The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, Oxford Classics edition

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, Oxford Classics edition

The Moonstone* by Wilkie Collins, published in 1868, is famous for being the first English detective story, the precursor of Sherlock Holmes and his many literary descendants. When a diamond with a mysterious past is presented to Rachel Verinder on her 18th birthday there is already the shadow of foul play around it. Rachel has inherited the large and exquisite jewel from an uncle of ill repute who is rumored to have acquired it decades ago by murdering its previous owners during a war in India. Upon the death of the evil uncle, Franklin Blake, a nephew of Lady Verinder, becomes the designated bearer of the diamond from a bank vault London to the girl’s country home. Although Franklin arrives safely, despite being trailed by mysterious foreign strangers, the diamond disappears the night of Rachel’s birthday dinner. All sorts of strange events and emotional upheaval ensue.

Like the gem of its title, this is a novel that shines from many angles. The mystery is related through several first-person narratives, sometimes moving the story forward and sometimes overlapping and shedding new light on previous narratives. With the moonstone as its metaphor, this approach gives the novel a pleasing sense of variety within unity as we slowly see the puzzle pieces coming together.

In Part I the events leading up to the disappearance of the moonstone are related by Gabriel Betteredge, faithful old servant to the Verinder family and one of the most likable characters in all of literature. Mr. Betteredge is a man of both flaws and virtues, but the virtues such as genuine caring and affection outweigh the flaws such as drinking too much. Both sides of his character add up to a warm and lovable character. He is practical, down to earth, and loyal to Lady Julia Verinder and her daughter. He cheerfully accepts the established class structure with respect for longstanding tradition, but clearly sees the flaws of his “betters.”

Gabriel Betteredge has several interesting quirks, the most prominent being his obsession with Robinson Crusoe. He keeps his latest copy of the book reverently in a special place and refers to it constantly for comfort and guidance, and is constantly amazed when the book always seems to open to the exact any answer he needs. In short, Robinson Crusoe is his Bible. The gentle satire can hardly be missed.

More stinging satire appears in the first narrative Part II: The Discovery of the Truth, which provided by the journal of Miss Drusilla Clack, a spinster relative who is heavily involved in pamphlet evangelism and Christian ladies’ charities such as the “Small Clothes Conversion Society”, the purpose of which is to redeem the users of male sinners from pawn shops and remake them in smaller sizes for their innocent progeny. I think every evangelical Christian could benefit from reading this narrative as an example of what not to do. Rachel and her mother have left the country home and relocated to London, where Lady Verinder realizes she is very ill. During this time another of Rachel’s cousins, Godfrey Ablewhite, is courting her and trying for a second time to get her to marry him. Miss Clack, who is secretly in love with the philanthropic romantic Christian hero Mr. Ablewhite, passes out pamphlets and eavesdrops on conversations.

sergeant cuff

In the Verinder family rose garden: Sergeant Cuff with Gabriel Betteredge and the gardener. Illustration from 1875 Chatto & Windus edition.

Other narratives are provided by Mr. Franklin Blake, the man Rachel really loves, Mr. Matthew Bruff, the family lawyer, the strange and tragic medical assistant Ezra Jennings, and the renowned detective Sergeant Cuff, who really wants to retire from the detective business and devote himself to cultivating roses. There are also many letters read aloud upon receipt or kept crumpled in pockets until later in the story. One such puzzle-piece letter is pulled by Franklin Blake out a swamp of quicksand, hidden there by a tragically servant girl named Rosanna Spearman who figures prominently in the story as both a sympathetic character and one of the prime suspects. I don’t want to say more than that for fear of spoiling the story for you.

I found The Moonstone a pleasure from beginning to end. This brilliant novel has everything a great Victorian novel ought to have: intricate plot, suspense, romance, lots of humor, social satire, and most importantly wonderful living characters. Of course it does include all those aspects of the past that are culturally-jarring to our modern sensibilities: rigid social class distinction, suspicion toward anyone a shade or two darker than an English person, condescending attitudes toward women. The Moonstone not only includes all of these things, but all of these things are essential to the story. Much of the dramatic friction is that men, women, upper class, lower classes, English people, Hindus, scientific people, and romantics all have different modes and boundaries of behavior. I mean, what kind of Victorian drama could you have if everyone were equal and spoke the truth honestly as soon as they knew it?

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* Oxford World’s Classics Edition, Oxford University Press, 1999 and Recorded Books Audio, narrated by Patrick Tull and others, pub. 2002.

Five Chinese Brothers by  Claire Huchet Bishop and Kurt Wiese

Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop and Kurt Wiese

I am working on an essay about the meaning of reading in my life and its relation to my search for truth. Actually reading and my search for truth are pretty much one and same thing. I try to describe what, at this point in my reading life, I can conclude about the nature of truth – as in, if I were about to die and had to sum up what I have learned what could I say? Suddenly out of the murky depths of my mind pops a bright yellow burst of memory: The Five Chinese Brothers.

I remember sitting on a colorful rug riveted to the story as my pretty kindergarten teacher reads the story aloud to the class, but all I can now recall of the story is that someone in it swallows the sea. Swallowing the sea….trying to understand truth….the connection is too obvious to dwell on here. But I am fascinated by how the mind makes these connections and draws these working models that turn into assumptions, beliefs, and sometimes even blog posts.

Naturally I immediately search for the book online and discover that it is so old my mother might have read it in kindergarten. Written by Claire Huchet Bishop and Kurt Wiese, it was first published in 1938. The Five Chinese Brothers is considered a children’s classic but seems to have fallen out of favor of late due to being politically incorrect. I suspect I could write a long list of children’s classics that are now politically incorrect, but that is another post. I don’t have time to go to the library, but seeing that an audio version is available, I download to my magic book machine, technically known as an iPhone 6, once again thanking God for this miraculous device that gives me so much immediate gratification and eradicates grocery line boredom. I pray that Steve Jobs is now living eternal joy among the geekiest ranks of angels.

The audio book is a little more than 10 minutes long and is narrated by Owen Jordan’s gently wry voice accompanied by Chinese sounding music, a wonderful little recording. I find my memory is correct in that the first Chinese brother does indeed swallow the sea. His four identical brothers each possess a super power that protects them from a certain kind of death. Apparently some people object to the book because the brothers look exactly alike; however, the entire story hinges on that central fact. I would think there would be more objection to the inherent theme of violence that holds the plot together. I am amused to hear the gentle narration and tinkling music conveying a story that includes the death of a disobedient child, four attempted executions, and mob anger. In the end, family loyalty and justice win out over injustice and lust for revenge. All is well and the boys and their mother get to live happily in their little house by the sea for many years. Not happily ever after though, I notice. Still the ending is very comforting.

I vaguely remember being fascinated by the story as a child. I do not recall being the slightest bit disturbed. Something about things being limited to pages of a book seems to make it inherently non-threatening, even if the things are violent events and evil monsters. Even now I can read violence in a book easily and with interest but cannot watch it on film. Fairy tales have always include violence. Children are aware on some level that the world includes death and bad things and I can’t imagine a better way to come to terms with this reality than through story books. A theory I have is that films and TV impose images on a child’s mind while reading allows them to shape the information into a form they can handle according to abilities and needs of their own minds. It may be fiction that things always come out okay in the end, but within the limits of this life, that is a fiction I’m afraid we all, children and grown-ups, must all rely on to get along.  Which brings me back to the nature of truth….

I write on several different levels. There is my “literary” writing, there is my “technical writing” – the kind of writing I actually get paid for, and then there are emails…..

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Christina Rossetti never had to worry about signing an email but if she did I'm sure she would have had the perfect Victorian valediction

Christina Rossetti never had to worry about signing an email but if she did I’m sure she would have had the perfect Victorian valediction

I have been living with lurking uncertainty, a shadowy fear long buried in the recesses of my mind and yet it is something I have to deal with virtually every day of my life: how the heck am I supposed to sign an email message? I’m not talking about my name, title, and phone number. That’s the easy part. I’m talking about the word or phrase that comes before that, that touch of formality or term of affection sometimes called the complimentary close or the valediction.

I’ve seen “Regards” used and also “Respectfully.” Although these are perfectly acceptable closings, neither of them quite works for me. I would find it just a little unnatural to sign an email with “Regards.” I like my writing to have at least a tenuous relationship with the way I speak – you know…. somewhere between Masterpiece Theater and Duck Dynasty. As for “Respectfully” – it strikes me as just a little overkill, slightly on the obsequious side. But I respect those who choose to use it. Good old “Sincerely” is my go-to closing but I’ve never felt quite comfortable about that either. Do I really need to reassure the recipient that I am sincere?

I poked around on various business etiquette websites long enough to figure out that not only is there no hard and fast rule for closing an email, there is absolutely zero consensus about what closings are most socially and professionally acceptable. Several experts recommend “Best.” Best what? I guess this approach allows the recipient to mentally fill in “…Wishes” without you actually having to type it out while feeling like you are writing a greeting card. Another closing that comes highly recommended is “Thanks.” I do often trot out this one when my email includes something I can thank the person for. “Thanks for your help” and “Thank you for your consideration” are some variations.

Of course you can simply leave out the polite closing phrase and end the message with only your identifying information. This is a viable option but there is something about it that seems out of sync with correspondence history and tradition and is therefore a cop-out. While I admit I have on occasion resorted to ending an email with a lonely name and phone number it always seems like I am sending my email to the office without proper attire, like attending a formal meeting in flip-flops.

What is comes down to is that your closing should be in accord with the content and tone of the message. Also it should not be false, pretentious, or otherwise inappropriate. Don’t use “Cheers” unless you are either unusually cheerful or speak with a British accent. Don’t use “Yours Truly” unless you are incredibly affectionate with your co-workers or business associates or “With Love” unless you have that kind of relationship with the recipient.

Perhaps it would be a step forward in business communication if we were to close our emails with phrases that honestly express the precise feeling of the message we want to convey. With this approach there would be no limit to the words we could use. Off the top of my head I can imagine several possibilities:

  • In warmest hope of a profitable business relationship
  • With greatest trepidation
  • Hopefully
  • In tense anticipation
  • Yours in fear and trembling
  • With utter disgust (For the occasional letter of complaint or perhaps to your Congressional representative….)
  • Yours within the bounds of propriety
  • Dutifully
  • Resignedly
  • Warmly
  • With sincerest sympathy
  • Dreamily
  • With regret
  • Sharing your hope for a better future


Yours in the spirit of perfect etiquette,


PS: If you have an email closing for two that works for you, please share!

Happy Halloween, or as I like to call it, All Soul’s Day. Calling it All Soul’s Days by no means makes this day any less scary; in fact it makes it more so, by calling to mind that deatcreepy girl soft glowh is no candy-coated fantasy. Catholic Online describes the concept like this:

“All Souls’ Day commemorates the faithful departed. In Western Christianity, this day is observed principally in the Catholic Church, although some churches of the Anglican Communion and the Old Catholic Churches also celebrate it. The Eastern Orthodox churches observe several All Souls’ Days during the year. The Roman Catholic celebration is associated with the doctrine that the souls of the faithful who at death have not been cleansed from the temporal punishment due to venial sins and from attachment to mortal sins cannot immediately attain the beatific vision in heaven, and that they may be helped to do so by prayer and by the sacrifice of the Mass (see Purgatory). In other words, when they died, they had not yet attained full sanctification and moral perfection, a requirement for entrance into Heaven. This sanctification is carried out posthumously in Purgatory.”

So I might as well take this opportunity to tell you about the scariest book I have ever read: Hungry Souls: Supernatural Visits, Messages, and Warnings from Purgatory by Gerard J.M. vaHungry-Soulsn den Aardweg. As you might guess it features accounts of visits from people who currently reside in Purgatory. It includes pictures of artifacts and evidence left by some of these visitors, artifacts such as the burnt-in impression on cloth of a hand. This book is scarier than 1984,  scarier than any haunted house, so scary that even though I began reading it almost a year ago I have not been able to bring myself to finish it. I think I would be afraid to spend enough time going back to this book long enough to review it, but I do intend to gin up enough courage read it all the way to the end. I only have a couple of chapters to go and I understand from reviews that it is supposed to get to the comforting part, that a happy ending awaits all residents of Purgatory. Eventually.

Apparently there is a tiny century-old museum in Rome called The Museum of the Holy Souls in Purgatory where you can view cloths, books, and other items bearing singe marks left by such visitors from Purgatory. Superstitious nonsense? Possibly…. but I cannot quite bring myself to write it off so easily. Go ahead and scoff if you like but it would take a braver soul than mine to scoff off such warnings as those brought by these earnest visitors. There is no aura of cheap thrills or money-making schemery about this book. It is simply written with two direct purposes:  to convey the need to pray for the dead (what the souls are hungry for is prayer) and to warn those of us will join them soon enough. I told you it’s scary, real scary not fake scary. It’s also a bit creepy.

Hungry Souls brings to mind the ghost of Marley in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, except old Marley is visiting from Hell, not Purgatory. Purgatory is literally infinitely better than Hell, as you will understand if you have read both Dante’s Inferno and Purgatorio. After the journey through Hell, Purgatory, even with its sufferings, is a joyful place, homely, full of hope, and permeated with utter relief that the sufferings are not eternal. If you can’t bring yourself to delve into Hungry Souls, The Divine Comedy would also be appropriate reading for All Soul’s Day.

How happy is the little Stone
That rambles in the Road alone,
And doesn’t care about Careers
And Exigencies never fears—
Whose Coat of elemental Brown
A passing Universe put on,
And independent as the Sun
Associates or glows alone,
Fulfilling absolute Decree
In casual simplicity—

Emily Dickinson

“I got a rock.” Charlie Brown, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown

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i got a rock

I am not rich, never have been, never imagined I would be, but every day I thank God for the time and place I was born and being spared the worst of the horrors and sufferings that beset millions of souls on this planet. As a young child I had a certain vision for my life, but it was not of living in a castle even if I did imagine myself a princess in a red fluffy dress. In real life I had seen gravel parking lots and for some reason the gravel made an impact on my mind. In my vision I was given a task by someone – the giver of the task was vague, sometimes an angel, sometimes a witch – that I must pick up the gravel stones from a huge lot. One by one. Around the ages of five and six I remember imagining this scene frequently: starting in one corner and working my way through the lot, always in the red princess dress, and the strange thing is I was not the least bit disturbed by the vision. I was excited and inspired, and felt a sense of mission.

Anyway, I always assumed my chances of eternal life in Heaven after death were greater than my chances of being rich in this life. So one misery I have been largely spared is the misery of disappointed expectation, actually one of the greatest dangers of my particular time and culture: that promise of heaven on earth with which advertisers entice you with images, colors, and music custom-calibrated to the desires of as many people as they can rope in.

I can’t say I have never fallen prey to advertising. At my house the tempter came by post every November disguised as the Sears Christmas Catalog, also known as TheWish Book. It would always have a picture on the cover that evoked pungent Christmas emotions, and like Ralphie in A Christmas Story, my year revolved around Christmas. The heavy white skies of December afternoons filled my heart with a kind of joy that almost hurt. In suburban Washington DC it rarely snowed before Christmas but I could smell the slightly damp smokey aroma of hope in the air.

I used to love making gifts and cards. I’d make piles of these little dolls with Styrofoam heads, pipe cleaner bodies, felt clothing, and yarn hair. One year – I guess I was ten or eleven – I sewed 20 little red felt stockings and filled each one with candy and one of my pipe cleaner dolls and then I had my Mom drive my to St. Ann’s Orphanage in Hyattsville, Maryland, where I handed a the cardboard box of filled stockings to a nun in the lobby. It seemed like kind of an institutional place and actually had a lobby, if my memory is accurate. The nun accepted my gift graciously and said how much the children would enjoy the stockings. Things were so much more simple and direct in the 1970’s – or maybe it was just me that was simple and direct.

But believe m73 wishbook fuzzye when I say that even better than Christmas giving I liked Christmas receiving.  That Sears Christmas Catalog was the object of my lustful little ritual. I would get comfortable of the sofa and slowly, deliciously, turn every single silky page, breathing in the aroma of inky anticipation as my fingers approached the grand finale of the thick toy section at the end of the catalog: the baby toys, the girl toys, the boy toys, and then the big stuff: bicycles, swings, trampolines. But my personal Red Ryder BB gun was the rock tumbler. The way I understood it, you put ordinary rocks into a cylinder, pushed the switch, and the rocks turned into shiny jewels. What kid wouldn’t want such a wonder? I never got one.

I'm pretty sure this is the exact rock tumbler I saw in the Sears Catalog

I’m pretty sure this is the exact rock tumbler I saw in the Sears Catalog

Why Santa should have refused my request for a rock tumbler I will never know. I guess I assumed it was simply too extravagant a request. I was reaching too high, even though I got Barbies, Lite-Brite, an Etch-a-Sketch, and no end of board games. Maybe I did not communicate my need for a rock tumbler emphatically enough. Perhaps I thought that thinking about it really hard and circling it in the catalog was enough. On Christmas Eve my Dad would take our letters to Santa and burn them in the fire-place, explaining that Santa would read the smoke. Decades later I bought one for my kid for Christmas but my kid was into Pokemon and Gameboy and couldn’t care less about the rock tumbler.

In high school one of my two visits to the guidance counselor was to request I be exempted from any dissection project if I signed up for Biology, because I wanted to learn Biology but there was no way in hell I was going to dissect anything. Since the counselor denied this perfectly reasonable request, I ended up taking half a year of Astronomy and half a year of Geology for my science credit. Apparently these were not the science classes the smart kids took but I loved learning about the stars and earth and was oblivious to the fact the class was full of slouchers who weren’t in any of my other classes.

At the end of the year awards ceremony I got the award for the highest grade in Geology and my sister, who ended up becoming a PhD in Microbiology, got the award for Biology. She still laughs about my Geology award and I still don’t get the joke. Apparently as a kid I liked rocks. Maybe it can be chalked up to some hereditary residue from my coal-mining grandfathers, but when Charlie Brown said he got rocks in his Halloween sack I thought he was lucky.

Lately I’ve been running into references to The Brothers Karamazov everywhere I look, usually something said by the middle brother Ivan. My favorite Karamazov brother, Dmitri, hardly ever gets a mention. So I got to thinking about reading it again, and then decided to read another Dostoevsky – Devils, also translated as Demons or The Possessed. I thought it would be appropriate as we approach Halloween and the autumn of the year. But this is no spooky fantasy and it’s certainly not innocent fun. It’s definitely a tragedy – plenty of bad things happen in this novel, some of them violent – but it’s also a comedy just because people in their foolishness can be so funny. The novel is packed full of the usual Dostoevsky buffoons, drunkards, plotters and schemers, and intellectuals tearing their hair out over existential problems. Reading a Dostoevsky novel is no minor decision. It takes some effort and a considerable investment of time, but in the end, I think it’s worth it. Maybe I will try to come up with a list of the top ten benefits of reading Dostoyevsky. In the meantime here’s a review I wrote:

DevilsDevils by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I found Devils to be puzzling in the beginning, interminable in the middle, and in the end, loved it. This reaction is in keeping with the spirit of Dostoevsky – a spirit that is paradoxical, morally ambiguous, and frequently expressing opposite extremes, often in the personality of a single character and even in one speech. People in a Dostoyevsky novel will go from declaring their undying love to hating each other in the span of a single paragraph or from being an atheist to a believer in one dialogue. His characters may be confusing at times but they are also so believable that you forget they are not real people. Not many authors can show the reality of human ambiguity and shiftiness and our minds so consistently and realistically.

Devils is the third of Dostoyevsky’s five major novels and the third that I have read. I liked this one more than Crime and Punishment and less than The Brothers Karamazov, although halfway through the book I wasn’t sure I liked it at all. But in the end all the threads pull together and the plot comes to a crescendo and denouement and suddenly the first 700 pages take on new meaning. Once I finished the book I went back and read some sections with renewed interest.

Dostoevsky can be challenging reading on several levels but the biggest part of the difficulty is that you are reading a translation. I always get the sense that I am missing something, that something is not quite coming through – some pungency, some joke, some cultural flavor. The translation I read is a newer one (1992) by Michael R. Katz, a scholar and professor of Russian who has translated several other Russian novels in addition to this one. The original Russian title of the book is “Besy” which previous editions translated as “Demons” or “The Possessed”, although “The Possessed” seems now to be widely considered incorrect.

The Katz translation includes a chapter called which other versions either exclude or include in an appendix. Dostoyevsky’s original publisher considered the content of this chapter, “Stavrogin’s Confession”, too shocking for public consumption. In this chapter the charismatic Nikolai Vsevolodovich Stavrogin, a central character in the book, visits a priest named Tikhon and asks him to read a confession aloud which he has carefully written out on several sheets of paper. It describes how several years previously he had been living in a life of debauchery in Petersburg and had seduced and raped the young daughter of the landlady, a child of about 12, after which the girl committed suicide. Without this chapter Stavrogin would be mysterious and morally ambiguous but not necessarily evil. This chapter removes some doubt about the nature of his character, although he does claim his desire to repent and seek redemption.

To my 21st-century American mind much of this book and most of the characters seem slightly surreal and bizarre, as if I had dropped onto another planet where the inhabitants, though recognizably human, are so different in their modes of behavior, speech patterns, culture and lifestyles, and expectations, that I am a bit disoriented for several hundred pages. It helped to do a little research on 19th century Russian culture and history. This book is in fact loosely based on a specific historical incident in which a member of a radical cell “group of five” was murdered by the other members of the group. Apparently in the 1860s there were many of these groups working in Russia to disrupt the status quo, sow doubt about religion and tradition, and spread new socialist and atheist ideas.

Devils seems to have grown out of Dostoyevsky’s concerns about the dangers of what he considered false philosophy and its effects on the fabric of civilization and cultural identity and faith of the Russian people. The book begins with the passage from Luke about the man possessed by a legion of demons. When the demons see Jesus coming they ask to be allowed to enter a herd of swine. Jesus grants their request and the swine dive off a cliff and drown. The possessed man is restored to his right mind. This is the guiding theme of the novel. The devils are the false ideas and the swine are the radicals (men who have lost their humanity and respect for God). The false ideas cause the radicals to self destruct, leaving Russia restored to her traditions and her faith.
Although this novel is Dostoyevsky’s commentary of the specific political intrigues of his time and philosophical thought behind the politics, this does not mean it is not applicable to the current affairs of our world. On the contrary, I find it fascinating to trace the direct connection from nihilism and socialist philosophy of the 1860s to the events of the early 20th century, especially the Bolshevik Revolution, and then to recognize the eerie repercussions that echo all the way to present.

The story is narrated by a resident of the town named Govorov who is sometimes an eye witness to the events, sometimes a participant, and sometimes reports things he has found out later. Govorov sounds like quite a busybody but the narration mostly comes off as natural and reportorial. The story is that a secret group of nihilist revolutionaries led by the serpent-like trickster Peter Stepanovich Verkhovensky infiltrates a small provincial town. Peter is the son of Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky, writer and professor in the past, now a sort of established eccentric minor celebrity in the town. The father, Stepan Trofimovich, represents the liberal ideologies of the 1840s, seemingly harmless secular utopian philosophies that spawned a new generation of radical nihilists capable of doing real harm to real people who are just trying to live their lives.

Peter insinuates himself into the upper echelons of the town’s society by charming people in power such as the governor’s wife, Yulia Mikhailovna von Lembke, a woman who just wants to be the center of a hip social circle and imagines herself to be the understanding patroness of the younger generation. Then, along with his “gang of five” and other hangers on, Peter sets out to wreak havoc on the sacred and reliable traditions of the town, beginning with pranks that some think are funny and progressing to more dangerous activities such as theft, arson, and murder. But before you get to the havoc you have to wade through some lengthy philosophical conversations, ravings of lunatics, and many events and personal interactions that don’t quite make sense until the story rolls all the way out. You begin to think these people are living on the brink of insanity, which as is turns out, is pretty much the case.

Reading Devilswas worth the effort. My method was to listen to the audio book (excellently read by George Guidall, one of my favorite narrators) and also to read sections of the text (Oxford World’s Classics edition, 769 pages). I needed to see the complicated names of the characters and wanted to read some parts more than once. As much as at one point I was anxious to just get through the interminable thing, now that I am finished I find I can’t quite let it go, and keep going back to review certain passages. Dostoevsky and his time and culture is a topic I could camp out in for the rest of my life. I think Russian studies is one of my many missed callings. If you get into Dostoevsky you will find you want to go back and read his novels more than once. In fact I plan to re-read The Brothers Karamazov in the near future.

View all my reviews

The essay is a slippery thing, both as an art form and a writing market. It is difficult to figure out if the essay is the hot commodity or the neglected unjustly ignored stepchild of the literary world. I’ve read both claims recently. My subjective non-scientific instinct is that essays are hot and fashionable right now in the sense that small artsy boutiques are hot and fashionable. Creative non-fiction has its very enthusiastic devotees and the current market seems reasonably niche-friendly.

The form certainly appeals to me as one of those perennially novel things, like newly discovered classics or personalized customer service, ever-retro. As an art the essay goes back several centuries, with the 16th century eccentric Michel de Montaigne widely considered to be the pioneer of the form. But I would have to say essays go back long before the 16th century. What, for example, is this?

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water.

Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. So the evening and the morning were the first day.

Then God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.” Thus God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. So the evening and the morning were the second day.

Then God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear”; and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth, and the gathering together of the waters He called Seas. And God saw that it was good.

Then God said, “Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb that yields seed, and the fruit tree that yields fruit according to its kind, whose seed is in itself, on the earth”; and it was so. And the earth brought forth grass, the herb that yields seed according to its kind, and the tree that yields fruit, whose seed is in itself according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. So the evening and the morning were the third day.” Genesis 1:1-13

Some say this is fiction, some say non-fiction, some say poetry; my best guess is creative non-fiction.

The Best American Essays 2013

The Best American Essays 2013

As with trendy intellectual pursuits and other things that sound attractive in theory but take effort to actually do, when it comes to reading essays I suspect there may be more talking of the talk than walking of the walk. Essays, when I get around to reading them, are fun and interesting, but maybe I don’t get around to reading them as often as I’d like. So in the interest of walking the walk I recently decided to take a couple of steps:

a) I subscribed to three literary journals: Rattle, New Letters, and The Sun. These subscriptions can be a bit pricey but as my budget allows I plan to increase my collection of literary periodicals and actually read them. I also plan, carefully and in the course of time, to submit my own work. I like the online versions too but I find the tactile object encourages me read them with more pleasure and attention.

b) I purchased The Best American Essays 2013 for Kindle and am in the process of reading every essay in it. So far I have read the first six and have found the writing stunning, even if the stories are often scary, even chilling. The editor, Cheryl Strayed, seems to have favored harrowing personal memoirs for this collection.

Personal memoir can make great reading but I also enjoy other kinds of essays. For example I have liked the spiritual explorations of Philip Yancey and Anne Lamott as well as the works of Philip Lopate, Annie Dillard, Joan Didion, Albert Jay Nock, G.K. Chesterton, Henry David Thoreau, George Orwell, and James Thurber. I haven’t even started on David Sedaris yet; in fact, there are essayists lined up patiently holding their books as far down the road as I can see.

New light on ordinary things. Photo by Aaron Apple, Oct. 2014

A good essay, even when the writer is relating a personal story, needs to go beyond the facts that happened and point you to a place of new perspective and the best essays will point you to a new perspective on a universal theme. So far the essays of Best American Essays 2013 do this masterfully. I look forward to reviewing this collection once I finish all of them in a way that will encourage others to read these and other essays for the maximum benefit. What are the benefits of reading a good literary essay? For me there are several including these:

1. The soul pleasure of reading truly excellent writing.
2. Seeing something true for the first time in a new way. This ploughs the fields of my mind and keeps the seeds of thoughts from falling into ruts.
3. Inspiration and encouragement for my own writing.
4. The satisfaction and community of knowing there are still living people in the world able to write this well.

I am sure there are many other benefits to reading essays. If you think of any I did not list feel free to add them in a comment!


Sales chick

Today I indulged in one of my favorite small pleasures. I visited Jerry’s Artarama, walked through every single aisle, touched paper for the textural pleasure, picked up colored pencils, sampled ink pens, and priced the easels. The sales girl asked me more than once if she could help me find anything and if I was finding everything okay. Doesn’t anyone else just wonder around the store for the sheer pleasure of it? I don’t need a lot of art supplies at the moment but I selected a few things anyway – some Fabriano art journals because the paper is luxuriously smooth, soft, and white, some gummy erasers, and several nice technical pens. As soon as I got back in the car I sat there and drew some pictures in one of the journals with the pens to try them out.

When I was a child and people asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always answered, “An artist.” Unfortunately I had no idea how long it would take me to grow up. I suppose I had the idea that when I was 20 or so I would be a grown-up and an artist, whatever that was.  I think I thought it meant I wouldn’t have to go to school anymore and could spend all day drawing pictures. I did not know that all kinds of ideas, insecurities, discouragements, and economic realities would stand between me and this simple vision.

Well here I am,  just recently having completed the raising of two sons all the way to adulthood – at least in the strictly legal sense. My youngest son is now 18 so if he ended  up in the newspaper  they would refer to him as a “man”. What a thought. Anyway now I do have this little dividend of mental real estate that I did not have until recently and my intention has always been that when that real estate became available I would use it for my creative activities. Back in January, I made a New Year’s resolution to take my art skills to a higher level in 2014 –  I would really pay attention to technique, spend dedicated time in art study and art practice.

I tried to do this. I read art books, signed up for online art classes, and spent time just practicing even though it meant I didn’t produce as many finished pieces. I have perhaps even marginally improved my art skills. But as my art improvement year progressed into October  I began to feel  overwhelmed and discouraged. I am trying to improve in both traditional and digital art skills and I cannot concentrate on just one or the other. If I ever want to do art commercially on any level I have to be able to produce illustrations digitally and I do sort of want to do art commercially. Also I really do enjoy working with drawing and painting software. But oh how I also love the smooth texture of Bristol board, the flow of ink, and the scratch of graphite! Besides, the natural way for me to work is to combine traditional and digital techniques.

A few months back I began collecting graphic art tutorials on Pinterest and am continually astounded by the sheer magnitude of art technology and the unlimited possibilities it opens up: layers, custom brushes with jitters and spacing settings, degrees of transparency, textures, lighting effects – the list goes on and on. I have been using Gimp, a free application comparable to Photoshop, for several years, but looking at a these tutorials made me realize that I have been using only a small portion of Gimp’s capability.

A few weeks ago I downloaded Adobe Illustrator onto my trusty Toshiba laptop for the 30-day free trial, intending to bite the bullet and start paying the $19.99 monthly fee for the use of this mega-program once the trial period ended. Then one of those disasters occurred that turn out to be a good thing. Usually when these kinds of  blessing-in-disguise disasters occur my eldest son is somehow involved. This time the disaster was that my trusty four-year-old Toshiba crashed and died, and this time instead of being the cause  of the disaster my eldest son turned out to be the hero. First he produced, from the chaos of his bedroom/laboratory, a used laptop onto which I was able to transfer the contents of the old hard drive. Then he built me a “Hackintosh” – a home-built computer that runs IOS operating software. This wonderful machine enabled me to avoid having to pay Adobe $19.99 a month for Illustrator because I was now able to download a Mac-only alternative vector program called IDraw for $24.99 that I only have to pay once. IDraw seems to do most of what I need to do with vector graphics for the time being.

Anyway, this morning I was looking at tutorials and feeling futile and overwhelmed, like an explorer who has climbed to the top of a mountain only to see a range of more mountains that stretches as far as she can see. After some Starbucks and a long walk I decided I am destined to be forever a student and just accept the sorts of joys the life of a perpetual student offers. I move too slowly, am too easily distracted, have too many interests,  am spread too thin ever to achieve mastery in any one thing. There are worse fates.

flower girl1Let’s say I spend another year brushing up my skills and building an illustration portfolio. Is it possible for someone at my stage of life to break into a new career in illustration? The rational side of me says no. The competition is robust and the talent of hoards of young people coming out of art school is  tremendous. Also I  have a style that might have been  marketable around say, 1904, but perhaps not so much in this century.

However, the non-rational side me does not care  beans about being marketable or even pecuniary success. Most of what I have done most of my life has been dictated by either economic necessity or the needs of the children or somebody else’s expectations, and the non-rational side of me has lost patience with all that. It tells me that when it comes to pursuing creative paths, I am going to do exactly what I want to do. My non-rational to rational ratio is about 60/40, so non-rational wins, at least when it comes to doing art.

Besides, other than writing, there isn’t much I’d rather do. What else would I do? Spend the rest of my life on the sofa obsessing over the lives of my kids or a TV series? Go around attending the concerts of aging performers from my generation? Exercise? Well I do that but only because I want my body to continue to be functional for its entire span of life. Travel? Yes, I do hope to do some of that. But even travelling wouldn’t have much appeal if I were not writing or drawing while doing it. Perhaps I could volunteer to help people in need – soup kitchen, free tutoring, painting porches, etc. Maybe I will but something tells me if I am going to help people it will have to involve doing what I like to do. I have a couple ideas brewing about how I might do that but so far they don’t involve ladling soup.


House of 7 gables coverThe House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of those old American chestnuts I ought to have read in high school or at least, as an English major no less, in college.

The House of the Seven Gables in Salem. Date between 1910 and 1920

The House of the Seven Gables in Salem. Date between 1910 and 1920

The book even has its very own historic landmark, a 17th century house in Salem, Massachusetts that Hawthorne is supposed to have used as the model for his titular house. Although I cannot say I fell in love with this book the way I did with say, Les Miserables or any of Dickens’ novels, I was awed by the elegant beauty of the richly symbolic writing.

The novel, or rather, as Hawthorne calls it in the Preface, the Romance, is most fascinating to me because of the way everything in it is multi-layered. There is the surface layer: the creaky old house, the clink and clank of coin in the Hepzibah’s shop, the wooden chair in which the Puritan ancestor died — but this layer is transparent, like a tissue paper topper. There is always something deeper running beneath, spiritual, psychological, and symbolic. A Romance, according to Hawthorne, while it must maintain a strict sense of integrity in portraying the truth of human heart, has greater latitude in how that truth is presented than does an ordinary novel, which must stick not only to a possible course of events, but to a probable one. (Obviously Hawthorne never read A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.) Now please indulge me as I interrupt this review for an English 101 moment.

English 101 Moment

A Romance in 1851 was a work written in the spirit of the Romantic Movement, a sweeping reaction to the rationalism of the 18th-century Enlightenment thought. Romanticism encompassed the philosophy, the arts, and literature of the western world and eventually made its way into politics and government. Romanticism sought to reaffirm and express such non-rational values as appreciation of natural beauty, emotion, and spirit. It was not a girl meets boy love story written for today’s popularly marketable genre.

A sub-genre of Romantic literature called Dark Romanticism seems to have been invented especially for Hawthorne, along with Edgar Allen Poe and Herman Melville. Dark Romanticism was all about the spirit of things, but the spirit was not necessarily a good thing. Dark Romantic literature acknowledged and dealt with personal sin and inherited evil and could include such supernatural elements as ghosts and curses. This sub-genre is so closely aligned with Gothic literature that sometimes the two are indistinguishable, but Dark Romanticism seems to have been specifically American while Gothic originated in Europe and dealt more often with actual monsters and other weird creatures. Dracula and Frankenstein are two prominent examples.

Okay, back to The House of the Seven Gables….. The story begins with some history of Colonel Pyncheon, the original Puritan ancestor, and the way he acquired the property

1875 illustration of Clifford Pyncheon, John Dalziel

1875 illustration of Clifford Pyncheon, John Dalziel

on which the old house stands. Between fact, legend, and rumor, there is enough information to figure out that the hard-hearted old Puritan desired the property owned by a farmer named Matthew Maule, and after being unable to force the stubborn settler off of it, had him arrested for witchcraft and hanged. With the noose around his neck, Maule curses the Colonel and all his progeny. Whether the curse is real or self-fulfilling prophecy, it becomes the warped foundation on which both house and the story is built.

I was especially drawn in by the uniquely American historical aspect of the story, which is really a spiritual history rather than the factual variety, dealing with how the darker side of Puritanism haunts succeeding generations like a ghostly stain passed down soul to soul. The author’s great-great-great-grandfather, William Hathorne, was a stern judge in the Salem witch trials, and unlike many of his fellow judges, never repented of his part in the infamous madness. I can see clearly how this book came from a place of generational haunting in Hawthorne’s mind, how the act of writing it might have been a purging of ghosts. It is known that Hawthorne added the “W” to his surname in an attempt to distance himself from what he considered a shameful part of his family history.

Of the cast of characters I suppose I enjoyed Hepzibah Pyncheon the most. She is quite an unusual protagonist – an older woman and not attractive, a fixed scowl being her most marked physical characteristic. She is both strong and timid, showing both backbone and kindness. Her brother Clifford is a complex character as Hawthorne shows what he should have been had he been allowed to take his natural course to maturity and the damaged creature he has become as a result of 30 years of imprisonment on false charges. Holgrave, the young lodger and daguerreotypist, lends stability and perspective to the story. The teenaged cousin Phoebe Pyncheon is delightful if a little over-perfect, almost like Dickens’ Little Nell, but not quite so saccharine, even though she constantly brings fresh air and sunshine to the disturbed inhabitants of the moldy house, even singing as she works. I suppose she with all her musical cheerfulness is needed to balance out the heavy gloom. You can almost believe a person like Phoebe could exist, and after all this is a Romance. You have to allow a little latitude when it comes to its portrayal of reality in a Romance.

Major Characters in The House of the Seven Gables

The named characters are relatively few although there is a multitude of extras: mostly townsfolk walking by, patronizing the shop, and gossiping about the crazy Pyncheons.

Current (that is current around 1850 or so)

  • Hepzibah Pyncheon: Reclusive old maid about 60 years of age; good-hearted; stalwart but timid.

    Hepzibah Pyncheon. Illustration by Helen mason Grose.

    Hepzibah Pyncheon. Illustration by Helen mason Grose.

  • Clifford Pyncheon: Hepzibah’s brother; tragically condemned as a young man to spend most of his life in prison. A lover of beauty and pleasure, Clifford is not the type who becomes stronger and better by suffering. He emerges from his prison tomb a seriously damaged old man, both in mind and character.
  • Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon: The antagonist and personification of the evil that has followed the family through the generations. Judge Pyncheon is a hypocrite whose bad character keeps showing through his well-practiced false joviality. He does not have the best interests of his cousins Hepzibah and Clifford at heart.
  • Mr. Holgrave: A young deguerreotypist who is lodging in one of the gables of the house. He seems a kind decent fellow but seems to have some mysterious interest in the members of the Pyncheon family and their history.
  • Phoebe Pyncheon: A young relative who arrives from the country for a visit and ends up staying to help Hepzibah tend the shop and tend to the recently released Clifford. Phoebe is cheerful, practical, and physically lovely. She becomes a badly needed breath of fresh air and ray of sunshine to the gloomy household.
  • Uncle Venner: Very old handyman who wanders around the town preaching his homespun philosophy to anyone who will listen. Friend to all the residents of the house.


  • Colonel Pyncheon: Mean heartless old Puritan who build the house and whose evil actions originated the family curse. A painting of the man hangs prominently on the wall, disturbing the residents and haunting the house.
  • Matthew Maule: The 17th century farmer who originally owned the land on which the house is built. Curses the Pyncheon family just before being hanged for witchcraft.
  • Gervayse Pyncheon: Grandson of Colonel Pyncheon who, as a small child, found the old man dead in a chair.
  • Alice Pyncheon: Daughter of Gervayse Pyncheon, said to have been beautiful and talented, and whose flowers still grow around the house. Died tragically after being hypnotized by the grandson of Matthew Maule. Her ghost haunts the house.

Today I would like to share this poem by Emily Dickinson:

To fight aloud, is very brave -
But gallanter, I know
Who charge within the bosom
The Calvary of Wo -
Who win, and nations do not see -
Who fall – and none observe -
Whose dying eyes, no Country
Regards with patriot love -
We trust, in plumed procession
For such, the Angels go -
Rank after Rank, with even feet -
And Uniforms of snow.
* * * * * * * *

A family I know has a three-year-old child with cerebral palsy. She must be carried or wheeled everywhere and needs special equipment to eat and just to live. With the help of her teenaged sister, parents, and therapist, this little girl battles every day of her life for mastery of every tiny movement of her body. Her parents have devoted their lives to her life and welfare, loving her, pulling for her, never losing faith even when, as a premature infant with serious health issues, the doctors doubted she would live.  There are thousands and millions of people with similar or other struggles: addictions, mental illness, poverty, imprisonment – false or otherwise, cancer, war injuries, the list goes on and on and on, all fighting their battles to the utmost to the best of their abilities.

We glorify a pantheon of celebrities and a few war heroes, giving little conscious thought to the hundreds of people we pass every day on the streets, bravely confronting, fighting, and often losing their own battles. We recognize that some people deserve honor and credit for their notable efforts in the arts, sciences, or industries, for doing extraordinary work in the helping professions, or for showing courage in war, but our minds can only process so much information and there are just so many of us, each person containing endless potential for story and struggle. So we select some individuals as symbols for the many: some real leaders and heroes, some actors who can play leaders and heroes in the movies, some musicians or other artists who can make us feel loving or heroic, some for their athletic ability, and some simply for their beauty or charisma. The guy standing by his overheated heap on the side of highway may have more character, courage, and fortitude than anyone in People Magazine or on talk shows. Who we select for admiration or fascination has more to do what we want to be, what we desire, and what we feel guilty about than it does with the relative value of the selected one.

I don’t know why it is, but this week every time I read an Emily Dickinson poem I think of George Orwell. Today’s poem makes me think of the 1939 essay “Marrakech,” in which Orwell describes his observations during a trip to Morocco, where he spent several months after fighting in the Spanish Civil War. The essay is about the vast numbers of individuals he observed during this trip – Jews, Arabs, and Africans – spending their lives doing backbreaking labor and living in unthinkable poverty, how the sheer numbers of the poor makes it difficult for him think of them as individual humans. He gives several examples that vividly illustrate levels of  poverty that are simply outside of his (and my) realm of experience. In two cases Orwell catches himself valuing animals more that the humans he sees. He ponders why he feels more sympathy for an overworked and overburdened donkey than the multitudes of overworked overburdened elderly women who pass outside his window every day. In one incident he is feeding bread to a gazelle when a hungry Arab laborer approaches and shyly suggests he too could stand to eat a bit of that bread.

This essay is painful to read – not  because of the writing style, which is superb, but because of the content.  Better than anything I have ever read, “Marrakech” paints a vivid picture of the way huge populations of human beings are not valued, at least by the classes in power.  Among themselves they may value each other greatly; but in Orwell’s eyes, their approach to death and funerals seems to indicate otherwise. In one funeral he witnessed, the corpse is wrapped only in a ragged shroud and buried in a shallow unmarked grave in a mass burial ground. This seems to be the usual method. Within a few months even the person’s relatives have no idea where it was buried. “They rise out of the earth, they sweat and starve for a few years, and then they sink back into the nameless mounds of the graveyard and nobody notices they are gone. And even the graves themselves soon fade back into the soil. Sometimes, out for a walk, as you break your way through the prickly pear, you notice that is rather bumpy underfoot, and only a certain regularity in the bumps tells you that you are walking over skeletons.” (From “Marrakech” by George Orwell – 1939). The medieval notion that we should live not for this world but for the next has been much maligned during the past couple of centuries, but even today, for much of the world’s population, this approach to life is not only a comfort but perhaps the only comfort.


heroes for saleOrwell’s essay captures the exact reason I do not read horror stories or watch horror films. I find reality provides more than enough material to supply all my horror needs. Speaking of films, if you want to see an incredible movie about the forgotten hero, the good man who will never get his reward in this life, I highly recommend the 1933 film Heroes for Sale. It’s about a guy who acts with selfless courage in war, works hard all his life for the good of others, and always tries according to the highest principles – and gets screwed for it every time. It’s a heartbreaking story but an excellent film. It’s also the story of an awful lot of the world’s population. I think that somehow, in the 1930s, Hollywood sometimes really touched on some hard truths.


In a world like this it is not surprising that so many give up even trying to lives of integrity and just decide to do whatever they can to get a few crumbs of the spoils. You begin to realize the true goodness is when you live in this world and are able to remain true to principles such as kindness, honesty, and putting others before self. If we can finish out this life with your integrity in tact, we will truly deserve that parade of angels.