August 2017 Life Update

As I close out August, I thought I’d do a quick post with a few updates on my life.

My Poor Computer

The internet on my little laptop is not working at all, EXCEPT Youtube works. And Google. But not Gmail. So, needless to say, being limited to the family computer and my little iPhoney does not inspire me to blog frequently.

(If you have any insight into what might be wrong with my laptop, please share. I thought maybe it was a Chrome problem, but Internet Explorer doesn’t work either.)

Stories vs. Opinions

My eclipse story didn’t QUITE break my record for most hits ever in a day (that record is still held by my post on singleness) but it was my most-shared post ever. This got me thinking about how most of my really successful blog posts are opinion posts. But I would much rather be a storyteller than an opinion writer.

The Scarlet Pimpernel 

I backed myself into a corner with this one. I’ll admit that when I posted about finishing classics I secretly hoped that my readers would give me the necessary encouragement to finish, and in the case of The Scarlet Pimpernel that was overwhelmingly true. So I thought I’d read it and report on what I thought, only to discover that I have no real way to talk about my experience of reading it without spoiling it for those who haven’t read it. Oops. Sorry about that.

My Job

I’m starting my “real” job on Tuesday. Our little church school had a huge administration gap when my dad retired as principal last spring, so I was hired as secretary. (Not principal, because I didn’t want to discipline anybody, haha). Anyway, I wanted something part-time so I would also have time to write, and then this fell in my lap, so I took it.

Hopefully this means that more Emily-authored writing will hit the world soon.

Amy

My sister Amy came home from Thailand yesterday, so right now all three of us girls are living at home with no boys. I don’t know how long that will last, as I really would like to get my own place now that the thing-I-do-with-my-time will be earning money, not eating my money. But for now it’s fun.

She is going back to college to get a teaching degree, to make it easier to get a work visa to teach overseas. Which means that every single one of my siblings will be in college this fall, except me. Matt’s getting his master’s degree, Ben’s getting his PHD, Jenny and Amy will be working toward their Bachelor’s, and Steven will be working toward his second Associate’s.

We may not collect spouses or produce children, but we sure do collect degrees, haha.

That’s all. I hope you feel sufficiently updated. 

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The Strangest Day of my Life

I’ve been looking forward to watching this eclipse for months.

I love bizarre, dream-like experiences where the normal rules of life don’t seem to apply. Like when I was in Thailand, exploring a semi-abandoned mall, where I’d walk through movie theaters and ice rinks and no one was there. Or when the floods of 2012 blocked roads and filled the play structure at school. Disasters seem kind-of exciting to me, just so long as they’re not too disastrous. Because then the normal rules of life are turned on their end.

Everyone thought that this eclipse would be the traffic event of the century. Huge numbers of people from California and Washington were expected to flock to our slice of the valley. “It’s WAY over-hyped,” my cousin Randy scoffed. But Dad and Ben still discussed the best back roads to take to my Aunt Rosie’s house, where we planned to have a Smucker eclipse-watching party.

And I still hoped.

I even dreamed, one night, that there was so much traffic it clogged the little country roads next to our house. But in the end, it seemed Randy was right. Over the weekend, the nearby towns were completely dead. “Maybe they’ll start zooming in Sunday night,” we thought. But as we drove to Rosie’s Sunday evening, even I-5 was barely busier than usual.

Many of us Smuckers live just below the line of totality, which is why we all congregated at Rosie’s, a half hour north of us. There were siblings and cousins, great-aunts and second-cousins, and an 100-year-old man who wasn’t a Smucker, but slipped in because his daughter married one.

Matt showing us how the eclipse works, why it’s rare, and how it moves.

We ate hamburgers and hotdogs, and discussed politics and spiritual gifts. Randy tried not to gloat about how his “over-hyped” prediction came true. In general, we had a typical Smucker family gathering. But then, instead of going home, we spread our sleeping bags out on the grass and watched the stars until we fell asleep.

The Smuckers chilling in the Sunday evening sunset.

I don’t usually sleep very well outdoors, but in the last two or so hours before I woke up in the morning I fell into a heavy, solid slumber. And then suddenly, I was awake, and all alone. Everyone who’d slept around me had gone inside. And then I looked over, and there was a cup of tea beside me, steaming hot.

My first surreal moment of the day.

Alone in the brilliant sunshine with my tea and a book I’d kept under my pillow all night, I had no rush to get up. I just basked in the warm comfort.

It was my mom, of course, though I still don’t know how I didn’t wake up once when everyone left and when she delivered the tea. All I can say is that walking on grass is a lot quieter than walking through our old farmhouse.

By nine everyone was up, dressed, and outside. Eclipse glasses were handed around. Brunch was set up on long tables. “There it is!” said Matt, peering through his eclipse glasses. “See? Up in the top right corner, you can see a tiny dent at the edge of the sun.”

Cousin Justin, his wife Kayla, Aunt Bonnie, and baby Crosby.

I looked through my own glasses. He was right. One side of the sun was ever-so-slightly flat looking, and then even flatter looking, and then it wasn’t a flatness at all but an actual little bite.

Grandpa watching the eclipse.

Intermittently, we’d stare at the sun, and then take our glasses off for a bit to chat with each other, eat some brunch, or sip some tea. Every time I put my glasses back on I was amazed at how much more of the sun was covered. First it looked like pac-man, then a cartoon-ish moon, and then it started looking like a fingernail moon.


“Is it growing darker?” we asked each other. It was hard to tell. “Well, not darker, but it is colder. I’m sure of it.” I put my jacket back on.

“It doesn’t seem weird to us, because we’re so used to dim light from our constant cloud cover,” someone joked. And indeed, it did rather look like a slightly overcast day, except for the sharp shadows.



And then the real weirdness began, as the shadows changed shape. The shadows of the leaves formed little crescents, like a pattern of scales spread across the patio. My second-cousin Tristan splayed his fingers. “Look, I’m Wolverine!” He exclaimed, as little shadow lumps formed between the long shadows of his fingers.

“Shadow snakes! There are shadow snakes!” Jenny exclaimed. She’d spread a white sheet on the ground for this express purpose. And indeed, there they were, strange squiggly shadows flittering across the white expanse of the sheet.

Finally, it was getting visibly darker. “Are we going to have to go to bed when it gets dark?” Jocelyn, my cousin’s daughter, asked, worried.

I put on my glasses and looked at the sun again. Only the smallest orange mark remained, and it got smaller, and smaller, and smaller, and suddenly…

I whipped off my glasses.

“gulp!” The sun was gone.

I’m sure you know what a total eclipse looks like. Facebook is blowing up with pictures ranging from professional to extremely amateur. But there is nothing, nothing, like seeing it in real life. I know, now, why people become eclipse chasers. It’s like my friend Heidi wrote on her Instagram, “In the moments where the sun was completely black, the world could’ve ended and it would not have seemed out of place.”

And then a bead of brilliant light appeared at the edge of the blackness, and we all looked away again, back to the white sheet and the shadow snakes. And then, just like that, the world was light and bright again.

“Woah.” We looked at each other, shocked and awed. “That was amazing.”

The moon-shaped sun in the eclipse glasses getting bigger and bigger wasn’t nearly as exciting as when it got smaller and smaller. Jenny had to go to work, and before too long, the rest of us had rolled up our sleeping bags and headed back home.

“Hey look.” Matt jerked his chin towards a north/south side road east of I-5. “There’s traffic on 7 mile lane.” I looked and saw seven or so cars at the stoplight. Maybe there was a bit of traffic after all.

Then we were on the overpass, and looking down we saw that I-5 itself was WAY too busy to take home. Traffic! My heart was happy. There were a lot of people here for the eclipse. We decided to take 99E home, but when we ran into traffic in Shedd, we took a side street and ended up going home via about three different winding back roads. And as we drove I put my eclipse glasses on periodically and watched the sun become a cartoon moon again, and then a pac-man, and then a tiny bite that turned into a flat spot on the sun’s round surface, and then disappeared.

“Wow, look, there are some people on Substation,” said Mom as we drove toward our house. Traffic is so rare on that road that it’s tempting to back out of our driveway without looking first, so seeing five cars on it at once was a bit jarring. “Maybe Google maps or something is directing them our way.”


But when those cars had passed, more cars came. I carried in sleeping bags and pillows, but kept getting distracted by the weirdness of those cars. A few would come, and then you’d think surely that had to be the end, and then a few more would come. They mostly had California license plates. I was so fascinated that I brewed some tea and sat in a chair out by the road, people watching. How often do you have a chance to people watch from your own yard?

I walked into the front yard, then, where I met Matt coming out the front door. Matt had flown home from DC just to watch the eclipse with us. And as we stood there and marveled at how the traffic was just getting worse and worse, a legitimate cars-stopped traffic jam happened right there at the intersection in front of our house. It looked exactly like the bizarre scene from my dream.


We could. not. believe. it.

Suddenly, Matt, at 31, and I, at 27, reverted into the giddy teenage versions of ourselves. He began filming a Facebook live video, and then we impulsively decided to walk down to the warehouse and climb to the top, to see if we could get a better view of the traffic. So off we went, waving to people, counting how many license plates were from California vs. other states, and filming Facebook Live videos. We got very dusty climbing to the top of the warehouse where we had good views of nature but not much of a traffic view. Then we decided to stop in and visit our neighbors/relatives Darrell and Simone, and their children Dolly and Tristan, but no one seemed to be home.

When we got back to our house the traffic had reached unbelievable levels. There in our driveway was Simone, handing out glasses of lemonade and iced tea to the people driving by. “Free iced tea and lemonade!” she yelled.


Then she saw me. “Oh, Emily! I saw on Facebook that you were watching traffic, so I decided to come join you! And then your mom decided to hand out drinks, so I decided to help!”

Mom dashing inside to make more lemonade.

And help was certainly needed. We made gallons of iced tea until we ran out of ice, and then mixed up gallons and gallons of lemonade. We found paper cups and purple plastic cups and Styrofoam cups from the back corners of our pantry. We found cookies, and muffins that were leftover from our morning brunch.

eclipse

Photo credit: Simone Smucker

“What I really need is a bathroom,” one woman confessed. So we made a new sign. “Restrooms Available!” And soon had a long line stretching all the way out our back hallway. Matt sat in the living room and directed people to our upstairs bathroom, while Mom showed people where the downstairs bathroom was as she mixed up batches of lemonade. Soon we had groups of people in our driveway chattering in Chinese, as children swung on our ancient tire swing.

“We’re running out of cups!” I told Simone. “Do you have more at your house?”

“Yes,” she said. “I have a whole bunch in my pantry.”

So I rode my bike to her house, skimming past the cars as I rode along the shoulder. She was right. She did have a lot of cups. “Do you have a bag I can put these in?” I asked Dolly, who was sitting in the living room with her dog, Bailey.

“Oh, and also, you should come join us. We’re having fun!”

“Well, I’m not wearing a head covering,” said Dolly. She grabbed one of her dad’s ancient baseball caps from a hook in the mud room.

I found a utility-sized garbage bag and stuffed it with packages of cups. “How am I supposed to get these home on my bike?” I asked Dolly.

“Maybe we can take the 4-wheeler,” she said.

“Can you drive it?”

“Well, if I come I have to take Bailey. And I can’t hold Bailey and drive. And Bailey might be scared if you try to hold her.”

I didn’t know how to drive a 4-wheeler, but people needed drinks and drinks need cups. So I climbed onto the seat of the 4-wheeler, and Dolly climbed on behind me, somehow managing to hold her dog and the gigantic bag of cups in her short arms. She told me how to drive the thing, and we zoomed home. Halfway there I saw, in my peripheral vision, Dolly’s hat go flying off her head.

I parked beside the pump house and ran to start filling cups with lemonade again. Dolly came to help, and I saw that she was wearing a baseball cap.

“Didn’t that fly off your head?” I asked.

“I caught it,” she said.

How she managed to catch her hat while holding a dog and a giant trash bag full of cups is something I will never understand.

Bailey was a big hit among the people who came. “Can we pet her?” they’d ask, and Dolly or Simone would explain that she was a rescue dog, and shy of people. But still we gave them drinks and they used our bathrooms. Mom made tea until she ran out of ice, then lemonade until she ran out of lemonade powder, and finally we just handed out water and whatever odd grocery depot macaroons and brownie bites we could find.

I felt like Jacob who just happened to have some stew, and here were these desperate Esaus who were willing to give up their entire birthright for a cup of lemonade and a chance to use the bathroom. “Why are you so nice?” They asked, pressing money into our hands even though we insisted it was free.

But honestly, this was the kind of thing I literally dreamed about. The most surreal experience, and the most exciting thing to have happened in our backyard since ever.

There were so many weird elements to our day. Like, we didn’t have a trash can, so whenever we had a broken cup or a dirty cup or a sign that said “iced tea” even though we’d run out of iced tea, we just shoved it into the hedge. The dry, ugly hedge bush was surprisingly good at holding trash.


“I’m done with this,” shall I put it in this trash bag?” one guy said, after stopping to use the bathroom and get a drink. He held up his dirty paper cup.

“No, that’s full of clean cups. Put it in this bush,” we said.

Then suddenly, there was a gap in the traffic. The first gap since…two hours ago? Four hours ago? What was time, even?

We took breaks, with only one person manning the table at a time. Simone left, taking me with her, and I rode home the bike that I’d left at Darrell and Simone’s when I got the cups. The trickle grew less and less, like a waning eclipse, and then we abandoned the table all-together, figuring that if some lone car came by they could stop and help themselves.

Mom pulled together something for supper. Jenny came home from work, disappointed that she’d missed all the excitement. We rested. We processed.

And the Sisters’ Forest Fire filled the sky with a hazy smoke, and the sun set, large and red, over the coast range.

 

 

Bookweek Day 6: Some Final Thoughts

Thought 1: Well, you all have convinced me. I have, once again, started The Scarlet Pimpernel. I am currently 3 chapters in and very confused as to the exact political beliefs of the various men in the bar. But I’m powering on, regardless.


Thought 2: Hamlet just does not have the rabid fan base that The Scarlet Pimpernell does, according to the oh-so-reliable sample size that is my blog comments. So why are people always referencing Hamlet?

Thought 3: I realized, as I read the comments, that I rarely talk anymore, on my blog, about my own plans to write books. So yes, if you’re curious, now that I’m out of school that’s what I’m working on. I’m nervous about blogging about my projects because I always think, “what if I decide to scrap it and then I’ll have to explain??”

Hmm.

Thought 4: My post about diaries had me thinking: most people keep a diary at some point in their life, right? So where do all those diaries go? Do people destroy their own diaries? Shouldn’t families all have heirloom diaries?

Thought 5: This week was such fun. I should do it again sometime.

Bookweek Day 5: The exclusive club of true bookworms.

B2

When I was a kid, I noticed a lot of weird tropes in the books I read. Like, the author would say “grown-ups don’t understand X,Y, and Z,” when the book was obviously written by a grown-up. Characters would say “this is just like something that would happen in a book!” when, duh, they were in a book. And all of the main characters loved to read. All of them.

Even if they were a medieval peasant, some random priest would have trained them in the art of reading and writing.

It forms an odd kind-of a self-perpetuating cycle. Sure the kids who love to read may find a relatable character and continue to love to read, but the kids who don’t love to read aren’t going to be converted any time soon if every book they pick up is about someone who’s completely unlike them.

As a kid who struggled to read and only managed to wade through about one book for every ten my sister Amy devoured, I always felt like the bookworm club was something that belonged to her, and to those characters, but not to me.

I was reminded of this self-perpetuating cycle when I took literature and writing classes in college, and once again felt like I was standing on the outside of some exclusive club. This was the club of literary fiction. Genre fiction, you see, was for the uneducated masses. True writers had to love literary fiction.

They’d give us “fantastically brilliant” short stories to read, bizarre plotless things overstuffed with similes. “I once had a class with this author,” they’d say, or “I heard this author speak once.” But I’d never heard of those authors, nor had I ever heard of my teacher’s published works, and suddenly I’d wonder if all the literary world did was pass stories around to each other and tell each other how brilliant they were.

In the last writing class of my college career, we were learning how to write linked collections of short stories. During the term we read three examples of linked collections: Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, and The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat. A Visit from the Good Squad was the most fun to read, but in the end I had to settle for The Dew Breaker as my favorite. It explored the Haitian-American experience in the wake of the Duvalier dynasty, something I knew very little about. It also explored the concept of an unspeakably evil person deciding to become “good.” (Jesus’ Son was just a bunch of incoherent stories about a guy who drove around town listlessly and did drugs with his friends and watched people die.)

During our last class session, the teacher asked us which of the three books we’d liked best. And my jaw fell to the ground as every. single. person. said, “Jesus’ Son.”

“It was just…his way with words was amazing. I found myself underlining, like, every single sentence,” said Justin. Which was true. I know enough about writing to know that those were some gorgeous sentences about nothing.

“I agree,” said our teacher. “Honestly, a lot of Danticat’s sentences were kind-of clunky.”

Also true. But.

I’d rather live in an ugly house than in a pile of beautiful bricks, I thought but did not say.

Now, I will freely admit that that sentiment may have been my own brand of snobbery. Because if people love their beautiful bricks, what is that to me?

And yet, I firmly believe that reading is a magical form of storytelling that is accessible to all. We just have to stop telling kids that The Great Illustrated Classics aren’t worth reading because of how cringingly watered-down they are, or that they’re not true readers if they only like The Hardy Boys. 

And we have to stop telling adults that only the beautiful bricks are works of art and stories worth telling.

We have to stop excluding people from the bookworm club.

Bookweek Day 4: Should you finish reading a boring book just because it’s a classic?

I’ve started a lot of books that I never finished. In general, I feel zero guilt about this. There are so many great books in the world to read, so why waste time on the boring ones?

But there are a few books, such as The Scarlet Pimpernel and Hamlet, that I do feel guilty about. Because I assume that a classic must be a classic for a reason, so by not finishing I’m forfeiting the knowledge of some grand truth. Right?

Recently, though, I challenged that notion when I read The Vicar of Wakefield. Good grief, that was a boring book. I will admit that the Vicar himself was an interesting character with a unique and humorous voice, but that’s about where the merit of this book began an ended. Can we talk about the chapter where the Vicar goes on for pages and pages about how a Monarchy is the political system that benefits poor people the most? Or the ending, where (spoiler alert) the Vicar’s wife tells him that their daughter Sophia is dead, only to reveal later that, haha, she was only joking? Sophia isn’t dead after all?

I mean, I don’t regret reading it necessarily, but I can’t say that wading through the whole thing did me much good.

I’m actually of two minds on this topic.

On one hand, I think “good grief, just let people read what they want to read.” Everyone is going to have different tastes, and telling people they should read something just because it’s a “classic” by someone’s arbitrary definition is silly.

On the other hand, I remember the feeling I got when I reached the end of The Prince and the Pauper, the first classic I ever read all the way through. And I remember how it felt to wade through Gone With the Wind all the way to the end. And more recently, getting to the end of The Napoleon of Notting Hill. Like someone pressed the clutch in my brain and shifted into a higher gear. I suddenly saw the world, or history, or myself, in a way I hadn’t before.

I guess I have no real answer to this question.

But I discovered, during my short stint in the School of Writing, Literature, and Film (while getting my writing minor), that people are really snobby about what books people ought to read. It was frustrating and annoying. So I think, in reaction to their snobbery, I tend to come out more on the “read whatever you want” side of the fence.

Comments by a literature teacher would be very interesting right about now.

I may do a post about snobbery and literary fiction tomorrow. I realized that I’ve been covering a different genre every day, so maybe it’s time to do a literary fiction themed post.

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.

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.