Sunday, December 21, 2008

We'll Take a Cup O' Kindness Yet...

The English Department wishes everyone a safe and happy holiday. As the students depart for winter break, the department blog is also taking a short hiatus. We will be back online with our weekly Sunday posts (and an all new lay-out!) starting January 4, 2009.

Until then, we leave with you a classic holiday poem: Robert Burns' "Auld Lang Syne."

SHOULD auld acquaintance be forgot,

And never brought to min'?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,

And days o' lang syne?

We twa hae rin about the braes,

And pu'd the gowans fine;

But we've wander'd monie a weary fit

Sin' auld lang syne.

We twa hae paidl't i' the burn,

Frae mornin' sun till dine;

But seas between us braid hae roar'd

Sin' auld lang syne.

And here 's a hand, my trusty fiere,

And gie's a hand o' thine;

And we'll tak a right guid-willie waught

For auld lang syne.

And surely ye'll be your pint-stowp,

And surely I'll be mine;

And we'll tak a cup o' kindness yet

For auld lang syne!

For auld lang syne, my dear,

For auld lang syne,
We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet

For auld lang syne.

For those of us not fluent in Burns' native Scots, The Oxford Book of English Verse provides the following glosses:

gowans] daisies. fit] foot. dine] dinner-time. fiere] partner. guid-willie waught] friendly draught. Read full post....

Friday, December 12, 2008

Reading Recommendations: Children's Lit

In what follows, Ph.D. candidate Natalia Cecire offers what she calls an "idiosyncratic list of recent (i.e. from the last ten years) children's fiction that I've enjoyed, with a bias toward fantasy." Natalia is the co-founder of the Children's Literature Working Group and offers these recommendations as suggestions either to get your young niece or nephew into good but entertaining reading or to access your own inner child-reader.

M.T. Anderson, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. Volume I: The Pox Party. Candlewick, 2006.

In colonial America, a boy grows up surrounded by scholars, trained extensively in Greek and Latin but unaware of his own origins. The outbreak of revolution leads to disturbing revelations about Octavian and his mother. Dark and Gothic in sensibility, it's Johnny Tremain meets Vathek, taking a long, chilling look at the U.S.'s Enlightenment heritage. A sequel was released this year.

Blue Balliett, The Wright 3. Scholastic, 2006. Illustrations by Brett Helquist.

This is the second of three mysteries by Balliett centering on famous works of art (the other two are Chasing Vermeer and The Calder Game). Balliett's everything-is-connected! sensibility has resulted in comparisons to The Da Vinci Code, but I prefer to see it as a descendant of Thomas Pynchon's paranoid fantasias, minus the bizarre sex scenes. In this volume, three middle-school students at the University of Chicago Laboratory School fight to save a local Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece, the Robie House, which is (fictionally) in danger of being torn down. As the friends work together, Balliett offers sensitive insights into gender and class dynamics.

Mary Hoffman City of Stars. Bloomsbury, 2003.
Hoffman's Stravaganza series features present-day Londoners who travel magically ("Stravagate") to Renaissance Talia, the Italy of a parallel universe. In this, the second novel of the series, the protagonist is a fifteen-year-old girl named Georgia. Her main goals in life are to ride horses and to evade sexual harassment at the hands of her brutal step-brother Russell. When she learns to Stravagate to Talia, she becomes involved in dangerous political intrigues surrounding a magical winged horse. It turns out for Georgia that, once you've crossed the Medici family of an alternate universe, you become less scared of your jerk step-brother.

Diana Wynne Jones, Dark Lord of Derkholm. Greenwillow, 1998.

In a parallel universe filled with magic, the people are under the thumb of an unscrupulous businessman, who sets up elaborate tours featuring every fantasy cliche in the book. Nerdy, bumbling Derk is selected as this year's Dark Lord; with his large, genetically engineered, multispecies family, he has to pull off a convincing performance while trying to figure out how to stop the tours forever. Jones lovingly and hilariously mocks the cliches of the sword-and-sorcery genre. Jones is also the author of Howl's Moving Castle, which was adapted to film by Hayao Miyazaki a few years ago.

Gail Carson Levine, The Two Princesses of Bamarre. HarperCollins, 2001.

Two sisters, princesses both, are the best of friends. Meryl is a sword-wielding tomboy; Addie is painfully shy. Meryl has always protected Addie, but when a magical plague strikes Meryl down, Addie must be the one to save her. Suddenly she is forced to fight dragons, wear seven-league boots, and of course, wield her bad-ass embroidery needle. An interesting negotiation between difference feminism and the third wave (with princesses), this novel is both literally and figuratively about sisterhood.

Read full post....

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Importance of Being "Ernest"

The following is an account, written by first-year student Marsha Polovets, about the Freshman Seminar she took this semester. Freshman and Sophomore seminars are one-credit courses given by a faculty member to a small group of lower-division students to explore a scholarly topic of mutual interest together. Marsha has been enrolled in Professor Katherine Snyder’s “Rethinking Hemingway” course which focused on gender issues and the way they have reinvigorated Hemingway studies over the past two decades.

On the first day of class, Professor Snyder asked the students to list what images or words we associated with this iconic author. The entries on the board quickly piled up: “expatriate,” “fishing,” “war,” “journalist,” “bullfighting,” “stoicism,” “alcoholic,” and so on. Many answers flashed through my mind, but now that I look back on it, the most important one never came until writing this blog. Hemingway was special to me because I associated him with my grandfather through his rugged character, his love for boxing, and his noble looks. I signed up for the class because I wanted to see the essence of the man and the writer. Do I still connect Hemingway to my grandfather? In some ways yes, and in some ways probably no, but I definitely appreciate Hemingway more than I did before.

The course began with analytical essays by literary critics Debra Moddelmog and Thomas Strychacz who posed challenging questions about the role of masculinity and identity in Hemingway’s works and introduced us to some of the themes and issues we would encounter. First we tackled a chapter from Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway’s highly idiosyncratic study of Spanish bullfighting. Next, we read a selection of short stories, including “Indian Camp,” “The Battler” and “Big Two-Hearted River,” and discussed the ways in which race, sexuality, and gender intersect as well as how Hemingway understands both his male and female characters. The character of Margot Macomber in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” particularly intrigued us: is she weak or powerful? does she mean to save or kill her husband? does his death destroy or liberate her? Our discussion of this complex female character and Hemingway’s ambivalent attitude toward her set the stage for our reading of the gender-bending Lady Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises. We also focused on the male characters in the story: the epicurean Count Mippipopolous, the Jewish boxer/author/scapegoat Robert Cohn, the bullfighter Pedro Romero, and of course Hemingway’s narrator, Jake Barnes, whose sexual war wound makes him, above all, the emblem of masculine lack in the novel and, paradoxically, its epitome of ideal manhood.

Our discussions in the class engaged issues of form as well as content, as we considered how Hemingway’s style—at once concretely descriptive and yet leaving much unspoken, at once flowingly associative and yet awkwardly abrupt—might be understood in gendered terms. Is there such a thing, we asked, as “masculine style,” and what are its implications for narrative voice, character development, and symbolic meaning? Since this was just a one-unit seminar, we didn’t write any full-scale, formal essays, but each week students posted informal responses to the readings and to each others’ comments on our bSpace course website, enabling us to engage more actively with the readings and to develop questions for class discussions. In the final weeks of the course, we reading some parodies from The Best of Bad Hemingway, and then try our hands at writing (and reading aloud in class) our own Hemingway parodies: Hemingway-style prose so bad that it’s good!

The seminar has been a wonderful introduction to Hemingway’s works, and it helped me improve my analytic skills. Professor Snyder really challenged the class to be active readers and look for deeper meanings in the texts. She encouraged us to question the notion that there is a unified essence of masculinity and to recognize that Hemingway’s work can be interpreted in many different ways. I learned that I am interested in exploring the role of gender and identity in literature, and I began to read from a new point of view. It was a special way to start my journey at Cal, and I am very thankful for it. Hemingway has been transformed from a cultural figure and the symbol of masculinity to a complicated person and an insightful author whose works possess an intricate, challenging style and reflects some of the most beautiful and human emotions. I hope to return to Hemingway in the future and “rethink” him again, remembering what I learned in Professor Snyder’s class. Like my grandfather, “Papa Hemingway” will always hold a special place in my heart.

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Thursday, December 4, 2008

Passed from one mouth to another

(a poetry event featuring UCB grad students)

Cecil Giscombe’s English 243 class presents an evening of poetry and song along with food prepared by the poets.

Graduate students Anthony Bello, Rachel Carden, Rebecca Gaydos, Nikhil Govind, Mariah Hamilton, Charity Ketz, Gillian Osborne, Samia Rahimtoola, Robert Reyes, and Rachel Wamsley will read, sing, and recite.

Monday, 8 December • 7 pm • English Department Lounge (Wheeler 330)

(*from “Anthem” by Samia Rahimtoola) Read full post....

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Faculty/Graduate Colloquium -- Modernism: Material, Spectral, Aural

In what follows, second-year graduate student Juliana Chow, one of this year's organizers for the English Graduate Association's series of colloquia, reports on a recent department event, entitled Modernism: Material, Spectral, Aural.


Rubbish, refuse, trash. Noise, static, din.

I know when I go to talks, I'm supposed to be able to make sense of all the words flung out at me, that there is, subtly or conspicuously, a line thrown out to lead me out of one labyrinth and into another. As William Carlos Williams writes, "jumble is superb."

This was my sense of things at the English Graduate Association's third colloquium of the semester. Graduate student Kea Anderson and Professor Mark Goble each presented on modernism's medium, whether it be sound for Jean Rhys (Anderson's presentation) or archives, vintage office furniture, industrial e-waste, and what James Agee lists as, "fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement" (Goble's presentation). If Williams and Agee reorganized material waste into a poem or photograph, Rhys remade sound into a medium for registering the world. Each visually or aurally mapped a way out that was simultaneously a way into their material.

This was probably the eleventh or twelfth EGA colloquium I've been to, and each time I've left thoroughly impressed by my colleagues and the faculty here at Berkeley. I appreciate their generosity and skill in, well, mapping a way for me into their work. Both Anderson and Goble, in their own way, reminded me that the presentation of what looks like waste (here Goble contrasted Chris Jordan's photograph of a jumble of cel phone chargers with Jackson Pollock's paintings) or snatches of rote recitation (like the Heine lyrics from Rhys' Midnight! that Anderson selected—"Ja, ja, nein, nein…") is never a blank, artless rendering, but a mediated deliberation. On this page at this moment, what html codes translate the font, size, color, and style of these words? What modernist sense of medium underlies Williams' poetry, Rhys' novels?

Of course, if I knew, I wouldn't have gone to the colloquium—but no one knows everything and each day there is more to know, maybe too much to know. As Rhys writes, "Oh Lord, keep me blind." Yes, keep me blind—and thank you for leading me out.

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