Thursday, December 27, 2007

An English Christmas

A swan feather frost covered Port Meadow last Thursday, but it melted into mist long before Christmas. I remember one magical year in Britain when we awoke to a sparkling frost, but mostly a white Christmas in England means dense fog. Back home in Brunswick, Maine, they’ve had 28 inches of snow just in December. Our buddy, Pete Coviello was out ice fishing.

When it comes to Christmas spirit, the Brits snow anyone over. Our corner shop, the Post Box in Wolvercote, has covered every surface in tinsel with Christmas crackers (more on that later) hanging from the ceiling. Carl, another Brit married to an American, decks his shop out “for the children.” He sells what I would call miniature X-mas trees along with his usual supply of free range eggs, organic juices, fresh veg, milk and canned goods. It’s also our post office but only open a couple of odd hours on assorted days. There is something very small town American about a post office/convenience store. It brings a community together.

Oxford at Christmas

All of Britain basically shuts down over Christmas, a national holiday. Even the trains don’t run for two days. Holiday cards are clipped to red ribbons and hung from the moldings. Most have nativity scenes or pastoral scenes in snow instead of the ubiquitous family photos and Santas you see in the US. Christmas feels far less commercial in the UK although many Brits go into debt paying for it. Decorations will stay up until twelfth night. People say "Happy Christmas" instead of "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays;" there is but one holiday for most of England.

We spent the long weekend with Henry’s family in Goring-on-Thames. It was a tight squeeze: 11 people and 2 dogs. The children helped their grandparents harvest mistletoe from the old crab apple tree. It spreads like ivy, clumping into balls – the male is yellowish and the female has the distinct white berries. They save a sprig for their house and barter the rest for a Christmas tree. Bits of holly are collected from the countryside to place over portraits of ancestors (that’s my husband’s great grandfather, Steven Cattley.)



Saturday was a “champagne” and canapés luncheon we all helped prepare for village friends. The English sparkling wine was surprisingly good. Camel Valley is in Cornwall. I met an old friend of Henry’s, the photographer Charlie Glover. His wife, Miranda Glover, writes women’s fiction just like me. We had fun talking shop and planned to get together soon. Like my character from NOT CRICKET, Miranda was at Oxford in the 1980's and recently moved back to the area. I’d love to meet her writer friends as I miss my support community in Brunswick. Writing is a lonely profession.

On Christmas Eve we had Christmas cake for tea. It’s a dense fruitcake with a two-layer frosting: marzipan then white sugar.

After tea we crossed the River Thames to Streatley to attend the children’s service at St. Mary’s. My son was christened in this 13th century church in a Georgian gown, a family heirloom. Note the small cars.

The service told the story of Jesus’s birth and invited the children to bring up the animals and figures to fill in the manger. Candles dripped as we sang carols. The children placed presents by the tree for underprivileged children.

On the walk back home, we stopped at the old Goring Mill. The woman who lives there creates a life size paper mache manger in her living room. The children count the little creatures (this year baby owls) and write the number down for a raffle. She also collects donations for her Swan Lifeline, aiding injured swans. My question is: why doesn’t the wealthy Queen look after her ailing swans?

At 6pm a torchlight procession gathers in Goring and in Streatley, convening in the fields for carol singing around a huge bonfire. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of participants. The flaring torches seemed to float above the river as they crossed the bridge.

To warm up, Henry and I slipped into our favorite Goring pub, the Catherine Wheel, for Hobgoblin bitter by the roaring fire. The pub was decked out for the holidays and full of families.

For Christmas Eve dinner we had lamb tagine followed by 3 puddings (English for dessert). The adults had mince pie, which is a miniature pie of dried fruit and minced meat or a substitute, which is topped with brandy butter and then drowned in double cream. For the children, my mother-in-law had crafted a Chocolate Log, which is basically a Maine whoopie pie: chocolate cake and whipped cream with a sprig of holly. Since I’m lactose intolerant (a sad fate in Britain,) she had made a caramelized orange pudding for me. We never made it to the stilton and port.

After pudding, it was time for Christmas crackers. Two people pull (or you circle round the table) and crack! Inside is a paper crown and dinky prize for the winner like nail clippers. Also a dumb joke eg: what do you call a person who's afraid of Santa? Claustrophobic! Dear Elizabeth, an elderly cousin, buys enormous quantities of crackers so that no one is a loser. "There can never be too many crackers on Christmas,” says she.

On Christmas morning the children woke before sunrise for their stockings. We had a candlelit breakfast of croissants since the sun doesn’t rise until after eight. It sets before 4pm. We are even farther north than Maine. My father-in-law gets little sleep at Christmas since he was out past midnight ringing church bells at both Goring and Streatley. Before having children, we used to attend the 11pm carol service. Never one to complain about duty, the Captain rang in Christmas morning as well.

Most of the grown ups headed to church and to champagne at a neighbors’ while Henry and I took the 4 children and 2 dogs for a walk along the Thames tow path. My nine-year-old nephew slid in over his wellies, and before we knew it, the 3 younger children were sliding down the muddy banks and jumping in the river with the dogs! It was raining so I hadn’t brought my camera. I was cold just watching them, but they have English blood.

It was a good distraction, as the children were going crazy waiting to open presents. This could not commence until after the Queen’s speech although my son suggested just watching it later on You Tube (half a million did!) At 3pm we gathered round “the telly” to hear the oldest British monarch (Queen Victoria is still the longest reigning) address her nation. Then it was time for more tea and gifts. I got 2 umbrellas! That scared the rain away, and we were treated to a rare sunset. Note the balls of mistletoe in the tree.

Christmas dinner in England is always turkey, roast potatoes and Brussels sprouts. My husband and his sister prepared the feast while the rest of us played charades. Their mother already made a traditional chestnut and sausage stuffing. There was also bread sauce made by simmering a clove-studded onion in milk (or, yet again, cream) and then dissolving breadcrumbs into it with seasonings.

The climax of the evening is the flaming Christmas pudding. Brandy is ignited that spreads to the sprig of holly. The pudding itself is alcohol infused fruitcake with hidden sixpences. The lucky make a wish on the old currency; the unlucky break a tooth!


Christmas was not over the next morning. On Boxing Day we journeyed out on the ancient ridgeway for a long walk. We passed through the site of the old Roman temple (below). The undulating greens were from a pastoral painting. An English Christmas is like stepping back in time.


Today it was 64F/18C! My son and I walked along the canal into Oxford. Last week's frost seems so long ago. Have a Happy New Year! It's been a fun first year of blogging for me, and I've enjoyed your comments. Thank you!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Novels About Schools

Blackwell's is my favorite bookstore in Oxford, established in 1879. It feels cozy but is enormous like a college library.

For inspiration writing S.A.D., I have read five good novels about schools. I’m passing the list along in case you’re looking for holiday reading or gifts. On that note, next week's blog might be one day late.

The closest book to my S.A.D. is Tom Perrotta’s The Abstinence Teacher released this fall in the U.S.A. It’s not due in the U.K. until January, so my mother sent me a copy from NYC. The clocks are the only things ahead in England. [AND national health care, public television and punk rock, says my English husband.]

Both Perrotta’s and my novel concern evangelicals trying to change the high school curriculum. It's a coincidence as I started S.A.D. last year before his book was published. His novel looks at Sex Ed. while mine looks at Biology and the Intelligent Design vs. Evolution debate.

Perrotta is one of my favorite authors. His novels are at their best when parodying suburban life. Perrotta is clearly a devoted soccer dad, inviting you along for a ride in his minivan with a cynical laugh. Stonewood Heights is neither very liberal nor too conservative and appears the ideal place to raise a family. That is until the evangelicals spread through the community like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

The protagonist is a divorced sex-ed teacher and her romantic foil a Born Again former rocker drug abuser. Perrotta is surprisingly good at mastering both the female and the male voices, straight or gay, and creating real characters in tangible settings. He writes very well and manages to make all topics accessible and amusing.

The Abstinence Teacher is a catalogue of sexual dysfunction, but it only tackles teen sex as flashbacks by the middle aged characters. This seems a curious omission since teenage sexuality is a bigger issue now than in the 1980's. The book is tastefully done, not prurient, and based on a solid understanding of evangelicalism. It has gotten a couple of favorable reviews in the NYT and deserves the attention.

I also enjoyed Perrotta's Little Children, a humorous tale of suburban malaise. His first novel, Election, took six years to sell, and the movie writes sold first, staring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick. That one is also set in school, centering on a high school president election.

Another book set in an American public (ie. state) high school is Jodi Picoult’s latest, Nineteen Minutes. Picoult’s novel tries to understand school shootings from the perpetrator’s perspective. It’s a disturbing look at bullying and the shortfall of community. The accused shooter is almost as much a victim as his targets.

Picoult is a master of writing fast-paced, topical stories centered on families. Her books appeal to both teens and adults as she dexterously bridges the generation gap with the sensitivity of a former teacher. She's had many best sellers, even internationally. On almost any airplane ride, you'll find a woman reading one and gripped. It's not fluff: Picoult does her research, tackles the issues and writes well.

Her work is distinct, a genre to itself. Amazingly, Picoult produces a new novel every nine months. She notes with amusement that it is the same duration as pregnancy. It helps that her husband is at home raising their three children. Despite the upsetting topics, her books are easy reads. Another one that questions conventional ethics in the new world is My Sister’s Keeper. I just started The Tenth Circle.

David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green is another book about bullying in school, but his tale takes place at an English state school during the 1980’s. It’s full of fun, nostalgic trivia. The narrator is a 13-year-old boy and a secret poet with an embarrassing stammer. The accounts of bullying are so real that they are hard to read, but Mitchell balances the darkness with humor.

Mitchell’s voice is original and engaging. I’m looking forward to reading more of his work. Structurally Black Swan Green reads like interlocking short stories or some YA chapter books. My 13-year-old son enjoyed it too, although it is more geared towards an adult audience. It’s a book that works on two levels of maturity. My husband is reading it now. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s so well written.

Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep is about the elite world of New England boarding schools. A Midwesterner gets a scholarship to a school similar to Groton (Sittenfeld is an alum.) Leigh struggles academically and socially, making poor choices, especially sexually. She obsesses over a boy who is as accepted as she is spurned. Prep is a keen observation of setting and character. Unfortunately the protagonist is not likable enough to be sympathetic. Still it is an interesting view of privilege and class.

Like Picoult’s books, Prep has been popular with teenagers as well as adults. Prep is far less appropriate for teens than a Picoult novel. Picoult suffuses her narratives with moral lessons on safe sex and the consequences of bullying, whereas Sittenfeld paints a realistic portrait of degradation like rotting, over-priced fruit. There is a voyeuristic feel to Prep, but the writing is sophisticated.

If you’re looking for a more cozy-up-by-the-fire book, I’d recommend Joanna Trollope’s The Choir, even for those not religiously inclined. It’s a heartwarming story of village life in England where the clash between old and new generations takes on layers of meaning. Trollope writes well and is engaging, although sometimes her myriad of characters are hard to follow.

Trouble starts when the vicar proposes to renovate the church at the expense of the boys’ choir. The choir school dates back to King Henry VIII but lacks legal standing. The town is torn apart by the controversy that tests old friendships and divides families. In this way, The Choir is similar to S.A.D. as an exploration of the inter-personal, quirky world of small town politics and the danger of mixing church and state.

Happy Holidays and Good Reading!

Click on "comments" at the bottom of Unusual Holiday Lights for more school books.

If you know of other good novels on schools, please comment below.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Unusual Holiday Lights

The Christmas lights around Oxford seem quite understated after the USA. Back home in Brunswick, Maine people go wild. I’ve seen a dry-docked boat towing a skiing snowman and Santa with all the reindeers on the roof. First prize for original Christmas lights in Maine this year goes to Melissa Walters and Bob Black. Check out their house lights above. That’s the date when the next American president will be sworn into office.

Given that there is no separation between church and state in England, I was not expecting much for Hanukkah. The stores were filled with only Christmas decorations and busy shoppers. Trees were adorned with lights and tasteful white stars hung above the high streets.

Sunday night we had just come from a lovely candle-lit carol service at Magdalen College Chapel when my daughter cried out, “Look a giant outdoor menorah!”

“Where?”

“Right there next to the Christmas Tree.”

At first I thought it had to be Advent candles, but sure enough it was a menorah on Broad Street. The biggest one I’ve ever seen. Add the gothic architecture and it was surreal. My daughter came back the next night to see how it was lit. At 5:00 pm a cherry picker truck hoisted up a rabbi to light the gas lamps. Brilliant!

Hanukkah is usually an understated affair, celebrated in the home by lighting candles for eight nights. Yesterday was the last night. It’s not the most important Jewish holiday but has risen in importance to balance the commercial appeal of Christmas for children.

Growing up in NYC with a Jewish father and an Episcopalian mother, my family celebrated both Christmas and Hanukkah as well as Easter, Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I thought I was pretty lucky and have done the same for my family. Only my children, unlike me, went to Hebrew School for several years. It’s a relief when Hanukkah and Christmas don’t overlap. It makes the balancing act a little easier.

MOOSE CROSSING is about a mixed religion family that moves from NYC to Maine after 9/11. There’s even a scene with a moose menorah. First novels are often very personal. Common advice is to write about what you know. The characters and the plot are fictional, but I do like to draw from experience for setting and subject. S.A.D. also looks at multiple religions. Neither book is particularly religious, but belief and identity are important themes.

Right now I’m busy turning around S.A.D. for my next reader, Kim Slote, who will be reading over her holiday vacation. That’s a good friend! Kim does advocacy for Planned Parenthood in Florida as well as selling natural cosmetics. She’s a mother of two children and coincidentally from a mixed religion family too. I like to test my work on typical readers as well as get feedback from those in my profession.

As I work on plot, I highlight each plot string in a different color. That shows me how the sub plots are proportioned throughout the narrative and in relation to one another. Unweaving the plot helps me address specific criticisms and focus on inconsistencies, redundancies and verbosity. Each plot string needs to be able to stand alone and to weave seamlessly into the whole. It’s rewarding when it all comes together in the end. Still plenty of work to do!

I'm dreaming of a green Christmas....

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Fine Dining in Oxford

Given the weak dollar to the strong pound, I’ve had few opportunities to eat out in Oxford. Some might assume that this was a fortunate omission, but British restaurants have improved over the two decades I’ve dined in England. These days London rivals NYC if not quite Paris. Oxford is nowhere near the gourmet standard, but there are some decent places for a treat. Lunches are more affordable.

If you only have one night in Oxford, I’d recommend The White Hart [not anymore: see update at end of blog] in the historic village of Wytham. It’s pronounced white-ham as in if you don’t know how to say it, you don’t belong there. With a population of 120, who cares? The stone and thatched cottages of Wytham are well worth the short drive from Oxford center.

The White Hart (beware there are several around Oxford) is a gastro-pub like you would usually only find in London with excellent food served in a casual pub atmosphere. It is pricey but worth it. Easy for me to say, as we went as guests of Henry’s advisor from Harvard, Susan Pharr, and her husband. Everything we had was delicious and as enjoyable as our company.


Another old pub that serves good food is The Trout in Wolvercote. An excellent weekend outing is walking 2 miles up the towpath along the Isis/Thames from Oxford to The Trout, and then walking back through Port Meadow, but bring your wellies.

For the less intrepid, you can take the number six bus back to Oxford center. The food is not as good as the White Hart, but the setting on the river is nicer. I’d recommend the wood oven pizza and a pint of Landlord over the more fancy fare. Not a bad place to have as our local pub.

Yesterday I met an American friend and a London transplant to sample the quintessential Oxford institution, Browns. Our party included a two-year-old, and this was the place for family dining. My friend tried the vegetarian special, I had a hot chicken salad and the Londoner always gets her favorite fish cakes. The two-year-old recommends the chocolate ice-cream but not the booster chair. I confess none of us were too focused on the food.

For lunch Browns was better than Brasserie Blanc. My husband and I should have known better. Raymond Blanc is considered one of the best chefs in England, and his Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Great Milton, Oxford has two-Michelin stars. Henry and I celebrated our tenth anniversary there. Our room at the inn overlooked beautiful gardens and couldn’t have been more romantic.

Sadly the inn’s accommodations were far better than the haute cuisine food, which was served with pseudo-French pretension. I still remember the two little blond girls in starched white dresses and ironed bows sitting with their stern parents at an adjacent table. I felt as uncomfortable as the children and about as welcome, but that was seven years ago.

The atmosphere at Brasserie Blanc was far more relaxed, and the service couldn’t have been better. The food wasn’t bad but still a disappointment. My Boeuf Bourguignon was greasy and tough, but Henry’s grilled salmon was okay. I filled up on fresh bread. The lemon and mango sorbets were fine. The atmosphere felt generic, but it was fun sitting in the big windows looking over Jericho Village. It didn’t feel like Thanksgiving.

The best meal we’ve had in Oxford center was at Chiang Mai Kitchen off High Street. The excellent Thai restaurant is almost impossible to find, hidden down a narrow alley that is so Oxford. The building felt as ancient with white washed walls, exposed beams and old windows.

The Thai figurines and orchids seemed an odd contrast but worked. I only wished there had been a fire in the fireplace. The food was as tasty as it was beautifully presented. We especially liked the dumplings (Khanom Jeep) and the chicken in spinach leaves (Mieng Gai.) Perfect for a family outing or even a nice date.

I think I’ll send my NOT CRICKET characters to the Trout for a pint. Does that mean I get to write off “the bill?” Don’t ask for “the check” in England. If you have leftovers it’s “to take away” not “to go.” It’s a “pint of lager”(light) or “bitter”(darker) not beer, and, yes, it will come at cask temperature, not chilled. Don’t expect ice cubes in anything. Ask for the loo or toilet, not the bathroom, and you are good to go. Cheers!

Happy Hanukkah! The chocolate gelt is in pounds, but given the exchange rate, not so bad.

P.S. If you know of other good Oxford restaurants/pubs, please comment. I'm hungry for the info.

March 2008 Update: I'm sorry to report we had a disappointing meal at The White Hart. It wasn't terrible, but nothing tasted especially fresh, and the menu was less interesting. The service, bitter and atmosphere were still very good, especially the real fire on a cold night. I spoke with the manager who said they no longer have the same chef from September. She was at least responsive to my criticism. We've had much better pub meals at The Trout Inn. If you are looking for more gourmet food in an elegant atmosphere, I'd recommend Gee's on Banbury Road.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Wizard Earl

One step into the Museum of the History of Science and I had entered Philip Pullman’s fantasy world of His Dark Materials. The Oxford author had clearly found inspiration for Lyra’s magical alethiometer (the golden compass) in the museum’s collections of astrolabes and sundials. The 1590’s armillary sphere (pictured above) was owned by Henry Percy, the ninth Earl of Northumberland. He was known as the “Wizard Earl.” The globes had astrological signs on them.



Director Jim Bennett explained that this was not a museum of modern science but rather “the finest collection of early instruments in the world.” The Persian astrolabes (above) dated from the 15th to the 18th centuries. There were other artifacts from the 11th century and many from the Renaissance. The instruments were called “mathematical” as the science focused on measuring distance and time in relation to the stars and planets for surveying and navigation.

Originally known as the Ashmolean, it was the first building ever constructed for the purpose of being a museum. It was completed in 1685 to embrace the new science in the university. The method of teaching was experiment and demonstration, a departure from the traditional reading of lectures. Like an allegory, the basement originally housed the chemical laboratories, the ground floor was devoted to the study of natural history and the top floor was the museum.

The new science museum was truly public from its conception. The six pence admission meant that few commoners could afford to visit, but those who could pay, including women, were welcome. What a radical concept for the 17th century! Some of the elite boycotted the museum for this reason.

I was surprised to see so many sundials during the period that clocks and pocket watches were gaining popularity. Dr. Bennett explained that clocks, which measure average solar time, had to be set off sundials. Interestingly, the sundials were a far more accurate measurement of time. Some were small enough to carry in a pocket and made additional measurements such as Babylonian time. Bennett compared them to the silly extra features on digital watches. Technology may have changed, but human nature has not. It’s all about the cool gadgets.

These days the entire building is devoted to the museum. The basement now houses the more modern collection, including its most famous object: a blackboard used by Einstein to show his cosmological equations. There is also the first wireless machine used to broadcast soprano Nellie Melba in 1920. An historic event included in the book my husband is writing on public television. Demonstrations of the ancient instruments are given at the table. I’d love to bring our engineer-inclined son back for an astrolabe or sundial demonstration.

My tour was arranged by the Oxford Newcomers' Club, and it was a fine way to spend a cold, wet morning. The leaves are mostly down, but the grass is still bright green and will be all winter. I miss snow. Perhaps that explains why the novel I started reading yesterday was Vendela Vida’s Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name. Maybe I’m just pining after my own winter’s tale, S.A.D., which is with a reader now. S.A.D. is also about teaching science. Have you ever felt homesick for a novel?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Philip Pullman on Writing Myth & Religion


I thought it was a joke: Philip Pullman, young adult author and outspoken critic of organized religion, in a public discussion with, get this, the vicar in a church. So it’s okay to be organized in a church so long as the topic is writing.

I grabbed my teenaged son, who loved His Dark Materials trilogy even more then Harry Potter, and joined throngs of Oxford students at The University Church of St. Mary the Virgin on October 22nd. What a dramatic setting: stained glass, vaulted ceilings and gargoyles dating back to the 13th century. I half expected to find a daemon lurking in the pews. The fantasy series was set in his hometown of Oxford in this universe and in others.

Philip Pullman fitted the collegiate venue. He looked and sounded more like a tenured college professor than a bestselling author and iconoclast. He was warm and friendly with his host, Canon Brian Mountford.

Pullman referred to himself as a “Church of England Atheist.” He praised the Bible for its beautiful prose and noted religion’s value in building community. Pullman’s quarrel is not so much with religion but that “the church abandoned people in my position.” He cited religious wars, persecution and intolerance.

The Church of England was an important part of his personal history. He seemed to regard it more like an eccentric relative than the enemy. When Pullman was only seven, his father died. His grandfather, an ordained minister, partially raised him. Pullman praised his beloved grandfather for being a gifted storyteller. Later Pullman claimed that parents could do better by telling moral stories as opposed to religious ones.

In a Hollywood minute, the conversation jumped from religion to the upcoming film version of His Dark Materials. When Mountfield asked if the adaptation was true to the book, Pullman replied that the film is but one in a long series of different ways of telling the same story. Since writing the novels, there have been abridged audio books, a radio dramatization and 2 stage plays. Each has a different emphasis that reflects the genre.

His Dark Materials film will have special effects not possible on the page. It won’t be the same because the book takes eleven hours to read out loud, compared to a two-hour film. Pullman also wrote some special scenes just for the movie.

What impressed me most was Pullman’s eloquence and lack of conceit. He seemed to see the writer as a tool in the process: “stories only come into being when you read them; you can’t tell the meaning.”

Pullman has no problem with readers having different interpretations or leaving questions unanswered. When writing, the author is a tyrant and the process is despotic. Once the book becomes published, it becomes a democracy of the readers. “Reading is engaged in silence and secrecy, and there is nothing I can do about it.”

Writing is still hard work. The Northern Lights (The Golden Compass in the USA) took Pullman seven years to write. It still isn’t faultless. “If you want to write a perfect piece of literature, write a haiku or a sonnet but don’t bother writing a novel.”

Nonetheless, Pullman appreciates the craftsmanship of forming sentences and the discipline of using words precisely. He frequently consults the dictionary and loathes clichés. His focus is as much on enjoying the medium of language as on telling the story. With experience writing gets both harder and easier. “It is easier because there are more ways to say the same thing, but it is harder to choose.”

What sets Pullman apart from most contemporary writers of children’s fiction are his literary references. His work draws heavily from the Judeo-Christian tradition and from John Milton’s Paradise Lost. His books resonate with the notion of fall and redemption. There is also a fair bit of science, including string theory, in creating his parallel universes and “dust.”

His Dark Materials leave readers of any age with questions. The biggest one is “what is dust?”

Pullman explained, “It is the visual analogue of all things known, all thoughts. What I call dust is what makes us what we are.” He avoided using the term soul but instead referred to the human “sense of consciousness.” The purpose of dust was “to develop a myth as a place to stand like in the Judeo-Christian tradition.”

I’m wondering how much of this will be clear to my ten-year-old daughter, who just started reading the series. To her, it is all about the daemons, those lovable animalistic beings that are the other half of humans. My daughter would calls them cute, little shape changers, but Pullman said they are the “aspect of oneself.”

Pullman claims that his best idea was having the daemons constantly changing form until their humans hit puberty. At heart, it is a young adult book dealing with this magical transformation from child to adult.

Biggest laughs came when Pullman answered the question of what would be his daemon. “My daemon would be a scruffy bird that steals from his neighbors.” He elaborated on how his imaginative fiction is rooted in research.

There is no doubt in my mind that his best character is the drunken, armored polar bear. Pullman created this creature and the dueling scene after reading an 1812 essay about fencing with a bear. His magic brings it to life.

The view from St. Mary's tower of Oxford

On the way out, we dropped a couple pounds in the church collection box. St. Mary’s also raises funds from visitors to the tower and by running a café called Vaults and Garden. The food is fresh and wholesome. Still, it’s hard to imagine any of this happening in an American church. That’s the fun of living abroad.

A blog is the ultimate democracy of the readers. What’s your take on Philip Pullman’s mythology?