Arsenic And Old Cake

October 29, 2013

On October 28, 1922, a man named William Wrey Sterrett died at Bryn Mawr Hospital in Philadelphia. He seems to have been the quiet type in life; an accountant for Price Waterhouse, he lived an uneventful life with his wife, Martha Campbell Sterrett, in Devon, Pennsylvania. The couple had been married for eight years and had no children. Nor, apparently, did they have an extensive social life: the friends dredged up by newspaper reporters all had kind words to say about him but most of them centered around how unassuming he was. “A home type,” several friends told the Chester County Daily Local News. In an article printed on October 31, The Philadelphia Inquirer quoted more anonymous friends as having “nothing but praise for the dead accountant … while not a person of the kind that made idle boasts, he was always willing to enter into discussions of various sorts, and his advice was generally regarded as good.”

Apart from these modified raptures, the only other distinctive pieces of information about “the dead accountant” were that he and his wife had just bought a new house and that they also liked to go antiquing on the weekends. So far, so unremarkable — until Thursday, October 26, 1922. That afternoon, Mrs. Sterrett picked up the mail at the Devon post office and discovered that she had received a package “about the size of a pound candy box” (according to the October 29th Daily Local News), addressed with a typewritten label to Mrs. W.W. Sterrett. It had no return address but had been postmarked in Philadelphia. The postmistress, Mrs. (or Miss — the papers differ) Gillies, turned out to be happy to share Mrs. Sterrett’s reaction with newspaper reporters. Under the subheading “NERVOUS AT POST OFFICE,” we learn that Mrs. Sterrett, speaking in an “excited manner” speculated on the contents of the box and said that she would hurry home at once to see what it contained. However, “the box remained unopened until the arrival of Mr. Sterrett on a later train, and when the box was uncovered it was found to contain a piece of brown cake known as `devil’s food’ and it was covered with a pink icing. Mr. Sterrett partook freely of the cake, but Mrs. Sterrett, it is said, did not eat as much.” (Newspaper accounts of the cake would differ: according to The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer, both publishing on October 29th, the cake was golden and, as the NYT stated, “had the appearance of having been cut from a large wedding cake.” Later, the Inquirer occasionally referred to the cake as having been devil’s food. One thing was certain: the Sterretts had between them eaten every crumb of it).

“What’s In The Box?”

David Foster Wallace on suicide and the moral life

September 14, 2008

David Foster Wallace’s postmodernism was always about morality.

Whatever anybody said, all the Great Big American Novelists of our lifetimes have shared that itch. But for Wallace it must have been a fever. Morality was never below the surface of his art — even though the art was usually so dazzling that some people couldn’t see anything else.

To cheer me up after his wretched, untimely death, here is some advice he gave about literal and figurative suicide, from his 2005 commencement address at Kenyon.

The full speech doesn’t betray Wallace’s trademark floridity, the habit that’s going to be talked up in all this morning’s papers. Instead, it’s flat almost to the point of crassness. It’s a slap in the jaw. It’s worth a full read.

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Discworld Profile: Death and His Granddaughter

December 14, 2007

As a tribute to Terry Pratchett, I’m going to kick off a set of posts about favorite Discworld books. Technically, every book that Pratchett has written that is set in the Discworld is part of the overall series, (36 so far,) but in reality, there are subsets of books within the whole that star specific sets of characters. These characters sometimes meet and overlap, but there are still several streams of narrative that readers can follow through the Discworld. Some of the main subsets include books about these characters: the Night Watch, the wizards, the witches, and the anthropomorphic representation of Death. (You can see a nice categorical and chronological breakdown here.) I have a particular fondness for the Death books, particularly the later ones starring his granddaughter, Susan Death.

Back in the beginning, Death was just your basic anthropomorphic being, thinking only Deathly thoughts, doing just what people expected Death to do. But then he started to wonder. What was it like to be human? Why did humans want to be human so badly? So he built a house, and planted a garden, and got a servant, and adopted a daughter, Ysabell, to whom he gave frilly pink clothes with skeletal bunny rabbits on them, because as far as he could figure out, that’s what girls liked. Years later, he also decided to get an apprentice, Mort. As you might imagine, Death’s apprentice and his daughter, as the only real humans in Death’s realm, find themselves drawn together, after the obligatory failed adolescent attempts at flirting via cruel put-downs, sarcasm, and general awkwardness. They get married, produce a daughter, Susan, and die while she is away at boarding school as a teenager.

Ysabell and Mort decided to raise Susan without a lot of contact with her grandfather, so when her parents die and Death goes missing, it comes as something of a shock when she is tapped to take his place until he can be found. This revelation does explain some of her unusual traits and abilities, though, like the white hair with one streak of black, and the ability to turn invisible. When performing Death’s duties, she also finds that she can walk through walls, function outside time, and use the Death VOICE. She is quite smart, and extremely practical. Upon graduation from school, she pursues a career as a governess and then a schoolteacher, though she does keep finding herself in the position of needing to save the world, or at least right it before it all goes wrong, on a regular basis.

Here’s a rundown of the Death arc books, in chronological order:

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