainbow Fairy Books--edited by himself and his wife. I will refer back to Lang when I reach Perrault. 

Understandably, Lang--like many other collectors and writers--attempted to create his own fairy tales. The ones that I read--"Princess Nobody" and "The Chronicles of Pantouflia"--were published in 1884 and 1889. George  McDonald's seminal fantasy works came out ten to twenty years earlier; E. Nesbit's about five to ten years later; Frances Hodgson Burnett's about the same time. 

It was the age of fantasy!

In addition, Alice in Wonderland came out in 1865--Lang's tales bear a resemblance to the dreamlike, surreal nonsense of Carroll's works. 

Lang's fantasy tales are still in print and "Princess Nobody," usually presented as the text for Richard Doyle's In Fairyland, is memorable for Doyle's images. (Doyle's fairies fall into the cute and small category.)

Lang's stories are quite readable, full of all the expected tropes: irritated fairies, cursed princesses and princes; quests. They flow well--Andrew Lang and his wife, Leonora Blanche Alleyne, were master editors, after all--and engage the reader's interest. 

They are also, unfortunately, full of the coy wink-winks that shows up in many works of the time period--the kind of writing where the narrator breaks the fourth wall and speaks to the reader. Prince Prigio, for instance, is cursed to be too clever. Consequently, he doesn't believe in magic and dragons and anything else "disproved" by science. The narrator will address the "dear reader" in a tut-tutting tone."Oh, dear, the prince should have known better."

Nesbit employed this technique as did Frances Hodgson Burnett, to a much lesser extent. And for these authors, the narrators' coyness pulls the reader into the joke; the commentary is part of the story. In addition, Nesbit's writing has a deep pathos, as when Oswald Bastable's narrations dive into the painful, noticeable precisely because of what the talkative and bemused Oswald doesn't say. 

Lang doesn't appear that in-touch with children's behaviors and emotions. His failure to capture the painful side of childhood is not due to his own lack of children or a lack of interest in children's reading habits. 

Rather, great children's writers (whether or not they have children of their own or work with children) seem--to an extent--to hold onto certain memories, to never entirely leave childhood, not because they are immature but because the events remain real to them. C.S. Lewis was singularly capable to reproducing a child's comprehension of loss, an experience he underwent himself when his mother died: Lewis was nine. 

Lang appears to lack this degree of understanding. I'm not entirely sure Lang would collect stories for children now. If anything, his work reveals the trends of the time period: a fascination with "antiquity"; the desire to discover the character of a nation through its stories; and a growing interest in childhood as a unique developmental period.

B is for Bizarrely Sweet Balzac

What I read: Novellas by Honoré de Balzac.

For no reason whatsoever, I'd always assumed Balzac was a long-winded "profound" writer—a French James Joyce. I'd also assumed he was really, really depressing; I guess I saw too many depressing French films in college.

He isn't—depressing, that is. And the first novella I read, "The Secrets of the Princess De Cadignan," had an unbelievably sweet ending. I thought it was headed towards Yes, Prime Minister type cynicism, and then, whammy, an ending which completely surprised and touched me.

I moved on to "Gobseck" which was interesting mainly because it proved to me that Balzac is a good writer—I'm always impressed by a writer who can effortlessly present a story told by a narrator who includes, in his narration, a story told by another character: all without losing me.

I didn't enjoy "The Vicar of Tours." One thing Balzac does supremely well is characterization. I cared far too much about the poor, vacuous Abbé Birotteau to endure what I knew was coming ("The Vicar of Tours" does not have a surprise sweet ending)—though Abbé Troubert is a great "bad" guy. (I put "bad" in quotation marks because I'm not sure Balzac created any total bad guys, but then my exposure is limited.)

Still, Balzac reinforces what I essentially believe, to a point: many truly great writers deserve their great reputations. I don't understand all the history stuff in Balzac but the prose is impressive. (He is yet another author who illustrates that throwing readers into the deep end doesn't mean abandoning them there.)

2023: I am sorry to state that despite obviously enjoying my exposure to Balzac, I did not--in the intervening years--become a Balzac fan. I haven't read anything by Balzac since. At some point, I will post about why people keep reading what they read: what we feel we should read, what we admire, what we consider well-written, and what we love. The four things are not the same.

Stop the Christie Murder: The Mysterious Affair at Styles

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde allows characters to enter novels and experience life alongside the characters. 

I suggest that all writers play with the idea of "virtual" literature, simply because we love books and reading so much. 

One idea that I've played with for awhile is a series where "prevention" detectives enter Christie novels to stop the murder. 

They have to stop the murder in keeping with the novel's actions--that is, they can't rewrite the murderer's intentions or the sequence of events. They have to work organically to prevent the death. I allow them to know ahead of time what they are trying to stop, but in truth, the idea would likely work better if they were in the dark and only knew the victim's identity or perhaps the method.

The question, of course, is whether the murder is preventable. Is it a matter of propinquity? Character? Is it inevitable?

So here is the first novel: The Mysterious Affair of Styles, which introduced Poirot. 

*Spoilers! I give away the murderer's identity!*

The novel is classic Christie with supposedly unbreakable alibis, overheard conversations, clues hidden in plain sight, and a very clever use of a medicine's residue. Agatha Christie was working in a pharmacy when she wrote the book (during World War I) and used her knowledge to bring about the murder. 

Hastings and Poirot proving the alibi.
It is also one of those murders that depends on everybody being cleverer than people actually are. The husband of the victim, Alfred Inglethorp, at the contrivance of his lover, Evelyn Howard, wants to be arrested for murder;  his alibi (for when he supposedly bought the poison) will get him off and he can't be tried again. 

Christie isn't the only crime writer to use this trope and I don't buy it. It is waaaay too risky. The police don't like making mistakes, and many detectives agree with "it's always the husband" Lieutenant Provenza, which means that the police would focus on discrediting the alibi rather than saying, "Oops, we made a mistake." The D.A. or equivalent just might follow suit. And whoops, Inglethorp ends up in prison anyway.

After all, it turns out that Inglethorp and Howard are guilty. The alibi is irrelevant since the poison was taken, unsuspectingly, while everyone was absent. 

But my writing problem here is not to warn Inglethorp, "Hey, don't be an idiot!" but to prevent the murder. 

Depending on how much they know, my prevention detectives wouldn't have to do much more than substitute the medicine with the potential lethal dose with a new bottle.

However, if they only know the victim's identity, they will have a more difficult time. Emily Inglethorp is a proud woman who would object to the possibility of anyone trying to murder her. With some people, identity really is everything. See Law & Order UK "Denial." In fact, in the novel, she is aware that her husband has betrayed her, yet she stays in the same house with him. 

Her staying may sound a little too much like suspense novels where the ingenue REMAINS in the haunted house. But her behavior is in keeping with her personality. Even in that first novel, Christie explored how the personality of the victim might inform the character of the murder itself.

My prevention detectives could always kidnap Emily and haul her to safety, but that's not exactly an organic solution. 

And they could always stand guard. However, the method of killing is ingenious enough--kudos, Christie!--they might miss it, at least the first time.

Since books can be read more than once, my prevention detectives would get things right the second time. However, there's no guarantee Alfred and Evie wouldn't try again or that my protagonists would be able to convince Emily that she is in danger. She may end up murdered no matter what. 

And there are other books to get to!

More to come...

Great Quote About Hot Weather

One of the funniest aspects of Thai series is how often people complain about the weather. 

The complaints fall into the same category as bumper stickers and memes about heat in the Southwest: Okay, it's hot, but it's DRY heat.

Of course, these complaints are often accompanied by loyal defenses:

Wouldn't you rather live here and not have to shovel snow? 

At least we don't get....earthquakes, tornadoes, mudslides, humidity....

And so on. 

Characters on Thai series refer to heat a great deal: "Man, it is hot! Way too hot!" A home or business with air conditioning is often commended.  

My favorite example comes from My School President: "It's hot every day. It's either hot or hellfire hot." 

It is not hellishly hot in Maine, but it is summer, hence the summer quote. 

Fairy Tales: La Fontaine Because I'm in the Letter "L"

La Fontaine falls into the "allusion" category of my life and brain.

That is, I've run across references to La Fontaine many times in my life--and so could make the connection to "fairy tales"--but never bothered to research him until now. I wasn't even sure what he wrote!

La Fontaine was a 17th century fabulist, which is a great word that means "guy who creates, writes, and rewrites fables" but sounds like a character pretending to be a real person.

Jean de La Fontaine was a real person. He precedes the writers of Beauty & the Beast but belongs in the same tradition: an interest in folklore from an antiquarian and poetic standpoint. At one point, his tales were assigned to his son, much as Laura Ingalls Wilder's books were attributed to her daughter, though later historians reject (both) assumptions.

His fables were drawn from multiple sources, including Aesop. They are presented in verse unlike Aesop's brief anecdotes. Unlike with original Aesop, the morals are included in the verse. As with Grimm and likely Aesop, La Fontaine's fables were originally aimed at an older audience and then adapted for children.
Most of my recommendations regarding this list are for print books, but in this case, I found the Gutenberg version of La Fontaine's verses with Gustave Dore's illustrations far more interesting. 

Other than the political machinations underlying La Fontaine's admittance to the Académie Française (I have long held that humanities folks are some of the most "clique-ish" folks out there)...that's about all I have to say about La Fontaine.

My opinion of animal-based fables about human foibles hasn't changed much since I started this list: that is, I'll take a human or a human-animal hybrid any day over purely animal protagonists, even animal protagonists in dress.

Beatrix Potter is an exception, which exception I will address when I reach the "P"s.

A is for Ambivalent Anderson: Repost from First A-Z List Updated

For the first A-Z List, I read fictional authors I'd never read before. 

These reposts are the original posts plus updated reading, either from the same author or an author within that letter. 

* * * 

Everybody's doing it! Everybody's reading stuff—the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Bible, the Guinness Book of World Records, 100 books in one year—and then reporting on their experiences. So I'm going to do it too!

I'm going to try to read a book from each letter of the alphabet by an author that I have never read before.

The first book I tried to read was The Day of Their Return (1974) by Poul Anderson.

My Science-Fiction Encyclopedia (ed. John Clute) includes Poul Anderson under its 1950s time period. It states "no other SF author...has produced as much high-quality work, with such variety, and with such continued verve, for anything approaching the half century of constant endeavor that Anderson can boast" and "Anderson has written one or two bad books in his time, but then, he can afford to."

I guess I tried to read one of the bad ones.

Now, when it comes to fantasy and science-fiction, there is a debate between how much exposition one should give the reader upfront. Should one just dump the reader into the story or should one provide the reader with massive upfront exposition?

The problem isn't the cover.
I like the cover!

In The Day of Their Return, Poul Anderson opts for the "here's the deep end, have fun!" approach. And I respect that. But I didn't get so much as a life preserver for four chapters, and I really can't tread water for that long. In terms of pure incomprehensibility (who ARE these people?), The Day of Their Return makes War & Peace look like a "Dick and Jane" book.

I will grant that I'm not much for world fantasy or science-fiction, but I react quite differently to my usual go-to writer for world sci-fi, C.J. Cherryh, specifically regarding her Foreigner series. 

Cherryh also throws readers into the deep end, but she then tows you, subtly, with enormous expertise, through fascinating circumstances towards a fascinating denouement: clear and lucid. 

Cherryh also utilizes intense third-person limited point of view, which I suggest accounts for the lucidity. Since we only know what the thinking/speaking character knows, and the thinking/speaking character is equally limited, surprises occur to both reader and character at the same time. There isn't a sense that the reader must keep guessing. 

Update in 2023:

Out of fairness, I decided to read another Poul Anderson (or try): The High Crusade. 

An alien spaceship lands in fourteenth century England. It is overtaken by Sir Roger de Tourneville, who moves his entire village on-board. His original intent is to take the ship to France and then to the Holy Land. It ends up in an alien, Wersgorix, empire. Eventually, Sir Roger conquers the empire. The history of that event is being read thousands of years later by a human captain who has chanced upon the descendants of these medieval spacefarers.

The novella is good!

For one, it has a single narrator, Brother Parvus, who is diffident, kindly, hardworking, occasionally blunt, and loyal to Sir Roger. Consequently, all the action is filtered through his understanding--since he is meeting events first-hand, he is able to explain them to his reader. 

For another, the attitude and behavior of Sir Roger is not reduced to "war-mongering Christian," which I greatly appreciated. Sir Roger uses Christian terminology when it suits him; he is also fully aware of the economic problem (the cattle have to eat), the diplomatic problem (new allies can only be told so much), and his personal problems (he has a doubtful wife and possible traitor at his back). Sir Roger is rough, shrewd, ruthless, yet also big-hearted and able to imagine long-term consequences. He is a kind of Charlemagne character--and Brother Parvus a kind of Alcuin. 

Moreover, the entire issue is not so simple as "bad invaders" and "advanced aliens." The "advanced" aliens are unprepared for hand-to-hand combat. The other aliens they have conquered detest them. And they cannot be trusted with the coordinates of Earth since they would bomb it from space. 

One of the more interesting outcomes is that Sir Roger replaces the fallen Rome-like Wersgorix Empire with feudalism, not out of evil socio-political wiles but because the prior empire hadn't shored up its local communities. When it falls, anarchy leaves a vacuum. Sir Roger replaces it with what he knows but also with what he knows will keep local communities potentially loyal. 

The use of feudalism as a stop-gap is a debatable point--but a valid one. 

Anderson is not fully accurate about medieval attitudes--for one, nobody believed the Earth was flat. Nobody. However, Anderson does capture Brother Parvus's willingness to parse what he sees and understands into terms he can translate, to others and to himself. 

The underlying reality: People adjust. Even medieval people in space.

Dysfunctional Relationships in Crime Shows: UK's "Denial" and the Security of the Self-Sustaining Narrative

"I want you to begin with positive reasons why readers should believe your claims," I tell my students. "It is possible to write a persuasive essay where you attack the opposition right away, but it seriously isn't effective."

I then go on to tell them about studies where people attacked for their beliefs become more entrenched in their positions. 

The current form of argument in our culture--by politicians, on Twitter--doesn't convince anyone. In some cases, it is more likely to drive people toward another group or party or simply into a state of "I'm so tired of bullying" indifference. 

Along the same lines, I have always found the "and then we confront the villain with the villain's misdeeds and the villain collapses in apologies" approach in fictional mysteries completely unbelievable. Not that it can't happen. The murderer's resigned and exhausted confession at the end of Christie's Murder in Mesopotamia is entirely believable. But murderers who either go right on justifying themselves or right on denying the obvious are far more common. 

The same is true of the victims. One Bones' episode focuses on a talk show host who unmasks cheaters. The plot is generally rather "eh" but it does include one pitch-perfect scene. The investigators are interviewing wives of men caught by the show. Many of the wives are angry and disillusioned by the revelations. One, however, refuses to believe that her husband was about to cheat. He went to the hotel room to warn the young woman! He took off his pants because his pants got dirty! 

What makes the scene so great is that the wife is not a demure passive wilting flower. She's a strident, outspoken woman who simply won't believe that her husband was unfaithful (even though he clearly was). 

Law & Order offers a fantastic episode, "Denial," in which a husband arranges for a hit on his wife. He then tries to call off the hit, but she is shot anyway. She ends up in the hospital where she eventually dies after several weeks. 

The American version naturally circles around a legal issue, namely the rights of the individual (a DNR) versus the rights of the state to complete its legal case. 

The British version, however, is pure Greek tragedy. The wife is played by Juliet Stevenson. She is a judge. Her love and pride and guilt compel her to protect her reputation and her story about a husband who does, in fact, love her. An educated, strong, confident career woman, she resists the burden of evidence for the sake of what she "knows" and believes. It isn't necessarily love that compels her (though the final scene between husband and wife is harrowing) but the need to cling to the story that makes sense to her. 

Why are pundits and "I know the story of other people's lives" theorists so successful? 

I suggest because the story (whether it be conspiratorial or not) of "here's what's going on/here's where everyone stands/here are all the answers" is terrifically compelling and stabilizing. As Chris Stirewalt states in an article from May, "The myth [that everything is bad because the people in charge screwed up] is persistent for many reasons, including the human tendency to blame external forces for our misfortunes, but also because the people who think they are in charge want to believe they have that kind of power. Even if you’re a screw up, you’re a screw up with clout." In addition to clout, I propose that the same people are seeking constancy: "You're a screw up with a secure role in the world."

Even toddlers prefer negative attention to no attention at all.

Great Quote about History: The News

I maintain two truths about understanding history:

1. No event is exactly the same--applying theories is useless since the more one learns about a particular time period, decade, day, the more complex it gets.

2. Human nature doesn't change all that much.

One of my go-to time periods--a time period that fascinates me--is the Reformation, specifically in England. I tackle the Reformation here.

The latest book on the topic, The Blazing World: A New History of Revolutionary England, 1601-1689 by Jonathan Healey, includes a passage about news. Yup! With the printing press, news was becoming popular but since there was so much news and so much "fake news," newsreaders needed to be discerning:

"In a world in which reputation and honour counted for so much, the position of the tellers was critical--were they gentry, merchant or vagrant? Neighbor or stranger? Man or woman? Adult or child? It was easy for news to be concocted in bad faith and then fed to eager and indiscriminant consumers."

Insisting on a one-size-fits-all theory would try to paint the past as infinitely worse or better than our time. But, in fact, they were much like us! 

Which means that the higher-ups fussed that the "people" were being mislead: 

"Such was the concern in elite circles that it was seriously suggested that the government should set up its own gazette to counter bad news...Whether the government could ever hope to control the views of the people is highly doubtful. Nor were they helped by the fact the early seventeenth century also saw a torrent of satire" (60-61).

Sound familiar?! 

So, regarding #1 above, history doesn't repeat itself...but human nature certainly does!

Fairy Tales: The Problem of Jack, Rogue or Hero?

"The Jack" is an archetype in fairy tales, one of the most common tricksters.

The Jack often goes by Jack--and in fact Jack tales are quite recognizable. In the Davenport film Jack and the Dentist's Doctor, Jack steals cows (then lets them go), steals from thieves, steals a car, steals a preacher, steals bed clothes and imitates the dentist's wife. Jack, played by Kent Jackman is so full of good humor and easy patience, he appeals even while he is supposedly breaking the law.

The charisma is important because The Jack as a type raises the uneasy specter of the grifter. Where is the line between Robin Hood and the conman?

The Jack is The Jack because he is living outside the law and breaking rules, but also because he is just on the amusing side of obnoxious and antisocial. The show Leverage works as entertainment because it is part fantasy: the audience is invited to enter a world where conmen, thieves, hitmen, hustlers, grifters, and alcoholics have hearts of gold and aren't really all that bad though Hardison when he "steals" a hotel room to have a mini-Star Wars festival is closer to The Jack than Parker, who stays off the radar.

Some of the funnest variations on The Jack are female--after all, if one is going to break rules, one might as well break all of them, resulting in the Little Red Riding Hood who pulls out a gun. Mutzmag is a good example of a female Jack.

Another is Gertie from Hank and Gertie, a variation on Hansel & Gretel by Eric Kimmel. Gertie doesn't merely push the witch in the oven, she outwits her, then gets her and her brother to safety. Kate and the Beanstalk by Mary Pope Osborn, illustrated by Giselle Potter is a more standard retelling, with a female heroine. Kate is less grifter and trickster, through quite "plucky," since she is given the quest of restoring the castle to its rightful owners (granted, she accepts without question the story that the castle belongs to someone else, but, hey, looking up real estate records takes time!).

The Jack is a fun writing problem. Some analysts trace The Jack back to Hermes, the original trickster who conned other gods out of their belongings when he was a mere infant. The Hermes in my fantasy Greek world has a troubling backstory that makes him a vaguely sociopathic yuppie--James Spader, back when he was still starring in John Hughes' films--and he steals (or "borrows") everything from chocolate for use in a local bakery (to help make a profit) to rocket launchers, which act gets him in trouble with Zeus and Hera (though Ares still uses them).

It's inevitable that The Jack will be embodied by something or someone with a bad record who yet confidently enters the center of society, like Dean Winchester sauntering into police stations. Unlike purely chaotic characters, The Jack prefers the trappings of the civilized center, but only if he--or she--can use those trappings to self-serving ends.

Interview with the Translator, Hills of Silver Ruins: The End...Perhaps

Kate: Hills of Silver Ruins ends on a “And far away, the thudding of the drums" Sassoon note. How does this ending compare to other Twelve Kingdoms’ novels? Is it in keeping with Ono’s overall approach?

Eugene: I can imagine Ono writing a short story addendum, but this kind of ending doesn't surprise me. She resolves the major personal conflicts in the story and then sums up the traditional plot points in the excerpt from the official court history. In Shadow of the Moon, for example, we learn that "the Empress quelled the Rebellion at the Close of the Seventh Month, and deposed the Pretender, Joei." And that's that. Things aren't really wrapped up until A Thousand Leagues of Wind.

The NHK anime tries to give Shadow of the Moon a more conventional ending that instead turns into a bunch of clunky cliches without being any more satisfactory. Though I have to admit that if I wrote the screenplay, I'd set up some sort of direct confrontation between Youko and Joei.

But compared to how both The Demon Child and The Shore in Twilight leave Taiki's fate unresolved, Hills of Silver Ruins concludes on a fairly firm note. Perhaps Taiki isn't a character Ono wants to send off into the sunset with every issue settled. As Rick says at the end of Casablanca (released in 1942), "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." The war had three more years to go.

Poseidon of the East and The Wings of Dreams also have tidy endings. For her magnum opus, I think Ono was more interested in exploring why people do what they do rather than what they do. By the end of book IV, she's answered those questions. Except perhaps for Rousan, though I can easily imagine that Rousan figured out what Asen was up to from the start, and knowing how smart he was, set things up so he would buy into his own downfall (like the youma).

Plus Rousan really was curious about how the divine scales of justice would balance. Once the ball got rolling, she had no qualms taking a big step back to observe what happened next.

Two decades elapsed between The Shore in Twilight and Hills of Silver Ruins. I would totally get it if Ono got to a point where she could hit the return key a couple of times and type "THE END" and be done with it. Works for me, especially considering all those other SF&F series that either never ended or ended so badly that everybody wishes they hadn't. Like Ghost in the Shell, she can now license the IP to producers with good track records and hope for the best.

Stay tuned for the next translation project by Eugene Woodbury: Big Gold Bullion by Ranpo Edogawa, a Boy Detectives Club novel.

Fairy Tales: Great Illustrators

Almost from their inception, fairy tales have been paired with great illustrators. I cannot possible cover all illustrators here, so I'm focusing on a few of the classics:

Gustave Dore: Classic, evocative. No one did Red Riding Hood and the wolf better.

Pre-Raphaelites: Technically, the Pre-Raphaelite were not book illustrators. However, they produced works based on stories, especially stories from myth and folklore. King Arthur crops up quite often. I've always liked the Pre-Raphaelites, even their tacky work, for their reliance on story. They influenced a generation of painters and illustrators, such as Rackham.

Arthur Rackham
: In truth, I'm not a huge fan. The "spidery" look doesn't appeal. 

However, the book about Rackham, Arthur Rackham: His Life and His Work by Derek Hudson, first printed in 1960, reprinted in 2022 is superb. 

Rackham was a level-headed bloke who knew very well the difficulties of being an artist. In a letter to a fan and young artist, he advocates sticking to a job that pays while building up a portfolio. He also suggests that the young artist will one day have to choose between art for enjoyment and art at the behest of others. And he warns that it is difficult to make a living.

Rackham was lucky. He was extremely popular in his lifetime and made a very good living. But it was a job, however enjoyed. Hudson states, "[A]n analysis of 'symbolism' in Rackham's drawings, or a psychological interpretation of his work--not many of his commissions, be it remembered, were entirely of his own choosing--would be unlikely to reveal interesting repressions or afford valuable insights into Rackham's character" (44). If only all analysts of art were so level-headed!

Rackham also had a wonderful wife, who was a painter in her own right. 

Jan Pienkowski: Like Rackham, Pienkowski create silhouette illustrations (see above). I loved these illustrations when I was younger. Like the next two illustrators, Pienkowski's work appeared in Cricket magazine!

Trina Schart Hyman: One of my favorites from the early days of Cricket Magazine. Her illustrations are detailed and clever. They are more homey than cartoonish though she also drew cartoons. Her "feel" is closer to Calvin & Hobbs than comic book, especially the clever wink-wink at the edges.

Hyman, of course, illustrated just about everything--from picture books set in contemporary times to classics to fairy tales. I also discuss Hyman here and here.

Quentin Blake: Quentin Blake, another Cricket alumnus, illustrated a great many of Roald Dahl's books. Roald Dahl is rather like the 20th century's answer to Hans Christian Andersen. Quentin Blake captured Dahl's texts in a quintessential fashion, rather like Tenniel captured Carroll's Alice

Mercer Mayer: I love Mayer's lush illustrations. When I started searching for old, used books from my childhood online, Mrs. Beggs and the Wizard was one of the books I hunted up.

And many more...