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Archive for September, 2010

Bloggers Reading Bloggers

There’s always some kind of reading challenge  online.  Read some ghost stories–thank God Ellen gave me M. R. James–or a bunch of Y.A. books or some reissued British women’s novels. I don’t know how people find the time to do all this.  Enthusiastic bloggers, and I tend to think they must be very young, love to read along.  But it’s a bit like being a Democrat and attending a political rally you support but intend to cut out of as soon as possible. Sure, Obama has my vote and I admire his summer reading list–Franzen’s Freedom, Paul Harding’s Tinkers, and Brad Leithauser’s A Few Corrections–but I’m not going to read along with him.  And much as I love to read blogs, I have so many books on my own list.

This week it’s not a reading challenge, though.  It’s Blogger Appreciation Week.  The challenge seems to be to mention as many blogs as possible in a post and provide links.  No, it’s not a blogroll.  It’s something different.  Yes, there is a self-referential-blogger-celebration in progress. Here’s how it works.  Bloggers mention their favorite blogs. Then other bloggers comment on how great these blogs are.   Then everybody comes back and congratulates one other.   

What the f—?

I’ve only seen a couple of posts on this, but the commentators are familiar.  I’m sure some of these comments are by non-bloggers, but I can’t for the life of me find any.  

Here’s what I’ve noticed:  nobody is mentioning Dovegreyreader.  And, though I’ve had my ups and downs with her, I really enjoy her blog and would have to say it’s at the top of my list.  

So why isn’t anybody mentioning it?

At my house the whole Dovegreyreader thing is akin to a novel. I tell my husband about her and have made him look at a few videos on her blog.   She reads, she sings, she has a Barn Owl, she’s at the Village Fair, she’s winning prizes or giving them out, she knits, she’s at the book fairs, she’s a wife, she’s a mother, she’s in a book group, and she’s going to speak at PEN.

Let’s face it!   It’s fiction.  And she is one of my favorite characters.  And I’m NOT mocking her.  This is one of my favorite blogs, she’s fun to read, and she never complains about anything.  

I’ve occasionally made my husband read Dovegreyreader.  He doesn’t care for her blog, or my blog, or anybody’s blog. He thinks this blogging thing is a waste of time.  He does, however, know that blogging makes me feel better.  And presumably it makes others feel better, too.

If you’ve had a bad, really depressing day, and are upset by the city’s coverup of the destruction of the trails by this summer’s rains, sometimes an antidepressant isn’t enough.

You need total escape.   

So blog!

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Classics on Wheels

 

Classics on Wheels

 

Books, books, books.  You would think there’d be plenty of room for the classics after weeding hundreds of books recently for the charity sale and giveaways. But this weekend several textbooks for my courses moved into plastic boxes on wheels. I don’t have time to catalogue our Greek and Latin books, which are double-stacked in a built-in china cabinet.  So I chose a selection and threw them into these teaching boxes.  

Need to get ready for Greek?  Wheel the pink box into the living room.  Latin?  The blue box with the Wheelocks on top.  Of course to find anything special I have to dump 20 or so books out of the box.

Here’s a photo of some of my double-stacked books, so you can see we actually have bookshelves:

My double-stacked classics.

I love photos of other people’s books:  they’re so tidy.  I’m afraid I’m pretty cavalier about my shelves and piles.  These books come out for an airing at least once a week.  I wish I could figure out a way to shelve them all together, but unless I start lining up bookcases in the middle of the room with aisles between them it’s not going to work.  There’s simply no room.

There arealso  many “problem” books:  the big three-ring binders of photocopies of out-of-print books.  What do I do with this?

I’m trying to remember if I ever knew a classicist who could keep her office tidy.  The answer?  No.

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Mysteries were never exactly my thing.  I was bored as a girl by whodunits though I had friends who read them by the sack. We used to frequent a used bookstore, really a kind of low-ceilinged shack  on the highway, where we could trade paperbacks or buy them for 25 cents.  My dad would drive us there and we’d come home with sacks of Gothic novels and popular novels like Up the Down Staircase, The Chosen, Diary of a Mad Housewife, and A Death in the Family.  

I was very picky about mysteries until I discovered Dorothy Sayers. We all watched Masterpiece Theater and as soon as I saw my first Peter Wimsey mystery–no idea which one–I became mad about them and read one after another. The Five Red Herrings, Sayers’ seventh mystery (1931), is my favorite, probably because of the art angle.   I love the observations of missing tubes of paint, the timed painting competitions to determine how long it would have taken to fake a painting by the victim, and the frenetic study of train time-tables and stolen bicycles.  Campbell, the murder victim, had infuriated all the other artists in Galloway, a village where “one either fishes or paints.” The eccentric Lord Peter Wimsey, who had witnessed Campbell in a bar fight the night before, investigates the six painter suspects and, with his usual debonair, silly percipience, manages to solve the mystery.

Sayers is really the best of the Golden Age writers and changed my mind about mysteries.  I’d love to read Sayers exclusively for a while but have to read others on my list, too.

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The Academic Character

 

A great teacher movie

 

We all have our sulky moments when we go back to school.  I  stood up for an hour and a half the other night  conducting a review of grammar, writing declensions and conjugations on the board.  I had an out-of-body moment of despair when I looked down on the group and desperately wanted to smoke a cigarette–a piece of chalk would have done– and ask them to write on the board for me .  Next week we’ll make the transition.  They’ll have homework so I’ll be able to sit down and watch them translate part of the work themselves and then they will write some of it on the board.  They’re good students and do very well but I must discipline myself not to stare into space because I might miss an error while drifting in the sea of distracted thoughts.  SO I MUST STOP IN THE COFFEESHOP FIRST AND GET A STRONG CUP OF ESPRESSO.  I must look as though I am absorbed only by the passage by Cicero.  

Teachers and students are frazzled this time of year yet love to return to their houses to read fiction and memoirs about the lives of teachers, governesses, & professors. Haven’t we all been inspired at some time or another by a knowledgeable teacher who loved her subject and her work?  Don’t we devour satires about their eccentricities and the administration’s absurdities?  I’ve read academic novels endlessly over the years,  laughing, sympathizing, and admiring.  Here are ten of my favorite teacher books, some of which were passed around my family, three generations of whom have been teachers at one time or other.  We do, however, have the “Get out” gene.  

1.  I’m Not Complaining by Ruth Adam.  This was one of my favorite Virago novels, but, alas, I’ve lost it somewhere on my shelves and don’t trust my memory to write about it.  It’s the unsentimental story of an elementary school teacher who does not idealize her work.  I found it at a bookstore.

2.  Teacher by Sylvia Ashton Warner (1963).  A beautifully-written memoir-diary of a New Zealand teacher who inspired her Maori students by respecting their language and tracing the origin of words. First introduced to me at age 14 by my aunt, a professor at a state university and the only member of my family to have earned a Ph.D.

3.  Villette by Charlotte Bronte.  A complicated Gothic autobiographical novel about a woman’s experiences teaching in Belgium.  Bronte’s best, in my opinion.  First introduced to me at age 14 by the aforementioned aunt.

4.  To Serve Them All My Days by R. F. Delderfield.  A World War I veteran teaches history at a private school.  One of my favorite books–okay, a bit sentimental, but very well-written.  First introduced to me by the Masterpiece Theater series.   

5.  Night and Silence, Who Is Here?  by Pamela Hansford Johnson.  One of the funniest satires I’ve ever read.  An English playboy is offered a job at a New England college where he spends most of his time foraging for food, as there are no stores or restaurants and he can’t drive.  He is also determined to do no work.  I found it by chance at Amazon.  

6.  Deaf Sentence by David Lodge.  One of the funniest of academic satires.  A retired linguistics professor who dislikes wearing his hearing aid makes endless faux pas, alienating everybody.  Then he agrees to advise a compulsive liar on her dissertation and life gets much more farcical.  I discovered this novel through reading a review in some traditional paper.

7.  The English Teacher by R. K. Narayan.  Can’t remember this one very well, but the hero teaches at the same college where he went to school and there are various difficulties.  Loved this!  I read it in an Everyman edition of Narayan’s work, which I learned about through a review (somewhere).  

8.  The Human Stain by Philip Roth.  An aged classics professor proves irresistible to a young illiterate gorgeous female janitor.  If you’re saying, “Oh, really?”, well, all I can say is Roth writes well, though it is incredible.  I found out about it through buying everything Roth ever wrote.

9.  Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers.  Poison pen letters at Shrewsbury College lead Harriet Vane to investigate.  One of Sayers’ best books.  Found out about it through Masterpiece Theater series.

10.  Moo by Jane Smiley.  One of my favorite academic satires, set at Moo U, a mainly agricultural and engineering school.  Smiley used to teach at Iowa State University.  I found this novel by buying everything Smiley writes.

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Fall

 

 Sandy Dennis in Up The Down Staircase has that slightly depressed look I associate with teachers.  She plays an idealistic English teacher who cannot cope with her students in an inner-city school.  

Sandy Dennis in "Up the Down Staircase"

 

The photo of the nervous Sandy Dennis reflects my own doubts about teaching.  My adult ed teaching started last night and I came home slightly depressed, totally worn out, as usual.  In a sense what I’m doing is volunteer work but I’m doing it because I believe classics should survive.  Although my students are middle-class, it’s a lot of work to stand up and write declensions and conjugations on the board and chivvy them along through Latin stories when–get this–one of my students in his fourth term with me claims not to remember my name.

“What is your name again?”  He/she is writing a check.  “Could you spell that?”

Yes, massa.  Thanks for the check.

It’s not as though he hasn’t communicated with me by e-mail many times.  It’s not as though he hasn’t stayed after class to ask for help with his grammar many times.  

Incivility is, sadly, how the powerless exert their power. Insulting their teachers at evening classes.  

Of course he knows my name.

But if you don’t like conflict you quit. It’s important to keep going.  It undermines the increasingly business-oriented education system to teach a subject that has been cut from many  schools.  Over 60% of English words come from Latin and quite a few from the Greek.  Homer and  Virgil were at the heart of education until the 20th century.  

Of course, it is amazing to see how much I’ve accomplished with this class in a year.  I do believe most of them appreciate it.

Like them or not, I’ve taught them.

Here’s a clip from Up the Down Staircase.  Not at all like my experience, but I appreciate Dennis’ acting.

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I don’t often recommend contemporary fiction, but this year has been a revelation.  I absolutely loved Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America, Cathy Marie Buchanan The Day The Falls Stood Still,  Richard Flanagan’s Wanting, and Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven.  

Now I have another to add to the list:  Monque Truong’s Bitter in the Mouth is one of the most original, beautifully-written novels of the year. This is one of my “picks” for the National Book Award.  

The witty, thoughtful, sad narrator of Truong’s second novel has an unusual talent. Every word she hears or utters is accompanied by a flavor. The incredibly charming, lyrical dialogue goes like this:

“I’ll neverbubblegum speaklemonade to youcannedgreen beans againpancakesyrup.”

Truong’s language is pitch-perfect.  She doesn’t overdo the dialogue:  most of the time we’re in Linda’s head.  Linda doesn’t know what to make of her ability.  Adopted when she was seven by a Southern lawyer, Thomas, and his wife, Deanne, she remembers nothing before the adoption.  The taste of words is a part of her, but her mother doesn’t want to hear about it.  Her best friend Kelly, with whom she exchanges letters every day, believes her and helps her cope with it. She advises Linda to smoke in high school to slow the constant sensations.  

The person with whom Linda has most in common in her family is her artistic, gay great-uncle, Baby Harper. After her father dies and Linda goes away to Yale, he is the only family member she keeps in touch with.

The first part of the novel, Truong’s account of Linda’s childhood and adolescence, is often humorous, even effervescent. But there are also some dark and terrible events:  Kelly’s cousin molests Kelly and rapes Linda. Her first “period” is the result of rape, which she can’t discuss with her mother.  

The second part of the novel is brilliant but the voice changes and becomes cynical:  Linda, numb and depressed in New York, loves her work as a lawyer but her personal life is empty:  her psychiatrist boyfriend is never there.  Truong reveals for first time that Linda is Vietnamese and we understand Linda’s isolation:  her family never discussed her Asian background as she grew up in a small town in North Carolina.  

In her thirties she has lost touch with her family and Kelly until  a death sends her home to North Carolina.  She finally learns family secrets. 

The only slightly awkward part of the book is where we learn about Linda’s taste-word experience, a neurological condition known as synesthesia.   She watches a PBS show, a realistic way to learn, but somehow not what we expect from this extremely innovative novel.  I was very moved, though, by her discoveries.

I loved this graceful, engaging novel.

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Another Giveaway!

I inadvertently ordered TWO penny-copies of Edmund Crispin’s The Case of the Gilded Fly.  So if you’re interested in Golden Age Detective fiction, you might enjoy Crispin’s first book–I haven’t read it, but I was very zealous to acquire his mysteries, as you can see.  This is a giveaway in exchange for stamps.  (I  e-mail you the amount of postage after I mail the book and you send me the equivalent in stamps.)

If you’re interested, leave a comment.  If only one of you asks for it, it’s yours.  If there are others, I draw names out of a hat!

Good luck!

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The blues and greens are already fading as summer turns into fall.  On our way to the woods we had to stop at Target and buy a sweatshirt because the temperature plummeted a good ten degrees Up North.  My short-sleeved shirt wasn’t enough to hold off the cold.  

By the way, we discovered Target has a book club.  The  selection of the month is Tess Stimson’s Who Loves You Best, a novel about a mother of twins–not quite my kind of thing.  The cover art shows a woman with her head cut off holding  booties.  Does that mean that mothers of twins lose their heads? Corporations choose these books for women, and the local library book club sometimes goes along with them, but I seldom really like any of these.  I once suggested we read Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes:  the librarian rejected it as too weird.

The smallest post office in the world?

 

The bike trip was lovely, and as we passed through a small town we discovered what might be the Smallest Post Office in the World.  Could one even stand upright in that minuscule building?

There were many bridges.

On our break, I read Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, which I inspired myself to reread when I wrote about it the other day.  It really is a classic of its kind–a very peculiar novel about reading.  The heroine, Janet, an inspired reader,  savors her four years as an English major at Blackstock College, where classics professors try to recruit her and the clique-y classics majors are considered crazy, a ghost throws Liddell & Scott and Chase & Phillips out the window, and she tries to get her friends to read Milton by explaining that Paradise Lost is a fantasy novel.

I feel very affectionate toward Janet.  

Pamela Dean explains that she adapted the ballad Tam Lin for this novel in Terri Windling’s Fairy Tale Series (adult retold fairy tales) and is pleased by the enthusiastic reception.  

“In a very strong sense, though, it doesn’t belong to me anymore.  It belongs to everybody who ever took it into the hospital; to everybody who took it on a train trip or a journey to the other side of the world; to everybody who stayed up until three in the morning reading or rereading it; to everybody who wore out a copy or two or three; to everybody who bought used copies for friends; to everybody who chose a college that looked like Blackstock; to everybody who read it at fifteen and looked forward; to everybody who read it at fifty and looked back; to everybody who read it at any age and, having had a different college experience, looked sideways with longing or imaginary nostalgia or irritation; to all of you who have written to me and to all of you who only thought one day you might.  And it belongs to everybody who is holding it right now, about to start reading it and to have an experience different from any of those I know about.”

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Vance Bourjaily

Vance Bourjaily, one of our favorite novelists, has died at the age of 87.  Although we own two copies of his superb novel, Now Playing at Canterbury, we’re not giving either of these out-of-print editions away because you never know when you’ll need an extra. This intelligent, funny, Chaucerian novel revolves around the rehearsals and production of a new opera at a large midwestern university.  The characters include the English professor/author of the libretto, several graduate students, a Japanese conductor, a director from Philadelphia, local professional singers, and various outsiders who add some zest. Set in State City, a double for Iowa City, where Bourjaily taught at the Iowa Writers Workshop from 1957-1980, this stunning novel was very popular among the residents and students in IC in 1976. 

Here’s an affectionate, humorous description of the landscape around State City:

“Look, as we walk back to the car:  In those crop fields, beside this pasture, the corn is ankle-high and finger-fat, the fist-sized soybean plants are kelly green against black dirt.  We had better wish them well.  There’s a tithe growing out there to keep big State University moving on its earnest, complicated mission–for a cup of soybeans, your kid can triangulate a star, for an ear of corn, memorize two lines of Lermontov.”

Bourjaily is one of the great underrated American writers and I hope there will be a revival of his books.  Maybe a Modern Library edition?    I also loved The Man Who Knew Kennedy.

You can read his obituary in The New York Times.

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What is with the Y.A. trend?  What’s with the midnight book-buying parties?  And why have we adults fallen prey to the new fallacy that we should read Y.A. books, “attracted by well-written, fast-paced and engaging stories that span the gamut of genres and subjects…,” as Susan Carpenter wrote in March in the L.A. Times.  Laura Miller’s three-page analysis of Y.A. dystopian novels in The New Yorker ((6/14/10) also implies we should take these seriously.

I wondered about this with dismay as I perused my copy of Mockingjay, the third book in  Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy.  I enjoyed The Hunger Games, a fast-paced widely-promoted science fiction thriller about a group of children forced to compete for survival in a reality game.  The sequel, Catching Fire, was disappointing, messy, and awkward, and broke off on the last page with the suggestion that we buy the third book to learn the ending.  How cynical, I thought, not to bother to structure it as a novel in its own right and then to employ breakfast-cereal-style marketing to sell the next book.  If this had been marketed as an adult book, I can’t help but think there would have been more stringent standards.  It would probably have gotten lost among  better-written books like Marcel Theroux’s National Book Award-nominated Far North (whose heroine, a survivor of global warming and holocaust, by the way, reminds me of an adult Katniss), Tanith Lee’s White As Snow,  Tatyana Tolstoya’s dystopian novel The Slynx, Richard Matheson’s post-apocalyptic I Am Legend, and Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days.  By the way, three of these can be found in the literature section.

I love science fiction and fantasy, but let me suggest that we return to the adult section, where so many excellent books languish. One of my favorites, and one I recommend to everyone, is Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, a classic that deserves a wider audience. Janet, the intellectual heroine of this charming, humorous novel, adores reading above all things and spends four years as an English major at a small college where romance and friendship overlap with the supernatural.  Classics majors are all considered crazy, a ghost throws books out the windows, some Shakespearean actors turn out to have a very strange background, and Janet regularly discusses in depth literature and philosophy with her friends. These discussions are very exciting, by the way.  They’ll make you want to read everything you’ve never read.  And Tam Lin, a Scottish ballad, is woven into the novel.

I can’t express how much I enjoyed this book.  It made me wish I could go back to the university and have the opportunity to study full-time again.   I could take more comparative literature classes, if those classes still exist.  More drama history, more philosophy, more languages…

Anyway, here’s the opening of Tam Lin:

“The year Janet started at Blackstock College, the Office of Residential Life had spent the summer removing from all the dormitories the old wooden bookcases that, once filled with books, fell over unless wedged.  Chase and Phillips’s A New Introduction to Greek was the favorite instrument for wedging, majors in the Classics used the remedial math textbooks, but this caused the cases to develop a slight awkward tilt, so that doughnuts, pens, student identification cards, or concert tickets placed on top of them slid with indistinguishable slowness backward and eventually vanished dustily behind.”

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