Monday, December 30, 2013

The Syllabus as a Literary Genre: or, More Delusions of a Full-Time Professor

[the Old Science Hall at ECU--a building I never teach in!]
I’m sitting at my desk writing syllabi for next semester.  Oddly, I enjoy doing this almost as much as I enjoy writing a novel or an academic essay...okay, often more than writing an academic essay.  And yet nothing gives me a worse case of writer’s block, even though I’ve written dozens of syllabi in my 13 years of teaching college and rarely teach a class that’s completely new (well, except for this semester, hence my frustration!).  But really, what’s the big deal?  It’s a syllabus.  You slap down a few rules and procedures, list due dates and grade allocations, and call it a day.  After all, that's about all students remember of it—if indeed they look at the document at all.  To be honest, a syllabus is less for the student than for the professor, since it is his/her first attempt to define what the class is (or isn’t).  And this is the great paradox of writing a syllabus: how can you write about a class that doesn’t even exist yet?  It's just a room number and a set of dates, nothing more!  You don’t know the students, you can’t predict their ability, interest level, or average attendance.  The morale of the classroom is an abstraction at this point, as is the rapport.  “The class” is created in the first two weeks, and though it can change—go from good to bad, or bad to good—those first two weeks determine what you can and can’t do in the class, how students see you, and what kind of learning will take place in the class.   

For example, if you start our too nice and easy, doing loosey-goosey group work for the first week without any real reading or homework, nothing will change the students’ perception of you as a blow-off professor.  Work will not get done; assignments will not be read; and endless e-mails will hound you about dead grandmothers and emergency trips out of town.   As a greenhorn professor, I feared the first weeks, since I didn’t really know how to start a class.  So I took the easy way out by not really starting at all.  I would do warm-up exercises, postponing the readings until we all got to know one another.  Well, they got to know me really fast—and blew off everything I tried to do by week 2 or 3.  I was one of those professors.  Nice, really chill, but a total push over.  I spent the entire semester rolling the boulder of student perception back up the hill of rigor and accomplishment—only to have it flatten me halfway up.  So then I switched tactics and started doing real work on the very first day; hello, nice to meet you, now start writing about this—or tell me everything you know about that—or let’s take a tour of one thousand years of literature in 40 minutes, okay?  You could see panic in some of the students’ faces, as they were clearly not prepared to do anything, and that, too, set the tone of the class.  They didn’t trust me, were terrified to speak or contribute to the class, and in general, felt that I was one of those professors—the kind that doesn't care about you, who won't listen to your problems, who doesn't care if you learn or not. 

Obviously these are both extreme examples and many classes were a mixture of both responses—with most ending up generally upbeat.  Yet those first classes remain crucial, and the syllabus is the plan of attack: it tells me how I plan to approach the entire semester before I learn a single name or regret a single assignment.  In a way, the syllabus is a kind of code: it forces me to swear to a set of values that I intend to live and die by for the entire semester.  If I say we’re going to write a 20 page research paper, then it forces me to teach to the assignment; the entire class has to progress toward its inevitable climax, and every assignment I write and every class I teach has to contain that goal as a kind of leitmotif.  However, if I decide not to scale Everest this semester, then I can’t suddenly decide to mount an assault mid-semester; no, I have to set my gaze on smaller peaks, or perhaps even more bucolic strolls in a neighboring valley.  The freedom of not knowing what the class will bring is the true power of writing the syllabus.  It is an act of authorship, much like a book, poem, play, or short story; it is fictional (since the class doesn’t exist yet) and it contains a plot, themes, rising action, characters at this point, more the readings in class than the students) and an ending.  You couldn't really do this if you knew the class too well, since you would think, “ah, these 5 students never even bring a book to class,” or “ah, I should have known X and Y would be in the class, and they already know this—I shouldn’t repeat it.”  This is all very important and pragmatic, but such qualities are too earthbound to create a living, organic class.  Doing so creates mere a syllabus, a set of rules and grade attributions.  For this very reason I despise all the required statements universities typically require which belies the literary worth of a syllabus.  Not even Jane Austen could make the Writing Across the Curriculum statement worthy of music or meaning—without a touch of satire, that is. 

Years ago, when I was still new at ECU, a professor proudly confided to me that he no longer wrote syllabi.  He attributed it to something newbie professors did when they didn’t know how to break the rules, when they still needed training wheels. “I just go in and teach,” he said, or something like it. “But where’s the fun in that?” I thought to myself.  That would be like teaching a class without books (he did that, too!), or not bothering to learn the students’ names, or having an entire class on-line (strongly recommended by the university!).  Because it is fun to write, to imagine a class as a literary creation before it becomes a physical thing, subject to all the doubt, confusion, frustration, and even success that will inevitably follow.  When you’re sitting at your keyboard, typing in course descriptions, reading dates, and even attendance policies, you’re writing literature.  Every syllabus you were given as an undergraduate dances through your head, as you mentally cut and paste, or do your own variations on an academic theme.  I even keep some faded syllabi from decades past less for their organizational brilliance than for their heroic prose.  Honestly, some course descriptions are sheer poetry, and inspire me to teach an entire class based on these pre-semester ambitions.  I laboriously write and re-write my own course description and endlessly tinker with the course calendar as if it were the table of contents to a Victorian novel (isn’t it?).  Every word I write brings me closer to rediscovering my love of teaching, since the syllabus, like walking into a classroom, is a performance.  It’s a way of putting on the mask—or trying on several masks—and thinking, what kind of performance should this class be?  It is Shakespeare or Moliere—or Beckett?   The students will never be aware of this performance (and if they are, I’ve failed miserably), but without the lines and greasepaint, it will be all too improvisatory.  Or better yet, there can be no improvisation without this character study.  It is the basis for acting itself, for the fruitful discussions and writings that follow. 

Every semester I tell myself not to make such a production of it all—no one cares, they won’t even read it, get on with your life.  And yet, this is my life, not just as a professor but as a writer. It’s a work of art, however simple and mundane, and one that, if done correctly, can inspire a new performance, a new approach to well-worn books and material.  It’s also the one chance I have to see a class before it becomes just another class, with students who don’t listen (or even those that do), with papers to grade and e-mails to respond to.  As Basil Fawlty used to say (on Fawlty Towers), “this hotel would run completely fine without all the bloody guests” (a poor paraphrase).  Now I don’t mean to say I don’t want students in the classroom—far from it!—but ironically, the only way to truly envision a class is without the students.  The class needs to start as a question, or a series of questions, and a few tentative attempts to answer them.  The real questions and answers only come with the professor and students meeting together over the course of many long weeks of discussion.  But without that first literary act—the writing of the dreaded syllabus—the conversations may not even take place.  It all starts with the words, with the fiction that a class can actually be more than a grade or series of answers on a test.  You truly have to believe that, even if it’s just for a few hours (or as long as it takes you to write the syllabus), since it’s the one time that no one will contradict you or ask, “what does this have to do with my major?”  For those wonderful—and stressful—hours spent pounding out the syllabus, you are the greatest writer and teacher on earth.  And isn’t that a nice way to start the semester?  

Saturday, December 21, 2013

If Superheroes Ruled the World: Millar's Superman: Red Son

I’ve always been a fan of Superman, the myth: that is, the mythical idea behind Superman—the alien who is the last of his kind, who grows up in the similarly ‘mythical’ setting of small-town America, and becomes a champion of the common man.  Unfortunately, once past this point there isn’t a lot you can really do with Superman: he’s potentially quite dull, since he lacks the psychological depth of a Batman (no dark secrets whispering beneath his cape).  Yet Mark Millar’s Superman: Red Son reminded me that a myth can do anything, especially a myth born from the frames of a comic book.  Comic books are unique in that you can have 400 issues of a comic and then go right back to the beginning.  Continuity is not really possible when a reader comes in at issue #45, only to leave around #98, and perhaps return at #225.  That’s why the superheroes that last are the ones with the best origins; you can continually go back to the well and imagine how the myth might blossom in new and exciting ways.  

As Joseph Campbell expressed in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, the hero’s journey is quite similar throughout time and culture—only the face/mask changes.  As readers, we love the story about how the mask is put on, or why the hero decides to embark on such a dangerous and epic quest.  Much of what happens later is tangential, or at least not part of the character’s true immortality.  This is certainly the case with Superman, whose early comics introduced many iconic characters—most notably, Lex Luthor—but didn’t contribute to the stories we tell and re-tell today.  After all, who remembers Superman’s early tussle with a nefarious villain named “The Light”?  Though I’m sure you can imagine who came out on top...

Superman: Red Son starts at the beginning—or in a way, ends with the beginning (but you’ll have to read the entire book to understand that statement).  However, a simple idea becomes a profound variation on the Superman legend: what if he had landed in the Soviet Union (which is a much larger country, after all) and grown up in a collective farm in the Ukraine?  Again, nothing substantial changes here: in both stories (old and new), he becomes emblematic of the heartland, where the ‘true’ nation exists.  And in both stories, he rises up to defend the common citizen and become a flag-waving emblem of democracy—or in this case, Communism.  Here the similarities end, though Millar is clever enough to sprinkle in all the familiar icons in surprising ways, making the comic a rich, complex narrative—and indeed, a novel.  Not all comics collected into a book format seem deserving of the title ‘graphic novel,’ but this one does; it’s a gripping story which is part science fiction and part pulp superhero.  Yet the overwhelming sense at the end is having read a very good story—and one you’ve never heard before. 

Without giving away too much of the plot, Superman becomes Stalin’s right hand man, and once the ‘great’ man dies, Superman is urged to take over.  At the same time, Luthor is plotting to beat Superman at his own game, making one villainous monstrosity after another—all sponsored by the US government—in order to defeat him and prove the superior intellect.  Once Superman accepts leadership of the Soviet Union, his reign becomes a true utopia—which in the science-fiction world always means dystopia (since “utopia” is Latin for “nowhere”).   Crime and poverty are eradicated, and all dissidents are carefully ‘reprogrammed’ to fall in line with Superman’s enlightened views for peace and prosperity.  True, it all works, but some people would rather die than be saved by a superhuman tyrant: enter Batman, a notorious terrorist who plots Superman’s downfall and soon cultivates a network of dissidents.   Superman’s only true ally is Wonder Woman, the superhuman ambassador of Themyscira, who secretly pines for Supe’s affections. 

The final showdowns with ‘evil’ (meaning Luthor and the USA) pits Superman against Batman, Green Lantern (or a whole squadron of Green Lanterns, whose power comes from a crashed alien spaceship in ‘Area 51’) and Braniac, who has his own plans for humanity’s future.  Within the usual comic book heroics, Millar takes a page from Moore’s Watchmen, blurring historical fact with fiction to ask the question, who should be allowed to save—or rule—the world?  Who acts in humanity’s best interests?  Could even Superman show us the way forward?  In a powerful scene, Lois Luthor is discussing her husband (now president’s) plans for ruling the world and destroying Superman.  As she notes, “Superman might be a nut with a messiah complex, but don’t you think we’re in danger of just replacing one demagogue with another?”  The response, from one of Luther’s functionaries, is simply, “Very possibly, darling, but at least Lex Luthor is a demagogue who speaks English” (113).  It’s  a chilling point in a narrative where both good and bad intentions seem to lead to the same result—only the language changes. 

The rest I’ll lead for you to read and explore for yourself.  While this is a Superman cut from the cloth of Miller’s Dark Knight or Moore’s Watchmen, it’s still a distinct and moving work—dark in its prediction of human morals, but optimistic in the possibility of the power of simple men and women (those without great powers) to make the right decisions.  I consider this one of the most satisfying graphic novels dealing with a mythical hero I’ve ever read, and I’ll go back to this time and time again.  Superman will always be reinvented, and many new Superman comics have followed in his wake; but after Superman: Red Son, none of them will be able to resist a glance over their shoulder to ask, “what can I possibly do after that?”  

Thursday, December 19, 2013

My Intercession Course: Graphic Novels, or Comics as Literature

[the above image is from David Small's Stitches]

I'm spending the next few weeks (when everyone else is off for Winter break), teaching my annual Winter Intercession course over Graphic Novels with a group of very bright, enthusiastic students.  In the weeks to come, they'll be posting over novels they're presenting as part of a larger project to the class.  The blog has been going for 2 years now, and I hope will eventually be a kind of mini-encyclopedia of hundreds of graphic novels/comics.  This week, we've read Superman: Red Son, Maus I, and Stitches, with Fun Home to follow tomorrow and next week.  The students have already offered a series of insightful comments and ideas on each work, so check out the blog and find a new favorite

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Forgotten Composers, Part 3: Hugo Alfven

In my last post, I praised the debut novel of Tone Almhjell, whose magical world conjured up fairy-tale visions of Norwegian mountains and forests.  Needless to say, I listened to a lot of Grieg, Wagner, Sibelius, and someone you might be less familiar with, Alfven, while reading it.  So as part 3 of my Forgotten Composers series, I wanted to highlight this forgotten late-Romantic Swedish master, each of whose works bear his unmistakable musical thumbprint.  Though he wasn’t an extraordinarily prolific composer, there’s still a good deal of music to explore, particularly in his stand-out orchestral works, including symphonies, tone poems, overtures, and an outlandish ballet.  Within a somewhat narrow late 19th century range, Alfven’s works breathe the heady air of Wagner, Strauss, Mahler, and early Sibelius, with a bit of Scriabin thrown in.  His eclectic style forged no new paths, though I find him an essential bridge from the more pastoral Scandinavian composers such as Grieg and Svendsen, to the modernist masters of Sibelius, Nielsen, Atterberg, etc.  Below I will highlight a few great—and cheap!—downloads to start/expand your collection.  

Symphony No.1, Orchestral Works (Naxos):
Alfven considered himself one of the first Swedish symphonists, as demonstrated in his precocious First Symphony (1897) written when he was 18.  Surprisingly, it’s a fascinating work, strong, virile, yet heartwarmingly Romantic in all the right places.  The piece opens with a somber cello solo before exploding into the main theme, a driving motif for the full orchestra.  The piece becomes more lighthearted, however, and a certain Haydenesque humor is never far away (typical of the lighter Alfven).  The slow movement is based on a short, tragic theme, while the scherzo is light and whimsical.  The finale is exciting and full of bustle, much like Haydn with a late Romantic accent.  In short, it’s an enjoyable piece and very much “young man’s” music.  The disc also contains the suite from his magnificent ballet, The Mountain King, which opens thunderously before giving way to a very magical, Lord of the Rings type theme.  It sounds like an invocation, some arcane spell to awaken the sleeping gods of the mountain.  More beautiful, dance-like pieces follow, until the very last piece plays the ‘hit’ of the piece, the Dance of the Shepherdess, a catchy, almost silly, dance.  Also included is the enjoyable, boisterous Festival Overture and the slightly Brahmsian Uppsala Rhapsody, which is based on student songs (as was Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture, which is reminds me of).  A fun, well-played Naxos disc that bears many repeated listenings, and an ideal introduction to the lighter side of Alfven. 

Symphony No.2, Swedish Rhapsody No.1 “Midsummer Vigil” (BIS):
To me, this is one of the great ‘nationalist’ symphonies, as it breathes the air of folklore, myth, and landscape.  It’s another youthful work, composed right on the heels of No.1, but light years ahead of that work in melody, structure, and ambition.  Ironically, the work was born of rejection: Alfven submitted the first three movements as his ‘re-application’ for a music scholarship.  The scholarship was rejected, but only because (as he later discovered) he was required to submit a complete work.  Enraged and out for revenge, he wrote the symphony’s finale, a ‘learned’ prelude and fugue to show them he was a composer of skill and imagination.  Upon the symphony’s successful premier in 1900, the Musical Academy reinstated his scholarship without further ado.  And no wonder! 

The symphony itself is a stunning piece of music, similar in some respects to Sibelius’ much more famous Second Symphony in mood and orchestration.  It opens with a pastoral theme in woodwinds, very optimistic and wide-eyed, until a gorgeous melody takes over on flutes, perhaps his greatest lyrical inspiration.  After this rhapsodic first movement (which again reminds me a bit of Sibelius’ Second), the second movement is a somber, brooding piece, like dark waves lapping against a rocky shore (and indeed, the piece was largely composed by the sea, at the Stockholm archipelago).  A jaunty, agitated scherzo follows (no humor here, unless dark humor), which introduces the long finale, a Prelude and Fugue on a chorale with the words (not sung, of course), “All paths lead to death.”  Indeed, the prelude is a solemn affair, yet the fugue is anything but: exciting, dashing, and finally spine-tingling as the fugue winds its way through the orchestra.  I barely hesitate to call this work a masterpiece, though perhaps a masterpiece that occurred at a time crowded with masterpieces; hard to compete with what Sibelius, Mahler, Nielsen, and Schoenberg were writing at the same time. 

Symphony No. 4 “From the Outermost Skerries”, Festival Overture (Naxos)
Symphony No.4 (1918) is perhaps his best—yet most eccentric—symphony, as it features two wordless soloists who sing throughout the piece. The ‘story’ of the symphony is one of tragic young love, perhaps a dash of Romeo and Juliet, as a young man falls in love, the love is reciprocated by the young woman, but tragedy intervenes and dashes all their hopes in one fatal blow.  Much of this symphony is hewn from the same musical edifice as the Second Symphony and his tone poems, “Legend of the Skerries” and the massive “Dalarapsodi.”  The score is the best musical impression I’ve ever heard of a soaking, gray overcast day with ocean waves crashing in the background—it reeks of dampness.  And also of unrequited passion, as the young man (a tenor) intones a melody of longing for an ideal—another gorgeous Alfven inspiration. His love song is gradually answered by the young woman (a soprano) singing the same song, though with her own distinct twist.  The symphony roughly combines elements of introduction, scherzo, slow movement, and finale in the manner of Sibelius’ Seventh, though as the music washes over you it sounds more like an enormous Straussian tone poem.  Either way it’s a gorgeous bon-bon of high Romanticism, sharing the same sound world as Scriabin’s more famous Poem of Ecstasy—and certainly capturing the same mood of sexual longing and frustration.  Humorously, the album couples this with the jolly, even farcical Festival Overture (not the same overture as in set with Symphony No.1), which highlights Alfven’s other side. 

Symphony No.3, Dalarapsodi, Suite from The Prodigal Son (BIS):

For the final suggestion, another Jarvi/Stockholm disc featuring his brightest symphony, No.3, along with his most dramatic tone poem, the Swedish Rhapsody No.3 “Dalarapsodi”, and the suite from his late ballet on Swedish folksongs, The Prodigal Son.  Starting from last to first, the suite is very tuneful, easy-going fare, almost like Grieg with some modern twang.  Not much of the essential Alfven here other than his trademark orchestration.  The ‘big’ work is the Dalarapsodi, a darker-hued piece capturing this region (known for its carved horses) and the dramatic stories that have unfolded here.  The first third of the piece is dark and brooding—a trademark of Alfven—but this falls to a middle section of ferocious drama, concluding in a wicked danse macabre that unleashes Alfven’s full commandof early 20th century orchestration.  The piece then sinks into the dark slumber from which it emerged, like a culture whose stories are fading with each generation.  It’s an enormously impressive piece, though requires a few listens to grasp the overall flow of the piece.

By contrast, the Third Symphony is all light and air—inspired by his sojourn in Italy where he met his second wife.  There’s a little of Mendelssohn’s Italian symphony in the first movement, which is all cheerful bustle, full of optimistic major-key melody and drama.  The slow movement is a gorgeous love song, certainly alluding to his wife, and drifts quietly through the orchestra—again, somewhat like the Nocturne from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The scherzo is a close cousin to that of the First Symphony, cheeky and humorous; the finale is where the symphony truly shines, with an arresting fanfare that signals in a majestic march which gets quite dramatic by the end.  Yet it’s all in fun, and Alfven momentarily dispels all his doom and gloom for the promise—however fleeting—of love and renewal. 

There are other works available on both the BIS and NAXOS labels, including a Fifth Symphony (which he struggled with in old age) and some film and stage music.  But I think the above works represent the best of Alfven, and why he deserves to return to our concert halls alongside the more familiar names of Grieg, Nielsen, and Sibelius.  

Monday, December 9, 2013

"Gold doesn't always mean gold"...unless it's this novel! (A Review of Tone Almhjell's The Twistrose Key)

As a father I’m always on the hunt for new YA books—whether fantasy, science fiction, or something of the ‘real’ world—that will entrance my boys.  I’m looking for something that I would have liked to read at their age, to inspire them to their own ideas and adventures.  However, I have an ulterior motive as well: as a frustrated novelist, I’m always on the lookout for that one book that will make me go, “here it is—the book I could never possibly write so I can finally stop writing!”  Both motives seemed to converge when I ran across this volume, with a beautiful cover and striking, Old World fairy-tale illustrations (and maps!) inside.  Though ostensibly for my oldest son, I checked out the book and tucked into it that very evening, reading it every chance I got, despite grading that needed to be done and other important adult concerns.  In large part, the book amply repaid my expectations; and while I might not retire the pen just yet, Almhjell’s second novel may be the final nail in my literary coffin. 

Without spoiling too much, I’ll reveal the general frame of the story: Lin Rosenquist, a plucky young heroine, finds a strange key concealed in a letter that ends up unlocking a hidden door in a cellar filled with taxidermist horrors.  The door leads to a frozen world where she is reunited with her pet vole, Rufus, who died five weeks ago.  After a frightful adventure, he brings her to the main town, Sylveros, an enchanted realm populated by “Petlings,” or pets that were once loved by human children.  Here they watch over their children back home and prepare for the next coming of the Wanderer, a blazing star that lights up the sky and completes a crucial magical cycle.  However, the momentary unbalance brings out the potential for darkness—and to combat it, a Twistrose is summoned from among the Petling’s children.  It turns out Lin is this very Twistrose, and she is summoned in most dire need: for the last of the Winterfrysts is missing, a powerful race of ice creatures who alone can create the Wandersnow, the magical ‘glue’ that binds the realm.  With Rufus as her guide, she sets off to follow a trail of clues to discover the fate of Isvan, the last Winterfryst, while certain residents—notably the shifty cat, Figenskar—take an eager interest in her arrival. 

Tone Almhjell magnificently creates a believable world that seems to have existed long before anyone picked up the book—or indeed, she even wrote a word of the story.  We are dropped into Sylveros quite “in the middle,” and have to pick up the pieces along with Lin, as Almhjell avoids any florid exposition.  Every page suggests a deep history, some of it resembling the worlds of Narnia, Middle Earth, and even Harry Potter, though the larger part seemingly carved out of the rock and ice of Norwegian folklore.  Figuring out the twists and turns of Sylveros, and the forbidding lands beyond, is the chief appeal of the story.  The map in the front of the book helps us navigate this enchanted realm, taking us from the mouthwatering smells of Waffleheart to the chilling secrets of the Observatory.  The characters are well drawn, and the plot is hidden in several layers of mystery, chief among these the haunting “Margrave’s Song” which Lin discovers early in the book.  Almhjell wraps up the entire plot in this song, though it takes all of 350 pages to really decipher it.  The twists and turns of the book are truly enjoyable, clever, and never hackneyed.  I was always left guessing how Lin would solve the mystery and save Sylveros, even a mere page or two before she did so!  This is truly a testament to Almhjell’s sense of pacing and structure; she tells a fantastic story and knows just when to pull back. 

However, it is a first novel, and it has some small ‘flaws,’ if you will (though they are very minor).  Some issues of the plot and the world of Sylveros are never definitively explained, and one or two major issues only come to light in the very closing pages; indeed, one of the main characters even exclaims, “Why the rats have you not told us this before?” (329).  Obviously this was intentional, but the ending seems a bit rushed and full of expository information that might have bubbled up sooner.  After a very leisurely and well-paced first 250 or so pages, I truly felt the scramble to 354 was a bit of a dash.  The parting with Sylveros is also quite abrupt, and seemingly at odds with the rest of the book.  I wanted her to linger more in this world, to let Lin understand the legacy of her mission, and perhaps, forge a connection to future books (if she plans to write them).  There are also bits of repetitive detail that don’t wear as well for me, such as Lin’s obsession with rewarding herself points whenever she accomplishes something, or constantly telling herself to think harder, look deeper when she finds herself stuck.  This, however, is probably subjective as these are integral to Lin’s character. 

This aside, Almhjell’s writing makes you forget these misgivings—you quickly lose yourself in a story that sounds as timeless as a fairytale and as invigorating as a troll hunt.  She has an uncanny ability to conjure up a child’s perspective and understanding of the world, yet without abandoning the very adult desire of good storytelling.  In a small example (early in the book, so it doesn’t give anything away), Rufus is explaining why time in Sylveros runs differently from that in Lin’s world:

“Have you ever sat in your room, finding the afternoon impossibly dull and long?  Or spent a day playing some game and been surprised by the nightfall?”  [Rufus] shuffled over to the desk and brought back the clock with its ivory dial behind black roman numerals, placing it on the table between them.  “When  you are young, you perceive time in a way that has little to do with mechanics and measured units.  And what the young people of Earth perceive, or experience, or feel has consequences here.  Go on.  Touch it.  What do your fingers tell you?”  (49-50). 

This passage is wonderful to me for two reasons: one, it captures a child’s experience of time not being ‘adult’ time, bound to watches and schedules.  Time changes depending on the activity—it is a fluid, almost malleable concept.  And two, it stresses one of the main themes of the book, the ability for children (or adult readers) to touch, feel, and experience things rather than taking them at face value.  Lin constantly remembers a song her mother sang to her that goes “gold doesn’t always mean gold.”  Sometimes that which glitters is merely a ruse to draw you in and…you know what.  One of the subtle themes of the book is the power of the natural world vs. the ever-increasing technological supremacy of modern life.  Even in Sylveros, the machine age threatens to derail a thousand years of magical peace.  Far from beating us over the head with this 21st century moral, it exists quietly in the background, easy for adults to pick up on, but more intuitive for children who touch and feel their way through the world. 

In short, I really enjoyed this book and look forward to a sequel or simply a second book by Almhjell.  The Twistrose Key, though bearing many hallmarks of traditional fantasy, manages to distinguish itself from so many tiresome apocalyptic, vampiric, zombie-laden fare crowding the bookshelves these days.  Her nationality, too, might give her a unique approach to the subject matter, since so much of fantasy from Tolkein on borrows quite liberally from Scandinavian sources.  Well, here is the real deal, someone who draws on her literary heritage to create a work (in English, no less—no translator is credited) that complements our modern cultural mythology. 

Now go buy your own copy of the book and realize how far my brief appreciation falls short of its true merits! 

Friday, December 6, 2013

Exploring Bruckner Symphonies with Barenboim: Cheap Amazon Downloads!

Anton Bruckner is one of the great masters of the symphony, having taken the model left by Beethoven’s Ninth and run with it in his own series of Nine, all of which sound like a chip from that great model.  However, Bruckner’s scores are infused with a wonderfully eccentric dichotomy; at one moment they are heaven and hell battles out of a Bruegel painting, while the next minute, an innocent polka barges in and sets the entire orchestra dancing.  The sacred and the secular, the arcane and the naive—these dual qualities make listening to any Bruckner symphony a strange experience, and within the context of the nineteenth century, a highly original one.  No one wrote like him until Mahler took up his pen, and many of his works—particularly the Second and Third Symphonies, owe him a tremendous debt. 

Amazon is currently offering the complete cycle of symphonies (minus the shorter, yet completely mature First) for mere dollars under the capable baton of Daniel Barenboim.  When I briefly worked at the Chicago Symphony in 1999, I had the privilege of hearing Barenboim lead the CSO in Bruckner’s most famous symphony, the Fourth (subtitled the “Romantic”), which was a tremendous experience.  You can download each one for between $2.69 and $3.99, all in superior sound and played by the Berlin Philharmonic (who lives and breathes this repertoire). 

Here’s a rundown of the symphonies and where to start if you’re a Bruckner beginner:

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Academic Satire, Onion-Style

[Note: this is a satire I wrote a year or two ago in the style of The Onion based on observing used books and textbooks at the beginning of the semester at our university bookstore.  They have a unique story to tell!]  

UNIVERSITY TEXTBOOK HAS BEEN THERE, DONE THAT Richmond, KY–University of Eastern Kentucky sophmore, Justin Evans, spent the better part of the afternoon tracing the tortured, eclectic history of his textbook, Traditions & Encounters: A Brief Global History, Volume II, 3rd ed. The book, purchased used for $75 from the campus bookstore, had multiple “used” stickers over its spine, and upon opening the cover, Evans found additional stickers from the following universities: University of Georgia, University of Northern Iowa, Slippery Rock University, and Yuba College. 

New Poetry by Ken Hada: Margaritas and Redfish

A new book of poetry is available from my friend and fellow English professor, Ken Hada, whose poetry has been performed numerous times on Keillor's The Writer's Almanac, as well as appearing in publications throughout the country.  Ken's style is a unique mix of Romantic lyricism and terse, folk-like profundity.  His poems have a cunning way of staying with you, often haunting with a single refrain that seems to explain more than can be contained in a mere poem.  I've enjoyed reading his poems--and hearing him perform them--for years now, and look forward to diving into a new volume of his work.  You can find Margaritas and Red Fish, along with his other books of poetry all at Amazon.

You can buy the book on Amazon right here:

Click here to see a few of his poems as featured on the Writer's Almanac:

A Blessing:

Mormon Missionaries Pay Me A Visit:

Old Men: