Elsie Dinsmore’s Father’s Nose

Men in 19th century novels were described differently from the way men are described today. Often they had an “aquiline” nose, another one of those words I don’t remember running into anywhere else until this morning on the RagTag Daily Prompt. I remember reading it in Elsie Dinsmore books, 19th century moral lesson novels for girls by Martha Finley. Eight year old Elsie lived in the South, belongs to a wealthy, slave-owning family, and had many, many, many lessons to learn from everyone, but mostly from her strict father, Horace, who, as I recall, had an aquiline nose.

Elsie, though a little girl, is a very devout Christian and this causes a terrible fight between her and her father, but, ultimately, as God works in mysterious ways, after Elsie suffers incredibly, her father comes around and becomes a Christian himself. The books go on through Elsie’s childhood to her life as a grandmother.

I got the first one as a gift from my mom. It was a paperback reprint. She and her sisters had LOVED Elsie Dinsmore in their childhood out there on the high plains of Montana. More interesting than Elsie Dinsmore were my mom’s stories of hiding in the hayloft with an Elsie Dinsmore book.

I have an old copy from 1887. I bought it out of nostalgia. At a certain point when I was a kid, I realized I didn’t like these books not because they are propaganda — children’s books are usually propaganda and, even as a kid, I expected to learn lessons from books — but because there is just something sinister about them. You can judge. In this scene, Lulu, Elsie’s headstrong little daughter, has displeased her father. This is what she gets for it…

Kind of normal for these books. Elsie’s father stopped talking to HER for several months. If I had a little girl, I probably would not have shared Elsie Dinsmore. I wonder what I would have given her to read on those sunny days when she wanted to hide in the equivalent of a Southern California hayloft with a book. I don’t know.

The featured photo is the cover of my Elsie book. It’s embossed pansies, but they are hard to see. Still, the book is 140 years old…



Any of you who’ve had kids and grandkids probably know what it’s like to watch a little kid learn how to read. Until yesterday I had not had the experience.

When they arrived to set up the deck, Connor told me he was Hobbes and Michelle was Calvin. I said, “How come you get to be the tiger?”

“We played for it and I lost.”

Personally, I think it’s better to be a tiger, but that’s just me.

Lots of stuff happened in kid time while the project went on. At one point,
Michelle sat in front of me with a well-read Calvin and Hobbes comic book. She read slowly, not totally getting the essence of what the words said, but pointing at the words and sounding them out old-school.

One of the new words was “garden.” I commenced the Socratic method almost instinctively. “Where do flowers grow?”


After a couple failures (this is not university) her mom said, “Sound it out, honey.”

“Gar-den.” She jumped up in delight! “GARDEN!!!”

Then she said down and kept reading to me. I had tears in my eyes at the beauty of this. I looked over at her mom who was kind of teary, too. In my mind I saw the WHOLE WORLD OPEN for Michelle.

P.S. Obviously I’m not a stickler for writing to the prompt.


The Writer Reads Again

Yesterday, in the anthologies I evaluated for the contest, I read a couple of pretty haunting stories.

Because the category of “anthologies” is so all-encompassing, they can be anything. They are difficult to evaluate because, unless they’re thematic anthologies with stories or articles around one theme, they come through to the unknowing reader (which would be me) like a random assortment of stories which is what they are. They demand I be flexible as a reader — and I am, up to a certain point, but we all have our breaking point.

I recently won first prize in a contest that leads to just such an anthology. Unfortunately, I forgot to put the party on my calendar so I didn’t go. AND after years of submitting stories and having them rejected, now when I submit stories I forget about them. But it was very cool to get a little note in the mail with a check enclosed.

Well, I have a few more anthologies to wade through this morning.

I have come across a couple of amazing books. If you’re planning a trip to Rome, I have never seen a better more interesting attractive and complete tourist guide than the one I read yesterday. Rome Keys to the City — The Astute Traveler, Patty Civalleri. It made me want to go. I also read a very intriguing book about the famous Parisian Cemetery which shelters the remains of Jim Morrison and even greater lights, Pere-Lachaise Cemetery. City of Immortals.


What I Didn’t Write in the China Book

“Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.”― Truman Capote

I left a lot of story out of the China book. I didn’t write much about my marriage and there are few references to the man who was my husband at the time. All I could do (I felt, fairly) was make the point that it wasn’t really his cup of (China) tea. I reached the conclusion when I was living in China that it was something you liked or you didn’t like and there were myriad reasons for either. I don’t think an unhappy marriage helped. Anyway, there is a ton of stories out there about failed romances. Why write another?

The book has also been “focused” by the slides I scanned and the fact that the project started as blog posts. I don’t know if the audience I would have imagined for the China book would have been the same if I hadn’t started it here for the people I know read my blog. The book is not the same as the blog posts — it’s more carefully written, ideas are somewhat amplified and some subjects dealt with more completely — but the underlying purpose is contrasting life in Guangzhou in 1982 with what I know of life there today, for foreigners, in particular.

For centuries people have gone to the Middle Kingdom and came home to write about it. There are thousands of books like mine out there in the world. I used to collect them. Some of them are beautiful, filled with old photos of a vanished China (as is mine) and a passion for China shining in every sentence. It’s because there are so many of these that I didn’t think I would ever add my sputtering story to the (wait for it, English teacher word, SAT word) PLETHORA of books already in existence.

What I couldn’t write clearly — but still hope the book says — is that China was, for me, an intensely inspiring kind of “school.” Every single day I was thrust into a world of objects, words, stories and ideas I didn’t know, didn’t understand and couldn’t identify. This was amplified by the conversations I had with Chinese friends. It wasn’t only that I was ignorant about China, I was ignorant about the stereotype into which I had walked — but didn’t quite fit.

When I came back to the US, I was homesick for China for years — writing this book has shown me that I never really got over it. During the 1980s my ex and I went to visit my grandma and Aunt Helen in Ashland, OR. They told us that when we drove back to San Francisco, where we would catch a plane, to go through Weaverville, California, and see the “Joss House.” It’s a South Chinese temple in the middle of the forest near a small mining town.

The Chinese worked in the mines around Weaverville, and they worked on the railroad, and, as far as possible, they’d brought their world with them. The Chinese in America faced a lot of racism, some of it for good reason. They brought their opium dens with them. The opium habit came to China from the British who found a market for the Indian opium and a better deal on tea. The various cultural and social revolutions of the early 20th century all but eliminated opium use from Chinese culture, but the Japanese brought it back with them in their invasion in the 1930s in the form of opiated cigarettes with which they flooded the tobacco market.

History is a convoluted mess of tangled string. When people talk about history they bring up the usual suspects — the only female painter of any importance is Frida Kahlo, the emancipator of the slaves in the US is Abraham Lincoln, Van Gogh is the great madman of painting, Michelangelo and Leonardo are the Renaissance, Harriet Tubman was the only person risking her life to bring southern slaves out of bondage. We naturally oversimplify the human drama and then think we have a bead on it, but we don’t. History is way too much for any of us — as Goethe wrote in Italian Journey. He set out thinking he knew about Italian art but when he crossed the border and looked at paintings in Verona and Padova, he wrote that far away we see only the brightest stars, but close up we see all the lesser stars (I would say the stars with less press and publicity) and they are equally wondrous.

I thought of this all the time I was working on the China book. Unlike myself at 30 in China, I now know a little something about the country’s history now. I know that in the early 20th century 99% of Chinese could not read or write. I know that most women still had bound feet. I know that famine stalked their lives and had for centuries. I know how thousands of young, educated Chinese voluntarily went to remote villages to teach and how intensely they were resisted, even killed. I know that the language was simplified so it was easier to teach. All this is just a micron of what I learned. I can’t even fathom the enormity of that ancient culture — or my own. I guess that’s the biggest lesson. It has informed all my historical novels. It’s why I write about “ordinary” people rather than the court of some king or queen.

The words of Cao Xueqin, the author of the 18th century novel, The Story of the Stone also known a Red Chamber Dream, influenced my philosophy as a writer. He wrote this amazing novel during a time when the writing of fiction was a crime in China. His family — formerly banner men, flag carriers for the emperor — had fallen on hard times. He wrote the book, he says, to entertain himself and his friends. Now — and for many past generations — there’s a whole field of study called Hongxue which means the study of Hong Lou Meng or Red Chamber Dream. I don’t think I’ve read anything as compelling, either. It’s a great novel.

And, even if Cao’s claim that he wrote to entertain himself and his friends is not true, even if it was a way for him to wriggle out of the crime of writing a novel, I think it’s a very high motive.


A Word on Behalf of Beowulf

A few days ago I read a thread on Twitter that didn’t have to do with the president of the United States. It was about Beowulf.

I know the Beowulf is not on the top of most peoples’ minds. I know that he’s largely a cause of much pain and suffering in high school. He was for me, too. It wasn’t until I suddenly (really, it was sudden) became something of a medievalist that I began to revise my views on this amazing work of poetry. In 2002, on my way to a job interview in Cheyenne, WY, I found Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf at the Denver airport where I changed planes.

It was so captivating that I didn’t do much to prepare for my interview except get dressed up and show up on time.

I love Beowulf the character. He’s just wonderful, but I’m not a “modern” person. I don’t have the preconceived biases people are taught today and that I found on the Twitter thread.

You see, here’s the thing. Beowulf wasn’t written by a 20th century author. No one knows who wrote it or even why other than to entertain people. It’s a composite of mythic stories and historical events. It’s now believed to have been written in the 8th century. Some of the factual information in the story has been confirmed. But…

These people were not us — or were they? Could Beowulf be just another scary story about men vs. monsters along the lines of The Thing or Alien? But somehow — according to the long, disturbing thread on Twitter — it’s now being taught as White Males vs. The Poor, Suffering Other portrayed by the trolls, Grendel and his mother. For them Beowulf is not a hero; he’s a villain, and the poor monster, Grendel, is the true hero because he is the victim of hatred. In fact, I don’t see a lot of hatred in that story. The person who’s hired Beowulf — King Hrothgar — is angry because Grendel keeps breaking up parties in the mead hall and eating people. I’d be angry too. Beowulf takes on the job for pay.

In my opinion, if there’s any backstory involved, fitting with Medieval people would be a Biblical allegory — especially as this was the era in which the Scandinavians were converting to Christianity. But I like the hired killer vs. monster angle myself and I’m sticking with it. The story was never written as “Literature.” It was written for those long, cold, Scandinavian nights by the fire in the mead hall, when people were bored.

And, isn’t this beautiful and true:

…Men were drinking wine
at that rare feast; how could they know fate,
the grim shape of things to come…

Beowulf, Seamus Heaney translation p 87

Writer vs. Reader

Truman Capote 1981 Robert Mapplethorpe 1946-1989 ARTIST ROOMS Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/AR00212

Here’s the deal, readers. 

I have read. I have a fucking masters in literature. And before that? A bachelor’s in literature. I’ve written hundreds of papers about literature, a masters thesis, papers for academic conferences and I’ve taught literature. I don’t have a PhD in literature because, honestly, at that point it’s literary criticism and I don’t see the point of that. Enough was enough for the MA and it would have cost me $28k and three years of my life to pursue something that wouldn’t have improved my chances to get a good job.

There’s a moment in life when that is the important consideration. 

In 1981 a friend gave me a book of Chinese poetry and inscribed it saying, “Maybe this is something you HAVEN’T read.” And I hadn’t, but I did and found the most informative poem of my life. It’s “Don’t Go Out of that Door” by Li ho.

In the article I linked to my earlier post today is a pretty funny statement. I’ll quote it here.

Jean-Claude Carrière: There are books on our shelves we haven’t read and doubtless never will, that each of us has probably put to one side in the belief that we will read them later on, perhaps even in another life. The terrible grief of the dying as they realise their last hour is upon them and they still haven’t read Proust.”

I’ve read Proust. Heaven help me, but I have. That’s WHY I found Carriére’s statement so funny. How did I find Proust? University library, oh, you mean, well honestly, how would you know you died? Proust’s prose is as slow as death.

Stream of tedium.

There are important questions writers need to answer about themselves that no reader has to think about, most important (to me) is, “Is this the way I WANT to write?” You have to read your own work with the eyes of a WRITER to answer that question. 

There was a day, a moment, when that hit home. I was on a blind date some 10 years ago. I had driven to the Panikin in La Jolla to meet a man with whom I’d corresponded online (yes, a dating site, OKC). I took a draft of Martin of Gfenn with me. Unfortunately for him? For both of us? He was late. By the time he arrived, I was immersed in my manuscript and sickened by it. Every irrelevant motion of Martin’s life was expounded in laborious detail, almost “Martin turned right, and walked down the corridor putting one foot in front of the other, left right left right left right left right left right until he reached the refectory at which point he stopped putting one foot in front of the other and stood still thinking about whether he should put his right or his left foot over the threshold.”

Almost like that. The book (at that time) was 520 manuscript pages long. Once I’d read it like a writer, it was about half that. 

Seriously. Do you, as a reader, need to realize anything like that in YOUR writing and go, “Fuck, this is so bad, I want to die”? You might react to a book that way, but it won’t be YOUR book.

I never had to think that thought back when I was a reader. I was unaware that writers make choices about who they are in a paragraph or sentence or (yeah, sometimes it’s this small) word. Why? Oh baby, let me tell you. 

Words have sounds and implications. They have the power to resound, imply, and allude. A word can destroy a sentence and, like falling dominoes, take the paragraph with it.

I was facing a really poorly written novel (mine) with a good story and what could I do about it?

I’d written it not as a writer, but as a reader thinking of the story. A writer has to think about conveying the story so the reader can surrender, not noticing the conveyance, feeling only that the world in which he or she momentarily exists is real. A writer has to provide an experience. The reader has to be able to enter the words, the sentences, the paragraphs and forget they’re there.

It was at that moment — on that blind date — that I became a writer not a reader. As for the date, it went like this.

“What’s that?”
“My novel. It’s so bad. I don’t know what to do.”
“Do you want a coffee?”
“I think I have to go home.”

“To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.”

Truman Capote

Luckily, I found a teacher — or he came to me in my sleep. I dreamed of Truman Capote and he told me I was a good writer. I wasn’t a good writer. I was shit. I didn’t know what to do, but here was Capote appearing repeatedly in my dreams and here I was. 

I read everything Capote wrote and I read it not as a reader, but as a writer. ❤


A Wandering Minstrel, I…

Everything’s on sale today, even WordPress blogs. Once I went (with the Evil-X who was a shopaholic) to an electronics store in San Diego — Frye’s — on Black Friday, and the line around the store was 2 hours to get in. He was even ready to stand in line. What could be in there that was worth two hours of my life? 

I hate shopping, but like most people I get that little “high” from buying something I want. I mostly shop online. I got into that habit when I was working so much that going to stores was almost impossible. I learned that there are a lot of ordinary things that are cheaper that way (toilet paper?). 

Now I’m starting to research the Goliards, and that’s involved shopping for books that no one wants to read. I bought some.

Books like these are usually extremely expensive (my Amazon wishlist is full of books I want but will never be able to afford) or really cheap.

One of the interesting parts of research is that it usually starts with one book and that book has footnotes that lead to books that are more helpful. Right now I’m reading Helen Waddell’s  The Wandering Scholars. I like it (her) because she also rejects the term “Dark Ages,” and because of her clear passion for these wandering scholars (I also love them), but her writing presupposes knowledge I don’t have, AND she gushes. Her assumptions have made me reach and shown me what I need to learn, but the gushing… I don’t know. Still it’s not a history book; it’s an introduction to a time and place. Generally I like it — but what I like most are the occasional quotations from the poetry she’s writing about, poems mostly written in Medieval Latin, which, of course, I can’t read. Most of the medieval lyric poems I’ve read have been in medieval German which is bizarrely like Middle English. Actually, not all that bizarrely. Conveniently.

The Wandering Scholars relates some beautiful stories of these people, and one point has really hit home. Back in medieval times, if a person wanted a real education, he had to join a monastery. Lots of people joined monasteries for this reason (as well as others that had nothing to do with a monastic calling). Even with the grand teachers and the collections of books, monastery walls were confining. At a certain point, their minds heavily laden with the classics and the scripture, many of these scholars just needed out. They were called vagabonds, wanderers. Here’s a story:

Some are born wanderers; some have it thrust upon them; but the word vagus denotes often a mental quality…Ekkehard’s [ have no idea who that is, another rabbit hole for me] use of it is interesting.: he tells a story of a young monk of St. Gall, of a mind incorrigibly vagus, with whom discipline could do nothing and how, on a certain day, being forbidden to go beyond the monastery, he climbed in his restlessness the campanile — “O that I were where I (could) but see” — to look abroad, and missing his foot, crashed to the ground. (The Wandering Scholars)

This young monk dies, but not before he asks for his soul to be commended to the Virgins, because, he says, he is one. The attending doctor has masses said for the young scholar’s soul every year.

I was that restless person long ago. The rhythm of the wanderer’s life (as Helen Waddell writes) is that in youth, some need wide horizons and will sacrifice everything to have them. When they’re older many of the vagabond scholars settled down to monastic lives, sometimes of great severity. I’m not especially restless now. Most of the wide horizons I sought are now contained within me. 

Anyway, it’s fascinating, and I’m loving what I’m learning. Long ago, before I knew anything about the Middle Ages, I suspected this second world without knowing for sure it existed. When I wrote Martin of Gfenn I sensed, without knowing for sure, that there was an undercurrent of what we call “Humanism” beneath everything. It just seemed illogical that there wouldn’t have been. In the process of writing that book I found a wonderful book of German medieval lyric poetry that supported my idea very clearly and made me curious about who these people were. Then, finding the Codex Manesse, a beautiful book from the 13th/14th centuries that preserves — with illustrations! — the stories of the lives of these poets was pretty solid evidence.

I have a long journey ahead of me before I find my story. I think it is about Michele, Martin of Gfenn’s painting teacher, but I might be wrong. 

“Let no one in his travelling
Go against the wind,
Let him not, because he’s poor,
Look as though he sorrows.
Let him set before himself
Hope’s consolation, for
After sorrow comes,

Carmina Burana


The Wandering Scholars

I’m reading a book written in the 20s at the moment, a kind of literary criticism and history about the Goliards. The writer — Helen Waddell — writes like a waterfall, says little (that I can use), and what she DOES often says in Latin. The writing carries you along like a raft on a river at high flow, and when you get to the end of the page, you don’t know what you read. It’s a kind of verbal feast but wow. Not helping me. Here’s a random example…

O admirabile Venus idolum

and still more significant in promise, the alba of the Vatican MS. of St. Martial of Limoges. The alba is more precious for its Provencal burden than for other merit: it still holds to Predentius, and the cry might be to waken faithful souls rather than sleeping lovers, the enemy in ambush the Enemy of souls rather than the jealous guardian. But in its own exquisit phrase,

“Dawn is near: she leans across the dark sea.”

Interestingly, she’s EXPLAINING poetry that makes more sense than she does. I’m through three of the chapters and so far the book says, Chapter One, “The Goliards (and the entire church!) was influenced by secular Latin poetry more than they like to acknowledge.” Chapter Two, “There was a transitional moment when the Church tried shaking off the sensual (if not libidinous) secular influence, but they really couldn’t do it. They got some lovely lines, though.” And Chapter Three, “A group rebelled against the church rather quietly and wrote poetry intending to mimic Church verses. Mostly this was in Latin, but after a while, they began writing in their own languages. There are some quite nice things in Middle High German.”

The most comprehensible thing to me in the first chapter were two lines of Dante in Italian. This was after a small flash flood of Latin that had left me dumbfounded, so Dante was a relief. I actually thought, “Hey, I can read that!” As the book progresses into territory I know (the Irish monks and scholars, Columbanus and Gall) I feel a lot better, but wonder why no one ever made me read Virgil? What have I missed?

The thing is, she LOVES this stuff, just plain LOVES it. She gushes like a, oh, I already said that.

She, herself, is an interesting woman, and I wish I could have known her. She was born in China; her parents missionaries. So far she has compared some lines of some poems to some lines of some poems by the Chinese poet, Pai Chuyi. I know his story and his work, so for me that was a log to hold onto in this torrent of words. She must have had incredible linguistic abilities, too.

In a way, she seems to be the Jackson Pollack of thought, but I know it was a different world in 1927 when she wrote this book. People read differently and many had a classical education. And my needs as a writer? Facts. But I know facts are scanty for life in the 10 – 13th centuries, it’s just that I have this THING of showing how NOT dark the “Dark” Ages were. Maybe they’re dark because the people and their lives are buried under time’s detritus and we (too easily?) accepted a random Italian painter’s definition of the Renaissance? (My opinion…)

The book is good exercise for my lazy brain. I keep imagining these young disenchanted clerics and their “amoral” lives, the moment they stopped writing their irreverent verses in Latin and started writing in (that bastard!) Italian and (that barbaric language) German. I imagine them going, “Fuck this!” (which I wanted to write in Latin but Google Translate is NOT helpful giving me — as Latin synonyms a range of NON-synonyms such as “Fortuna”).

But maybe it wasn’t like that…