Review: Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters, ed. Thomas H. Johnson

Review: Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters, ed. Thomas H. JohnsonSelected Letters by Emily Dickinson, Thomas H. Johnson
Published by Belknap Press ISBN: 0674250702
on March 15th 1986
Genres: Nonfiction
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five-stars

When the complete Letters of Emily Dickinson appeared in three volumes in 1958, Robert Kirsch welcomed them in the Los Angeles Times, saying "The missives offer access to the mind and heart of one of America's most intriguing literary personalities." This one-volume selection is at last available in paper-back. It provides crucial texts for the appreciation of America literature, women's experience in the nineteenth century, and literature in general.

When I studied the life and poetry of Emily Dickinson this summer in Amherst, this collection of Emily Dickinson’s letters was one of my required reads. I didn’t finish it before the course began, so I decided it pick it up again to finish before the year closed. Consider it a way to pick up a few loose threads.

As Dickinson says in a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, her mentor and friend as well as early editor, “What a Hazard a Letter is!” While this volume is not a comprehensive collection of Dickinson’s letters, it does include a broad selection dating from Dickinson’s preteen years to her final letter to her cousins Frances and Louisa Norcross right before she died. Many of her letters to Thomas Wentworth Higginson as well as the mysterious “Master” are included. Emily Dickinson seems to be the kind of person about whom the more one learns, the more enigmatical she becomes. Her writing is often a riddle. I wonder what her correspondents made of her. She seems to have taken a great deal of care to write to loved ones, particularly when they were grieving, and toward the end of her life, her letters paint the picture of someone buffeted from too many losses, beginning with the loss of her father in 1874 to that of Helen Hunt Jackson, a friend and admirer of Dickinson’s who insisted that Dickinson publish her work:

You are a great poet—and it is a wrong to the day you live in, that you will not sing aloud. When you are what men call dead, you will be sorry you were so stingy. (Letter 444a)

Dickinson writes beautiful letters, which should surprise no one familiar with her poetry, but it’s interesting that her letters are in some ways as impenetrable as her poetry can be. One that makes me scratch my head, to her sister-in-law (and some say her lover) Susan Gilbert Dickinson, includes the line, “Could I make you and Austin [Dickinson’s brother]—proud—sometime—a great way off—’twould give me taller feet—” (Letter 238). I mean, I think I know what she means by “taller feet,” but the expression is so odd that I am not sure.

Her first letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, whom she wrote to out of the blue after he wrote an article of advice for writers for The Atlantic Monthly, includes similarly unusual diction:

Mr Higginson,

Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?

The Mind is so near itself—it cannot see, distinctly—and I have none to ask—

Should you think it breathed—and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude—

If I make the mistake—that you dared to tell me—would give me sincerer honor—toward you—

I enclose my name—asking you, if you please—Sir—to tell me what is true?

That you will not betray me—it is needless to ask—since Honor is it’s [sic] own pawn— (Letter 260)

Dickinson sent that letter to Higginson while he lived in Worcester, MA, probably less than two miles from where I am sitting right now as I write this. Imagine receiving this letter from nowhere!

Dickinson could have chosen many words, but she asked if her “Verse is alive” (emphasis mine). Her second sentence is just a bold lie: she has plenty of people that she can and has asked to read her poetry and give her their opinions. She continues to play with the notion of “living” poetry through the wordplay of “breathed” and “quick” in the next sentence. Is she warning him not to publish her work in the final line? In any case, he didn’t know what he was looking at because he apparently told her she was not ready for publication. Her reply includes the deft line, “Thank you for the surgery—it was not so painful as I supposed” (Letter 261). She had to have been disappointed that he didn’t encourage her, but if so, she doesn’t betray it to anyone in her letters, and she didn’t seek to publish her work much in her lifetime, despite Helen Hunt Jackson’s encouragement.

In any case, it’s to Higginson’s credit that he recognized her genius enough before he died to edit several volumes of her poetry along with her brother’s mistress Mabel Loomis Todd. I do wish this collection had included Dickinson’s final letter to Higginson, from early May 1886 (the month she died):

Deity—does He live now?

My friend—does he breathe? (Letter 1045)

One of my instructors at the Emily Dickinson course suggests there is a circle closed with this final letter to Higginson. In her first letter to Higginson, she asks if her poetry is alive, if it breathes. Her final letter asks very similar questions. She had heard Higginson was sick and had to cancel a lecture he planned to give. The words are not accidental, not when you’re Emily Dickinson.

Perhaps most beautiful, and I dare you not to cry when you read it after reading this collection of letters, is the final letter Dickinson ever wrote. It is addressed to her Norcross cousins and reads simply:

Little Cousins,

Called back.

Emily (Letter 1046)

If you enjoy Dickinson’s poems, you will certainly delight in her letters.

I happen to have two copies of this collection, and it is a little bit hard to find nowadays. I’m not sure if it’s out of print, or what, but Amazon only sells it via third-party sellers. Stay tuned for a giveaway post since I do not need two copies.

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017This is probably the last book I’ll finish for the Backlist Reader Challenge, which means I fell pretty far short of finishing the challenge. However, this book has been on my TBR list since I first visited Emily Dickinson’s house.

five-stars

Review: Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie’s novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories is the story of Haroun Khalifa, the son of storyteller Rashid. Rashid has lost his “gift of gab” after his wife, Haroun’s mother, leaves him for the boring, clerkish Mr. Sengupta, their neighbor. The Khalifas live in the country of Alifbay in a sad city that has forgotten its name. When Rashid attempts and fails to tell a story at a political rally (he makes something of a career telling stories at such rallies), he is quite literally run out of town and must go to the Valley of K and redeem himself at a rally for Mr. Snooty Buttoo. Or else. Mr. Snooty Buttoo takes Rashid and Haroun out on the Dull Lake in a ship, and Haroun wakes in the night to find a Water Genie disconnecting his father’s invisible tap, from which all his stories spring. Haroun is whisked away by the genie to speak to the Walrus, leader of the Eggheads who control the Processes to Complicated to Explain on the moon of Kahani, or Story, where the societies of Gup and Chup are about to go to war over the pollution of the Sea of Stories and the kidnapping of Guppee princess Batcheat.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories is ostensibly a children’s or young adult book, but the philosophical underpinnings and questions it raises are definitely meant for people of all ages to ponder. It was the first book Rushdie wrote after the fatwa dictated by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini put Rushdie’s life in danger in an attempt to silence Rushdie’s own stories. It’s a fantastic novel that explores the complexities of where stories come from and what happens when they are “polluted” by those who would attempt to use them for their own ends or to silence them altogether. Motifs such as freedom of speech, the truth or reality of stories, creating meaning from stories in a modern world, and the purpose of stories and storytelling are at the center of what looks, at first blush, like a fantasy children’s tale. It’s a thoughtful meditation on the importance of stories. Rushdie apparently began telling the story orally to his son at bathtime, and it later evolved into this book.

I will start teaching it tomorrow to students in my ninth grade World Literature course. I should have finished the novel a long time ago, but it’s not been an easy year for me in a lot of ways, and perhaps it’s for the best that I waited to read it so that it is quite fresh for me. It means I wasn’t able to help as much as I wanted to with the initial planning of the novel, but I am blessed to have wonderful colleagues who stepped in when I wasn’t ready, and I feel I can contribute now. I’m so glad we picked this book, not just because it has a hero’s journey motif, which is one focus for the year, and not just because we were able to introduce an Indian author where previously we had a white British author, but also because it’s an excellent book that speaks to our schoolwide essential question: How do we honor and harness the power of our stories?

Rating: ★★★★★

Review: Unless it Moves the Human Heart, Roger Rosenblatt

I picked up Roger Rosenblatt’s Unless it Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing based on a recommendation from Marsha McGregor, a teaching fellow at the Kenyon Writer’s Workshop for Teachers in which I participated last week. It’s a tough book to categorize: it’s part memoir, part writing advice, and part model for teaching writing to others. It takes the unusual form of conversation as it tracks a particular writing class’s progress.

Rosenblatt explains in his preface that the book is “fiction, top to bottom” but is based on the real problems and subjects his class discussed. It’s admittedly a somewhat quirky format for a book of this type. As such, it will not appeal to all writers seeking advice (or all writing teachers seeking advice, and certainly not to people looking for a memoir). Rather than offering nuggets of wisdom in the form of bulleted lists or bold headings, Rosenblatt’s understanding of what it means to write and to teach writing is buried within the narrative about one class. As such, it invites careful reading, and I found myself reading some pages over and highlighting often. Even so, it’s a quick, conversational read.

I pulled a few ideas for lessons from its pages. I loved the discussion he shared of James Joyce’s short story “Clay,” which I also stopped to read before continuing with that part of Rosenblatt’s book. He has a another idea for students to create their own anthologies—not of their own work, but of poems they like and want to group together. As Rosenblatt says, “By the end of the course they have created a little book that speaks for their taste” (67). The book has many excellent reading recommendations (a book that added to my TBR pile—just what I need!). In particular, Rosenblatt shares models he uses for teaching personal essays as well as types of personal essays he assigns. His descriptions of class discussions are great models for lessons.

As I write all of this, I wonder if I shouldn’t have reviewed this book on my education blog, whose audience might more be the audience for this book, but I’m not entirely sure. I think anyone who writes might benefit from reading it. As I said, the time investment isn’t great—the book is only about 150 pages—and the dividends are worth it.

Rating: ★★★★★
Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Authors I’d DIE to Meet

Top Ten Tuesday

“Dying” is a little extreme, but there are a lot of of writers I would love to meet.

  1. William Shakespeare: I have so many questions. First, I want to know what he thinks of the literary reputation he has. I would also love to put paid to all those anti-Stratfordian conspiracy theories once and for all (and no, don’t bother commenting on this post if you are one—I cannot be convinced). I would also like to know why he went to London and became an actor. I have a million questions!
  2. Jane Austen: I would love to have tea with her. I am really curious what she would make of her current literary status. I think she would be completely baffled—I actually had a lot of fun imagining just such a scenario. I would just love to sit and talk with her.
  3. J. K. Rowling: Her superstar status makes me more likely to meet Shakespeare in this lifetime. Well, at at any rate, her books are some of my favorites, and I would love to talk with her about the characters and find out all kinds of secrets of the HP World that never made their way into the books. I hope Pottermore will have a lot of that.
  4. F. Scott Fitzgerald: I want to ask him about his writing process. I have heard he was a dogged reviser. I know he helped Hemingway make [amazon_link id=”1907590250″ target=”_blank” ]The Sun Also Rises[/amazon_link] better through some astute editing. I would also like to ask him about all those folks in Paris and what it was like to write in Hollywood. I have so many questions about Gatsby, too.
  5. Oscar Wilde: I mean, he’s bound to be entertaining and hilarious, right? I would love to just chat with him. Though I liked his writing (what I’ve read, that is), I’m more interested in Wilde as a personality.
  6. Mark Twain: Ditto for Wilde, except I truly do love [amazon_link id=”B003VYBQPK” target=”_blank” ]Adventures of Huckleberry Finn[/amazon_link]. I would love to discuss what he thinks of the controversy surrounding that novel. I want to hear him go off on the new bowdlerized edition.
  7. J. R. R. Tolkien: I have a million questions about Middle Earth. I would love to hear all about how he constructed such a well-developed fantasy world. It seems like such a huge undertaking.
  8. The Brontë sisters: Yes, it’s cheating to combine them, but to be fair, I would probably have to meet all of them if I were to go visit Haworth, right? I’d love to chat with them about their writing, how they help each other and work together, and just their family story.
  9. Byron, Shelley, and Keats: I already met them for tea in a dream, so again, even though it’s cheating to include all three of them, I’d like to see if they’re at all like they were in my dream.
  10. Joseph Campbell: He has such an understanding of why we tell stories, and I would love to just listen to him talk about them. I especially want to pick his brain about Harry Potter. I have often said to students in my Hero with a Thousand Faces classes that it’s a pity Campbell died before those books were published because he would have loved them.

Historical Crushes

Madame Guillotine posted about her historical crushes recently, and what a fun idea!

Mine are mostly writers.

First, Byron, a perfect rake to be sure, but so handsome, and probably charming (or else he wouldn’t have been such a successful rake).

Lord Byron
Portrait by Richard Westall

To be honest, having a historical crush on Byron is the modern equivalent of crushing on bad boys, but much safer. No risk of life or limb. I have read several fictional portraits of Byron, and he always emerges as charismatic, intelligent, and, above all, interesting. Read my reviews of Passion by Jude Morgan and Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley, or better yet, read the books yourself, and you’ll see what I mean.

I have had a mad crush on Shelley since 1989. I am not sure why, but his poetry just speaks to me.

Percy Bysshe Shelley
Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1819, by Amelia Curran

Jude Morgan managed to do what I thought would be impossible in his novel Passion: A Novel of the Romantic Poets: he managed to make Shelley walk on the ground. I always thought he should be among the angels—surely too good for the solid earth.

You can read about the dream I had about having tea with Byron, Shelley, and Keats. I’ve posted about my crush on Shelley before.

Ever since I read The Great Gatsby, I have had a crush on F. Scott Fitzgerald. He writes some of the most beautiful prose in American English.

Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald
Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Corbis

He drank way too much, and he thought way too highly of rich people (which is something I glean from reading his novels rather than from a mis-attributed quote Hemingway pinned on him). Hemingway should be more grateful. The Sun Also Rises was a better book for Fitzgerald’s suggestion of deleting the first chapter and beginning with the second. And I love that book, by the way. There are some passages in The Great Gatsby that you can’t beat for poetry. So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Robert the Bruce got a raw deal in Braveheart. I know the film was supposed to be about why William Wallace was such a hero, but honestly, did they have to besmirch the character of Scotland’s greatest hero in order to make Wallace look good? For starters, Robert the Bruce did not fight with the English at Falkirk or betray Wallace. He also didn’t decide on the spur of the moment at Bannockburn that he was not going to surrender after all—he was never going to surrender. Any argument the two had was the result of the fact that Wallace probably supported the Balliol claim to the Scottish throne.

Robert the Bruce and Isabella of Mar
Robert the Bruce and Isabella of Mar

One of my favorite legends about Robert the Bruce is the one about the spider. He was a wanted man, an outlaw on the run. Hiding in a cave, he observed a spider trying to make a web. It failed time and again as it tried to attach the silken threads from one section of the cave’s roof to another. Finally, it succeeded, and Robert the Bruce knew that he, too, would eventually succeed in his quest to take the throne he believed was rightfully his. And he did. It’s most likely a complete fabrication, but an inspiring one. Ronald McNair Scott has a great biography of Robert the Bruce: Robert the Bruce: King of Scots.

Queen Elizabeth, while famously known as the Virgin Queen (yeah, right), had a thing for Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex (at least according to many historians). He was so dashing that men clamored to imitate his fashionable beard.

Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex
Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex

He was a military hero, but more than that, he had some serious cojones. He came back from Ireland after the Queen expressly forbid it and charged into her bedchamber before she had her wig on. Of course, he eventually paid for this flagrant disregard for propriety with his life (or, to be more accurate, it was the incident that instigated his inexorable fall from favor, rebellion, and eventual execution). Elizabeth was a formidable woman. Anyone who could pull a sword on her after she smacked him one deserves some grudging respect.

There is a legend that Alfred the Great was in disguise and took shelter with a peasant woman. She asked him to mind the cakes on the fire and not let them burn, but he was preoccupied with the troubles of his country. The cakes burned, and the woman scolded the King. Like the story about Robert the Bruce’s spider, it may or may not be true, but it makes a great tale.

Alfred the Great
Statue of Alfred the Great

Alfred is the only English king to have been given the epithet “the Great.” I am obsessed with the British monarchy. There are a load of interesting characters in that crowd. But trust me that Alfred is probably the only one who deserves the epithet “the Great.” He singlehandedly saved the English language. Don’t believe me? Listen to this. If Alfred had lost that battle, who knows where we would all be. Not only did he prevent Vikings from taking all of England, he also valued literacy and ordered translation of essential Latin texts into English for the first time. He also established some of the earliest schools in England.

In Rebecca Fraser’s The Story of Britain: From the Romans to the Present: A Narrative History, a story about Major General James Wolfe taking Quebec is recounted:

At dead of night, Wolfe led the the 5,000 British and American soldiers with blackened faces silently downriver in rowing boats till they were opposite the Heights of Abraham. As he was borne along the treacherous river whose rocks and shoals made it a hazard to all but Quebeçois, Wolfe softly read out his favourite poem, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray, published only a few years before, a copy of which his fiancée had just sent out to him from England. His thin face, touched by moonlight, seemed to wear a beatific expression as he murmured the sonorous words whose Romantic, melancholic spirit echoed his own. As the mysterious cliffs loomed up ahead and the men rested on their muffled oars, Wolfe closed the book. ‘Well, gentlemen,’ he said, ‘I had rather have written that poem than take Quebec.’ But then he leaped overboard, into the swirling St Lawrence, and ran ahead of them until his was only one of the many tiny figures on the vast cliff face pulling themselves up by ropes.

When dawn rose over Quebec Montcalm [the French commander] awoke to see on the plain behind him, above the cliffs said to be unclimbable, row after row of British redcoats. They were in battle array and far outnumbered the French, whose sentries’ mangled bodies bestrewed the cliffs or floated in the river below. It was a breathtaking, almost impossible, feat, to have put thousands of men on top of a cliff overnight, but Wolfe had done it.

Major-General James Wolfe
Major-General James Wolfe

Besides his dashing bravery in the face of illness—he was dying of consumption when he led the raid—he has an appreciation for poetry over military prowess. Why he isn’t more well known outside of Canada, I’m not sure.

And finally, after having read Jude Morgan’s Passion and seeing the movie Bright Star, I admit to developing a girl crush on Fanny Brawne.

Fanny Brawne
Ambrotype of Fanny Brawne ca. 1850

Fanny Brawne was the fiancée of Romantic poet John Keats and is believed by some scholars to be the inspiration for Keats’s sonnet “Bright Star”:

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

I wrote much more about her in the post I linked. She was an interesting woman in her own right.

Perhaps next week will be a good time to share my crushes on fictional characters. I must have already done it at some point, but I can’t remember.

So who are your historical crushes. And don’t say Henry VIII. He didn’t look like Jonathan Rhys Meyers. He had a disgusting sore from a jousting wound, he was despotic and arrogant, and he was a serial wife murderer. I will concede he was interesting.

Maria Brontë

Maria Brontë

Maria Brontë
Photo by Gary Myers, via Find a Grave

I’m currently reading Charlotte and Emily by Jude Morgan. I am new to the Brontës, having only read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights in the last three years. Upon reading Syrie James’s The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë earlier this year, I became much more interested in the Brontës themselves. I highly recommend BrontëBlog if you want to keep up with Brontë references in both pop culture and academia. I haven’t read any Brontë biographies yet. Syrie James’s novel begins just as Charlotte Brontë has returned from Belgium. All of the surviving Brontës are adults, and their sisters Maria and Elizabeth, who died as children, are logically not a part of the story. Jude Morgan begins his novel with the death of Maria Branwell Brontë, wife of Patrick Brontë and mother of the six Brontë children. After a flash forward of a few years, Patrick Brontë seizes an opportunity to educate his daughters inexpensively and sends first Maria and Elizabeth, then later Charlotte and finally Emily to the Clergy Daughters’ School in Cowan Bridge, some forty miles away from Haworth, the Brontës’ home. Because Morgan chose to begin his story of the Brontës at an earlier time, his novel provides a glimpse not only of the Brontës’ mother, but also Maria and Elizabeth.

My first thought upon reading about Maria’s abiding patience and endurance in the face of outright child abuse at the school was that she sounded just like Helen Burns in Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre. Eager to learn whether or not this was true or conjecture on behalf of Morgan, I searched for references to Maria as the inspiration for Helen, and I discovered some quotes from Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë. Indeed, Charlotte did claim, in the face of criticism that Helen was “too good to be true” (and I admit I felt the same way when I read Jane Eyre), that “she was real enough.  I have exaggerated nothing there.” Mrs. Gaskell described an incident that Morgan works into his narrative in which Maria, not well enough to get up, was urged to stay in bed by the other girls, only to be abused by their teacher, Mrs. Andrews. Maria struggled to dress herself, urged the other girls to have patience, and was subsequently punished for being late (presumably to breakfast or class—Gaskell did not say).

After reading about Maria and learning that her story as presented by Jude Morgan was true, the first thing I wanted to do was go back in time and rescue her from that awful place and take care of her, which I’m sure her father and siblings wished they could have done. Her story is heartbreaking, moving, and sad. Given Patrick describes talking with eleven-year-old Maria  “on any of the leading topics of the day with as much freedom and pleasure as with any grown-up person,” one cannot help but wonder what books Maria might have written had she lived.

I learned more about Maria Brontë at these websites:

On an unrelated note, I am appreciating Morgan’s writing style a great deal. His use of stylistic fragments and run-ons to evoke events whirling out of control as well as occasional adjectives shifted out of order popped off the page because I have recently been teaching students these techniques using Image Grammar by Harry Noden. Though Noden gives examples from prominent writers in his book, it’s fascinating as a lover of the craft of writing and and avid reader to catch these interesting techniques in action.

Jasper Fforde

Shades of GreyJasper Fforde was in Atlanta last night for a reading, Q & A, and book signing, and I had the opportunity to purchase his latest novel, Shades of Grey, which is a departure from his “books about books”—the Thursday Next and Nursery Crime series. I brought my daughter with me, and she found the premise of his new book intriguing. It is set in the distant future after some catastrophic event, and the people who inhabit this post-apocalyptic society can only see one color. Accordingly, they divide themselves into groups based on which color they can see.

A few readers asked Fforde questions about interpretation of his books, and I want to try to paraphrase his answer, though I didn’t capture the exact wording. He said that a book only belongs to an author until someone else reads it. After that point, it belongs to the reader too. He described reading as a creative process, work very much akin to the process of actually writing the book, and he said there is room in books for many interpretations because of all the reader brings to a book; therefore, when he is asked whether he meant to comment about something particular with certain choices he makes, he turns the question back on the person who asked: “Well, what do you think?” He values the thoughts and interpretations of the readers as much as his own. I found that to be so beautifully expressed and so true to my own beliefs that when he signed my book, I explained that as an English teacher, I am often challenged by my students who don’t agree with an interpretation I share (whether my own or that of another reader or critic) and thus will insist that the author might not have meant it the way I am explaining it. I usually say that just because an author may not have intended it doesn’t make me wrong necessarily because we all bring certain experiences and knowledge to reading, and we make connections the author may not have intended or known we would make. I also add that many times authors will say they did intend something or other, even if it is not on a conscious level because we have such a vast repository of symbolic language. Now I can tell my students that Jasper Fforde, a successful published author from England, believes the same thing I do. I think it will give my explanation more authority.

If you haven’t read Fforde’s books and you consider yourself a book lover, do yourself a favor and check them out.

Question of Honor Podcast #1

On the way home from dropping my daughter off to stay with her father for the weekend, I decided to record this podcast using my iPhone. I didn’t edit it much, and as such you can hear some mild road traffic and the windshield wipers slapping every now and then, but I think it works. It’s informal—just me talking about some elements of writing my book. With NaNoWriMo beginning this weekend, I have been reflecting on the process of writing the last book I completed, and I really wanted to record these thoughts in the form of a podcast rather than writing so that I could turn off the editor and just talk.

A Question of Honor #1

Neil Gaiman Reads

I never outgrew a fondness for being read to, and if you didn’t either, you might want to check out this site, which features videos of Neil Gaiman reading his new novel The Graveyard Book in its entirety.  You can browse inside the book at Harper Collins’s site, and you can check out an NPR story about Neil and Neil’s blog.  Neil is one of the most accessible authors, and really seems to care about his fans.  What more perfect book for Halloween than a tale of a boy raised by ghosts in a graveyard?

What are your favorite Halloween books?  Are you participating in the RIP Challenge this year?  I couldn’t because I didn’t feel I should commit to a reading challenge with grad school taking up extra time.  I really wanted to do the challenge this year, when the chill in the air is the perfect accompaniment to a gothic novel.  I also really enjoyed my selections from last year, though I still haven’t finished Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.  I honestly did enjoy what I read, and I do want to finish it, but I found it was a challenging and very long book, and perhaps would be best to read when I feel I have time.

Criticism of the Twilight Series

My husband sent me a couple of articles on the Twilight series written by Kellen Rice for PSA:

  • ‘Twilight’ Sucks… And Not In A Good Way
  • Twilight: A Follow-Up and a Promise

The articles are actually well-written critiques of the books, and I agree with many of Rice’s points about both the writing and the characters in the books.  Rice should have expected the teenage girls to freak out over any criticism of the books they love, and I felt her second article — an answer to those critics designed to belittle them for their taste in reading — really could have remained unwritten.  It’s hard not to respond to the critics, but it would have been wiser, in my estimation.  One of the commenters she responded to in her second article insisted (albeit ungrammatically) that the main problem Rice seemed to have is that she forgot it was “This is a BOOK a FICTIONOUS BOOK” and another said, “YOU JUST THINK TOO MUCH JUST LIKE EVERYONE ELSE !”  Yeah, I was cringing, too, but I think what these two commenters meant to say and couldn’t articulate for who knows what reasons, is that they understand the books are not a role-model for conducting relationships, that they don’t take them seriously, and that they understand they’re literary junk food.  I, too, cringe at Bella’s “I’m-so-not-worthy-of-Edward” attitude.  For reasons my own daughter can’t articulate, she thinks Edward is a jerk, and she is right.  She is a fan of Jacob, who is a bit more realistic despite being a werewolf, and Bella’s relationship with him was slightly more healthy.  I think what these readers were trying to say to Rice is that yes, we understand these stories are not models for our lives.  We like them anyway because they’re like cookies or chocolate.  I don’t think we really need to worry that an entire generation of girls is going to idolize the men in their lives or accept abuse at rates any more alarming than they currently do.  Rice’s comparison to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (also not the most well-written read) are somewhat alarmist and, I believe, baseless.  Harriet Beecher Stowe and Stephenie Meyer wrote for different purposes and audiences entirely.  I can’t fathom the notion that Meyer is hoping to turn a generation of girls into Bella Swan in the same way that Stowe was hoping to examine the evils of slavery.

I had a student in my class who wouldn’t read.  I pointed her to these books, and now she does.  If you need to use cake as a lure, then I say why not let them eat cake?  Will it always lead to Nabokov, Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, and the like?  Certainly not.  But reading nothing at all won’t lead there either, whereas reading a little, even if it light, fun fluff, might lead somewhere.  And if nothing else, that purple prose is good for vocabulary development.  I think what Rice didn’t understand in her criticism is despite the fact that lots of impressionable teens are fans of the books, they fully understand it might not be a good idea to live the books.  After all, despite fears by the Christian right, we don’t have an entire generation of readers thinking they’re wizards and abandoning Christianity for Wicca.

I think Rice needs to let the criticism of her opinion roll off her back and rest assured that she is right about a great deal, but she missed the big picture: sometimes folks like to read junk food books like romance novels, horror, pop fiction, and the like, and it’s okay.  Even if it’s a steady diet, in my opinion.  Because, as the commenter so astutely noted, we understand they are just fictionous books.

Update, 1/9/09: I appreciate some of you do not like the books.  This is not really an “I Hate Twilight” Vent Forum.  I see legitimate reasons not to like the book, but you know what, I enjoyed it anyway, and so do a lot of other folks.  You don’t have to, and that’s really fine.  What I am seeing is people who do not regularly read this blog chiming in on this one topic alone, and keeping up with the comments is proving onerous.  I suggest you all start a forum where you can vent (or join one — I’ve seen one personally, and I would bet there are more).  I am closing comments on this post.  Thanks for visiting.