The Annotated Wind in the Willows

“The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home.” So begins one of the great literary adventures of my life, The Wind in the Willows, published in 1908 by Kenneth Grahame.

I’ve written about The Wind in the Willows before:  My parents read it aloud when I was little, and since then, it has been part of my life.  Now the annotated edition, which I got this month, reveals details about the text and the author that I never knew before.

The opening paragraph details the Mole’s spring cleaning.  Soon he has dust in his throat and eyes and splotches of whitewash on his fur.  Then the text says something rather strange:  “Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing.”

I’ve been known to put off spring cleaning for months, but from laziness not “divine discontent.”  As a younger reader, this phrase escaped me.  Only now do I realize how Mole’s spirit of longing belonged to the author.  I always imagined Kenneth Grahame as a country gentleman, strolling quietly by the river.  Notes in the annotated edition make clear that while this came later, for much of his life, Grahame lived with a frustrated dream of living like that.

Kenneth Grahame by John Singer Sargent, 1912.  Public domain.

Kenneth Grahame by John Singer Sargent, 1912. Public domain.

He knew and loved the country life, but economic necessity tied him to London.  He abandoned his dream of going to Oxford and took a post at the Bank of England.  He married late in life, and both he and his wife had health problems.  Their only son, Alastair, was born with a congenital vision defect.  One day in November, 1903, a respectably dressed man came into Grahame’s office, pulled out a revolver, and began shooting.  The man didn’t hit anyone and was later sent to an asylum, but Grahame was shaken.  Already a private man, he kept even more to himself, his home, and vacations near the sea.

Grahame was already a popular author of several books of essays, but he stopped writing entirely between the years of 1903 and 1908.  Because of his wife’s health problems, Kenneth was Alastair’s primary care giver.  In the evenings, he made up stories about a mole, a toad, and various other animals, who lived beside a river.  A governess would later recall hearing Alastair ask questions and make suggestions; the two of them worked the stories together.

Alastair Grahame, 1907

Father and son spent the summer of 1907 apart.  Kenneth sent Alastair  a series of 15 letters which continued the tales and became the seeds of chapters for the book he would write the following year.  The letters are included in the annotated edition.  Also in this edition is an introduction by Brian Jacques, contemporary author of the Redwall series of animal stories.  Jacques lets us know what he thinks of the editors and agents who hesitated in printing The Wind in the Willows.  He has nothing good to say about people so short of imagination that they could not imagine a toad disguised as a washerwoman.

Arthur Rackham, 1940

An enthusiastic recommendation from President Theodore Roosevelt helped Grahame’s publishing efforts and the book has been in print ever since.

Some have suggested that Wind in the Willows is two books in one.  The madcap adventures of toad seem geared to please children – they were Alastair’s favorites – while other sections explore deeper emotions like homesickness, fear, wanderlust, and of course the theme of divine discontent.  This takes center stage in chapter 7, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” in which the animals, searching for a lost baby otter, encounter the ancient god Pan.

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Frontispiece to a 1913 edition by Paul Bransom. Public domain.

Grahame first wrote about Pan in 1891 in an essay that appeared in his first book, The Pagan Papers 1893.  His longing for unspoiled nature on the eve of the 20th century was widespread in Victorian and Edwardian society.

As Mole and Rat approached the god, they were seized with the kind of awe and fear that scriptures around the world describe when people encounter angels.  When the vision ended, the animals “stared blankly, in dumb misery deepening as they slowly realized all they had seen and all they had lost.”

Then a little breeze “blew lightly and caressingly in their faces; and with its soft touch came instant oblivion.  For this is the last best gift that the kindly demigod is careful to bestow on those to whom he has revealed himself in their helping:  the gift of forgetfulness.  Lest the awful remembrance should remain and grow, and overshadow mirth and pleasure, and the great haunting memory should spoil all the afterlives of the little animals helped out of difficulties, in order that they should be happy and lighthearted as before.”

Life brought less solace for Grahame. His son, Alastair, who inspired the stories, was a budding artist and creator of his own literary magazine, but he was plagued with emotional problems. He enrolled at Eton but had to leave for this reason. He went up to Oxford in 1918, but didn’t do well with exams. On top of this, numbers of WWI veterans were returning to college, bringing the focus and maturity they had learned in the trenches.

In May, 1920, Alastair Grahame asked for a glass of wine after dinner, then walked to Port Meadow, outside Oxford, where a number of railroad lines merged. During the night, he was hit by a train and died. His father wrote that his vision problems might have led to disorientation.  The autopsy report suggested he lay on the tracks and waited for a train.

The Grahames were devastated. They spent the next four years in Italy. When they returned to England, they moved to a town beside the Thames where they lived for the rest of their lives. Kenneth was able to spend his days by the river, as he had always dreamed of doing, but the joy he once had making stories for his son must have been absent.

Arthur Rackham, 1940

Arthur Rackham, 1940

Some biographers have suggested that Grahame, good at everything he tried, must have been disappointed with his son. Annie Gauger, editor of the Annotated edition says no.  She includes letters and other material to demonstrate that The Wind in the Willows was a joint creation of father and son.  Since the stories were first told out loud, I have to agree – from experience I know that oral storytelling is a complex dance between teller and audience.  Out of their limitations, their longings, and divine discontent, Kenneth and Alastair Grahame  gave readers over the last hundred years a world of peace and friendship, far from “the wide world” trials, where if you listen, you can sometimes make out the music of the gods of nature on the wind.

NPR’s Best Books of 2012

I usually tune out end-of-the-year “Best” lists the way I ignore after Christmas sales, because at a certain point, enough is simply enough.  National Public Radio, however, compiled a quirky and compelling list of 20 different lists by critics, writers, and NPR staff members.  It’s worth a look.  Most titles were not ones I’d heard of and were so diverse there should be a wide appeal.  Here are the categories:

  1. Picks by indie booksellers.
  2. Picks by a librarian.
  3. Five YA novel choices.
  4. Staff choices of best music books.
  5. Best book club reads.
  6. 10 books to help you recover from a tense 2012.
  7. The best heroines of 2012.
  8. Best romance in various sub-genres.
  9. Middle-grade recommendations.
  10. True originals:  a list of compelling biographies.
  11. Graphic novels.
  12. Best science fiction.
  13. Contrarian cookbooks.
  14. 2012’s best mysteries (mean girls rule).
  15. Best historical fiction
  16. “2012’s Books to hang onto,”
  17. Five poetry choices.
  18. Great short story collections.
  19. Gift and illustrated books.
  20. Best books of the winter season.

I haven’t been reading or wanting to read many novels in recent months, but a description on list #2 piqued my interest.    Among Others by Jo Walton is a Hugo and Nebulla award winning novel about a girl in south Wales whose survival becomes tied up in a library reading group that exposes her to classic science-fiction writers like Heinlein, Le Guin, and others.

On the same list I spotted the sort of history I have enjoyed lately, America Aflame:  How the Civil War Created a Nation by David Goldfield.  Goldfield, a history professor at the University of North Carolina, considers all aspects of American life between 1834 and 1876.  Reviewer, Nancy Pearl said, “like all the best histories, it made me carefully consider my own assumptions and beliefs about our country’s past.”

Have a look.  I’m sure you’ll find something worth reading that you missed in 2012.

Time Magazine on self-publishng

The stigma is gone, but the road to nirvana is getting more crowded by the day.  That’s the gist of Andrew Rice’s article, “The $0.99 Best Seller” in the December 10 issue of Time.

Rice visited a romance writer’s convention where Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, was the most popular speaker, and E.L. James, the best selling author of Fifty Shades of Grey was the symbol of success for many writers in attendance.  Fifty Shades began as Twilight fan fiction before going viral as an ebook and finally landing a traditional Random House contract.  According to Rice, “To Coker and his audience…Fifty Shades…looked like a harbinger of the future of publishing.”

Rice said there were 30 self-published ebooks on a recent list of Amazon top sellers and four self-published titles on the New York Times ebook best seller list.  Self-published ebooks are growing at four times the rate of traditionally published titles, and Rice quotes analysts as saying the “big six” publishing houses may soon become three or two or even just one.

This doesn’t mean that it’s easy.  I’m reminded of the California gold rush.  Some who arrived at the gold fields early – the “48ers” – made substantial amounts of money while those who came later did not.  Last year’s ebook celebrity, Amanda Hocking, took a traditional publishing contract when it was offered, saying marketing and promotion got in the way of her writing.  I’ve reviewed books by several excellent indie authors – Jade Scott, Amy Rogers, and Barbara Kloss, and all of them spend huge amounts of time publicizing their work.

Andrew Rice says it’s not going to get any easier:  “the chances of publishing that rare blockbuster grow more remote every day as more stories flood into the market, competing for a finite amount of reader attention.”

Yet for those indie authors I know, it’s not about getting rich or hitting the long shot best seller.  At the core, it’s about finding an avenue to tell the stories that live inside them.  The days when aspiring authors needed traditional publishing for validation and a way of getting their work into print are history, just like quill pens and Underwood typewriters.  The stigma is gone, and good riddance.

The Prophet by Michael Koryta: a book review

Half the storefronts are empty in Chambers, Ohio.  Abandoned steel mills stand as silent monuments to a past that will never return.  Two brothers, Kent and Adam Austin, work in two of the biggest industries that remain in the town – high school football and bail bonds.  Their careers, like most everything else in their lives, were defined the night someone kidnapped and murdered their sister when the three of them were in high school.

The brothers have hardly spoken during the 22 years since their sister was taken.  Kent is a local hero, a winning football coach and a man of faith, who talks of God and family to murderers in his prison ministry.  Adam drinks too much, aches for revenge, and lives so close to the Chambers criminal element that differences often blur.

A man who calls himself “the prophet” slips into town.  His passion is murder and something more:  “Bring him the hopeful and he will leave them hopeless.  Bring him the strong and he will leave them broken.  Bring him the full and he will leave them empty.”  When a 17 year old girl is murdered, one whose faith Kent had tried to nurture, both brothers understand that that the killing is personal.  Someone has come to town to rip the old wound open and threaten them with new ones.

Michael Koryta (pronounced koo-ree-ta) decided he wanted to be a crime novelist at the age of 16.  While still in high school he interned with a private detective.  His first  novel, Tonight I Said Goodbye (2004) won the St. Martin’s Press/PWA Best First Novel prize before he was 21.  He had four more crime novels under his belt when he took a stunning turn by injecting supernatural elements into his thriller, So Cold the River (2010), which I reviewed here  He followed this up with two more books in the same vein, The Cypress House and The Ridge in 2011.

The Prophet has no overt ghosts, though people are haunted, and Adam regularly talks with his dead sister. The prophet is flesh and blood, but his menace lurks in every shadow.  The “un-natural” and the “super-natural” are so “natural” in Michael Koryta’s novels that his evil terrifies more than it does in most horror stories.  We never know much about the killer, but we do see, in his memory, his methodical method of stalking and killing a bird when he was 11.  That’s enough to make him more chilling than Count Dracula.

In crossing genre boundaries at will, Koryta’s new book delves deeper into the 21st century human condition than mystery and horror novels usually do.  A chill wind blows through this rust belt town, under gray and threatening skies, as well meaning men and women find redemption and renewal elusive – and yet, heroism, loyalty, faith, and family all matter.  As the high school football players learn, you get back on your feet and back into the line because there is nothing else you can do.

There are very, very few authors whose books I will buy they day they come out.  There are few books these days that I find I cannot put down.  Once again, Michael Koryta did not disappoint.  I downloaded The Prophet the morning it came on line and put everything else on hold until I had finished.  You may well find yourself doing the same.

Here is a recent interview in which the author discusses The Prophet:

Historical Novel Contest

I haven’t been posting writing contests recently, but a local author sent this one out, and I know several readers who may be interested.  Sponsored by The Historical Novel Society International, this contest has an $8000 prize plus ebook publication with professional editing and cover design.  Initial entry of a synopsis and first chapters, to 5000 words, due Sept. 30, 2012.  The fee is $25 for non-society members.  “Historical fiction of any kind admissible.”

What ho, ye valiant lads and lassies of the quill – go for it!

The Wind Through the Keyhole, by Stephen King: A Book Review

I recently said I look for “imaginative escapism” in summer reading, and Stephen King’s, The Wind Through the Keyhole, 2012, qualifies on both scores.

This book is a celebration of stories by a consummate storyteller.  It is structured as a frame tale, three levels deep – a story within a story within a story, something you find in some our oldest epics and story collections like The Odyssey and The Arabian Nights.

In case we we miss that connection, King says it another way through his main character, Roland Deschain, who tells his traveling companions, “There’s nothing like stories on a windy night when folks have found a warm place in a cold world.”  Later, during a story concerning his younger self, Roland says, “A person’s never too old for stories…Man and boy, girl and woman, never too old.  We live for them.”

This is the eighth of King’s Dark Tower Novels, and the first I have read, but the introduction caught me up well enough to proceed.  Roland Deschain is a gunslinger in Mid-World.  A gunslinger is a cross between a knight errant and an old west marshall.  Many gunslingers are descendants of “the old White King, Arthur Eld.”

Mid World borders our own and is “filled with monsters and decaying magic.”  In places, there are gates between the worlds, or places where “the veils are thin.”  Three of Roland’s companions come from New York.  The fourth is a billy bumbler, a talking, dog-like creature.

Roland and his companions – his ka-tet – barely have time to find shelter from a starkblast, a devastating storm, with winds like a hurricane, the sudden onset of a tsunami, and temperatures so cold that trees snap and explode.  While the friends shelter by the fire in the only stone building in a deserted town, Roland tells of one of his first assignments as a gunslinger.

In the first story, “The Skin-Man,” Roland rides with his partner, Jamie Red-Hand, to the desolate mining town of Debaria, where a shapeshifter has slaughtered dozens of people.  This a gritty western world, like the bleakest of early Clint Eastwood’s westerns, and the monster is more deadly than the bad and the ugly Clint faced down.

While talking to an 11 year old survivor of an attack, a boy whose father and a dozen others were slaughtered, young Roland tells the second tale, “The Wind Through the Keyhole,” about another 11 year old, Tim Ross, who goes on a dangerous quest to save his mother who has been injured by a treacherous step-father.  Tim sets off to find Maerlyn, aka Merlin, at the heart of The Endless Forest.

Picture an 11 year old on an Arthurian quest, who stumbles into a swamp filled with gators and is saved by a group of plant people who communicate telepathically and give him a strange disk with buttons and lights that speaks and answers his questions in a female voice.  Her name is Daria.  Once she tells him she’ll be “offline” for half an hour, “searching for a satellite link.”

Just when he’d begun to believe she really had died, the green light came back on, the little stick reappeared, and Daria announced, “I have reestablished satellite link.”

“Wish you joy of it,” Tim replied.

Well, why not?  Is a magical iPhone so different from an enchanted sword or magical ring?  A master storyteller like Stephen King can pull of escapades like this because he always has me asking the one question that really matters in storytelling.  To quote Neil Gaiman, that question is, “What happened next?”

There’s adventure, courage, cruelty, humor, horror and much more as Roland Deschain takes us in and leads us back out of three levels of story.  One constant throughout all the tales is the wind, and I think Roland speaks for King when he says:

In the end, the wind takes everything, doesn’t it?  And why not?  Why other?  If the sweetness of our lives did not depart, there would be no sweetness at all.

The Wind Through the Keyhole is a very satisfying summer read – and quite a bit more.

An Era-less Era?

A critique group friend gives me back issues of The New York Times Book Review.  In the stack she gave me this week, I found a provocative article in the March 11, edition called “Convergences,” by Douglas Coupland.

Coupland noticed something unexpected during TV coverage of the 10th anniversary of 9/11:  nothing appeared very different than it had a decade ago.  The clothes, the cars, the hair, seemed pretty much the same.  This led him to speculate that:  “…we appear to have entered an aura-free universe in which all eras coexist at once – a state of possibly permanent atemporality given to us courtesy of the Internet.  No particular era now dominates.  We live in a post-era era without forms of it’s own powerful enough to brand the times.”

He then says, “The zeitgeist of 2012 is that we have a lot of zeit but not much geist.” (To Coupland’s credit, he does a mea culpa for this sentence).  He goes on to say there is something “psychically sparse” about the present, and writers and artists are creating new strategies to track it.  He then reviews Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru, and calls it an example of “translit,” a new genre that fractures time and space while telling a single story.  In other words, it isn’t time-travel, or intercut parallel tales, like Pulp Fiction, but a singular narrative that unfolds all over the map.

Yet if Translit is a new genre, Once Upon A Time, a popular TV program, got there before Gods Without Men.   Though it doesn’t have as many sub-stories, structurally it’s the same.  Maybe part of our zeitgeist is a world where highbrow and lowbrow forms are equally likely sources of innovation.  (That sentence, containing the word, “zeitgeist,” was payback).

Once Upon A Time

Besides, who says this decade lacks “forms of its own powerful enough to brand the times?”

OK, when I was in grade school, my nightmares were not of winding up naked in public, but in my pajamas [this is true], so this particular fashion crime draws my attention.  But my reason for this post isn’t cultural artifacts – it’s something I’ve wondered about for a long time, that Coupland’s article brought to mind:  how and when the distinctive feel of a decade is formed?

Sometimes there’s a distinctive moment.  What we know as “the sixties” started the day John F. Kennedy was shot.  The last decade began on September 11.

Some decades don’t start with a single event; at a certain point, everyone simply knows the times have changed.  The eighties began when the good times started to roll.  In our current decade, something is rolling, but not good times.  We sense it, though it doesn’t yet have a name.  Read the paper or turn on the news, and you find a miasma of anger and greed, driven by fear and disillusionment.

This morning, with my coffee, I read details of how the New Orleans Saints bounties for injured opponents especially targeted head shots, even as overwhelming evidence points to concussive injuries as the source of higher than average rates of dementia in retired NFL players.  A little while ago I read of women arguing over a Facebook profile outside a waffle house.  Police arrived after shots were fired.  No external foe can destroy us, but we are doing pretty well on our own.

Lately politicians have been touting “American Exceptionalism.”  I first came across the term in Andrew Bacevich’s book, The Limits of Power:  The End of American Exceptionalism, 2008.  Both the politicians and Bacevich mean economic, political, and military superiority, things no country ever retains indefinitely, though they all believe they will when they have it.

President Obama got in trouble for speaking the truth when he said every nation thinks it’s exceptional.  Every nation has the potential to be, if you think in terms of character.  In those terms, our story might fall in the Translit genre – a narrative told across long reaches of time and place.  This decade would be a chapter set deep in the second act, when things are cascading downhill from bad to worse.  The darkness is pretty thick.  Who knows how the story is going to end?

Snowcrash by Neal Stephenson – An Appreciation

Twenty years ago, Mary and I got our first real home computer (the Commodore 64 didn’t quite count).  With an Intel 486 processor, 500k of ram, an 8k external modem, and AOL memberships, we were wired!  Full-fleged members of the information age, at least by the standards of the day.

The same year, 1992, Neal Stephenson published a visionary novel called, Snowcrash. In retrospect, it merits the word, “prophetic,” for its sketch of life in the metaverse – a word Stephenson coined – and in the inconvenient world we call “reality.”


In Snowcrash, Stepenson posits a world where nation states have transferred most of their power to corporations. Most people are corporate citizens and live in corporate enclaves, or less prestigious burbclaves.  The hero of Snowcrash, Hiro Protagonist, is a citizen of “Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong.”  Military power belongs to private contractors, as do the roadways, which vie for driver/customers.  The post office is gone; private couriers deliver snail-mail.  The United States occupies a smallish territory centered in the Mohave Desert, and keeps it’s employees busy with make-work projects.  The former United States economy hinges on two industries – computer microcode and high speed pizza delivery, which has been revolutionized since the Mafia took control.

Though Hiro is a citizen of Hong Kong, as a pizza driver, he can’t afford to live in their enclaveclave.  Home is a self-storage unit under the flight path at LAX.  Like most of his hip and cyber-savvy generation, he spends most of his time online in the guise of his avatar, navigating virtual worlds.  But something is happening in the online world.  A strange new computer virus, when opened, generates a graphic pattern that scrambles the brains of the user.  They are dazed and speak in tongues.  With a young woman named YT, for Yours Truly, Hiro sets out to unravel the mystery.

The villain turns out to be a charismatic preacher.  In his attempt to secure both temporal and spiritual power, he has tapped into the ancient Sumerian glyphs that first scrambled human speech patterns in the event known as the Tower of Babel.

It’s been 20 years since I’ve read Snow Crash, so I’m writing this from memory.  I’m not necessarily recommending the whole novel.  The first jaw-dropping 100 pages, where Stephenson built his world, flew by and still leave me in awe.  I remember the rest of the book dragging in parts, but I still think of the story all the time.  Most futuristic fantasies prove as silly as the 1930’s movie shorts that show humans zipping along in their air cars between high rise buildings, happy and without any accidents.  This book is different.

In 1992 there were no virtual worlds.  Now there are, and you have to create an avatar to negotiate them.  These days, it isn’t so hard now to imagine a bright young man living in a self-storage shed.  But above all, Snow Crash comes to mind because in the wake of “citizens united,” it’s so easy to see corporate power growing while government power wanes.  With Super Pac money rolling the election year dice, does the government control corporations or do corporations control government?  Neal Stephenson saw this and other aspects of our world coming 20 years ago.

Snow Crash, is a visionary novel that all lovers of fantasy should know.