Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Lost Narratives

(c) Ella Strong Denison Library, Image from the Claremont Colleges Photo Archive,

I've been quiet on my blog because I've been trying to get other things done this week. Note the word trying. I am in the middle of a paper that I've been in the middle of for seven months. I have re-written it about ten times, each time with a new thesis and direction, only to get bogged down in other things and lose focus. Now I've returned to this paper with renewed inspiration (or "panic" might also be a good word for it) because I must get this paper done before hubby and I leave for our trip across the country. So, here I am, sitting at home surrounded by every book on this topic known to man. I've taken notes on about 90% of the books and articles so far, so now I just need to start piecing the puzzle together and get this thing done. I have about a week left to work on it, but I hope to be done by the end of the week.

Yesterday a wonderful friend helped me sort out my ideas into a more attractive argument, but more importantly, she gave me confidence to find the good in what I already had and then find a better way to say it. So...yesterday I had eight pages and now I have four. But, the four that I have now are leaps and bounds better than the eight that I had yesterday; and, no matter how one looks at it...that's some sort of progress. My new paper topic deals with the same two novels that I've been working on all along, The Moonstone and The Law and the Lady by Wilkie Collins. I'm fascinated by the absence of certain female narratives, and the representation and misrepresentation of evidence because of these lost words.

I teach writing and literature classes at the college level, and sometimes I watch my students with envy as they sweat out their five-page essays. If only academic careers were as simple as stating an argument and trying to prove it! It's not the argument that trips me up, I often think. It's the context of all of the other scholarship that I'm supposed to know by now, live, breathe, spout out at the drop of a hat, and be able to reference intelligently.

Do you ever feel like that in your line of work, whether business or academic, or something else? Do you feel like you could be 100% if you could just worry about your own ideas and not have to contextualize them within the community's? There are days when I love the academic conversation and thrive on it. There are other days, like today, when the piles of books no longer comfort me but instead confuse me and send me tumbling into my own writing with too many unconnected ideas. It's time to shut the books and just write. That's the best thing I could do for myself at this point.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


Guess who just found out that she passed her Spanish language exam!! And with only one week of studying. SO EXCITED!! Now I can buckle down with my qualifying exam reading. Adios, mis amigos. I'm making my famous chicken enchiladas tonight in celebration.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The End of the Alphabet by CS Richardson

The End of the Alphabet by CS Richardson is a small little novel about the last month of a man's life with his loving wife. The two (Ambrose Zephyr and Zappora Ashkenazi, "Zipper" for short) live a simple and happy life in London. After being diagnosed with a terminal disease and only a month (give or take) to live, he decides to spend his last days traveling the world. Since the alphabet has nearly as many letters as there are days in a month, Ambrose whisks his wife off to one city per letter, such as "A is for Amsterdam, B is for Berlin..."

My favorite aspect of this novel was its linguistic simplicity. The story itself was complex with emotion and plotline; the characters zigzagged across Europe, and there were just as many flashbacks as there were "present-day" scenes. But the language was not over-embellished. The sentences were short and to the point, though they never felt choppy because they always contained a nugget of something special.

Luckily, readers spend the entire novel (from page one, essentially) preparing for Ambrose's death, otherwise I would have blubbered all the way through the conclusion. What starts out as a man's shocking diagnosis turns into--as the chapters proceed--an exploration of his wife's ability to deal with losing her husband. I thought this was one of the most beautiful books I've read this year, along with one I finished last week--The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa. The End of the Alphabet is a fast and meaningful read, and one that most definitely will stick with me for years to come.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Booking Through Thursday-Book Niche Reading

This week's Booking Through Thursday asks us...

There are certain types of books that I more or less assume all readers read. (Novels, for example.)

But then there are books that only YOU read. Instructional manuals for fly-fishing. How-to books for spinning yarn. How to cook the perfect souffle. Rebuilding car engines in three easy steps. Dog training for dummies. Rewiring your house without electrocuting yourself. Tips on how to build a NASCAR course in your backyard. Stuff like that.

What niche books do YOU read?


I love this question, if only because it makes me think about a lot of my favorite books!

My first niche is definitely 19th C. Victorian fiction, which is why I have built my future career around teaching this genre of literature. I love Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, the Brontes, Elizabeth Gaskell, Thomas Hardy, Marie Corelli...ALL OF THEM!!

My second niche is something that fits into niche 1 but has also expanded beyond that--classic and modernist detective fiction. Collins, Doyle, Agatha Christie :)

Niche 3 is cookbooks. I can't get enough of reading cookbooks. I enjoy the little side stories and information about food and nutrition, or the history of certain dishes, but I really love reading recipes. I don't care if I never make the item. I just love learning about food combinations and ingredients. I make probably 90% of our meals at home from scratch, so even if I don't use the recipes, they always help me with my own cooking. Just like Molly, I love reading muffin cookbooks. I also love cookie recipes and crock-pot ideas. Just recently I combined two of my obsessions (Elvis Presley and cooking) into one of my readings...a book called All Cooked Up: Recipes and Memories from Elvis' Family and Friends. The writing was abysmal, but the pictures and recipes were top notch. What I'm really looking for is a good Pie cookbook. Does anyone have any suggestions? So far I've been disappointed at the bookstores.

Thanks for the question!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Review: Students Must Write

Students Must Write by Robert Barrass completes my Non-Fiction Five Challenge!! Most of this book seemed directed at undergraduates, so it wasn't very helpful for me halfway through my Ph.D. Also, it was very much geared toward British writing rather than American writing, and all the bibliography resources were for British particularities as well. But the one part that was useful for me (and maybe even my writing students!) was a series of charts that had "commonly used phrases" on one side and "better way to say it" on the other side. There were charts for being more concise, using the correct prepositions, cutting out unnecessary adjectives or adverbs, using stronger verbs, not writing in passive...good stuff. I don't necessarily recommend checking this book out and reading it cover to cover, but the charts are great as references. I might photocopy them for my own use.

Here are my books and some of the reviews for this challenge--my first one finished--ever! (I'm still new to the book blog scene :) Somehow I ended up reading 6 instead of 5. Plus the many essays from non-fiction scholarly books I read for my classes and papers that I didn't blog about.
  1. All Cooked Up: Recipes and Memories from Elvis' Family and Friends
  2. Be Happy Without Being Perfect by Alice Domar and Alice Lesch Kelly
  3. A Short Guide to a Happy Life by Anna Quindlen

How is everyone else doing on their summer challenges so far?

Friday, June 5, 2009

Alphabet Soup

A few years ago I happened across a darling little epistolary novel by playwright Mark Dunn titled Ella Minnow Pea. The story, written with Oulipian playfulness, tells of a wonderful, language-loving community that prides itself on its vocabulary and creative use of many letters of the alphabet in every sentence. The town loved words and letters so much that they built a monument to the pangram, "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog," which is a sentence that uses every letter of the alphabet at least once. One day, the "Z" tile falls off of the monument, and the island's government takes it as a bad omen--a solemn sign--that the Z should be banished from their language. A law is decreed forbidding the use of Z, which most people found to be a nuisance, but tolerable. In fact, they enjoyed the challenge of thinking up clever words or phonetic spellings to replace the common ones. Little by little, by unfortunate disaster, more letters fall from the monument, which leads to further banishments of language (as well as banishments and punishments for the people who break the laws).

Since this is an epistolary novel, the story is told through the letters the characters send to each other, and the letters become continually more creative as the characters search desperately for ways to regain their freedom of speech and language. One of the most darling moments of the book is when our protagonist, Ella Minnow Pea, has no option left but to sign her name
"LMNOP," as those are the only letters left hanging on the monument.

There's much more to the story, and I won't give away the ending, as it is a precious tale of love, creativity, and language that you would want to experience for yourself. But, I wanted to mention Ella Minnow Pea because I encountered another book in a similar vein called The Wonderful O by James Thurber. I was able to read it all in one sitting a few days ago while I waited for my husband to get out of a meeting.

Thurber's short children's book, originally published in 1957, has just been republished this year as part of the New York Review Children's Collection with illustrations by Marc Simont. As the story goes, two bad men, Littlejack and Black meet up with similar intentions--to seek treasure by sailing to a remote island on Black's ship, the
Aeiu. He explains that he hates the letter "O" and therefore named his ship a word with all the vowels except O. With the help of a very vague map, Littlejack and Black sail Aeiu to the island and demand that the islanders give them all of their gems and treasures. When the islanders claim that they know of no such treasure, the bad men and their crew ransack the island, destroying everything in their paths that contains a letter O, even books. Furthermore, Black takes over the island and decrees that O must be "o"mitted from the language. Just like in Ella Minnow Pea, the community affected by the loss of letters attempts to overthrow the leadership to win back their rights and freedoms of speech.

Unlike Mark Dunn, Thurber does not attempt to write without using certain letters--in this case, O. In fact, he probably uses more O's than usual in order to show how beautiful the letter can be in our language, and how elegant and smooth it sounds in words of all kinds. Here is one of my favorite passages that demonstrates his style well:


"Methinks the people have a loathing for your voice and for your song," said Littlejack.

"I'll take away from them," said Black, "everything that plays and has an O."

And so the following morning the crew went from house to house, seizing violins and cellos, trombones and horns and oboes, pianos, harpsichords, and clavichords, accordions and melodeons, bassoons and saxophones, and all the other instruments with O's, up to and including the woodwinds. A man and his wife who loved to play duets on mandolin and glockenspiel drifted apart. Children, forbidden the use of combs, could no longer play tunes on combs with tissue paper. The crew spent the afternoon breaking up an old calliope they had found rusting in a field, and taking apart a carillon.

"All they have is fifes and drums and cymbals," gloated Black.

"And zithers and guitars," said Littlejack. "And dulcimers and spinets, and bugles, harps and trumpets."

"Much good they'll get from these," said Black, "or any others. I haven't finished with the O's in music, in harmony and melody, that is, and compositions. They'll have no score, and what is more, no orchestra, or podium, or baton, and no conductor. They can't play symphonies, or rhapsodies, sonatas or concerti. I'll take away their oratorios and choirs and choruses, and all their soloists, their baritones and tenors and sopranos, their altos and contraltos and accompanists. All they'll have is the funeral march, the chant and anthem, and the dirge, and certain snatches."

"They'll still have serenades," said Littlejack.

Black made an evil and impatient gesture. "You can't serenade a lady on a balcony," he said, "if there isn't any balcony. Let them hum their hymns and lisp their litanies." Black's eyes began to glow as he names O-names that would have to go: "Scherzo, largo, and crescendo, allegro and diminuendo. Let the lyric writers have their Night in June. Much good it'll do 'em without the moon."

Both of these books are clever and fun to read. They intrigue our minds and remind us how beautiful words can be when they are unrestricted, unfettered by lowest-common-denominator standards of vocabulary, and free to play and create. I recommend both of these books, and I also recommend that you read aloud!