Tales of the Long Bow: Eccentrics and Impossibilities

Chesterton’s England, ca. 100 years ago, is home to a de facto group of patriots, a Robin Hood renaissance.  There’s the lawyer, Mr. Robert Owen Hood, whose name itself harkens back to the leader of the Merry Men.  His friend Colonel Crane is a quiet soul with a fiery past, plus a penchant for studying indigenous tribes and their religions.  Among the other five members, the aviator Hilary Pierce stands out as a brash aviator, someone full of antics which he carries out with great seriousness.

Their goal?  To achieve impossible things, and to save England from despots.  So Mr. Hood sets the Thames on fire, Colonel Crane eats his hat, and Hilary Pierce makes pigs fly, all in the name of rescuing the common man from the evils of either greedy aristocrats or corrupt bureaucrats.  Sly politicians, doctors, and scientists stand in their way, but the League of the Long Bow prevails with one promise: it always does what it says it will do.

When I think of weird classics, I think of Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno or Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford’s The Inheritors (the latter I left unfinished).  But Tales of the Long Bow is a whole ‘nother level of weird.  It is very niche, to the point that if you don’t know much about British politics and social changes at the beginning of the 20th century, then much of the book will make no sense.  I had just enough knowledge to basically “get it.”

The humor is also very quirky and British.  Chesterton’s brand of absurdism is both punny and layered, so you feel like you’re listening to an endless stream of inside jokes, interwoven with the social commentary.  Some of it is pretty hilarious, like his depiction of the obsequious Mr. Vernon-Smith:

“I wish those friends of yours didn’t give you such revolutionary ideas,” said Mr. Vernon-Smith. “My cousin knows the most dreadful cranks, vegetarians and–and Socialists.” He chanced it, feeling that vegetarians were not quite the same as vegetables; and he felt sure the Colonel would share his horror of Socialists.

The book is a series of short stories, and some of them are stronger than others. I think my favorite might be “The Exclusive Luxury of Enoch Oates,” featuring a particularly hammy caricature of an American millionaire.

As a whole, where the book fell short for me were some of the subplots, which seemed to drag on too long or had an “aha!” moment that was more silly than funny.  Also, there was occasional derogatory racial language, which was disappointing.

Overall, I give it 3 stars.  I didn’t love it, but I’m not sorry I read it.  Tales of the Long Bow is a strange combination of now-esoteric social commentary, quasi-Dickensian characters, and sometimes hilarious, sometimes aggravating storylines.  Thanks to Mudpuddle for sharing about this book!

Some Bookish Pictures

Every so often, I get an urge to do something crafty.  “Crafty” here means having to do with crafts, not cunning plans (though it may amount to the same thing).  Today was one of those days, so I stopped by ye olde curiosity shoppe Dollar Tree and picked up some frames, because I’m cheap that way.

Remember this quote from Heretics?  I couldn’t find a great graphic of it online, so I decided to make one.  Here’s the printout (click for full size):

(The flourish is from Pixabay – I know they don’t require attribution, but I always feel like I should…habit!)

I picked up this little blue frame because it goes with my color scheme, but I wasn’t sure what picture to put in it.  I finally settled on the plans for the Nautilus (Disney version), along with Nemo’s motto, Mobilis in Mobili (“moving amidst mobility”).  Completely nerdy, but I love it.  🙂

Last bit of craftiness: I love triptychs, so thought I’d try creating one.  I found this whale picture uploaded by the Biodiversity Heritage Library, cleaned it up a little, and split it in three.  It was more difficult than I expected, but I think it turned out ok!  This one and the Chesterton quote I’ll probably be putting up on the wall at work.

Well, that’s it for now, but I have more ideas (and wall space), so there may be a part 2 to come.  😉

Wit and Wisdom in Chesterton’s Heretics

This year’s reading is off to a good start, not so much in terms of speed (work and other activities have put the brakes on that) but in terms of content.  I’ve just finished G. K. Chesterton’s Heretics, a light book for heavy hearts of little-‘o’ orthodox Christians who happen to be classic literature nerds.  Since I fall under that category, I found Heretics to be a bracing read and surprisingly relevant for the current times.  Chesterton is a hit-and-miss author for me; this book was definitely a “hit.”

Shaw, Belloc e Chesterton
George Bernard Shaw, Hilaire Belloc, and G. K. Chesterton.

Heretics (1905) comes under one of my favorite niche genres – authors writing about other authors.  In this series of essays, Chesterton critiques such literary luminaries as Rudyard Kipling, H. G. Wells, and George Bernard Shaw, as well as others who have since fallen out of readership.  Imperialism, Nietzsche’s Superman, human progress, and other topics of the day are covered here, many of which are still relevant a little over a century later, albeit in other guises.  Chesterton’s overarching theme is that religion, specifically Christianity, is essential to contemporary dialogue, not a thing to be flippantly attacked or dismissed as irrelevant.

A non-Catholic myself, I still found encouragement in his defense of Christianity in the modern world.  I am not sure how non-Christians would find it; probably they would pick holes in Chesterton’s turns of phrase, which to me are devices to get you to think, not to necessarily persuade or convince.  In any case, this book shows off Chestertons’s signature style, often pithy and delightfully humorous, and I think anyone who can appreciate a Mark Twainian repartee could get some chuckles out of it.

These are some quotes I particularly liked:

The case of the general talk of “progress” is, indeed, an extreme one. As enunciated today, “progress” is simply a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative . . . Nobody has any business to use the word “progress” unless he has a definite creed and a cast-iron code of morals. – “On the Negative Spirit”

The man who is misunderstood has always this advantage over his enemies, that they do not know his weak point or his plan of campaign. – “Mr. Bernard Shaw”

Truth, of course, must of necessity be stranger than fiction, for we have made fiction to suit ourselves. – “Mr. Bernard Shaw”

There is more simplicity in the man who eats caviar on impulse than in the man who eats grape-nuts on principle. – “On Sandals and Simplicity”

All men can be criminals, if tempted; all men can be heroes, if inspired. – “Paganism and Mr. Lowes Dickinson.”  I may print this one and hang it up on my office wall…

The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. – “On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family.”

Democracy is not philanthropy; it is not even altruism or social reform. Democracy is not founded on pity for the common man; democracy is founded on reverence for the common man, or, if you will, even on fear of him. It does not champion man because man is so miserable, but because man is so sublime. – “Slum Novelists and the Slums”

Ideas are dangerous, but the man to whom they are least dangerous is the man of ideas. He is acquainted with ideas, and moves among them like a lion-tamer. – “Concluding Remarks on the Importance of Orthodoxy”

Wednesday Quote: Souls

G. K. Chesterton at work

“I wish we could sometimes love the characters in real life as we love the characters in romances. There are a great many human souls whom we should accept more kindly, and even appreciate more clearly, if we simply thought of them as people in a story.”

A great Chesterton quote from a book of his I’ve yet to read (What I Saw in America).  It is easy enough to view people through the narrow lens of our interactions with them, but to view them in the context of their own life story is another thing.

Reading England 2016 – Recap

When I joined this challenge a year ago, I had every intention of branching out and reading books from multiple counties.  As it turns out, I stayed in familiar territory and read London for all three books (Level 1).

Lawrence of Arabia Brough Superior gif

The Mint was a fitting sequel to Seven Pillars of Wisdom.  For some reason I went into it expecting a novel, but it’s actually a journal-like memoir of T. E. Lawrence’s peacetime experiences in the military.  After his campaigns as “Lawrence of Arabia” – and, as importantly, after his attempts to deal with politicians – T.E. was sick of being a leader and wanted to disappear from the public eye.  He joined the service under an assumed name, and that is where he found a place of security and camaraderie, the R.A.F.  The Mint is a coarse novel, written in a modern voice (for the times) and full of all the profanities and vulgarity that Lawrence encountered around him.  I found myself unable to rate the book, because it came across as an honest, unidealized portrait of reality – and how can you rate that?  Read the last chapter, if nothing else.  I feel like it is the real ending to Seven Pillars.

Counties: London (RAF Uxbridge), and bonus: Lincolnshire (RAF Cranwell)

Lamppost-Istana-Singapore-20060207
 A lamppost at the Istana in Singapore by Finn Perez
[CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I read The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare to my brother this year.  It was a first read for him and a reread for me – we both heartily enjoyed it!  G. K. Chesterton is one of those authors that is deceptively simple in his style.  The first time I read it, I wasn’t so sure about the bizarre ending.  This time, however, something clicked…I think I finally got what he was getting at.  (I still can’t explain it off the top of my head, but it made sense, I promise.)  The story is, artistically speaking, literary gold: a policeman on an Alice-in-Wonderland-type adventure in Sherlock Holmes’s London, with moments of hilarity and deep thought alike.  After this reread, I give it 5 out of 5 stars.

Counties:  A rather whimsical London.

Lippincott doriangray

A number of books this year were favorable surprises – The Picture of Dorian Gray being one of the most surprising.  I didn’t know, for example, that this novel was written for the same magazine as Conan Doyle’s The Sign of the Four.  A comparison of the two stories would be interesting in itself.  I noticed that drugs feature heavily in both plots and, sadly, for both protagonists.

I went into this book with a couple of misconceptions, one of which was that Dorian Gray wants always to look young.  This is only half of it, however.  He also wants to look innocent“He had always the look of one who had kept himself unspotted from the world.”

At the Anglican church I attend, the priest gives you a blessing on your birthday.  These are the words, from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer (quoting, for that line, James 1:27):

Watch over thy child, O Lord, as his days increase; bless and guide him wherever he may be, keeping him unspotted from the world. Strengthen him when he stands; comfort him when discouraged or sorrowful; raise him up if he fall; and in his heart may thy peace which passeth understanding abide all the days of his life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Wilde’s first readers would have instantly caught this reference, and I can tell you, this line makes it all the more tragic to read what happens to Dorian, or rather, what he does to himself.  It goes both ways.  He is preyed upon – emotionally and probably physically – by an older, cynical man, and he embraces it.  He reads a book that he knows is a negative influence on him, and he doesn’t stop. 

For years, Dorian Gray could not free himself from the influence of this book. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he never sought to free himself from it.

I didn’t love The Picture of Dorian Gray.  It is too relateable to be comfortable.  I can’t say I haven’t been selfish, hurting someone in the process.  I know I’ve read a book, or watched a movie, or listened to a song that left me worse off than before.  And only recently, I’ve looked at pictures of myself from a few years back and felt disappointed by the changes.  I was half-expecting this novel to be some kind of subtle glorification of youth; it’s anything but that.    

Though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this novel to everyone, it was a worthwhile read for me, particularly at this time.  (For the topic, it was more poignant than Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.)  4 out of 5 stars.

Counties: London

Lawrence’s London is something of a sprawling, safe haven, where he can dissolve back into humanity and still, sometimes, see glimmers of his illustrious yet painful past.  Chesterton’s London is the London of Americans’ dream –  a romantically gloomy, lamppost-lit cityscape where a savvy, well-dressed gentleman is on a mission probably involving hansom cabs.  Wilde’s London is a grim facade where something hideous is lurking behind an elegant society.  It’s fascinating how one location can look so different from the viewpoint of different novels. 

Thanks, o, for hosting this challenge!