Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween!

I have two Halloween wishes for you. The first is that you enjoy some chocolate without guilt, and the second is that you make time to read for pleasure. If you read Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, so much the better!

Here are some "Halloween-y" poems to get you started. The candy's on you.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Word Nerd

There were early clues. Take the Dictionary Game, for instance (see 7/31/08 post), or the embarrassing fact that I really liked the Vocabulary lessons in school. Realizing that I have always flipped through each new issue of Reader’s Digest to find the “Word Power” section first would have alerted a more self-aware person, and having one dictionary in my office, one by my chair at home, one downloaded on my laptop, and an electronic one in my purse probably should have tipped me off.

Buying a book called Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages really should have been the final straw. But when I read a review of a book by Roy Blount, Jr. titled

Alphabet Juice: The Energies, Gists and Spirits of Letters, Words and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips and Secret Parts, Tinctures, Tonics and Essences; With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory

and got really excited about buying it, I recognized the truth: I am a Word Nerd.

Blount is a prolific writer in many genres. He’s written essays and novels, reported on sports, compiled a humorous anthology, written cultural commentary and light verse. He’s acted occasionally, is an oral storyteller, a lecturer, and a regular on NPR’s quiz show Wait, Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me. He’s a contributing editor for the Atlantic Monthly and a usage adviser to the American Heritage Dictionary. It sure sounds like he’s qualified to write a book about words.

Reviewer Michael Dirda explains,

“The title Alphabet Juice derives from its author’s contention that sound and sense are often strikingly related, that certain letters and combinations of letters possess a gut-level electricity, and that ‘through centuries of knockabout breeding and intimate contact with the human body’ some words ‘have absorbed the uncanny power to carry the ring of truth.’ A high-fiber word like ‘grunt’ sounds right for what it means. Good diction thus tends to be sonicky. Blount’s neologism for that ‘quality of a word whose sound doesn’t imitate a sound, like boom or poof, but does somehow sensuously evoke the essence of the word: queasy or rickety or zest or sluggish or vim.’ To write well, then, we need to use our tongue and ears, not only our mind and fingers.”

Dirda reveals that the book contains many lists, such as Blount’s favorite one-word, two-word, and three-word sentences. For example: “Fuhgeddaboudit.” “Jesus wept.” and “Call me Ishmael.” Blount discusses eccentric names in life and literature, takes jabs at politicians, and celebrates “the New York Times, the South, and lively English.”

Blount may have dubbed himself a “shade-tree lexicographer,” but this Word Nerd is definitely impressed. And headed to the bookstore.

[For the complete review, see “Blount’s bountiful wit infuses Alphabet Juice” in the 10/19/08 edition of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, 4H]

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Open Mouth, Insert . . .

A few weeks ago at the Christianity and Literature conference, I struck up a conversation with a very nice woman while we were waiting for a session to begin. She told me that she was from California, that her research interest was the early novel, Daniel Defoe in particular, and she invited me to a conference her university was hosting next February.

I told her that I was working on my doctorate at Ole Miss, that my areas of concentration are Restoration &18th century British Literature and Women’s Literature, and that I loved Jane Austen.

“Oh, yes,” she smiled. “Austen’s our ‘candy.’ What are you doing your dissertation on?” she asked.

“Jane Austen,” I replied.

I wish I had a picture of her face to post here.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Warning: May Cause Premature Aging

My son Travis is an adjunct History Instructor at Arkansas State University this year. The other day, one of his students came to visit him during his office hours. As the student was leaving the conference, he said, “We’ve been trying to figure out just how old you are. At first, we had you pegged mid-twenties, but you know so much about stuff that had to have happened way before you were born. The more you talk, the older we think you must be.”

“Well,” Travis asked, “how old do you all think I am now?”

“Mid-to-late thirties is what we’ve come up with,” the student replied.

“You had it about right the first time,” Travis said with a grin.

“But how do you know so much about what’s gone on in the world when you’re so young?”

Travis said the first thing that entered his mind was that he’d read or been read to all of his life.

Only after that did it occur to him that having both a BA and an MA in History and being almost finished with a second Masters Degree in Political Science might be contributing factors.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Booking It

I found a new book-inspired blog called Booking through Thursday that posts a question (or two, or three) about books each Thursday that readers can answer on their own blogs. I thought I’d do last week’s here:

What was the last book you bought?

Jodi Picoult’s Plain Truth

Name a book you have read MORE than once.

Jane Austen’s Persuasion

Has a book ever fundamentally changed the way you see life? If yes, what was it?

Yes. Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible is one. But there are many more.

How do you choose a book? eg. by cover design and summary, recommendations or reviews

Very rarely by cover design, although that might catch my eye. I often choose to read books recommended by friends, and I’ve bought many books just because the blurb on the back cover piqued my interest. I read the book reviews every Sunday in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, and I occasionally buy books I learn about there.

Do you prefer Fiction or Non-Fiction?


What’s more important in a novel - beautiful writing or a gripping plot?

That’s a tough one. If I’m reading just for escape and entertainment, I want the gripping plot. But beautiful writing will make me stop and marvel, even if the plot’s not pulling me along. I never grab my pencil to underline gripping plot, but I’ve put down my book to search for one when I’ve encounter a beautifully wrought sentence or the perfect metaphor. Both are important.

Most loved/memorable character (character/book)

Trixie Belden in the Trixie Belden Mystery series.

Which book or books can be found on your nightstand at the moment?

See sidebar.

What was the last book you’ve read, and when was it?

The last book I finished was The Book that Changed My Life: 71 Remarkable Writers Celebrate the Books that Matter Most to Them, edited by Roxanne J. Coady and Joy Johannessen. I finished it on Friday.

Have you ever given up on a book half way in?

Are you allowed to do that?

If you’d like to answer these same questions in the comment section, please feel free. If you'd rather answer them on your own blog, it’d be great if you’d post a link to your answers in my comment section. Who knows? After reading your answers, I just might have to make a run to the bookstore.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

How the Media Would Handle the End of the World

USA Today: "WE'RE DEAD."

Wall Street Journal: "Dow Jones Plummets as World Ends."

National Enquirer: "O.J. and Nicole, Together Again."

Inc. Magazine: "10 Ways You Can Profit From the Apocalypse."

Rolling Stone: "The Grateful Dead Reunion Tour."

Sports Illustrated: "Game Over."

Playboy: "Girls of the Apocalypse."

Ladies Home Journal: "Lose 10 Pounds by Judgment Day with Our New 'Armageddon' Diet!"

TV Guide: "Death and Damnation: Nielson Ratings Soar!"

Discover Magazine: "How will the extinction of all life as we know it affect the way we view the cosmos?"

Microsoft Systems Journal: "Netscape Loses Market Share."

Microsoft's Web Site: "If you don't experience the rapture, DOWNLOAD software patch RAPT777.EXE."

America OnLine: "System temporarily down. Try calling back in 15 minutes."

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Gleanings from My Readings

From Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey:

"Dear creature! How much I am obliged to you; and when you have finished Udolpho, we will read the Italian together; and I have made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you."

"Have you, indeed! How glad I am! What are they all?"

"I will read you their names directly; here they are, in my pocketbook. Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries. Those will last us some time."

"Yes, pretty well; but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?"


“Take — An old castle, half of it ruinous.
A long gallery, with a great many doors, some secret ones.
Three murdered bodies, quite fresh.
As many skeletons, in chests and presses . . .
Mix them together, in the form of three volumes, to be taken at any
of the watering-places before going to bed.”
---Anonymous, from the essay “Terrorist Novel Writing” (1797)


Newsweek columnist David Gates about the celebration of Banned Books Week:

“So many transgressive pleasures, so little time.”


“Here are the two best prayers I know: “Help me, help me, help me,” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
--Anne Lamott, from Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith


A Late Fragment from Raymond Carver:

“And did you get what
You wanted from this life even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
Beloved on the earth.”


From Shara McCallum’s poem “What the Stories Teach”:

“Skipping and singing into the silent sea,
the last head descends into the water
the way an apple vanishes
beneath the caramel glaze.” (8-11)


Happy Reading!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Wish I'd Said That

I have always loved to read because of the sense of discovery—new people, new worlds, new times, new ideas. I also love to read because of the sense of escape. For a little while, I can leave my old familiar world and live in a new, exciting, and very different one—even different ones on different days. But one of the greatest pleasures of reading comes when discovery becomes recognition, when I encounter a passage that so beautifully expresses something I’ve thought or felt, and something deep inside me says, “Yes! That’s it exactly!”

Here’s one such passage from Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith:

“A folksy bluegrass trio began playing, the mandolin offering the quavering melody, then two guitars joined in, and then three voices singing. We turned slowly to look at the musicians. A woman got up from her table and began to dance on the lawn between us and the stage, all by herself, and I thought to myself, I wish I were the kind of person who could dance in public, not caring what everyone thought. And I wanted to be this way so badly that after a minute I just got up, moved closer to the music, toward the one woman dancing, and slowly and very shyly and without enormous visible grace, began to move in time with the music. I figured that once I stepped forward into that spotlight, another would appear somewhere near my feet, and if it didn’t, at least I’d have had the chance to dance.

So I did, dancing with my eyes closed so as not to be distracted. Nietzsche said that he could only believe in a God who would dance, and I feel the same way . . .”

Boy, I wish I’d said that.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Not the Way Momma Did It

When my oldest son Travis was about two or three years old, his favorite book was Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever, basically a dictionary with lots of wonderful pictures. He’d go get the book, pull me to a chair, then sit in my lap and flip through it, pointing out which definition I was to read next. Over and over again. Day after day. He’d laugh delightedly; I longed desperately for narrative, even the Little Golden Book kind.

Over time the game morphed. Now, I was supposed to flip through the book and point to a picture, and since he’d memorized all the words and their definitions, he would “read” them to me, word for word, in any order.

Gradually we moved on from Richard Scarry and picture books, and as the kids got older I read them books like Charlotte’s Web, Ramona the Pest, and Amos Fortune, Free Man. We read Bridge to Terabithia, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, and Sounder. They loved Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends and all of Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet series. And of course I read them the Chronicles of Narnia. And yes, I even did the voices.

Partial payback for all that time spent reading aloud came a few weeks ago. Travis told me he’d finally gotten to see the new film version of Prince Caspian, but said he’d had trouble getting into the movie.

Why? "The Reepicheep voice was all wrong," he told me. "It didn’t sound at all like the way you did it."

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Another Big Check Mark

After a week and a half of a steady low-grade headache and a somewhat sick-to-my-stomach feeling, I am miraculously healed! Amazing what passing comps can do for your health!

I have heard horror stories about PhD committees--impossible-to-please professors, power struggles between big egos, candidates unwittingly choosing committee members that simply cannot get along--but I'm blessed with a wonderful committee. All throughout the process they have held me to high standards and required quality work, but have also always been ready with a smile, advice, and whatever help I needed. My director e-mailed me the day before the Oral Comp to encourage me. He said, "Don't think of it as an Inquisition. Think of it as an intelligent conversation. We're not out to 'get you.' Each one of us respects you and wants to see you succeed." That really helped. And although I was very nervous at the beginning, he was right. It was more like talking with three good friends than facing the firing squad.

My Wonderful Committee:

L to R: Dr. Colby Kullman, me, Dr. Natalie Schroeder, and Dr. Ronald Schroeder (director)

This was taken immediately after the Oral Comp; you can see the relief in my big smile. One more check mark on the list. I'm offically ABD now!

A couple of good friends, fellow PhD-pursuers, helped me celebrate the milestone. We had a wonderful dinner at Old Venice, checked out Square Books (what else would you expect people pursuing a PhD in English to do?), and shared a huge dessert and coffee while looking over the Square at Downtown Grill.

Tara, me, and Sarah

Thanks, guys, for helping me celebrate my special day!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Big Question

I think that, today, I know more about Restoration and 18th century British Literature than I will on any other given day of my life.

The big question is, "Do I know enough?"

I guess I'll just have to follow some advice I was given by an undergrad professor right before a particularly terrifying final exam. He said, "You have a library in your head. Calm down and use it."

I just hope all the books are properly shelved and that nothing I need has been checked out.

Monday, October 20, 2008

How I Feel Now

Tomorrow's the big day. After months of reading and weeks of intense study, this is how I feel now:

This is what I want to do:

Think it'll help?

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Gleanings from My Readings

“From politics, it was an easy step to silence.”
--Jane Austen, in Northanger Abbey


From Newsweek’s feature “Women & Leadership: What Matters Most in My Work and My Life” (10/13/08 issue):

“People have to allow fear into the process. Fear is part of creativity, whatever your job is. It’s part of believing in something and wanting it to happen. So I let it in and I said to myself, ‘OK, you’re scared.’”
--Kimberly Pierce, Movie Director

“People hear so much advice, including a lot of bad advice about what they can or cannot do. . . If there are unwritten rules that don’t make sense to me, I challenge them and see if I can change them.”
--Nancy Andrews, Dean, Duke Medical School


“The English have always gone everywhere, and written about it.”
--Larry McMurtry, in Books: A Memoir


“I can’t imagine anything but music that could have brought about this alchemy. Maybe it’s because music is about as physical as it gets: your essential rhythm is your heartbeat; your essential sound, the breath. We’re walking temples of noise, and when you add tender hearts to this mix, it somehow lets us meet in places we couldn’t get to any other way.”
--Anne Lamott, in Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith

“The necessary thing is after all but this: solitude, great inner solitude. Going-into-oneself and for hours meeting no one—this one must be able to attain. To be solitary, the way one was solitary as a child, when the grownups went around involved with things that seemed important and big because they themselves looked so busy and because one comprehended nothing of their doings.”
--Ranier Maria Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet


From Gary Soto’s poem “Saturday at the Canal”:

“I was hoping to be happy by seventeen.” (1)


From Robley Wilson’s poem “I Wish in the City of Your Heart”:

“I wish in the city of your heart
you would let me be the street
where you walk when you are most
yourself.” (1-4)


From William Matthews’ poem “The Wolf of Cubbio”:

“Art remembers
a few things by forgetting many.”


Happy Reading!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Happiness Is A Chip-Seal Road

When we moved to Searcy, we knew we wanted to build a new home, so we rented a house on the edge of town and started our search for the perfect place to build. Because I’d had a lifetime of having to drive at least thirty minutes in any direction just to reach a Walmart or pick up a pizza, I wanted civilization. I began exploring the subdivisions, the cul-de-sacs, the shady lots on the corner of city streets, places with sidewalks and next-door-neighbors. My husband, on the other hand, was out exploring the hinterlands of White County in his quest for wide open spaces. Thus began our tug of war.

We’d spend our weekends riding and looking. Every town lot he declared “too small” and “too close” to the surrounding houses. Every section of country acreage I pronounced way too far from town. This standoff went on for months, until we’d almost despaired of finding a place that would make us both happy. In fact, I’d just about decided to give up my dreams of civilization (not too gracefully) and surrender to a life in the backwoods forever when, driving down a road we’d never traveled before, we turned a curve and saw a beautiful section of rolling pasture in the middle of a valley. “Wouldn’t it be nice if that were for sale?” my husband said. And guess what? It was. And it was only six miles from town. I could live with that, I thought.

There was only one problem—it was on a gravel road. “No, no, no,” I moaned. But the man selling the place assured us that the road was on the county’s list to be paved; “One year at the most,” he promised. Well, that seemed like something we could live with. It’d take nearly a year just to get a house built. Okay. Full steam ahead.

Five years later, we just got the road paved. I’m glad I didn’t know then how long I’d have to wait—I don’t think I’d have survived. I got sick to death of “dirty car” jokes, and even though I spent untold amounts of money at the carwash on the edge of town, my car was always dusty in the summer and muddy in the winter. Quite embarrassing, actually.

Think I’m exaggerating? Here’s what our road looked like last winter when the gas company’s dump trucks and eighteen-wheelers were using it as a superhighway. For a whole month, I couldn’t even get my car out of the driveway. My husband had to carry me everywhere I needed to go in his four-wheel drive. Needless to say, I was not very happy.

This summer, the gravel road was back to its normal dusty condition. Not great, but after a winter of slip-sliding away, I complained less than usual.

But after five years of waiting, finally, the Chip-Seal Road. No dust! No mud! Goodbye shame and embarassment.

There is one small problem. They built the road up so much that our mailbox is now knee-high. I wonder what the mailman thinks?

End of story: Now my husband can live the country boy's dream, and I can enjoy both the view from my front porch and a clean car. Oh, and we can be at the Sonic in just a few minutes. Does it get better than that?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The More I Know

My elementary school consisted of two long buildings arranged in parallel lines, grades one through three on the left, grades four through six on the right. Each side had its own playground, and the green space in the middle was a sort of no-man’s land.

Because the principal’s office was on our side, occasionally one of the “big kids” would venture over, either to deliver a message or to receive a reprimand, and to my first-grade self, they seemed larger than life. I can remember thinking how smart I’d be when I got that big, how much stuff I’d know.

Well, I’m a lot bigger and older than a sixth grader now, and I’ve taken more classes than I can count. I’ve read tons of books, gone to many lectures, and earned several diplomas to hang on the wall. I’m fast approaching the end of my PhD studies, and I’ve learned more things about literature and life than I could have even dreamed existed way back in the first grade.

But the most important discovery I’ve made is this: The more I know, the more I know that I don’t know. Knowledge is a journey, not a destination.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Speaking of Cars . . .

Back when I was driving what we fondly called the Cruise Liner, an old blue Bonneville chosen because the back seat was big enough to hold two child seats and a strap-in infant carrier, I had one of those moments. If you’re a parent, you know what I mean.

It was a beautiful spring day, and I had just been to buy groceries with a four-year-old, a two-year-old, and an infant. I was completely worn down by the effort required to select groceries (on a tight budget) and push a buggy while managing three small children. As I was driving home, all three of the children were crying at the top of their lungs, and I really wanted to.

Just at that moment, a convertible passed me, top down. It was full of smiling girls singing along with the radio, hair blowing in the wind, not a care in the world.

I looked over at them and thought, “I’d pay a hundred dollars to be in that car right now.”

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Right Answer!

When I was a teenager, I wanted a sports car. What I got was the used car my aunt and uncle were getting ready to trade in, actually a pretty nice Grand Prix that I was very proud of.

All through my married life, the kind of car I have driven depended on two things:

1. How much does it cost?
2. How many children will it hold?

Those two considerations do not usually lend themselves to vehicle purchases that gratify your vanity. So earlier this year, when the car that I’d been driving for almost eight years started to make funny sounds and break down at inopportune times, I knew my time had come. I’d been eyeing shiny red RX-8’s for several years, and nothing else would do. My husband said, “Go for it,” so I did, calling around the state until I found a dealer with one exactly like I wanted.

When my youngest son first saw my new acquisition, he called his older brother. “Can you believe the kind of car Mom got?” he asked. “How does she think I’m gonna fit in that car with them?”

“I don’t think Mom was considering you when she made the purchase,” my oldest wisely replied. “She’s been buying cars for us to fit in for years. This one’s for her.”

My daughter took one look at my car and said, “No fair!” I think that means she liked it.

Last weekend, at the Christianity & Literature conference in Oklahoma, my husband sat out in the parking lot in my car, windows down, moon roof open, enjoying the cool evening while waiting for me to come out after the lecture. After I made it to the car, he said, “You’ll never guess what just happened to me. Some young woman just walked up and said ‘Nice car! What does it take to get to ride in a car like that?’”

My eyes widened a little. “And what’d you say?”

“I said it takes being married to me for twenty-seven years.”

I smiled. “Right answer!”

Monday, October 13, 2008

Sorry, Larry

Well, in exactly eight days I’ll be taking my Oral Comprehensive exam. If you’ve been following the side columns of this blog, you’ve probably already noticed that the “What I’m Reading Now” column hasn’t been changing much lately. These two facts are connected.

The poetry reading’s still going strong. As planned, I read at least two or three poems every morning, some mornings even more. And right now, for my “devotional” reading (for lack of a better term), I’m reading Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts about Faith. The only problem here is that I could really get into this book. She’s so honest about her faith journey and her prose is so beautiful that I’d love to just sit and read this book straight through. The small sections that I’m allowing myself daily just whet my appetite for more, and it’s taking some real self control to put the book down and get to the task at hand. Poor Larry McMurtry’s been languishing on my list for an embarrassing amount of time, and it’s not because I’m not enjoying his memoir. It’s that between going to conferences and studying for comps, he’s been put on the back burner. Sorry, Larry.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Fun with Words

If lawyers are disbarred and clergymen defrocked, doesn't it follow that electricians can be delighted, musicians denoted, cowboys deranged, models deposed and dry cleaners depressed?

Laundry workers could decrease, eventually becoming depressed and depleted! Even more, bedmakers will be debunked, baseball players will be debased, landscapers will be deflowered, bulldozer operators will be degraded, software engineers will be detested, and even musical composers will eventually decompose.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Gleanings from My Readings

"What is right to be done cannot be done too soon."
--Jane Austen, in Emma


“ ‘The most celebrated poem by a women of the period,’ the title promises. . . . Do we rank the passion of Anne Elliot and Catherine Earnshaw?”
--Jerome McGann, in The Poetics of Sensibility


“What’s difficult about getting old is remembering the way things used to be. There were such things as loyalty. The community hadn’t disintegrated. The individual had not been deified at the expense of everything around him. I don’t think that’s just an old codger, you know, wishing for the old days. . . . they were better. There was a lot of ugliness, but there was a lot more grace.”
--Paul Newman (1925-2008)


“The more I read, the more I think about the question that a lot of us were asked as a kid: If you could have a dinner with ten people, who would you choose? You know the one—where people always picked Jesus and Gandhi. With reading, you’re able to have that dinner over and over and over, depending on what books you choose.”
--Josh Brolin, in Oprah magazine, October 2008


“Is it not true that our thoughts, our prayers for ourselves and those we love, and our conversations are almost entirely aimed at getting rid of the negative at any cost—rather than that the negative might be faced with the proper attitude? . . . We are infiltrated by the world and its attitudes, rather than the perspective of the kingdom of God.”
--Francis A. Schaeffer, in True Spirituality


From Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “Mrs. Midas”:

“The kitchen
filled with the smell of itself, relaxed, its steamy breath
gently blanching the windows.” (2-4)


From Reed Whittemore’s poem “The High School Band”:

“A great many high school bands beat a great many drums,
And the silences at their partings are very deep.” (10-11)


From David Lee’s poem “Tuesday Morning, Loading Pigs”:

“I sed then it was two things
I wouldn’t do when I grown up
warsh no dishes or load up hogs” (33-35)


Happy Reading!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Headin' West Again

Well, I’m off this weekend to another conference. This time, it’s the Arkansas Philological Association’s annual meeting, hosted by the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith. At last weekend’s conference, I presented a paper on a medieval author, but this week I’m on more familiar territory—Jane Austen. The title of my paper is “‘He began to wish to know more of her’: Sex as Text and Subtext in Pride and Prejudice.” Catchy title, huh?

I guess I need to explain how I came to write a paper with such a titillating title (say that three times, quickly). I took a class at Ole Miss called “Studies in Romanticism,” and this class had an interesting premise. Instead of just studying works produced during the Romantic era (as most of us had already done), we examined selected Romantic works juxtaposed with contemporary reproductions, things like re-writes, continuations, movie versions, etc. The purpose was to analyze present-day conceptions of the Romantic era and the works produced during it and compare them with the ideals of the people actually living, writing, and reading during that time. One of the works we read was Pride and Prejudice.

As an aside here, I know some of you will be surprised to hear Austen characterized as a Romantic author. The neat thing is, Austen’s so great that everybody claims her. For some, she is the consummate eighteenth-century novelist, a woman at the end of a long line of authors struggling to “birth” the novel. For some, she is a Romantic, a novelist whose heroines appreciate nature and value human connection. Still others have claimed that she is the mother of the Victorian novel. Maybe she’s all of these.

Anyway, after reading P&P, watching several movie versions (most notably the 1995 BBC version with Colin Firth and Joe Wright’s 2005 version with Keira Knightley), and reading a modern Regency-era Historical romance, the professor raised this question: “Everybody claims that P&P is a romance novel. Romance novels are about sex. Where’s the sex in Pride and Prejudice?” He said he’d really like it if one of us took the challenge of answering that question in our seminar paper, and being an Austen scholar, I stepped up to the challenge.

It was a really interesting paper to write, not at all like anything I’d examined in her works before. I won’t share my findings here because I hope to submit the essay for publication. If it does get published, rest assured, you’ll be the first to know. :-)

On the last night the class met, each of us had to read a 15 minute version of our paper and then field questions from the class. The first question I got? “Do you realize how many times you just said the word ‘sex’ in fifteen minutes?”

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Americans Get Angry

The Nobel Prize in Literature will be announced today.

To read more about the controversy over Engdahl's comments, click HERE.

UPDATE: The winner has been announced, and it's not an American. Surprised? Actually, it's a Frenchman named Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clizio, and you can read more about him HERE.

In My Dreams

On Tuesday, October 7, 2008, at about 3:23 in the afternoon, I finished the last page of the last book on my Oral Comps reading list. For this part of the Candidacy Examination, Ole Miss requires students to choose a discrete period of literary history, and then to read the fiction, non-fiction, drama, poetry, and attendant criticism pertaining to it. In my case, it was an era in British Literature often called “The Long Eighteenth Century,” a literary period bracketed by two historical events—the restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660 and the death of Jane Austen in 1817. My list took me four months of steady reading to cover. Reading was my job, my hobby, my life. It took total precedence over everything else. (If you don’t believe me, come write your name in the dust on my furniture or check out the empty pantry.)

When I turned that last page, I felt relief and a great sense of accomplishment—for all of about one minute. Very quickly, the realization that I had only two weeks to review and study for the two-hour oral exam and the fact that my “study sheet” had grown to 129 pages dampened all feelings of elation.

It’s been an arduous but interesting process. Never before have I spent so long a time so intensely involved in the study of one particular area. Obviously, the literature generated over more than a hundred years is extensive, in both breadth and depth, and widely varying in style, intent, and content, but in plugging away through the material day after day, I began to see patterns emerge, themes appear and develop; I could discern an overarching historical movement and trace connections between authors. I don’t kid myself that I’ll be able to remember everything I’ve read, but I’m amazed at what I’ve learned, and when I found myself lecturing about 18th century literature in my dreams, I thought something must be going right.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Romans, Cowboys, and Rude People

After the Christianity and Literature Conference in Shawnee, Oklahoma, last weekend, my husband and I drove on to Oklahoma City to spend the night and see a few sights. (Terry’s not much interested in literature, but there was a huge horse sale going on in Shawnee that kept him entertained.) After checking into our hotel room, we headed straight for the Oklahoma City Museum of Art to view their current exhibit “Roman Art from the Louvre.” We saw full length marble statues—of Caligula and Trajan, busts of Marcus Aurelius and Tiberius, reliefs, mosaics, and lintels. We saw jewelry, funeral urns, and an intricately carved sarcophagus. I think the mosaics were my favorite. The colors are still so beautiful, and I can’t imagine the skill and patience it takes to turn all those little-bitty puzzle pieces into a huge work of art. The statues were really fascinating, the hair painstakingly detailed, the togas draping so fluidly I wanted to reach out and touch them. As beautiful as they were, though, after going to Italy a couple of years ago and seeing the work of Michelangelo, even I could tell these sculptures weren’t anywhere close. I admired these, but when I stood in front of Michelangelo’s David, I cried.

We left the museum and walked the few blocks to view the Oklahoma City National Memorial, a tribute to both the victims and survivors of the April 19, 1995 bombing. The memorial is beautiful and moving, with the Gates of Time at each end framing the moment of disaster, its empty chair for each victim facing the Reflecting Pool, an incongruously peaceful space to contemplate an act of terrorism. As I stood there, thinking about what had happened in this place, I found it almost impossible to believe that one human being could, with full intent, do this to another, and I thought of the lines from Robert Burns’ poem, “From Man was made to Mourn: A Dirge, 1785”:

“Man's inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn!”

The next day, we visited the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. I never imagined there were that many types of barbed wire! You think I’m kidding, but there was a whole room devoted to it—drawers and drawers of it, categorized by number of strands, size of strands, number of barbs, size of barbs, types of barbs. Who knew? There were firearms displays, rodeo exhibits, saddles and tack, a Western Frontier section with Native American artifacts, military paraphernalia, and the tools of hunters and trackers. There was a Cowgirl photo exhibit, a Western Performers gallery with dime novels, movie posters, and a larger-than-life statue of John Wayne. They had paintings and sculpture by Frederick Remington, Charles Russell, Albert Bierstadt, and William R. Leigh. And, right before we left, we walked through a reconstructed circa 1900 Western cattle town, complete with its own saloon, school, church, newspaper, and blacksmith’s shop. So in the space of twenty four hours, we toured ancient Rome and the Old West. Not bad for a mini-vacation.

Okay, I’ve talked about Romans and Cowboys. Now we get to rude people. To me, viewing a work of art is a lot like reading a great piece of literature. You have to be able to concentrate, to focus, to enter that world, to get the most out of the experience. I think most people would agree. The Museum of Art was quite crowded, but most people viewed a work, read the placard, and moved on as quickly as they could to let the next person also have the pleasure. If they talked at all, it was in a quiet whisper in the ear of the person next to them. But a few patrons just didn’t get it. One young man seemed to be delivering a lecture to his girlfriend in front of every statue or lintel. I couldn’t tell whether or not she was enjoying it, but it was clear that the rest of the people there were not.

At the Western Museum, one couple blithely viewed the exhibits while their children ran, whooped, and hollered in the next room. (I really appreciated it when the security guard tracked the parents down and told them to control their children.) This same family traipsed all over the grounds, perfectly assured that the “Keep off the Grass” signs were not intended for them. An older woman, convinced alike that the “Turn Off Cell Phones” sign didn’t apply to her, let hers ring repeatedly throughout the Museum, interminably fumbling in her purse to press a button to stop the ringing each time, but never actually TURNING THE PHONE OFF. One couple discussed everything they saw, loudly and at length, as if they had each gallery to themselves.

I simply cannot understand this type of behavior. If the sign asks me to turn off my phone, I do it right then. If it says to stay off the grass, I obey. I always try to be aware of others and make sure I don’t unnecessarily block something they are also trying to view. If my husband and I talk, we whisper quietly. When our children were young, we took them to museums and other arts events, but always with the admonitions: “Stay right here beside me!” and “Be very quiet. Other people do not want to hear you.” These warnings worked because our children knew the consequences of not heeding—and it wasn’t just an endlessly repeated refrain of “Now, Momma told you . . .” There were physical consequences for misbehavior, something which has amazing results: You can take your children out in public and they actually behave. What a radical idea.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Americans Can't Write?

According to Horace Engdahl, a member of the group who selects the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, “the United States is too insular and ignorant to compete with Europe when it comes to great writing." He adds, “Of course, there is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can’t get away from the fact that Europe is still the center of the literary world . . . not the United States.” American writers are "too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture." They "don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining."

Oh, really?

As the Washington Post asks, "Where's Mark Twain when we need him?"

Monday, October 6, 2008

This Old House

Until I was almost six years old, we lived in an old white house in the little town of Aubrey, Arkansas. I remember a lot about that house. It was on the main road through town and sat next to the farm shop where my dad worked. Our house was within walking distance of the school, the church, and the grocery store. It had black shutters and a porch that ran all across the front and down one side; a porch swing hung to the right of the front door. I remember eating cocoa gravy and biscuits at the kitchen table by the window on Sunday mornings, up on my knees for better access from plate to mouth. I remember my little brother and me in bed in the cold, cold wintertime, under covers so heavy we could hardly move. I remember the rope swing in the back yard and the heavy lawn chairs I used to fashion a makeshift playground.

In my mind, I can walk through the house and see where all the furniture was placed, the TV in that corner, the sofa along that wall, the bed beside that window. I remember my parents watching the Razorback games (in black and white, of course) while my brother and I, with our own bowl of popcorn, our legs stuck straight out in front of us on the couch, found our entertainment in them, whooping and clapping and jumping to their feet with each touchdown or interception.

That porch swing was important. I remember Mom sitting there, a captive audience for my variety shows, which always began with a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and was followed by songs and various theatrical productions. (Sorry, Mom.) I remember Dad, determined not to raise a scaredy-cat daughter, forcing me to sit on the swing with him through a thunderstorm until I could get over my fear and learn to appreciate the sublimity of thunder and lightening. (Thanks, Dad.)

I remember Mom taking what seemed like forever to bundle me up in my warm clothes just so I could run next door to “visit” Dad at the shop and stay only long enough to convince him that I really needed a Coke out of the machine and some peanuts.

I remember how empty the house would feel when Mom would go, some evenings, to a wedding or baby shower. I’d hang around in the front room waiting, nothing quite right until she returned.

That little white house was not the house I was born in. My parents had lived in at least a couple of other houses before that one, and, in the spring before I started first grade, we moved out of the little white house to our “new” house, the one I lived in until I got married. But that old house looms large in my memory. And that, I think, is a good thing.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Gleanings from My Readings

“I cannot think well of a man who sports with any woman's feelings; and there may often be a great deal more suffered than a stander-by can judge of.”
---Jane Austen, in Mansfield Park


“I hope, too, that my book will illuminate my belief that love of art—be it poetry, storytelling, painting, sculpture, or music—enables people to transcend any barrier man has yet devised.”
---Mary Ann Schaeffer, in the Acknowledgments of her The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society


“I was allowed free run of the small school library, though it was supposed to be for high schoolers. It contained a shabby collection of once-popular fiction. I read the longest book in it, Gone With the Wind, and much later, in Lonesome Dove, produced what I consider to be the Gone With the Wind of the West.”
---Larry McMurtry, in his Books: A Memoir


“A quiet disposition and a heart giving thanks at any given moment is the real test of the intent to which we love God in that moment.”
---Francis Schaeffer, in True Spirituality


From Jonathan Swift’s poem “Stella’s Birthday, 1727”:

“This day then, let us not be told,
That you are sick, and I grown old,
Nor think on our approaching ills,
And talk of spectacles and pills.
Tomorrow will be time enough
To hear such mortifying stuff.” (3-8)


William Blake’s “The Garden of Love,” from Songs of Experience (1793)

“I went to the Garden of Love
And saw what I never had seen:
A chapel was built in the midst
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this chapel were shut,
And ‘Thou shalt not’ writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flower bore,

And I saw it was filled with graves
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.”


From Kenneth Koch’s poem “To You”:

“I am crazier than shirttails
In the wind, when you’re near,” (9-10)


Happy Reading!

Friday, October 3, 2008

Straight Lines and Circles

Some days, exercise is a pleasure. I feel as though I could go on forever. The temperature is perfect, there’s a light breeze, I’m able to ignore all thoughts of what I need to do when I get back home. But other days, I have to admit, it takes an act of the will to keep going for the time or distance I’ve set out to cover.

Here’s where straight lines and circles come in. Geometry matters. Long lines are better than short ones, and big circles are better than small ones.

I have always pretty much lived in the country. (I know I lived in Aubrey, but as you could sneeze while driving through and miss the whole town, it does not negate the preceding statement.) Living in rural areas is not a bad thing, but if you run or walk for exercise, a lot of the time you end up running in straight lines instead of circles. You choose a point, put one foot in front of the other until you get there, and then turn around and go back to the starting point. This works well for relatively short distances. If you can force yourself to the mid-point, you have no choice but to complete the distance if you want to get back home.

Now, if you want to do some long distance running, you can stick with the same route and just repeat it a few times, but believe me, unless you have lots of will power, it doesn’t work. Every time you return to the starting point, which is usually your own driveway, a little devil on your left shoulder reminds you that you could quit RIGHT NOW. I think it would be the same for me to try to do long distance running on a track—with every loop I’d be fighting the urge to quit. Short lines and small circles just don’t work for me.

Back when I was doing some long distance running, I’d often have my husband drive me a certain distance from the house and let me out. Then I had no choice but to run all the way home, one long straight line. It was planning versus will power.

Last year, for the first time in my life, I lived in a city—Oxford, Mississippi, a beautiful place for walkers and joggers. While there, I ran circles. I’d step out the front door, choose a direction, and make a huge somewhat-circle, a different one almost every day. Up and down hills, around the courthouse square, past City Grocery, by Bottletree Bakery. Down Lamar, past the huge gothic-looking house that was the inspiration for Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” and on by his home, Rowan Oak. Through tree-lined streets, admiring the leaves in the fall, the azaleas in the spring, the beautiful old houses on every side. Up the steps at the Ford Center, through the Grove, past the library, by the big fountain.

Many days, because it was just across the street from where I lived, I’d begin with a jog through the hills of St. Peter’s Cemetery, where Faulkner is buried. Early one morning, after making it to the top of the hill, I saw three really big guys standing ahead of me on the paved cemetery path, blocking the exit, looking like they were waiting for me. I was a little wary, but I slowed down when they said, “Excuse me, ma’am. Do you know where William Faulkner is?” I smiled, directed them to the bottom of the hill and a few yards to their right, and continued along my circular way.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Free to Think

“Free societies are societies in motion, and with motion comes tension, dissent, friction. Free people strike sparks, and those sparks are the best evidence of freedom’s existence.”
--Salman Rushdie

"Books won't stay banned. They won't burn. Ideas won't go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. The only sure weapon against bad ideas is better ideas. The source of better ideas is wisdom. The surest path to wisdom is a liberal education."
-- Alfred Whitney Griswold, Essays on Education

“The sooner we all learn to make a decision between disapproval and censorship, the better off society will be. Censorship cannot get at the real evil, and it is an evil in itself.”
--Granville Hicks

“Books and ideas are the most effective weapons against intolerance and ignorance.”
--Lyndon Baines Johnson

“We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people."
--John F. Kennedy

“Who will watch the watchers?”

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

"Appeasement" Update

The home of Martin Rynja of Gibson Square Publishers, British publisher of The Jewel of Medina, was fire bombed last Saturday morning. Before this incident Rynja had said that it was “imperative” that the book be published: “In an open society there has to be open access to literary works, regardless of fear. As an independent publishing company, we feel strongly that we should not be afraid of the consequences of debate.”

What does he say now? Full steam ahead.

Sherry Jones, author of the historical novel about the Prophet Muhammad and his child bride, said that Rynja “has shown nothing but courage.”

I think that's an appropriate attitude to display during Banned Books Week.

(for background information, see 9/24/08 post "Appeasement: Been There, Done That"