pinpricks on my fingertips, and a new thimble
a book of souls I couldn't find, new souls now for the searching
building gods and giants out of ticking finger keyboards
tender morsels sappho sarah waters william blake
beautiful dreams of sleeping, sleeping, in lonely snowy fields
remember forget forget remember forget remember remember remember
persistent the ache just underneath the belly like a breath I can't exhale
a hoodwink with a doll and a flag and mother behind a paper screen
half completion is all failure days with hems I'll never stitch before they fray
remember forget forget remember forget remember remember remember
but everything, everything, everything is beautiful in the world.
This was my book for our family book club this month. As you may have guessed, Amanda drew my name, and chose a book for me. Hence Leviathan, which she chose largely, I think, because it doesn't have the raging giant worm action that is purportedly to be found in Peeps.
That being said.
This was my first experience with Mr. Westerfield, though Amanda is a devoted fan. I really was looking forward to the book. Leviathan is the first in what will be a trilogy, telling a steampunk alternate history of Europe, and encompassing the events that triggered World War I (one of the characters, for instance, is the son of Archduke Ferdinand). World War I is one of my favorite periods of history - as a child, we had a book in our library that (for some reason) had instructions on how to build a scale replica of the World War I trenches, and I always wanted to build it. I later wrote, in my head, an entire romance that centered around biplane pilots. Something in the conflux, the meeting of the old and new ways of war, of horse cavalry appearing on the same battle field as tanks and mustard gas, is beautifully blind and sad, to me. On top of this, the steampunk ethos is lovely to me, being a history fan anyway, and particularly a fan of Regency/Victorian/Edwardian history. A number of my favorite heroes are from the period, as well. I was a bit nervous, because Amanda had warned me not to take the book to seriously, but I AM capable of enjoying a book 'just for fun', really I am, so I was ready for a romp.
I didn't hate the book. I didn't even dislike the book. It was kind of just meh.
The premise was fairly clever, and the way that the competing branches of science are integrated with the Axis/Allies split of World War I was well thought out. The world building was fairly well done (if unquestionably geared to the technological over the sociological), and I found the setting to be interesting enough that I could argue with it - that's a good thing, I promise.
The characters, though - and I LOVE characters - were just kind of so-so, to me. The two protagonists (I'm trying to avoid spoilers here, sorry), both felt kind of like stereotypes, there more for window dressing for their two technological backgrounds, than like real people. I was interested, sort of from a dispassionate point of view, in what happened to their machines, but honestly never got terribly fond of either of them. Or terribly unfond.
And the action kind of got tiresome. I am not saying the book was morally bad - there is a nice lesson in it about how people need to work together, and one of the heroes had a father who was a peacenik, more or less. But most of the big action scenes were pretty much just battle scenes. I'm not the biggest fan of battle scenes. I know they can be well written and engaging, and I have read some that felt meaingful to me. But by and large, even the best of them don't do a lot for me, personally, even in books that I love like Lord of the Rings or Dune. The battles are there, they're important, but they're not what I love. In this book, I felt like everything was a battle or a chase scene, and neither of those things were terrifically exciting to spend several hundred pages alongside, without first feeling like I really deeply cared what happened to the characters.
In short, I think the problem was me. I'm not a big huge fan of books where the clever premise is the main attraction (i.e. this felt like it was more about the technology and less about the people), and I'm not a big huge fan of battle and chase scenes, which were very well done here, and probably just in too thick a concentration for me. Oh well. But then, I didn't like A New Hope when I was a kid for much the same reasons, then I liked Empire Strikes Back, which had a lot more bridgey, character driven moments. So, maybe the next book (Behemoth, I'm told) will be more to my liking.
(Video originally posted by Caniad at Dwell in Possibility)
It's that time of year, the time when the year is ending and everyone finds some excuse to pass presents around to each other :). It's Christmas in our house (though admittedly not as a result of any deeply held religious convictions on the divinity of Jesus Christ), and we've been running around all day - and will run more tomorrow on Christmas Day! I have a little end-of-the-year-and-christmas business that I hadn't done, so I wanted to pop on quick and get to it.
First of all, I did get my present from the Book Blogger Holiday Swap. My Secret Santa was Sennebec, a librarian from, I believe, New England, who very kindly sent me an anthology of crime fiction from New England - I think he is one of the authors in it. It was very kind of him to think of me. Otherwise, just wanted to thank Amanda, Ms Amy, Ms Ana, Mr Chris, Ms Debi, Ms Eva, Ms Jen, Ms Jenn, Ms Jill, Ms Kelly, Ms Lena, Ms Lenore, and Ms Nicole, who have worked very hard to coordinate and organize the swap. Being incidentally married to one of these organizers (hint: it's not Mr Chris), I know the organization and coorination can be a headache, and I wanted them to know I appreciate all the work, and putting up with all us book bloggers - heaven knows we can be a cantankerous lot!
Also, a quick thank you to Ms Debi and Ms Nymeth, who both sent Amanda and I such wonderful presents. Ms Debi crocheted us a beautiful snowflake which is now hanging on our tree, putting our sometimes quite ugly other ornaments to shame :). Hopefully Debi will like me for another 75 years, and we can eventually cover an entire tree in her beautiful ornaments :D. Ms Nymeth sent us some beautiful handmade bookmarks and Alice in Wonderland bookplates. I'm almost afraid to use them, as the only bookmarks I ever don't lose are, say, gas station receipts and dental appointment cards (which I manage not to lose until I look for them in order to write the appointment down on my calendar), so my beautiful bookmark from a beautiful person would end up in someone else's book, and if Nymeth's bookmark were used so someone could read New Moon, I'm not sure she'd ever forgive me :P. Thank you both of you, I don't think I've ever had anyone send me a present that was not in a situation were they were to some degree obliged to by social convention, and both presents are very dear to me, especially from two such wonderful people. Hopefully Amanda never wises up and divorces me, because the custody battle over the snowflake and bookmarks would be very messy...
And finally, a big thank you to my wonderful wife, who bought me such lovely presents today, and didn't look horrified at any of the ones I gave her :).
I've been meaning to sign up for several challenges, but had not gotten around exactly to DOING so, so I will do it here. I know I'm terribly late, and all you challenge holders out there, I apologize, I'm a terrible participant, prone to forgetting to update, etc. But there are a few challenges that are so meaningful to me that I can't bear to pass them up. I'm trying to limit my challenges this year, because there are other things I'd like to do with my reading that don't really have much to do with any challenges that I know of (that is, I have some interests that are probably boring to most folks...). So, I have five challenges that I'll be joining this year:
GLBT Challenge - I don't have a list made out for this one, but I can say there will be some Sarah Waters involved, and I have a number of other books I'm looking in. I'll be trying to help out a bit with this challenge to - not that the wonderful Amanda NEEDS help, but if she does ask, I might chip in here and there.
Women Unbound Challenge - I was going to fill out the meme for this here, but they are such BIG QUESTIONS! I'm afraid that will have to wait until a seperate post to address them, but I promise I will. In the meantime, let me just say that while I'm a terrible ignoramus and likely will say 10000 stupid things in the course of a day, this is a really important issue to me, and one I'm really looking forward to the challenge, to help me focus some of my little ideas, and maybe add something to such a hopeful, forward-looking dialogue.
Woolf Readalong - I read the major works of James Joyce this year, and that sort of immersion in an author was a really beautiful way to experience them. I'd love to do the same with someone this year, and I'm eyeing good Ms Woolf, intently. At any rate, I'd like to revisit the books in this challenge that I've alreay read, and then read The Waves, which I'm very excited about.
Graphic Novel - This is my trying-to-be-brave challenge. I don't know a thing about Graphic Novels, and my few attempts have had mixed results, but all these wonderful people with excellent taste keep telling me to try them again. So, I will. I don't know what level I will do the challenge at, I guess it depends on if I can find my 'groove' and figure out how to read them... but really HOW BAD can any challenge being thrown by Mr Chris and Ms Nymeth be? :)
Really Old Classics - I'm going to go ahead and do this challenge, because there are SO MANY lovely, very old books I'd like to read - this is actually the only one I've gotten started on already, as I finished Silence, and I'm looking forward to some of my other reads for it, as well!
Since you all work so terribly hard in the blogging community, I thought I ought to do SOMETHING helpful, and the place I saw a hole is in poetry - I don't THINK there is any poetry challenges for 2010, so I thought perhaps I could be of use for that? I know Ms Lu has thrown one in the past, and didn't have a lot of participation, so I'm curious if this is even something people are interested in? If not, I'll just make myself one and be done with it - I'm a bit nervous about throwing one anyway, since I'm afraid it will make more traffic on my blog, which makes me nervous. But, otherwise, if people are interested, maybe Ms Lu and I (if she's still interested?) can come up with something.
Perhaps you've noticed I kind of started to streeeeeeeeeetch out my description of my images on the front page. This is because I wanted to save my 'favorite person' button for today, the tenth anniversary of the greatest mistake of Amanda's life (that would her marrying me :P. It's for the best, though. Can you imagine if she'd married, say, Vladimir Nabokov? Between the two of them, they'd of given birth to evil supergeniuses, and you all know we don't want that! Someone had to temper the gene pool... ;) ).
I've never been good at public describing my wife. It's a difficult task, she's difficult to describe. So, I'm not going to do it. Instead, let me tell you a story.
I grew up in a Mormon household, and in the Mormon faith, you are baptized when you turn eight. This isn't automatic - the church teaches that by eight one is accountable for one's actions, hence this being the age of baptism. As such, you have to go meet with the Bishop, and they speak to you, and ask you if you believe in Christ, if you believe in certain core tenets of the church, if you are ready to be baptized. It's something like what Catholics do in Confirmation, I suppose. Of course, for most kids, this seemed to be just a matter of formalities - I mean, what, are you going to say no? Come out and say 'Dad, I decided not to get baptized?' You're eight, you just sort of do what you figure you're supposed to do.
I wasn't that kind of eight year old - I mean I WAS. I didn't have any deep moral courage. But I wasn't, in the sense that I thought too much, and the dishonesty of my agreeing bothered me. I remember, on my baptism day, this feeling of discomfort, even a little fear - if it WAS true, and I had lied, wasn't that sacrilege or something?
This sort of feeling of wrongness surrounded a number of things in my childhood. Most of the major 'coming of age' events of childhood, particularly felt wrong or miscreated. I felt this way about Kindergarten and the beginning of high school, I felt it about the other Mormon ceremonies I went through in my youth. I felt it about most of my friendships - not my friends, mind you, necessarily, but about me in those friendships. The first time someone asked me on a date, my Junior Prom (a funny story, that one, but still wrong). I used to make up stories about it, about misplaced spirits, and identical twins, about botched reincarnation, about wicked gods. I never believed these stories (at least not very much), but I couldn't shake the feeling that something, somehow was wrong about me. Something was misstaken.
The only thing I didn't feel that about was my first love - my only love. I felt *I* was wrong for her, often enough (I wonder it still, on occaision), but I knew and know now that she was and is perfectly right for me. Amanda is my one right, perfect thing. Somebody famous said once that to love something beautiful is the most ennobling of human activities, and in my life, I can say that the best of who I am is the product of loving Amanda. Amanda is, quite literally, my reason for being alive, my guiding star, and I am happy (that's not a very big word) she could be such a bright, beautiful, constant star.
The picture in my banner is a Keshalyi, one of the spirits under Anna, the queen of the good fairy spirits of Romany folklore. I won't bore you all with her story - I imagine I know the story in a way that isn't much like the original anyways - but in the way I know the story, noone can ever see Anna's face, it's a mystery. Everyone can recognize her, but noone can see her. That is what Amanda is to me, a radiant, beautiful thing, hidden away in a mere mortal body, that all can see, and noone can really, completely know. As a wandering Keshalyi of a soul, I am forever grateful that, even if my little brain and heart hasn't the capacity to hold all she is inside of them at once, that I privileged to plumb the depths so long :).
I have always loved revolutionary history. It's not a fascination with violence or really even an assumption that the revolutionaries are necessarily right - but just that, in the best of revolutions, I love that feeling of a sort of awakening popular heart. I also love poetry. Blok, a poet who marched the streets of St Petersburg in the Russian Revolution would seem to be a perfect fit for me.
And there was much to love about this poem. The poem described 12 red soldiers tramping through Moscow in a snowstorm in the early days of the Revolution. But the beautiful thing is, Blok believes in the revolution but still sees these men for what they are - devoid of humanity, when who have been whipped up into forces of nature, brimming with hatred and coarseness. Heroes they are not. But at the end, Blok destined them continuing down the streets of Moscow, with Christ at their head, living personifications of the twelve apostles.
It's an uncomfortable ending, as the greatest revolutionary literature should be, and asks all the right questions: can a cruel system be destroyed without cruelty? When we make men into animals, are they responsible for their actions afterward? Can a just god use mass destruction and death as a tool yo create life? Can just men do the same?
Sadly the translation stunk.
I don't read Russian, so maybe Blok just wasn't any good in terms of his prosody, but I doubt it. The writing felt tipsy and sing-song, like a bad imitation of Tennyson. And I went back and read how the book was translated? A Russian professor and a poet who knew no Russian at all worked together. The professor would do a literal translation and then the poet would make it sound like opoetry. Um... That probably seemed like a good idea at the time, but...
There are some snippets of the poem online, in what seems to be a better tanslation. My favorite is the last stanza:
Behind them limps the hungry dog,
and wrapped in wild snow at their head
carrying a blood-red flag ~
soft-footed where the blizzard swirls,
invulnerable where bullets crossed ~
crowned with a crown of snowflake pearls,
a flowery diadem of frost,
ahead of them goes Jesus Christ.
In this holiday season, it's easy to forget the important things. Sure, everyone thinks about presents, and christmas trees. Family traditions inevitably come up. The slightly-displaced birth of Jesus Christ. Wise Men. Donkeys. All these things have their place of course, but it's so easy in the midst of all these pleasant things to forget what Christmas is really all about.
Yes, I'm talking about Sexy Christmas Songs.
Sexy Christmas Songs: A Historical Introduction
Sexy Christmas Songs (SCS's) have, of course, been an important part of Christmas since that very first Christmas, when tradition reminds us how Joseph sang Can't Get Enough of Your Love, Baby, and Mary countered with 'Like A Virgin. And from there, of course the tradition has never slackened. According to contemporary historians, it was Henry VIII's steamy rendition of 'I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In' that finally convinced a timid Anne Boelyn that the two were right for each other. Shakespeare calls upon the tradition in the famous "Up on the Housetop" scene between Hamlet and Ophelia. And, of course here in the states, the Civil War might have ended up entirely differently had it not been for Abe and Mary Todd Lincoln's timely duet of 'Deck the Halls' - 'Ooh-la-la-la-la, la-la, la-la!' of course became the rallying cry of the demoralized Union Army through the hard slogs of the 1863 campaign.
Sadly, most of the old SCS's lost popularity in the prudish days of the 1920's: "Go Rest With Merry Gentlemen", "Good King Wenceslas", "The Holly and the Ivy" - all these SCS's have been relegated largely to the history books. To the modern listener, only the songs of the Second SCS Renaissance have survived.
The Second SCS Renaissance
It was in the wild-eyed days of excess that we now know as 'the 1950's' that the SCS returned to it's position of prominence, with what we like to refer to as 'The Sacred Trinity of Sexy Christmas Songs": Santa Baby (1953), Baby it's Cold Outside (1949), and I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus (1952). Each of those songs, of course, has it's especial appeal as an example of the SCS idea. I Saw Mommy, unfortunately, may not be appropriate for discussion here, this being a family blog.
Santa Baby, of course, has it's own appeal, but unfortunately, most renditions are merely imitation of the original, and while we deeply admire Eartha Kitt's ability to form a career out of a mild smoker's voice and the ability to purr on cue, a discussion of the imitation of these talents would invariably devolve into a discussion on feline science, instead of sticking to the topic at hand. This, of course, leaves us with the famous SCS duet, "Baby It's Cold Outside".
Baby, It's Cold Outside: Methodology
Judgement of Baby, It's Cold Outside (BICO) renditions can have many different parameters: instrumentation, quality of recording, presence of hair pomade in the male lead, etc. For our purposes here, as this is an introductory course, we will discuss the different version based on a more basic set of standards:
1) WHERE ARE THE MAN'S HANDS
2) WHERE ARE THE WOMAN'S HANDS
3) LEVEL OF BLUSH WHEN LISTENING WITH CHILDREN
An additional difficulty is selecting the renditions to judge. For our purposes, we'll discuss four that, we feel, typify the interpretations of this timeless classic.
We of the SCS Study Society, International (SCSSSI: pronounced 'Scuzzy') honestly have a general dislike for Dean Martin: The oily, chuckling variety of male sexiness reminds us to much of the drunken lecherous uncle character so frequently figured into Christmas films. This general distaste is heightened in his interpretation of BICO, for a very simple reason: He is duetting against a group of backup singers. Aside from the general tastelessness of singing a duet without a duettist, in the context of BICO, this gives us an uncomfortable feeling of groupness, as if Dino were trying to seduce the Delrubio triplets. While we of the SCSSSI are fully willing to admit the possiblity that Dino may have actually seduced the Delrubio triplets, we feel uncomfortable imagining in connection with the birth of the Christ child. We feel that even openmindedness should have it's reasonable limits.
Where are the Man's Hands? - Unquestionably, wrapped around his mildly Freudian symbolic microphone, held creepily close to his lips.
Where are the Woman's Hands? - Doing a strangely robotic dance while pretending to play the guitar
Level of Blush When Listening With Children? - I believe you can be arrested for playing this to minors in most states.
Dolly Parton and Rod Stewart
How does one begin? Here's the thing. Dolly Parton and Rod Stewart both share the unique condition of being simultaneously being associated largely with their sex symbol status while managing to be slightly repulsive at the same time. And not in the intriguingly dangerous way that that condition might be applied to, say, Bob Dylan. One is simply left listening to them thinking 'I know someone really finds these two deeply stirring, but I hope it's not my neighbor.' Listening to the two, then, sing a song about how they may or not make out after finishing a cigarette and a laced drink is something like imagining Jessica Tandy and Peter Lorre having a secret rendezvous - only that would be funny, in a strange way. And this isn't.
Where are the Man's Hands? - Desperately working to reattach his drooping eye-socket to it's proper location on his face.
Where are the Woman's Hands? - Making you hot cocoa while waiting for the sugar cookies to be done, without getting her calico apron dirty. Only sexy.
Level of Blush When Listening With Children? - You kidding? We recommend this as a way to help children sleep on Christmas Eve.
Zooey Deschanel and Leon Redbone
Okay.... well, here's the thing. Zooey Deschanel's rendition is playful, understated, refreshingly naive, with just the right intimations of cheekiness to let us know that she's batting her eyelashes, here and there. In a sense, she is the ideal 'Mouse' for the song. But, the other side is Leon Redbone. And while we have no real issue with Mr Redbone, when singing in a duet, he sounds... well, snickering and very drunk. It's sort of like, you're listening to someone sing a sizzling love duet with WC Fields. And, more than this, Mr Redbone sounds awfully old - and Ms Deschanel sounds even younger than she actually is. This makes us squirm a bit too much to enjoy this duet as much as Ms Deschanel would otherwise deserve. However, given that this comes from the Elf soundtrack, and that your alternative is to remember Ms Deschanel singing it in duet with Will Ferrel in tights, one is left to make their own judgement over which version ought, perhaps, to receive more radio play.
Where are the Man's Hands? - Wrapped loosely around a tumbler of bourbon.
Where are the Woman's Hands? - One has no idea, but one is deeply curious to find out, which is exactly as it should be.
Level of Blush When Listening With Children? - On the surface, it's clean, and the playful oboe line is distractingly whimisical enough to allow the song to work on multiple levels.
Harry Connick, Jr. and Leeanne Womack
Despite a deep affection for some of the swing stars of the past, we here at the SCSSSI hold no meaningful relationship with Mr. Connick. And to be perfectly frank, we don't really even remember who Ms Womack is - we believe she has some tenuous relationship with boot-scooting and American Idol, but remain convinced that these suppositions are at the very least incomplete. Nonetheless, this version receives high marks with us. Ms Womack's breathiness would be campy but for Mr. Connick's rich Nawlins patter, and Harry's understated performance and occaisional devolution into PSA-like alternate lyrics would feel gosh-darnish but for the fact that Ms Womack sounds continuously like she's just getting a long enough break from... whatever they're doing... to catch her breath. And that's how it ought to be with a SCS. Rowr!
Where are the Man's Hands? - Ummm... ask your mother
Where are the Woman's Hands? - No, really, go ask your mother, I'm not telling you.
Level of Blush When Listening With Children? - This could be the perfect opportunity to have 'the Talk'.
Underneath a car, she sleeps -- -
Long and sleek,
Pale as fat.
Must be the warmth,
The last exhales
Of the dying engine.
I wonder how it must feel:
Warmth like that
In worlds of cold
Without a door
To open and close,
The smell of half-burnt gasoline,
And warmth, unnatural,
Like a miracle
Like a loving god?
(Image by Gekko93)
(I gave some money to the Great Lakes Bengal Rescue, in memoriam of all the poor kitties I've seen around San Antonio over the years. Go donate and link to your stories of cats and kitties :) )
Reviewing Finnegan's Wake is an impossible thing. Well, that's going too far, I could review it. I could even write a somewhat funny review. But I could not write a review that would actually be useful. The only information in a review that would be useful would be more easily picked up in a Wikipedia article. The rest of the review would be about me, not about Finnegan's Wake.
So, I am not going to review Finnegan's Wake. I am not going to give it a star rating, I'm not going to tell you that I loved it or hated it, or suggest whether or not you should read it. Instead, let me tell you what I felt, reading this very strange book, because Finnegan's Wake, in a way that no other I've read can approximate, is an experience far more than it is a book.
On Tuesday, I was reading the book as I walked across the breezeway at work (this isn't uncommon for me. I also type while walking. Yes, I know, I'm a geek). It's pretty common for someone to comment on this. Usually, this leads them to asking what I'm reading.
The woman who asked me was a small woman, with a very, very quiet voice, with red, greying hair, and birdish nose and eyes. I'd done a ticket for her once before. She smiled and told me it was nice to see someone reading, and asked what it was. I showed her the spine, and she was very excited.
This was a unique reaction. I've been reading Finnegan for about four months, and it's not the first time someone has noticed it. Most people don't know what it is. But, I work for a publisher, there are many who do. Most who do out and out laugh at me. Some of them ask me why I'd ever read it. Once in a while someone tries to impress me with their knowledge of Joyce. Sometimes someone purports their superiority over the book. I make this sound bad, it really isn't. People find the idea of the book either ridiculous or threatening. I can sympathize: I have in many parts of the book found it to be ridiculous or threatening.
The tiny Irishwoman who I was speaking to now did neither. Instead, in an animated whispery voice, she started to tell me all about James Joyce, about what happens to her when she reads, about the ways it feels like home, and life, and people she knew. The details are interesting, but not really pertinent, here. It was the feeling that mattered to me, a feeling as if I could, indeed, mean what I was doing.
I guess it sounds silly, but the experience of reading Finnegan is actually a really threatening one, and not because of the book. Finnegan's Wake is sort of the Abortion Issue of books. Some people feel like it is deeply important, others like it is an abomination, written to destroy literary culture. Others simply think it's trash. The problem is, none one of these camps is a comfortable one to interact with while actually reading the book. The camp who considers it trash is fine, and the best of the three, they're simply somewhat uninterested. The camp that thinks it an abomination is obviously uncomfortable. It is the third camp that surprised me. I'm not a huge scholar, I never really interacted with academia, and I do not know how common this is generally, but in terms of people talking about Finnegan's Wake, there is this terrible, unwelcoming, and very, very lonely feeling of self importance. It's hard to put a finger on, and I don't think it's always conscious. But talking about Finnegan's Wake seems to always end up being a conversation about the cleverness one exhibits in knowing and being able to talk intelligently about Finnegan's Wake. Which, when one has not read Finnegan's Wake, and feels patently unclever about what one has read, is discouraging and unhelpful.
The book I picked up in conjunction with this has been helpful in this effort: Joseph Campbell, of Hero of 1000 Faces fame, wrote I think the first comprehensive guide to Finnegan's Wake in 1944. The book is now, apparently, pretty outdated, many of his suppositions being 'disproved', some of his scholarship incomplete, etc. I'm sure all this is true, honestly. But it didn't matter, because Joseph Campbell really, really seems to love Finnegan's Wake: Finnegan's Wake, after all, is the book that invented the term 'monomyth'. And, reading Joseph Campbell's retelling of the book (because that is more or less what it ends up being) was a beautiful experience, sort of a slightly disconnected experience of watching someone see themselves in someone else's piece of paper. I did not read the same story Campbell did, when I read Finnegan's Wake. But, then, I don't think that's because his story isn't there.
That's the strange thing about Finnegan's Wake. It's an alive sort of book, as stupid as that sounds. It's very vagueness seems to wrap itself around whatever guideposts are already inside your brain. When it was Guy Fawkes Day, and I was learning about the background I ended up reading this line:
...ony twenny minnies moe, Bully his Ballade Imaginaire which was to be dubbed Wine, Woman and Waterclocks, or How a Guy Finks and Fawkes When He Is Going Batty...
When I was thinking of my poem about Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath, I read my line about trying to infuse poetry into my own bones:
I'd take the bones,
And plant them deep
like tulip bulbs
Perhaps to sprout -
Perhaps to bud - and then
Like necromancy - bloom and seed
"A Lazarus show" in
An "unlocked rose"
Then, read this line from Finnegan:
...appropriately, this Esuan Menschavik and the first till last alshemist wrote over every square inch of the only foolscap available, his own body...
Frustrated with my children one day, I read:
The pleasures of love lasts but a fleeting but the pledges of life outlusts a lieftime.
And realized I sounded as ugly as the speaker in my grouching. I would find references, it felt like, to computer coding, to current events, to the feeling of being in an old, broken down Chevrolet, a thousand tiny things that are impossible for Joyce to have considered while writing the book, but were strikingly, presently real. Because, that's the thing about the text. It leads you along for pages and pages of things you don't understand, and then there will be one line, one image, one little snatch that seems stupid when you quote it (as above, sorry!) but feels absolutely, irrevocably real in the moment.
And after hundreds of hundreds of pages of slow, steady confrontation with your own ignorance, and then these short bursts of unnatural light, illuminating sometimes very unattractive corners of your own psyche, you become very, very exhausted. The book, unwillingly, became a sort of piece of me, a "dream of favours, a favourable dream. They know how they believe that they believe that they know. Wherefore they wail."
And so I hated the book, in a very odd way, a way I hadn't hated any other book, in a sort of possessive, preserving kind of hate, the sort of hate that feels more like self-loathing.
So, when I could have someone speak to me about it, and feel a bubbling sort of vision, a reflection of bright eyes that had already been down the pages of the book, it was liberating and comforting in a strange, powerful way:
Ah dew! Ah dew! It was so duusk that the tears of night began to fall, first by ones and twos, then by threes and fours, at last by fives and sixes of sevens, for the tired ones were wecking, as we weep no with them. O! O! O! Par la Pluie!
Perhaps that's why the end of the book touched me so deeply. In the end, the main female protagonist (such as there is one) who is also a river, is flowing out to the sea, even as another she is being reborn from the river springs, in the eternal unending life-death of a river. She thinks back on when she was what she somewhere faroff in the mountains is at that very moment: a pure, lonely little rivulet running by at a quick, pretty pace. And even as she thinks of that, she, now the dirty, mother, all loving all accepting end of the river, oozes muddily out to sea. And when I felt that river, the river that I know wraps all through the book but which I so seldom could even consciously sense was there, losing itself in the great ocean, I almost cried, today, sitting at my little desk doing nothing important that will ever, ever matter at a little job in an enormous company I don't believe in. Suddenly, I realized that outside of all the hatred, boredom, confusion, disgust, and everything else, there was a little something alive in this book, and perhaps in myself, that I loved:
I'll wait. And I'll wait. And then if all goes. What will be is. Is is... Sometime then, somewhere there, I wrote me hopes and buried the page when I heard they voice... in peace and silence. I could have stayed up there for always only. It's something fails us. First we feel. Then we fall. And let her rain now if she likes. Gently or strongly as she likes. Anyway let her rain for my time is come... They'll never see. Nor know. Nor miss me. And it's old and old it's sad and old it's sad and weary I go back to you, my cold father, my cold mad father, my cold mad feary father, till the near sight of the mere size of him, the moyles and moyles of it... make me seasily saltsick and I rush, my only, into your arms.(Image from Mlle Mathilde, inspired by the lines just after the last quote: "Avelaval. My leaves have drifted from me.All. But one clings still. I'll bear it on me. To remind me of.")
(I stared writing this post about Emily Dickinson for her birthday, but failed - it's still not in a shape I'd post as a present to her, but I must at least say SOMETHING that tells you why she's up on my picture frames, so I'm afraid you all get it)
On December 10, 1830, in Amherst, Massachussets, Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born. Destined to be one of the most unique voices in poetry; I'm a terrible judge of this though. I would love to tell you that I know how beautiful her poetry is. I would love to tell you that I love Emily because only her words are so profound that she can touch me. That would be a lie. It's a lie that, I will admit, I've told. But it is a lie, nonetheless.
Loving a thing should be simple, but love is a reflection of the lover, more than the beloved. Each person can love only so clearly and simply as the clarity their heart contains. Over the years, I'm thrown my heart about enough that it's irretrievably scuffed and clouded and marred. I can't love a thing straight on anymore. The things I love must be very bright or very dear, or very gently tease there way past for me to love them , and even then, my love bends through, reflecting, refracting, prism-shattering before it can come out.
So, when I tell you about Emily, I want you to know that the imperfections in what I say are mine, entirely.
When I was a child, I was clever in school - people called it smart, as I grow older I've stopped liking that word as a description for people, because it doesn't mean what it should mean. So, let us say I was clever. I was also, after fifth grade very loud and silly. I could be funny at times. These were the things that defined me to other people. This definition was a hollow, and somewhat terrifying one to live inside of - in a natural, uninhibited place, I'm not loud, and cleverness is a talent, one that is worse than useless unless is adept at making use of it. As I grew older, I wrapped this little self around me tighter, because I had, as it were, nothing else to wear. Cleverness was all I was, and the only self I could cleverly be was a 'wit' - I use that term in the loosest sense. A clown, only one with just enough stored errata of knowledge to appear to be smirking instead of slapstick.
I don't tell that story for any reason except that I think, in one sense or another, it's a story that many people live. The world ask it's inhabitants to live a sort of subconscious performance art, instead of an actual life, one where we learn to properly fill the roles that the invisible casting agent suits us to. And in some part of themselves, I think most people feel a certain dissonance with this - I suppose in a way, that's what I was writing about in my Ozma essay, last week.
The reason I fell in love with Emily Dicckinson, is because she is the first person I remember seeing me for what I was, and encouraging me to be it. Emily is a poet of transformation, a sort of mystic transcendentalist, and the poems of hers that touch me most deal with either metamorphosis, or paradox:
I'm ceded, I've stopped being theirs;
The name they dropped upon my face
With water, in the country church,
Is finished using now,
And they can put it with my dolls,
My childhood, and the string of spools
I've finished threading too.
Baptized before without the choice,
But this time consciously, of grace
Unto supremest name,
Called to my full, the crescent dropped,
Existence's whole arc filled up
With one small diadem.
My second rank, too small the first,
Crowned, crowing on my father's breast,
A half unconscious queen;
But this time, adequate, erect,
With will to choose or to reject.
And I choose -- just a throne.
This was the language my own heart - and the heart of the people I saw, seemed to want to speak. Through the many years since, Emily Dickinson is the one who has told me to be brave, to live myself and noone else. I've often ignored that voice. I've often perverted that voice. But, the language itself is still clear and sweet and true.
I put Emily up for my button of 'Wonderful People', because this thing she tells me is what I love in the people I think are wonderful - that they always question the script.
Continuing on Ms Reid's recent theme of medieval romances that actually have fascinating, strong women in them, Silence is a poem of the thirteenth century telling the story of it's eponymous heroine, a girl born during a time when women are declared ineligible to inherit property. Her parents, wanting her to be able to keep the family lands, dress her and raise her as a boy from her infancy, letting no one in on the secret except her nurse. Of course, much hilarity ensues.
I won't spoil the plot by going into details, but I did want to talk about a few interesting themes in this book - partly because thinking was my main reaction to this book, and partly because I would hope that you, oh gentle reader, might contribute more information on these themes, with your superior knowledge.
Women in Medieval Europe
I. Would. LOVE to read a good book that talks about the role of women in medieval Europe, because it was SO complex! On the one hand, you have the traditional idea of women: the Guinivere type, that on the one hand is meant as a sort of decorative attachment to the man, and on the other is the whorish temptress, unable to control her passions. On the other, though, the Middle Ages had a number of very strong women: religious women like Teresa of Avila (who I'm reading next year), political women like Eleanor of Aquitaine, even a surprising number of military heroes like Joan of Arc (look at this fascinating timeline for example. I love the bare breasted Saxon women throwing themselves against Charlemagne's army).
History of Political Speech
In some ways (or maybe I'm reading too much into this) sections of this book felt like the sort of carefully worded political satire that I would expect from Johnathon Swift, many hundred years later. I know that Dante, for example, wrote politics into the Divine Comedy - putting his enemies in Hell, for instance. But generally, I'd love to know more and see how people wrote about the injustices and stupidities of their times, before the last few hundred years.
History of Medieval Romans
So, I know a little bit about King Arthur, and all, but I don't the history of the form itself, past the faintest bits of knowledge about what a troubaour is and what not. Why are all these Arthurian knight stories written in French? Were they written by Normans in England? And, how did they become so popular?
Overall, I enjoyed this book, kind of the way I enjoy a romantic comedy, only in a poem - it wasn't the BEST I've ever read, it didn't shatter the world, but it was lots of fun, and very interesting as an artifact, more than intrinsically as piece of poetry.
BTW, just as a note, apparently this book wasn't discovered until the early 20th century - someone, quite literally, found the manuscript in their attic in Britain, alongside some old letters. All my attic has in it is insulation...
"From his deepest soul, he that hour loosed and parted from every hope in the life that now is, and offered his own will an unquestioning sacrifice to the Infinite. Tom looked up to the silent, ever-living stars,--types of the angelic hosts who ever look down on man; and the solitude of the night rung with the triumphant words of a hymn, which he had sung often in happier days, but never with such feeling as now."
Let me tell you what's wrong with Uncle Tom's Cabin, because it's one of those books people feel the need to hate. Uncle Tom's Cabin is not gorgeously written. It sermonizes frequently. The book reinforces some terrible black stereotypes: the 'happy darky', the 'picanniny', the tragically beautiful mulatto, the Mammy nurse. Uncle Tom's Cabin draws on flat, melodramatic characters at the expense of human emotion. Uncle Tom's Cabin is terrifically unbalanced, terribly bigoted, and unredeemably out of date. It is less a classic than an artifact.
Now, let me tell you, please, why I loved reading it anyway.
Harriet Beecher Stowe was not an angel. She was simply a woman who saw that a thing was wrong in the world, and wanted to change it. She wasn't a great stateswoman or a practical reformer, and knew nothing really about how to, nuts and bolts wise, fix the problem of slavery. What she did know was the feeling of slavery. And for all that we now dismiss the book as sentimental, melodramatic and campy, it touched people when it was written - in fact, it was the second highest selling book after the Bible, and earned Stowe's reputation as one of the great abolitionists around the world. The book wounded people - people who did not know what to think were convinced by it, people who disagreed with Stowe were enraged by it. This book, in a way that few simple novels have been, is a mover of history.
And, the thing is, if you accept the sentimentality for what it is, and accept the book's shortcomings, this is still a really moving book. Tom is one of the most unabashedly Christ-like characters in the history of literature. Eva is a poignant, beautiful allegory of Christian thought. Legree channels the soul of evil in a way that is deeply disturbing. The trick is to think of this less as a novel about real people, and more like an allegory, a sort of Puritan version of the religious vision. The characters are types, sure - but that's because they represent ideas, not personalities. And you can feel the fervent hope of a woman who desperately wanted to do her part behind those ideas. It was an imperfect part, sure, and even bad in it's way, but it was noble and full of love. In some sense, the measure of a successful social movement is when we can look at it's founders and think they were backwards.
All my loves as a child that would whisper my ears
with a fountain pen
Instead of their lips -
Instead of their tongues
Such pretty ghosts!
I made my oaths
That when I grew
I'd spin and spin
A reliquary sack to hold
All dry, all dear
It makes me shiver even now!
I would appoint
Myself to be a pot of earth
To be their parish plot
I'd take the bones,
And plant them deep
like tulip bulbs
Perhaps to sprout -
Perhaps to bud - and then
Like necromancy - bloom and seed
"A Lazarus show" in
An "unlocked rose"
"Pretty Red Heart"
All my childhood loves spoke in gospels
In very dark rooms,
Staring into the gloom
To adjust to the scarcity,
Dilate the eyes,
And bend over the loom,
Let the Word feed the twine
Let the Flesh weave doom
Let the Spirit cut ends
So my prophets can stand
And turn back from the tomb,
In a dazzle of sun,
They are 'bronzed' like the gods
Grown 'quick with the seed'
Of forbidden-fruit trees -
Milk and honey could flow
From the soles of those feet!
I was Israel's child, and I begged them
"Come down from your Nebo!"
They told me 'Be Joshua!
Jordan will part!'
And the sun clave their tongues
And a flame filled their hearts!
But there's futures
That cowards can see
To which sibyls are blind.
So I hid in my house,
From the flooding divine,
So my "heart" grew "root-pale"
From a surplus of damp
And an absence of rhyme
All my loves stood on pyres
Bound to stakes
With their girdles and corsetting cord
With their skirts
That would wave like a standard of war
With their skirts
That can't stretch o'er a cavalry horse,
I longed to stand so -
Just as still -
Just as bold -
I wanted to ossify -
Turn to a tree
Or a great old stone
Something still and alone -
How I longed
To be someone with fate in her tongue
So I made up a sorrow
And said it was true
So I put on a silk shirt
And new saddle shoes
It's the best I could do
Just an ill-made farce.
And a cynical heart
Made for riding "the rack and the screw."
So I stitched up a bride
Picked the sticky worm-pearls
From her Gypsy-Jew eyes
And I said
(originally from 2007, revised several times. Still not happy with it. Numerous esoteric references to Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath poems. Picture by eraphernalia_vintage)
I wrote about Ozma online first in an entry on Facebook (rather rare for me), on a meme about the books that have affected me most:
The Marvelous Land of Oz - I must admit that, to start, this is kind of a cheated entry. I read many of the Oz books as a child. I think I read pretty much all of the Baum ones. I know I read this one, but my mind conflates it hopelessly with the movie 'Return to Oz', which was one of those movies that I thought I didn't like, but that returned to me over and over, through the years. Several of the characters from these books came to mean a great deal to me - Glinda, the Patchwork Girl, Jack Pumpkinhead, some others, but none so much as Ozma herself. I dreamt about Tip/Ozma for years - still do occasionally - and then the scene from that Movie, with Dorothy looking in the mirror and seeing Ozma inside of it, child, but grave-faced... something in it spoke to me very closely. Childhood is such a strange time, you're so happy but you're so aware of your sadness at the same time - that's what Ozma meant to me - when you read the Marvelous Land of Oz, it's funny, whimsical, written like a story told by a dopy uncle who wants to be remembered for the stories he told. But, when you remember it... it's so much different.This is and is not what Ozma means to me. It is less and more than that. To explain, let me recount (briefly) the story that introduces you to Ozma in the books. For anyone whose read The Marvelous Land of Oz - I haven't, in years. So feel free to correct me.
The Tale of Ozma, Princess of Oz
In the Land of Oz there was an evil witch named Mombi, and little boy named Tip. Tip has lived with Mombi for as long as he can remember, and she is not a nice woman to live with. Through a long series of adventures, Mombi is trapped and brought before Glinda the Good Witch, where she confesses that the Wizard had brought the Princess of Oz to Mombi as an infant, and that Mombi had transformed the Princess into a boy to keep her from her rightful place as ruler of Oz. Glinda coerces Mombi into casting her last spell, which is to transform Tip back into his proper form, and he becomes Ozma, the Princess of Oz. Ozma becomes a major character, and is featured in each one of the remaining Baum Oz books.
Over the other books, this story changes, subtly. Sometimes she is a mortal girl, sometimes a fairy. She is described as the daughter of Lurline, the fairy-queen and creator figure of Oz. She is described as the daughter of an evil dictator. Her appearance changes substantially at times. In fact, this is one of the defining characteristics of Ozma - that things about her just seem to change from book to book. As a grownup, I imagine this had to do with the fact that Baum simply introduced a lot of different inconsistencies. As a child, this was part of Ozma's beautiful, though awful, magic. Because, while everything about her changes, Ozma remains more or less the same: she is young, she loves her friends, she is devoted to her companion and co-ruler, Dorothy, she is a wise ruler, she loves Oz, she is largely calm, she goes on adventures, and the ineffable 'self' of her is the same.
This is how it is to be Ozma - sometimes you are different, but you are always the same. Sometimes you are what you are not, but you can always be what you are.
The Tale of Mike Penner
I've recently read two stories about the real world. The first is about a sportscaster named Mike Penner. When he was a child, he remembers telling his cousins that when he grew up, he wanted to be a girl. Of course, growing older, he learned that it's not that simple in the world, and spent many, many years of his life being, in his paraphrased words, the best Mike he could be. Finally, after almost 40 years, he decided he couldn't live like that anymore. He took a vacation and when he came back, wrote a column telling his readership that he wasn't a man anymore, that from then on his name would be Christine, and telling the story of how all this had come to be. He started a blog (since removed) where he wrote about his experiences, continued to write for the Times under his new name, and seemed, generally, very upbeat and positive.
A few months ago, with no explanation, her stories started carrying his old name, again. Last week, she died, an apparent suicide.
The Tale of Marie Baptiste
The second story is about a woman in Houston. Marie Baptiste moved to America from Haiti when she was 9 years old. She grew up, leading a fairly normal life, until she applied for college, and found out that her scholarship application was denied because she was not a legal citizen of the United States. She went to college anyway (the University of Houston), and began the slow, frustrating battle to legalize her status. She graduated, she got married to a police officer, had children. She became a schoolteacher in Houston.
The night before an immigration court hearing, her daughter came down with fever and vomiting. She took her child to the emergency room. After waiting a long time to see the doctor, rushing home with her daughter, she rushed out to go to her court hearing. She hit traffic in Houston, and arrived at her hearing 5 to 10 minutes late. This was too late: the judge had ordered her deported, in absentia.
Fast forward to November 6, when she found she was being followed by a number of government cars. Grown paranoid of being deported - despite her continued efforts to appeal through the legitimate channels - she pulled over her car, and had some sort of anxiety attack, slumping to the ground unconscious. She was not, this time, arrested for deportation after waking up, but continues to live as a fugitive.
What Ozma Means to Me
Both of these stories, to me, are Ozma-esque stories: stories of people who are a thing they cannot be (a woman, a US citizen). But, in both stories, they are in the real world, a world where teh externals of identity are closely watched, and where changing those externals is not a private or incidental matter, but a public one, de facto. In essence, Mike and Christine were the same person. The externalities of his/her genitalia and dress did not change, at center, who he was. But, in the end, it was too essential to him - as it is to many transgendered people, who have an extremely high suicide rate. Marie is the same way, really. She is a Us citizen in every meaningful sense: she works hard, she contributes to sciety, she follows the law to the best of her ability. There is an externality that she is missing, a piece of paper and a birth certificate, that make this self impossible.
Anytime the self and the identity are at odds, a person will live in conflict. In one sense of the Ozma tale, I see it as a fable for Things That Are Wrong, which I've already discussed. We as humans need to love each other enough to help and accept that people's identities do not always match up easily with our sense of their selves. But, I put the image on the page in a different way - in the other side of that way, I suppose.
After the experience of my short and admittedly not terribly wise about-30 years, I've become suspicious, that everyone on earth is an Ozma. No human being (or at least terribly few) is who they are permitted to be, not entirely. In a sense, this is inescapable. Society is formed around people being able to self each other into a discrete number of shorthand identities, and there will always be a human tendency to be frustrated when these shorthands fail. And no human is a shorthand.
But, in another sense, this is the essence of what it is to be human, and as with all curses, is also a blessing. Being an Ozma myself in my own ways (having told my share of stories in this post, I won't bore you with more), the challenge of my life has been to embrace the contradictions of this, and to understand how important this estrangement of self and identity is to being human. If I cannot be a thing I am, I can at least learn what it is to not be that thing - and to love and understand others who may suffer the same dislocation in reverse.
Human love in it's most transcendent form is the art of knowing what we see of a soul, but loving what we cannot see, on the pure, vulnerable trust that underneath the pseudo human exterior, there is a human heart beating it's own broken syncopations. And therein is the secret to human happiness (though it's easier to understand it, than it is to attain it): we each of us cannot be what we are within ourselves. But we can have others live honestly within our own breasts - and trust that they will let us live honestly in theirs.
At the beginning of this challenge, I had agreed to take a biography of Ms Gaskell on - an amazing looking book by a Ms Uglow. I put it on hold at the library, and got it, and SOMEONE else put it on hold. So I didn't have it long enough to finish it (seriously, how many people could, in any given year, be putting a hold on a bio of Ms Gaskell? Really?). In the end, I ended up picking up this much slenderer book because it presented a different charm - it is a collection of Ms Gaskell's letters, placed so as to tell the story of Ms Gaskell's life. And while I still plan to eventually go back and read the full bio, I am IMMENSELY glad I got this book. On the one hand this is because I only finished it tonight, having had a lazy, sad sort of November (of my own volition, so no need to commiserate). But that hand isn't important right now. The other hand is.
And that hand is that Ms Gaskell is a charming woman, in a way that really surprised me. I have only extensively read the letters of one other writer: Emily Dickinson. I am in no way going to demean Ms Dickinson's letters, which are some of the queerest, most beautiful things I've ever read. But, in Ms Dickinson's letters, you come to realize that she really actually just WAS more than human. She wrote letters in the same gnomic, beautiful, profound, deeply layered way that she wrote poems.
Ms Gaskell, on the other hand, was a charming, scattered, playful, gossipy creature, and a pleasure to spend a few hundred pages with. She wrote letters much the same way she wrote Cranford. Witness this anecdote about her visiting the studio of Dante Gabriel Rossetti:
I went three times to his studio, and met him at two evening parties -- where I had a good deal of talk with him, always excepting the times when ladies with beautiful hair came in when he was like the cat turned into a lady, who jumped out of bed and ran after a mouse. IT did not signify what we were talking about or how agreeable I was; if a particular kind of reddish brown, crepe wavy hair came in, he was away in a moment struggling for an introduction to the owner of said head of hair. He is not as mad as a a March hare, but hair-mad.Which brings us to the other great fun of the book - Ms Gaskell seemed to know everyone. Or, as I expressed it earlier to Amanda, apparently 19th century England was not a terribly large world. She visits famous collector Milton Milnes, who loans her an original print manuscript of William Blake to read (!!!!). She talks playfully about her old friend Florence Nightingale. She has a visit with Mrs. Wordsworth, where she tells funny stories about William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. She went to school with the wife of John Ruskin, and thinks she was a cold-hearted flirt. She writes letters to Charles Darwin's sister.
My favorite story of literary fame was her exchange of letters with George Eliot (that is, Mary Ann Evans). After reading Adam Bede and Scenes of a Clerical Life, she takes the liberty, on the pretext of a funny anecdote, to write a letter to Eliot who, at this point, she still believes to be a man:
Since I came up from Manchester to London I have had the greatest compliment paid me I ever had in my life, I have been suspected of having written Adam Bede. I have hitherto denied itl but really I think, that as you want to keep your real name a secret, it would be very pleasant for me to blush acquiescence. Will you give me lead?Later, of course, she learns the melancholy truth: The author was a woman, and a woman living in sin with a married man. Gaskell, a very traditional woman was crushed, and had great difficulty dealing with the seeming contrast between Eliot's noble, virtuous writing and 'ignoble' life. She worries over this in a letter to Harriet Martineau (yes, the famous feminist), who told her the story behind the author:
I would rather they had not been written by Miss Evans, it is truel but justice should be done to all; & after all the writing such a book should raise her in every one's opinion, because no dramatic power would, I think enable her to think & say such noble things, unless her own character - perhaps somewhere hidden away from our sight at present, - has such possibilities of greatness & goodness in it.Martineau, while she respected Eliot's writing, could not bring herself to respect Eliot. Gaskell, a minister's wife, was able to bend a little, and a month later wrote a letter to Eliot - graceless, at times a little condescending, but in retrospect, probably extremely difficult for her:
Since I heard from authority, that you were the author of Scenes from Clerical Life & Adam Bede, I have read the again; and I must, once more, tell you how earnestly fully, and humbly I admire them. I never read anything so complete, and beautiful in fiction, in my whole life before... I should not be quite true in my ending, if I did not say before I concluded that I wish you were Mrs Lewes (ed: that is, that she was married to her lover, G H Lewes). However, that can't be helped, as far as I can see, and one must not judge others. Once more, thanking you most gratefully for having written all -Eliot seemed to take this in the spirit it was offered, and even responded, saying she had hoped Gaskell would be fond of her books, because she had loved Cranford and Mary Barton. The whole sequence, in many ways, wraps up what Gaskell is to me. She isn't a radical thinker in the way that, say, Eliot was, and she's not a deeply original genius the way that the Brontes were. What she is is someone who loved humanity very, very deeply, and had the eye that makes the best philanthropists - or the best gossips. Or both. And this same eye, an eye that playfully mocks and sincerely loves, is in her letters. The book concludes with an excerpt of a letter to Gaskell from Charlotte Bronte, and Brontes eyes see this with a touching clarity:
A thought strike me. Do you, who have so many friends... find it easy, when you sit down to write, to isolate yourself from all those ties, and their sweet associations, so as to be your own woman, uninfluenced or swayed by the consciousness of how your work may affect other minds... In a word, are you never tempted to make your characters more amiable than the Life, by the inclination to assimilate your thoughts to the thoughts of those who always feel kindly, but fail to see justly? Don't answer the question; it is not intended to be answered