For much of my youth, I was put off by dystopic visions. I’m not sure if this was because I was so frightened of what my own future could become, if I was horrified by the dark glimpses into human nature that dystopias provide or because I’d been frightened by a childhood viewing of an HBO special on Nostradamus, featuring explorations of a coming apocalypse that were rather hysterical (in both senses of the word). I eschewed all of the texts that would later captivate me (like Bladerunner) and settled on comforting visions of the future (like the socialist near paradise that was Star Trek). Then, in high school, there was The Handmaid’s Tale. One relative, who had not read the book, but who had heard some rumors about it, tried to deny me access, even though it was required reading. Luckily, I prevailed. It entranced me, both with its ideas and its language—which could be poetic and tragic and comic all at the same time. When Aunt Lydia tells the girls that they are rare and valued, like pearls, our narrator contemplates the metaphor: “I think about pearls. Pearls are congealed oyster spit” (145)—it was exactly the type of close reading that I was prone to do.
Perhaps the text drew me in because I identified with it. Atwood wrote parts of the novel in Alabama, very near where I was growing up (in “Florbama”—the part of Florida directly underneath Alabama). Her world seemed very real to me—I was deep in the Bible belt; our world history teacher was forbidden to acknowledge that there was any history before the ancient Egyptians, as that fact offended parents who believed the Earth was only 6000 years old; abstinence only education was standard; an abortion provider, David Gunn, was murdered in my town right around the time we encountered the handmaid’s repressive society.
I was electrified. Not all students responded the same way, of course. I remember one girl complaining that she didn’t like the book because it was disturbing. And I remember the teacher’s response: “Good. It’s supposed to disturb you.”
Those are the first three paragraphs of my introductory essay to Atwood’s Apocalypses.
I’m crazy excited about Hulu’s premiere today. It’s taking all my willpower to do work this morning instead of watching. Fingers crossed that this is better than the much maligned film (with a screenplay by Nobel Prize winner Harold Pinter)!
A review of the start will be coming soon.
In the meantime, are you excited about Atwood? Consider liking The Margaret Atwood Society on Facebook or following us on Twitter (@atwoodsociety)–we post lots of Atwood news there–for free!
Full membership is only $15.
Years ago, I read Jane Eyre for class while sick with the flu. It’s fitting that I had Lyndsay Faye’s Jane Steele to read during my week of the spinal cord stimulator test. Jane Steele‘s narrator is very much like Jane Eyre, and Faye manages to capture 19th century storytelling in a captivating way. This narrator has more spunk than the original Jane–more desires of her own and less patience with prurient males and idiots. She’s more like us, except she’s killed more people.
I also just finished (and enjoyed!) Julia Claiborne Johnson’s Be Frank with Me, about a young woman in the publishing industry who is assigned to help a famous reclusive writer pen a second novel. Helping means taking over the full-time childcare of the author’s precocious, socially awkward son.
While I was traveling to Chicago a couple of weeks ago, I started The Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne. I read the first novel in a day–it’s delightful urban fantasy with a great comic touch. The hero is an old druid living in the modern world–with a penchant for Shakespeare and helping people know their sprites from their fairies and their adjectives from their adverbs.
And everyone’s read Hag-seed by Atwood now, right? BECAUSE IT’S AMAZING!
We all know the ways in which 2016 has sucked.
I’ve cried a lot more this year, over the deaths of heroes, over the death of reasonable elections, over the fear of how much worse it might get.
But there were good things in 2016.
Melissa Bender and I had a book come out.
I spoke at conferences in Spain, Sweden, London, San Diego, Portland, and Chicago (twice).
I saw Love and Information, The Deep Blue Sea, The Suicide, Aubergine, Keith Lowell Jensen, Emo Philips, Blackberry Winter, Macbeth, Igudesman & Joo, Mr. Burns, Women of Will, the Cashore Marionettes, Disgraced, To Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday, Frankenstein, Latin History for Morons with John Leguizamo, The Totalitarians, the opening of the Shrem Museum, and The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips.
I did guest lectures and interviews and stage talk backs. I taught courses that I love, films that I love, plays that I love, creative nonfiction that I love.
I taught 15 courses, got my first grad student through her PhD, mentored and performed with my stand-up students, got another Atwood journal out, started prepping for next year’s Oxford course, ran a program, and got chosen to run another.
I made old family favorites and tried new recipes, including my first shepherd’s pie, my first souffle, and my first carnitas. I made tons of soups and stews and proved the worth of my crock pot time and again.
Today I came home from lunch with Melissa to find a few copies of our book at my doorstep.
We’re proud of this–twenty great assignments, with rationales and tips for integrating them into your classroom.
Melissa and I also both wrote a chapter.
Buy yours here or here.
Remember when I wrote about some changes I was trying to make? Well, I’m happy to report that I’ve still been walking/exercising a lot more. However, I fell behind in doing lots of writing.
In my defense, I taught three classes this summer, went straight to Spain for a conference after the quarter was done, came back to start five more classes, and am heading to Sweden on Tuesday.
There are lots of pics and experiences to share–and I will–I just have to do this other stuff first. 🙂
In the meantime, if you haven’t seen my piece on Star Trek, it’s here.
In addition to the usual blogs and magazines, I’ve been able to finish a few books so far this year.
Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher–this was for book group. It’s a quick and funny read, especially if you’re into academy satire. It’s an epistolary novel through one point of view. As an English professor writes his letters of rec, etc., we learn about him, his department, and the future of academia. My favorite parts are when he describes what his creative writing students are working on–all but one seems to be focused on supernatural drivel. However, the passage I’ll quote is from a letter of rec that I want to steal for some of my own: “Mr. Lesczynski attended class faithfully, arriving on time, and rarely succumbed to the undergraduate impulse to check his cell phone for messages or relentlessly zip and unzip his backpack in the final minutes of class.”
There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In–Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. The novellas in this collection were written a long time ago, but could not be published because they depicted unhappy people struggling to get by behind the iron curtain. Interesting stuff, but I can’t say I found them very engaging. I was also irritated by the introduction–the scholar gives away the endings of what you’re about to read, but doesn’t see fit to contextualize some of the important references (like how the support rationing worked) Westerners will likely not understand.
The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle–one of Alexander’s favorite artists has done a great cover of the song (by America) from this movie. He asked if we had it–we did once upon a time, but on VHS. And I’d never owned or read the book. I suggested he get a copy from the library. To our surprise, Sac State had a signed one! I now get to show him one of my favorite childhood films (when we get the Netflix disc)–nothing is going to surprise him though (except maybe who voices the King), since the film is remarkably faithful.
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande–I’ve been reading and teaching Gawande for years. One of my favorite articles by him is “Letting Go” from The New Yorker, so I was thrilled when his latest book was an expansion of it. Being Mortal is an exploration of how we handle death in America (not well)–we spend most healthcare dollars on the last months of life; we don’t talk to our families about the end (the most heartbreaking section is about Gawande’s own father dying–they’re both physicians, but they had trouble having the necessary end of life conversations); physicians aren’t trained to guide us through these moments/talks–and insurance companies don’t want them spending the time to; etc. Great read–read it, write the living will (as I need to), and talk to your family.
The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness–The third in the All Soul’s Trilogy. Satisfying. Perfect for getting to Vancouver and curling up in a hotel room bed.
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion–I read most of this on the plane back from Vancouver. A friend of a friend recommended it as a light comic read. It’s about a man on the spectrum in Australia who begins a project to find a wife–questionnaire and all. Things, of course, go awry. I’m tempted to read the sequel, and I’ll definitely go to see the movie they’re making of it.
The gods have not heard my pleas for an easier year; in fact, they’ve taken away a big part of my joy and refuge, but at least there are good books.
(Totally published this at first without mentioning another important book–I’ve had to go in to edit my own book in! Atwood’s Apocalypses–ask your library to buy it now!)
I haven’t blogged much this year. This is partly because it’s been a crazy (busy) year, but it’s also partly because it’s been a pretty awful year in many ways. Some lowlights: replacing two cars (one replacement is a lemon that is in the shop as I write this); several trips to the ER; most of the year in physical therapy; between 2-7 medical appointments each and every week (expensive + time consuming!); Grandma dying; Vanessa moving away; taking in Mindy (not because Mindy is awful, but just because having to deal with another person in our too small place and having her disabled & thus needing to move in is awful); several medical procedures.
All of this happened in a year in which I taught 18 courses, served on several committees, edited the Atwood journal, edited Prized Writing, ran the upper division comp exam, edited a collection on Atwood for Cambridge, and hit quite a few conferences.
In short, I’m tired and fairly cranky from being tired and being in pain.
I’m really hoping that 2015 is a lot better. As a symbol of starting that, let’s talk about the good things that happened this year:
My classes were generally good. Some were very good. An independent study I did with an honors student was awesome. Teaching was a wonderful break from everything else.
I have become one of the favorite people of Artemis, the cutest baby in Davis, who gets to come over to my house at least once a week.
My boyfriend is awesome and our time together is consistently enjoyable, as we provide each other a refuge from the rest of the world.
My friends are amazing. They are supportive, generous, and thoughtful. I’m especially grateful to have been able to travel with Melissa and with Vanessa, to see Vanessa and Tiffany this holiday. Plus, friendship usually involves good wine.
I’ve been able to see some great plays and other live events, most notably in Ashland and here at Mondavi, where I caught Willie Nelson and Mike Birbiglia.
I’ve read some great books. Some I’ve mentioned here earlier in the year. A few more favorites: The Goldfinch–beautifully written. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves–my favorite book of the year–set in Davis, thoughtful, compelling, gorgeous. The Kingkiller Chronicles–picked this up on a lark–so good, so well paced–could not put them down. The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared–dry Scandinavian wit resulting in a very fun read. The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic–this is sort of a cross between Outlander and The All Soul’s Trilogy.
Here’s to more of the good stuff. And now, just because, comet Lovejoy:
Weird Al’s latest album, Mandatory Fun, features an upbeat parody of “Blurred Lines”–“Word Crimes.” The narrator of the song gives some grammar and word choice lessons, including the correct use of the apostrophe and “literally.”
Grammar Girl (Mignon Fogarty) objects to the song, saying, “I don’t expect a music video to get into the details, but what I see is that he’s appealing to the base instincts that I’m tired to the bone of seeing: The call to feel superior and to put other people down for writing errors.”
She notes that some people have argued that the video is a parody of grammar nazis (it can be read that way, although I agree it’s unlikely to be). I noted on FB that we should refrain from automatically assuming that the artist and the narrator of a song are the same person. After all, on the same album, Al sings that he wears a hat made of aluminum foil because “there’s always someone that’s watching you / And still the government won’t admit they faked the whole moon landing . . .”
However, the artist’s views on grammar are well known. Al does care about language. He has even made videos about correcting signs.
(Mignon, whom I adore, argues that his corrections are sometimes unneeded in the same article.)
But I just don’t share her disdain for the song or the video.
A small part of this is because of my love of Al. One day, years ago, I was in Maui. My then boyfriend and I happened upon a street sign that had been corrected. The boyfriend noted that my soul mate must be near. Later that evening, in his catch-up on all things Al (because he’d known me long enough to be converted), he found a video of Al correcting that sign that very day.
It’s not a coincidence either that I identify with the narrator of another Al song, who breaks up with a woman because of her inability to distinguish between “imply” and “infer”–I use those lyrics on a word choice handout.
I haven’t encountered anyone else who’s bothered by “Word Crimes.”
The music editor of The New Yorker described the video in an article: “Brackets and exclamation points dance as Yankovic defines contractions and counsels against using ‘c’ to mean ‘see.’ But Yankovic never comes off as a scold. Every aspect of his art is enthusiastic and cheerful, a throwback to an earlier era of comedy and pop culture, when lightness had validity.”
However, it’s possible that The New Yorker writer and I aren’t bothered because we don’t make those grammar mistakes–we aren’t the target of the song. Grammar Girl is worried about students viewing the video in class–as people with bad grammar are insulted in it. I’ve been the indirect target of jokes like this before, though. The Simpsons has lampooned people who teach college classes on cartoons and those who have taught at Florida State (as I have). I have had arguments about the relative virtues of Kirk and Picard, like the people Al skewers in “White and Nerdy.” In one of Al’s new songs, “Tacky,” he wears an airbrushed shirt as a signifier of tackiness. One of my airbrushed shirts has Al as his Simpsons avatar. I’m still laughing.
Grammar Girl said she hated to hate this song. I hate to say that I think she’s overreacting a bit. I don’t think this is going to do much damage even to the most sensitive grammar-challenged person. And, even though she might say it makes me a mean person, I like the song because I identify with it. I have friends who literally cringe when “literally” is misused. Denise and I had to fight our editors on the first book because they said my example of an its/it’s mistake might be too subtle (due to its commonality) for people to understand. Denise and I wanted it in for exactly that reason–it’s one of the most common errors out there, and people need to learn to fix it (if only because one of the ways people narrow down the pile of applications is to throw out the ones with an error).
I had a relative who thought I was pretentious because I spoke correctly as a teenager–I wasn’t trying to be, but I was already a reader, already a writer–and it would have been especially pretentious for me to try to dumb down for a grown man (it was just a lose-lose situation). I don’t correct signs. I don’t correct people outside of work, no matter who much I sometimes want to. But I’ve been fighting the good fight for writing properly in my classes for a while now. Each year, it gets harder. In the last couple of years, I have had students turn in formal essays with “you” written as “u.” In the last year, I’ve had several students refer to themselves as “i.” One student claimed he didn’t know he was supposed to capitalize that word.
This is in a university where we only accept people in the top of their class.
Sometimes I just need to know that I’m not the only one bothered by this. Add a catchy tune and my soul mate singing and two double entendres, and I can’t complain.
The library is recalling a lot of books, so it’s time for some short assessments as I try to clean out one of the shelves here.
Lynda Barry–The Freddie Stories. It’s a quick read, and some moments are engaging, but I got irritated by each two page spread being its own chapter. Why? Because many of the stories of course took more than two pages–the small interruptions into the flow of the tales wore on me. Or maybe I just like Barry in smaller doses overall.
Juan Diaz Canales & Juanjo Guarnido–Blacksad (and Blacksad: A Silent Hell). If I ever get to teach the Spanish literature course (in Spain) that I’d like to, I will teach Blacksad. I really, really love the art. I enjoy the way these Spanish artists depict New Orleans, where Blacksad resides. However, it’s sometimes hard for me to get into the stories. Blacksad is a P.I. He and the other characters in the books are anthropomorphized animals. However, the P.I. thing just doesn’t always work for me. For example, I find it almost laughable when Blacksad takes on the case of a murdered former lover: “Out there, hiding somewhere, was the guilty one. Guilty of at least two murders, for he had killed a person and my memories.” Except, um, we just saw his beautifully illustrated memories, so . . .
For example, this memory, from Blacksad
Ursula Vernon–Digger Volume 2. The Digger series won the Hugo in 2012 in the Graphic Novel category. Digger is an engineering Wombat who enters a far off land through a strange hole. She tries to find her way back. It took me a long time to figure out that Digger was a woman, by the way, which is also why I like the series. She’s a digger, but not one for traditional human gender roles. Solid black and white art.
Francesco Francavilla–The Black Beetle: No Way Out. A superhero mystery. I didn’t get past the first few pages. A hot, vulnerable female scientist gets attacked by mysterious strangers. She gets saved by another mysterious stranger. There’s a mystery here, but I’m just feeling the cliche.
Inoue–Pepita. This is a sort of graphic (including pictures) travelogue as the Japanese artist Inoue explores the work and life of Gaudi. One of my great dreams is to see Barcelona one day so I can see Gaudi’s work up close. It’s always called to me. This is for people who love Inoue or Gaudi or architecture in general, but definitely not for everyone.
Darryl Cunningham–How to Fake a Moon Landing. This is a non-fiction text. Cunningham devotes chapters to debunking anti-science myths (like the Moon trip was a hoax, like there’s no global warming, etc.) One chapter which confused me was the anti-chiropractor chapter. Cunningham does not like chiropractors. He says they claim they can cure diseases with physical manipulation and that no one should ever claim they can fix back pain (he strangely says that nothing can cure it and also that drugs are safer). Cunningham is British–maybe that’s the issue. My American chiropractors have never spouted the nonsense he says they do. And I’ve actually had many issues completely resolved through chiropractic treatment, after trying drugs and the other stuff. (But no, nothing can “cure” long term back pain. However, both drugs and chiropractic can help manage it.)
A Gaudi apartment building
Kate Milliken–If I’d Known You Were Coming. Highly praised short story collection. I read this in book group a few weeks ago. I don’t remember most of the stories now. They were well written, but nothing is staying. Nothing needs that second read.
Gary Shteyngart–Absurdistan. Now that I’ve read a few satires in novel-length form, I’m more convinced that satire is really best when short. Our rich Russian hero is spoiled, fat, and absurd. He is emasculated in every way, but it doesn’t matter because of his money. His father’s money, to be precise, has every woman throwing themselves at him and men clamoring for his attention. The one woman he loves, though, allows herself to be drawn into an affair with her professor. Our hero ends up in Absurdistan while trying to leave Russia. People think there’s oil. There’s a little uprising. & so on. There are funny moments. Those who know about satellite nations and the problems of countries like Moldova will like this better than those who try to read it from a purely American lens. But overall: meh.
Kate Atkinson–Life After Life. Our heroine dies. A lot. Her life then restarts, and through small changes, she survives. Sometimes longer. Sometimes not. She sometimes does things she can’t explain (pushing someone down the stairs to guarantee that a train will be missed, etc.) It took me a while to get into it, but once I did, I loved it. Great backdrop of WWII (there’s even a life where she knows Hitler). Deservedly award-winning.
Ruth Ozeki–A Tale for the Time Being. This beat out Pynchon for an award I assume only goes to the very post-modern. You see, a novelist named Ruth is our narrator. She finds a Japanese school girl’s lunchbox (complete with diary) on the beach after the Japanese tsunami. I was completely taken by the Japanese girl’s story, which involves her father’s depression, her being bullied, her fabulous grandmother (a nun). Ruth’s story was boring to me (though one member of book group had the opposite response), as it was just her reading the diary, not worrying enough about her husband’s missing cat, and doing internet research to try to find the Japanese girl. A good read, but I would cut out a lot of Ruth. And I wouldn’t recommend this on a kindle (mine, anyway. There are footnotes to translate some of the Japanese, but my kindle won’t show footnotes until the end of a text).
Gillian Flynn–Gone Girl. Melissa had recommended this to me some time ago, and I just got around to reading it this week. In the first part of the novel, you have the narration of a man whose wife goes missing on their anniversary and the narration of the missing wife’s diary. One of them is lying. Thoughtful page turner. Recommended.
Jo Baker–Longbourn. I couldn’t get far into this. It’s the story of a maid at Longbourn–the Bennet house in Pride and Prejudice. Our narrator is not subtle (some of the ideas that should be teased out are spelled out for the reader, so they don’t miss them). In the first few pages, a mysterious male employee joins the household and is a jerk to her. Gee, I wonder what’s going to happen.
Despite everything, I have been able to get a bit of reading done. Below are some brief reviews:
We Can Fix It!: A Time Travel Memoir by Jess Fink. I didn’t finish this. A woman time travels back to see her younger self. She ends up having sex with her younger self. Repeat. Repeat. And it’s not even sexy. No time travel paradoxes are even mentioned. From the part I read, there was no real point. It seems more like a masturbatory fantasy in graphic novel form than anything else.
The Property by Rutu Modan. Another graphic novel–a good read about a family that travels back to the old country to attempt to reclaim a property that was lost when the family had to flee Europe during WWII. Well-drawn, solid story.
Gris Grimly’s Wicked Nursery Rhymes. This wants to be Gorey and Gaiman. It’s not.
Batman Incorporated by Grant Morrison. Batman begins to start franchising himself so more cities have his trademark protection. Fine idea and all, but I’m just not into it enough to keep going.
When David Lost His Voice by Judith Vanistendael. I couldn’t finish this one either. It’s described as a “tone poem”–those are tricky enough to get through sometimes when they aren’t in graphic novel form.
The Middleman and Other Stories by Bharati Mukherjee. I picked this up recently because I’d read and enjoyed “The Management of Grief,” about people who gather after their relatives’ plane has gone down near a foreign small town. I like the beginning of another story here, “A Wife’s Story,” which begins with an Indian woman watching Glengarry Glen Ross and having a bit of a fit about the characters’ casual racism. But then something happens common to most of the collection–richly described characters experience angst. They are just about to do something that will shift their lives, and then the story ends. We don’t get to see whether they’re lives get shifted, how it feels to have sex with that stranger, to quit the job, etc. I felt empty at the end of almost every tale.
The Surrogates by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele. Another graphic novel–this time presupposing a world in which surrogate bodies have mostly replaced ours. We send our avatars (younger, fitter) out in to the world to have sex with our husbands, to catch criminals, etc. (Crime is actually down because hurting the avatar is only property damage.) Yet there’s rebellion from those who believe we should encounter the world in flesh. Will we be ready to if they win?
Blasphemy by Sherman Alexie. This is a collection of classic and new stories. I love Alexie and find his short fiction often superior to his novels. Perfection.
Gail Carriger’s series: The Parasol Protectorate and The Finishing School. I had unfortunately tried to read the second book in the Parasol series, not realizing I had book 2, some years ago. Reading both series in the right order has been wonderful. It’s steampunk fiction. Parasol is for adults–set in Victorian England–in which our smart heroine must deal with a world in which steam power reigns and in which vampires and werewolves live alongside the sometimes inhospitable humans. The writing is light and sexy (especially in the first book). Our heroine’s moments of panic are usually both because someone is trying to kill her and because fleeing might expose an ankle. The Finishing School series is for young adults and is set in a finishing school for female spies and assassins. It serves as a prequel to the Parasol series, as some of our young ladies have grown up for Parasol. So good.