Monday, September 25, 2006

English Majors Are People Too!

I love being a literature student. I love reading books, I love writing about them, and I love talking about them. However, there is one thing I don't love about being a literature major: everyone expects you to use perfect grammar when talking or writing. Always.

Now, I usually make sure to edit my posts. But sometimes, I can't help but miss an error. Especially when a post is a rant, and I've typed it at top speed and put it out for the world to see on a PERSONAL blog. If the only comment a reader can make is to point out my use of the wrong "their" (I used "there"), then I'm going to be a little frustrated.

Just because I've made it my life to study literature (and inadvertently the inner-workings of the English language) does not mean that I am beyond making a minor typo every now and then. It happens. I understand that I often mock bad grammar and writing, but it's not because they make an honest mistake in usage or spelling; it's because the writing is bad and the grammar makes the writer sound like an idiot.

I suppose it's a weird line I toe. I want to point out good writing, mock bad writing, and all the while not make mistakes of my own, but it's inevitable that I will make mistakes and people will point them out to me, which will make me mad. Hopefully it's not hubris for me to hope that people will be lenient on my errors, especially on a personal website. I just don't want to feel like I must scrutinize every piece of writing that comes through my hands. That wouldn't be fun, and a good deal of the reason I blog is because it's fun.

Lesson learned: please don't be an ass to an English major when she makes a tiny error. (You can point it out politely if you want, but don't be an ass.)

Friday, September 22, 2006

Now Presenting...

Thursday was my presentation. Actually, it was the first presentation that I've had to do since my thesis a year and a half ago, but luckily I didn't think about that, or I'd have been nervous.

Anyway, I chose a deconstructionist article on Vathek (curse you, Derrida, Barthes! I'll never escape you!) I chose it partly becuase it was really interesting, partly because it was short (my classmates would appreciate that), and partly because it was the only thing I could find solely on Vathek (see prior post). It basically argued that Vathek undoes itself because it's an English translation of a French original that uses Arabic for its roots--hence the deconstructionist interpretation. The article made some interesting points, but instead of talking about them, went on forever about how it's impossible to truly translate a name. How silly.

The presentation itself went really well and my classmates discussed the work. It was supposed to be only 20 minutes, but I think we all got to talking and it took up more like 40 instead. (Not my fault--my professor jumped in a lot to discuss points).

A side note:
A fairy-story (or fairy tale) does not equal a children's story. I'm sure this will come up in class on Tuesday, so I'm ready to jump down someone's throat (nicely, I hope). I said that Vathek was an oriental fairy-tale, and one of my classmates said "Yeah, it did make me think of a child's story..." I didn't have a chance to clarify because the discussion swept into another direction (I had to start my presentation), but what I meant by fairy tale is a story that creates its own believable world outside that of the reader. For 19th century readers, the Orient was so different then their own (at least the Orient of Western imagination) that literature about the East tends toward the fairy-story anyway. And Beckford certainly crafted it that way.

For a really interesting essay on the fairy-story, please read "On Fairy Stories" by J.R.R. Tolkien. This essay changed my life when I read it and was highly influential on my thinking of the world of Faerie and stories.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Researchin' Blues

After reading the delightful novella Vathek (William Beckford), I set it aside to find an article expounding on all the thoughts of violence, kicking, eating, etc that I encountered in the strange little work of Orientalist British literature. I thought that surely with an hour or two I could turn up several possibilities that I could read and then pick one for my presentation later this week.

No such luck. I spent a frustrating two hours in front of laptop, turning up articles that mentioned Beckford and Vathek in passing, articles that were not what I wanted to talk about, or articles that were much too long to be used for the project. I'd find something that sounded good--only to discover with increasing despair its true nature. In desperation, I e-mailed my professor (a move that stung my pride) and wrote down some possibilities to take to the library the next morning before work.

Why did I have so much trouble finding a decent article on Vathek? Most likely because it is short, not that well known to scholars outside of the niche of British Romanticism, and usually no one wants to write purely on that work alone--they want to talk about it in reference to other works. So in the end, I did find a few articles that would "work", just not what I wanted.

Lesson: researchin' ain't easy. With that in mind, I decided that I needed to begin working on the research for my papers due later this semester (one next month...) and choose a work that was not so obscure, like Lewis' The Monk. Though I'm tempted to write an essay on all the things that I wanted to find in a nice scholarly essay on Vathek...

Friday, September 15, 2006

Literature Recipe--One Gothic Novel

For Donna.

Ok. So for all you literature fans out there that are also aspiring writers, listen up! I hold, in my possession, the secret recipe for a absolutely thrilling novel. The Gothic novel, in fact. If you've ever wanted to create something that would chill the blood, cause ladies to faint, cause a stir in your ever-so-carefully classed society, then this is the novel for you! When Horace Walpole wrote The Castle of Otranto, little did he realize what he'd be starting--I mean, what other genre offers so much excitement?

Here are your requirements:
  • A castle. Of course, some of the action can take place elsewhere, but a castle must be somehow involved. You can also substitute monastery. (See Lewis' The Monk).
  • A subterranean cavern. I.e. a cave, a cavern, or some other creepy, underground sort of space. You see, caverns cause chills to run up and down your spine. To various philosophers, caves are hidden desire and death and hell. You can take your pick or use all three meanings.
  • The Devil. Oh, but of course! Have we learned nothing from The Monk? If you're not too fond of Satan among your characters, you can put some sort of supernatural figure, like a monster (see Frankenstein) or a giant ghost (see The Castle of Otranto).
  • A strippling. For some reason or another, all Gothic tales have a least one fine young strippling running around and eliciting homoerotic feelings from other male characters, carefully disguised as a sort of protection or homosocial friendship. We're not fooled, though, we wily modern readers. Your strippling can either feature as a main character or as an entertaining minor character.
  • A fair maiden. Perferably blonde, wispy, innocent, and otherwise contemptuous to empowered women everywhere because she's always the victim of a man's desire and will usually end up raped or imprisoned in the suterranean vault/cavern. Or both. And she should be an orphan.
  • Mountains with crags. Don't question the crags. The whole mountain thing adds to the sublime as handed down by Edmund Burke and Kant. It's even better if someone ends up tossed off the mountain at the end of the book.
  • The Villian! Let us not forget the most important part of ANY Gothic work--a villian. He's (or she--see Zofloya) the one who seduces, entrapts, menaces (oh definitely menaces), or threatens our fair maiden. He can be a monk. He also could have a mustache. If the villian is a woman, she should be opposite in features from the fair maiden--tall and dark. Oh, I just get shivers down my spine thinking about the villian!
  • A setting outside of Britian (with the exception of Austen's Northanger Abbey.) Helps with the whole Other-ing process--you know, where you put all the aspects about your culture on another to make yours seem better, like the East as full of individuals that are irrational, lazy, and un-Enlightened.
Often included, but not strictly necessary:
  • Strong, sexual women. (also known as a villianess). These are always bad.
  • A moral. Hey, you have to at least attempt to keep your novel from being classified as pornography. The moral can be flimsy.
  • Target audience: women. For some reason, those middle-class and upper-class ladies just love the Gothic novel! Could it be repression and boredom? No, probably not.
  • Violent anti-Catholic tendencies. Matthew Lewis is a prime example of this, though sources seem to indicate that not only was he anti-Catholic, he also hated women and some other groups. Well!
  • Orientalism. This was a tendency to create an Other in the peoples of, well, basically anyone not European and, specifically, British. Orientalism refers specifically to the study of the Romantics to those of Eastern descent (Asians/Arabs/Indians).
  • Excess of style. Exclamation points are highly encouraged, as are flowery sentences, verbosity, big words, and other sorts of stylistic markers that cause most good editors to scream and whip out a red pen.
Those are your ingredients. To structure your plot, you should have it start out as somewhat normal, and then add plot twist after plot twist that makes the audience gasp. Usually the most horrible things happen toward the end, like a selling of a soul, a rape, etc. If you put the worst at the beginning, the auidence will only expect something worse and then be disappointed.

If you've never experienced the genre of the Gothic novel, you should. I hope you find it as ravishingly delightful as I have. Even when it's sorta bad (or cheesy) there's just something interesting in it, especially if you remember that it was new to the readers of the 19th century. I'd recommend The Castle of Otranto, which is just entertaining, not to mention the first of our genre, The Monk (which is actually quite complex and requires much intellecutal interaction), and any others that you might stumble across. Zofloya (by Charlotte Dacre) is a good example of the feminine Gothic with its persistent moral to be a good mother. Some will be marvelously wonderful, some extremely bad. But don't forget to have fun reading and exploring a fascinating genre!

Friday, September 08, 2006

Bees and Home--A Keeper of Bees

I had the good fortune of receiving Allison Wallace's, A Keeper of Bees for my birthday. As Wallace was one of my professors during my undergraduate days at the University of Central Arkansas (less than two years ago), I was interested in her new book, if anything, simply to read a published work by someone I knew. Especially since Barnes & Noble (I know, enemy to small booksellers everywhere, but I promise I visit Nightbird too!) also carried it, thus meaning that they thought it would appeal to someone, somewhere.

So, I sat down with A Keeper of Bees, having just finished my first summer as a grad student and needing to read something to keep my mind off my recent wisdom teeth removal. The book was intriguing and delightful. As someone who ravenously reads Michael Pollan, Wallace's book fell within writing that interested me. Much like Pollan, Wallace intertwines describing the bee-world--and keeping them--with her own life in such away that enriches what bees are. I enjoyed the style of the book; it was short and to the point, but infused with humor and personality that I could almost see her eye twinkle with enjoyment as she relates, for example, her first encounter with the bees while trying to plant her broccoli a little too close to their hive or her hive swarms.

The ultimate question, though, is why should you read it? After all, if you wanted information about bees, couldn't you just read a book on beekeeping? Perhaps my own enjoyment was a result of knowing Wallace, but the work is genuinely worth the read. It is well crafted, carefully written, and an illuminating expression of the connection between our life's circumstances and that of the "four-footers" (to use a phrase from Wallace). If you are interested in bees, nature, or just on the hunt for a good book, I'd highly recommend A Keeper of Bees.

(See the Random House site for a blurb on the book, or visit Amazon).

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Rapturous Delight...

To use a 19th C. phrase, straight from the world of British Romanticism. I simply want to express the joy and passion with which I regard my wonderful grad class this semester. Simply put, it excels my expectations. Not only do I feel like we're reading great books and learning about a formative period of literature, but also I feel like I'm acquiring more (and improving) skills I'll need to be a successful academic.

The class is difficult and challenging, but that's partly why I love it. It forces me to be prepared to engage in meaningful discussion (and back up my points), and really strive for excellence. And not only is the material interesting (literature, criticism, history), but the professor is also wonderful. She's charming, intelligent, and a great teacher--she's one of those that will look at you and ask "Why?" after you say something, so you'd better be ready to back yourself up. It's an all around great class...and here's a reading list :)
  • The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole
  • The Monk by Matthew Lewis
  • Zofloya by Charlotte Darce
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  • Vathek by William Beckford
  • The Bride of Lammermoor by Sir Walter Scott
  • Emma by Jane Austen
And some other very intriguing works to be later discussed, I'm sure. After this moment of rapturous delight in the beauties of my lit class, we can now return to the regularly scheduled posting of things pertaining to books. (Though this does technically...)