Reflections

Write the Synopsis First | Academic Writing

academic writingIn the past few months, I’ve been obsessed with AuthortTube (the writing community on YouTube). Although I do not write fiction, so much of what authortubers talk about applies as well to academic writing. Most recently, I came across a series of videos about the process of writing a synopsis. The synopsis is a 1-2 page summary of your book’s plot.

Most writers only prepare a synopsis when they are ready to query agents. Academic writers may even skip this step entirely. But what if we wrote our synopses first? What if, instead of figuring out our arguments while we write, we were to write a 1-2 page summary of our articles or book chapters?

If I cannot summarize my argument in 1-2 pages, I will not be able to do it in 20. For the past few years, I have found organizing my papers particularly challenging. I worry that I have strayed from my original argument. I don’t always know why my argument is important or how it fits in the existing scholarship.

Therefore, I will begin my next academic writing project with a 1-2 page synopsis. I hope that this exercise will make writing the article that much easier.

Plays, Racine

Classics Spin #23: Review of La Thébaïde by Racine

La Thébaïde by RacineI did it! I finally completed a Classics Spin book. My pick for this month’s spin was a play: La Thébaïde by Racine.

La Thébaïde, ou les frères ennemis by Racine follows the bitter war fought between the two sons of Oedipus and Jacosta: Étéocle (Eteocles) and Polynice (Polynices). At the start of the play, we learn that Eteocles’s term has ended. According to Oedipus’s decree, it is now his brother’s turn to rule Thebes. Unfortunately, Eteocles refuses to share the throne with Polynices. Although Antigone initially supported Polynices’s claim to the throne, she can no longer stand by and look on while her brothers fight each other. Thus, she and her mother arrange a meeting with the two men, in hopes that they might finally lay down their weapons and come to a peaceful agreement. Why don’t Eteocles and Polynices rule together? But waiting in the wings is their uncle Creon, who insists that only one man should be king. The law must be respected, even if the people are unhappy. Jacosta is convinced, however, that Creon wants the throne for himself.

Racine was one of the three greatest playwrights of 17th-century France (the other two being Corneille and Molière). He is best known for his tragedies — a genre that appears to have lost its appeal in the 21st-century. As you might expect from the character list, La Thébaïde is a tragedy. Nothing good can come from an incestuous marriage:

Tu ne t’étonnes pas si mes fils sont perfides,
S’ils sont tous deux méchantset s’ils sont parricides :
Tu sais qu’ils sont sortis d’un sang incestueux,
Et tu t’étonnerais s’ils étaient vertueux.

Jacoste, Act 1, Scene 2

Although this is not Racine’s best play, it is not terrible (he also wrote it when he was 25!). The dialogue is brilliant even if the characterization is lacking. My favorite character was Creon because he had layered motives. Despite knowing that Creon aspired to the throne, I was often struck by how reasonable he sounded. I also enjoyed the tension between passion and duty. The play gave me many story ideas…

I don’t know how many English versions there are of this play. I suspect, not many. But if you have enjoyed other plays by Racine and you come across a copy of La Thébaïde, I recommend you give it a try. I will certainly be reading other plays by Racine in the near future. The only other play by him that I have read is his most famous: Phèdre.

politics

Review of Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick

Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick book coverI first heard about Mayflower when my brother was still in high school. He claimed that it was just about the most boring nonfiction he’d ever read. Not exactly high praise! But I found the first two chapters riveting. Perhaps, it’s my background in academic nonfiction that made me enjoy Philbrick’s style. Academic writing is often dry and opaque. Philbrick’s journalistic style drew me into the lives of the Separatists and their new Indigenous neighbors.

Nevertheless, I didn’t finish Mayflower until now because U.S. History was my least favorite subject in high school. Consequently, I have an embarrassingly poor knowledge of my own country’s history. It’s not my teachers’ fault that I didn’t pay attention in class. I only learned the dates and the President names for the test. I much preferred European history. But with U.S. politics the way it is, it’s about time I learn. Having already enjoyed two other books by Philbrick (Away Off Shore and Into the Heart of the Sea), I figured that Mayflower would be a good place to begin.

Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick is the story of the Separatists – religious fundamentalists and dissidents – who voyaged to the New World so that their children might remain English. Although they enjoyed religious tolerance in Holland, the Separatists nevertheless considered themselves English. In the New World, the Separatists could practice their faith on their own terms.

But as the Separatists discovered, the New World wasn’t new for the indigenous people of modern-day Massachusetts (the state is named after the Massachusetts tribe). At first, the Separatists were on friendly terms with the Pokanokets and their sachem Massasoit. The first generation of settlers embraced diplomacy. But subsequent generations did not have the same goals as their parents. They desired the land that belonged to the surrounding Native tribes. Furthermore, Massasoit’s son Philip had his own political ambitions. The Separatists discovered that the tribes had their allies and their enemies. Philip and the Separatists manipulated this landscape to further their own interests.

When six Indian elders were executed for the murder of a friend to the Separatists, the new Pokanoket sachem declared war on the English. Thus began what came to be known as King Philip’s War. I can understand why readers might find the chapters dedicated to this war boring. It’s just one battle scene after another. Yet, Philbrick argues that King Philip’s War was a turning point in English-Indian relations. I don’t know if there is a more engaging way to tell this story. War is monotonous in its ugliness. I also like how Philbrick highlighted the agency of the Native people. Squanto was friendly to the Separatists so that he might steal the sachemship from Massasoit and his family. Alliances are always political.

As a history of the Mayflower settlers and their relationship with the surrounding tribes, Mayflower is a solid popular history. It may not be as entertaining as Into the Heart of the Sea – which is about the shipwreck of the whale ship Essex – but I recommend Mayflower to anyone who, like me, needs to brush up on their early American history.

I will certainly be reading Philbrick’s American Revolution trilogy next. Popular nonfiction may not be as nuanced and up-to-date as academic nonfiction but it will always be more engaging.

Social Justice

Review of The Address Book by Deirdre Mask | Nonfiction

The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and PowerStreet addresses are something most of us take for granted in this digital age, even though most forms still ask us where we live. For many, street addresses are a privilege. They are markers of wealth and poverty. They are also the first thing employers learn about a job candidate. Before reading The Address BookI had little considered the significance of my street address. I knew that gentrification was a problem in Cleveland and Philadelphia (especially West Philly) but it never occurred to me that employers might discriminate against job candidates based on their street addresses or that people without street addresses might not be able to apply for a job. I didn’t know that there are regions of the United States where homeowners don’t have addresses.

In The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power, Deirdre Mask reveals how important street addresses are to our personal, social, and legal identities. Beginning in West Virginia, where hundreds of residents refuse to adopt street addresses, Mask explores the advantages and disadvantages of having a legal and traceable address. If some West Virginians fear the interference of the government in their neighborhoods, Indians living in the slums of Kolkota wish they had traceable addresses so that they could obtain government-issued IDs and register for social services. And then there’s the question of street names. What should communities do about streets named after Nazis or Confederate leaders? How do street names figure in the social visions of revolutionaries and totalitarian regimes?

For the past year, I have been living in Geneva, Switzerland, where streets are named after famous figures of Swiss history. There are streets named after Protestant Reformers, scientists, doctors, comic artists, and past mayors. In Paris, where the majority of streets are named after men, feminist activists have informally renamed street signs to better reflect the diversity of French history; the names of famous French women are scribbled over the official names.

Each chapter in The Address Book explores a different region of the world – Haiti, India, West Virginia, South Africa, Paris, Philadelphia, New York, Vienna, Germany, Japan, and Iran. Through a series of stories, Mask shows how street addresses and layout reflect the political concerns of those respective regions. She interviews activists who favor the changing of street names or work to give addresses to the homeless. Her writing is dynamic and personal. Mask does not hesitate to share her own personal views on a particular question, but only after she has given voice to the people directly involved in the politics of street addresses.

I flew through this book in a few sittings. If you are looking for a book that opens your eyes to the way people live around the world and has a strong voice, look no further than The Address Book. My only criticism is that chapters on a certain region were not always dedicated to that region. Paris, for example, features in several chapters despite those sections being about other nations. Perhaps, there should have been an earlier chapter dedicated to the influence of Paris on street addresses around the world.

The Address Book came out on April 14, but I read a review copy requested from NetGalley.

—Favorite Passages—

“Lots of people claim to want to go off grid forever, to seek out their own version of #vanlife. But the people Sarah interviewed desperately wanted to be on the grid with all that the grid entails: homes, bills, bank accounts – in essence, everything required for modern life.”

“We all have the need to confront the past, memorialize it, struggle with it, do something with it. That something often involves street names.”

Classics Club Events

Classics Spin #23 Result: La Thébaïde by Racine

So the result of the spin is out. We all got #6, which for me is La Thébaïde by Racine. It’s a play, so it will be a quick read. I enjoyed reading Phèdre, so I look forward to reading this lesser-known play by Racine.

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The play is evidently inspired by the story of Euripedes about the two sons of Oedipus: Eteocles and Polynices. I expect a lot of violence. The subtitle is Les Frères ennemis, or the Enemy Brothers! The play was performed by Molière’s troupe at the Palais-Royal Theatre on June 20, 1664. I didn’t know that Molière collaborated with Racine. How cool! I look forward to this read.

Classics Club Events

Classics Spin #23 (Mostly French Classics)

Will THIS be the Classics Spin challenge I actually complete? Who knows. At least, it’s an excuse for me to make a list of 20 book on my physical TBR that I look forward to reading. I am currently living in Geneva and in a couple months I will have to move back to the US. Unfortunately, I lack self-control and have bought too many books. Therefore, I am including those books on this list. Thankfully, most of them are classics. May is going to be a play-heavy month.

1.  Robin des bois (the two novellas: Le Prince des voleurs and Robin Hood le proscrit) by Alexandre Dumas

Robin Hood 3 - Ivanhoe et l'arc de Robin - Historia Draconis

2. The Journey of Neils Klim to the World Underground by Ludvig Holberg

The Journey of Niels Klim to the World Underground by Ludvig Holberg

3. La Farce de maître Pathelin

La Farce de maître Pathelin - Poche - Takashi Imashiro, Livre tous ...

4. Le Mystère de la charité de Jeanne d’Arc by Charles Péguy

Le mystère de la charité de Jeanne d'Arc (French Edition): Charles ...

5. L’Abbesse de Castro by Stendhal

L'Abbesse de Castro, Stendhal | Livre de Poche

6. Le Thébaïde by Racine 

Thebaide (Folio Theatre) (French Edition): Jean Baptiste Racine ...

7. Gouverneurs de la rosée by Jacques Roumain

Gouverneurs de la rosée - Jacques Roumain - Payot

8. Le Château de ma mère by Marcel Pagnol

Le Chateau de ma mere Buch jetzt bei Weltbild.ch online bestellen

9. La Gloire de mon père by Marcel Pagnol

La Gloire de mon père - Marcel Pagnol - Payot

10. L’Illusion comique by Corneille

L'illusion comique (Théâtre) (French Edition): Pierre Corneille ...

11. Clitandre by Corneille

Clitandre: Tragi-comédie by Pierre Corneille

12. The Origin of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt

The Origins of Totalitarianism (Penguin Modern Classics): Amazon ...

13. Alexandre le grand by Racine

alexandre le grand eBook by jean racine - 1230001941302 | Rakuten Kobo

14. Andromaque by Racine

Andromaque - Jean Racine - Babelio

15. Les plaideurs by Racine

Les Plaideurs (Théâtre): Racine, Jean

16. Brittanicus by Racine

Amazon.com: Britannicus (Pocket classiques) (French Edition ...

17. Bérénice by Racine

Bérénice - Jean Racine - Babelio

18. Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay (I’ve decided that it’s a classic of modern fantasy. Good enough.)

Underground Reading: Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay - Pornokitsch

19. Just Mercy by Brian Stevenson

Amazon.com: Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption ...

20. Les Tragiques by Agrippa D’Aubigné

Les Tragiques by Théodore-Agrippa d'Aubigné

Regardless of the number selected, I will have to read these books soon. Otherwise, they will have to be donated unread.