Cambridge

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We went to Cambridge! And made it back again, though if it weren’t for the fact that our girls were still stateside we might not have ever left.

England was everything I’d ever dreamed it would be. I couldn’t believe how much it was like how I’d always imagined it, in fact. I kept bracing myself for it to be different, to not live up to my imaginings, but no. It was exactly as I’d dreamed.

Now, I’m guessing that if I had gone to Yorkshire I wouldn’t have found a secret garden and children playing with wild animals on the moor. Lord Peter and Harriet Vane would not be punting in Oxford. Miss Read would not be bicycling to school in the Cotswolds. I didn’t see any hobbits, nor did any cupboard doors lead me to Narnia. I did pass Platform 9 3/4 at Kings’ Cross, but it was not in between platforms 9 and 10, and was clearly a tourist trap.

I do know the difference between fiction and reality. I just like to ignore it whenever possible.

The essence of England, though, the very Englishness of it … that was there. That was real. And I loved it.

We were only in London long enough to get from plane to train to tube to train (and then the reverse coming back), and the rest of the time we spent in Cambridge. Oh, for more time, to get to Oxford, and see the sights in London, to travel the rest of the island! We made the most of our four and a half days, though. We tramped 40 miles all over Cambridge and got to know that city far better than most tourists can.

It is beautiful.

I could write pages and pages of our adventures there, but as I doubt they’d be as fascinating to others as they were to us (met with university housing! Had a cream tea! Were served tea and toast every morning by our hosts! Explored possible places to live! Walked through an ancient cemetery and saw my first European robin! Were nearly mobbed by swans looking for food! Went to Waterstones and the Cambridge University Press bookshop and couldn’t buy anything either place because I had no room in my bag!), I’ll hold back.

We can’t wait to go back. I can’t believe we’ll actually be living there for three (or maybe more, depending on how long Carl’s PhD takes) years.

It’s going to be a most fantastic adventure.

With lots of tea. And scones.

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In Defense of the Detective Novel

This essay came out of some thoughts I had on detective novels and their function in society. I’m not sure any of it is terribly earth-shattering–I’m fairly certain it’s all been said before–but it was important to me, so I wrote it all out, then decided it was worth polishing and sharing. So here it is.

Truth, justice, mercy. All very big, abstract concepts that can be hard to wrap our heads around in concrete terms. What is truth? How do we balance justice and mercy? To whom do we show justice, and when is mercy appropriate? If I were to tell you I was writing a story exploring these concepts, you might reasonably expect some weighty, literary piece of work, with dense prose and a somber tone. What you might not expect would be a detective novel.

Yet it is in mystery stories that I have had some of my most profound realizations regarding said subjects. From Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot I have learned that the truth has a beauty and a virtue of its own, quite apart from its subject. From Lord Peter Wimsey and Brother Cadfael I have learned the importance of understanding human nature and acknowledging one’s own weaknesses. I have grasped the concept of not setting oneself above others–that elusive idea we call humility. These books have taught me the danger of shrugging one’s shoulders at small evils, because they open the way for larger ones. Above all, I have learned that justice must be pursued for those who have no voice of their own, that it the responsibility of everyone who can be heard to speak for those who can’t.

In Dorothy L Sayers’ second Lord Peter novel, Clouds of Witnesses, Lord Peter falls victim to a bog in which he is almost lost. At first glance, it can read as cliche, but I think there’s a deeper metaphor to be drawn from it–whether Sayers meant it or not. Sometimes, in the pursuit of truth and justice, it is easy to get lost in the fog, to get stuck in a mire and lose our way, nearly drowning in uncertainty and confusion. It is only through steadfast patience–as Bunter showed in keeping Lord Peter up until rescue came for them both–and light to show the way that we can make it out.

As a result of his unplanned fall into the bog, Lord Peter comes across the clue which allows him to unravel the entire mystery. The origin of the word “clue,” as I’m sure many of you already know, comes from the ball of thread Theseus used to guide himself through the Labyrinth. In that way, mystery stories themselves can act as clues, providing a thread for people who are stumbling in the miry dark, trying to see truth, walk the path of justice, practice mercy. In the assurance that justice will come, that the killer will be punished, that the dead are not left voiceless, mysteries act as lights against the darkness that can sometimes cause us to despair as we look at all the injustice and horror in the world around us.

I think it is no coincidence that the “Golden Age” of detective fiction was the between-war period, a time when life was changing, the rules by which everyone had always lived were upended, the values and morals they had always held immutable shifted and changed under their very feet. It was a time when an entire generation was trying to learn who they were, and what sort of a world they lived in–perhaps more importantly, what sort of a world they wanted to build. In a time of chaos and uncertainty, when the very ideas of truth and justice seemed like fairy tales, detective stories provided some assurance that good could conquer evil, and that justice was worth pursuing.

We are living in a time of chaos and change ourselves. We hope that the change will be for the better, but sometimes we can lose faith when we look at everything around us. I see an entire generation passionate for justice and truth, and sometimes getting too weighted down by the burden of those concepts to keep going, sometimes feeling like they are one lone voice shouting against the dark. Now, more than ever, we need detective stories to help give us that clue, to help guide us through these times, to remind us that we are not alone, and that even the small acts of justice, mercy, and truth we can do in our everyday lives matter.

The Importance of Story

(Note: This is the first part of my presentation at the H-W Library, edited for this blog. The rest of the talk was on From the Shadows specifically, which may or may not make it into another post; we’ll see.)

I believe stories are immensely important—even essential—to us as human beings, because they convey truths we can’t get at in any other way. Which is a tricky point to attempt to elucidate, because as soon as you ask, “what sort of truths, Louise?” I say, “well, I can’t exactly explain them, that’s why we need stories,” and there we are. But I would like to try to delve at least a little bit into what I mean by that.

Truths we can’t get at in any other way: what does that mean, and how does it affect us? What sort of truths, and why do we need them? How can “mere” stories help us live fuller lives? We’d need far more than a blog post (or two) to fully cover this. But I think we can at least touch the edges of the concept.

There’s a moment in Tolkien’s Return of the King, toward the end, when Gandalf and the hobbits are nearing the Shire and realizing that there are problems there needing to be dealt with. Merry comments that they won’t have any difficulties there, because they have Gandalf with them. Gandalf’s reply is this: “I am not coming to the Shire. You must settle its affairs yourselves; that is what you have been trained for.” All their epic adventures—the greater story they got caught up in, as Sam mentions more than once—was preparation for living an everyday life. The great journey, the destruction of the Ring and overthrow of Sauron, the establishing of the true King, as great and important as those things were in and of themselves, they weren’t the end goal. They were giving the hobbits the tools they needed to live more deeply and more completely. They have returned to their own world, but not the same as how they left. “You are grown up now,” Gandalf continues to them. “Grown indeed very high; among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear at all for any of you.” And of course he is right. They overcome the trouble in the Shire with wisdom and wit, mixing mercy and justice with a shrewd hand, and restoring to right all the ills that had been done there.

In mulling over this point, I realized I had come up with a catchphrase for my own writing: carrying the epic into the everyday.

Something that is epic is, by its very nature, larger than life. Gods, magic, and heroes, as in The Iliad or Beowulf, which are two of the first stories that come to my mind when I hear the word “epic.” Stories that are meant to inspire, to carry us out of ourselves and into greater realms where a hobbit can be a hero and a schoolboy become a king. But we cannot live in that exalted realm, after all. We are not gods or monsters; we are human, living in a world of school and work, families, paychecks and taxes. We live in the everyday; we need the epic to help us make it a glorious adventure in and of itself.

This is what stories do: they sink into our hearts and give us the tools we need to live more fully, more richly, in the everyday world around us. As the hobbits found their grand adventure—their story—was giving them truths and tools they could then carry back to their world and use to live a fuller life, so we find the wondrous epics of story make us more fit for living in our world. The very best stories do far more than entertain or even enlighten us; they transform us into more than what we are, into the better version of ourselves, so to speak. One comes away from the best stories saying, “Yes, I may not be able to put it into words or even understand it completely, but something about this story makes me see things a little more clearly, love more deeply, speak more truly.” They show us truth about this world, about ourselves, about all possible worlds, in ways we never could have seen on our own. They can raise us up or humble us—sometimes both at the same time—encourage and exhort us.

But they are not instruction manuals thinly disguised as entertainment! Perish the thought! If you set out, in writing a story, to point a moral or teach people something, you have failed before you’ve even begun. No, one starts with the story—whether it be the characters, the plot, even the setting, whatever seed it is that each writer’s story grows from—and it shows one its own truths as it grows. That is the only way it can reach the reader. Otherwise there is no joy in it, no life, and no truth. That’s the miracle of the best stories: they start as one simple thing and grow to become more than themselves—which is just exactly what they do for their reader, as well. We can feel, after reading Return of the King, as ready to face the small troubles in our world as the hobbits were for theirs, because we have journeyed right along with them, to Rohan and Gondor and Mount Doom, and have grown up right along with them. Or take Narnia—when the children are told, at the end of various books, that they have gotten too old for Narnia, it is not a punishment or a statement that Fairyland is only for children. The point is that they have gained what they needed from Narnia, and now they must apply that to their real world. Narnia was their training, so to speak, and now the training is complete and they are ready to put it to use. And in The Last Battle we see that even the real world had its ending for them, that they had learned and grown and gleaned all they could from that and were now ready to move to yet deeper and truer adventures. How lucky are we as readers, that we are able to return as often as we need, to remind and refresh ourselves of those lessons and those truths!

I could list so many books to illustrate my point—Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence; Lloyd Alexander’s—well, everything he ever wrote, really, there’s a reason he is my favorite author, but especially his Prydain Chronicles; Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet, Diana Wynne Jones’ books … all of them able to delight and entertain us, as well as strengthen us. They give us a little piece of epic to tuck in our hearts and carry with us to strengthen us for the everyday. Are there other mediums that can do that as well? Yes, of course. Art, music, dance—I am a passionate lover of figure skating, which also has the ability to move and transport its viewers. But a story works more directly, and, I believe, is more universal. But I admit to being biased. After all, I AM an author. In any case, it doesn’t have to be a competition—one can appreciate and respect the nature of story without in the slightest diminishing any other artistic mediums.

You may have noticed, when I rattled off the authors I find inspirational, that they were all writers of speculative fiction—speculative fiction, for any who are not familiar with the term, is the catch-all phrase covering fantasy and science fiction. I mention them specifically not because I don’t think you can convey profound truths through everyday, realistic stories. You can. I love LM Montgomery, Maud Hart Lovelace, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens … and don’t get me started on my love for mysteries, which is a post for another time! I have enormous respect for those who can convey truth and beauty powerfully through realistic fiction. But I think the kind of truths I’m speaking of here, that epic in the everyday, are most easily conveyed through speculative fiction. As Neil Gaiman puts it so succinctly in his paraphrase of GK Chesterton: Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten. Speculative fiction allows us the best kind of symbolism, the kind that stands on its own at the same time it stands for something deeper. One can read Lord of the Rings as a fantastic adventure—because it is! But even reading it on the most surface level leaves one with a sense of satisfaction that evil can be beaten, that good can overcome due to the efforts of the smallest and most humble of all, and that everyone has a vital role to play in life, whether we can see it or not. And that’s only one level down beneath the obvious! One can go deeper, and deeper again—or, as Lewis puts it, “further up and further in.” There are always richer truths to be discovered behind the fantasy. I believe speculative fiction strikes chords within the human heart that other kinds of fiction cannot reach.

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Still round the corner there may wait A new road or a secret gate, And though we pass them by today, Tomorrow we may come this way And take the hidden paths that run Towards the Moon or to the Sun. -JRR Tolkien

DE Stevenson

“I am grateful for all my blessings; amongst them the Gift of Storytelling, which seems to please and amuse so many people all over the world.”

“It seems to me that this job of interpreting my own people to other people is the most important contribution I can make to the world and to peace.”

-D.E. Stevenson.

I discovered D.E. Stevenson thanks to Goodreads recommending her “Miss Buncle’s Book” to me based on my fondness for Miss Read. Curiously enough, the Miss Buncle series are among my least favorites of her work; I prefer her stand-alones, or the ones with two or three loosely-connected books. However, they were enough to get me intrigued, and now I’ve read everything of hers our library has, and am starting to expand through ILL to others in our network.

Like Miss Read, Stevenson writes stories about ordinary people, stories in which (generally) not a lot happens. Nice, friendly, meandering stories, that give you a glimpse into somebody else’s life and fit into their shoes for at least a few brief moments. Stories which, as a kid, bored me to tears, and now I love.

And along with enjoying her books, I appreciate her philosophy as well. Aren’t those quotes up above lovely? Sums up a lot of my feeling toward writing and storytelling.

So, if you enjoy “quiet” stories, give D.E. Stevenson a try! She wrote dozens of books; if you enjoy them, you won’t run out of reading material for a long, long time. Also? She was the cousin of the great Robert Louis Stevenson!

Censorship VS Guidance

The Goosebumps books were at the entrance to the Children’s Room at the library growing up; you couldn’t help but see them whenever you went it. They were popular, too—very few of the books I loved were ever borrowed by anyone but me (this was back in the day when the patron’s name was written on the card in the back pocket, so you could see a book’s history whenever you picked it up. The nosy neighbor/author in me misses those days, when you could speculate about the other people whose names were on the card, especially if one name cropped up on several of the books you borrowed frequently. “I wonder who that person is,” you could muse. “I bet we’d be friends.” But I digress), but the Goosebumps books were always getting snatched up by kids about my age, and there were always gaping holes in the shelf.

“I don’t think so,” Mom said firmly when she saw me eying them speculatively. “Those are not a good idea with your nightmares.”

Saddened, but not wanting to mess with my nightmares—these were terrible, and plagued me well into my teens, and could be caused by nothing more than seeing a gruesome picture on a tabloid cover in the grocery store check-out line—I bypassed the Goosebumps books and went back to the delights of E. Nesbit, Edward Eager, Lloyd Alexander, and the like.

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An older friend of mine read and loved the Dark is Rising books, and lent them to me with a caveat that they might be scary in parts. So Dad read them first, and then handed them over to me saying that they did have some dark parts, but that he was pretty sure I could take it, and if I wanted to I could always talk to him about them. In fact, I loved them (as did he, and Susan Cooper remains one of our favorite authors to this day—I bought him King of Shadows for his birthday last year, in fact, and he was just as swept up as he’d ever been in one of her tales. But I digress again).

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My sister wasn’t much of a reader as a kid and teenager. While I would stay up late reading, she preferred to lull herself to sleep on logic problems. When she did read, she liked books such as Baby-Sitter’s Club, Sweet Valley Twins, and, as she got older, Sweet Valley High and Avalon romances. My parents called those “fluff” books—enjoyable but no substance to them—and the rule was you had to read a certain number of non-fluff books to the number of fluff books you were allowed. My sister grumbled a bit about this, more because she was the oldest and it was her job to complain about all of our parents’ rules than because she thought it was actually unfair, but she stuck with it. And a few years ago she was trying to convince me to give Dostoyevsky a try, because she’d read some of his books and thought they were awesome. She also still enjoys fluff books. And logic problems

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About a year ago, I was desperately trying to find books that Joy would want to read. Excited by her advanced abilities and unduly influenced by memories of the large tomes I enjoyed reading in kindergarten and first grade, I overdid a bit and overwhelmed her. While she was perfectly capable of reading the Little House books, she didn’t enjoy them, and her disillusionment with the “big” books I was giving her spread to reading in general.

Then we found the Rainbow Magic books at the library. Pumped out by computer, lame by any standards, they were nonetheless perfect for a six-year-old who enjoyed the thrill of reading “chapter books” but wasn’t ready mentally or emotionally for the themes in most MG writing. Despite the wrinkled noses of many of my friends, I cheerfully borrowed them by the armload each week for her, while at the same time giving her more picture books and other young readers (the Magic Tree House books were another big hit, which has worked out nicely with social studies, I must say—I never know when she’s going to pipe up over something we’re studying, “Oh! Jack and Annie went here.” Digressing again). I’m exceedingly thankful to have had them, especially now when I catch Joy happily curled up with any book from Ladybug Girl to the Frozen novelization to Winnie-the-Pooh to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. On the other hand, when this winter the library didn’t have the next one in the series, I deliberately did not suggest ILL or skipping that one to move on to the next. Thus far, she has plenty of other reading material, and she hasn’t seem to miss the Rainbow Magic too badly.

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There’s a lot of justified complaints about censorship out there. Including and especially parents censoring what their children read. Or what other people’s children read. But sometimes parental guidance gets lost or unfairly shuffled into the same category as censorship, and I think that’s a shame. Because gentle guidance and help with reading—whether it be in limiting the number of certain types of books your kids read, or reading books before letting them read them, or telling them to wait until they are older, or even swallowing your pride to let—even encourage!—them read books that are frankly crap (and then move on when said books have served their purpose), is something that I wish more parents would do. And it’s a far cry from censorship. It is, to be blunt, simply part of what being a parent is all about.

Clearly, Joy is much more comfortable with reading these days

Clearly, Joy is much more comfortable with reading these days

Thanks to Maureen, whose tweets on this subject got me thinking about my parents, and how grateful I am to them for the way they encouraged my sister and me to be readers, and then prompted this post.

Also, in case anyone is interested, the Little House picture books are well-loved by both Joy and Grace, and went a long way toward piquing Joy’s interest in the real books once she got a little older.

Narnia, Redux

We took a little break after finishing Voyage of the Dawn Treader, to read some picture books, some Christmas books, and Children of the Noisy Village, but now the holidays are over and we have finished traveling, and we have picked the Chronicles of Narnia back up with The Silver Chair.

Even as I type, sitting in my comfy grey recliner (“This is my silver chair,” I said smugly), Carl and the girls are curled up on the couch across from me, the girls utterly engrossed as Carl reads aloud. They are on the chapter where Caspian sails away and Eustace and Jill miss their chance to greet him. This is one of my favorite chapters, what with Glimfeather and Trumpkin and “If he’s useless, we don’t want him here!” (paraphrase) which is a favorite line in my family, and used often.

Joy especially is enthralled with Narnia. She wants to read other books like them (alas, there are few of those indeed, darling daughter!); she informed her grandmother that if she had a magic wand her first wish would be that Narnia was real; and when Carl read the description of Aslan’s Country in the first chapter of this book she had the most incredibly dreamy expression on her face, picturing it in her head. It’s the most delightful thing in the world, seeing her imagination so completely captured.

Gracie incorporates Narnia into all her play. Her stuffed moose become a reindeer, her rag doll made of white cloth becomes the White Witch, a doll stroller turned on its back becomes a sledge, and voila, all she needs is a dwarf driver (usually portrayed by one of her baby dolls). This is also a delight to observe. I have to be careful not to chortle too loudly, or she gets self-conscious and quits playing.

They loved Anne of Green Gables when I read it to Joy for school, and that was wonderful. Seeing them love Narnia so much, though … that goes beyond joy. Narnia was – is – such an integral part of my life, of my very identity. The Narnia books were some of Carl’s sole interest in reading as a child. For both of us, they helped to shape how we view the world, our ideas of heroes and sacrifice and love and friendship and adventure. It is wondrous to see our own children take fire with these very same stories.

I wonder if CS Lewis had any idea, when he wrote these books, of how deeply they would affect children of every generation ever since. I am so, so thankful for them, and for him.

Most Memorable Reads of the Past Three Years

… Which would be the past five years except I didn’t start keeping track of my reading list until 2012. Oh well! I saw this idea on someone else’s blog, and really liked it, the idea of going beyond just the year about to end, and seeing what books have stuck with you for the long haul.

2012:

Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman. And the sequel is coming out in 2015! I can’t wait.

The Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchett. Meeting Tiffany Aching for the first time was a never-to-be-forgotten experience.

Paladin of Souls (and Curse of Chalion, but especially Paladin), by Lois McMaster Bujold. The joy of reading an intelligent, engaging fantasy with a middle-aged woman as a heroine. We need more of those!

2013:

The Perilous Gard, by Elizabeth Marie Pope. Oh, what a beautiful tale this was.

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein. I don’t know that I’ll ever re-read this one, but it was so, so powerful and moving.

The Grass-Widow’s Tale, by Ellis Peters. Proving that sometimes a book doesn’t have to be deep to stir one.

2013 was also my year to read heaps of writing memoirs/collections of essays. All of them were wonderful, but the highlight of them all was The Wand in the Word.

2014:

Ultraviolet (and Quicksilver, but mostly Ultraviolet), by RJ Anderson. Gahhhh, this book.

84, Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff. Oh, how I adore this one! I keep looking for a used copy to buy for my very own – somehow a new one just wouldn’t feel right.

Bread and Wine, by Shauna Niequist. Not necessarily the best spiritual memoir book I’ve ever read, but definitely one that made me ponder, and gave me great encouragement in my constant struggle between being hospitable and being a deeply private introvert.

Cruel Beauty, by Rosamond Hodge. The closest any other book has ever come to conjuring up the sense of awe and beauty I got from CS Lewis’ Till We Have Faces.

I read plenty more books, in the last few years, that I enjoyed and even loved, but these are the ones that went beyond that in one way or another, to really stick with me. I read so much, so quickly, that for a book experience to stand out in my memory, it has to have something about it that separates it from “ordinary” great books.

My reading goals for 2015 are to read fewer books (my desire as always, to soak in good literature instead of tearing through it at my usual blink-and-you-miss-it pace), to read some good long ones (Bleak House is sitting suggestively on my nightstand), and to read at least 12 non-fiction books. Non-fiction is so rewarding for me, and yet such a struggle for me to get through. I really want to improve in that regard.

I hope your past few years have been excellent reading ones, and that 2015 proves even better!