Sunday, January 11, 2015

A Fresh Take on Huck Finn and his America

Growing up on the banks of the Mississippi River in Alton, Illinois, the novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn always held a special fascination for me. Yet, I never really discovered the book on its deeper levels until I read it for a survey course in American Literature during my sophomore year of college. That, of course, makes sense because it is anything but a children's book. It is, truly, the place "where all American literature begins." And, it is also one of our most complex pieces of art that will forever stir up controversy.

During graduate school, I encountered the book again in a course on Twain and the "Rise of Realism," and it re-captured my attention, so much so that I briefly considered the book as a topic for my master's thesis. My focus would have been the "American Adam" concept and the book's ideas about our never ending search for renewal and redemption. Alas, like many scholars, I accepted the conclusion that "pretty much everything has been said" about the novel, and nothing new could be offered. So, I turned my attention to a contemporary Canadian novelist, Douglas Coupland, and produced a reasonably respectable bit of criticism.

Now, my attention has been brought back to Huck, as it appears a scholar has found something to add to the discussion about Twain's most endearing - and complicated - character, Huck. Butler professor Andrew Levy recently published to positive reviews a fresh look at Huck Finn's America, by focusing on the role of minstrel shows and violence in childhood that so informed Mark Twain's view of American society, and subsequently the role of race relations.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

All Writing is a Puzzle -

According to writer Peter Turchi, literature is "a puzzling experience."

In his new book, A Muse & a Maze: Writing as a Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic, Turchi examines and seeks to explain the "puzzle of the written word" as he explains the origins and significance of puzzles and similar mind games in society. Jigsaw puzzles have fascinated us for centuries, and they continue to sell well even in the era of digital media and X-box. In exploring the history of puzzles and games, Turchi explores the medium of narrative writing and wonders about the puzzling nature of stories. His basic explanation is that "all writers are puzzle makers," as they carefully construct and slowly reveal a complete portrait of an idea over the course of many pages. It's a fascinating way to look at literature and worth considering as we craft lessons for readers.

In a footnote I’d like to see appended to every article on Y.A. and every other B.S. genre browbeating, Turchi writes: “Is Toni Morrison’s Beloveda ghost story? Is Wuthering Heights a romance novel? Is Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses a western? … Outside of publishers’ sales meetings, when is it necessary or useful to attach labels to books?”

The analysis of literature, or simply the enjoyment of a well crafted tale, is really about appreciating the puzzling craft of narrative. So many disparate parts come together to create the ultimate paragraph, and for a reader, it's as gratifying to read that last sentence as it is to place that final jigsaw. Each moment brings not only satisfaction, but also understanding.


Monday, October 27, 2014

Young Adult Lit is Simply Entertainment - and That's OK

I'm not overly impressed with the writing of Rick Riordan - namely his immensely popular Percy Jackson series. But that's OK because he is not writing for me. When I first read the first book: Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief, I was intrigued by the potential. Here was a book that drew heavily from classic traditions. Though as I read I was a bit disappointed in the quality of the writing ... and the way the stories seemed more like "hacks" than attributions and derivatives. The writing just seemed overly weak and cliched, especially when compared with the brilliance of JK Rowling, who had set a new bar in children's lit. However, my kids, who are 9 and 12, as well as their friends and millions of other young people are duly impressed and entertained and, even, fanatical about the stories. And, that is fine with people like Noah Berlatsky who reminds us that "Young Adult Fiction Does Not Have to be a Gateway to the Classics."

Discussions like this often seem to presume that there was an idyllic time, somewhere in the past, when kids' books were substantially better, or when young people read great adult literature. Graham contrasts Percy Jackson and Riordan's new encyclopedia Percy Jackson's Greek Gods to the classic 1925 collection of Greek myths by Ingri and Edgar D'Aulaire. She finds Riordan's book slangy and "inscribed with obsolescence," since it references Craigslist, iPhones, and other pop culture detritus. The D'Aulaires, on the other hand, remain "lucid"—though their poetic Victorian language is, she admits, "stilted." Graham seems to conclude that it's a loss that kids want to read lines like "At first, Kronos wasn’t so bad. He had to work his way up to being a complete slime bucket" instead of  “In olden times, when men still worshiped ugly idols, there lived in the land of Greece a folk of shepherds and herdsmen who cherished light and beauty." To me, though, Riordan's joke about Kronos is actually better written: less weighed down with reverence, more surprising, and less condescending towards its subject matter (who is it who sees those idols as "ugly"?). I read Riordan's The Last Hero multiple times and worked on a study guide about it; I wouldn't say that its prose is deathless, but I can think of many inferior books. Percy Jackson isn't any worse than the Hardy Boys adventures or Piers Anthony's Xanth novels that I read as a kid.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Post-Modernism in Children's Literature

Post-modern ...

It's just a word that sounds cool. And many literary types wish they could appreciate post-modernism, even if they can't. Every one talks about Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, and often it's just to note how little of it they've read. For example, "I've tried to read it, but only got to page 47 ..."

So, that's what makes Lenika Cruz's recent essay for The Atlantic about "Post-Modernism - for Kids" so cool. Cruz takes a look at the children's classic "Lemony Snicket" Series of Unfortunate Events and argues that what made it so popular and engaging for kids is the same literary qualities that make Post-Modernism such a complex and engaging challenge for adults.

In college, I encountered postmodern novels including Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler…, Don Delillo’s White Noise, and Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. My professors presented them as works that were radical, at least in their day. But to me the tone and techniques they deployed felt familiar and somehow comforting.
For an example of postmodern hallmarks—such as metafiction, the unreliable narrator, irony, black humor, self-reference, maximalism, and paranoia—look no further than this excerpt from the seventhUnfortunate Events book, The Ersatz Elevator.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Being Well-Read without Reading

So many books - so little time. Or, perhaps, so many books - so little interest in reading them.

In an old Woody Allen movie (I can't recall which one) there was a character who spoke with great authority about books and culture, but actually knew very little. The quote was something like, "Oh, I don't read the books. I read the reviews." That always amused me as a teacher, and friends often referenced it when I appeared to have a knowledgeable opinion about everything. For English teachers and students, the ability of students to just "get the gist of it" without reading the stories is the benchmark of the Cliff Notes and Spark Notes industry. And that seems like cheating - though it's understandable why kids do it. They need to pass the quizzes and tests, but they don't have the time or interest in reading the stories.

So, what's the motivation for adults?

There is actually a sub-genre of books about how to appear well read without reading. And perhaps being knowledgeable about the classics or well-known works is not a bad thing. Adding to that area is Slate Magazine's Gentleman Scholar Troy Patterson who offers advice on "How to Seem Well Read." Patterson's position is actually quite entertaining and useful. The most basic advice is to simply follow the lead of that Woody Allen character - read the reviews. Patterson advises people to simply read the New York Review of Books. The reviews - at least for an astute reader - can provide the basic premise and commentary on the quality of the writing and story. However, for novels they will avoid spilling too much of the plot. So, it might be necessary to check out the conclusions - or Spark Notes summaries if available.

Of course, there are other great reads on how to appear well read. Here are a few I find worth the time.

How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read

How to Read Literature Like a Professor

Beowulf on the Beach


Monday, July 28, 2014

Is Using "They" as a Singular Pronoun Acceptable

"Someone left their book on the table." Wrong, right?

The battle over the use of they and their for a singular antecedent has been a regular struggle for English teachers during the past one hundred years or so. It is a common mistake that sounds like nails on a chalkboard to the hard core grammarians and "strict constructionists." And, it is the cause of many a missed question on standardized tests like the ACT or SAT. Yet, the use of "they" when gender or specificity of a singular subject is ambiguous has become so common that it can certainly qualify for "acceptable use." That is except for standardized tests.

So, what's the answer?

In a recent piece for The Chronicle, scholar Geoffrey Pullum weighs in with commentary on "Valid Pronoun Ambiguity Warnings."

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Re-Telling Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen Lives on in New Styles

Two hundred years after the publication of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen novels remain a cottage industry unto themselves. And there may be no author who is more targeted for re-invention and re-imagination and re-packaging, than the young British woman who wrote six novels which bridged the neo-Classical and the Romantic ages. The latest, and perhaps most "Austen-tacious" of ideas in its scope is The Austen Project, a new series which presents the stories of Jane Austen in contemporary settings, written by six well-known contemporary novelists.  An interesting take on this idea comes from Megan Garber, writing for The Atlantic, who offers insight about the challenges of adaption - "For Pride and Prejudice to Make Sense Today, Jane Has to be 40." It's a clever bit of scholarship that brings necessary understanding of why the novels of Jane Austen remain so popular and relevant.



Sunday, June 15, 2014

Is James' Joyce "Ulysses" the Standard for American Fiction?

There are certain books that people just know - even if they haven't read them. James Joyce's epic and archetypal work Ulysses is certainly one of those. And it certainly qualifies as one that many people know, but haven't read. However, in a compelling piece of literary analysis and commentary, scholar and professor Robert D. Newman of the University of Washington argues that any fan of America's literary fiction actually know Joyce's work well because of its profound and significant influence on the works of some of the country's best known writers. Newman has written the book on Joyce's influence, and now offers a shorter synthesis of his position for Salon.com, "James Joyce's Lyrical Sensual Literary Legacy: Why So Many Novels Steal from Ulysses."

While “Ulysses” is far from the first example of moral fiction in the history of literature and its critical reception often has tended to focus on its explosion of the boundaries of traditional narrative technique as well as its cultural and historical contexts, its persistent presence in traditional plot and character within some recent mainstream American fiction presents another layer of its compelling influence on the ever-widening circle of Joyce’s heirs. “Ulysses” is indelibly embedded in contemporary American cultural expressions. Our current literary everymen shuffle along their confused and revelatory paths while tipping their hats to Bloom.

In high praise for Ireland's most significant artist, Newman believes that the works of American novelists like Pat Conroy, Richard Russo, or even Faulkner and Pynchon, would not even exist if not for Joyce and the publication of Ulyssses. Certainly, the direct allusions to the novel are ever-present in American fiction and culture. And there are many areas of American art where people would not even notice the influence - such as the songs of Kate Bush or the columns of Prairie Home Companion writer Garrison Keillor. Truly the significance of the novel is vast and under-rated. And with that in mind, perhaps Newman and others will continue to remind everyone "Why You Should Read this Book."

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Problem of Grammar Books

The teaching of grammar is the nemesis of both English teachers and students alike. And while many lament there is "no good way to teach grammar," few English teachers would argue publicly against teaching it in some way. The problem with teaching grammar in the traditional way is that it lacks any sort of evidence that the practice improves writing or reading or understanding of English. It's true. Literally breaking sentences down into their disparate elements has no positive impact on a student's ability to write correctly. Of course, we like to use the "mechanic analogy" for grammar-mechanics - You can't fix a car if you don't know how the individual parts like a carburetor work. The example is probably as absurd as it sounds.

That said, many of us continue to teach grammar in a disconnected, "underline the verb or the error in a bunch of random sentences" sort of way. The primary reason for this is the continued emphasis on such "skills" in standardized testing. My high school has a pretty standard, and pretty effective, grammar program that, in essence, is simply an ACT-prep course. And we will keep plugging away until the ACT grammar section is no longer such high stakes (which may be sooner than you think). And if we keep doing so, the education publishing world will continue to put out "grammar books," - a situation which makes professor Geoffery Pullum positively ill.

Professor Pullum is a long-standing critic of the teaching of grammar in the traditional sense, as well the inability for "grammar books" to actually articulate what they mean. For all those in the world of English who actually care to follow the issue, Pullum's blog - The Language Loghttp://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?author=3 - is an invaluable source of information and commentary. And, in a recent piece for The Chronicle, Professor Pullum rants and raves against the inadequacies found in the most recent version of the "New Grammar Book," or NGB, which he refuses to identify because it's just like all the rest. Delving into Pullum's critique and thinking long and hard about how we teach grammar is worth the time of dedicated English instructors. And perhaps one of us will take up the task ...

... that whoever points out that something needs to be done is taken to have thereby volunteered to chair the subcommittee for doing it.

Some who have tried before - and probably failed in Pullum's view - are:

Jeff Anderson in Mechanically Inclined.

Lynne Truss in Eats, Shoots, and Leaves.

Mignon Fogarty in Grammar Girls Quick and Dirty Tips.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Quit ACT & SAT Prep & Focus on Essay Writing

The college admissions game is becoming more and more difficult to predict and to play. And the percentages continue to expose the dirty little secret of standardized test scores - one: test prep classes can help kids game the system, and two: these classes skew admissions toward wealthier students. And, there are plenty of innovative and thoughtful and skilled students who could greatly contribute to and benefit from higher education but are unprepared and unable to play the games to game the system.

Enter Bard College.

Bard College, the innovative liberal arts school, is making waves in the world of higher education by offering an alternative admissions route to the standard ACT and GPA route. Slate's education columnist Rebecca Schuman reports on the new system which asks students to "simply write four essays" to qualify for admission to Bard. Of course, these are no simple high school essays, and they're not just a variation on The Common App. The essays are complex, challenging subjects that demand about 10,000 words of innovative critical thinking and commentary.

Thus, as more colleges begin to re-think the excessive emphasis on the ACT and SAT, English teachers - and really all high school educators - need to amp up the writing instruction and prepare kids for the rigor of some high-level college writing.