Children's/Coming-of-Age, Norton, Mary

Review of The Borrowers by Mary Norton

When I was 6, my first-grade teacher read us The Borrowers. Unfortunately, I was a hyperactive child who simply couldn’t pay attention. I didn’t remember a single thing about the novel. In the past few years, I’ve been reading children’s books that I should have already been familiar with. I am happy to say that at the age of 29, I have finally read The Borrowers.

The Borrowers by Mary Norton

The Borrowers by Mary Norton follows a family of tiny people who live – quasi-parasitically – off of humans (“human beans”). They “borrow” (or rather, steal) everything they need for survival: food scraps, thread for clothing, pins, etc. Our story, which is the first in a series, follows the Clock Borrowers. Homily, Pod, and their daughter Arrietty live under a grandfather clock in the household of Great-Aunt Sophy. Several times a week, Pod sneaks around the house, “borrowing” what his family needs and avoiding Sophy, her cook Mrs. Driver, her gardener Crampfurl, and an unnamed 10-year-old boy. Pod must avoid being seen by any “human bean”, otherwise he and his family will be forced to expatriate.

The frame narrative is of an aunt telling her niece about the stories that her brother used to tell her about the Borrowers. Mrs. May tells young Kate that her brother – the ten-year old boy – lived primarily in India, but after catching an illness, briefly returned to England to recover at his great-aunt’s house. This brother tragically died during World War I. The novel recounts what the boy claimed to have experienced in Great-Aunt Sophy’s home.

This book contains a surprising amount of specialized housekeeping vocabulary that readers of the 1950s may have been familiar with but that children (and adults) today have probably never encountered. Otherwise, the prose is straightforward. The Borrowers reminded me so much of The Indian in the Cupboard and The Castle in the Attic. All three books follow toy-sized protagonists. Although I didn’t feel that any single character stood out, all of them together brought the story to life. I found it to be a page-turner with an important – albeit subtle – moral.

Although I don’t plan to read the rest of the books in the series, I’m glad that I read The Borrowers. It’s interesting to see what children of the early 1950s read.

Favorite Quote

She learned a lot and some of the things she learned were hard to accept. She was made to realize once and for all that this earth on which they lived turning about in space did not revolve, as she had believed, for the sake of little people. “Nor for big people either,” she reminded the boy when she saw his secret smile.

Literary Miscellanea, Mystery

The Screenwriter of ‘Knives Out’ Reveals the Secret of Mystery-Writing

I recently watched a video of Rian Johnson explaining how he wrote the screenplay for the film Knives Out. His advice finally put to rest my concerns about the mystery genre – concerns that I have written about here and here.

Amazon.com: Knives Out [DVD] [2019]: Movies & TV

Johnson explained that a mystery is not exactly a puzzle to unravel. Instead, the reader is given clues that may not mean very much at the time but make sense at the very end. Although the reader may not be given all of the information she needs to identify the killer or the killer’s motives, she should have have an “aha” moment at the end, when she learns from the detective what all the clues meant. In other words, a mystery is successful when the big reveal corresponds with the clues that have been dropped along the way.

Having discovered the “secret” of mystery-writing, I feel more comfortable with the genre. I have always enjoyed the puzzle of reading mysteries, but I will no longer be frustrated that the novel did not mention everything before the big reveal. Thank you Rian Johnson!

Literary Miscellanea, Mystery

What Constitutes “Fairness” in the Mystery Genre?

One of my favorite genres is mystery – in particular, historical mystery. I enjoy a good mind game set in a small community. Bonus points if the mystery examines social norms or political events. In fact, I would love to write a historical mystery set in 16th century France.

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Yet, despite having read countless mysteries, it seems that I don’t really understand the genre expectations. I have been assuming all along that the reader should be given enough information to identify the killer, but so many mysteries that I have been reading recently withhold key information until the final chapters of the novel. After some research, I’ve learned that this is typical of the genre. I should not expect to be given all of the necessary clues by the 50% mark so that I might figure out the mystery myself.

I just finished a Brother Cadfael mystery (Monk’s Hood) by Ellis Peters and The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne, a recent release by Elsa Hart. Peters’ Cadfael novels take place in a 12th century English monastery, while Hart’s book explores the eccentricities of 18th century collectors in London. Both are relatively quiet despite being murder mysteries. I didn’t mind the characters or the setting, especially since I love history. However, I wish that I had been given all of the clues early on. I was frustrated by the big reveals because I could never have guessed the motivations of the murders since the authors deliberately withheld key information.

I always thought that a mystery was a puzzle that the reader had to unravel. However, that doesn’t seem to be the norm. Have I been missing something? I have read a few articles about the Fair Play Whodunnit subgenre that gives the reader all the clues that she needs to solve the mystery, however most mysteries seem not to qualify. I’ve had the same experience watching the “Father Brown” television series ; the viewer cannot possibly unravel the mysteries with the clues that are given. Father Brown always knows something that we are not privy to. If I rightly identify the killer, I’m just lucky.

If the reader is kept in the dark for so long, what constitutes “fairness” in the mystery genre?

Have you read any mysteries recently that you would consider “fair”? Do you expect to be given all the clues well before the final three chapters of a mystery? Perhaps, I need to shift my expectations.

Church

Review of The Reformation by Diarmaid MacCulloch

The Reformation by Diarmaid MacCulloch

It’s been a while since I last posted. PhD work has eaten up most of my days, so I barely have time to read anything for fun. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy what I’m researching. I do. However, I would like to put aside more time to read for pleasure.

Throughout the month of January, I read The Reformation by Diarmaid MacCulloch. I picked up this work because I study literature produced during the French Reformation. I also wanted a study that would take me outside of France so that I could get a holistic view of this period. When I started the book, I was naïve enough to think that I knew most everything about the magisterial reformers (Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin). I couldn’t have been more wrong. I discovered that Zwingli and his colleague Heinrich Bullinger had quite a sophisticated theology of communion, despite denying a bodily presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Bullinger’s covenant theology came to have a great influence on other Reformed movements. The Reformation involved many other reformers with conflicting beliefs about what Christian reform should look like. Many of these movements (the Italian Spirituali, the Évangéliques, the Hutterites) rarely appear in popular histories of the Reformation, but are included in this book. The sections on the Atlantic Isles are particularly strong.

The Reformation was a very violent era. Inquisitions and witch trials existed during the Middle Ages but they were much more common during the early modern period. In France, there were two major massacres (of the Waldensians in 1545 and of the Huguenots in 1572) as well as seven religious wars. Two French kings (Henri III and Henri IV) were assassinated by members of the ultra-conservative Catholic Guise faction. Henri III’s assassin Jacques Clement was even venerated as a martyr by the Guises. The most “tolerant” part of Europe appears to have been the kingdom of Poland-Lithuania. At one time, even non-Trinitarians were allowed to worship freely there.

In popular imagination, the Renaissance has come to represent creativity, renewal, and openness to new ideas (after all, it’s in the name). There is some truth in that. Yet, some of the greatest human atrocities were also committed during this century. If you are looking for an overview of the Reformation, there is no better place to start than here. The Reformation is written by one of the most prominent scholars of the English Reformation. As such, it contains all of the rigor and nuance that one would expect from a scholarly work, yet without the plodding academic prose.

Miscellaneous

Top 5 Books of 2020

Merry Christmas!! It’s that time of the year again when I share my absolute favorite reads. The books are, as always, in order. Number 1 is my favorite book of 2020.

1. L’Amour, la fantasia [Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade] by Assia Djebar

l'amour la fantasia

Assia Djebar is considered one of the greatest Algerian writers of the 20th century. Her novel, L’Amour, la fantasia explores the stories of women living during two pivotal events in Algerian history: the 1840s conquest and the Algerian Revolution (1954-1962). Like a musical fantasia, this novel is a mixture of voices, cultures, and languages. It powerfully reclaims history for Algerian women. If you are interested in a more through introduction, you might find my video helpful.

2. Cahier d’un retour au pays natal [Notebook of a Return to the Native Land] by Aimé Césaire

Cahier d'un retour au pays natal

Aimé Césaire’s prose poem is considered to be the founding text of the Négritude movement – a literary movement for Black liberation. Césaire wrote this work upon returning to Martinique from mainland France. The landscape of Martinique is the backdrop against which Césaire explores colonialism.

Here’s my favorite passage in the Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith translation:

I would arrive sleek and young in this land of mine and
I would say to this land whose loam is part of my flesh:
“I have wandered for a long time and I am coming back
to the deserted hideousness of your sores.”
I would go to this land of mine and I would say to it:
“Embrace me without fear … And if all I can do is speak,
it is for you I shall speak.”


And again I would say:
“My mouth shall be the mouth of those calamities that have no mouth,
my voice the freedom of those who break down
in the prison holes of despair.”
And on the way I would say to myself:
“And above all, my body as well as my soul,
beware of assuming the sterile attitude of a spectator,
for life is not a spectacle,
a sea of miseries is not a proscenium,
a man screaming is not a dancing bear …”

3. La Belle et la bête [The Beauty and the Beast] by Madame de Villeneuve

La belle et la bete

Madame de Villeneuve is the author of the oldest written version of the story of the Beauty and the Beast. For a fairytale, this is quite a long work (150 pages). The overarching plot is made up of several subplots, and fairies play a pretty large role. The second half of the novella is almost entirely about the land of fairies. Mme de Villeneuve’s story touches on a theme that is less emphasized in the Disney version: social class. If you want a fun read for the holidays, I highly recommend La Belle et la bête .

4. Notre-Dame de Paris [The Hunchback of Notre Dame] by Victor Hugo

Notre-Dame de Paris

Notre-Dame de Paris is another story that has been made famous by Disney. However, Victor Hugo’s novel is just as much about the architecture of Paris as it is about Quasimodo, Esmeralda, and Claude Frollo. My favorite character was Pierre Gringoire, a fictionalized version of the 16th century playwright Pierre Gringore. His journey into the carnivalesque Court of Miracles is a commentary on the late medieval French justice system. Gringoire is also quite a fool. I also liked that Quasimodo is more morally-gray than in the movie.

5. Le Bourgeois gentilhomme [The Bourgeois Gentleman] by Molière

Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme

This year, I hosted Molière in May – a read-along of 5 of Molière’s most famous plays. Although I read Le Bourgeois gentilhomme in high school, I have never before included it on a favorites list. When I read it almost 15 years ago, I could barely understand the French. This time, however, I was able to appreciate the humor and the social commentary. Our protagonist, Monsieur Jourdain, is a middle-class man who wants to pass as an aristocrat. Unfortunately, he can’t dance or sing. He makes a fool of himself at every turn. Yet, the aristocrats are not without their flaws. Although Dom Juan will always be my favorite Molière play, Le Bourgeois gentilhomme is so much fun and equally thought-provoking.

Miscellaneous

Writing a Thesis Proposal is Hard

In the United States, PhD students take 2-3 years of course work before starting on their theses. Despite being in the program since Fall 2017, I only completed my coursework last semester. I was required to take 3 years of coursework. The American PhD is a very lengthy process. Thankfully, I now only have my thesis to worry about.

writing a thesis proposal is hard

Nevertheless, writing my prospectus has not been a walk in the park. I agonized over it for weeks on end.

The hardest part of doing research in the humanities is finding something new to say. It can often feel like everything has already been done. In popular culture, research is synonymous with looking things up on Google. But that’s not true research. Academic scholarship makes an original contribution to existing knowledge. To obtain a PhD, I must demonstrate that I am asking new questions or taking a new angle on a topic.

I must admit that I contemplated quitting my PhD dozens of times in the past month. This is actually a first for me. Up until now, I’ve always felt that I am meant to do a PhD in French literature. It has always felt like a calling. Nevertheless, the challenge of writing a proposal made me doubt my abilities. No one prepares you for how different research is from writing term papers. I had to overcome many limiting beliefs to push through this proposal, during a pandemic, with the most minimal social contact.

2020 has been a trying year for everyone, but I have come to recognize what a privilege it is to have a job during a pandemic. I’ve also realized that I want to continue in this program. Producing original research will be the hardest thing that I’ve ever done, but I am excited to see where this project will take me.

Despite what the Wall Street Journal might tell you about doing a PhD, it’s really hard. Completing a PhD in the humanities, in education, or in the social sciences is not a straightforward process. It can be just as unpredictable as in the hard or natural sciences. That’s research.

After over a month of self-doubt, I am happy to say that I submitted my proposal to my committee today.

Romance/Women's Fiction

I read a romance because 2020 has been rough | Review of Mrs Miracle by Debbie Macomber

Mrs Miracle

If you have been following my blog for any length of time you know that I never read romances. It’s the one genre that I’ve avoided my entire life. But 2020 has been no ordinary year. Although I can’t remember the last time I read a straight romance (apart from two Jane Austen novels that I found boring), I have seen several Hallmark films. They may be cheesy and contain terrible acting but I associate Hallmark films with the Christmas season. A few weeks ago, I suddenly got the urge to read a Christmas romance, in hopes of escaping from the darkness of the world (my research topic is also quite bleak – martyr narratives). At my university’s Barnes and Noble, I found a copy of Debbie Macomber’s 1996 novel Mrs Miracle. This was the first of her novels adapted by Hallmark.

Mrs Miracle was a fairly predictable novel, but for that reason, it was a comforting read. The plot revolves around three relationships: two romantic and one sibling. The story starts with Seth Webster, a widower with twins, who has no idea how to run a household. He has hired several housekeepers, but none of them have lasted more than a couple of months. After the most recent one quits, Seth learns from the hiring agency that there are no more housekeepers available. Yet suddenly, Emily Merkle arrives and offers her services to the Webster household. We soon discover that Mrs Miracle (as the twins call her) knows surprisingly a lot about Seth’s family and friends.

When Seth and Reba meet at the travel agency where Reba works, the two begin a relationship that forces them to confront their greatest insecurities. Reba has refused to see or speak with her sister for the past 4 years. Although her mother thinks that she should move on, Reba can never forgive her sister. Some wrongs are unforgiveable.

Despite a slow start, Mrs Miracle was a fairly engaging romance. It gave me all the feelings that I associate with Hallmark films. The romance is a bit dated – all-White cast, patriarchal family, Christmas pageant subplot – but I knew what I was getting myself into. The book met my expectations and was a fun, escapist read. I would really like to watch the Hallmark adaptation because Doris Roberts plays the title character.

Debbie Macomber seems like a delightful person. I have been binge-watching her interviews. I look forward to reading her most recent novels in the coming months.

Let me know if you have read something outside of your comfort zone in 2020. How was the experience?

If the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, you can bet the water bill is higher. – Mrs Miracle

Miscellaneous

The year I discovered imagery, classics, and Matilda’s book list | Classic Meme, Oct. 2020

The Classics Club Blog has rebooted their monthly memes. October’s question is about the classics I read as child. I’m surprised that I’ve never told this story before.

Reading Classics

When I was in elementary school (oh so long ago!) I was a terrible language arts student. I didn’t know how to interpret imagery. Whenever we were asked to complete a take-home or in-class essay, I simply summarized the major plot points of the books we were assigned. I was a literalist.

Then in 8th grade, my English teacher assigned us Lord of the Flies by William Golding. For the first time, I was taught how to go beyond the literal sense of a text. I remember failing the in-class essay not because I didn’t know what to write but because I had too much to say. Today, I am a PhD student in French literature, thanks in part to that 8th grade teacher.

8th grade was also the year that I discovered poetry and started reading more complicated classics. I borrowed a copy of A Tale of Two Cities, which I am pretty sure I never returned (oops!). The following summer, I visited the adult section of my local library and checked out Animal Farm by George Orwell, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (I thought Eyre was pronounced “ire”), Oliver Twist, and The Invisible Man — four of the fourteen books on Matilda’s book list. I also read Great Expectations. Yes, I was so obsessed with Roald Dahl’s novels and short stories that I decided to read the books that Matilda is said to have read at the age of 4!

Some people say that literature classes made them hate reading. I had the complete opposite experience. I fell in love with reading because of the classics and because I learned how to go beyond the literal plot of a story.

For your interest, below are all 14 books on Matilda’s list. Most of them seem a bit too mature for a 4 year old, but Roald Dahl would probably say that I’m just a snooty adult who underestimates children 😜 :

  1. Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens
  2. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
  3. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  4. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  5. Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
  6. Gone to Earth by Mary Webb
  7. Kim by Rudyard Kipling
  8. The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells
  9. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
  10. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
  11. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  12. The Good Companions by J. B. Priestley
  13. Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
  14. Animal Farm by George Orwell
Miscellaneous

How Do Academic Writers Engage With Existing Scholarship? | Rewriting by Joseph Harris

I have been taking language classes all of my life, but for some reason, I was never really taught how I should cite existing scholarship. I knew that I was supposed to say something new and also acknowledge the contribution of other scholars in the field, but I didn’t know how to do that.

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Enter Rewriting by Joseph Harris. Rewriting is all about how scholars and essayists position their arguments in relation to those of other thinkers. If there is one book that I would put into the hands of every incoming graduate student in the humanities, Rewriting would be it.

Harris focuses on three ways that academic writers engage with existing scholarship: forwarding, countering, and taking an approach. Forwarding is when a writer “takes terms and concepts from one text and applies them to a reading of other texts and situations” (6). The goal of forwarding is to show in what way an argument, term, or concept has been helpful in thinking about a new text. Countering is more intuitive. It involves disagreeing with a reading or a concept. The final way – taking an approach – involves applying a theory to a new set of texts or adopting the style of a certain author.

However, before an academic writer can forward, counter, or take an approach, she must come to terms with the scholarship. she must first be able to summarize in her own words the major arguments of the article, book chapter, or monograph in question. In order to find the gap in the scholarship, she must understand the scholarship.

I found the first chapter on coming to terms to be the most useful because it sets the groundwork for the later chapters on forwarding, countering, taking an approach, and rewriting. Here is how Joseph Harris explains coming to terms:

[T]he phrase suggests, a settling of accounts, a negotiation between reader and writer. In coming to terms, you need both to give a text its due and to show what uses you want to make of it. You are not simply re-presenting a text but incorporating it into your own project as a writer. You thus need not only to explain what you think it means but to say something about the perspective from which you are reading it (emphasis, my own) (15).

Harris recommends three practices to come to terms with a text:

  1. summarizing the writer’s project
  2. highlighting key passages and words
  3. considering possibilities and limitations of the approach

Only after an academic writer has come to terms with the text, can she begin to consider how an idea might be forwarded or countered. I often lose sight of the general approach that a scholar is taking, focusing instead on the facts. On the contrary, Harris views all writing – but specifically, academic writing – as a kind of negotiation. Forwarding, countering, and taking an approach involve negotiating terms, approaches, and truth claims. Even when a scholars counters, Harris believes that she should acknowledge her indebtedness (however little) to the formulations being countered. But before she can acknowledge her indebtedness to scholarship she must first come to terms with the scholarship.

Note that all strategies of engaging with existing scholarship are ways of saying something new. The goal of academic writing should never be the regurgitation of past scholarship. When quoting from a work, the writer must demonstrate how the quoted passage contributes to the development of her own argument. This is why your high school teacher taught you to never end a paragraph with a quote.

As I’m writing this post, I am deeply aware of how hard it can be to come to terms with a text. Even Rewriting, despite giving clear and practical advice, can be challenging. I find it hard to summarize in writing the major moves that academic writers make. Thankfully, Harris illustrates what he is teaching. He situates his own craft book in relation to other books on academic writing. Furthermore, he never asks the secondary sources he cites to do the work for him. Instead, he explains how a quoted passage from a novel or essay illustrates the various moves of academic writing.

My only criticism is that Rewriting is riddled with typos. The proofreader must have been on leave because there were typos or every few pages. Nevertheless, I don’t think there is a better book out there about how academics engage and cite the work of others.

Miscellaneous

New Academic Year, New Mindset |PhD Journey

white and browm notebookNew (academic) year, new me. Right? Well, only if I take control of my career.

There are two major areas that need improvement in 2020-2021:

1) Latin. I need to have Latin proficiency by the time I defend my dissertation two years from now, otherwise I will never be an adequate Renaissance scholar. I’ve taken four semesters and one summer of Latin, so I technically should have an intermediate level of proficiency. Unfortunately, I never practice. How ironic that the one Western language that the general public dismisses as “dead” and “irrelevant” is the same language that I DESPERATELY need to know!

2) Writing. I feel like I have the same writing weaknesses that I had when I started the PhD program three years ago. I know that a regular writing practice would help, but I haven’t established one yet.

So what am I going to differently this year?

I’ve realized in the past week that I’m still in “student mode”. I haven’t yet acted on what I know will advance my career.

For starters, I will stop thinking of myself as a student and start thinking of myself as a scholar, even an entrepreneur. The academic job market may be a garbage fire, but the skills that universities look for in job candidates differ little from the skills that other businesses look for in their employees. Writing and project management are just as important in the corporate world as they are in Academia. If I focus on being a scholar who’s reasonably competitive on the job market, I will inevitably develop the skills I need to be marketable in other industries. No one, not even professors, care how many years someone has been a student.

This year, I will think of myself as and perform the tasks of an educator and a scholar. I will reflect on my teaching, develop new lessons, learn Latin, and implement a regular writing practice. I will do all of these things because they are the activities that matter the most to my current PhD and my future career (whether inside or outside Academia).