The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Mark Haddon), plus Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (Susanna Clarke)

There's a wooded circle near one of the playgrounds in our Co-op community. I must circumscribe the plot -- or at least an arc of it -- to walk from the town center to our home. I often stop to watch the frollicking squirrels and wonder how they can be so fat.

On this imaginary day, I notice that I'm not alone in observing the squirrels. That kid from down the street -- whose name refuses to stick -- sits on a bench with his wee friend Prasad. Both are staring intently at the rodents. They have their notebooks out and are carefully making entries at intervals. I wander over to inquire1 about their diligent work.

I look over their shoulders to peer at their writing, but it consists of sets of data and crossed out formulae.

I think it safest to steer clear of the formulae, so I say, "Gentlemen! Read any good books lately?"

I suppose I say this with a bit too much boom, because Prasad falls right off the bench. The squirrels disappear. Geoffrey looks up from his book.

I set my bag of groceries on the ground to give my fingers a rest.

"We are very much admiring The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," Prasad says, after he retrieves his notebook and straightens his tie.

"Ah, yes," I say. "I suppose it is safe to say we all wish we were a bit more like Adrian Mole."

"Autistic?" Jeff says, after a moment. There are always these strange pauses in our conversation, usually after I make a statement.

"I'm just saying," I reply, "that it would be nice to keep everyone from touching me. And if I could make people leave me alone simply by putting forehead to ground and groaning..."

The boys look skeptical.

"Actually," Jack says. "We thought you would have a particular empathy with his inability to properly interact socially --"

"Oh?" I say. "I must say I missed that bit. Why would I --"

"At any rate," interrupts Prasad, "We were thinking that it was nice to have a book with footnotes and an appendix with a mathematical proof --"

"Yeah," I say uncertainly. "Though sometimes -- in other books -- that footnote thing is a real problem."

"How is that?" Prasad asks before Joe can stop him.

"Well," I say. "for example, I found it difficult to know what to do with footnotes in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I mean, do you read all the text and go back to the footnotes later, or do you break the stream of narrative to read them?"

"We liked that book," says Prasad. "Though it isn't heavy with narrative drive."

"It's just heavy," says John. "She coulda used an editor."

"And then, if you do the latter," I go on, "what do you do with the bookmark?"

"Bookmark?" Jay asks.

"At least one of the footnotes was four pages long," I say. "If you leave a page midway through to follow a footnote that's four pages long, where do you put the bookmark if you decide to go to sleep in the middle of reading the footnote?"

They obviously had not considered this problem, because their little faces are filled with something that looks a lot like awe. As they sit trying worry their way through my little nugget of wisdom, I watch one of the squirrels return to playing in the trees. Three-quarters of his tail are missing, perhaps chomped by some stray coyote. We call him Nub-butt.

"Actually," Prasad finally says. "We're more interested in the study of magic presented as serious study, like history or science."

"Although we would like to have seen more magical interaction with the animal kingdom," Jeb adds.

"Oh," I say, surprised. "Animals. Pah. They're just dumb beasts. I couldn't believe a story with intelligent animals."

I would like to go further, but I notice a rustling at my feet. I reach down for my grocery bag, but Nub-butt pops out carrying my dried wasabi peas on his back. He runs off toward the trees. I follow as best I can, but he darts left and right so quickly, I have little luck in reacquiring my wasabi peas. Nub-butt is quicker than his girth suggests.

The two boys sit on the bench and solemnly record each of my movements.

1 Just as an aside, what is the difference between "inquire" and "enquire" anyway?

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