Thursday, June 28, 2007

More reading

I'm playing hooky today. Just sort of seemed the thing to do -- I woke up, reflected that I really didn't feel like going into the office, then remembered that I didn't have to.

Which rates in my top ten reasons why I love my job.

Well, I'm not totally playing hooky -- just changing the scenery. I spent the morning having my coffee in the living room and reading, and I'm heading downtown momentarily to have lunch and camp out in a coffee shop with my ever-so-slowly evolving Rome article. But it also occurred to me that I hadn't updated my blog in over a week, so here I am. Time to update the "recent reads."

Last summer when Kristen and I were driving from Ontario to St. John's, we listened to Isabel Allende's most recent novel, Zorro, on CD. Lately I'd found myself recalling parts of it I enjoyed. Not really wanting to listen to the twenty-odd hours of its reading, I bought the book and re-read it ... or read it for the first time, I guess.

First of all, I just want to say that if you've never read anything by Allende, you are missing out. A Chilean novelist (actually the niece of Salvador Allende, whose assassination by Augusto Pinochet precipated that dictator's brutal seventeen-year reign), she writes in the manner of such magical realists as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Carlos Fuentes; her first novel The House of the Spirits (1981) is breathtakingly beautiful in its scope and texture, telling the story of Chile's transition into the twentieth century by way of four generations of the patrician Trueba family.

If you're like me and a fan of the Zorro stories, the combination of those overstated adventures and Allende's gift for storytelling will be stunning. Even if you're lukewarm on the whole Zorro saga, it remains a beautiful novel. It gives us the prehistory of Diego de la Vega, aka Zorro ("The Fox"), from the meeting of his parents in Alta California through his childhood growing up as the child of an hidalgo gentleman, to his education in Barcelona, where the alter ego of Zorro first makes its appearance. It's sort of a Batman Begins for Zorro, but one that takes in a great swathe of American and European history and is set in the context of the political and religious upheavals taking place at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Allende paints a gorgeous historical landscape, and we encounter cameos with some great historical luminaries.

I'm currently about halfway through Jonathan Schell's reconsideration of "power, nonviolence, and the will of the people" (as it says in the subtitle), The Unconquerable World. I've been reading it in fits and starts, which is odd, because every time I pick it up I'm rapt. Schell, a journalist and public intellectual, looks at how warfare has evolved in the modern age and makes the argument (or I think he does -- I'm only halfway in) that nonviolent resistance ultimately has more traction and efficacy than does violent revolution in the modern moment. This book is no pacifist tract: his military history is spot-on, and the first third of the book is a brilliant reading of Carl von Clausewitz's pivotal text On War. Schell tracks the changes in military convention through the industrial revolution and points to the rise, on one hand, of the impervious military juggernaut (the British Empire, the current American military, e.g.) and the rise of the "people's army" (Spanish partisans in the Penninsular War, the Viet Cong, etc) on the other, and the incommensurability of the two. The former can never be defeated militarily by the latter; the latter can never be defeated politically by the former ... a situation we see getting played out all too obviously in Iraq right now.

I'll comment again on this book when I've finished it; suffice it to say that Schell's arguments are compelling and his prose is amazingly lucid. For all the complexity of his argument and depth of his analyses, the book reads very smoothly.

As should be obvious from my many posts on the subject (such as the one just above), in the parallel universe in which I'm still an academic, I'm a military historian -- something that manifests itself in this life as a mania for books of military history and, even more glaringly, a love for historical novels. I'm a devoted reader of all of Bernard Cornwell's various series (especially the Sharpe novels), as well as George MacDonald Fraser's brilliant funny Flashman series. And I've recently started what is perhaps the most loved of British military novels: C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower books. I'm now three deep into the eleven-book series ... having dispatched Midshipman Hornblower and Lieutenant Hornblower, I'm now in the final pages of Hornblower and the Hotspur. What I love about these novels -- which is the same thing I love about Cornwell's -- is the attention to detail, the accuracy of the representation not even so much of the historical sequences and context as the minutiae ... the attention paid to the day-to-day necessities of life aboard ship, the near-slavery of being a sailor in His Majesty's Navy -- from the captain down to the lowliest seaman. And as a sailor myself, I especially love the language of seagoing, the shipboard terminology and the nautical details. It makes me want to be aboard a ship -- though preferably one in which I wouldn't have to dine on salt beef and weevil-infested biscuits.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Of icebergs and glacial writing

I'm sitting in my office, looking out the window at a thick bank of fog that has rolled down the hill over the houses in the distance. Now, I love fog -- but I've got to ask, in some exasperation, What happened to our summer?? The past week, and this weekend especially, was beautiful: twenty to twenty-five degrees, sun, a light breeze ... giving way to misty rain, fog, and sub-10 degree temperatures (though it still manages to be stiflingly muggy inside -- I open and close my window about every twenty minutes, alternating between clammy cold and sweltering humidity). I complain, but am met with stoic smiles: "Ah, that's Newfoundland in June."

My comfort is that this weather can at least turn on a dime. Summer came on us with startling suddenness. Everyone had told me that summer happens all at once ... and they weren't lying! About two weeks ago, over a twenty-four hour period, we went from temperatures below ten to over twenty, but more startling was the fact that the trees went from winter-barren to being totally in bloom in the same period of time.

Anyway, I'm whining about the weather because I'm taking a break from what has become, for me, an agonizing writing process. I think nostalgically of the days when I could whip off a twenty-five page paper in a day or two ... you'd think the writing process would get easier the farther up the academic food chain you move, but not so much. I'm still working on my Congress paper -- the plan being to turn it into an article for publication, which means doubling its length and inserting all the theoretical context and critical history that you leave out of conference papers. And I'm doing what I always do with these things: that is to say, TOO MUCH. I hit critical mass yesterday, and am actually making some progress today -- because today I'm returning slowly to sanity, trimming the fat and streamlining what was threatening balloon into thirty-plus pages into something more manageable.

In more entertaining news, we've had our first icebergs of the year -- I walked up Signal Hill on Saturday and snapped some pictures. It's really quite amazing the first time you see them; even though these ones were relatively small, there's a majesty to them that's quite profound.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Why I think Shakespeare should sue Rebecca Eckler

I have been following the Rebecca Eckler-Judge Apatow saga with great amusement and great exasperation. My friend Jen, aka Nikki Stafford, has published some absolutely hilarious commentaries on Ecky and her ilk generally, and this issue specifically (here, here, and here), and there has been a groundswell of writing in the blogosphere taking Ecky rather sarcastically to task for her narcissism and the generally inane nature of her lawsuit.

(For those unfamiliar with this comedy of errors, the erstwhile National Post and Globe & Mail columnist is launching a lawsuit against director Judge Apatow—he of The Forty Year Old Virgin fame—claiming that his recent film Knocked Up plagiarizes her memoir of the same title. I won’t rehearse the details of her claims here; everything you need to know is pretty much covered in the posts of Jen’s I link to above).

While on one hand this lawsuit doesn’t really deserve the attention it’s getting—a petulant, self-indulgent salvo from a narcissistic, not-very-smart “journalist” on extremely flimsy legal ground—on the other hand I agree with a number of people who worry about the implications this kind of frivolous lawsuit has for copyright law. It reminds me of that woman who took J.K. Rowling to court on the charge that Rowling had stolen the word “Muggle” from her.

Here’s the question I asked then: even if it could be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that Rowling had stolen the term, what kind of damages could the court reasonably award? Did this woman truly think that the success of the Harry Potter series hinged on a single word?

There’s an old saying that someone should take the time to educate Ecky, Muggle-woman and others of their ilk about: “Immature artists imitate; mature artists steal.” Now, as an English professor, I’m death on plagiarism, but when we enter the creative realm we’re in different territory: can you imagine how many of our great writers wouldn’t have gotten out of the gate had they had to face Ecky-charges? Certainly T.S. Eliot would have spent all his time in court with the estate of Jessie L. Weston, Richard Wagner, Joseph Conrad and dozens of others. James Joyce would never have made it past the first round with his editor’s lawyers. And we’d be denied the genius of the greatest plagiarizer of all, William Shakespeare.

This of course is not to suggest that Judge Apatow is a great artist, or even a mature one for that matter (certainly The Forty Year Old Virgin would suggest he’s rather gleefully immature). It is however to observe that most, if not all narrative tends to proceed from the realm of common experience. Artists steal: they steal from other artists, from other people’s experiences, from the newspaper and from history books. I was once at a book launch party in Toronto, chatting with a bunch of people I didn’t know, two of whom were apparently novelists. One of the people in the group was telling a particularly funny anecdote about himself. When he finished, one of the writers turned to the other and asked “So do you want that one, or can I have it?”, much to the discomfiture of the storyteller. I once saw a play in the Toronto Fringe written by an ex-girlfriend, one of the characters in which exhibited a number of personality traits I recognized as mine (when I asked her about it after the play, she said airily, “Oh, he’s partially you, but he’s mostly the guy I dated after you”). And then there are those rather accomplished novelists you meet, whose keen glance as you’re talking to them has you wondering uncomfortably if they’re evaluating whether you’d make a good character in a story.

A professor of mine at York liked to claim there were only five stories, and that all narrative literature—as well as a great deal of history writing—are just variations on them. Other structuralist critics would say seven, or four, or ten. Joseph Campbell said there was just one.

The point, again, being that all narrative art, the high and the low, does not exist as hermetically sealed autonomous texts, but presupposes familiarity with certain stories, myths, conventions, situations, ideas, experiences, etc etc. Where do you think genre films come from? Can you imagine Francis Ford Coppolla suing Martin Scorcese for stealing his idea to do a mafia film?

So when Rebecca Eckler claims that her experience of pregnancy and motherhood is somehow singular to her, you can pretty much hear mothers all around the country exclaiming “Whaaaaaat?!” As Jen, aka Nikki says rather eloquently, “This is a perfect example of Rebecca Eckler's self-centredness... she's the sort of person to burn her mouth on coffee and think she's the only person on earth to have done it. But only after she's run outside to tell everyone she's discovered a new substance called coffee.”

(Jen: please notice I put your words in quotation mark and cited you. Don’t sue me!).

Friday, June 15, 2007

My niece the diva

"I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille ..."

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Fun with Google Maps, or How the CIA Sees St. John's

This was kind of entertaining. Sorry about the writing -- I should have made it bigger.

St. John's, the god's-eye view:

My place:

MUN (or part of it, anyway):

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Fall classes

Given that I had to order all my books for the fall term this week, I took this opportunity to rough out a thumbnail sketch of my course schedules. Or two out of three of them, anyway.

Fall term will be busy, given that the course remission I receive as new faculty expires this year and I go on to the standard 3/2 load -- i.e. five courses over the year, which unless you want to teach in the summer (I don't, yet) tends to translate into three classes one semester, two the next. And after two years of not teaching the same course twice, I finally reuse some lecture notes! I'm slotted in the Fall to teach 2000 (British Literature to 1800) and 2213 (Twentieth-Century American Fiction, both of which I've taught before ... and in the case of the latter, I'm forcing myself to make minimal changes. My inclination is to completely reinvent what I did this year, which is easy enough -- six novels over twelve to thirteen weeks of a semester doesn't exactly represent a significant chunk of the last hundred years of American fiction, and I could teach this course a hundred times over and never teach the same novel twice. And given my love of building new courses from the ground up, it's a struggle not to throw six entirely new texts on the sylabus. As I'll likely be teaching this course, or variations on it, a lot from now to my retirement, I've set myself a rule for the first few years: only two substitutions allowed each time I teach it, until I have compiled a pretty hefty library of lecture notes. My reading list this past year was:

Nicholson Baker, The Mezzanine.
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man.
William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying.
Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises.
Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon.
Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence.

So out of that I'm dropping Ellison and Hemingway, and inserting James Weldon Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49.

I've made even fewer changes to 2000, and those mostly in the form of cutting and streamlining. When I taught it for the first time last year, I tried to do too much. Now I'm breaking it down into seven units: Prosody (the sonnet), Medieval (Sir Gawain), Early Elizabethan (Marlowe, Dr. Faustus), Shakespeare (Othello), Metaphysical Poetry (Donne), John Milton (selections of Paradise Lost -- would that I had time to do it all!), and 18th Century (Pope, "The Rape of the Lock"). This is likely to be the general shape of the course for me from here on in ... about the only thing I'll be switching up next time will be the representative Shakespeare (last year it was Henry V, and next year? I'm thinking either Richard III or Julius Caesar).

I knew I was getting kind of tired and punchy yesterday afternoon when I started giving each of the units "funny" titles that I think were channeled directly from my father's sense of humour -- the nadir being "Moor Jealousy with Othello!"

Shut up.

And finally, I'm doing our grad students' mandatory theory course, which I'm very excited about. Whoever teaches it tends to make it over in his or her image, focusing on a specific theme that allows the students to really dig their teeth into a series of theoretical and critical issues. After some consideration, I've settled on "Theories of Mass Culture and the Role of the Intellectual" -- starting with Matthew Arnold, through Ortega y Gasset and T.S. Eliot, Adorno, Horkheimer, Raymond Williams and the Frankfurt-Birmingham debate, and ending with a consideration of theories of the role of the university, past and present.

Good times.

It just occurred to me that this post is really just me thinking out loud and probably isn't of interest to anyone outside of me or students thinking of taking my course. At least you got an Othello joke, though ...

Friday, June 01, 2007

Congress post-mortem

Well, after an excruciatingly long day yesterday -- left Saskatoon at 9:30am, on a flight that went Saskatoon-Calgary-Halifax-St. John's, landing finally at home at 11:30pm (and to add insult to injury, the in-flight movie was Norbit) -- I'm back, and even back in my office ... though I'm really not intending to accomplish much today beyond shelving all the books I bought at the Congress book fair, and generally getting myself organized for a solid month of research and writing.

And writing a blog post, of course.

So as you can see from the photos above, U of Saskatchewan campus is in fact absolutely gorgeous. I snapped those two photos on the Sunday ... which as it turns out was the last day of good weather. Monday got cold, and Tuesday and Wednesday positively miserable with rain and gloom. Which I guess made everyone more amenable to sitting inside and listening to academic papers; had the weather been like the photos above all week, I imagine my own session attendance would have been much lower.

Congress 2007 highlights:

(1) Seeing a ton of friends, and seeing a broad range of papers in different disciplines. I decided this year that I would make a point of seeing my friends' presentations, and then pick and choose other sessions depending on my mood (which on one memorable afternoon meant eschewing papers entirely to sit on a patio: see below). Because I have friends in a variety of fields, this meant that in addition to English and Film Studies papers, I also got educated on Aristotle's thought experiments (Sean) and conscientious objectors in WWI Canada (Amy). This, for me, is the best part of these kind of conferences: never having been inclined to hoe a single furrow intellectually, I love learning stuff from other disciplines. This can sometimes be tricky at academic conferences when papers get so caught up in their own disciplinary jargon or preoccupations that they can be hard to follow, but when you get good presenters it can be truly educational.

(2) Sunday afternoon on the patio at Louis' pub -- I ran into Sean Mulligan (soon to by Dr. Sean as of mid-June when he defends his thesis -- huzzah!) at lunch, and we migrated to a table on the gorgeous and spacious patio depicted below. The day was amazingly bright and sunny, to the point where I developed rather a nice tan. This was at about one o'clock, and I'd had vague plans to attend some papers in the afternoon, but that resolve pretty much evaporated as we went through four pitchers in three hours (I think it was four).

(3) Seeing former students doing well. I mentioned this in my last post so I won't belabour it, but it was extraordinarily gratifying to see students I'd taught at Western holding their own at Canada's largest academic conference in the humanities.

(4) My panel. As mentioned, I was extremely pleased with how my paper went, and our panel of two papers meshed surprisingly well. Did I say surprisingly? I should say "bizarrely," given that the other presenter was speaking about Irish-language television. And yet we managed a useful dialogue between the two topics.

(5) Having lunch with this past year's Pratt Lecturer, Susan Gingell. Susan, a professor in U of Sask's English department, is one of those amazing academics who manages to be both exceptionally talented and intelligent but really down to earth and human. Suffice it to say, the Pratt committee (on which I served) fell in love with her, and I was told rather sternly by the other committee members that I had to at least have a drink with her while I was there. And a good measure of what Susan's like? In spite of her insanely busy schedule at the Congress, as both organizer and delegate, she make a point of coming to see my paper.

Congress 2007 lowlights:

(1) Spending five nights in a grotty Howard Johnson's. Now, this isn't the Congress' fault, obviously, but mine for having booked late ... but still, it does colour the experience a bit when you feel very strongly that you should avoid touching surfaces in a your hotel room as much as possible. I took comfort in the fact that I was not the only one in this predicament: I think most of the hotel were delegates. Misery does love company.

(2) The dearth of cabs. I don't think Saskatoon was quite prepared for the volume of people who descended on the city for the Congress, in excess of five thousand. By Monday morning, cabs were more or less scarce, and you were looking at an hour's wait if you called after 8am (if you could even get through, which wasn't guaranteed). Thinking I was being smart by calling a cab on Wednesday at 7:15am, I still did not make it up to campus until 8:15 -- by which point the lobby was crammed with delegates. Now, this is sort of the Congress' fault -- a problem that could have been alleviated somewhat by the arranging of campus shuttles to the major hotels, and having airport shuttles leaving directly from campus.