Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Writing robots and grammar genes

I was still thinking about irregular verbs when I got home yesterday, so I decided to run the suspect sentence past my 17-year-old son. I asked him how he felt about this sentence: She laid naked on the bed.

"It should be lay," he said.

Then I asked, "Can you think of any context in which it would be appropriate to say 'She laid naked on the bed'?"

Without a pause he replied, "Only if it's talking about someone named Naked."

It's frightening the way that boy thinks. People are always telling me, "Of course your kid's a good writer; his mother's an English professor!" Or, "Of course he aced the SAT writing test! Look who his mother is!" As if he were just little remote-control writing robot responding to commands from my joystick. Do people really think I drill my children in irregular verbs at the dinner table and critique their journal entries on road trips? Or do they suspect me of spiking their Kool-Aid with secret herbal aids guaranteed to promote proper syntax?

The fact is that my son never lets me look at his writing. The only reason I know he's a good writer is that he sometimes accidentally leaves essays on my computer, where I exercise a mother's prerogative and read them. They're good, but I don't claim any credit for the fact that both of my children can wield words with creativity and grace. They grew up surrounded by books and learned to love reading, but their writing skills are solely their own. I certainly never drilled my son on the distinction between lie and lay, and if he cares enough about the language to have mastered that distinction, that's a testament to his talent and not mine.

On the other hand, maybe it's all genetic--in which case let's all congratulate ourselves for possessing good grammar genes, give up trying to teach our students the distinction between lie and lay, and dedicate the rest of our lives to promoting better grammar through eugenics.

You first.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Lie and lay: a little lesson

Suppose a woman--let's call her Sharon--has a cat with a bad skin disease resulting in the loss of fur, and suppose Sharon gets in the habit of calling that cat "Naked" instead of its given name, "Sultana." And suppose one day Sharon comes home to discover the cat called Naked lying sick on the cold tile floor, unable even to lift her head to meow "Hello." Sharon knows that Naked is not long for this world and she wants to make her departure as comfortable as possible, so she picks up the cat and sets her carefully on the bed. In this case it would be possible for someone writing about the situation to begin a story with the sentence, "She laid Naked on the bed." Laid is the past tense of lay, a transitive verb meaning "to set (something) down." Sharon set down the cat: laid is the word you want.

Now suppose Sharon, overcome with grief, decides to lie down next to her suffering cat. She pets Naked gently while the cat breathes its last breath, and then she says a little prayer for the repose of Naked's feline soul. She has no time to waste, however, because she knows her husband will soon arrive home from a long stint in Iraq and he would prefer his bed to hold a live wife than a dead cat. Dwayne has never cared for the cat; he wanted to have Naked put to sleep back when the first faint hints of the dreaded skin disease manifested themselves. Sharon had promised to put the cat to sleep after Dwayne left for Iraq, but she has not kept her promise, and now she must quickly compose herself so his first moments home from the war will be suitably welcoming. She wraps the dead cat and hides the body in the trunk of her car, and then she bustles about lighting candles and dressing in a little red satin skimpy thing. Some time later, when Dwayne finally remembers to ask her how long it's been since the cat died, she says, "Oh, months and months." In this case it is possible to begin a story with the sentence, "She lied naked in the bed." Lied is the past tense of lie, meaning "to tell an untruth." A naked Sharon told a lie about the cat: lied is word you want.

Suppose, though, that you want to begin a story about a naked woman who at some time in the past was recumbent on a bed. She is not telling an untruth and she is not setting something down; therefore, the verb you want is neither lay nor the form of lie meaning to tell an untruth. Instead, you want the form of lie that means "to recline." And what is the simple past tense of that form of lie? Why, lay, of course! Sharon might lie on the bed today, but sometime in the past, Sharon lay on the bed. She never laid on it unless she was setting something down, like the cat, Naked. Therefore, it would not be appropriate to begin a story with the sentence "Sharon laid naked on the bed"--unless you want to start all over again with that darn cat. Sharon lies on the bed today, but she lay naked on it yesterday, and she laid Naked the cat on it last week, and she might lie there speculating about where else at she might have laid the cat and how she might have lied about it, and whether she might have lain more easily at night if she had told Dwayne the simple truth.

See? It's not that difficult.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Fighting Kung-Fu

We did a little channel-flipping tonight in an intrepid effort to avoid the Oscars, and somehow we stumbled on an episode of a classic of televised cheesiness: Kung-Fu, which was my adorable husband's favorite show back in the 1970s. An hour later, I can say that 1973 must have been a particularly bad year for both hair and dialogue. The resident 17-year-old, who had never seen Kung-Fu, took great pleasure in translating the old Asian guy's enigmatic pronouncements into Yoda-esque mystical insights. From deep within the Lazy-Boy would come the Yoda voice: "Every journey a beginning must have, and an ending must it come to."

My journeys this week should be fairly simple since the blizzard passed well north of here and the temperature appears to be rising. On Wednesday I leave for Atlanta, which means I'll spend the next two days frantically finishing things so I don't have to take a pile of work with me. The conference paper is written and the freshman essays are graded, but I still don't expect to have time to relax until I step onto the airplane--and who can relax on an airplane? I'll have to practice some deep breathing and focused visualizations, except that might lead me to envision an old blind Asian guy saying, "Can you snatch the pebble from my hand, Grasshopper?" When I'm trying to relax before takeoff, the last thing I want to envision is David Carradine with a bad haircut. That's one journey that never should have started.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Cracks in the ice

The sun is out and the snow has mostly melted, but our creek is experiencing a bit of a problem: all that thick ice broke up and drifted downstream until it hit our neighbor's low bridge, which is now holding back these huge chunks of ice that would really prefer to flow down to the river. Last night the temperature dipped low enough to let some of those ice chunks freeze together. You know Superman's Arctic hideaway with all those gigantic ice crystals sticking up at odd angles? That's what my creek looks like today.

That's also sort of what my life looks like right now. There's this big obstacle standing in the way of all my other projects, forcing them to stick out at odd angles in a vaguely menacing manner. I have two options: chip the oddly-shaped chunks into smaller pieces so they can move past the obstacle, or wait for a warm spell when everything starts to flow again. Today I've been doing a little chipping, a little waiting, a little more chipping, a little more waiting, and now I see the sun coming out ready to warm everything up and let it flow. One of these it will all flow freely again, but meanwhile, I'm lurking like Superman in his Arctic hideaway and gathering strength for the coming spring.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

How to play with students' minds

It happens at about this time every semester: to give my composition students some exercise in using the MLA guide, I take a pile of books to class and give each to a group 0f students, who then have to figure out how to write a Works Cited listing for that source. I give them books with multiple authors or no author or an author and a translator or odd configurations of titles and subtitles, and I always include a book by Calvin Trillin called Deadline Poet: My Life as a Doggerelist. The group working on that book almost always leaves off the subtitle, which gives me a chance to add it to their citation, and then the class discussion proceeds something like this:

"Does anyone know what a doggerelist is?"

Dead silence.

"Nobody knows what doggerelist means?"


"Does it help if I tell you I am a doggerelist?"

Silence accompanied by a few uncomfortable coughs and shuffles.

"Come on, what does doggerelist sound like?"

Finally, some brave soul says, "It sounds nasty."

This is when I smile broadly and explain what a doggerelist is--or not. Sometimes it's more fun to leave it to their imaginations.

I wonder: how many complaints would end up on the provost's desk if I just instructed all my students to go out and become doggerelists? It would almost be worth the experiment just to find out.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

When A means F

Grade spread statistics for last semester have just come out, and it turns out that I give more A's than anyone else in our department--but I also give more F's. My overall grade average is on par with the departmental average, but it appears that I'm more willing to give high grades than the rest of my colleagues. I've been trying to figure out what this means.

The most optimistic interpretation is that I'm such a terrific teacher that more of my students learn the material and thereby earn higher grades, but that argument cuts both ways: if A's indicate good teaching, then what does that high number of F's indicate? Let's not go there.

I'm sure that my emphasis on writing as a process and my concomitant willingness to respond to multiple drafts is part of the reason. If students have many opportunities to improve their work, some of them will do so, and the improved work may well result in an improved grade--or a whole bunch of improved grades. However, I'm not the only one in my department who responds to multiple drafts, so that can't be the only reason.

Maybe I'm not demanding enough, or maybe I'm just a pushover. That's not what my students tell me, but what do they know? Maybe I need to adjust my expectations and grading rubrics to make an A more elusive. Of course, I'm reluctant to make a change based on one semester's data, especially since I taught two literature courses and only one section of composition last semester, which could have skewed the results slightly. I tend to give fewer A's in composition than in other courses, which raises a completely different set of questions. This semester I'm teaching two sections of composition and one literature course, so perhaps the spread will be different. Or not. And if it is (or isn't), what will that mean?

The final question is this: If A's indicate success, why do I see a high number of A's as some sort of failure?

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

We all fall down

So far this week, various people have wanted many different things from me:

1. My parking space.

2. Paczki.

3. Permission to drop a required freshman writing course because it conflicts with the student's major courses and besides, she doesn't really need writing in her real life.

4. A teaching schedule with no afternoon or Tuesday/Thursday classes.

5. Minutes of last week's Faculty Council meeting.

6. My umbrella.

7. My library card.

8. A clear explanation of just what Robert Frost meant by "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," including my opinion on whether the poem might really be talking about Santa Claus.

9. A job description for a sudden unexpected opening in the department.

10. A search committee for same.

11. Deadlines for submissions for departmental awards.

12. Grades on papers I collected only yesterday.

13. One hundred blank white index cards.

14. My department's opinion on 200 essays by prospective students.

15. A film canister full of ashes.

I've been pretty accommodating, but I've had to send a few people away empty-handed. No grades today, folks, and no free passes for freshman comp, but there are plenty of paczki left--or perhaps I can interest you in some perfectly lovely ashes?

For Lent, I think I'll give up listening.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Anvil is the answer

That cloud?

It was a falling anvil.


Bloggers Without Borders

That's the title of a cartoon in a recent issue of the New Yorker. What is a Blogger Without Borders? Guy with a megaphone on a streetcorner.

I don't have a megaphone, but next week I'll be a Blogger Without Borders when I crawl out from the confines of this little space to give a paper at the AWP conference in Atlanta. That's the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and no, I don't know why there's only one W in the acronym. Maybe the extra W escaped, or maybe it's being held for an exorbitant ransom by insidious anti-W forces, or maybe the W got off a the wrong metro stop and can't find Peachtree Street.

But if you are not an errant W and you know how to find Peachtree Street and you plan to be at the AWP conference next week, let's get together for coffee. Leave a comment if you're interested and then watch this space for the time and location of the first Bloggers Without Borders meeting. Megaphones optional.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Albatross or anvil?

I see on the horizon a cloud no bigger than a man's hand, but I can't decide whether it looks more like a looming albatross or a falling anvil or a sign of soothing rain or whether it will drop with a gentle sigh or a screech or a splat. Will umbrellas be called for or something more sturdy? Will I laugh or cry or stand around looking stupid? No point in thinking about it, really. Sufficient unto the day are the evils thereof, and so on. Can't talk about it, shouldn't think about it, mustn't worry about it, really must move on whistling in the dark and hoping for rain, anvil or no anvil. The sun'll come out tomorrow, and that cloud? There's got to be a silver lining somewhere, and if someone will just distract the albatross for a moment while I shove this anvil out of the way, maybe we'll find it.

Friday, February 16, 2007

News flash! Prof denies paternity!

Shocking developments in the Anna Nicole Smith story: A local professor today issued a statement denying that he is the father of Anna Nicole Smith's baby.

"Rumors of our relationship are greatly exaggerated," he said, adding that he has "no comment" on allegations that he cavorted with Ms. Smith while his wife was on sabbatical. "I have no recollection of that," he insisted.

In an informal poll, 87 percent of faculty members questioned stated that it is "not impossible" that their colleague might be the father of Smith's baby. "He certainly speaks like a man with something to hide," said a Communications professor, while a prominent ethicist added, "Whatever he might or might not have done, I'm sure he had the best intentions."

The professor in question declined to confirm that he is willing to submit to a paternity test, saying, "You'll have to talk to my attorney about that." He did, however, pledge his undying support for the college. "I will not allow the media spotlight to distract me from my work here," he said, "and if, by some strange combination of events, I should suddenly come into a large sum of money, I promise to donate half of it toward the new library."

That's the news, fair and balanced as always.

Thursday, February 15, 2007


Mark the date: today for the first time ever I found in a student paper the acronym "LOL," right smack in the middle of what was supposed to be an in-depth analytical essay. I confess that I did Laugh Out Loud, but it was not the Guffaw of Glee (GOG) but the Chortle of Bitter Anguish Suffused with Alarm and Despair for the Future of the English Language (COBASWAADFTFOTEL). That's a laugh no student wants to hear.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Staying alive

Take some snow followed closely by rain; freeze and then add more snow on top and whip it all up with some vicious wind and what do you get?

A Snow Day, that's what you get. I don't know what campus looks like but my road looks a thrill ride at Ice World, and let's not even talk about the driveway. I'm staying home today, but it's not exactly a day off. I've cancelled my only Wednesday class but I'm requiring the students to participate in an online discussion of the reading material so we don't fall too far behind. I'm using the same methods I developed for last semester's Pandemic Day (read about it here), and so far it seems to be working.

I'm also missing three meetings this afternoon, which is good news. Any three-meeting day is bound to be brutal, but three meetings occurring during my stupidest time of day--well, I'd rather be one of those hedgehogs in Alice's surreal croquet game. Being repeatedly hit by a croquet mallet can't possibly be any worse than being subjected to committee-conceived prose three times in one afternoon.

There will be consequences, of course. There are always consequences. We'll have to do a little catching up in the American Lit Survey class, and the three meetings will eventually be rescheduled, although perhaps not on the same day. But meanwhile, we're celebrating Valentine's Day by staying home--and staying alive.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Taking a stand for concision

Half of my department stayed home today, either sick or stuck because of the weather. Several of my commuting students stayed home for similar reasons, and I don't blame them: while the roads here in town are not bad (which is saying a lot for the Land that Snowplows Forgot), the outlying areas are pretty treacherous. I live in one of those outlying areas and I did not enjoy the trip to town this morning.

I did, however, enjoy my 8:00 class, and I have been relishing reading drafts of their papers, even the one that referred to a particular feature of the baseball stadium as the "concision stand." I would like to send a few students to the concision stand: the one who begins 90 percent of his sentences with "There is" or "There are"; the one who loves to turn the simplest of syntax into a quivering mass of embedded "that" clauses; the one whose thesis statement features the phrase "it is to be concluded that." Go to the concision stand and trade in those wordy constructions for more concise expressions; toss out the convoluted institutional syntax and trade up to clear and possibly even elegant sentences. We need a concision stand in every classroom!

Right now, though, we don't even have a teacher in every classroom. But that's okay: the roads will not be treacherous forever, and even the flu will eventually move on--and maybe one day some of my students will discover the concision stand on their own.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Mastering Edgar Lee

The tables were turned in my American Lit Survey class this morning: generally I'm the one trying to persuade reluctant students to appreciate an author who makes them want to run screaming from the room, but today it was the other way around. The subject was Edgar Lee Masters. Now I admit that I have read and written on Masters and I have come to appreciate and perhaps even admire his accomplishment in Spoon River Anthology, but when it comes to actually reading the poems--well, I'd really rather not.

Many of my students, on the other hand, were enthusiastic about the six Masters poems in their anthology. "Help me to understand what you enjoy about these poems," I said, and they did: they like the individual voices that build a complex vision of the human condition; they like the little moral lessons liberally sprinkled among the poems; they like the scientific metaphors used to explain human behavior; and they really like the casual, almost raw language and free verse.

No one said anything about how heavy the poems feel, how lacking in awareness of the rhythms of the English language. There was some appreciation for the poet's liberal use of irony, but many students were eager to accept Masters's little sermonettes at face value, as if irony did not enter into the equation and the entire collection could be summed up by cliches about living life to the fullest. And while the students recognized the bleakness of Masters's vision, this did not prevent them from taking pleasure in the poems.

So I guess the problem is mine. I recently re-read all 300ish pages of Spoon River Anthology in preparation for a conference paper, and it felt like being force-fed tombstones: the poems are clunky and awkward and stink of the grave, and the language is turgid at times and generally uninspired. Here, for instance, is "Griffy the Cooper":

The cooper should know about tubs.
But I learned about life as well,
And you who loiter around these graves
Think you know life.
You think your eye sweeps about a wide horizon, perhaps,
In truth you are only looking around the interior of your tub.
You cannot lift yourself to its rim
And see the outer world of things,
And at the same time see yourself.
You are submerged in the tub of yourself--
Taboos and rules and appearances,
Are the staves of your tub.
Break them and dispel the witchcraft
Of thinking your tub is life!
And that you know life!

I suppose it's interesting to imagine that the local cooper could be Plato in disguise, but beyond that, this poem leaves me cold. It tells too much and tells it flatly, and it sounds like it ought to be read in that awful pretentious drone common to bad poetry readings, the voice suggesting that the poet is Very Very Serious while the rest of us are simply pathetic, unenlightened schmucks submerged in the tub of ourselves.

Maybe that's true. If so, it would explain why I don't enjoy reading Edgar Lee Masters. Appreciate, yes. Admire, yes. Enjoy? Never.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Feeding time, all the time

The house is quiet with the men out of town, which makes it much easier to hear the sounds I'm accustomed to ignoring, from the wail of the woodburner to the call of the cat. The cat wonders where the young man is. "He's in Texas looking at a college," I tell her, but she just looks at me with "Feed me" in her eyes. I point out that I just fed her a little while ago and there's plenty of food in her dish. Somehow, this fails to satisfy.

Satisfying the woodburner is another problem entirely. I can count on the cat to come crawling around my ankles when she's hungry, but the woodburner has selected a more nefarious method: it has wheedled its way into my subconscious mind, where it patiently waits until I am sound asleep and then jerks me to alertness with an urgent demand that I feed the fire. "But I already fed you," I tell the woodburner. "Now go away and let me sleep." So it goes off and sulks in my subconscious again until I'm just edging into blissful sleep and then there it is again, that panicky voice screaming "Feed the fire!"

It doesn't matter how many times I tell the woodburner "I just fed you," because its listening skills are no better than the cat's. In fact, the cat is so adept at ignoring all communiques from Planet Human that I ought to take advantage of that skill. The next time the fully-loaded woodburner comes screaming to me for more wood, I'll try a different approach. "Go tell it to the cat," I'll say. "I'm sure she'll listen."

Thursday, February 08, 2007

An incomplete education

Over at rateyourstudents this week scholars have been griping about research and publication, and it's just depressing. Here is a typical comment:

Academic publishing has long been a joke. We all can pretend that scholarship and research may fire our own teaching, but really it's just masturbatory indulgence. I don't write for any other reason than to thicken my tenure portfolio. I rarely write about things that interest me; I never write about anything that would mean a bit to my sophomore seminar students.

This is the saddest thing I've read all week. Here we have a person who has apparently put a lot of time, effort, and money into getting academic credentials without ever discovering how to make meaningful connections among his scholarship, his pedagogy, and his passions. What is the point of such a woefully incomplete education? The world is not exactly crying out for more passionless writing and teaching. Who is at fault here? And what is the cure?

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Winter wonderland

This is my road--before the big snow fell.

And this is my creek.

And this is my little chickadee. Okay, it's not exactly mine; it's just one of the many chickadees that visit our feeders.

Snow day

The view outside my window this morning is spectacular: everything is covered with snow, even the branches of tall trees. The sun is just coming up, making the frosted landscape sparkle and glow. I saw a truck drive by on the road a few minutes ago, but the road itself is still invisible.

Every public school in the area is closed today and every community college, but my institution remains open on the theory that the students are there anyway so we may as well teach 'em something. After a while we'll set out to try to retrieve my car, but my class starts at 11 today so I'll give the snowplows some time to do their work first. I'll be sure to take a change of clothes with me today so I can stay in town tonight if I have to, provided that I get to town--and if I don't, I'm sure my students wouldn't object to an unexpected day off.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Adventures in Commuting

This evening's Adventure in Commuting began with a quick visit to the grocery store, which was crowded with people stocking up on the staples they need to survive the snowstorm that began this afternoon and threatens to continue most of the night. It's always interesting to see what people think they'll need to get them through a weather disaster: the store's stocks of milk, eggs, and toilet paper were pretty well depleted, and many shoppers were pushing around carts full of canned goods. The guy in front of me at the checkout line had simpler needs: a case of beer and a frozen loaf of garlic bread. Hope he's planning to stay in for a while.

I made it about a third of the way home before being defeated by a hill. My van wasn't willing to go up the hill, and I wasn't interested in finding out what would happen if it tried to negotiate the S-curve on the downhill side. Rear-wheel drive is not the smart choice in this kind of weather; besides, I get a little nervous when I can't even see where the road is. So I abandoned my van at a convenience store and called home for reinforcements. The fearless husband, who grew up outside Cleveland and believes he can drive through anything, came and rescued me, but I notice that he took the big hill in second gear all the way and never got above 7 mph. My Adventure in Commuting ended with a quick dash up the driveway and a pause to appreciate the beauty of the snow. Let it fall. I'm staying home.

The Comma Fairy is very unhappy!

The eyeballs are suffering from overload after attending to a pile of freshman drafts and another pile of literature papers asking me to think about "various different literary works" that display the influence of "various different isms," but here's the question that keeps running through my mind: where did all the punctuation go? I've long accepted the fact that many students don't know the difference between a colon and a semicolon or a hyphen and a dash, but now even the commas are disappearing. I see "however" plunked down in the middle of a sentence without its full complement of commas, and I see "for example" or "obviously" or "in addition" at the beginning of a sentence with no happy little comma following.

I have seen entire papers lacking any trace of commas, and I have seen several other papers that insert commas only where they are least welcome: separating a verb from its subject. I don't know how many times today I have read sentences starting like this: "The Yellow Wallpaper," is a story about....

What is that comma doing there? And why am I seeing so many examples of this annoyingly intrusive comma when other places are just crying out for commas but remain bereft? Today the Comma Fairy sits alone in her lair, where she sifts stacks of neglected commas while plaintively singing, "Where have all the commas gone?" Someday, though, she'll get tired of singing and step out to take vengeance on those who have so cruelly rejected her--or else she'll slowly wander off into the sunset arm-in-arm with the Hyphen Helper, the Semicolon Sylph, and the High and Exalted Annunciator of Ampersands. And I, for one, will be sorry to see them go.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Another turnip trauma

Now that the trauma is fading into memory and the household has been purged of all trace of the offending substance, I am at liberty to describe what may well have been the most wretched meal I have ever encountered. The only meal in memory that even comes close was the incident with the dog-hairs in the frosting, and that occurred in another time and another place--and it was not perpetrated by someone with whom I expect to spend the rest of my life. When a neighbor serves you a birthday cake studded with dog hairs, you can at least take comfort in mentally inventing excuses to avoid eating there again. This option is unavailable when the cook is the love of your life.

The current culinary trauma occurred last Thursday, when my wonderful helpful husband called me at the office with exciting news: "Don't worry about supper," he said. "I put some bratwurst and turnips in the crockpot."

I was not, as you would imagine, overcome with glee at his words, but I knew he was just trying to be supportive. Still, I steeled myself for the ordeal ahead by stopping at the grocery store on the way home and stocking up on ice cream, just in case we might need a little distraction after the main dish.

And what a dish it was. My husband makes bread to die for and grilled meats to make Bobby Flay salivate, but crockpot cooking is not his forte. While turnips and bratwurst made up the base of the stew, he had also added little dabs of this and that from the fridge: pepperoni, frozen summer squash, ground pork, mashed potatoes, green beans, and I was afraid to ask what else. These duelling ingredients congealed into a gloppy mass with a consistency and texture not unlike that of vomit, only with bigger chunks.

And the flavor! Let us pass silently over the folly of mixing the bland with the ridiculous. My son and I looked at each other over the crockpot and struggled to find words to express a complex message: "We appreciate the effort, but please don't ever do it again!" After dutifully finishing a petite portion, I put down my fork and said brightly, "I hope you like this, honey, because I suspect you'll be eating a lot of it in the next few days!"

And he did. The young man and I have been studiously ignoring the leftover Turnip and Bratwurst Surprise lingering loathesomely in the refrigerator, but the husband doesn't believe in wasting food so he has been making steady progress on the diminishing disaster. He doesn't complain, and neither do I. It was edible, after all, and it wasn't decorated with dog hairs.

And best of all, it's gone.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Unnatural Voices

Just to show that I'm capable of saying something positive about a new work of literary criticism, let me share how much I'm enjoying Unnatural Voices: Extreme Narration in Modern and Contemporary Fiction by Brian Richardson. I'm just two chapters in and I have already written my name in the book, which means it's a keeper. The prose is clear, the reasoning sophisticated, and the scope admirable--and best of all, he approaches the topic with a refreshing originality and depth of insight, making me want to revisit the literature and rethink my assumptions. I envision assigning part or all of the book in my upper-level novel class, which focuses on twentieth-century experiments in narration; even students who resist thinking about formal elements of narration will find Richardson's argument and examples engaging. Besides that, the cover illustration is neat. Gold stars all around.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Buy the book!

Roughly 90 pages into a new and much-anticipated work of literary criticism, I finally gave up. The wonder is that I made it that far. The prose is leaden, the analysis uninspired, and the supporting points so obvious they would not be out of place in an undergraduate research paper. This book, though, was written by a distinguished senior scholar and published by a reputable university press; it has been very well reviewed and I had been looking forward to reading it for some time. I slogged through the first insipid half of the book hoping for more meat later on, but then I encountered this passage:

"Morrison's exploration of desire in Jazz reaches its climax at the midpoint of the story when spring arrives in Harlem. This timing strikes the reader as natural and spontaneous because spring in the Northern Hemisphere brings renewal of life on Earth. For young and old Harlemites, spring--perhaps a season of emotion just as autumn is a season of intellect--stimulates one's latent desire."

Then, just in case thick-headed readers have somehow failed to absord the spring = renewal = desire equation, the author adds a paragraph summarizing other literary works that have made the same connection. T.S. Eliot, for instance, in case you hadn't heard, calls April "the cruellest month" but also emphasizes spring's fecundity, while Henry James sends Chad Newsome and Mme de Vionnet out on a boat in--you guessed it--spring!

What we have here is a distinguished scholar telling us that spring is the time when a young man's fancy turns to love, and a young woman's too. Oddly enough, I didn't need to read an expensive hardback book to discover that insight.

But maybe you do. If so, I'd be happy to sell you my copy.

Give a hoot

Yesterday a sign in front of a local business proclaimed the following message: "balls hooting clinic."

1. What kind of business?
2. What does it mean?

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Why I love winter

1. Pollen and leaf mold and other allergens get locked into the frozen ground and covered by snow so I can breathe freely for a change.

2. Classroom temperatures remain a little chilly, but I don't resent a cold classroom in January as much as I resent a bitterly cold classroom in July, when the building is both cold and damp.

3. My woods look like a picture postcard, all the dead brown stuff covered with a light white frosting of snow.

4. Juncos come back with the snow to entertain me.

5. No one begs me to go out for a walk when it's this cold.

6. There's nothing bluer than a clear blue winter sky.

7. Wool socks make me warm all over.

8. We heat our house with wood, which means our winter electric bills are half the size of our summer bills.

9. All my best teaching clothes are wool.

10. Cold weather is good for the constitution, making us feel as if we've triumphed over some challenge of mythic proportions. And we have.