Historical Fiction, Kent, Hannah

Review of Burial Rites

Image result for burial ritesHannah Kent’s debut Burial Rites is a historical novel about the final days of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman beheaded in Iceland in the early 19th-century. Agnes is accused of complicity in the murders of Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson. At the beginning of the novel, the District Commissioner assigns Agnes to a family in rural Kornsá, where she must live and work until execution day. As you might expect, Jón and Margrét are not too pleased to have an infamous murderess living under their roof. Only one of their two daughters – Steina – tries to befriend Agnes. Lauga is repulsed by her presence. On her request, Agnes is also assigned a spiritual adviser named Thorvardur (Tóti) Jónsson. Though only an assistant priest, Tóti must accompany Agnes to her execution. Agnes remembered meeting him as a child.

Because Burial Rites is told alternatively in first and third person narrative, the reader encounters Agnes’ stories through several perspectives. In addition to giving us an intimate portrait of one woman, Hannah Kent introduces us to life in 19th-century rural Iceland. Daily chores include gutting sheep, preparing and cooking blood sausages, and stoking a fire with dung. The novel is powerful and intimate without being overly sentimental.

I can’t believe that I’ve put off reading historical fiction for so long! It is really the perfect genre for a literature student who works on stories from the archives. And Kent’s novel brings the past to life. The setting, the characters, and the dialogue are so compelling that I did not want to put the book down. Agnes’ host family may not be facing execution, but their lives are far from uneventful. They face heavy snowstorms and violent illnesses. Yet, nearly all of the characters are literate; Agnes is described as a lover of the sagas despite being a poor farmhand. Kent reminds the reader that Iceland has had one of the highest literacy rates in the world since the 19th century.

Female executions are rarely discussed in fiction or real life. Burial Rites deserves all of the acclaim that it has received. This work is beautifully-written and thought-provoking in its simplicity. I look forward to reading other works by Hannah Kent.

Reflections

5 Things I Learned From Presenting at a Language & Literature Conference

The Great Benefits of Attending Academic ConferencesI presented a paper at a major language and literature conference in the region. It was a great experience! I met scholars and was introduced to new texts in my sub-discipline (Late Medieval/Renaissance France).

Here are 5 things that I learned from the experience:

1) Never underestimate the importance of giving background information in a presentation. After spending nearly four months working on Louis de Berquin – the “Protestant” translator whose trial accounts I analyzed at the Kentucky Foreign Language Conference (KFLC) – I falsely assumed that Berquin was well-known to most Renaissance scholars. Thankfully, I provided a lot of background information about the political state of France in the early 16th-century because the early modernists in my panel had never heard of Berquin.

2) Present your argument clearly and near the start of your presentation. Listeners will be lost if they do not know what your argument is. In the first draft of my paper, I put my argument at the end of my fourth page but a fellow graduate student told me to move it to the first or second page. I’m glad I heeded his advice.

3) Bring a visual (either a handout or a PowerPoint). Not only does a visual keep people awake, it helps with the presentation of complex plot structures and ideas.

4) Speak slowly. Better to speak slowly and go under time by a couple of minutes than to speak quickly and barely make the time – or in the case of one presenter, get through only the first half of your paper and go over time by three minutes .*sigh*

5) Listen to questions and suggestions. Audience questions and comments can be valuable. It’s OK to disagree with someone’s claim, but please be respectful and open to suggestions. Talking over an audience member is rude and counter-productive. Conferences can be great opportunities to grow as a scholar, but you cannot grow if you are unwilling to listen and learn from others. Yes, comments-veiled-as-questions can be irritating, but even more irritating is the speaker who doesn’t know when to stop speaking.

If you have presented at academic conferences, what have you learned from the experience?

Reflections

Stop Saying That Good Writers Are Born

Image result for self-defeatismI strongly dislike the debate over whether a good writer is born or made. It fosters a defeatist mentality. Why do we feel the need to ask this question in the first place?

I particularly dislike this debate because it’s so hard to evaluate. Who do we consider a “good” writer? Because this debate often comes up in writing circles, my assumption is that a good writer has been published and has won a few literary awards. But are all successful writers good writers on an aesthetic level? Are all unpublished writers bad writers? Do all good writers get published?

I can name many authors who have written New York Times bestsellers but who would probably not get As from their English teachers. But their books are published and have been optioned for movies. Isn’t that the dream for many writers? There are equally as many writers with MFA degrees that have never published a single book. Are they bad writers?

To statistically determine whether good authors (however defined) are born or made, we could conduct a large-scale study on the childhood interests of such authors. Maybe all of them were prodigious writers at a very young age. But I doubt it. Time and time again, we hear stories about critically acclaimed authors who took up writing late in life. My favorite children’s author Roald Dahl was ridiculed by his teachers and told that he would never amount to anything.

And yet, so many people feel the need to say that writers either “have it” or they don’t. What’s the point? If success is defined by publication or prize, then an unpublished writer always has the potential to be published. An unpublished writer could become a published writer whose story sets the tone for how other unpublished writers see their own work.

There’s no point in asking yourself whether a good writer is born or made. No matter who the writer, writing requires discipline and practice. Unless you are on your deathbed, you – the unpublished, unrecognized writer – could become a published, recognized author. But only if you write and finish a project.

Let’s stop promoting the defeatist belief that artists are born, not made. In Academia, we use the term “impostor syndrome” to refer to that false belief that you do not belong in a graduate program or the professoriate. Impostor syndrome is particularly sinister when it is cultivated in us by our friends and mentors. Stop allowing other people to define success for you or to limit your potential. Stop self-sabotaging your own career or hobby. Work on improving your craft.

Clarke, Susanna, Fantasy/Sci-Fi

Review of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Image result for jonathan strange and mr norrellAlthough I had planned to finish Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell for Bout of Books 24, I only finished it a couple of days ago. It is a massive book – clocking in at anywhere between 750 and 1000 pages, depending on the edition. I couldn’t lay it on my lap without crushing my legs into oblivion. After reading the first half in hardback, I finally caved in and borrowed an electronic copy through my library’s Overdrive.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke is a historical fantasy set in England during the Napoleanic Wars. The eponymous Mr. Norrell is the only practical magician in the country, even though there are hundreds of theoretical magicians who research the history of magic. Theoretical magicians cannot perform a single spell. In 1806, two members of The Learned Society of York Magicians ask why practical magic is no longer encouraged by the society. After much bickering, the leaders agree to write to Mr. Norrell to ask him to attend the next meeting. But the only practical magician in England has no patience for theoretical magicians and their ridicule of “true” magic. The Learned Society of York Magicians must agree to disband if Mr. Norrell proves that he can perform magic. When the statues of the York Cathedral suddenly begin to speak one winter day, the Society members are forced to concede defeat.

Thus begins the public career of Mr. Norrell, a clever but narcissistic magician. He starts his own journal of magic and offers his services to the king. One of his closest friends is a Cabinet member, Sir Walter Pole. Pole is engaged to a woman who is deathly sick, although her mother refuses to acknowledge her infirmity. When Emma Wintertowne –  the fiancée – dies before the marriage day, Mr. Norrell offers to raise her from the dead. But to do so, Mr. Norrell has to summon a mischievous fairy.

Image result for jonathan strange and mr norrell illustrations
Illustrations by Portia Rosenberg

The second half of the book mostly follows Mr. Norrell’s student Jonathan Strange, an equally arrogant and accomplished magician. He and Norrell do not see eye to eye on anything. Strange is a devoted follower of the Raven King – a magician who established his kingdom in Northern England and trained a number of prominent magicians during the middle ages. Mr. Norrell, on the other hand, thinks that nothing good can come of fairies. He’d know.

But if they can’t get along, how will Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell address the evil that the gentleman with the thistle-down hair has been brewing in England?

Despite its length and copious footnotes, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a page-turner. I was impressed by the accuracy of Clarke’s imitation of 19th-century English prose. At numerous points in the novel, I thought I was reading a Victorian novel. Yet, Clarke subverts in significant ways the clichés of gothic fantasy.

It is also  the perfect book for readers who enjoy fantasy about the history of magic. Susanna Clarke has invented an entire history of magic to accompany her novel. There are numerous, lengthy footnotes that accompany the narrative. Because I love research, I did not skip a single footnote. I found that they added to my reading experience. Nevertheless, I don’t think you will miss much if you choose to skip them.

Although there were a few scenes that could have been edited out, I was sucked in by the novel’s spooky atmosphere. This is the perfect book to read in fall or winter. The gentleman with the thistle-down hair is a morally-complex character, despite the damage that he wreaks in the lives of the magicians’ friends and family members. More than once, I sympathized with his diagnosis of Mr. Norrell’s enterprise.

It may be a bit old-fashioned of me to say that I prefer fantasy about magicians, wizards, and the history of magic. The fantasy genre is breaking new grounds and abandoning its “wizard’s apprentice” origins. But I am a sucker for those fantasies. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was a very satisfying novel, and I look forward to reading more by Susanna Clarke.

Augustine, Religious

Master/Slave Language in Augustine’s Confessions (Trans. Sarah Ruden)

Image result for sarah ruden confessionsI just tweeted my initial impression of Sarah Ruden’s 2017 translation of Augustine’s Confessions. Thanks to Spooler for making the unrolling of my thread possible. I hope to write more in-depth blog posts about this translation at a later date.

Full Post

Currently reading and loving Sarah Ruden’s recent (2017) translation of Augustine’s Confessions. Her decision to translate dominus as Master rather than Lord is most appropriate for 2 reasons. 1) Augustine’s contemporaries associated dominus w/ the head of a household and slaves. 2) Augustine considers the relationship between God and humanity as a relationship between a Master and a slave. It is this slavery that Augustine believes leads to true freedom. Humans are either slaves of sin or they are slaves to God. There’s no in-between. This is Pauline.

Of course, master/slave language is very off-putting today. Augustine owned slaves, while we rightly condemn slavery. Furthermore, most of us don’t like to think of ourselves as slaves to God. We want to have free choice.

Now, I’m not going to get into Augustine’s teachings on the human will (it’s complicated), but suffice it to say that Augustine does not believe post-Adamic humans have libertarian free will (a will free from all determination). God’s role in human salvation – and conversely, original sin’s role in human damnation – leaves little room for personal autonomy. According to Augustine, conversion entails the exchange of one master for another.

Tl;dr : Sarah Ruden’s translation of dominus as Master and servus as slave perfectly captures Augustine’s theology of salvation.

Because Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey appeared in the same year, Ruden’s translation was overlooked by literary critics. Her translation has received virtually no buzz. That’s too bad. Ruden’s translation is excellent, and everyone should read it!

Reflections

Why I’m Such a Slow Writer

Related imageI don’t often talk about my writing struggles on here. I might share goals or writing advice, but I don’t feel comfortable sharing my faults publicly. I resist being vulnerable because I am terrified of being perceived as a complainer – perhaps because my emotions were often ridiculed and dismissed as a child. Nevertheless, I want to share my failures with you because I know that failure is necessary for growth. So here goes.

Yesterday, I submitted my final term paper for the Fall 2018 semester after having worked on it for over three weeks! Now, I know what you’re thinking.  You think I have a problem with procrastination. Nope. I wrote consistently over the three-week period. Many days I worked for 2-3 hours. Nevertheless, it took me three weeks to write a 20-page term paper.

My major problem is that I revise as I write. I am doing it right now. It’s so hard for me to resist the urge to correct clumsy, disorganized prose. I worry that I’m missing transitions or entire paragraphs.

For this paper, I made serious structural edits every 3-5 pages. Then I wrote a few more pages. Then I made even more changes. One day I spent almost two hours writing two sentences. Another day, I spent over three hours changing the order of paragraphs and rewriting topic sentences.

This needs to stop!

I need to be okay with writing multiple drafts. I must resist the urge to write a perfect first draft. In fact, I’ve noticed that my writing is more, not less, clumsy when I agonize over each and every sentence. Paragraphs don’t flow as well.

A more organized and detailed outline would certainly help, but perfectionism is what’s really holding me back.

There are some reasons for this. I’ve never been a “creative”. There was a time when I thought I might like to write fiction, but my writing is very plain and straightforward. I hated creative writing assignments. I couldn’t even write a decent essay in high school. It also doesn’t help that writing is shrouded in myth. Many writers claim that you are either born a writer or you’re not.

Although my writing has improved greatly over the past three years, I know that I will never be a wordsmith. And I’m honestly okay with that. I just want to get my point across. I care about academic writing because I want to communicate my findings with the scholarly community. But at my current writing rate, it will take me a decade to write a dissertation.

My goal in 2019 is to accept that my first draft will be atrocious.

Read-A-Thon

Bout of Books 24 (Jan 7-13)

 Bout of Books 24In an effort to be more involved in the blogging community, I will be participating in Bout of Books 24. This is a week-long reading event that starts on Monday, January 7 and ends on Sunday, January 13.

My goal for this readathon is to finish Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. This 782-page behemoth follows two magicians: Mr. Norrell and his student Jonathan Strange.

Image result for jonathan strange book

I am deeply enjoying this book so far. Fantasies that revolve around wizards and the history of magic are my favorite. And Clarke is so good at imitating 19th-century prose that I have thought more than once that I was reading something by Dickens. If I finish this work by the 13th, I will be very pleased with myself.

If I manage to finish that before Sunday, I will begin What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia by Elizabeth Catte.

Image result for what you are getting wrong about appalachia

Having lived in Kentucky for 6 years, I am interested in learning more about Appalachia and the people who live there. When Hillbilly Elegy came out, I was excited to read it. Unfortunately, J. D. Vance blames the poor for their problems and sympathizes uncritically with Trump supporters. No thank you! Catte’s book promises to challenge Vance’s most controversial claims and to give a short, but realistic portrait of one of the poorest regions in the United States.

These are my plans for Bout of Books 24. What are your plans?

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The Bout of Books read-a-thon is organized by Amanda Shofner and Kelly Rubidoux Apple. It is a week long read-a-thon that begins 12:01am Monday, January 7th and runs through Sunday, January 13th in whatever time zone you are in. Bout of Books is low-pressure. There are challenges, giveaways, and a grand prize, but all of these are completely optional. For all Bout of Books 24 information and updates, be sure to visit the Bout of Books blog. – From the Bout of Books team