Perfect books for magpies

I recently got back from a teaching trip to the Tennessee mountains, where I was teaching a course on keeping a spiritual journal. It was lovely, and more on that later, probably… on my return, however, I discovered a crashed computer and have spent the last 48 hours working on it, with about five hours sleep.

Still, here I am, blogging, haunted by the ridiculous idea that some of you may be wondering why I haven’t written anything in over a week. Deluded? Probably. Yes, doubtless. More of a compulsion, I suppose. That’s the problem with blogging, isn’t it? And with writing as a vocation in general — one keeps getting pulled back to the page when one should be doing any number of other things, like, say, sleeping, or eating, or going for a walk.

Never mind, I won’t feel truly settled until I write something, which is what writers are like, I’m afraid. Luckily, I am immersed just now in these two lovely wee books, just perfect for a magpie whose attention span has been shortened by the nerve-jangling activity called “computer repair.”

The books are: “The Wildlife Companion” edited by Malcolm Tait and Olive Tayler; and “The Literary Companion” by Emma Jones. Both are called “Think Books,” and they do encourage that sort of thing.

I can’t remember where I first heard about them, but it wasn’t easy to find them, and I had to order one from Britain, and the other from Oh, how well-rewarded I am for my efforts. On the back of the literary book is one of my favorite quotes:

There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” W. Somerset Maugham.

On the wildlife cover is the quote:

“Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.” Eeyore.

(Which really, is about as good as a metaphorical philosophy as you can get, isn’t it?)

Each book is a magpie’s nest of wonderful shiny bits and bobs. For example, beside each page number, right there in the bottom margin, is a relevant fact corresponding to that number. So, on p. 114 in the wildlife book, it says, “114 Number of Americans bitten by dogs every hour.” And, just for symmetry’s sake, on the same page in the literature book it says “114 The number of Surah (or chapters) in the Qur’an”

Scattered throughout the literature book are snippets called: THE REWRITE WAS BETTER. An example: “Finnegan’s Cake” — “James Joyce charts the story of a publican near Dublin, his wife, their three children and the pies and pastries they serve.” Or, “Stupid White Pen” — “Michael Moore launches a blistering attack on George W. Bush’s preferred writing utensil.”


In the wildlife book I learn that there is a spider in Tibet called, of course, Dalailama, as well as, in various other parts of the world, a mollusk called Buddhaites, a dinosaur – Confuciusornis sanctus, wasps – Lutheria and Marxella and to round off the philosopher critters, a spider named after Plato.

I also learn that, traditionally, Silver Birch is used to make broom bristles and tool handles; Yew is used for bows; Hornbeam for mallet heads, chopping blocks, yokes, and wheel spokes; and that the best way to put an elephant to sleep is by rubbing his shoulders with a concoction of salt, olive oil and water. If he’ll let you, of course. However, if you want the aforementioned elephant to bear you boldly into war it is best to get him drunk on grape or rice wine– according to Aristotle, anyway.

Also, note the ever-useful “Handy Plant Names When You’re in the Mood for Cussin'”:

  • Bloody crane’s-bill
  • Bastard Toadflax
  • Devil’s bit scabious
  • Fiddle dock
  • Frogbit
  • Hoary cress
  • Nipplewort
  • Pignut
  • Spotted medick
  • Stinking iris

These are all wonderful things not only for a writer to know, but to set a writer’s imagination aflutter, don’t you think? I mean really — nipplewort? spotted medick?

I simply MUST find a way to work those into a story.

And if I do, I hope you will take the time to read it properly, and not, as Woody Allen said, “I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in 20 minutes. It involves Russia.”

Read these two books as well. Nibble. Digest. Savor. Delicious.


  1. J&E on June 16, 2009 at 6:18 am

    welcome back! look forward to hearing more about your teaching trip.

  2. susanita on June 16, 2009 at 6:22 am

    Oh pignut!! I love it almost as much as holy doodle.

    The books sound wonderful and you have to love any book that has quote from Eeyore on the cover.

  3. Lisa Pasold on June 16, 2009 at 1:40 pm

    but yes, i noticed…assumed you were enjoying the non-blogness of being away! agree with susanita, re. eeyore. (don't most writers spend much of their time putting the broken balloon into the jar, and then taking it out again?)

  4. red-handed on June 17, 2009 at 9:40 am

    The world needs more erratica.

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