writing

55 Classics Review #4 – “The Railway Children” by Edith Nesbit


I am especially eager that anyone who wanders into this review should become eager to read The Railway Children, so I will endeavor to give nothing away and also to refrain from over-selling it. But I found it quite rivals any other children’s book I have loved.

I’ve been meaning to start reading E. Nesbit for a couple of years now. I’m also really glad to have started among them with The Railway Children. Most of her popular works are fantasy stories of children discovering mythical creatures and magical objects. While I’m quite a proponent of these forms, this book somehow manages to propose nothing supernatural any still impress the reader with a fairie euphoria.

Put broadly, The Railway Children is a serial tale following three young siblings who suddenly find their father taken away from their family and their easy, middle-class city life mysteriously replaced by a poor country existence. The children bounce back and the story is a serialization if the extraordinary events of their new life near the railroad.

I don’t want to tell you too much more but I’m bursting with praises for this book. It is the story of brave, intimate parenting and young children who have been inspired to do good anywhere they go. Regardless of their own hardships, the children are constantly aware of and actively intervening in the midst of the sorrows or dangers present to their mother and literally every other person they meet. The unnamed narrator speaks with a smooth, whimsical style reminiscent of A.A. Milne and C.S. Lewis, as a rare adult who is completely understanding and taking seriously the thoughts and opinions of children. If you have a desire to influence children to act out of brave love toward others, this book will probably bring you close to crying many times over. (Warning – I had to fight back tears multiple times in public reading spaces. You might want to read this one at home.)

The book is not without its debatable flaws. One necessary and even relieving flaw is that the children still manage to fight amongst themselves often, although they usually end up forgiving one another well. I call this necessary because they wouldn’t be conceivable otherwise and it gives me hope for myself and my own kids to become more loving.

Another feasible flaw in the book is the extraordinary number of unique circumstances they find themselves in. Some of these are initiated by the children’s mischief and are easily plausible, but many are just events in which they are in the right place at the right time to save the day. The book was apparently originally written as a magazine serial, which makes more sense of its chapter-by-chapter, mini-adventure episodes. I personally don’t fault the book for the questionable number of unique scenarios, as their volume is really the only unnatural aspect of the entire book.

Ultimately, the book is tour de force train ride to see how much “loving-kindness” (as one character describes their activities) mischief a group of kids can pull off when their life is tragically upturned and they are left to explore a new countryside. An absolute must read for every parent, aspiring parent, and child. It truly inspires charity and excessive good-will.

Author Quotes: Neil Gaiman And The Value of Fiction and The Library


“. . .the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.

You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this:

The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.

I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed?

It’s simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.

And while we’re on the subject, I’d like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it’s a bad thing. As if “escapist” fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in.

If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with(and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.

As JRR Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.

Tolkien
 Tolkien’s illustration of Bilbo’s home, Bag End. Photograph: HarperCollins

Another way to destroy a child’s love of reading, of course, is to make sure there are no books of any kind around. And to give them nowhere to read those books. I was lucky. I had an excellent local library growing up. I had the kind of parents who could be persuaded to drop me off in the library on their way to work in summer holidays, and the kind of librarians who did not mind a small, unaccompanied boy heading back into the children’s library every morning and working his way through the card catalogue, looking for books with ghosts or magic or rockets in them, looking for vampires or detectives or witches or wonders. And when I had finished reading the children’s’ library I began on the adult books.

They were good librarians. They liked books and they liked the books being read. They taught me how to order books from other libraries on inter-library loans. They had no snobbery about anything I read. They just seemed to like that there was this wide-eyed little boy who loved to read, and would talk to me about the books I was reading, they would find me other books in a series, they would help. They treated me as another reader – nothing less or more – which meant they treated me with respect. I was not used to being treated with respect as an eight-year-old.

But libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.”

– Excerpt from the lecture “Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming” by Neil Gaiman, presented for the British Literacy group The Reading Agency. View the entire lecture here.

_________________________

I value reading similarly to Neil; I believe that intention fiction sows and breeds hope and relatability in us. By “intentional fiction” I mean something very different from allegory or moralist tales. I mean intentionally building imaginary things in our own minds. One can and often does accidentally imagine things, but engaging fiction makes us intentional subcreators. We find the value inherant in filling in the imaginative gaps and sticking with the story to its fulfillment.

We learn empathy and also become more capable of relationship. Stories are generally about relationships or the trouble of lacking relationships. Protagonists and even antagonists give us first understanding of other perspectives and experiences, even for those with strangely skewed points-of-view. We are able to comprehend without validating, a skill seemingly on the brink of extinction in modern cultures.

55 Classics Review #3 – “Brothers And Friends: An Intimate Portrait Of C.S. Lewis” by Major Warren Hamilton Lewis


Upon reflection it seems a very gracious decision for The Classics Club to allow me to include my 55 list among the ranks. This book in particular is, beyond any stretch of the imagination, definitely not a classic. There is simply no way to spin it as such. It is the diary of a mostly obscure man who was the brother of a famous author. It is really a very great read, but it is more a specialty reading for certain enthusiasts.

Warren Lewis and his brother “Jack” (C.S. Lewis lifelong nickname) were inseparably close. They purchased a house together when they were in their 30’s and spent the rest of their lives under the same roof. While Jack was undoubtedly a devoted brother, it seems that Warren was far more attached to Jack as the only person he really felt he had maintained a deep connection with throughout his life.

The book is broken into 3 oddly-timed, untitled sections, but I would break it into 4 chapters based on the various lifestyles and tones portrayed in seasons.

Early Adulthood – Warren stayed in the army after WWI as a career soldier. He did not enjoy army life but felt it would be an easy way to retire as an early pensioner, which he did before his 38th birthday. The first section of the book covers his tours of duty in China, weekend visits to the home called the Kilns which he was already jointly purchasing with Jack and the old Mrs. Moore (Minto, as they called her, was the mother of Jack’s dead WWI brother-in-arms, Paddy Moore) in Oxford, and general army life.
Pre-WWII Retirement – From the end of 1932 to the start of World War II probably marked the highlight of W.H. Lewis’ lifetime. He had retired young, moved into the Kilns with Jack, was able to start taking annual “walking tours” with his brother, and was not yet plagued by alcoholic tendencies. He found delightful ways to keep himself busy both at home in Oxford and in frequent and long holidays. He owned a river boat, which he lived on for seasons at a time. At this time all his earlier plans had come together.
Post WWII – Lewis was called back to duty during the Second World War. He did not see combat but was promoted to the rank of Major. He stopped writing in his journal for the majority of the war and there are a number of subtle differences in the way he writes afterward. He frequently makes discouraged remarks about food rationing, destruction, and rebuilding efforts. He begins to really loath the housing situation at the Kilns. While he expresses constant dissatisfaction about his and Jack’s home life with Minto, the group of friends known as the Inklings really flourishes in this era. In these days he begins to have a very serious and sometimes de-habilitating alcohol problem.
Post Minto – The brothers lived with Mrs. Moore for nearly 40 years and while everyone else seemed to universally acknowledge that she was a singularly unfair sapping and discomforting force in Jack’s life, he seems never to have complained or swayed in his devotion. They endured domestic horrors that taught Warren to stay away for months at a time. By the time she passed the brothers were getting to be old men themselves and the post-Minto years are marked by C.S. Lewis’ short and painful marriage to Joy Gresham Lewis and by general decay. This section is defined by the sicknesses and deaths of many friends and eventually Jack himself, whom Warren feared outliving his entire life. He lives beyond his younger brother by nearly a decade, and his loneliness without him is highlighted by his entries about technological modernizations, spiritual shortcomings, and thoughts on his own weakening and coming death.

I would really highly recommend this book to a few certain groups of people.

The title itself is misleading because huge portions of the entries have nothing to do with Jack Lewis. It is much more of an honest insight into the mind of his brother regarding all aspects of his own life. That being said, it is still one of the best texts I have read for intimate thoughts on C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Inklings in general. Any scholar can write a thousand pages on a man’s life and a group’s dynamics, but to have one from among them providing a small collection of situational anicdotes and circumstantial ponderings on the men themselves is far more revealing as to their personalities. Anyone who enjoys their works will probably find this a worthy endeavor.

I would also recommend this book to fiction lovers, war history buffs and Anglophiles. The book is full throughout of W.H. Lewis’ thoughts and mini-reviews of the books he was reading (constantly and voraciously) and descriptions of wonderful places he has been visiting in China, both U.S. coasts, Scotland, England, Ireland, and his own back garden. The man loved books (reading and re-reading everything from Homer and Wordsworth to Dorothy Sayers), walking, and the seaside, and his descriptions of landscapes in both wonderful and rough weather can be quite poetic. As I mentioned before, his general attitudes and thoughts here and there give the reader a very interesting and unique insight into the life of a middle class, British man whose adulthood was forged by WWI and rocked to its core by WWII. These things obviously are peripheral, but they are some of the most consistent material throughout.

Overall, this book does provide a thoroughly unexplored side of C.S. Lewis’ life, but, to a greater extent, it displays the admirably honest reflections of a man growing, sometimes poorly, in a world in total upheaval. It ends in gradual and extensive loneliness and decay, perhaps not easy reading for the faint-of-heart.

I have summarized a couple of the most fascinating entries here:

What the Lewis’ bros. knew about Hitler’s Nazi Germany and when they knew it.

What is most likely the first review of The Lord Of The Rings ever written.

You’re Off To A Horrible Start: Bulwer-Lytton and Creating the Imperfect Sentence


Edward George Bulwer-Lytton is a name with which you are probably unfamiliar but one that has influenced culture for almost 200 years. Bulwer-Lytton was a British politician and extremely popular novelist in the mid-1800’s who coined phrases like “pursuit of the almighty dollar” and “the pen is mightier than the sword.” He also started his novel Paul Clifford with the now famous line “It was a dark and stormy night.”

Here’s what you probably don’t know. The sentence does not end there but, instead of a period, we find a semi-colon and first sentence of the novel actually reads

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

It is thanks to this excessively wordy and slightly ridiculous sentence that we have The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. This competition for hilarious and wordy one-liners might have come to be without him, but Bulwer-Lytton definitely earned the namesake.

The concept of the contest is relatively simple. Anyone can submit as many ridiclous and wordy first sentences to unwritten novels as they like and once a year general and genre-specific winners are chosen. You can go to their website and browse through all the previous winners and honorable mentions.

For some reason the absurdity of it all reminds me of P.G. Wodehouse. A great portion of his appeal comes from his construction of deliciously faulty sentences. Anyway, I’m eager to take a crack at it and I think I will begin posting these here under the title of Horrible Starts. Here’s my first! Feel free to share your thoughts or comment with your own monstrous sentence creations!

“Perhaps the house at 2837 North Sutton Road might have appeared quaint and cozy had it stood alone upon a breezy hillside or next to a babbling stream in a glen somewhere; instead, it stood uncomfortably between the new gated community and the squalid and infested complex, like the single bowed and rotting plank one descends when stepping down from heaven into hell.”

I Am Isak Borg


Have you ever seen Wild Strawberries? Ingmar Bergman spins a simple tale of an elderly Isak Borg taking a trip and looking back on his life, but its a story that continued to show me things about my own nature for weeks after my first viewing.

Bergman’s writing and film-making is subtle to the point of near-boredom and thus very open for interpretation, but Isak Borg is, I believe, a Scrooge archetype. He is an elderly widower, a well-respected scientist whose life’s work is to be recognized through an award ceremony far away. He travels to the ceremony by car with his daughter-in-law and along the way a series of location-based memories, daydreams, and encounters with other travelers provide him with a chance to contemplate his life and who he has become. He is not a cruel or evil man, but an intelligent and honest optimist whose life experiences have taught him that safety comes in callousness and pessimism. He remembers the young fiancé who left him for his less honorable, rouge brother. He meets innocent youths still eager to debate about God, science, and philosophy. He remembers finding that his wife cheated on him and realizing it had little effect on him because there was no real capacity for love in the relationship. He meets a violently destructive middle-aged couple who are full of animosity and lies. All along, he is thinking, pondering this life he has had.

I was left pondering by the end of the film. The next day I was nearly in shock as I realize its prophetic nature in my own life. I am Isak Borg. I have the capacity to be wondrously captivated by beauty, by people, by optimistic ideals. I make myself available to all kinds of people. I’m eager to be available. And I’m often hurt. I’m let down. My soaring Icarus expectations burn up and come crashing down. I expect to see good and I find evil. So what happens? I become a little less optimistic, a little more critical, a bit more cynical. And, if I’m not careful, I stop paying attention at all and I end up an elderly, wasted Isak Borg.

You hear about this every day. Jaded social workers and burnt out pastors. Angry scientists and self-destructive artists. They all hold something in common. They have all been eaten away slowly by family, friends, lovers, religion, and society at large. Most of them start out striving for something beautiful, for reconciliation, for truth, and for community. Like waves upon breakers, their hope is slowly diluted down, washed away from them.

This is Isak Borg. The young man who wants to care selflessly for others. The man whose kindness is constantly taken at advantage. The man who learns not to feel it anymore. The elder who looks back and realizes it all flew by without his feeling it.

Spoiler alert. Isak Borg changes. He cares no more for his science award. He does care for the young people he has met, and the housemaid he’s taken for granted, and the hopeful scraps of what family he has left, a small time to rebuild in his last days. He still has time to change.

I can only hope that knowing this horrifying alternative is a sufficient start at steering clear of such a future.

Basically, you should definitely watch Wild Strawberries.

Author Quotes: W. H. Lewis’ First Impressions of Lord Of The Rings


Long before The Lord Of The Rings reached publication it was read aloud, chapter by chapter as completed, to Tolkien and Lewis’ little band of creatives, the Inklings. A group of mainly scholars and professors from the Oxford area, the Inklings met on Tuesday mornings and Thursday nights for a pint of beer or cider, a good debate over whatever subjects came to minds, and often a reading of someone’s poem, essay, or story. It was to this group that Tolkien, or more often his son and fellow Inkling Christopher, first read what was then referred to simply as “The new Hobbit”.

Here is the diary entry of Major Warren H. Lewis following his reading of the completed manuscript.

Saturday November 12th, 1949

“I have just finished the MS. [of Tolkien’s] sequel to The Hobbit, Lord Of The Rings. Golly, what a book! The inexhaustible fertility of the man’s imagination amazes me. It is a long book, consisting very largely in journeys: yet these never flag for an instant, each is as fresh as the one before, new colors available in profusion, whether the journey be beautiful or terrible. Some of the scenes of horror are unsurpassed, and there is wonderful skill in the way which the ultimate horror–the Dark Lord of Mordor–is ever present in one’s mind, though we never meet him, and know next to nothing about him. The beauty of Lothlorien, and the slightly sinister charm of Fangorn are unforgettable. Frodo’s squire, Sam Gamgee and the dwarf Gimli are I think the two best characters. What is rare in a story of this type, is that there is real pathos in it; the relationship between Sam and Frodo in the final stages of their journey moved me greatly. How the public will take the book I can’t imagine; I should think T will be wise to prepare himself for a good deal of misunderstanding, and many crits. on the line that ‘this political satire would gain greatly by compression and the excision of such irrelevant episodes as the journey to Lothlorien’. Indeed, by accident, a great deal of it can be read topically–the Shire standing for England, Rohan for France, Gondor the Germany of the future, Sauron for Stalin: and Saruman in the ‘Scouring of the Shire’ for our egregious Mr. Silkin, the town planner (and destroyer)! But a great book of its kind, and in my opinion ahead of anything Eddison* did.”

*Referring to E.R. Eddison, author of The Worm Of Ouroboros(1922), a similar mythological work. Eddison met Tolkien and Lewis before his death in 1945.

Wandlung Picture Book Giveaway


My new picture book, Wandlung, has hit the market and is now available in soft cover online and in hardback from me directly. It’s an adventurous tale of a young boy who sets out on a journey to protect his magically transformed best friend.

My good friend Jen at WhatMyKidsRead has been gracious enough to not only do the first review of the book but also to host a giveaway of a signed copy of the soft cover version!

That’s right! You can sign up to win a free, signed copy of Wandlung at WhatMyKidsRead! Hurry on over and remember, whether you love or hate the story, let me know your thoughts!

E. Nesbit’s Brave Tone and The Depths Of Whimsy


The Railway Children is a book I was unfamilar with when I added it to my 55 List, but so many people mentioned how they enjoyed it that I decided to bump it up to get started on right away. I have only scratched the surface but I have not been dissapointed. Right off the bat the whimsical, amusing-adults-while-engaging-children tone reminded me of A.A. Milne and the extreme swing from charmed living to tragic squalor reminds me of Lemony Snicket. I know I will love the rest of this one.

One sure sign of true whimsy is a work that inplies and includes a great deal of writing of songs and reciting of poems. The point is never that they be wonderful (although they sometimes are) but that they give a creative outlet to the characters and show us that the characters themselves are strong enough to respond to hardship and wonder with creativity. Here is a great poem that the Mother writes and recites in the first chapter of said book. Her 10 yr. old son has been devestated to the point of sickness by the explosion of his favorite new toy engine.

(more…)

Author Quotes: J.R.R. Tolkien On Creativity and Death


There are many obvious reasons to love J.R.R. Tolkien. As the years go on his son Christopher Tolkien, who is now quite an old man himself, continues to publish the nearly completed works to which his father was devoted. Just when we assume that everything great has been revealed, the author who has been dead for half a century is revealed to have written another riveting tale to add to his impressive cannon.

Aside from his fiction work, however, I am brought back time and again to the philosophical moorings upon which the author founded all of his creative thinking. His essay “On Fairy Stories” is, in my opinion, a breakthrough and little-rivaled treatment of the nature of inspiration and the mystical and supremely natural traits inherent in human creativity.

Apart from this (or perhaps as a part of this), there is one other area of thought that constantly brings me back to considering Tolkien’s creative works, thoughts on creativity, and thoughts on life in general. He was obsessed with everything being layered upon a recognition of death. Death surrounds us. Death defines our lives. Around 1951, Tolkien wrote a 10,000 letter to Milton Waldman of Collins Pub. in hopes of convincing them to include The Silmarillion in their decision to print The Lord Of The Rings. In the midst of explaining the value he sees in what really was his entire life’s work, he makes this clarifying statement

“In the cosmogony there is a fall: a fall of Angels we should say. Though quite different in form, of course, to that of Christian myth. These tales are ‘new’, they are not directly derived from other myths and legends, but they must inevitably contain a large measure of ancient wide-spread motives or elements. After all, I believe that legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth’, and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode; and long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear. There cannot be any ‘story’ without a fall – all stories are ultimately about the fall – at least not for human minds as we know them and have them.”

Tolkien always returns to contemplate the extremes of falleness against sheer natural beauty, death against the irripressable joy of living. In Tolkien’s work many find that the escape of the good story actually leaves them ready to enjoy their own life more fully rather than longing for a different world. I think Tolkien’s tragic personal history and the closeness of death throughout his formative years built a resilience and awareness in him that ultimately directed his creations and provided that almost indescibable beauty and familiarity which captures his readers.

Tolkien does himself and his work justice when he summarizes his work with a Simone de Beauvoire quote on the mysteries of dying and living.

 

*Althought I find the writing and editing quite odd, I highly suggest watching the entire Tolkien episode of the BBC’s In Their Own Words, available here in part 1 and part 2.

My First Review and What We Can Learn About Our Kids


Recently, I self-published my first book. It is a picture book called Wandlung, and is itself unique in that it is the only idea I have ever had for a picture book. I am writing mostly short stories (some found on this blog under “Fiction“), children’s chapter books, and a fantasy/mythology epic. Wandlung is also unique because it is the only thing I have published this far (using the word “published” generously considering I published it myself with the help of my wonderful Kickstarter supporters!).

Yesterday Jen at WhatMyKidsRead.com did the first review of the book and I couldn’t be more pleased with her critique! Her family’s reviews are really helpful if you’re looking for books for a variety of ages as all of her kids provide their own input along with her perspectives on each title. For Wandlung, she gives a more detailed synopses of the story than I have yet done and goes into each of her family member’s thoughts about the story and illustrations. There is even a video review with Liam, the articulate eldest!

Part of Jen’s review that I really appreciated was something I am expecting to hear often. She reports that her kids liked the story a lot more than she did. She doesn’t prefer the premises upon which the story is founded and the story ending. Jen has wonderful taste in books, so if I wasn’t expecting many adults to respond this way I might have been devastated. But I’m glad about it, because I think out-of-the-ordinary picture books like this one actually teach us something about our children.

I may have said it before, but I’m a bit of a subversive at heart and a large part of what drew me to this story was the fact that the plot is probably more challenging to adults than to children. Wandlung challenges a lot of our modern preconceptions about stories that are good for children.

Kids have a knack for grasping concepts we don’t give them credit for understanding (which can be a good or bad thing in different circumstances) and they can often hear of a hardship befalling a character without flinching. Kids do not require a happy ending. What’s more, I believe that they should continue to cultivate this attitude toward stories and toward life. We learn to be disappointed when we refuse to accept anything other than our preconceptions of a “happy ending.” Kids start out with far fewer expectations than adults.

Anyway, I hope you will take the opportunity to check out the back story posted on the Wandlung page as well as the story itself. I am a much harsher critic of my own mind and I continue to think that this one warrants merit. If you think I’m crazy, please let me know!