Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Original Grimdark: King Harald’s Saga


Fantasy literature uses the word “saga” quite liberally, as if any story with wizards and battles qualifies. Yet sagas refer properly to the old Icelandic sagas, a vast collection of histories, tales, and legends dutifully recorded by Medieval scholars and poets. Though most of these writers saw themselves as writing factual accounts of the heroic past, they were quite willing to stretch the truth when necessary; thus the legendary King Harald of Norway becomes almost eight feet tall, and can rush into a battle without shield or armor and hack down a horde of foes unscathed. It certainly sounds better than what must have been the still remarkable, but far more mundane reality. Not surprisingly, given the fuzzy distinction between truth and reality, Icelandic sagas touch on a number of modern genres: history, fantasy, romance, folklore, even horror—it’s all here, written in succinct yet extremely colorful language. 

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Learning to Re-Read the Novel


In Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), often considered the first English novel (as we now define the term), the book opens with the words “I was born in the Year 1632, in the City of York, of a good Family...” and ends some two-hundred pages later without a single chapter break or exchange of dialogue. Though one of the most influential books written in English, everything about it now seems hopelessly old-fashioned and a tedious chore for the modern reader (weaned on YA lit, especially) to wade through. For this reason it appears less and less frequently on college syllabi, and not at all in the high school classroom, where it was once enjoyed a popularity similar to—and perhaps even rivaling—Harry Potter. 

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Framing Life in Art: Posy Simmonds’ Gemma Bovery (1999)


Gemma Bovery is one of my favorite graphic novels--and indeed, novels period--and I've read it a good 4-5 times now. It gets better every time. It's also a work that truly benefits from the comic book form, even though it is a highly 'literary' work, where you have to do a fair amount of reading. Yet words and pictures are closely allied, and make for a rich, complex reading experience. 

The book loosely follows the general plot of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856), though acquaintance with the novel is not necessary to appreciate Simmonds’s story.  The novel opens in the French town of Bailleville (in Normandy), where the local baker, Raymond Joubert, consoles Charles Bovery, still mourning the death of his wife.  Raymond admits to the reader that “the blood of Gemma Bovery is on my hands” (2), and jumps at the chance to snatch her recently discovered diaries, which Charles has been too distraught to examine.  Spiriting them away one by one, Raymond fills in the gaps of the tragic story he both witnessed and played a significant role in creating. 

Sunday, July 23, 2017

A Subjective List: Top 25 Favorite Novels (or Short Story Collections)


At some point, you need to take stock of the works that have shaped not only your writing but your reading career: the books that, through sheer identification of re-reading have entered your literary DNA, and shape all your aesthetic choices about a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ book. I’ve spent a good chunk of my life reading, probably more than doing any other activity—eating included, since I often eat with a book in hand (doesn’t reading intensify the thrill of eating? Just me?). So I thought I would subjectively make a list of the books that have stayed with me the most over the years, all of which I’ve read more than once, and a few cases, up to 6 or 7 times. Naturally, this is a subjective list and doesn’t pretend to be universal or persuasive. In fact, it’s severely limited in many respects, being largely Western (and very English), and showcasing more men than women. You might not agree with a single book on my list, but this list reflects my reading journey from ages 16 to 43, and as a teacher, the works I most often return to in my own classes.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Dream of our Past: Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014)




Toward the end of Emily St. John Mandel’s post-apocalyptic, literary science fiction novel, Station Eleven, several characters contemplate whether or not to teach their children about the world before...the one that had electricity, planes, phones, computers, and convenience. They now live in a world of tiny, isolated towns hiding from feral children and insane prophets. Yet the old world remains all around them, silently watching as if the right word could spirit them back to life. But there is no word, and apparently, no way to conjure up the world that only twenty-odd years ago shaped their lives and dreams. Yet the children of ‘today’ are haunted by the shapes of yesteryear, which even their parents still inhabit in a haunted, hollowed fashion. As one of the characters remarks, “Does it still make sense to teach kids about the way things were?” (269).

Monday, July 17, 2017

Why College Matters--a Note to the Naysayers

There have been a lot of arguments lately about how college is bad for the US, how education is "dangerous," and how young people (and older people) feel betrayed by it. Many ask, why go to college if you're learning useless, old, irrelevant information that doesn't even guarantee you a job and drowns you in debt? Some even accuse colleges of 'brain washing' young minds with liberal dogma and trying to play Petruchio to their Kate (a Shakespeare reference--courtesy of your local English dept). Basically, in The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio 'tames' his prospective bride, Kate, by making her claim that the sun is the moon, that black is white, etc. So many detractors of higher education would say that we're doing much the same--teaching students that black lives matter, or that we live in a heliocentric system, or that Shakespeare had homoerotic tendencies and/or relationships (you know, things that everyone knows aren't true!) :)  But the bottom line for many critics is this: college simply doesn't pay off in the "real world" or break down into a tangible return investment for the time and money spent. 
To me, college is a lot like traveling to foreign countries: it doesn't magically make you cultured to visit France. You don't learn the language simply by eating a baguette--even from an authentic boulangerie. Going to Africa won't make you 'multicultural', and circumnavigating the world won't make you Magellan. It's what you do in your travels--what you see, experience, learn, and interact with that makes something happen. Blaming college for not 'working' is like blaming Spain for not making you a flamenco dancer after a two-night stay. In short, college is a lifelong investment, not something that 'pays off' in the weeks and months following graduation. 
Indeed, college is a beginning, not an end. It won't necessarily get you a job, but it will prepare you to get a job (and possibly, give you the skills to adapt to it--and thus, keep it). Yes, college is too expensive and yes, the curriculum has problems, but that's more an issue with how colleges are regulated by outside forces (which seem hellbent on making it toothless). All I can say is that college saved my life: I was a shiftless, unmotivated high school student with no plans to do anything but work at a local bookstore. College gave me ideas, purpose, resolution, and direction. It didn't magically give me a job or a paycheck, but it began to teach me why things mattered, and unveiled so many mysteries which I had simply taken for granted.
If you look at college and just see classes, fees, and requirements, then okay, maybe college is a roadblock. But if you look deeper and see that each class represents hundreds if not thousands of years of thought, discipline, and collaboration, you can never dismiss it so lightly or assume that it has nothing to teach you--or that it can do without you, either. College grows stronger by everyone contributing to it, so it gives more back to every single student. But if you sleepwalk through classes and expect to learn by osmosis, then you learn nothing, and the engine of higher education fails. It really is collaborative and requires active participation. It's not a 'pay to play' proposition (though yes, it should cost a lot less money--or ideally, be free). Giving up on higher education (and on education in general) is cultural suicide. No culture in history has abandoned its cultural wealth and knowledge and prospered. I doubt we'll be the first. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Mysterious, Intimate World of Vermeer


The Dutch master, Johannes Vermeer, bequeathed only 35 paintings to posterity, though some are undoubtedly lost, and others have been judged spurious. Still, in an age where painters needed to flatter the nobility to obtain a constant stream of commissions, Vermeer seems to have painted slowly and somewhat grudgingly. He remained in debt his entire life and left his family—including eleven children—harried with misfortune, his wife forced to peddle off his remaining canvases for paltry sums. We know almost nothing about his personal life or ideas except what trickles down to us from his paintings. What they seem to tell us is that Vermeer cared little for politics or history, much less current events; he painted a world untouched by turmoil or intrigue, where only love letters intruded on the shadows and solitude of domestic life.