6.23.14 Classic Walks in Western Europe / The Reluctant Widow

Classic Walks in Western Europe by Gillian Souter and John Souter
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first read / library book : 160/160

I picked this up to do landscape research for a story I am writing. Normally I do not read cover-to-cover walking guides, but this one is succinctly stuffed with evocative (though not purple) descriptions of terrain and architecture, brief lessons in history, and hints to weather, crops, wildlife, what to do with your luggage, and when you ought to pack your lunch ahead of time. The walks are laid out one day at a time, with a distance and a time suggested for each, with good directions for the roads and trails and advice on their difficulty. I’m mad that this is research and that the next phase of research is not going on all the walks. I would have very strong legs and I would have seen approximately one million cool things that I’m now able to be really mad about not seeing. Choice photos make you even more mad, and word to the wise: tumblr searching all the locations that aren’t pictured is enough to make you bite down on your lip and sob-scowl as you bitterly scroll through endless untouchable vistas thousands of miles out of your reach.

Great book, would peruse again.

The Reluctant Widow by Georgette Heyer

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first read : 306/306

GOOD OLD GEORGETTE HEYER. I didn’t read her for years and then after a hundred recommendations I finally did, and ISN’T SHE A SPORT? I’ve had this one for about three years and somehow haven’t read it before, but now I have, and I think it’s right up next to The Grand Sophy favorite Heyers. In this story, as nothing on the jacket informed me (probably that’s what makes it the 6 shilling “Cheap Edition”), a down on her luck 26-year-old gentlewoman is going to take a post as a governess when mishaps occur and she is roped into marrying a horrible young man so that his cousin won’t be forced to inherit his crumbling estate (when he inevitably dies young). The young death occurs even more immediately than anyone expects, because halfway through convincing the heroine that marrying this Eustace fellow is a good idea, Ned’s little brother shows up to say he’s accidentally stabbed the Eustace fellow, and the Eustace fellow is now in the process of dying.

Long story short, Elinor marries the wretch, he dies, and then everyone discovers there’s a plot to sneak intelligence to BONAPARTE through Elinor’s new horrible house. Many exciting things happen! There is a minimum of one murder. My only real complaint is that the push-and-pull between Elinor and Ned is not quite credible as romance, and is only palatable as romance if Ned really changes the way he goes about things, as he says he will. I’d rather imagine she waits a few years and marries little brother Nicky, causing a GREAT SCANDAL, but by then Nicky will have calmed down a bit and they’ll be very good together. That’s my ending.

 

 

6.17.14 A Room of One’s Own

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

Imagefirst read / library book : 114/114

You have a very strong sense of Virginia Woolf, reading A Room of One’s Own. She has a firm steady voice, and she is sitting right next to you, and she takes out one thing at a time and sets it in front of you. As she speaks, she takes out another thing, and another, and there’s no opportunity to argue, and suddenly at the end you see in front of you a whole thesis, built of conversational tidbits, lightly delivered until they have formed something great. It’s an old-fashioned book now, but it understands the same things that still need understanding.

The topic of this essay, as set, is WOMEN AND FICTION. The path taken, famously, is that women are tragically poor parts of literary history, and this is because they have been made poor: not inherently, but by a society where men’s desire to be “superior” puts women in the “inferior” slot. Woolf’s argument is essentially that when you live in a society that will not teach you to write, let you write, pay you to write, read your writing, to value your writing if it is read–it is hard to expect you to do so, and harder to expect others to follow you. There’s a particularly wonderful passage where she point by point considers how impossible it would have been for any woman in Shakespeare’s time to do what Shakespeare did. The world made it impossible, because the world did not at all belong to her.

That is what A Room of One’s Own is: it means that women, to succeed in writing, must be given something they have never had, which is ownership of their space and their work. It means toppling the expectations that haunt them. It means being given value to their work. It means having other women to work from. It means giving a hand up to other women.

Woolf is like a great cat padding along, to and fro but always forward, and you do not get to forget for long that she has claws and teeth.

She is also a splendid writer, so let me just put some of her lines up:

On men writing about women: “Why does Samuel Butler say, ‘Wise men never say what they think of women’? Wise men never say anything else apparently.” (29)

On thinking and writing: “…my own notebook rioted with the wildest scribble of contradictory jottings. It was distressing, it was bewildering. It was humiliating. Truth had run through my fingers. Every drop had escaped.” (30)

On bigotry: “Possibly when the professor insisted a little too emphatically upon the inferiority of women, he was concerned not with their inferiority, but with his superiority…Without self-confidence we are as babes in the cradle. And how can we generate this imponderable quality, which is yet so invaluable, most quickly. By thinking that other people are inferior to oneself. By feeling that one has some innate superiority…over other people.” (34-5)

On women in men’s fiction and fact: “Indeed, if women had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance; very various; heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; infinitely beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as a man, some think even greater. But this is woman in fiction. In fact, as Professor Trevelyan points out, she was locked up, beaten and flung about the room. A very queer, composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history.” (43)

On financial and social capital: “Money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for.” (65)

On writing novels: “And for the most part, of course, novels do come to grief somewhere. The imagination falters under the enormous strain.” (73)

On integrity and art: “It was the flaw in the center that had rotted [those books]. She had altered her values in deference to the opinion of others.” (74)

On women hating women: ” ‘Chloe liked Olivia,’ I read. And then it struck me how immense a change was there. Chloe liked Olivia perhaps for the first tim in literature.” (82)

On merit: “I do not believe that gifts, whether of mind or character, can be weighed like sugar and butter, not even in Cambridge, where they are so adept at putting people into classes and fixing caps on their heads and letters after their names.” (105)

On intellectual freedom and poverty: “That is it. Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years only, but from the beginning of time.” (108)

On why women should fight: “I maintain that she [the future writer] would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while.” (114)

6.13.14 Half Bad

Half Bad by Sally Green

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First Read / Library Book

394/394

This book is like a sadistic Demon’s Lexicon.

TW: gore, death, violence, suicide, torture, parent death, imprisonment

(I am too tired to write a blog post, would it be gauche to just leave it like that?)

(Yes.)

Half Bad takes place in a Britain with a small, secret witch population. There are WHITE WITCHES and BLACK WITCHES and the white witches have things like counsels and edicts and they like to hunt the black witches down and kill them. The white witches claim moral superiority but behave disgustingly throughout. The black witches, on the other hand, also feel good about themselves, but they tend to run around murdering people and one another, particularly if they’ve married into each other’s families. So whatever moral questions might be raised in this book, the answer is generally, no, they are all horrible, how would you like this scene of excruciating violence.

Important note: the only characters not described as racially white (actually described, not just left to the reader’s white-defaulting imagination) are Black Witches. There is not enough time spent fleshing out this odd tiny culture to definitively say whether this is an authorial commentary on racism or is, in fact, racism. In any case I am not sure what the commentary would be, since as I said, pretty much everyone is a murderer in this darn book.

BUT THE PLOT. WHAT IS THE PLOT?

Nathan is half-White and half-Black (witch) (he appears to be brownish). His mother is dead of suicide and his father is THE WORST WITCH* IN ALL OF BRITAIN OR WHEREVER HE HAPPENS TO BE. Probably the counsel of white witches would just kill Nathan like they kill all the Black Witches, but first his test results keep being unclear, and then they probably want to use Nathan to catch said bad dad. It’s not immediately apparent that he’s the only “Half Code” in Britain because the counsel keeps sending him edicts (increasingly restricting his movement) to the tune of “all Half Codes”. When you do find out that all of this stuff, framed as far-reaching, is specifically targeting him, it’s very chilling. Eventually they take him from his family and he’s kept in a cage for awhile by a white witch named Celia. Eventually he gets out of the cage and goes on the run.

There’s also a sort of nascent romance plot with this white witch girl he goes to school with, AND THERE IS LATE IN THE BOOK A SURPRISE GAY FRIEND PLOT TWIST???? WILL NATHAN TURN GAY OR IS HIS FRIEND’S GAYNESS JUST A NECESSARY FOR HIS ROLE OF CLIFFHANGER DAMSEL IN DISTRESS? answers unknowable until the second book! Anyway the romance feels very out of place, although I do buy Nathan’s developing oddly intense attachments to anyone who has been nice to him.

The book is not chronological. It opens in the future, dabbles with second person for early childhood, reins it in and goes first person for the future,  jumps back again in time to cover most of his childhood, and then jumps forward again, in a slightly confusing way, because the second jump happens somewhere in the time period of this last jump but doesn’t actually…happen in it. The effects are there, but the event is invisible on the second pass. I can think of one specific friend who would HATE this. It didn’t bother me, per se, but I can’t say it was entirely effective–I don’t usually mind tense/POV/chronology jumps but these threw me off a little.

The way it’s like a sadistic Demon’s Lexicon is like this, AND THIS MAY BE A SPOILER FOR DEMON’S LEXICON: English kid with black, creepy eyes and a loving brother cannot connect to fellow people, has a hard time reading and writing, is hated by his mother unto death. His father is an evil magic-user. There are witch circles and rules. His father likes to kill people. The shape of the character’s existence actually feels really similar. The crucial difference is that Nathan is always fairly certain both of his own monstrosity and the nature of it; it’s a much more bitter and cynical version of Nick’s living with himself. If Sarah Rees Brennan were merciless to her characters, you could imagine that this is the life her character would have instead of the one she gave him.

In general though, it has some serious violence, and I read the whole thing in under three hours of commuting because I kept speed-stress-reading past all the horrifying parts.

Maybe it was the speed or maybe it was the book–I found it a little difficult to settle in and find deep roots. But I think I’d read the next one when it comes out, at a similar pace, because I am interested to know what happens, even if the ending was sequel-bait and that is one of my worst peeves in YA fiction.

I think I need to read something that’s not overtly violent for awhile. HOW DOES THIS KEEP HAPPENING?


 

*Not like The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy. Another, more murderous witch.

6.10.14 Bird By Bird

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

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Library book / first read: 237/237.

CW: ableism, racism, fatphobia, other stuff

I was sort of done with this book at the point where Lamott recounts going to the Special Olympics as a reporter and SUFFERED TERRIBLY because the last contestant of this one race was HORRIBLY DAMAGED and REALLY SLOW even though it was ANNE LAMOTT’S LUNCH TIME and HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN TO ANNE LAMOTT, REPORTER AT THE SPECIAL OLYMPICS, but then!!!!! two people with Down Syndrome and a black man with no front teeth looked really happy because they had done something despite their lives being inherently awful, and this gave her an angle for her article.

(She later says that everyone at the Special Olympics looks “related.” I just don’t know where to start with that.)

Given this pretty horrible approach to disability you’ll forgive my hesitation in trusting Lamott with regards to mental illness? OH. BUT. LAMOTT. LOVES. MENTAL ILLNESS. She uses it, the phrase, like this funny hat that all writers find in their house and they’re not sure what it is or where it came from but isn’t it hysterical how it sort of gets everywhere, oh ho ho everything could be described as a hat! Her mental illnesses, her most mentally ill friend, you know, her students! All of them! Publishing will probably make all of your mental illnesses worse. What are they? Who knows. Mental illnesses are a clever idea, an artistic mode, they’re not literal illnesses. And then she refers to herself as rocking back and forth like a giant autistic child….and becoming slightly schizophrenic…and going into manic writing frenzies…and being obsessive-compulsive….

Maybe there are things pathologically wrong with Anne Lamott. I don’t know. She doesn’t address that. It seems unlikely that she is bipolar, obsessive-compulsive, schizoid and autistic. That’s just a lot at once. I have cause to doubt.

But one of the things that is generally wrong with Anne Lamott is that this is clearly all supposed to be FUNNY language. She also loves to include details about her friends to show how wacky and off-center they are–like, one of her good friends, Tom, is referred to as Tom once in the book, but he is ALWAYS! HER! GAY! PRIEST! FRIEND! My friend who is a gay priest. My gay Jesuit priest friend. Lest we forget.

Oh, and in case you thought a white woman in dreadlocks was not necessarily prone to racism, she also says this spectacular thing of Isabel Allende:

“Now, I love Ms. Allende’s work, as I love a number of South and Central American writers. When I read their books, I feel like I’m sitting around a campfire at night where they are spinning their wild stories…it’s like primitive art. It’s simple and decorative, with rich colors, satisfying old forms, and a lot of sophistication underneath that you feel but really don’t see.” (196)

Well, as long as all of the South and Central American writers remind you of excitingly barbaric outdoor lifestyles and primitive art. WHAT ARE YOU SAYING? WHAT ARE YOU DOING? WHY DIDN’T ANYONE STOP YOU????

So the whole book is just kind of like that, Lamott throwing out offense after offense (about poor people on trains, about fat people, about basically anyone she thinks might be a good metaphor) as if they are interesting playthings that don’t have much to do with real people’s lives. The book actually says a lot about attentiveness and love, but I get the feeling it’s the kind of love that’s about the person doing the loving, about what they feel and mine from the experience, and not about what they could be doing for the person they set their love on. (There’s also a lot of church in the book, and I wonder if anyone has pointed out to her ever that Christian love is at the core meant to be in the form of active service, not picking up the details of someone else’s pathetic, tragical life for a delicious little moment in your next book.)

I have almost nothing to say about how the book addresses its purpose. I don’t really like any of the authors she harps upon, incompatible focus may have impacted my ability to relate to her. None of her advice was revelatory to me, although a lot of it was familiar and I’m sure it might be helpful to many people.

Especially, let her remind you several times, for anyone who thinks that if you succeed in having a book published it will mean anything. She’s very clear on this point: you (she) will throw many tantrums throughout the process and then you (she) will find that nothing much comes of it when you (she) eventually succeed. There were some good tips, I think. I have forgotten them all already. I have heard that many people are deeply moved by this book. I have heard that.

 

*Inspiration porn is another word for this. Being an ass is another. Her words are literally, “tragedy transformed over the years into joy.” (42) Well if you want to be completely disgusting about it, Anne Lamott! By the way, that link is to a GREAT TED talk.

 

6.9.14 The Goblin Emperor

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

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First Read: 429/429.

Like The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Goblin Emperor is about an unwanted royal kid of the “wrong” ethnicity (in this case, goblin rather than elf) who is snatched up and brought to the seat of an empire because someone needs to get on the throne. Maia, the son of one of the emperor’s numerous discarded wives, has been raised in the middle of nowhere with very little company aside from his abusive guardian Setheris. He has no siblings to fight for the honor of emperorhood, and is plunked right down on the throne when the entire royal family is killed in an airship sabotage.

Considering the the racial and political biases he faces, and the lack of experience socializing generally, and his spotty training by Setheris (who, obviously, deeply resents his role of guardian to a seemingly irrelevant prince), Maia’s progress in learning the trade of ruling an empire goes surprisingly smoothly. Maia endures what bumps there are and makes some really canny decisions and develops a backbone with apparent ease.

It went a little too smoothly for me at first–I actually put it down halfway for a couple of months, which was really surprising to me. Katherine Addison is a new form of Sarah Monette, who is one of my favorite authors, but one I recommend gingerly, because most of her books under that name can wear about every trigger warning under the sun. Most of her books are also incredibly emotionally dynamic–this book took me a while to get into I think because it lacks the crescendos and passions of Monette’s past novel (and it happened that those were something I loved about the other books).

But the superficial similarity of premise to The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms prompted me to pick it up again! And then I read 250 pages in a day and finished it, and it was a warm, kind, encouraging book that I really deeply enjoyed and would definitely definitely reread.

CW: There’s one scene of violence/ritual suicide and there are fairly mild but inescapable elements of (mostly past) abuse. I believe there’s also a somewhat gruesome description of the royal family at their funeral but I skipped over it.

Otherwise it is like sitting on a slightly consternated pillow of political intrigue and budding community, with the refreshing addition of political optimism. It also reminded me, in the gist and in a few very particular particulars, of a more gentle, less canny King of Attolia–which is also by one of my FAVORITES EVER.

This was just a REALLY NICE BOOK, and I felt good after reading it. Actually I still feel good from it two days later. That’s always a mark of a worthwhile read.

6.7.14 The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin.

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First read / library book: 410/410.

Warnings: violence, death, gore, torture, implied pederasty, other types of rape

It is awesome to read more fantasy by Black authors and N.K. Jemisin personally seems like a pretty cool character. This is her first novel, although she has a whole bunch now.

It’s tricky to elevator pitch this book–okay:

In this world, one family rules a massive empire, perhaps literally the entire world? and their ruler is about to die. Yeine, who is the denounced half-blood daughter of the woman who would have been heir, is taken to the capital city to choose between her siblings. The reason this city has all this power? They have the favor of Bright Itempas, one of the first three gods, murderer of the goddess Enefa, and he has given this family power over the semi-mortal lives of the gods who remain. Surprise for Yeine, and

SPOILERS FOR YOU: Yeine also contains the last living piece of Enefa, and the gods want to pal up to her long enough to cut Enefa free, and in the end bit-of-Enefa dies and Yeine is a god. Right on. MORE OR LESS THE END OF THOSE SPOILERS.

I didn’t love it. I had a hard time following the structure, but also I didn’t get a good enough grip on the human characters to feel fully attached to the backbone of the story, the plot of backstabbing familial politics. I would have liked a stronger sense of that place; she manages to avoid interacting with anyone but gods most of the time, and I think its nature, on a family and global level, would have been better explored if she had been trapped in more of its tedious daily intrusions. There’s a lot of heralding language in cut scenes, but the heralding didn’t all seem to land on anything, and I wasn’t entirely sure where Yeine drew some of conclusions. I also wasn’t entirely sure where some of her choices came from. Basically I would have liked a somewhat tighter script.

The expository cut scenes between Yeine and–well, I thought I could say, at the end, but the language has not entirely sorted out their audience, for me, even by the end. Part of the time they seem to be written to the reader, and part of the time to a floating bit of god; part of the time I am really not sure who’s saying what to whom. They are only kind of expository, anyway, since on a first reading at least they often do more to obfuscate than clarify, and that seems largely to be deliberate.

The gruesomeness in the book is, let me be clear, really gruesome. Since I don’t do well with that, I spent most of the book on my toes in a bad way, and I think that really interrupted my enjoyment of the story. Even when I find gore not to be triggering, as turned out to be the case here, I find that the more frequent and visceral written violence is–especially torture and punishment–the less emotional effect I get from it. This might be specifically a me-thing, but it was the same problem I had with The Lies of Locke Lamora, another book containing many of my absolutely favorite elements that was just too nasty a little too often for me to enjoy it. (Or finish it, in that case.)

Here is what I liked, which are substantial parts, which is why I read the whole book:

THE GODS. Their weird family unit, their shiftingness, their dangerousness, their age, their selfishness. The gods are great.

YEINE. Yeine is great. She is scary as heck and her personality (despite how she “changes,” according to everyone, even before the big change) manages to survive intact in a poisonous place. (Although, again, if the place had been a stronger character, her character would have been even more satisfying.)

THE ENDING. The story finds some serious clarity in the ending, and it’s also massively satisfying. I won’t actually spoil that part. It was GREAT. [NOTE: I did spoil it. Up there in the spoilers. I forgot already.]

If you do not mind the violence and the intrigue part of court intrigue is not that important to you, you will probably love it. What is left is these parts, and there is some really interesting stuff in there.

ON AN UNRELATED NOTE: In my last post about Kelly Link I used the phrase “middle-class malaise” and then realized I lifted the heck out of that phrase from the current prompt at First Line Magazine. THAT WAS BAD. I AM SORRY. IT IS A GOOD PHRASE, THOUGH, SO WELL DONE, FIRST LINE.

6.5.14 The Wind in the Willows

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. Reread / readaloud: 262/262.

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I feel silly not making about ten posts about this book as we went along. Owl’s been reading it to me, which is nice of him, since I started off and then got lazy. (On the other hand usually when Owl has been reading it to me I have been doing things like important cooking etcetera.) I haven’t read The Wind in the Willows since I was a kid. It seemed really brilliant then. I couldn’t remember anything that happened. I knew all of the characters gave me excitable feelings. I couldn’t remember what the feelings were. I couldn’t remember what anyone was like, except that Toad is wicked and Badger is nicer than real badgers are, probably.

IMPORTANT SELF-UPDATE: IT IS IN FACT REALLY BRILLIANT.

Other facts include being wildly funny, and really strange–it’s really strange. WHAT ARE THE MAIN CHARACTERS? Why, you might say, they are animals! They are a badger, a mole, a rat, and a toad!

Well, yes, okay, except they’re all about the same size as each other and they have boat and motorcars, and when Toad wants to escape human prison he dresses up as the jailor’s daughter’s washerwoman aunt and her clothes fit him. Worse yet, he keeps horses–he RIDES a horse–THE HORSE CAN TALK–and these animals that you might expect to be small eat things like sides of bacon and cold beef tongue. There is a sea rat of approximately the same size that somehow still lives a stowaway ship rat life.

The line between sentient and non-sentient animals is jagged or nonexistent. Maybe there are normal sized versions of toads and rats somewhere in the world! Maybe they do not eat pigs! Maybe the pigs are not friends of theirs first? MAYBE THEY JUST EAT EACH OTHER AND THIS IS NOT A MATTER OF CONCERN. It’s certainly not a matter of concern to the author. He does not care. The worst thing of all is that right near the end of the book you find out that Toad has hair. At first you think, or you hope, that maybe it is a washerwoman wig, but no, it is just hair, his hair, and he parts it and slicks it. I am grateful to illustrator Ernest H. Shepherd, who showed true decency in not portraying the Toad with hair. Or maybe he didn’t know until he got to the end of the book, where the hair really showed up, and refused to go back and pen it on to all his drawings.

In rereading this book I have identified one of my strongest lurking feelings about it: Mole and Rat are cohabitating gentlemen. The Edwardian Bachelorian Air to the book doesn’t really seem to be a slur against women–there are female characters and while the wretched Toad does not always treat them well, the author is on their side.

(There’s also a “gypsy” character whose scene I sat through with trepidation–he does buy a stolen horse from Toad, but Toad is the thief, and Grahame lands a nice blow on the jaw of social attitudes near the end of the book in saying the “gypsy”‘s asking price was, rather than cheating or greedy, right on the nose. He’s also a good cook, and he keeps his bargains. I’m sure there’s better representation in the world but it was a reasonably good subversion circa 1908.)

Not hating women, if ignoring them somewhat, you have basically a jolly group of grown men comfortable in their ways who have no real interest in women, e.g., slightly homosexual, eh, chap? Mole is a mole who goes for a walk, meets a charming fellow who is crazy about the river, and immediately moves in. He and Rat can have their separate passions but always come back to one another and attend to one another and rescue each other. Mole decides to find Badger in the Wild Wood all by himself and Rat has to come save him from weasels and snow–

–and there is a very strange scene where the aforementioned Sea Rat appears to Rat alone and overcomes him with tales of life on the sea, and Rat sort of passes out and hallucinates and Sea Rat asks him to come away with him, and Rat goes home to pack in a frenzy, and Mole has to gently fix him up until the fever to follow has passed. IT IS A RAT SEDUCTION. IT IS VERY UNNERVING. IS THIS A CHILDREN’S BOOK? Mole takes no offense and Rat has no real interest in leaving after all. Mole and Rat NEVER leave one another. They are soft friends living in a comfortable home on the river who suit each other perfectly and are perfect forever. FOREVER.

Toad is also perfect, in that he is the worst. I remember this! I remembered something about a motorcar. Toad is a fiend. Toad’s brain is overrun with desires for things he should not have or want and then he goes after them anyway. Other people’s cars, for example. He is a Toad who sings conceited songs and breaks out of prison and yells at bargewomen and steals horses and cars and is crafty in a deal, and is generous, humorous, moody, jealous, and wildly repentant. Toad would be an exhausting person to know. I expect a lot of people know him.

I don’t think Grahame cared at all if the book matched up to anything. He writes it all as if it makes perfect sense, and anyway the characters are very good, and I don’t think I noticed when I was small that everything else was a little odd. Why should you? He believed in it! And Badger and Mole and Rat and (especially?) Toad and Grahame’s comfortable friendship with the countryside are very distracting from anything else.