Archived Reading Room

Make way for the holidays

The Compleat Gentleman by Brad Miner. Spence Publishing, 2004. 264 pages.

The Truth of the Matter by Robb Forman Dew. Little & Brown, 2005. 336 pages.

With Christmas less than three weeks away, it’s time to shift into high gear and review rapidly some of the books stacked on the desk. Some of these I have skimmed; some I have read in part or in whole; one I have read with great pleasure.

Robb Forman Dew’s The Truth of the Matter (ISBN 0-316-89004-9, $24.95) continues the story of the Scofield family of Washburn, Ohio, a chronicle that the author began in The Evidence Against Her. This latest book follows the family through World War II and afterwards. Though Dew writes well and creates an interesting story, some readers may grow weary of her lengthy explanations, which she frequently offers in place of showing the reader the development of character and plot. Despite this weakness, Dew does capture the mood and feeling of the World War II era, particularly as viewed by the women of that time.


Adrian Fogelin’s My Brother’s Hero (ISBN 1-56145-352-8, $6.95) is a handsome book for the price and should be of strong interest to the middle school readers for whom it was written. Ben Floyd can’t wait to get his driver’s license. He’s also begun to be attracted by his lifelong friend, Cass. When the family goes to Florida for Christmas, Ben and his brother meet Mica, an 11-year-old who lives with her marine biologist father. Ben Floyd learns several lessons during the course of this story, including one about the importance of distinguishing between courage and stupidity.

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Brad Vice’s collection of short stories, The Bear Bryant Funeral Train (ISBN 0-8203-2745-X), won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Vice offers a variety of well-drawn characters, from a cookbook author to a farmer to a software engineer. “Tuscaloosa Knights,” the book’s first story, brings together the Ku Klux Klan, the inmates of a madhouse, an aristocratic Southerner, a young female novelist, football, and a young Bear Bryant as player for Alabama rather than as coach (Bryant, as the title suggests, appears in several of these stories) in a brilliant portrayal of the South 60 years ago.


Finally, Brad Miner’s The Compleat Gentleman provides us with a history of chivalry, examines the causes for its demise, and encourages men to re-examine themselves in light of standards from the past. Miner’s commentary fascinated me but may not appeal to all readers. What the book does contain, however, is the possible answer to Sigmund Freud’s famous question: what do women want? Since it is the Christmas season, and since right now men across these mountains are scratching their heads and asking themselves this very question, I thought it worthwhile to quote at length from Miner’s retelling of an ancient story:

“King Arthur loses a test of skill with a knight near Carlisle, and he will forfeit his life if he fails within the year to answer the knight’s remarkable, proto-Freudian question: What does a woman want? Arthur is stumped, all of Camelot is stumped, and 365 days have passed as the king rides despondently to meet his fate. He comes upon a hag (usually referred to as the ‘loathly lady’) who asks why he is so cheerless. He explains. The ugly old woman laughs her toothless cackle and says, ‘I can answer the question.’ Arthur perks up and promises that if she saves him he’ll grant her anything. Well, her answer — and it’s the correct one — is that what a woman wants most is to have her own way. So the king is delivered, and he couldn’t be happier until he hears the hag’s quid pro quo. She wants a knight of the Round Table for her husband.

“Now of all the noble knights at Camelot, none was nobler than Sir Gawain, and he steps forward, ready to fulfill the king’s promise to the hag. Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, for that’s the loathly lady’s name, are married, and on their wedding night, which Gawain has been dreading, she tells him that she is actually a beautiful woman — the most beautiful — and she may appear so half the day. It’s a curse, of course. She is transformed before him, and he is indeed stunned by her splendor. So, she says, you must choose: Shall I be lovely during the day and loathly at night; or loathly in the sunshine and lovely in moonlight? Gawain scratches his chin. Well, he thinks, would I rather make love to the ugly one in the darkness of our bedroom — I could keep my eyes closed — and be at court with the beautiful one in the daylight for all to see? Or would it be better to make love with my beauty by candlelight and endure the horrified stares at court during the day? Either because of his inability to decide or because inspiration has broken through to the medieval male mind, he tells Ragnelle that she should decide. As it happens, this is exactly right: the curse is lifted, and she is beautiful forever.”

So there you have it, gentlemen all, my gift to you this Yuletide season, a hint, a possibility of an answer regarding what women really want. Even with that answer, however, a wise man will come to his beloved, as the wise men came that first Christmas, bearing gifts of frankincense, myrrh, and gold (which in modern terms translates into perfumes, chocolates, and a gift certificate).

By the way, guys, shop now. It’s an awful thing to be standing in a grocery store line at 8 p.m. on Christmas Eve with some bedraggled roses in one hand, some Hershey’s Kisses in the other, and that embarrassed smile on your face.

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