It was just about three months ago that I reported having filed the grades for my winter term courses. In addition to the clean-up work that remains at that point, and the unfolding list of administrative business that encroaches especially in May, I mentioned a number of projects that I was going to be working on. It’s gratifying to reflect that I have been working quite steadily through this list:
- Review Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life – done!
- Review Deirdre David’s Olivia Manning: A Woman at War – done!
- Reread all 40+ Dick Francis novels and write essay for Los Angeles Review of Books – full draft done and submitted, now undergoing final revisions!
- Complete “beta” version of Middlemarch for Book Clubs – done!
What remains from these original summer plans is what I described then as the “most ambitious but … most amorphous” one: figuring out what kind of larger project could emerge from the essays I’ve been writing on George Eliot. “Do they, could they, add up to something larger, perhaps some kind of cross-over book project?” I wondered. Now that those more immediate deadlines have been met, I’m going to be thinking a lot — and perhaps writing a lot! — about this question. Last week I actually had a very interesting conversation with a publishing professional in which we exchanged some preliminary thoughts about what such a book might look like, and now I’m pondering what she said about what kind of book she can imagine there might be a market for (and thus that might interest a publisher) and whether that’s the kind of book I had in mind. I’m not going to go into details at this point, not to be coy but because, as I said, these were early thoughts and it was our first conversation. But you can expect me to do at least some of my thinking about all this “out loud” here at Novel Readings, not least because here is, after all, where I already have some readers, and ones I respect very much. Trying to imagine, much less write for, some audience conceived of in the abstract seems both scarier and less useful than discussing possibilities with you folks!
While I’m pondering and free-writing and conceptualizing, I will also set some more concrete goals, the first one being an essay on Adam Bede to add to my collection. That will be my next Open Letters contribution, followed by a review of Elizabeth Gilbert’s new novel, The Signature of All Things, for October.
As the fall term approaches, I also have some preparatory work to do, even before I start focusing really intently on preparing syllabi and Blackboard sites. I’m teaching a couple of novels in the fall that I haven’t read in a long time or taught before. I try to introduce some novelty into every rotation of a course, to change up the conversation at least a bit. So in Mystery and Detective fiction this time, I’ve bumped The Maltese Falcon and replaced it with The Big Sleep. I just reread The Big Sleep and though I don’t really care for Chandler’s rather florid style in it (did the guy ever meet a simile he didn’t like?) I think it will be fun to teach — perhaps a little more fun than The Maltese Falcon, if no less confusing. And in the 19th-C Novel (Austen to Dickens) I’ve chosen David Copperfield this year, which of course I’ve read more than once but which I have never lectured on. I plan to reread that in August. And one other teaching-related summer project is finalizing the reading list for my upcoming winter-term seminar on ‘Women & Detective Fiction.’ I’ve taught it several times before and asked here more than once for recommendations to shake up the reading list. I’m still working on that, particularly with the aim of making the book selection more diverse. I’ve had a lot of good leads but surprisingly often they dead-end because the titles I’m interested in are not in print (Barbara Neely’s Blanche on the Lam, for instance, does not seem to be orderable in Canada). Right now I’m trying out Paula L. Woods’s Inner City Blues.
Now that school is out, Maddie and I have also committed to another round of the summer reading club at our public library. Usually I keep a tally of our books in the side bar here: I’ll set that up soon, to motivate us both! We’ve felt sometimes that the emphasis on quantity becomes a disincentive for Maddie to embark on longer books, so this summer we’ve chosen a modest number for her (10) so that there’s no pressure to fall back on rereading Junie B. Jones or something! She’s read two so far, both by favorite authors: Jacqueline Wilson’s Emerald Star and Meg Tilly’s A Taste of Heaven. Now she’s working on The Diary of Anne Frank, and I think The Fault in Our Stars, which I gave her for her birthday, is next. She has the usual summer challenge of being in camp some of the time (including both of the last two weeks): as she’s pointed out, one thing they never seem to make time for at these things is reading! But she’ll have some quieter weeks soon.
I haven’t done too badly myself since the end of June, when she registered: I think I get to count The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and then there’s Felicity & Barbara Pym, The Sweet Dove Died, Jane and Prudence, The Woman Upstairs, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, Arabella, In the Woods, and The Big Sleep. One of my next reads will be chosen by the vote at the Slaves of Golconda blog (it seems likely to be Pym’s Excellent Women, though Elizabeth Taylor’s Palladian is running a close second). Next from my own immediate pile, though, will be Gift from the Sea, which I picked up at Hager Books in Vancouver under the influence of Victoria Best’s wonderful essay on Anne Morrow Lindbergh in Open Letters a little while back.
Women and Detective Fiction sounds really fun! A really fun course to plan and also really fun to teach.
A book it might be nice to recommend to students on the Women and Detective Fiction course even if you don’t use it as a set text is the really interesting Penguin compilation, The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime: The Great Female Detectives, Crooks, and Villainesses which was edited by Michael Sims. It’s a very, very accessible selection of extracts and short stories set out in chronological order. The women are subversive, funny and dashing by turns and there’s lots of different situations/character types/angles to play with from a teaching perspective and it gives a nice primer on the roots of detective fiction…
(I think you’d get a kick out of reading it either way. ;))
Jenny: it is fun, both to prep and to teach — and, if reports are to be believed, to take!
Alex: thanks for the recommendation! Since this is about the 6th time I’ve taught this course (and this year will be perhaps the 10th or 12th time I’ve taught the general Mystery class) I have stacks of anthologies along those lines, though I don’t think I actually have that particular one! But it wouldn’t help with the kind of diversity I’m trying to create in the reading list, which is already heavily tilted towards white Anglo-American texts coming out of a 19thC tradition. That doesn’t mean I won’t look it up just for myself, though.
What I’d ideally like to add to the reading list is a woman author / female detective who will bring in to this seminar what Walter Mosley does to the survey class: a sharp, genre-savvy exploration of the difference race makes, both to crime (and justice) and to crime fiction. But as I said, though I have a number of leads, I keep running into problems with availability. Teaching ‘pop culture’ turns out to be trickier in this respect than teaching the ‘classics,’ since for the latter I can pretty much count on Oxford, Penguin, and the rest of them to keep a good range of titles in print. Mass market fiction, by contrast, is (understandably) more market driven and more tilted towards the latest thing.
You’ve got us all intrigued with that MiddlemRch book idea. Hope it does come to fruition in some form.
Ok, maybe not exactly what you are looking for (since it plays with genre rather than unselfconsciously inhabiting it), but check out Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist.