Letters to an American Lady

Letters to an American Lady
(c) 1967 C.S. Lewis, ed. Walter Hooper
150 pages

I was pleased recently to discover that Letters to an American Lady, a collection of letters from C.S. Lewis written to an anonymous southern woman in the 1950s and 1960s, was on sale. None of the letters are especially long; most, in fact, are nothing more than a paragraph dashed in haste, as Lewis was increasingly popular at the time and beset with bags of mail, especially around Christmas and Easter. Readers are only privileged to see one side of the conversation, though Lewis usually refers directly to the contents of the lady’s — “Mary’s — letters in his own, so some context can usually be discerned. Those who are familiar with Lewis’ prose and nonfiction will find a different Jack here, one who is merely writing to a friend on the ordinary events of life. Jack and Mary talk about their cats, and commiserate over the bad weather or their respective health problems: Lewis likens them to failing automobiles, who after decades of service continually need their parts replaced. For Lewis, though, the letters were also something of a ministry: matters of spirituality are a mainstay in the letters to Mary, as they were in Lewis’ letters to Dorothy Sayers, though Lewis appears to provide more succor to Mary than the other way around. His letters to her no doubt helped him remind himself of that which he already knew: he frequently encourages Mary to not compound the problems of life by worrying over them incessantly, but instead take things one day at a time and live in the present as much as possible. He even references Marcus Aurelius, though sadly not in this context: the Stoic emperor-philosopher reminded himself of that same lessons in his Meditations. Also included in this collection are one letter written to Mary by Joy Davidman, who reflected on the grace she’d experienced in her own infirmity, and some (in ’63) written to her from Walter Hooper, Lewis’ late secretary who had the unenviable responsibility of keeping Mary up to date on Lewis’ declining health as he entered into a coma in late summer ’63. As someone who regards Lewis not merely as an author, but as a strange kind of friend — someone I’ve “gotten to know” through his letters, books, etc — this was a welcome look into Lewis’ less academic side, and one which was especially moving as he entered, unknowingly, the last few months of his life and did so counseling Mary on how to face her own death with grace and dignity.


“The precious alabaster box which one must break over the Holy Feet is one’s heart. Easier said than done.”

“The only reason I’m not sick of all the stuff about——is that I don’t read it. I never read the papers. Why does anyone? They’re nearly all lies, and one has to wade thru’ such reams of verbiage and “write up” to find out even what they’re saying.”

“We are all members of one another and must all learn to receive as well as to give.”

“The great thing, as you have obviously seen, (both as regards pain and financial worries) is to live from day to day and hour to hour not adding the past or future to the present. As one lived in the Front Line ‘They’re not shelling us at the moment, and it’s not raining, and the rations have come up, so let’s enjoy ourselves”. In fact, as Our Lord said, ‘Sufficient unto the day'”

Letters of C.S. Lewis

Dorothy and Jack. Draws heavily on the Sayers-Lewis letters.

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Joy Davidman on infirmity and humility

Once I would have pitched in and helped my housekeeper—but now, because I have to walk with a stick and have only one hand free, I’m more nuisance than help and can only sit on the sidelines and give advice and be a pest. It is difficult having to accept all the time! But unless we did, how could the others have the pleasure, and the spiritual growth, of giving? And—I don’t know about you, but I was very proud; I liked the superior feeling of helping others, and for me it is much harder to receive than to give but, I think, much more blessed. Then, too, it’s only since I’ve been ill and helpless that I’ve realised just how good people in general are, when they have a chance. So many people have taken trouble over me, and gone out of their way to give me pleasure or help! It’s very heartwarming—and humbling, for I remember how cynical I used to be about humanity and feel a salutary shame.

Letters to an American Lady
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Two for forensics

Readers of Sherlock Holmes may remember that fictional character had such a command of diverse sciences and skills that his assistant Watson was impelled to innumerate them. American Sherlock introduces readers to the life of Edward Oscar Heinrich, a real-life and self-taught polymath who was forced at an early age to distinguish himself professionally so that he might take care of his widowed mother. Beginning as a young pharmacist who learned his trade on his own — passing the examination to be certified, but never studying pharmacology in a formal setting — and moving through several other technical professions, he began assisting police in the investigation of crimes and created his own laboratory for the work. American Sherlock is a partial biography of Heinrich, but one focused on his case history, as his work investigating several lurid trials of the 1920s and 1930s saw the creation of several forensic tools that researchers now take for granted, like the study of blood splatter. In addition to this, there’s also the voyeuristic appeal of reading about those crimes themselves: in one, three brothers attempt the last great train robbery of the west (it goes….poorly). In another case, Heinrich investigates the strange death of a young woman in Fatty Arbuckle’s suites, a death that destroyed Arbuckle’s career despite his popularity. Readers interested in forensics or Prohibition-era crimes will find this of great interest.

Relatedly, I read Death’s Acre by Bill Bass, co-authored by Jon Jefferson. This is a history of Bass’s lifetime of work as a forensic anthropologist. Although a professor who teaches academically, Bass’s expertise in reading dead bodies — understanding the story that a body’s state of decay could tell police investigating a death — sees him assisting in cases throughout the United States. Forensic anthropology not only allows bodies far gone to be identified, using anatomical clues to distinguish not only men from women (shh, no one tell Kentaji Jackson), but to determine the race and approximate age of the deceased. Valuable clues could also be derived about whether the person had died at the location, how long they had lain there, and how they’d perished. Although Bass’s academic background gave him his start, he and his students also created a unique research facility that consisted of a fenced-in acre of Tennessee in which donated bodies were deliberately exposed under varying conditions so that the progress of decay, or factors related to decay, could be studied directly. This research gave investigators the ability to pin down how long a body had been decaying, for instance, by the insects or insect waste present upon it. If you were watching TV in the 2000s, you may have seen one or many of the forensic shows that were so popular back then, chiefly CSI. I remember CSI vividly because it was unique, and to my delight in reading this, I noticed that some of its cases were inspired by Bass’s own work. Forensic writers like Patricia Cornwell also drew from Bass’s research. Death’s Acre has great interest for those fascinated by forensics, but considering the subject matter (death and decay), readers should know that Bass doesn’t spare any grisly details.

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Bonaparte’s Invaders

Bonaparte’s Invaders
(c) 1998 Richard Howard
320 pages

It is the year 1799, and Napoleon Bonaparte’s triumphant army, having recently earned the Corsican glory and loot in Italy, has now boarded a fleet of ships and sailed east — destination unknown. Bonaparte has his eyes on Egypt, where he believes he can inflict a fatal blow on England’s Indian empire and expand the blessed lights of the Republic and modernity to the backward Middle East. The Egyptians will welcome freedom from the Turks, and flock to the tricolour of the Republic — surely! After a quick stopover in Malta for loot, Napoleon lands an army of 18,000 in the sands of upper Africa. If the expedition had been well-organized at the beginning, though, something fell apart in those many weeks crossing the Med: Napoleon’s army stumbles as ashore for an exercise in prolonged torture, as they must endure weeks of scarce water and food and long marches under an unforgiving sun that blinds as many as it kills directly, all the while being harassed by Bedouins. Bonaparte’s Invaders is a tale of misery, pain, and failure: we follow Alain Lausard and his fellow dragoons as they try to hang on to their lives, any scrape of idealism having burned away under the African sun. It has the merit of dramatizing a period of the Napoleonic wars that few know anything about (being pre-Empire), but it makes for grim reading.

In Bonaparte’s Sons, Richard Howard began a Napoleonic war series that had the interesting twist of being set on the French side, following a unit of dragoons who were criminals granted amnesty provided they served in the army of the Republic. Sons was great fun, featuring a motley crew of men allied against a despicable officer, and full of adventure and fun. Bonaparte’s Invaders sees those same men slowly tortured: as unhappy as they are aboard the boat, things grow far, far worse once on land. Supplies are lost, horses are nowhere to be found: the dragoons march as infantry, doing Napoleon’s bidding with almost no water or food, baking under the sun for weeks at a time. Napoleon also brought along a small contingent of civilians (academics, poets, etc) who eat with the future Emperor and occasionally get into trouble, causing the dragoons to do even more plodding back and forth across the desert wastes. Death — slow, excruciating, torturous death by exposure and malnutrition — is their constant companion, and the few battles offer little relief. To the dragoons and the army, the Egyptian expedition is evidence that the Directory and Napoleon are no better than the Bourbons who preceded them: the common man is just a pawn for them to use up in the pursuit of their own glory.

Bonaparte’s Invaders is certainly interesting if you know nothing about the Egyptian invasion (true for me — I only knew Napoleon deserted his army there), but as a story it’s …draining, making the reader follow the slow dissolution of a once-proud army who make their lot worse by constantly bickering with one another.

Coming up: Darwin, dinosaurs, and forensics.

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The Ghost Brigades

The Ghost Brigades
(c) 2006 John Scalzi
384 pages

“We’re in the wrong universe for fair.”

John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War introduced readers to a harsh future, in which humanity competes for space in a crowded galaxy, fighting tooth and nail against a variety of alien baddies. Out of sheer necessity, the Colonial Defense Forces have been forced to create an army of augments — but within its ranks are even more altered troops, the Special Forces — or, as common soldiers call them, the Ghost Brigades. Scalzi’s expansion of the Old Man’s War story focuses on them specifically, beginning with a betrayal and a desperate scramble for answers. The CDF’s attempt to find out why one of their own researchers would fake his own death and join alien ranks sees them attempt to infuse a recording of the traitor’s consciousness into the body of a newly-grown clone, in hopes that the clone will give them answers. Instead, the clone — Jared Diroc — becomes his own person, and takes his place in the Special Forces. Before long, though, the dormant personality within Jared will begin to assert itself, and lead him down an entirely separate road.

I commented in my review for Old Man’s War that its most interesting element was consciousness transferal, and that takes center stage here, driving the plot and creating both our main character and his antagonist. The Ghost Brigades are interesting in their own right, however, from a techno-humanist perspective: they’re not only genetically augmented, but have internal brain implants that allow them to process and absorb information rapidly, almost like Neo in The Matrix, and connect them to one another so that squads are tightly integrated. Jared Diroc is perfectly happy with his squadmates as they tend to the business of the Defense Forces — killin’ aliens — but an experience on shore leave suddenly brings to life the other man inside his brain, and there the action really picks up. Humanity was already in trouble, facing a potential alliance of three alien races at once, but once Jared begins to struggle with his alter-consciousness, he realizes the danger is even more acute than previously realized. This leads to a desperate gamble in which everything goes wrong — but results in a seat of the pants action thriller all the way to the end.

Although I found the premise of Old Man’s War interesting enough, having read The Ghost Brigades I’m sold on reading the rest of the series. Plot developments herein point to a far more interesting galactic scene than previously thought!

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Of shotgun riders and serial killers

Medical update: I saw the doctor today and he was extremely pleased with my progress. According to him, my blood chemistry could not look better! I managed a 4-block walk today from the hospital back to my hotel room, after using the shuttle bus to arrive for my appointment.

Temperance Brennan is a forensic anthropologist with academic associations in North Carolina, but has a current position with Canadian law enforcement in Quebec. When a shallow grave reveals a collection of body parts collected in trash bags, she has a sickening feeling that this death and dismemberment might be connected to several prior cold cases. Pursuing the hunch against the disdain of the police, who feel this civilian is overstepping her office, she soon finds herself exposed to a serial killer’s obsession. Deja Dead is first in a series of forensic mystery novels by Kathy Reichs, who like her main character is both an academic and a forensic detective. The result is a forensic thriller with no shortage of grisly detail, though as a story there are a few very-convenient plot twists. I think I’ll try a few more in this series once I return home, to see if the author’s skills matured.

Shotguns and Stagecoaches is a collection of biographical sketches, drawn from some of the colorful riders, shotgun messengers, and detectives who defended Wells Fargo’ cargo, especially gold bullion. There are some golden tales in here, my favorite being the guard who was set up by a pretty lass in cahoots with highwaymen, but resolved he’d still marry her if he met her again. As the author noted, if that story is not true, it should be. Another musing story involved one shotgun messenger tricking his friends into a jail cell so he could launch into a long-winded story about his more recent exploits with a captive audience. As a proper history, Stagecoach: Wells Fargo and the American West is better, but for fans of the Old West this is replete with fun stories of robberies, manhunts, and shootouts. The author adds an epilogue that takes Wells-Fargo for trying to sanitize its history and downplay the dangers its officers faced, and the triumphs they achieved in the fight against highwaymen. This is great fun for a casual history reader who has an interest in the Old West.

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Beauty and the Werewolf

500 Kingdoms: Beauty and the Werewolf
(C) 2011 Mercedes Lackey
408 pages

Isabella Beauchamps is accustomed to being the mistress of her house, keeping the servants and her twin stepsisters in line while her stepmother spends her days gazing out the window and gossiping. A chance encounter with a werewolf in the woods, however, sees her taken by the king’s guards and effectively imprisoned in a remote rural manor house that looks more like a fortress than a residence. There she learns that her new host, Duke Sebastian, was the werewolf who bit her — and that for the sake of the region’s safety, she’s to be secured here for three months to ensure that she has not been werewolf’d herself. Not content to be an idle prisoner, Bella immediately goes to work putting the Duke’s household to order, including his dozens of invisible spirit-servants. Her arrival into the sleepy household and its absentminded lord’s life begins to expose the mystery of the Duke’s curse, and threatens the life of both. With a cover that brings to mind Little Red Riding Hood, but a story that’s definitely more of a spin on Beauty and the Beast, Beauty and the Werewolf is interesting but limited as a novel. A lot of space is given to Bella simply trying to understand the setting, to the point that we’re seeing Lackey’s worldbuilding as she hammered it out. That could be interesting in its own right, but it seems like filler within the novel itself. The big bad of the novel is also telegraphed fairly early on, although Lackey does her best to misdirect readers halfway through. The story isn’t helped by Bella being obnoxious and bossy to the point of imperial. Still, I liked the idea of the traditional Beast being a werewolf.

Next up: I’m still plodding along in Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs, and have recently received two books that will complete a series I started in…erm, 2011.

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The Sleeping Beauty

A Tale of the Five Hundred Kingdoms #5: The Sleeping Beauty
(c) 2010 Mercedes Lackey
352 pages

Rosamond has the bad luck to be an orphaned princess in a wealthy little kingdom surrounded by larger, hostile enemies, any one of whom will invade at the news that her warrior-king father has finally surrendered to battle exhaustion and depression over losing his wife, her mother, the sainted Celeste. Still worse, Rosamond lives in a region where narrative magic is an active force in the lives of all, constantly attempting to entrap people into reliving and fulfilling stories from Tradition. Princesses are doomed to become prey to evil stepmothers and find themselves locked in towers or trapped in deep sleeps, waiting for the kiss of some prince charming, and young men are forever having to prove themselves in battle against dragons decimating the countryside. Now, with her parents dead, Rosamund stands fully exposed to the whims of Tradition — and even her fairy Godmother can only do so much to corral the chaos. The Sleeping Beauty is a unique spin on several fairy-tale stories, featuring several strong characters who are determined to live their own lives despite the forces attempting to push them down predetermined paths.

From the cover alone, this is not the kind of book you’d normally find me reading: it looks for all the world like a romance. The book and its connected series were given to me by a friend, though, one who recently introduced me to Into the Woods and Shrek the Musical, both of which also play with fairy tale tropes. The setting at first appears a conventional medieval-fantasy arena: castles, horses, men-at-arms, dragons, magic, that sort of thing. What makes the Five Hundred Kingdoms series is that the people who live within the novel are aware (to varying degrees) of how The Tradition can alter their lives: certain castes like royals, young men, and innocent shepherdesses are especially exposed to it. The masters at reading and manipulating tradition are Godmothers, who advise kingdoms and attempt to help their wards bend to The Tradition without being broken by it. Godmother Lily is the star here, being an especially talented Godmother whose expertise has been forced by having to advise a kingdom in constant mortal and magical peril: after Rosamund disappears in the woods, fleeing a treacherous servant in the pay of an unknown mischief-maker, she creates a grand contest to secure the Kingdom and Rosamond once and for all. Although the title of this book hints that Rosamund is fulfilling the Sleeping Beauty story, there are other narratives mixed in, including those from Norse mythology: The Tradition isn’t necessarily picky about which Path it forces on young princesses, so long as they find themselves far enough down one path to fulfill it.

The Sleeping Beauty surprised me: I expected something of a chick book, to be honest, but this was imaginative and funny, with about as romance as I usually encounter in one of my more ‘manly’ war stories. I’m interested in reading more of this series.

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Of kidneys, the Lionheart, and Star Trek

Ever since my kidney transplant Tuesday, I’ve seen doctors, surgeons, and nurses on a daily basis with updates. They’re all very pleased about the progress I’m making toward recovery: my new kidneys (I received two, from a deceased juvenile) are fully online, and my blood toxins continue to fall despite not having had dialysis since Monday evening. It appears I am forever done with that period in my life, for which I am profoundly grateful. The doctors told me this morning that I’m surpassing their usual milestones, so they will discharge me Sunday morning. They were tempted to do it as early as Friday! This won’t mean a return home, as I’ll require frequent checkups with the clinic to make sure there’s no risk of rejection and that the kidneys are continuing to work away. Since I’ll be seeing them three times a week, I will be staying in a nearby hotel with shuttle service to the hospital. I’m hoping once I’m more mobile to explore downtown Birmingham a bit, but I don’t want to overexert myself. I’m been able to get out of bed and walk around my room and the hospital already, but this is an environment altogether different than the chaotic city streets!

In other news, this week I finished off Ben Kane’s King, the conclusion to his Lionheart trilogy; How to Think Like a Roman Emperor; and Greg Cox’s The Weight of Worlds. The latter is an Original Series adventure, set during the original run of the show and features a plot that would have fit in on the show were it not for the technical limitations at the time. The Enterprise is hailed by a remote science station who have come under attack: after arriving in orbit, Enterprise realizes the station’s inhabitants have been attacked by some kind of gravity weapon, and naturally the command staff beam down to investigate. In quick time, Kirk and Spock find themselves marooned on an alien world, Sulu and a redshirt are forced to pretend to be new cult members of an alien Crusade that’s intent on converting the galaxy to The Truth, and the Enterprise isn’t faring much better, being targeted by a gravity cannon. In true TOS style, Kirk goes head to head against a ‘god’, but readers are also treated to Uhura in the captain’s chair. The premise and execution are a bit goofy if you’re more accustomed to serious Treklit, but it’s always nice to have an old-school episodic-like novel.

‘King Richard.’ Heinrich spoke in French. ‘Emperor.’ Richard’s tone was even. ‘Men are supposed to kneel in my presence.’ ‘Men.’ Richard stood up straight, emphasizing his great height. ‘I am a king.’ How proud of him I was in that moment.

More recently, I finished Ben Kane’s excellent Lionheart series by reading King, which dramatizes the last years of King Richard’s life. It opens with his return to a largely hostile Europe, where every road leading home routes through territories of men who would be eager to capture the King to hold him to ransom. Despite his best efforts, Richard and a few of his most faithful men are indeed captured. With Richard’s blessing, Rufus effects an escape, and on his orders returns to Normandy to investigate the damage that Richard’s perfidious brother John has done in his absence. Many of Richard’s possessions in Europe have been promised or directly surrendered to the French dog Phillip Capet, and “Johnny’s” treachery is made worse when Rufus realizes his suspicions about one of Richard’s men, FitzAldelm, were true: the man is an agent of the French court! As Richard’s nobles work to secure his release, Rufus attempts to fulfill his long-burning war against FitzAldem (a man who has tried to kill him numerous times) and disarm one of the Frenchies’ agents at the same time. Rufus also has personal struggles to contend with: his love for Princess Joanna, who can never be his own, even though Richard recognizes their bond and is gratified for the happiness that they brought to one another in Outremer. Even once Richard is released, the war against the weasel Capet continues, and brings the novel to its predestined, tragic end.

A review for How To Think Like a Roman Emperor is in the works. I’m currently reading Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs, and a lady friend has introduced me to an interesting fantasy series — and delivered several volumes of them to me in the hospital!

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Good morning, all. Yesterday around 5 am I was taken down for transplant surgery. I am in recovery now. Lots of discomfort and some pain but those will pass in time. Kidney appears to be working.

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