Recent Reading: Mostly Unfinished

mirror-thiefI’ve been in a bit of a reading slump lately, which has been reflected in the slow pace of my blogging. I’m not sure exactly what is behind it this time, but I think it happens to all of us occasionally, and it always passes eventually. Still, it’s a disheartening phase when it comes, to be picking up books and putting them down again without much caring!

One book I started that I will definitely try again when the evil spell lifts is Martin Seay’s The Mirror Thief. I think I just took it from the shelf at the wrong time: it wasn’t quite the book I was expecting, or it wasn’t in its first 100 pages or so anyway, and the disappointment I felt about that was getting in the way of my reading it for the book it actually is, which might turn out be great. I was expecting it to feel more like cerebral but heartfelt historical fiction–if not Hilary Mantel, then maybe Rose Tremain–and instead its opening sections read to me more like The Goldfinch–slick, clever, even artful, but a bit coldly superficial. I will come back to it eventually and see it through. It does look really good, and so many enthusiastic critics can’t be wrong–can they? (I know, I know: a lot of them thought The Goldfinch was great.)

Killing_Floor_CoverI also started Lee Child’s Killing Floor, the first of his hugely popular Jack Reacher thrillers. I admit it had never occurred to me to try this series until Stig Abell, the editor of the TLS, sang its praises. I had no particular assumptions about Lee Child, good or bad, it’s just that the books had never stood out to me until Abell said how much he’d enjoyed reading through them all last year–so I picked up a couple at a book sale. I got about half way through Killing Floor before I lost interest. I don’t think there’s anything really wrong with this book any more than there is anything wrong with The Mirror Thief:  in fact, I thought Killing Floor seemed quite good of its kind. But for whatever reason I just wasn’t gripped–I wasn’t even slightly curious about how the knotty plot was going to turn out, and so I eventually stopped picking it up again after I put it down. When I started it, it reminded me of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser mysteries, which I love. It is much wordier, and it may be that I wouldn’t enjoy Parker’s books if it took a lot longer for things to happen in them–or if Parker spent as much more time on the really grim bits as Child does here. I also didn’t bond with Reacher. I was intrigued by Child’s introduction, in which he outlines his own motivations for the style of the series as a whole and for Reacher’s character in particular. Reacher is deliberately both arrogant and hard to like, which are not qualities I’m against in principle, in a main character–but again, I don’t imagine I would like Parker’s books if I didn’t find Spenser’s combination of strength and honor so appealing. Maybe I’ll appreciate Reacher more as a character if/when I get to know him better. For now, though, I’ve put him on hold.

lady-225It’s not as if I haven’t read any books all the way through since classes ended. One thing that works is coercion! I’ve read two books for reviews, one an interesting study of Agatha Christie, the other a new novel by Canadian writer Merilyn Simonds. (My review of the former has been filed; my review of the latter is underway.) I’m also making good progress on Margaret Drabble’s The Radiant Way, which I need to finish for next weekend’s meeting of my book club. Deadlines are useful things. In the interstices of my days I’ve also reread all three of Cecilia Grant’s Blackshear Family romances. They are all excellent–and each has its own distinct flavor, a display of versatility I admire in the author. I think the first, A Lady Awakened, remains my favorite.

I hope I do get my reading mojo back soon. My slump has even spilled over into my book shopping–a rare symptom indeed! I have yet to pick out any books with the lovely birthday gift card I was given, because I haven’t felt more than perfunctory interest in any books I’ve examined while browsing. Mind you, some of that reticence is also guilt about putting more unread books on my shelves when I have so many still unfinished, or not yet begun, on them already! But I think my moood is also part and parcel of the mental reorientation that goes on during the transition from the teaching term to the summer months. I’m going to try not to worry about it too much. I’ll just keep plugging away at the books I have to read, and keep trying to find the book that lights me up again, whatever it might be. If all else fails, there’s always Dickens, who has saved me from slumps before!

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This Week In My Classes: Loose Ends and Lessons Learned

van-gogh-still-life-french-novelsClasses have been over for a while now, but the business of the teaching term isn’t quite over. I mentioned before that one unfortunate feature of marking season is academic integrity hearings: I had more this year than I’ve ever had before, which has taken up a lot of my time and also given me a lot to think about. Individual cases are confidential, of course, but at some point I plan to write a separate post about some trends I’ve noticed around plagiarism and some ideas I have about how to address both its causes and its consequences. Some of what I’ve been dealing with and thinking about is addressed in this article in University Affairs, but I’m wary of focusing too hard on how we design our assignments. For one thing, though there are many things I might do in an ideal world that would be helpful, it seems likely that before long we won’t have any writing classes in our department with fewer than 120 students, and an awful lot of “best practices” simply don’t scale up, especially given strict contractual limits on our use of Teaching Assistants. At the end of the day, too, I’d like to see the responsibility for not cheating rest with the students, who always do have the choice not to cheat. That doesn’t mean we and our pedagogy don’t play a role, of course, including in making sure they understand what constitutes cheating…but more about that thorny topic later.

On a happier note, this is also the time of year when we award departmental prizes and scholarships; I have a committee meeting this afternoon dedicated to this task, which–though it can get a bit thorny in the details–is a pretty good job to have, as we get to focus on the many students who are doing really splendid work. It’s not just top academic marks that get rewarded: we also have prizes for students who shine creatively or who stand out for taking intellectual risks. One of our perennial favorites is the Paul McIsaac Memorial Prize, for example, which is dedicated to a student “who demonstrates an enquiring and original mind.” Reading the nomination letters for this and our other discretionary prizes is always uplifting, though we do sometimes wish donors would be slightly more specific or, as in the case of the memorably named “Throw the Switch Igor” Bursary, maybe a bit  less colorful! Our committee meeting is in preparation for Wednesday’s May Marks Meeting, which, as I’ve written about before, is “one of our department’s most cherished and loathed rituals.”

1995-lord-of-scoundrelsSince classes ended, I’ve been thinking a lot about what seemed to work and what didn’t this term. It’s always hard to know what are actual lessons about pedagogy that you can carry forward and what are idiosyncratic reactions or developments based on the specific and unpredictable population of a particular class. For instance, I thought that overall Pulp Fiction went much better this year than last. What did I do differently? Not much logistically: I used the same readings and course structure, and more or less the same assignments. Class participation was way up, though, and most of the time the atmosphere felt happier: is that because (anxious to avoid whatever went wrong last year) I tried even harder than usual to be positive, friendly, and encouraging? Did we all benefit from my having broken in this material last year and so being more adept with it this time? Or did I just get lucky and have a larger proportion of reasonably talkative students who softened the atmosphere for others to join in and thus helped increase overall engagement?

Even though I thought the class in general went well, I still finished it wondering if I want to teach it again. One reason, as I mentioned in an earlier post, is that I felt a bit worn out by the effort of making these readings interesting enough to keep talking about. I spent time in class talking about the concept of ‘horizontal reading’ as an important strategy for working with genre fiction: you need a broad sense of norms, tropes, and conventions to be able to talk with insight and confidence about specific examples and how they use, subvert, or revise expectations. This isn’t to say that our readings didn’t reward deep or close reading, but the interpretive process for them required (or so I thought, anyway) a fair amount of hand-waving towards what you might call the geographies of the different genres, territory that students who are mostly beginning readers of these kinds of fiction had no initial familiarity or ease with. If I do the course again, I will have to keep thinking about that challenge and whether I got the balance between generalizations and specifics right.

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If I do teach Pulp Fiction again I think I will change the main readings. There are practical reasons for this: once there are marked papers out in circulation, for example, there’s a risk that they will be recycled. (Of course, there are ways to make this more difficult, and to check for it.) I have other reasons for making some changes, though. Chief among them is that The Maltese Falcon is a brilliant novel but a plagiarism nightmare, and I’m fed up with dealing with this problem. In case any students are reading this, let me make one point that should be obvious but clearly isn’t: your professors are also familiar with Shmoop! More generally, anything you turn up using Google we can find just as easily. If you’re struggling, for any reason, to put your own ideas about the readings into your own words, consulting your instructor is a much better move than going online to see what you can find.

valdezI have also concluded that Valdez Is Coming is not a good choice for my representative Western. When I read it on my own, I thought it was gripping, fast-paced, and rich with discussion points from race and identity to masculinity, violence, and heroism. It turns out that for quite a lot of students, it is dull, a bit confusing, and too subtle in its effects (literary and thematic) to analyze effectively. This is not to say that none of them wrote well about it–but overall, across both years, it was by far the least popular of our three major texts. Lord of Scoundrels overall was more successful as a novel to write about, and though of course individual responses to it varied, more people seemed more engaged with it. I’m not sure at this point what substitutions I would make. These three novels made a nice sequence, especially for thinking about masculinity: a triumphant but problematic tough guy, then a tough guy who pays a high price for refusing to be vulnerable, and finally a tough guy who is “cured”  of the compulsion to be a certain kind of man and as a result gets to live happily every after. Having a through-line like this helped us layer our discussions as the term goes on, so I’d want to find another trio of books that also work well together, though they wouldn’t have to be unified by that same theme.

broughtonAs for Victorian Sensations, I thought it was quite a successful seminar. Participation levels were consistently high and (as important) were of high quality; as I told the class at the end of term, I genuinely looked forward to showing up and talking with them about our readings. The only novel I hadn’t taught before was Cometh Up As A Flower; we found it provocative and sometimes puzzling, and quite a few students chose to include it in their term paper, which is a sign that they were engaged with it. It might be fun to include it in one of my standard Victorian fiction class, where it would fit well with other novels in which passion and duty collide (The Mill on the Floss, for instance), or in which the ‘romance’ of marrying for money is overtly stripped away. One slight surprise for me was that discussion flagged a bit for Fingersmith. Everyone seemed to  really enjoy reading it, but it was conspicuously harder to get them to talk about it. This might have been (a bit paradoxically) because they found it fun to read and so their critical faculties shut down in ways they really can’t with a novel like East Lynne (which is pretty hard work to slog through, honestly); it might also have been that we read Fingersmith last, and by the final weeks of term everyone’s tired and overwhelmed with work.

victorianstudiesLess of a surprise, but still a challenge, was how difficult it was to generate discussion on the classes I’d set aside for “critical approaches” to our novels. After the first of these sessions I realized that I needed to approach them differently, so I ran those classes more overtly than I usually do in a seminar class, adding some contextual information about the history of literary criticism and devising a set of “metacritical” discussion questions to supplement students’ questions on the specific readings. Even so, discussion was halting. I think the main reason was actually closely related to my goals for these readings. In my experience, when students read criticism they are often mining it for usable quotations, which they then drop into their own arguments as if the fact that somebody else said it proves their claim. I wanted to get them to engage with other scholars in a more equal and conversational way, learning how to see what kind of criticism they are reading (by considering its original date of publication, the venue it was published in, the kinds of questions it asks, and the kinds of evidence it considers) and then if they use it in their own work, signaling how and why in a different way. Just saying “As Critic Smartypants argues” instead of “Critic Smartypants argues” is an improvement: it implies “I’ve thought about this and agree,” not “Smartypants said it, so it’s true.”

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The other thing I hoped to do with these sessions is spark some interest about the ways literary criticism has changed between the 19th century and today: for each of these classes, we read some reviews or essays contemporary with our novels as well as a selection of modern academic criticism. This is a longstanding interest of mine, and we read a couple of pieces that are included in my Broadview anthology, as well as others included with the Broadview editions of East Lynne and Cometh Up As A Flower. Again it was hard to get discussion going, though it got better when I opened up some more general questions about things like the difference (in their experience) between reviews and what they think of as “criticism,” or whether they expect or want criticism to include clear evaluative statements or (as is often found in the Victorian examples) moral judgments. In the end I don’t know how much the students felt they gained from these exercises. Will I include designated criticism sessions again? Probably not, at least not in quite this way. We would probably have had more fun reading another novel–or some short fiction, as the reading load was already quite heavy.

After Wednesday, Winter 2018 will (I hope) be really and truly cleared away–not just at work, but here in Halifax, where very gradually things are turning green and coming to life again.

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P. D. James, Death Comes for the Archdeacon

That’s not actually the title of any of P. D. James’s novels, of course: it’s the basic plot of Death in Holy Orders, which I just finished rereading for the first time in a decade or more. Coincidentally, when I picked it more or less randomly out to revisit, I had also just reread Trollope’s The Warden, and so I had rigidly self-righteous Archdeacons on the brain even before James’s Archdeacon Crampton met his bloody end–then James herself made the Trollope connection explicit by having one of her characters read aloud from Barchester Towers with the deliberate intent of “discomforting the Archdeacon.”

The passage he reads is from the novel’s first chapter, in which the gentle and unworldly Bishop (known to us from The Warden as Mr. Harding’s great friend) is on his deathbed. “Nothing could be easier,” Trollope’s narrator assures us, “than the old man’s passage from this world to the next.” Things are more complicated, however, for his ambitious son, Archdeacon Grantly:

By no means easy were the emotions of him who sat there watching. He knew it must be now or never. He was already over fifty, and there was little chance that his friends who were now leaving office would soon return to it. No probable British prime minister but he who was now in, he who was so soon to be out, would think of making a bishop of Dr. Grantly. Thus he thought long and sadly, in deep silence, and then gazed at that still living face, and then at last dared to ask himself whether he really longed for his father’s death.

The effort was a salutary one, and the question was answered in a moment. The proud, wishful, worldly man sank on his knees by the bedside and, taking the bishop’s hand within his own, prayed eagerly that his sins might be forgiven him.

It is, as the provocateur who reads it aloud remarks, “one of the most impressive chapters Trollope ever wrote,” full of pathos, moral tension, and psychological insight. Our disgust at the Archdeacon’s selfishness is quickly countered by his own rueful self-knowledge and sincere penitence–and by Trollope’s explicit rebuttal of those who think he was “wicked to grieve for the loss of episcopal power, wicked to have coveted it, nay, wicked even to have thought about it, in the way and at the moments he had done so.” Ambition is natural in any profession, Trollope notes, and we “can hardly hope to raise the character of the pastor by denying to him the right to entertain the aspirations of a man.”

He rose with even greater vehemence to Archdeacon Grantly’s defense at the end of The Warden, a defense not against imagined external critics but against his own authorial choices:

We fear that he is represented in these pages as being worse than he is; but we have had to do with his foibles, and not with his virtues. We have seen only the weak side of the man, and have lacked the opportunity of bringing him forward on his strong ground. . . . On the whole, the Archdeacon of Barchester is a man doing more good than harm,—a man to be furthered and supported, though perhaps also to be controlled; and it is matter of regret to us that the course of our narrative has required that we should see more of his weakness than his strength.

Trollope typically resists absolutes of either virtue or vice–and that is one reason murder of the particularly calculated and brutal kind that takes place in Death in Holy Orders is so unimaginable in his world. Its cruelty and its finality obliterate ethical ambiguity; such an act disallows the nuance that is Trollope’s moral stock-in-trade.

That said, James and Trollope  do have a lot in common. James herself points to Austen, Eliot, and Trollope, rather than the Gothic or sensation novelists, as her chief fictional influences, and you see it in her patient, probing characterization as well as her meticulous attention to setting. Reading Death in Holy Orders so soon after The Warden I was struck by their shared interest in the Anglican Church as an institution defined both by its corporate identity and by the characters of the individual men who embody it, with their ideals and their faith but also their ambition, greed, and vanity. Both novels also depict the Church as an institution in which continuity and tradition are under constant pressure from changes without and within, and in which the laudable aim of preserving what is good can too easily be twisted into a justification for tolerating what is bad.

In both books, too, it is the self-righteous Archdeacon who epitomizes many of the worst tendencies of the priesthood they belong to, including self-righteousness, arrogance, and a preoccupation with worldly practicalities. While Trollope, as shown, wraps Archdeacon Grantly in the protective padding of his own humane understanding, James and her characters show no such forgiveness towards Archdeacon Crampton, who is universally hated. This is a formal necessity in a murder mystery, to be sure: more than one person must have a sufficient motive to be a plausible suspect, or where’s the puzzle? But it’s the specifics that are thematically revealing–and that turn out, in James’s case, to be a bit disturbing.

If Crampton, like Dr. Grantly, were “a fitting impersonation of the church militant here on earth,” a rigid defender of the status quo, the dislike both Archdeacons provoke could be neatly interpreted (as I think it can be, in Trollope’s case) as a call for the Church to reform, to live up to its professed spiritual ideals rather than insisting indignantly on its worldly authority and privilege. Instead, however, it turns out that one of the main reasons Crampton is disliked is that he was overzealous (as the other characters see it) in prosecuting a priest, Father John, accused of sexually molesting young boys. “The offences had been more a question of inappropriate fondling and caresses than of serious sexual abuse,” reflects Father Martin, another of the priests at the Seminary where Father John now resides, and the punishment might have been light if Crampton hadn’t “busied himself in finding additional evidence,” as a result of which Father John ended up serving time in jail. Father Martin considers Crampton’s pursuit of Father John “inexplicable”: “there was something irrational about the whole business.”

Everyone at the Seminary is sympathetic towards Father John, who seems as kind and unworldly as Trollope’s aged Bishop. If their tolerance were shown as priests closing ranks to protect one of their own, or the Church more generally, from damaging exposure, that would be one thing: then, again, a critical inference could be drawn–especially if solving the murder required them eventually to confront and regret their defense of a convicted pedophile, however otherwise likable he might be. Alternatively, I suppose, Father John’s case could have been used as an explicit model of sin, penance, and forgiveness: he has done his time, and if he were remorseful it could be worth exploring how or whether he was entitled to regain his standing in the Church. Unfortunately, though, the novel overall offers nothing to counter Father Martin’s perspective that Father John has been hard done by: that he has been punished with undue severity for a little harmless “fondling” of choir boys. It’s not just his fellow priests but also Emma Lavenham, English professor and emergent love interest for Commander Dalgliesh, who treats him with indulgent kindness; Dalgliesh himself, James’s moral avatar, expresses more concern about Father John’s trial and imprisonment (“which must,” he reflects, “have been an appallingly traumatic experience”) than he does about the priest’s young victims, whose trauma goes unacknowledged by anyone. Apparently it’s not that the Church needs to be held accountable for enabling and sheltering Father John but that his accusers, the Archdeacon among them, by making much ado about almost nothing, should be ashamed for blighting a good man’s life.

Death in Holy Orders does not ultimately turn on Father John’s history with the Archdeacon; his backstory is not central to the murder investigation but simply adds another (supposedly) unpleasant dimension to what we know about the murder victim. I suppose that could be an argument for not paying too much attention to it, except that the more I think about it, the more creepy that makes its treatment. It’s hard not to conclude that James herself considers accusations of that sort incidental–a lot of unnecessary and damaging fuss in a world, and a Church, with bigger problems. Surely, though, her reforming Archdeacon deserved at least as vigorous a defense as Trollope’s: that James allows Crampton to die cruelly and unmourned puts James out of step with the literary lineage she claimed.

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This Week In My Classes: #amgrading

IMG_6321Last week and this week, actually. That’s not quite all I’ve been doing since classes wrapped up on April 10: there has been a spate of committee work, and also (one of the less pleasant features of this time of term) some academic integrity hearings, which take up a fair amount of time. Then on the home front, Maddie was in her high school’s production of The Drowsy Chaperone, which had its four-performance run April 19-21, so in addition to ferrying her to and from rehearsals and doing what I could to mitigate the stress on her schedule in other ways, I’ve also been to two performances–which, on the bright side, was the most fun I’ve had in ages. (In case you know the musical, she played Mrs. Tottendale, with great comic flair. The whole cast was great, actually, as was the production, especially the costumes.)

I’d say the end is in sight, though still further away than I’d like. I am making good progress on the second of two batches of essays; then I have two (out of three) sections left to mark on the Pulp Fiction exam. I have high hopes that it will all be done and I’ll have final grades filed by the end of this week–though if I’m right and I’m coming down with the cold that Maddie sadly got just as the show opened, it might be harder and thus slower going. Tonight is not a good night to do any more of it, though: I’m exhausted, because we were up at 4 a.m. to get Maddie onto a flight to Washington D.C. She is spending a whirlwind three days there with her I.B. History class. I’m envious: I’ve only been to Washington once and barely had time to get started on the sights.

holy-ordersI’ve been too busy and distracted to settle in for any intense reading, though I did join a few Twitter friends in reading The Warden last weekend. Then I had to take all the books off my mystery bookcase (we needed to move it out of the way temporarily, to do a household project) and in the process of sorting them I was reminded how long it has been since I read most of my P. D. James collection. I’ve put An Unsuitable Job for a Woman back on the reading list for Mystery & Detective Fiction in the fall, so it seemed like a good time to revisit one or two. As a result, I’m happily rereading Death in Holy Orders, which turns out to follow very well on The Warden as it has a number of explicit references in it to  Barchester Towers. James herself said she saw the 19th-century novelists as her predecessors more than the Golden Age mystery writers, and in a book like this, that genealogy is clear. There are plenty of murderous moments in Trollope but his world is (mostly) too genial a place, his morality too committed to shades of grey, to allow for outright irremediable violence. (There are exceptions, of course). Like Trollope, James is very good at depicting institutions, with all their intricate politics and emotional dynamics. She’s also exceptionally good at setting, something I emphasize when we discuss Unsuitable Job (where the beauty of Cambridge makes a poignant contrast to the horrors of the novel’s central crime). After reading several hastier or lazier stylists in this genre recently, I am appreciating the leisurely pace of her descriptions, along with the meticulous depth of her characterizations. I don’t like all of her novels equally, but when she is good, she’s very very good.

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“Baby Teeth”: Lynda Barry, Syllabus

barry-syllabus

Daily practice with images both written and drawn is rare once we have lost our baby teeth and begin to think of ourselves as good at some things and bad at other things. It’s not that this isn’t true . . . but the side effects are profound once we abandon a certain activity like drawing because we are bad at it. A certain state of mind . . . is also lost. A certain capacity of the mind is shuttered and for most people, it stays that way for life.

The drawing class I’ve signed up for begins in about ten days. When I first mentioned on Twitter that I might do something like this, to be honest I wasn’t that committed to the idea: I was just floating it. But making a possibility public inevitably makes it more real, and the feedback I got was so encouraging that my motivation increased and I started looking around in earnest for plausible options. The one I settled on is called “Drawing for Adults.” Though the description explicitly promises that no experience is necessary, as it gets closer I get increasingly anxious about it, because as far as I’ve ever discovered I have absolutely no talent for drawing, not to mention no skill at it.

barry-making-comicsI am glad, therefore, that one of the tips I got on Twitter (initially from Dorian, then endorsed by others) was to look at Lynda Barry’s book Syllabus. I wasn’t really sure what kind of book it was, but I have great faith in Dorian’s recommendations, so I promptly put a hold on it at the library and I’ve had it on loan ever since. My first reaction to the book was bewilderment. I do not have a good working relationship with graphic novels, and while Syllabus is not a novel, it is definitely a graphic something. (Syllabus reproduces and lightly contextualizes Barry’s teaching notebooks for courses she offered at the University of Madison-Wisconsin, where she runs the Image Lab.) Worse (I thought), it doesn’t even tell a story, so there isn’t even a narrative thread for a text-bound person like me to cling to. Every page seemed chaotic! I had no idea where to look first, or next, or after that. Finally, Syllabus focuses (I thought) on drawing comics, which isn’t really the kind of drawing I’m interested in.

syllabus-imageStill, my curiosity was piqued, so I decided to stop trying to figure the book out (which is a hard habit for an academic and literary critic to break!) and just browse around in it for a while to see what it might have to say to me. It turns out it did speak to me: both to the part of me that wants to, but is afraid to, put pencil to paper and draw something, but also, and perhaps more significantly, to the part of me that writes stuff. This is because Syllabus isn’t just a book about drawing comics: it’s a book about creativity more generally, about the interaction between our conscious (and often inhibiting) thoughts and our unconscious mind, and about the way our fears of doing something badly hold us back from discovery and improvement–and also just from the potential fun and rewards of artistic self-expression.

Syllabus is loosely about these things, because it is not a textbook or a scholarly study (although Barry alludes to several of these, including especially Ian McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary, the introduction to which–following Barry’s instructions to her students–I have downloaded as further reading). This looseness, which frustrated me a lot at first, is actually what ended up making Syllabus accessible to me, because it let me just focus on comments or ideas or exercises that resonated with me and then sit with them for a bit. Then I carried them with me as I went through the book again from the beginning, and a lot more of it (including its seeming disorder) made more sense to me.

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Syllabus includes a lot of different interesting, entertaining, and thought-provoking elements, many of them not really suited for direct application to my own classroom or working / writing life–though it’s possible I underestimate the ways I could incorporate sketching, concentration exercises, or notebooks into my pedagogy. What I liked best about it was the way Barry directly addresses our (OK, my) fear of putting things out into the world that (other people might think) are not very good. This does not mean I don’t think we should strive to do the best work we can–but especially at the beginning of a process, or during a creative process, focusing on external judgment or validation, or even focusing on our own critical responses, might stop us from even beginning. “When we are in the groove,” Barry says, for example,

we are not thinking about liking or not liking what is taking shape, and it isn’t thinking about us either. . . . Liking and not liking can make us blind to what’s there. In spite of how we feel about it, it is making its way from the unseen to the visible world, one line after the next, bringing with it a kind of aliveness I live for: right here, right now.

“Worrying about its worth and value to others before it exists,” she remarks in a later section, “can keep us immobilized forever.  Any story we write or picture we make cannot demonstrate its worth until we write it or draw it. The answer can’t come to us any other way.” I don’t see this as insight or advice that commits us to the kind of “half-assed” model of creativity championed by Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic. At least as I see it, it’s one thing to find the courage to start, to take chances, to see what answer comes to us, as a project takes shape; it’s quite another to quit working on it when we know it’s only “good enough” instead of as good as we can make it. Where along that spectrum we’ll stop with any particular project will, of course, depend on its purpose in our lives.

barry-good-badOne particular bit from Syllabus that I know I will keep thinking about is the one I chose as my epigraph for this post, about abandoning activities we are bad at. I’ve often thought that one of the best things about advancing through life, and particularly through one’s education, is the freedom you gain to abandon things you dislike and/or aren’t good at. As I’ve often said to my own children, one of the best things about university is that you can finally choose your courses to play to your interests and strengths. It’s not that I don’t think we can get good (or at least better) at things: I wouldn’t be a teacher if I believed that! I believe in program requirements, too, because that’s how we discover what else we might be good at, or want to be good at, or just put a lot of effort into. (That’s how I became an English major, after all, with lasting consequences!) Still, I was very glad to leave some kinds of effort and attention behind me (I’m looking at you, calculus!). I hadn’t really thought about the way this process, while it enables you to flourish in your chosen domain, can also end up making you more risk-averse, or reinforce reductive narratives about what you are in fact “good” at.

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It has occurred to me before that there is pedagogical value in being, once again, a beginner at something. (Appropriately, in this context, those reflections were prompted by my struggles to read graphic fiction well.) That is certainly what I’ll be at my drawing class. Syllabus gives me a bit more courage to face it, and some useful ways to talk to myself about it. I’ve also had a little fun already drawing some self-portraits “in the style of Ivan Brunetti,” which she proposes as “a quick and workable alternative to stick figures.” This alone could mean a significant improvement in the illustrative (?) sketches I sometimes make on my classroom whiteboards! I admit I really hope, though, that my teacher doesn’t start by asking us to draw Batman.

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Reading ‘The Warden’

 

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“The Luckiest Man in All of Russia”: Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow

Mishka opened the door to the stairwell, but then paused. Having taken a moment to look over the kitchen with all of its activity and abundance, to look from gentle Andrey to heartfelt Emile, he turned to the Count.

‘Who would have imagined,’ he said, ‘when you were sentenced to life in the Metropol all those years ago, that you had just become the luckiest man in all of Russia.’

Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow is elegant, reserved, and slightly stuffy–it is, in other words exactly like its protagonist, Count Alexander Rostov. Though he is not the novel’s actual narrator, its third-person narration has exactly his precise, self-consciously courtly tone:

At five o’clock on the twent-first of June, the Count stood before his closet with his hand on his plain gray blazer and hesitated. In a few minutes, he would be on his way to the barbershop for his weekly visit, and then to the Shalyapin to meet Mishka, who would probably be wearing the same brown jacket he’d worn since 1913. As such, the gray blazer seemed a perfectly suitable choice of attire. That is, until one considered that it was an anniversary of sorts–for it had been one year to the day since the count had last set foot outside of the Metropol Hotel.

But how was one to celebrate such an anniversary? And should one?

The Count’s world has shrunk to the size of the Metropol because he has been placed under house arrest there, declared a “former person” for writing (or so the authorities think) a poem judged counter-revolutionary. The central conceit of the novel is that the hotel is at once a microcosm of the larger world from which the Count has been banished and a shelter from it. The small attic room that becomes his quarters when he is displaced from the luxurious suite he once occupied is “without question, the smallest room that he had occupied in his life; yet somehow, with those four walls the world had come and gone.” People of all kinds pass through the Metropol and become his acquaintances, friends, and allies, even though he is now the head waiter in the hotel’s fine dining room rather than a celebrated guest. Watching these relationships gradually knit together into a subversive conspiracy delicately orchestrated by the Count is one of the many pleasures of the novel’s final section.

Before he, or we, can get to that point, there are decades to pass in which the Metropol’s front door remains (with one dramatic exception) an impassable threshold. They are turbulent times in Russia (the Count is escorted back to the Metropol for his imprisonment in 1922, and the novel ends in 1954); one of the most interesting things about A Gentleman in Moscow is how thoroughly but also how indirectly, almost glancingly, it engages with the events of this period. Even as we, along with the Count, are constantly reminded of how much the world outside the hotel is changing, he is by fiat, and we are by art, always at one remove from events. World War II happens entirely off-stage, for example: the novel jumps from 1938 to 1946, though it pauses there for two retrospective pages on Operation Barbarossa, from Hitler’s ambitions to “secure Moscow within four months” to the Germans’ chastened retreat from the outskirts of Moscow in 1942.

Throughout the novel, the vicissitudes of history are recounted with the same wry detachment as the whimsical particulars of the Count’s life in the Metropol:

Let us concede that the early thirties in Russia were unkind.

In addition to starvation in the countryside, the famine of ’32 eventually led to a migration of peasants to the cities, which, in turn, contributed to overcrowded housing, shortages of essential goods, even hooliganism. At the same time, the most stalwart workers in the urban centers were wearying under the burden of the continuous workweek; artists faced tighter constraints on what they could or could not imagine; churches were shuttered, repurposed, or razed; and when revolutionary hero Sergei Kirov was assassinated, the nation was purged of an array of politically unreliable elements.

Towles flirts with disaster, I think: if it were less finely handled, this prose–clearly meant to evoke the dignity of a statelier past, to grace even the grimmest details with a redemptive dash of charm–could seem not just affected but intolerably twee. I’m not 100% sure it quite escapes this fate: the style of the novel could charitably be described as “mannered.” For me, two things kept it from becoming irritating and allowed it instead to be both lovely and sad. One was the close proximity of the narrative voice to the Count himself: the Count is–increasingly, as the novel goes on, but self-consciously throughout–identified with a vanishing past. While inevitably, as it is his novel, that past is often viewed nostalgically, the novel as a whole laments the brutalities of the new regime without being reactionary. In fact, the push and pull between tradition and change, continuity and transformation, not just in Russia but in life itself, is one of the novel’s central themes: it is debated by characters as well as embodied in the Count’s changed life and the ebb and flow of society in the Metropol. “One can revisit the past quite pleasantly,” as the Count eventually reflects, “as long as one does so expecting nearly every aspect of it to have changed.”

The second saving grace for me came, perhaps paradoxically, from the elements of tragedy that provide a sobering contrast to the novel’s overall lightness of touch and spirit. They are few but powerful, and their intensity brings out the poignancy of the Count’s own situation, at once condemned and privileged to be an onlooker. Even the most intimate and rewarding of his relationships within the Metropol are constrained by his confinement–though Towles does a nice job making sure the possibility of a single hotel as a whole world doesn’t feel entirely metaphorical, a process that starts with the Count’s apprenticeship to his young friend Nina early in his enforced residency. Nina too is mostly stuck within the hotel’s limits, but she has learned to make the most of it:

Nina had not contented herself with the views from the upper decks. She had gone below. Behind. Around. About. In the time that Nina had been in the hotel, the walls had not grown inward, they had grown outward, expanding in scope and intricacy. In her first weeks, the building had grown to encompass the life of two city blocks. In her first months, it had grown to encompass half of Moscow. If she lived in the hotel long enough, it would encompass all of Russia.

Nina does not, ultimately, live in the Metropol that long, and certainly not as long as the Count, but her lessons transform the Count’s experience, as does the very different legacy she later bestows on him in the form of her daughter Sofia. And it is Sofia who, in her turn, finally motivates the Count–this “proper, proud, and openhearted” man–to carry out his own personal revolution against the diminished life he has not just endured but done his best to fill with meaning and small moments of rescued beauty.

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This Week In My Classes: Looking Ahead

20180404_120119-1As if things in this term’s classes aren’t busy enough (and about to get busier, as next week I get in both sets of term papers and give the final exam for Pulp Fiction) but book orders for next fall were also due. It’s not a set-in-stone deadline, and quite reasonably a lot of my colleagues put it off until the summer, but I’ve actually been playing around with possible book lists for my Dickens to Hardy class since Austen to Dickens wrapped up last term, so I figured I could at least get that one settled.

You can see in the photo above which choices I made. The course title makes both Dickens and Hardy obligatory, of course. I don’t have to unify the reading list around a theme, and I didn’t used to think about that at all: I just picked 5 (or, years ago, 6) novels that represented a range of forms and authors. Last term Austen to Dickens was just “5 books I really like,” and as always, plenty of interesting comparisons emerged from their juxtaposition. But for Dickens to Hardy in Winter 2017 I picked books about “troublesome women”–Bleak HouseAdam BedeCranford, Lady Audley’s Secret, and Tess of the d’Urbervilles. (Clearly, they are all troublesome in different ways, though having three novels explicitly about “fallen” women was particularly interesting.) That was fun, so this time I’m flipping it and choosing books about “men in trouble”: again, their troubles are of different but sometimes related kinds. I don’t usually include two “short” novels, but both David Copperfield and The Woman in White are pretty long, so this way the overall reading load seems reasonable. I wonder what unexpected insights juxtaposing these particular books will shake loose! That’s the fun of teaching the two 19th-century fiction courses so often but never in exactly the same way.

20180404_125241In the end I also submitted my book order for Mystery and Detective Fiction today. If I’d waited I might have made more changes to what has become my ‘standard’ book list for the course, but though I have been considering some more recent Canadian books for inclusion, I wasn’t completely convinced either of them would work well in class (not every book does, which is something I think about a lot) and so as I was in the mood to cross this task off my list, I went with the usual suspects. The one change from the course’s last incarnation is that I’ve switched out The Terrorists and put An Unsuitable Job for a Woman back in. I think The Terrorists is brilliant, and it usually provokes good discussion (though some students understandably find it heavy-handed by the end). But I also really like Unsuitable Job and have missed it.

woolfThose are my only two courses for the fall and then I’ve got a half-year sabbatical next winter, so that’s it: my book orders for next year are done! For the first time in a long time I’m not teaching a first-year class in 2018-19. I’m glad, not because I don’t enjoy teaching introductory classes but because I want to think carefully about which one I’ll teach next, and especially about whether I’ll put in for Pulp Fiction again. We recently revised our suite of first-year classes, which means that the two that used to be my standard offerings (our full-year Introduction to Literature and our half-year Introduction to Prose and Fiction) aren’t options any more. Pulp Fiction is still on the books, and I’m certainly not ruling it out. In many ways I have really enjoyed teaching it: conceptualizing my approach to it was intellectually challenging, as was choosing my readings and preparing materials on them. If I do teach it again, though, I probably don’t want to use all the same novels–and even with different ones, I think I might still miss teaching a different kind of readings. Introductory classes are the only place I get to play with writers like John Donne and Adrienne Rich and Virginia Woolf and James Joyce and Alice Munro and Carol Shields. There’s lots to say about the books I’ve assigned in Pulp Fiction, no question, but after going through them twice I can’t imagine sustaining my own interest in them at that level of detail for another round–which is not something I’ve ever felt about “Death Be Not Proud” or A Room of One’s Own. Anyway, I’m glad to step off that particular moving sidewalk for a bit. I’ll have to put in my 2019-20 course requests in the fall, and I’m sure a first-year class will be among them, but I’m going to think hard about which one it should be.

And that’s all the time I have for dreaming about the future! The next two to three weeks will be focused entirely on this term’s courses.

 

 

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