Bookweek Day 3: Why are all the best fantasy writers British?


I don’t have much time today, so this post will be pretty short, but here goes: Why are all the best fantasy writers British?

I made a list the other day. J.M. Barrie, C.S. Lewis, Diana Wynne Jones, J.R.R. Tolkien, A.A. Milne, Lewis Carroll, and Susanna Clarke are/were all British. Eva Ibbotson and Robin McKinley were both born other places, Austria and America respectively, but then later moved to England.

Of my favorite fantasy writers, only one had no connection to England: Gail Carson Levine is still very American. However, an interesting note about Gail Carson Levine is that, unlike the other writers I mentioned, I just cannot enjoy her work in adulthood the way I could in childhood. Only “Ella Enchanted” really stands the test of time, in my opinion.

I have several theories on this.

First, maybe the British write better fantasy because they have a great cache of folklore to draw from. European Americans haven’t been in America long enough to develop a mythology, unless Paul Bunyan counts. Native Americans haven’t been very well-represented in the publishing world. So maybe the American writers that are getting published don’t have a deep connection to folklore and mythology that would enable them to write it well.

If this is the reason, it makes me wonder if there’s a lot of really good fantasy published in languages I can’t read. Because most civilizations are ancient enough to have really interesting folklore and mythology.

My second theory is that maybe the British are just more comfortable with adults reading positive, uplifting fantasy. American fantasy seems to be either strictly for children (not even young adults), or else really dark. On the other hand, a lot of British fantasy is more like what A.A. Milne wrote in his introduction to Once On A Time:

For whom, then, is the book intended? That is the trouble. Unless I can say, “For those, young or old, who like the things which I like,” I find it difficult to answer. Is it a children’s book? Well, what do we mean by that? Is The Wind in the Willows a children’s book? Is Alice in Wonderland? Is Treasure Island? These are masterpieces which we read with pleasure as children, but with how much more pleasure when we are grown-up. In any case, what do we mean by “children”? A boy of three, a girl of six, a boy of ten, a girl of fourteen – are they all to like the same thing? And is a book “suitable for a boy of twelve” any more likely to please a boy of twelve than a modern novel is likely to please a man of thirty-seven; even if the novel be described truly as “suitable for a man of thirty-seven”? I confess that I cannot grapple with these difficult problems. But I am very sure of this: that no one can write a book which children will like, unless he write it for himself first. That being so, I shall say boldly that this is a story for grown-ups.

Those are my theories. Feel free to insert your own. I’ll be over here trying to figure out if it’s feasible to move to England.

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Bookweek Day 2: On Reading Diaries


This is my current collection of other people’s diaries. I find them at garage sales sometimes.

It’s absolutely fascinating to me what makes people choose to write down one thing and not another. A diary must be the closest thing to glimpsing the actual inside of a person’s brain.

Mostly, I’ve found, people write down astonishingly boring things about themselves. Linda came at 9:00 to clean house. We left at 1:00 to drive to Olympia. Beautiful day! Beautiful trip! Got to Stephanie’s a little ahead of time.

And then every once in a while you’ll find a humorous story, but not be quite certain whether or not the diary writer was trying to be funny:

Took my antibiotics and went to Dr. Wilde for a root canal. Debated with him whether it was the same tooth Dr. Parley had done the root canal on last  year. He had x-rays to prove that was a different tooth. I was angry and unconvinced but I guess I must have been wrong; so I paid $159.50 today. I think he must have been right but in my own mind I felt sure it was the same tooth. I was quite upset about it the rest of the day.

I was telling my friend Esta about my fascination with diaries, and she suggested that I read the diaries of Anne Lindbergh. She then loaned me Bring Me a Unicorn, the first one.

Anne Morrow began compiling her diaries and letters when she was in her 60s. In the introduction, she gave a very thoughtful explanation for why she compiled diaries and letters instead of going for the more traditional autobiography format.

Since autobiography has always been favorite reading for me, quite naturally I considered using this form. To write an autobiography would mean sifting, picking and choosing, shaping and cutting, and then putting the material into orderly chapters, finished portraits, and polished phrases. There is much to recommend such a process. …But there are certain drawbacks. What remains in the end is the point of view of a mature person only. At best–and its “best” is very good indeed–an autobiography reveals a glimpse of life seen at the end of a telescope, from a single stance, that of a woman in the last third of life. 

…Once started on the painful journey toward honesty, with the passage of time one has increasingly the desire not to gloss over, not to foster illusions or to create fixed images, inasmuch as this is humanly possible. One wants to be an honest witness to the life one has lived and the struggle one has made to find oneself and one’s work, and to relate oneself to others and the world.

So I decided on publishing some of the diaries, along with letters, as a more truthful presentation of those years. 

She later added,

Diaries are written for oneself and reveal the writer as he is when alone.

Fascinating, right?

Of course, Anne left a lot of the boring parts of her diaries out, and she really was a great writer who lived an interesting life, so there really isn’t any comparing her book to the diary of Beulah from Washington that I found at a garage sale. Except for that “diaries are written for oneself and reveal the writer as he is when alone” bit.

I’ve read Bring Me a Unicorn and Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead. And of course I’ve read classics like The Diary of Anne Frank and Zlata’s Diary. I don’t gobble up diaries the way I gobble up fiction, but I’m still very much interested in recommendations. I think I’ll do L.M.Montgomery next.

Bookweek Day 1: On Katherine Patterson, and layers of meaning in Children’s books

I haven’t posted in a while, but I’ve been reading an assortment of books, so why not make this week a book week? We’ll see if it lasts six days or five days or just today.

I’m not usually much of a nonfiction reader, but I’m discovering that nonfiction books by your favorite fiction writers are an entirely different ballgame. Because they write the back stories of the books you loved.

I read Katherine Patterson’s memoir last spring, and now I’m reading a collection of her speeches and articles called A Sense of Wonder: on reading and writing for children. 

In one of those two books–I don’t remember which, she wrote about her book Jacob Have I Loved. 

For those of you who haven’t read it, Jacob Have I Loved is about twin sisters growing up on a little island in the Chesapeake Bay. Louise, the slightly older twin, is strong but not that pretty, and just rather forgettable. Her sister Caroline is beautiful and talented, and pretty much gets everything Louise wants in life. The title comes from the Biblical story of Jacob and Esau. Louise feels like everyone, including God, loved her sister more than her, and like her sister got everything.

As a child/young teen I definitely resonated with this book, and I hated Caroline right along with Louise, the narrator. But I hadn’t read it in years when I started reading Katherine’s nonfiction. And Katherine let me in on a secret I’d never picked up on: Louise is an unreliable narrator. She thinks her sister is so awful, but her sister never does anything that terrible. Louise is just projecting her own insecurities about herself and growing up onto her sister.

While rooting through a drawer of books recently (small bedroom problems) I found my own paperback copy of Jacob Have I Loved, and decided to re-read. And oh my bunnyslippers, Katherine was right. This Caroline character I loathed didn’t really do anything that mean, ever, beyond just existing and happening to have beauty and talent. And pushing her sister’s buttons a bit.

For instance, near the beginning of the book, Louise came in from crabbing, nasty and smelly. Caroline said, “your fingernails are dirty.” Louise interprets this to mean, “I’m so pristine and perfect and you’re gross and inferior.” So Louise got angry. But all Caroline had done was to point out the true, if inane, fact that Louise had dirty fingernails. All the negative “meaning” behind her words was just Louise’s own insecurities.

I was just fascinated by this.

I’m still of two minds about it, though. As brilliant as it is, it makes me wonder if she expects children to actually pick up on it. I certainly didn’t.

What I did pick up on, though, was that it was a real story that just happened to be for children. I think that’s really important. I hated being condescended to when I was a child. So maybe the trick of not condescending to them is to purposefully place content in it that they won’t understand.

Island Lake

The Oregon summer is like a magical rope that slowly pulls people west: the harvest workers, my dear cousin Stephy, Janessa-of-tiny-houses-and-life-advice-fame, and most recently, the delightful shining light that is Sarah Beth.

Of course, being the shining light that she is, she has about 75 people that want to hang out with her every time she comes to Oregon. So when I said, “do you want to go camping with me on Tuesday?” and she said “yes,” I was elated.

Then she added, “Ashlie is getting off work and coming up for a few days, can she come too?” Then I was double elated. Ashlie and I went on all sorts of adventures last summer and fall when we were roommates, but now that she lives down south in Roseburg we see each other much less frequently.

The camping trip was inspired by the fact that my family recently bought a minivan.

“Are your parents having more kids?” my cousin Randy joked to me after seeing it in our driveway and wondering what was up.

I laughed. “No, our old full-sized van died, and mom wanted something she could haul furniture to Goodwill in.”

Every cousin in hearing thought this was hilariously funny. “Your mom really needs to haul furniture to Goodwill that often?”

“I don’t know,” I said. I didn’t realize how strange it sounded until I repeated it, but I am certain I have heard my mom, on various occasions, say that she wants to keep a van around in case she needs to haul furniture to Goodwill. I have never heard her give any other reason.

On the other hand, I hoped we’d get a minivan so that I could borrow it to road trip or camp, sleeping in the back instead of the much less secure and much less comfortable tent.

And so it was that on Tuesday, Ashlie, Sarah Beth and I took our new red minivan on its first adventurous outing. We drove through the Cascades and down rocky pot-holed roads to Island Lake, a tiny hidden gem I only know about because my friend Esta discovered it last year and a group of us camped there.

Island lake has various charms that make it one of my very favorite places. First, it’s tiny and hidden, and on a weekday it’s almost deserted. Second, it’s situated in a charming and eerie burnt-out forest, and through the tall dead tree remains you can see beautiful views of the mountains. The island is just the right size to swim or boat to, to bask on, perhaps to build a campfire on or sit and read for a while on if you’ve brought a boat to transport things like books and firewood.

But best of all, the water is warm and deep. Yes. A place in Oregon that has warm water for swimming.

And that is the first thing we did when we arrived on Tuesday, though the sun was lowering in the sky.


Then we changed out of our swimwear, ornamenting the little baby Christmas trees around our campsite with our dripping garments.


Camping in a van is so low-key compared to the car-and-tent version. You can toss everything in the back without running out of space, and there is no tent to set up.


We were surprisingly tired after our swim, and went to bed early. This was my view out of the back of the van. I thought it looked a little like the shape of Oregon.

When I woke up in the morning, I saw Ashlie sitting outside on the van seat we’d removed in order to lay our our mattress. I thought it looked quirky and delightful so I took a picture, but I guess it my just-woken-up state I put a few of my fingers over the lens.

It’s hard to give a decent recap of the trip, because we mostly slept and ate and swam and read books.

And made a flower crown or two.


But then, what could be more delightful than swimming and reading books and making flower crowns with two of your very best friends?

The Great Switch

Two things I desire with a ferocity that nearly overwhelms me:

  1. To create
  2. To live an interesting life

I know “interesting” means different things to different people, but to me it means new places, new ideas, new interactions. Traveling, reading, exploring, learning.

College was a constant parade of interesting ideas. There was always a robotics club to join, or a new classmate to tell you all about her childhood in civil-rights-era Mississippi, or a free lecture on underwater archaeology. But I never had time to create anything of significance.

This period of my life is the great switch. When I have to put up with a less interesting life in order to have time (and money) to create.


I had tea with my friend Janessa the other day, desperate to glean some of her wisdom. She manages, somehow, to both create and live an interesting life, traveling the world in her tiny home on wheels. We ended up commiserating on our struggles with self-motivation, and I did a lot of verbally sorting through my feelings, trying to figure out what I really want out of life, which she patiently listened to.

“I’m terrified of living a boring life,” I told her. And she laughed, because it was a little funny.

But also, true. Because to create something, not just to write but to create a finished product, requires a healthy dose of mundanity. It takes boring days of staying at home and working on the thing. It means not just starting the new stories and dropping them when they’re no longer fun, but working on them. Finishing. Editing. Working hard.

I once read a fascinating article about how it doesn’t matter so much what you want in life, it matters what you’re willing to give up to get what you want.

For a long time, I was willing to give up nearly everything in order to get my college degree. One of the things I gave up was writing another book. I just didn’t have the time. I was, in essence, giving up my desire to create in order to further my desire to live an interesting life.

Now, I think I have to be okay with living a life that’s less interesting, in order to have time to buckle down and create things.

Friendships, Etc

When my friend Esta and her daughter Eden came out to the coast with me for my birthday, I was surprised by how many people commented (both in person and on social media) about how awesome it is that we remain close friends despite the fact that I’m single and she’s married with two children.

I think it struck people because friendships tend to shift and buckle as people move away, gain different interests and values, get married or stay single, have children or don’t, go to college, have a career, and ultimately deal with their own personal issues. Many times, friendships break apart amid the changes, and I think people like to see one that hasn’t.

For me, the hardest thing about friendship in adulthood has been the lack of a close-knit friend group of people like me. Oregon is not just swimming in single college-educated Mennonites in their upper 20s.

And so, I’ve accepted the fact that I can’t be the Rat or the Mole or the Badger or the Toad in any one friendship group, and I’ve chosen to become the Otter in many friendship groups.

If you’ve ever read The Wind in the Willows you’ll know that it concerns four friends, Mole, Rat, Toad, and Badger, and their various adventures.

wind-in-willows

However, every once in a while a fifth character appears and has an adventure with one or more of the core four. That character is Otter.

 

the-wind-in-the-willows

Otter, the 5’th character, is there in the middle at the bottom, popping out of the water.

I don’t know why Otter is not part of the core group, but I assume it’s because, unlike the others, he has a wife and family. Since he’s in a different life stage, he’s sometimes on hand for adventures, but sometimes not.

When it comes to friendship groups, I am Otter.

Take yesterday, for example. My cousin Stephy, who was one of my closest friends growing up but got married and moved to Ohio, came back to Oregon for a visit. She texted me and said “do you want to go to the coast on Tuesday?”

“Yes,” I said.

But I really did not know anything about who was going along or what would be involved.

This was the group that went:

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Shout-out to Shelley for sending me this picture (because I forgot to take any), and to the kind stranger who snapped it for us.

That is Stephy, her husband Chris, her sister Jessie, her sister-in-law Shelley, and eight of her nieces and nephews. And me.

Hanging out meant snotty noses and whining for candy and listening to seven and eight-year-olds philosophically discuss what would have happened if Satan had never disobeyed God. It meant pausing conversations while moms chased down their toddlers.

All next week these people will hang out together, without me, because they are a family and I am the random cousin. I am the otter, popping in for one adventure. But it certainly was a lovely one, with long conversations about friendship (which inspired this blog post), and sunshine, and sand, and endearing children, and people I like to hang out with.

I wonder if it sounds a little sad and/or pathetic to be the otter.

To be part of a youth group where you’re six to twelve years older than the other members.

To be part of a church ladies’ group, even though they’d much rather talk about giving birth than discussing big theoretical ideas.

To be part of the Christian Grad Fellowship at a college where you no longer attend and were never actually a grad student.

But the glorious upside to such a life is that I’ve learned to be friends with people who are unlike me. And ironically, that’s how I discovered the people who actually are like me, deep down in the places that go beyond demographics.

Like my friend Yasmeen, who’s from an entirely different cultural and religious background, but who shares my deep fascination with cross-cultural nuances.

Or my friend Javen, who came to Oregon last year, barely out of high school, to sing with Gospel Echoes. He looked like the kind of young chap who only ever thinks about spikeball tournaments and keeping his hair just curly enough to impress the girls, but we ended up connecting over our love of writing, literature, and complex ideas.

Or Simone, who is married to my Dad’s first cousin and is a generation older than me, but knows about hard times like no one else I’ve ever met. She understands grief, and depression, and the power of the Holy Spirit, and we can talk for hours. My friendship with her has been extremely healing and beautiful in so many ways.

Of course that’s only scratching the surface of the meaningful friendships in my life, but what I mean to say is, if I only looked for friendships among people who are like me, I wouldn’t have very many friends, and even fewer close friends.

And that would be incredibly sad.

27

I have a weird relationship with aging. Every year I get a little older and feel a little younger.

Ten years ago I turned 17 and thought that the good times had finally arrived. I was a senior in high school, I had a driver’s license, and I was going to the BMA convention for the first time ever. Hello, fun social life!

Of course, within two or three months I was living the life of a 90-year-old woman. Sickly, tottering, tired. Shuffling along using a cane for support. No social life. Too mentally out of it to drive.

The year I was 17 was the most awful year I have ever lived.

I remember turning 18 and feeling so cheated. Cheated out of being 17. Somehow (too many teen novels?) I’d gotten the idea that 17 was supposed to be the best year of my life.

Instead, 26 was the best, and healthiest, year of my life to date. I expect 27 will top that.

I had a great day. My sister Jenny, my friend Ashlie, my friend Esta, and Esta’s daughter Eden hiked up Spencer Butte.

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Ashlie had to go to work, but the rest of us went to the coast for the afternoon.

Little Eden just LOVED the ocean, even though, according to Esta, she’d been knocked over by a wave the last time she was at the beach.

“It’s my favorite place, too,” I whispered to her.

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Photo by Jenny Smucker

If I could whisper to the Emily of the past I would say, You will be healthy again. Life will be fun. If you thought 17 was cool, try being 27.