Sunday, March 01, 2015

Literary classrooms


My brief description:
As students and teachers, we spend a lot of time in the classroom. It witnesses moments of exhilaration, boredom, discovery and hilarity, and the dynamics of conversation in the classroom occupy a good deal of our attention. But most of the great canonical novels we read are more interested in domestic scenes - husbands and wives, parents and children, siblings and friends - than in school ones. An exploration of literary classrooms - the humiliations and torment, for students and teachers, depicted by Dickens in Nicholas Nickeby and David Copperfield and by Charlotte Bronte in Villette; the small-group dynamics of Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; the classrooms of contemporary children's literature from Harriet the Spy to J. K. Rowling. What are the risks and rewards of setting fictional scenes in classrooms? And what is the relationship between the dreams of reading and writing and dreams of teaching and learning?
More information here.

My host Dorian Stuber has lined up a couple other really wonderful things for me to do while I'm on campus (and I am promised swimming-pool access too): namely, visiting a class that's reading Clarissa and running a student discussion on the topic of light reading by way of Ben Aaronovitch's Midnight Riot, which I now have a good excuse to reread on my flights tomorrow morning!

(6:20am departure from JFK: just trying to figure out how early I really should leave for that....)

(Just the thought of it makes me think that I might have to lie down right now for a short nap - napped so long yesterday afternoon that I slept very badly last night and am now feeling on the verge of collapse!)

Saturday, February 21, 2015

"Lichtenstein does not torture the paint"

Frederic Tuten on Roy Lichtenstein's studio:
Others could explain more precisely about his process. It started with an outline on the canvas for what would become the painting. He would fill in the spaces with colored paper cutouts, and tape them in place to see how they would look. He’d move the cutouts around until he decided what worked. There was a template for the dots too. So even before the actual painting process began there was a collage of how it would eventually look. His was the exact opposite of the Abstract Expressionists’ aesthetic, which was supposedly the personality of the artist declared on the canvas. His personality was in paintings, but certainly not bombastically so. Roy’s work was very organized, systematic, and intelligent. Nothing left to chance. It was all deliberate, like when he made the “Brushstroke” series. These paintings are a bit of a joke about Abstract Expressionism, because the brush stroke, the rhythm, the swipe, all that was premeditated—as if to say, this is how spontaneity can be engineered.

"Brook your ire!"/toga-speech

At the FT, Simon Schama on what historians think of historical novels (site registration required):
Those who start in the thick of it, I like best of all. The writer who made me want to be an historian was Columbia University professor Garrett Mattingly. In 1959, he published The Defeat of the Spanish Armada, which has the imaginative grip of a novel but is grounded on the bedrock of the archives. It begins with a name the significance of which we, as yet, have absolutely no idea; with an exactly visualised place. Through the repetition of a single word “Nobody,” we hear the tolling of a bell ringing the doom of someone or other.
“Mr Beale had not brought the warrant until Sunday evening but by Wednesday morning, before dawn outlines its high windows, the great hall of Fotheringhay was ready. Though the Earl of Shrewsbury had returned only the day before nobody wanted any more delay. Nobody knew what messenger might be riding on the London road. Nobody knew which of the others might not weaken if they wanted another.”
What is this? Who is this? Where are we? You want to read on, don’t you? So you do so with the intense excitement of knowing every word is true.

Closing tabs

Lost a very dear family member on Friday to cancer (metastatic melanoma, diagnosed in the days just before Christmas): my mother's husband Jim Kilik. Will write a proper memorial for him in a few days; in the meantime we are really just mourning (I will go to Philadelphia tomorrow to be with my mother for a bit).

I have accumulated a dreadful backlog of links and light reading: even the thought of logging it makes me want to lie down in a darkened room with a moist towel over my eyes! But it must be done before I can get my head around the many other writing-related things that need to happen round here....

Ta-Nehisi Coates on what he owed to David Carr.

Edward P. Jones profiled in the Washington Post.

Todd Gitlin on the enlightenment project.

A brief memorial for the linguist and novelist Suzette Haden Elgin, whose novel Native Tongue made a huge impression on me when I read it at age thirteen or fourteen.

The fantastical imagining of Hungarian paper money.

Eating chocolate in space.

Several independent things this past week prompted me to think of the lovely Eames Powers of Ten.

Inigo Thomas on Fattipuffs and Thinifers. NB this was a book I never actually read, though it was alluringly advertised in the back of some other Puffin children's books I must have had: I should see if I can actually get hold of it.

Art of the Afghan war rug.

Were the soldiers of the terracotta army based on individual people?

Using your cat to hack your neighbors' wifi (shades of "That Darn Cat").

Have been very busy reading things for work, but of course there is always time for some bits of light reading around the edges. Some of it inconsequential, some of it very good indeed.

FODDER of variable quality: Susan Hill, The Soul of Discretion (at first I wondered why I'd let this series drop, then I remembered the things I don't like about them!); Patricia Briggs' Sianim series; Holly Black, The Darkest Part of the Forest; Ned Beauman, Glow (impressive, agile, over-ingenious); Julie Schumacher, Dear Committee Members: A Novel (I have been avoiding this one as letters of recommendation are FAR TOO MUCH PART OF MY LIFE ALREADY, but really it is very good); Richard Powers, The Time of Our Singing (supreme comfort reread - the third-person narration doesn't work as well as I remembered, but the voice of the main narrator is incredible, and it's hard to imagine a book that feels more directly written to me - will perhaps now reread James Baldwin's Just Above My Head, which I think of as the secret twin/precursor); Emma Bull, War for the Oaks (another comfort reread); Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train (very depressing, but a decently good read); Simon Wood, The One That Got Away (just about above the bar of readability); Jim Gourley, The Race Within: Passion, Courage, and Sacrifice at the Ultraman Triathlon (afflicted by many of the problems that so much writing about endurance sport has - silly glorifying of what is often stupidity, annoying magazine-feature style of blow-by-blow narration, etc. but nonetheless a very good read - NB I think I do not need to do an Ultraman race, particularly not the Hawaii one, whose bike course just sounds dreadful!).

Then a few things I'll single out for particular recommendation:

Nina Stibbe's Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home is delightful (more here).

Top pick, a book I'm already sure is one of my favorites of the year: Daniel Galera, Blood-Drenched Beard. Dwight Garner's review was electrifying to me. Could there possibly be a novel more closely tailored to my particular loves? (Professional triathlete, sea swimming, whales and penguins, a dog as a main character, face-blindness [which I do not have, just relatively poor facial recognition skills, but I do have the matching thing where every place in the world looks the same to me], a Borges-Murakami access of slight mystical overtones....) Anyway, BEST BOOK EVER! Nice additional Galera bit here.

Ian MacLeod's The Summer Isles: very lovely, haunting, makes me want to reread Jo Walton's Farthing books as well.

Richard Price's The Whites, not perhaps as good as his very best books but really a great piece of work regardless (is it just me or does that elegiac breakneck narration of the opening grow wearisome as a narrative mode? He does it so well, but I am not sure it's something I really need more of in my reading life, it seems to express an orientation towards the present and the past that I can't really endorse - something overly sacral, reverential - I like the less elegiac version of similar in gonzo noir).

Last but not least, Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. Painfully gripping - a good recommendation from my friend J. B., who comments that it should be required reading for anyone who hopes to grow old.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Nyan nyan

Via Bonnie H., wine for cats:
The chief executive of B&H Lifes said it was created in response to requests from cat owners. "Cat owners were complaining there was no gift they could give their pets, while dogs could get sunglasses, raincoats, and boots," Masahito Tsurumi is cited as saying in media reports.

The undead transponder

Jessamyn West on managing her late father's tech.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Reading my grandmother's books

I come from a family of teachers. Both of my father's parents were English teachers and great readers; they met at teacher training college in Glasgow in the early 1930s, and though I have in my possession only a very small fraction of the books they collected over the years, they occupy a place of high honor in my office.

I sometimes tell a story to my students - it so perfectly seems to recapitulate crucial elements of the history of women's writing - in which my grandmother, during WWII, used the parchment pages of the sole copy of her undergraduate senior thesis to boil a Christmas pudding....

My grandfather was an omnivorous reader, possessing a serious interest in Scottish history, a wide range of literary tastes and an addiction to detective novels and "teach-yourself-X" language books, of which he owned dozens (he also religiously watched the Gaelic-language-instruction programs on public television, though really he and my grandmother grew up speaking Scots, not Gaelic, and lapsed into the familiar tongue of childhood more and more often in their old age as they retreated from the public world). I was tickled recently, while reading Pierre LeMaitre, to see that one of the literary crime scenes staged in his first book is from William McIlvanny's Laidlaw, a particular favorite of my grandfather's; the book he gave me to read the last time I saw him was this.

My grandmother suffered badly from dementia in her last years, but she remained a passionate reader: she had always been partial to the North American female short-story writers (Eudora Welty in particular), and Alice Munro was a favorite, not least because she wrote about rural Ontario scenes that resonated strongly with my grandmother's memories of an Ontario childhood (her mother was also a schoolteacher, though they moved back to Scotland after my grandmother's elementary-school years). The last book I remember her giving to me, not long before she died, was William Dalrymple's City of Djinns. I've never met Dalrymple, but he had grown up in North Berwick, the small seaside town outside Edinburgh where my grandparents lived for many years (my grandfather was headmaster of the North Berwick High School before he retired), and they had a proprietary interest in his budding success.

After my grandparents were dead, it was impossible to transfer more than a small selection of books from their house ("Old School House, 4 School Lane" - a quaint address I enjoyed writing on envelopes as a child!) to my graduate student quarters on the other side of the Atlantic. The ones I especially cherished - many of them my grandfather had already shipped to me in brown-paper-wrapped boxes from the local post office by the "book rate" - were the books they had as undergraduates, Everyman editions and a host of other small student-oriented hardcovers that dated mostly from their undergraduate years at Jordanhill. I used some of them while I was studying for my grad school orals: I remember that on my last visit to my grandmother, we had a rather wonderful circular conversation about my upcoming exams - a topic of interest and concern to both of us - she couldn't remember we'd already just talked it all through, so she'd pick up again as we left off by asking me to tell her about them - possibly in that sense she was the ideal auditor for an anxious third-year PhD student with an obsessive fondness for British literature and the ins and outs of academic study!

When I cleaned up my office in December, I came across this volume, which I remembered being there somewhere but which seemed especially lovely to lay hands on now given that it is something I'm currently writing about. I'm especially interested in the ways the page format of the scholarly edition is used by Johnson, so this little book isn't of exclusive utility, or indeed of notable monetary value, but what a precious memento....

From the outside.
Bookseller's stamp.
"Elizabeth C. W. H. Sillars. 1930." (She was born in 1911.)
You see from the list of cities on the title page that this is still the high imperial era of colonial education....
Diligent markup to the "Preface": a strong suspicion of an attentive student marking as the lecturer suggests!
The sheets of notes folded and tucked between the pages:

Clarissa repaired

Initially when the book falls into fascicles, it's almost convenient: you can just take a 200-page chunk to class rather than hauling the whole cinderblock of it. But once it falls into so many pieces that you have to keep it in a plastic bag, a repair job is in order....