Posting the Book?

This is a series of questions called “The Ultimate Book Tag” which I preferred as a holiday post to trying to solve problems of theological praxis or how to sew zips in so they don’t tear back out.  It makes a change from posting a photograph of an animal!

1. Do you get sick while reading in the car?

Not usually.

2. Which author’s writing style is completely unique to you and why?

Uh, what?  If that means, “Which of the authors I have read has the most unique style?”, then, um, probably Shakespeare.

3. Harry Potter Series or the Twilight Saga? Give 3 points to defend your answer.

I haven’t read the Twilight Saga, and I didn’t finish Harry Potter.  I suppose that counts as a vote for Harry Potter, but it might be hard to justify it at length.

4. Do you carry a book bag? If so, what is it in (besides books…)?

No.  I put books in my bag.  I do not carry a book bag.

5. Do you smell your books?

Not on purpose.  Well, not usually.  At least, not on a daily basis.

6. Books with or without little illustrations?

With if the illustrations match the text and have artistic quality.  Without if not.  I never appreciated the type of book which described a golden arrow resting on a red velvet cushion, but accompanied the text with an illustration of a silver arrow resting on a gold and blue brocade cushion.

7. What book did you love while reading but discovered later it wasn’t quality writing?

Goodness, I’ve enjoyed a lot of books enormously which I’d hardly feel were exactly masterpieces of literary composition.

8. Do you have any funny stories involving books from your childhood? Please share!

There was the time when I tried to borrow a book on pregnancy (an age-appropriate book about biological development, not a book depicting graphic or inappropriate sex) from the primary school library, and got forbidden in case my parents objected!  They didn’t.  Despite having established that, the teacher the following year tried to forbid it all over again.

Why on earth the book wasn’t marked reference if they objected to its being borrowed, or kept out of reach of the younger kids if they thought it wasn’t appropriate, I never found out.

9. What is the thinnest book on your shelf?

On my shelf?  In the singular?  What?

10. What is the thickest book on your bookshelves?

Probably “The Complete Works of Shakespeare”, though at least one of the Bible commentaries runs it fairly close.

11. Do you write as well as read? Do you see yourself in the future as being an author?

Yes, I write.  But being “an author” or not is something of an “how long is a piece of string” question.

12. When did you get into reading?

As soon as I could read, though I didn’t enjoy stories until I was probably 9 or 10.  The school made such a fuss about that.  Somehow not wanting to read stories is a sign of depravity!  Or something.

13. What is your favourite classic book?

Probably “The Lord of the Rings”, though “The Blue Castle”, “Alice in Wonderland”, and “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe”, run it pretty close.

14. In school was your best subject Language Arts/English?

No.  It really was not.  Though I did better at secondary school because I actually liked literature.  Not that this always helped because people were obsessed with the notion that we’d find it boring.  So instead of being allowed to enjoy something like the Ancient Mariner and write on it and how it worked we had to carve it up and turn it into a film.

(Yes.  I do have strong opinions on education.  Moving on…)

15. If you were given a book as a present that you had read before and hated…what would you do?

Leave it quietly on a bookshelf somewhere for sentimental reasons.  Though it might find its way to a charity shop in the end.

16. What is a lesser known series that you know of that is similar to Harry Potter or the Hunger Games?

The Worst Witch.  Which I think is actually better composed than Harry Potter* from a literary point of view.  It is more coherent, the text is more tightly composed without unnecessary happenings or words, and the characters and the plot fit together better.

*Such of it as I’ve read.

17. What is a bad habit you always do (besides rambling) while blogging?

Forgetting to tag the posts.  It happens about half the time and then I have to go back and edit them.

18. What is your favourite word?

Well, if you mean, “what word do I use most often?” I would guess probably “it”?  Or perhaps “to” or “the”.

If you mean “what word do I like the most,” well, difficult.  I like five syllable words which have nice assonance and rhythm once you’ve worked out how to pronounce them, and mean something it would usually take a whole sentence or more to express, or is very difficult to describe without a specific word.  “Impassible” is fun, though it only has four syllables.

19. Are you a nerd, dork, or dweeb? Or all of the above?

I’m probably a geek.

20. Vampires or Fairies? Why?

Fairies.  Vampires give me nightmares.

21. Shapeshifters or Angels? Why?

For amusement, shapeshifters.  I spent too much time on the (rather speculative but nevertheless interesting and informative) metaphysics of angels.  I don’t know how many shapeshifters you can get on the head of a pin!  This makes reading about them more relaxing.

Admittedly, I do tend to notice if fantasy writers haven’t thought their story-world’s metaphysics through in a reasonably coherent way, regardless of what they’re writing about.

22. Spirits or Werewolves? Why?

I don’t mind.  So long as it is fantasy and not horror…

23. Zombies or Vampires?

For preference, neither!

24. Love Triangle or Forbidden Love?

Now I want to start comparing “Frozen” with” A Midsummer Night’s Dream”…

Forbidden love occurs in both, though with a rather unusual twist in “Frozen”.  There’s sort of a love triangle in both too, if the Kristoph-Anna-Hans thing counts.

Perhaps it isn’t so much of an “either-or” thing?

25. Full on romance books or action-packed with a few love scenes mixed in?

I definitely prefer romance as a side dish rather than a main.


Cherry Foster

Cinderella, Crisis, and Conditions

Some thoughts on L. M. Montgomery’s “The Blue Castle”. (Contains spoilers).

View of a Lake in Canada. Source, Wikimedia Commons:

The Blue Castle is an odd book. It is, on one level, Cinderella warmed over and served up with early-twentieth-century sauce, but it is so beautifully done that it has all the inherent satisfaction of Cinderella, with all the interest of a new story. I wasn’t certain, the first time I read it, that Valancy wasn’t going to die.

The Cinderella figure, Valancy Stirling, is at the beginning of the book, an “old maid”. This designates, as far as I can see, a woman over twenty-five who doesn’t seem to have any prospect of getting married – and in this context, it does seem to be generally pejorative rather than merely descriptive. Her mother treats her badly, controlling her every move, nagging, requiring useless work of her simply in order that she should not be idle. Not merely is she controlled to a very unreasonable extent, but her mother does not love her and does not need her, and is continuously unpleasant to her, going into long, silent sulks whenever Valancy, however reasonably, attempts to assert herself. Amelia Stirling could give Mrs. Norris a run for her money. The rest of the family (various uncles, aunts, and cousins) are the same, or rather, they each have their own distinctive way of being unpleasant. The stepsisters are represented by a cousin, Olive, who is beautiful, wealthy, and engaged to be married, though, unlike the stepsisters, she is not the chief cause of Valancy’s difficulties or suffering.

Valancy, daringly, goes to a doctor without her mother’s knowledge. The doctor is called away in the middle of the consultation, and sends her a letter informing her she has not more than a year to live. Valancy’s reaction to this is to break through the boundaries her unpleasant family set her – she changes her style of hairdressing, moves her bed from one corner of her room to another, and refuses to piece unnecessary quilts.

She eventually leaves home to nurse a school friend, whose illness, combined with a drunken father, has resulted in her not having anyone to wait on her. After the school friend dies, she marries someone she has got to know while living with her: Barney Snaith, probable criminal, who lives on an island in the middle of a large lake. Her marriage is a fascinating study of the fact that her instinctive judgement – that this man is a decent person – is far better than her reasoning. He is good to her, and she is in love with him, and doesn’t care whether he is a criminal or not, as she hasn’t long to live and doesn’t really need to consider the possible consequences.

Her relatives are not at this point being that unreasonable in objecting, but it is cleverly brought out that, with one exception, her relatives are hurt in their pride rather than worried about her welfare. One of the things which I find interesting about the book from the ethical point of view, though it isn’t really a theme of the book as such, is the boundary between convention and immorality. The conventions which ruin Valancy’s reputation because she has gone to nurse a girl who has had an illegitimate child (the result, apparently, of ignorance rather than guilt, at least on her part), and whose father is a drunk, she criticises with energy, and with considerable justice. But it is hardly morally irrelevant if she is paying her household expenses with stolen or counterfeit money. This doesn’t impinge on my enjoyment of the story, but I find it interesting. Social norms and conventions have changed so much since, that it is sometimes difficult to feel the full force of the way she is disobeying them – as when she asks Barney to marry her.

After enjoying a wonderful year exploring the woods and the lake with Barney, it becomes suddenly apparent to both of them she isn’t going to die. She goes back to the doctor, and it turns out the letter was not meant for her but for someone else. Twelve o’clock has struck. She goes back to her mother’s house, assuming that her husband will want to divorce her. And this is where one of L. M. Montgomery’s real strengths comes through. Her characters are never one dimensional. Valancy’s mother, unpleasant, controlling, ordering her life to false values, stops short of shutting the door on her daughter. Valancy’s husband – who is actually a millionaire’s son and a famous author, with quite innocent reasons for living as he does – comes after her. Eventually he convinces her he does actually love her, and they live “happily ever after”, or at least, the closest equivalent to it that’s actually possible in a story set in the real world.

Much though I love the book, I find the crisis leading to the ending (that of Valancy’s leaving Barney) deeply frustrating in some ways. I tend to feel its emotional force – which it certainly has – second hand. I admire this part of the book greatly as a piece of writing, but I don’t really empathise with what’s happening. The characters as she has set them up would act like that. They aren’t people who would sit down sensibly in front of a good fire and talk about what to do next under the changed circumstances. Barney is very reserved, and doesn’t talk openly with her when she needs him to, at the point they realise that she isn’t going to die. She misconstrues this as anger. She also has what we’d probably call “low self-esteem”; it isn’t surprising she finds it impossible to believe a man should be in love with her. And she has acted so far out of the conventions by asking someone to marry her, that her being utterly horrified by the fact that what she had said wasn’t true, however sincerely she believed it, is natural enough; it is also natural that, coming from a changed culture, I should find it difficult to feel the implications of this and the burdens it lays on her, even with a certain amount of intellectual comprehension of what’s going on.

Part of the reason I find this crisis difficult to enter into is that I find it extremely jarring that she is behaving as if it is possible for either of them to add extra conditions to Christian marriage. It is reasonable to assume they will have sworn “until death do us part”*. They will not have added “so long as one of us dies within the year, and otherwise this is not binding”!** It is not a new problem for cultural conventions and assumptions to be stronger than the values stated in the Christian liturgy. However, this is perhaps rather like a sailor complaining that the knots were of the wrong type on the ropes on the sails in a boat on the stage! It may be a valid observation, glaring to anyone who frequently deals with sails, but it isn’t really relevant to the story: it is an in-character incident not tied to the values advocated by the novel when taken as a whole.

The other thing which makes it difficult for me to enter into what she is going through is the fact that there is no obvious need for her to return to her old life as a “vegetable”, with the result that I feel that the crisis is overdone, as it dwells a lot on that aspect of things. It probably isn’t overdone internally – that is how she would see it and how she would think. But I find it difficult to believe that having once broken the shackles of being a perpetual minor, and her mother having had to accept that, they could ever be mended. Nothing is stopping her taking on work, until perhaps, she’s earned the money to train as a nurse or a teacher. Possibly I misread the situation, in that it may be that the way she has ruined her reputation would prevent or make it difficult for her to find employment – though it is difficult to see people like her old school friend declining her on those grounds. And, as I also felt it was obvious that Barney isn’t really going to divorce her, while I grieve over the way she’s suffering, it feels to some extent imaginary, as it is the result of the anticipation of a bleak future that is obviously not going to happen to her from the reader’s point of view.

It is beautifully written, however, and completely in character; I suspect whether or not people find these chapters easy to enter into emotionally depends a lot on their own personality, and whether they are more inclined to live in the moment or to think all around everything from every possible angle. And despite the fact that it is fairly clear that things will sort themselves out, I remained interested in how right through to the end. And have enjoyed rereading it quite a few times. While the book sounds rather dark from a simple description, it is in fact very varied in its tone, from the weariness of the dying school friend, to the sheer fun of Valancy’s breaking out and saying what she thinks to her unpleasant relatives, to long descriptions of the natural beauty around her at her married home, and the excitement of the events leading to the end. It is perfectly constructed as a story, and everything that happens has a good reason for happening: there’s nothing that feels contrived.



*Valancy and Barney are married by a Free Methodist minister in Port Laurence: the words of the marriage service are not actually stated, and I haven’t worked out any way of checking the detail of the vows they would have made. It is likely they are similar to those I am familiar with, at least on this point, but I cannot be absolutely certain.

** I suppose some might make a case for annulment on the grounds of lack of real consent under such circumstances, which would allow people to add conditions, but I find it rather worrying that it should be possible for competent, responsible adults to make a vow in the presence of God, take all the advantages of that vow for a time, but be able to refuse to treat it as binding on the grounds that they had added conditions. This is at least hardly in the spirit of “let your yes be yes, and your no, no”. However, that type of issue is more the province of theologians than philosophers, and certainly the reasons for which Valancy acts as she does are cultural and emotional rather than theological.


Cherry Foster

Eustace and a (probable) Plot

Some ramblings about C. S. Lewis’s “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader”

(N.B. Probably contains spoilers)


I have just finished reading – again – C. S. Lewis’s book “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” – the fifth Narnia Chronicle, if one takes them in the story world’s chronology rather than in the order in which they were written.

I’m never really quite sure what I think of it. There is something in all the Narnia Chronicles which leads me to read and reread them over and over. But when I initially read this particular one, I didn’t really think much of it – I felt it had no plot.

I’ve revised that particular opinion since: the plot can be readily summarised, but the nature of the quest involved (seeking seven different people who turn out to be in five different places) is sufficiently diffuse that, taken with the presence of the moral underpinnings (rarely obtrusive but always important), the adventures sometimes seem to have no relation whatever to each other, but that they happen on the same journey and during the same task. However, they are nicely varied and mostly wonderful fun – I don’t think I’ve ever got bored in the process of reading it due to feeling it was repetitive – and the nature of the voyage itself, where to fulfil the quest they have to go “towards Aslan’s country behind the sunrise”, has a considerable significance in the world’s set up, which I think holds things together more than I initially realised.

While I entirely enter into the way Edmund is set up as rather nasty at the beginning of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”, I have mixed feelings about Eustace as he is described by the author at the beginning of this book. Granted, the subculture Eustace is described as coming from is not one I’m familiar with, and I have no way of considering whether or not I’d agree with its criticism. And certainly Eustace does plenty of things he shouldn’t. However, I have a certain amount of automatic empathy with him because I was also a child who was much criticised for preferring books of information to stories – I didn’t enjoy stories much until I was nine or ten! There isn’t an obvious logical reason to assume the bad character of a child because they prefer information to imagination and artistry at a particular stage of their development. However, in Eustace’s case it seems reasonably likely to be shorthand for something else that is going on, which I don’t recognise.

I also think Eustace gets unfairly treated in certain places. For example: “Eustace was crying harder than any boy of his age has a right to cry when nothing worse has happened to him than a wetting.” Laying aside changes in gender expectations, it just isn’t an accurate description of events. Eustace was standing in the guest bedroom of his parents’ house, when a picture began to behave oddly, and then fairly suddenly he found himself washed into the middle of a sea. I don’t think describing that as though he had merely tripped over and fallen into a fountain while on a walk in the local park makes sense.

Interestingly, later in the book, after he starts improving, more allowance is given to the fact he hasn’t any experience of “adventures”. As Eustace improves fairly early on in the book, feeling the early criticisms of him are a bit heavy-handed doesn’t affect enjoyment of that much of the story.

I also feel that a better reason for them sailing into the unknown “darkness” could have been found than the fact that Reepicheep had never heard the proverb “The better part of valour is discretion”! I love the Quixotic mouse – who, ironically, is right often enough despite his recklessness – but I still feel the plot limps slightly here, in that the motivation for risking lives in the way (King) Caspian does isn’t adequate. The other characters don’t usually have the same “death-and-glory” mind-set as Reepicheep, and usually check his excesses rather than joining in with them. Again, it seems rather arbitrary that the enchantment of the three Lords should be broken at the end by one member of the company continuing on into Aslan’s country; there doesn’t seem to be any connection between the two things. Though these things don’t matter very much, I’m sure they contributed to my initial impression that the book lacked a plot, and I think it would be raised from good to excellent, by more coherence in these places, particularly in the second (given the significance of Aslan in the world’s set up). This may be a matter of purely personal taste: where coherence and consistency matter and where they don’t in fiction is hardly a straightforward issue.

Though I haven’t done a “how-does-the-author-use-language-to-create-this-effect” analysis on the prose style of each section, one of the things that struck me on this last reading was the extent to which C. S. Lewis creates different atmospheres through the book – the tension and fear of the dark island and the sea serpent, the apparent normality of the island of the voice, the dreamy calmness of the last sea at the end of the world, the almost oppressive wildness of some of the uninhabited islands.  It is extremely well written from the technical point of view.

There is a lot of morality, spirituality, and metaphysics in the book overall, something I always enjoy, but if – like “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” – it is intended to be built around an analogy of some type, rather than being a series of adventures which make moral and spiritual points, I haven’t spotted it yet (or read an introduction/commentary which points it out).

Perhaps part of the reason I never really determine what I think of it is that while it is in itself an excellent book, I miss in it overall the raw power and mythological depth of some of the other books in the series (particularly “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe”, and “The Last Battle”). It is an enjoyable read, with a lot of depth and thoughtfulness, but it isn’t really the same type of book.



*Primary school: ages four to eleven in the English school system.


Cherry Foster

Alice in Wonderland – the broken rule that worked

When I was at primary school being required to write (what I felt were) highly uninspiring stories about aliens invading the earth, there were some major no-nos.  One of which was ending with “and [the protagonist] woke up and found it was all a dream”.

This has led to a substantial fascination on my part with the feeling, at the end of Alice, that the ending was relatively satisfactory.  Despite the fact that it seemed to break that cardinal rule.

(I realise not everyone agrees that it does work.  I’d enjoy comments with a different take on it).

Though I love and admire it greatly, there’s a lot about Alice in Wonderland that isn’t particularly brilliant.  It is, for one thing, a book that lacks a coherent plot (unlike Alice through the Looking Glass, which does actually have a beginning, a quest, and an end).  In Wonderland, we wander vaguely from one happening to another, wondering if there is any point, though most of the incidents are fun in themselves.

While I don’t in many ways think much of the ballet, which I feel made far too much use of special effects and far too little use of dance, what they did with the beginning, the end, and the general logic of the happenings was extremely clever.  I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, though.

But back to the puzzle of the end that shouldn’t work.  I think there are several factors in the fact that it does.

It is strongly hinted at the beginning that she’s falling asleep.

She then wanders from one absurd, unreal happening to another.  The court case of the tarts, and Alice’s place in it, are not going to be solved in any logical way.  That’s already clear.  The notion that the cards fly at her, and then become the leaves that her sister is brushing off her face, doesn’t bear very much resemblance to the violent and scary “I’m in prison and the aliens have just tortured my friend to death and then I woke up”.  Something weird and unpredictable is going to happen.  If the baby has been rescued from its plight not by the local social services department, but by transmogrification, and you can fall out with Time so it is always tea-time, growing too big for the room and then waking up is in accord.  And far from obscuring or changing what has already happened, it makes more sense of it.  Ah, the reader may think, that was why it was all absurd.  That was why the nonsense.  It was a dream.  Dreams are like that.

The other thing is that the book doesn’t end with her waking up.  It ends with her older sister’s thought-monologue on her.  The story is (apparently) the tale of a dream, but the book is in a real sense about the girl.  Her dreaming and waking up aren’t really the point.  The point is who and what she is and what her sister and godfather hope she will become.  There is a touch of sentimentality here that I find somewhat irksome, but only, I think, because it is of its time and not part of my culture.

Interestingly, I think the end of “Through the Looking Glass” doesn’t quite work so well.  I feel it is more clumsy precisely because the whole book is more coherent.  I felt that she might properly have had slightly longer to enjoy the triumphant conclusion of her quest before waking up.  But that is not really to criticise the structure of the dream in general, but to suggest that particular part of the narrative might have been even better if handled slightly differently.

(And I do enjoy the kittens and the elephant-bees).

The conclusion I would come to is that the problem with “it was a dream” is not ending in that way in itself.  The problem comes when an author breaks the narrative sense of the story, by signalling to the reader with narrative pointers of genre and style and coherence that this is real (in the story sense) and makes sense and is a reflection of real life, and then awkwardly breaking out of that and doing something different which they hadn’t properly pointed towards.  If you write about a dream and the person doing the dreaming, the narrative pointers all go in the right direction, and the waking, while still anti-climactic in style, is part of the story rather than interrupting it.


Cherry Foster