Review of Underwater by Ryan Dezember

Underwater: How Our American Dream of Homeownership Became a NightmareIn Underwater: How Our American Dream of Homeownership Became a Nightmare, Ryan Dezember exposes the corruption that led up to the 2007/2008 housing crisis. Dezember experienced the crisis firsthand as a new homeowner before the crash. Like so many Americans, his Alabama home went “underwater”, that is, it was worth less than the balance remaining on his mortgage. Dezember was also a real-estate journalist, so he was familiar with many of the big names in the industry.

This book is packed with information, and I was genuinely impressed by Dezember’s vast knowledge of the industry. Unfortunately, I found this book very hard to follow because I am not versed in the language of real-estate. I only have a vague understanding of mortgages, bonds, and house-flipping. I wish that Dezember had introduced these concepts to us before explaining how they operated in the years leading up to the housing crisis. If you are an economist or are familiar with real-estate, I’m sure you will get a lot out of this book, but I was constantly Googling things to make sense of what Dezember was describing.

I did, however, take away a few key elements from the book. Real-estate developers bought and sold expensive property even before it was built. Speculators made a lot without risking their own money. Furthermore, banks gave loans to people who had no business owning homes. House and condominium-flipping worked as long as housing prices were high and the market was hot. As soon as housing prices dropped, owners were stuck with property that they couldn’t sell and was beginning to accrue high interest.

Unfortunately, I cannot recommend this book to people with little knowledge of economics or real-estate. I read nonfiction to learn more about the world, but after reading Underwater, I still can’t explain the steps leading up to the housing crisis.

It pains me to give this books such a negative review because I know that my ignorance is largely responsible for not appreciating it.

Underwater came out on July 14 and is published by Thomas Dunne Books. I received this book from NetGalley in exchange for a free and honest review.

Literary Miscellanea

Challenges of Book Blogging Today

Blog Letters on Brown Wood

Anthony @ Time’s Flow Stemmed has recently retired his blog. I will miss his posts, but I also know how hard it can be to get noticed in the blogosphere. The fact of the matter is that blogging is not the primary mode of book communication anymore. BookTube, Bookstagram, and book podcasts are considerably more popular.

A bit of background about my blog.

I published my first post on December 29, 2013. In 2013, book blogging was quite popular. BookTube was in its infancy and Bookstagram didn’t exist. I started my blog to talk about books because no one in my family was a reader. For the first few years, my blog was called “Exploring Classics” because I almost exclusively read classics. It was actually the Classics Club blog that inspired me to make my own 50-book classics list. In 2017, however, I renamed my blog to Exploring Literature to better represent the wide-range of books that I read.

There were years when I posted only a handful of times and others when I posted at least once a month. Yet, apart from the first year, I’ve never been a consistent blogger. I realized early on that I didn’t want to talk about every single book that I read. Some books were simply not memorable enough to write about. Yet, I often wonder how many views I would have today if I had posted frequently during the past 6.5 years. I know that I am largely responsible for my lack of success (in terms of views and subscribers).

On the other hand, I am very proud of my blog. I am proud of the hundreds of posts that I have made about both English and French-language books. I also like how organized this space is. Books are categorized by author and genre. Over the years, I have followed and communicated with some phenomenal bloggers. Some have highly successful blogs today. They deserve all of the views.

It’s undeniable that blogging has changed a lot since 2013. While I don’t think that book blogging is dead (contrary to what you might think, I am not retiring this blog anytime soon), it’s also not doing very well. I am currently debating about whether or not I should get rid of my premium plan, though I love my custom layout and banner.

I don’t have any words of wisdom. Anthony’s farewell post reminded me of my own journey and echoed what I have observed. Although I have a BookTube channel, there are so many books I don’t want to talk about on camera. Oral delivery is hard for me. I much prefer to write out my thoughts. This blog continues to be a space where I can share complex ideas about books. It’s also a place where I can vent about my struggles as an academic writer. The written blog matters. It adds value to the book world, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to add to the conversation.

If you’ve been blogging for a while, does any of this ring true for you? How have you dealt with the changes?


Analysis of Ronsard’s poem “Qui voudra voir comme un dieu…”

This is the first poem in Le Premier Livre des Amours by Ronsard. An English translation can be found here.

Qui voudra voir comme un dieu me surmonte,
Comme il m’assaut, comme il se fait vainqueur,
Comme il renflamme et renglace mon coeur,
Comme il se fait un honneur de ma honte,

Qui voudra voir une jeunesse prompte
A suivre en vain l’objet de son malheur,
Me vienne lire: il verra ma douleur
Dont ma déesse et mon dieu ne font compte.

Il connaîtra qu’amour est sans raison,
Un doux abus, une belle prison,
Un vain espoir qui de vent nous vient paître.

Et connaîtra que l’homme se décoit
Quand plein d’erreur un aveugle il reçoit
Pour sa conduite, un enfant pour son maître.

The 16th-century poet Ronsard is most known for his sonnets and odes. His sonnets are inspired by Petrarch and his odes by Pindar and Horace. The Petrarchan sonnet is made up of 2 quatrains and 2 tercets. The quatrains use enclosed rhyme (ABBA).

This poem is a Petrarchan sonnet. It is a description of furor poeticus, or poetic furor. The poet is powerless and senseless before the object of his love (cf. the title character of Orlando Furioso by Ariosto). In the two quatrains, Ronsard urges the person who wants to understand this phenomenon to read in order to see. The child-god Cupid enjoys assaulting and humiliating our poet; he enflames and cools his victim’s heart as he pleases. Thus, love is a form of suffering. Thus, the lover cannot influence the object of his love (here, Cassandra). Yet, he also cannot refrain from pursuing her because Cupid has complete control of his emotions.

Who is the “me” in “me vienne livre” of the second quatrain ? Who is speaking to the reader? Ronsard, or his poem? Although the first strophe suggests that the poet is the speaker, the second strophe invites the reader to read him (“Qui voudra voir une jeunesse prompte […]/ Me vienne lire”). Perhaps, the ambiguity of subject is deliberate. Ronsard identifies himself so fully with his poetry that reading his poem is equivalent to reading his heart. When, in the final line of the second quatrain, Ronsard refers to Cassandra as a heartless goddess, he suggests that she is not only an object of his love but also its agent.

The two tercets describe in greater detail what the reader will understand once he has read the poet/poem. The order of verbs is important: lire -> voir -> connaitre. Reading leads to seeing, which finally leads to an understanding of love. The reader will understand that love is a sweet abuse (“un doux abus”) and a beautiful prison (“une belle prison”). The contradiction in connotation between doux/belle and abus/prison evokes the conflicting feelings the poet has toward Cassandra. Love is at once pleasant and painful. The rhetorical slippage is most apparent in French (Amour/ à mort). Love and death are closely related to each other. Love may be sweet, but it is also futile. It is a vain hope that nourishes itself from wind. Ronsard’s love for Cassandra is unrequited.

The final tercet is a warning and a moral. Man deceives himself when he invites Cupid into his heart. A blind child cannot lead man from his errors: « Quand plein d’erreur un aveugle il reçoit / Pour sa conduite, un enfant pour son maître ». Thus, the final tercet somewhat contradicts the first quatrain. Ronsard is not entirely innocent. He invited Cupid into his heart.


Classics Club Spin #24

Yay for another Classics Club Spin!! So I’ve noticed that most clubbers double up on numbers to increase their odds of having a certain book picked. So this time, I will only have 10 different books on my list, rather than 20. These are all chunksters because I want to get them off my TBR. They take up much room in my apartment.

1-2 The Aeneid by Virgil (trans. Allen Mandelbaum)

The Aeneid of Virgil, 35th Anniversary Edition by Virgil ...

3-4 East of Eden John Steinbeck

10 Books to Read: "East of Eden" — DIG MAG

5-6 Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens

Barnaby Rudge

7-8 The Odyssey by Homer (trans. Emily Wilson)

Amazon.com: The Odyssey (9780393089059): Homer, Wilson, Emily: Books

9-10 A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman

Amazon.com: A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century eBook ...

11-12 La Chartreuse de Parme by Stendhal

La Chartreuse de Parme (French Edition) - Kindle edition by ...

13-14 Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Bede (trans. Leo Sherley-Price)

Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Penguin Classics ...

15-16 Jehan de Saintré by Antoine de la Sale (trans. Michel Quereuil)

Jehan de Saintre (Ldp Let.Gothiq.) (French Edition): De La Sale, A ...

17-18 None Died in Vain: The Saga of the American Civil War by Robert Leckie

None Died in Vain: The Saga of the American Civil War: Leckie ...

19-20 Angel in the Whirlwind by Benson Bobrick

Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution by ...

These American histories are old enough that I will count them as classics in the history genre. I might be stretching the rules a bit…

Have you read any of these?


My All-Time Favorite French & Francophone Books

I realize that I have never posted a list of my all-time favorite French and Francophone works. As a PhD student in French literature, this is a huge oversight. These books are in loose, chronological order (by century). My favorite book, though, will always be Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. I made videos for The Knight of the Cart, The Regrets, Montaillou, and The Red and the Black. The other links are to written reviews on this blog.

1. Aucassin et Nicolette (Aucassin and Nicolette) by Anonymous [12th/13th c.]
2. Yvain, ou le chevalier au lion (Yvain, or the Knight of the Lion) by Chrétien de Troyes [12th c.]
3. Le Chevalier de la charrette (The Knight of the Cart) by Chrétien de Troyes
4. Abraham sacrifiant (The Tragedy of Abraham’s Sacrifice) by Théodore de Bèze [16th c.]
5. Les Regrets (The Regrets) by Joachim du Bellay [16th c.]
6. Le Cid (The Cid) by Pierre Corneille [17th c.]
7. Dom Juan, ou le festin de pierre (Don Juan) by Molière [17th c.]
8. Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (The Bourgeois Gentleman) by Molière
9. Phèdre (Phedrus) by Racine [17th c.]
10. Le jeu de l’amour et du hasard (A Game of Love and Chance) by Marivaux [18th c.]
11. Lettres persanes (Persian Letters) by Montesquieu [18th c.]
12. Père Goriot (Father Goriot) by Honoré de Balzac [19th c.]
13. Le Colonel Chabert (Colonel Chabert) by Honoré de Balzac
14. Le Rouge et le noir (The Red and the Black) by Stendhal [19th c.]
15. Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand [19th c.]
16. Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry [20th c.]
17. Terre des hommes (Wind, Sand and Stars) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
18. Journal d’un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest) by Georges Bernanos [20th c.]
19. Le Grand Meaulnes (The Lost Estate) by Alain-Fournier [20th c.]
20. L’Amour, la fantasia (Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade) by Assia Djebar [20th c.]
21. Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land) by Aimé Césaire [20th c.]
22. La Place (The Place) by Annie Ernaux [20th c.]
23. La Symphonie pastorale (The Pastoral Symphony) by André Gide [20th c.]
24. Montaillou by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie (history) [20th c.]
25. Réparer les vivants (Repair the Living / The Heart) by Maylis de Kerangal [21st c.]


Analysis of Mallarmé’s 1885 sonnet “Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui”

1885 Sonnet

Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui
Va-t-il nous déchirer avec un coup d’aile ivre
Ce lac dur oublié que hante sous le givre
Le transparent glacier des vols qui n’ont pas fui !

Un cygne d’autrefois se souvient que c’est lui
Magnifique mais qui sans espoir se délivre
Pour n’avoir pas chanté la région où vivre
Quand du stérile hiver a resplendi l’ennui.

Tout son col secouera cette blanche agonie
Par l’espace infligée à l’oiseau qui le nie,
Mais non l’horreur du sol où le plumage est pris.

Fantôme qu’à ce lieu son pur éclat assigne,
Il s’immobilise au songe froid du mépris
Que vêt parmi l’exil inutile le Cygne.

My favorite English translation is Elizabeth Cook’s: https://litallover.com/2016/09/28/le-bel-aujourdhui-a-translation-walkthrough-of-mallarmes-le-cygne/ However, my commentary will be based on the original French.

As with all of Mallarmé’s poems, his 1885 sonnet resists a straightforward reading. The rules and expectations of classical poetry are put aside. Words and images rarely conform to reader expectation. Reversals and contradictions abound. Therefore, I will not attempt a clear, unequivocal reading of this poem. My reading is one of many possible readings. The sonnet’s words guide and circumscribe my commentary.

In his 1897 prose poem “Crise de vers”, Mallarmé writes,

L’œuvre pure implique la disparition élocutoire du poète, qui cède l’initiative aux mots, par le heurt de leur inégalité mobilisés ; ils s’allument de reflets réciproques comme une virtuelle traînée de feux sur des pierreries, remplaçant la respiration perceptible en l’ancien souffle lyrique ou la direction personnelle enthousiaste de la phrase.
[The pure work implies the disappearance of the poet speaking, who yields the initiative to words, through the clash of their ordered inequalities; they light each other up through reciprocal reflections like a virtual swooping of fire across precious stones, replacing the primacy of the perceptible rhythm of respiration or the classic lyric breath, or the personal feeling driving the sentences] (trans. Barbara Johnson, in Divagations, p.208).

Mallarmé announces the death of the poet – prefiguring Roland Barthe’s death of the author. The reader of Mallarmé’s poems is invited to privilege words over everything else, to notice the patterns and ruptures produced by the poem’s very words. According to Mallarmé, poetic language should distinguish itself from the language of journalism. He believed that words had been cheapened by the rise of mass media. The creation of poetry was therefore an act of resistance. The reader of Mallarmé’s poetry cannot be a consumer. A multiplicity of readings emerges from our sonnet’s ambiguity of meaning and syntax, but only if the reader allows the words to speak for themselves.

The overall structure of the poem is a sonnet (2 quatrains and 2 tercets). It has an enclosed rhyme scheme (ABBA for the quatrains and ABA for the tercets).

In the first stanza, a wing breaks through the icy surface of a hard lake. There is a tense shift between lines 2 and 4 (“va-t-il nous déchirer”/ le transparent glacier des vols qui n’ont pas fui”. The grammatical tense of “va-t-il nous déchirer” is the near future (futur proche). It suggests a finality. The subject (“le vierge, le vivace et le bel”) is going to tear us apart. Here, the three elements are represented by the third person singular pronoun “il”.

The first word of the second stanza (“cygne”) recalls the wing and flights of the first stanza. The only other time that a swan is mentioned by name is in the final tercet (“l’exile inutile le Cygne”), yet, bird imagery is the most prominent imagery in the sonnet (“pour n’avoir pas chanté”, “à l’oiseau qui le nie”, “où le plumage est pris”). It’s perhaps noteworthy that the swan is only mentioned by name in the second quatrain and the second tercet.

Along with being a symbol of the poet in classical poetry, “cygne” (swan) is also a homophone of “signe” (sign). The sterility and agony of ice and winter also evoke the blank page. “Le plumage”, a pen.

But let’s return to the dynamics of the poem. The first stanza shifts between future and past, hope and disappointment. A wing will break through the frozen lake, yet in the last line we discover that some flights didn’t escape from beneath the transparent ice (“le transparent glacier des vols qui n’ont pas fui”).

There is also a mix of tenses in the second quatrain: past and present. The swan of another era (“d’autrefois”) remembers (“se souvient”) and delivers itself (“se déliver”), yet notice that “vivre” is not conjugated. It is a pure action. The final line of the second quatrain can be read in two different ways (in my mind): “Quand du stérile | hiver a resplendi l’ennui” or “Quand du sterile hiver | a resplendi l’ennui”. In the first, winter sparkled boredom (Baudelaire’s Spleen) out of sterility (“du stérile). In the second, boredom sparkled from a sterile winter. In either case, there is a contradiction in connotation between the verb resplendir and the words “stérile” and “l’ennui”. “Resplendi” is an explosion / a rupture, not unlike the presence of an infinitive in a stanza of conjugated verbs. Therefore, despite the swan’s apparent regret for not having sung about his region, the second quatrain is not without hope.

The two tercets are entirely in the present or future tenses. There is no past tense anywhere.

In the first line of the first tercet, the swan’s collar will shake off this white agony. The futur “secouera” evokes hope. But there is something that he will not be able to shake off: “mais non l’horreur du sol où le plumage est pris”. The final line of this stanza evokes the imagery in the final line of the first stanza (“des vols qui n’ont pas fui”). The feathers caught in transparent ice will continue to haunt our swan.

Horror returns in “Fantôme”, the first word of the final stanza. Its presence is also an explosion. It’s a pure burst of energy. If “cygne” sounds like “signe”, “assigne” in line one of the final tercet sounds like “à signe”. What is this phantom that disrupts sign/language? It remains frozen before the “songe froid du mépris” that the swan wears. “Vêt” (wears) goes along with “col” (collar). The swan will shake off the white agony (perhaps snow) that weighs it down but it will always be haunted by the past. Between sign, swan, and poet, “le Cygne” is a liminal image. It represents the tension between poetic freedom and the conventions of classical poetry.

The swan must take up the pen. His exile is useless. Yet he will always be haunted by the failures of past poets as well as of his own. He will always be haunted by the transparent ice “où le plumage est pris”.

The swan acts and is acted upon. The mixture of pessimism and optimism suggests to me that the swan’s regrets are productive. His regret, disgust, and boredom will contribute to his future. A ghost represents the past (the spirit of the dead) but it appears among the living so as to influence future behavior.

My conclusion
Mallarmé’s 1885 sonnet describes the conflicting feelings of a poet caught between a desire to liberate poetry from classical conventions and sterility and a feeling of powerlessness in face of his own fragility and the failures of past poets/poems.

Djebar, Assia, Literary Fiction

Review of L’Amour, la fantasia by Assia Djebar

Amazon.com: L'amour, La Fantasia (Le Livre De Poche) (French ...L’Amour, la fantasia [Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade] by Assia Djebar is a book about the female Algerian experience. It is just as much about colonialism as it is about patriarchy. The book is divided into movements, like a musical fantasia. The sections alternate between an account of the 1840s colonization of Algeria by the French, the involvement of women in the Algerian Revolution of the 1950s (which ended in 1962), and the author’s own childhood during the Revolution. Djebar’s prose style is also varied. Some parts are in prose poetry while others are in more traditional prose.

Assia Djebar is considered the greatest female Algerian writer of the 20th-century, and for good reason. L’Amour, la fantasia is a powerful exploration of a female Algerian identity shaped by cultures, languages, and religions. Although Djebar writes in the language of the oppressor, she interrogates the accounts left by the French conquerors of Algeria. The French language is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because it provided the author with educational opportunities; Djebar was the first Muslim woman to graduate from an école normale supérieure (essentially the French “Ivy League”) in France. A curse, because the effects of colonialism continue to be felt both in Algeria and in France.

This book is challenging in both its form and its content. The novel assumes a knowledge of people and places that the Western reader probably does not have. I believe that this is a deliberate strategy to de-center the European gaze. Postcolonial fiction, such as L’Amour, la fantasia, is always challenging for those of us who are unfamiliar with its history. Since reading this book, I have been inspired to learn more about both the conquest of Algeria and in the Revolution. I also hope to read more from Djebar in the coming months.

L’Amour, la fantasia is one of my 20 Books of Summer for 2020.


20 Books of Summer

20 Books of Summer is hosted by Cathy @746 books. All of the French-language books on this list are on my PhD exam, which I will be taking at the end of August. You will also notice that there are two major themes in this list: the history of the Reformation and racial justice. My research is on accounts of heresy trials and massacres in 16th-century France and Geneva (pleasant, I know). The books on racial justice will help me understand the current moment. Since reading The New Jim CrowI’ve been very interested in learning more about racism in the US justice system. As you can tell, I have a broad interest in justice systems, whether in 16th-century Europe or in 21st-century America.

1. Les Tragiques by Agippa d’Aubigné

Les Tragiques by Théodore-Agrippa d'Aubigné

An epic of the Wars of Religion, written by a Calvinist soldier.

2. Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo (currently reading on by Booktube channel)

Notre-Dame de Paris - Victor Hugo - Payot

I need to know how this story differs from the Disney version. I expect a radically different plot.

3. The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak

The Architect's Apprentice: Amazon.co.uk: Shafak, Elif ...

Historical fiction set in 16th-century Istanbul. I have never read a story that takes place during the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, I don’t know very much about the Ottomans.

4. W ou le souvenir d’enfance by Georges Perec

W ou le souvenir d'enfance | Fahrenheit 451

An imaginative autobiography of Georges Perec. It’s an experimental work.

5. L’Amant by Marguerite Duras


I’m not usually into love stories, but The Lover is super famous, and it’s on my exam list.

6. Le Bleu du ciel by Georges Bataille

Le Bleu du Ciel | Lisez!

I don’t really look forward to this one since there are evidently some unpleasant sex scenes, but it’s on my list.

7. L’amour la fantasia by Assia Djebar

L'Amour, la fantasia (Le Livre De Poche): Amazon.de: Djebar, Assia ...

Djebar was an Algerian writer whose novels explored the female Muslim experience in Algeria.

8. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: Adams, Douglas ...

This will be a fun, escapist read. I really look forward to this.

9. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Just Mercy: a story of justice and redemption (English Edition ...

Bryan Stevenson was the defense attorney for an innocent Black man on death row.

10. Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools by Monique W. Morris

Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools: Amazon.co ...

1/3 of all girls arrested at school are Black. This book explores this phenomenon.

11. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – ESCA CancerSupport

Cell research has saved lives, but science can be racist. Henrietta Lacks was a poor Black woman, whose cells were taken without her permission and used to generate the first human cell cultures. Her cells have transformed genetics, but they were acquired without her consent.

12. The Armenian Book of Prayer (a.k.a. The Book of Lamentations) by Gregory of Narek (trans. Thomas J. Samuelian)

The Armenian Prayer Book of St. Gregory of Narek: Narekatsi, St ...

Gregory of Nark was an 11th-century Armenian Christian. His Book of Lamentations is a spiritual bestseller among Armenian Christians. I first heard about him when he was canonized by Pope Francis in 2015. Evidently, his poems speak a lot about suffering. Sounds appropriate.

13. Racial Justice and the Catholic Church by Bryan N. Massingale

Racial Justice and the Catholic Church: Massingale, Bryan N ...

I want to read Fr. Massingale’s book on racial justice in the Catholic Church before watching his interview with America magazine.

14. Fugitive Saints: Catholicism and the Politics of Slavery by Katie Walker Grimes

Fugitive Saints: Catholicism and the Politics of Slavery ...

Canonization is political. It’s not just a statement about a person’s sanctity but a call to imitation. Official Saints are canonized because they embody certain Catholic values. However, Grimes insists that some of these saints promote a White savior narrative at best and perpetuate racial injustice at worst.

15. Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life by Philippe Girard (reading in June)

Amazon.com: Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life ...

In 1791, Toussaint Louverture led the only successful slave rebellion in history. Thanks to his leadership and the courage of his fellow slaves, Haiti gained its independence from France in 1804. This book is a biography of Toussaint Louverture.

16. Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith

Amazon.com: Don't Call Us Dead: Poems (9781555977856): Smith ...

This is a poetry collection about racism, anti-LGBTQ+ policies, and police brutality. Danez Smith is a nonbinary Black poet. I don’t often read modern poetry, but this collection has been almost universally praised for its rawness.

17. Trent: What Happened at the Council by John W. O’Malley

Trent: What Happened at the Council: O'Malley, John W ...

I need a run-down of the what happened at Trent. John W. O’Malley, my favorite Jesuit historian, has me covered.

18. War Against the Idols by Carlos Eire

War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to ...

Iconoclasm was religious and political. It was particularly widespread in Switzerland (first in Zurich, then in Berne and Geneva). Taking down statues is nothing new. Indeed, it is one of the oldest means of protest.

19. Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution by Rebecca Stott

Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution: Stott, Rebecca ...

Isaac Newton said that he stood on the shoulders of giants. So did Charles Darwin. Rebecca Stott tells the story of those who helped plant the seeds of Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection.

20. The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes: Egan, Dan: 9780393246438 ...

I am from the Great Lakes region (Cleveland). Non-Ohioans love refering to Cleveland as the “mistake on the lake”. But why was the Cuyahoga River on fire? The lake may not be as visibly polluted as it once was but Dan Egan reminds us that environmental degradation is a widespread problem in the Great Lakes region. Invasive species (such as Zebra mussels) have decimated native populations and destroyed the ecosystem.


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.