"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Stress Tics and Crime Fiction

We're to the point in the semester where I have more things to do than time to do them in--and my stress tics are no help. This semester, we used our stress tics to help us write awesome characters and right now, on this absolutely gorgeous Saturday that should be in June, rather than April, I got my page quota on my rhetoric paper, prepped my quota for Joseph O'Connor's Star of the Sea, which we start on Monday in my 252, and my reward to myself was to work on my syllabi for fall, even though I don't know what I'll be teaching yet.

Yes. I know. I am not normal. Funny the things that help you relieve stress...

So, here's the current idea for a 101 (Rhetoric as Reading) or a 180-ish (Introduction to Literature): "Literature of Place: Crime Fiction." I've been wanting to put together a crime fiction class for a while now, but I've never sat down to do it. (I wonder why...) But as we're moving into Star of the Sea, which is, for all intents and purposes, a murder mystery, and I was listening to Benjamin Black's The Silver Swan on the way up to MN last weekend and to Dennis Lehane's Moonlight Mile on the way back down, I've got mysteries on my brain. And I've got place-based mysteries on the brain.

The sad part was that I was actually pretty disappointed by The Silver Swan and I'm hoping when I break into some of his other works Dublin will play more of a role on the page. The series takes place in 1950s Dublin, but from the way the novel unfolded, it could have been anywhere in any time, which should not be the case. Dublin--and Ireland in general--is a very specific place and the 1950s is a very specific time in the history of Ireland. It's not just a matter of landscape, but atmosphere, and the way that the place affects and shapes the characters. By the time the story finished, I knew--just from my experience with Ireland and Dublin--that the story itself could not have been set elsewhere, that the plot couldn't have happened that way without this time and place, the characters and their actions dictated by the time and place, but rather than seeming timeless, it felt generic. And for Black--aka John Banville, who I adore--it seemed too easy. So we'll see if that changes when I read some of his other books.

Here's the current reading list, with a goal towards hitting the parents of the genre, and then spending the rest of our time in contemporary crime fiction that works really well with place. The goal is to examine place and the role that place plays not only on the page, but to the reader--what do we take away from this reading? How does the author create atmosphere? How does the author use the landscape (both natural and built) to advance the story? How are heroes and villains hampered or aided by the landscape? How are characters Othered? How are women portrayed? What is their role on the page, in the story?

Trying to narrow things down has been excruciating so far--and even narrowing to authors down has not been helpful. I just got off Skype with my mother, who's read most of the books I want to assign, and we couldn't decide between various books. Maybe when my stress gets really bad, I can have two or three crime fiction syllabi in rotation... And I'm not happy right now with the overload of men vs. women here.

Okay, here's the preliminary reading list:
  • selections of Edgar Allan Poe;
  • Arthur Conan Doyle, a Sherlock Holmes to be determined;
  • Agatha Christie, short stories;
  • Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon;
  • Nevada Barr, to be determined (taking suggestions!);
  • William Kent Krueger, Iron Lake;
  • Dennis Lehane, Mystic River;
  • Janet Evanovich, One for the Money
I don't know about this. Not sure how many books I can get away with requiring of my students, even if they could probably get them for a penny on Amazon. We'll see. And again, since we're largely reading contemporary authors, I'm going to see if I can get any of them to Skype with my students. Krueger is wonderful and he Skyped with my 252 class last semester, so maybe he'd be willing to do it again, but I'm curious what would happen if I emailed any of the other living writers. Got nothing to lose, right?

If it's a 101 class, then we'll be writing three papers; if it'a a 180 (or the like), then I might just do a midterm and final paper. Because of this, I might have to cut a book, but we'll see. Sigh. So many books, so little time.

So, what do you think? Thoughts about who I should add or subtract from my preliminary list?

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