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.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Stephen King's "On Writing" Still a Useful Classroom Guide

If you're an English teacher, and you haven't read Stephen King's memoir On Writing, you might just be missing out, or, like me, you might have had an original elitist refusal to taking advice from the writer of thrillers and supermarket paperbacks. That's probably a position you should reconsider. Jess Lahey, an English educator and education writer for The Atlantic, has a great piece in Business Insider where she interviews King about the value of his book and his thoughts on teaching English. Both King and Lahey have a lot of great  insights about English education.

Lahey: When people ask me to name my favorite books, I have to ask them to narrow their request: to read or to teach? You provide a fantastic list of books to read at the end of "On Writing," but what were your favorite books to teach, and why?
King: When it comes to literature, the best luck I ever had with high school students was teaching James Dickey’s long poem “Falling.” It’s about a stewardess who’s sucked out of a plane. They see at once that it’s an extended metaphor for life itself, from the cradle to the grave, and they like the rich language. I had good success with The Lord of the Flies and short stories like“Big Blonde” and “The Lottery.” (They argued the shit out of that one—I’m smiling just thinking about it.) No one puts a grammar book on their list of riveting reads, but "The Elements of Style" is still a good handbook. The kids accept it.
Lahey: You write, “One either absorbs the grammatical principles of one’s native language in conversation and in reading or one does not.” If this is true, why teach grammar in school at all? Why bother to name the parts?
King: When we name the parts, we take away the mystery and turn writing into a problem that can be solved. I used to tell them that if you could put together a model car or assemble a piece of furniture from directions, you could write a sentence. Reading is the key, though. A kid who grows up hearing “It don’t matter to me” can only learndoesn’t if he/she reads it over and over again.
Lahey: While I love teaching grammar, I am conflicted on the utility of sentence diagramming. Did you teach diagramming, and if so, why?
King: I did teach it, always beginning by saying, “This is for fun, like solving a crossword puzzle or a Rubik’s Cube.” I told them to approach it as a game. I gave them sentences to diagram as homework but promised I would not test on it, and I never did. Do you really teach diagramming? Good for you! I didn’t think anyone did anymore.
Lahey: In the introduction to Strunk and White’s "The Elements of Style," E.B. White recounts William Strunk’s instruction to “omit needless words.” While your books are voluminous, your writing remains concise. How do you decide which words are unnecessary and which words are required for the telling?
King: It’s what you hear in your head, but it’s never right the first time. So you have to rewrite it and revise it. My rule of thumb is that a short story of 3,000 words should be rewritten down to 2,500. It’s not always true, but mostly it is. You need to take out the stuff that’s just sitting there and doing nothing. No slackers allowed! All meat, no filler!

Read more:

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."

Monday, July 14, 2014

English Teachers Need to Oppose Online Testing - parkPARCC

The Common Core and PARCC/SmarterBalanced testing have raised the ire of many parents and educators during the past year or so. However, most of the criticism of the new "standards" and the associated tests and homework has been in the subject area of math. Math teachers disagree on the value of the standards, but there is little doubt that kids and parents are frustrated by the "new way of doing math." There has been less coverage and criticism of the language arts standards - though many people are troubled by the inanity of the CCSS committee that decided to name them English Language Arts standards, which leads to the acronym ELA - an already established term for non-native speakers.

However, with the coming of new standardized tests like PARCC and SB, which will be administered online, English teachers have a significant reason to oppose CCSS. Despite the passivity of younger language arts teachers who have grown up more accustomed to online reading, "E-Reading Threatens Learning in the Humanities." True English teachers know that interacting with the text is a primary focus of language analysis, and that includes annotating, skimming, close reading, etc. These skills and techniques are associated with having a physical text in front of the reader. While e-readers are becoming more adapted to note-taking - and people are more adept at using them - there is still no substitute for physical texts. In fact, research shows that e-readers negatively impact comprehension. How, in good conscience, can any English teacher support that system?

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to take sample online questions for PARCC, and the format of the test convinced me of the problematic and harmful nature of the testing format. The idea of scrolling up and down between two screens - one with the passage and the other with the questions - absolutely unnerved me. And nothing in my knowledge of how people read and learn indicated that the online format is a positive development for education. It may be more efficient for state test writers and coordinators. And it may be a great revenue source for companies like Microsoft and Pearson. But this is not good pedagogy and not good instructional practice.

Thus, when my nine-year-old daughter came home from school, having learned that she would have to "write her state test essays on the computer," she announced, "I'm not doing it."

And I support her in that decision.

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, "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."