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

Friday, July 27, 2012

Montreal Prep!

I think I just finished cutting down my paper for the IASIL conference, so I don't become one of those annoying people who goes over her time...  But in the process of that, I'm also packing and such, having texting conversations with Dawn Duncan, for last minute help (going both ways).  I think we're pretty much ready!

I'd been sent this video weeks ago, and meant to post it--better late than never.  It's a video profile of her from Concordia and it's just wonderfully done, captures what makes her such a great teacher, a great colleague, and a good friend.


Thursday, July 26, 2012

State of Mind: Hot Enough Fer Ya?

The sadness with which I have left the lake is immense, but I'm in my parents' new house in Minneapolis, putting the finishing touches on my Focus Portfolio, which I hopefully will submit this afternoon.  The weather outside we have stopped describing as "hot" or "humid" and just reduced our adjectives to "gross."  I mentioned to my father this morning that it's too bad that the crops can't just suck the humidity out of the air.

This last weekend was Muskie Days, the annual celebration in my hometown of Nevis, and it corresponded with the 100th anniversary of the Nevis School.  Such great fun.  I saw so many people I haven't seen in years, caught up with classmates, got to see their kids.  And I got to hang out on Sunday with my high school history teacher, Larry Smith, and his wife Julie--their daughters are the same age as my sister K2 and me.  I sometimes still have a hard time calling Mr. Smith by his first name.  But we got to talk history and politics and as we did, I was reminded of how much difference good teachers make.  The last of my English teachers retired this year, after 38 years.  Another of my English teachers MC'd the opening ceremony.  I reread my senior yearbook and saw that my science teacher wrote that he hoped he hadn't turned me off to science--and I wished I could have seen him this weekend, because I think he'd be as surprised as I am that most of the classes I'm teaching are science related in some way.

But Mr. Smith--Larry--told me a while back that he was curious about my Natural Disasters class and wanted to see some of my materials.  I'm in the process right now--as I'm still trying to pry my eyelids open and focus my eyes--of sending them to him.  But the reason for this post is that the universe seems to align when it's supposed to:  last night on the Daily Show and last night on the Rachel Maddow show, two different segments on energy policy.  I wish I could consider the Daily Show segment funny (though I will always love John Oliver), but it hits too close to home, too close to existing arguments about the value of land, resources, and commodities.

So, here's your food for thought for the day:

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Thursday, July 19, 2012

A Discussion Starter: Derek Hand and Ken Bruen

Last night, while hiding out in my bedroom at the cabin, which is the only room with AC in it, trying not to die of humidity poisoning, I opened my iPad to Ken Bruen’s Sanctuary.  I’d seen the title in a few of the articles I’d been perusing for my Irish Noir syllabus that I’m in the midst of creating, but I’d never read it.  To my delight and irritation, I finished it in one sitting.  This morning, I’ve got my pot of Earl Grey to ward off the grayness of the rainy morning, and Tana French’s Faithful Place is staring up at me from the coffee table.  Nope.  I have to read Eoin Flannery’s book on postcolonial Ireland and Mark Allister’s book on nature writing and autobiography.

The book is set in Galway, which may be one of the reasons I wanted to read Bruen as much as I do, because as we all know, Galway is very important to me.  (Those who know me will remember that my cat’s name is Galway…)  So reading Bruen’s landmarks was as much fun for me as one who knows those places as it was for the story.  The plot surrounds PI Jack Taylor, who’s been sent a cryptic note, a shopping list of victims.  The first has already been killed, a hit-and-run.  Taylor slips off the wagon in this novel (and I did enjoy the tour of various Galway pubs, incluing The Quays, which he describes as a tourist haunt) and spends most of the book either drunk or on some sort of drug (Xanax is a favorite).  The sad truth is that when I closed the back cover (metaphorically, since I was reading it on my iPad), I was hugely disappointed.  I felt like it should have been a first draft, with an editor going back and marking through it with notes like “Develop this further!” and “This is not earned.”  Some major stuff happens to Jack in these pages, and yes, it’s true, he’s on Xanax for most of it, but there are two major revelations here—one that involves the murderer and one that involves a past trauma in his own life—and Jack’s reactions were not believable to me. 

But—and this is a huge but—yesterday I finished Derek Hand’s book on the history of the Irish novel and this might be only the second time I’ve finished a book of criticism with a smile (the first would be Mark Tredinnick’s The Land’s Wild Music).  Dang.  Really, really good stuff.  Hand’s style is very readable and the points that he makes about how the novel developed in Ireland is right on, as far as I can tell.  (Remember, I’m a nonfiction writer first…)  I appreciated the attention that Hand paid to the role of place and landscape, even though that dimension was surprising to me.  I also appreciated that the book is new enough to cover some of the books that are on my focus list.  And for the most part, I agreed with him for most of his book.

Except for the section where he addressed genre fiction.  In that section, I strongly disagree.  I haven’t completely articulated my position yet, but this is a movement towards a position—and I absolutely welcome any discussion any of my dear readers might have.  I have no problems with people disagreeing with me either.    

Hand’s admiration of John Banville—which I share—is evident throughout those sections of his book and it makes me want to dive back into those books (which I can’t, not right now, dang it).  When he transitions into Benjamin Black, this is what Hand has to say:

“For Banville himself, who in his fiction often employed the figure of the double and the twin to manifest his sense of rupture, the obligation to artistic selfhood and authorship was itself exploded when he began to write in the thriller genre under the pseudonym Benjamin Black with Christine Falls (2006) and The Silver Swan (2007).  While his decision to enter this thriller marketplace could be argued to be a materialization of a crisis in identity that is so central to his ever-doubling heroes, it has more to do, one imagines, with a desire to connect with a lucrative wider readership” (263).

As a creative writer myself—and this is actually something I’d love to ask Banville himself—I disagree that the choice to write in a different genre is motivated by the desire for money.  I’ve a novel that I’m working on, of the serious literary variety, but I also would very much like to write a thriller set in Fargo during a flood.  Were I to finish both of these novels, I would not feel like I’m selling out.  I mentioned briefly in a previous post that there are questions and ideas that literary fiction makes difficult to discuss.  Genre fiction—which has long been eschewed by capital-L Literature—can and often is as well written as any Literary fiction.  One might point to the historical romance author Eloisa James, who in addition to having a PhD in English (and she teaches Shakespeare at Fordham University), she also comes from the impressive literary lineage of Robert and Carol Bly (which makes me want to claim her as a Minnesotan.)  And the contemporary chick lit author Jennifer Crusie (though I really hate that term, chick lit) also has a PhD in English.  And if the point of genre fiction is to address issues and questions in a format that Literary Fiction is not willing to do—if it can do so at all—then it fills a niche that is needed.  But since the critical study of crime literature is very thin, I can understand the position that Hand is working through here.

Hand writes of “chick lit” that it “is concerned only with the immediate moment in terms of theme and also in terms of reader response” (275).  And of thriller fiction, “And the increasing proficiency in the thriller genre by Irish writers, for instance, suggests a means for middlebrow authors…to connect with like-minded middlebrow readers beyond Ireland” (281).  And later, “Whereas a previous generation of Irish novelists might have aspired to self-expression through art, the situation is now altered and the writerly self is subsumed into the conformities of plot and the necessities of the literary marketplace that accentuates cold and calculating conformity.  Even those widely celebrated novels and novelists that apparently play with form and offer seemingly endless challenges to traditional narratives become tiresomely jaded and orthodox rather rapidly” (281).

I strenuously disagree, to the point of waving my hands to punctuate the tone of my voice.  If our purpose in reading (and our purpose as writers in writing) is to understand something of the world that we didn’t—and couldn’t—before, to add to our understanding of the world’s complexity, then genre fiction is not lesser than literary fiction.  It simply fills a different purpose.  (I also suspect that the censors and the publishing of literature in Ireland has something to do with why genre fiction is late in coming to the game, but that’s a supposition I can’t support with facts.)  Some of the thriller writers I like best write better sentences than some of the Literary writers I read.  The highest compliment I can give a book is “S/He sure knows how to put a sentence together!”  And I believe that the role of genre fiction—particularly crime literature—is to draw society’s attention to issues that we would not have been able to talk about any other way. 

For instance.  In Bruen’s Sanctuary, things come up that seem innocuous on the surface but could be excellent starting points for discussions on current topics—inside and outside of a classroom.  (I don’t think I can teach Sanctuary, but the point still works.)  We could talk about drug use.  We could talk about gays and gay rights in Ireland.  We could talk about the obesity epidemic that came with the Celtic Tiger (it’s just a tiny moment with Ben, but still an important moment).  We can talk about corruption.  On a writerly level, we can talk about the role of Galway in the plot (and if I do end up teaching Bruen, you can bet we will.  A lot.)  We can talk about how Bruen’s Jack Taylor fits into the pantheon of hard-boiled PI’s and the noir genre, right down to the femme fatale.  (That was a plot twist I didn’t see coming, though it came way too early in the story for me.)  I read Declan Hughes’s The City of Lost Girls—and we could talk about violence against women and violence against women used for entertainment value.  Since I’m working on Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea, and that can be considered a murder mystery, we can talk about the failure of systems, class, race issues.  Genres and subgenres are not mutually exclusive.  And thank God for it.

It’s entirely possible that Hand and I are talking apples and oranges here.  He’s concerned with the originality of plot and the form that takes in the history of the Irish novel.  By its very nature, genre fiction is largely formulaic.  But that doesn’t mean crime literature doesn’t have its own history and its own genealogy, the same sort of history that Hand is tracing in his book.  If you read any crime fiction scholarship, it’s clear that there is a progression and a reason for that progression.  Each generation of crime writers fits their work into the particular time and place and issues it’s facing.  Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler are fitting into a very specific time and place, working against the corruption of the legal system and the moral corruption of the city.  And that’s just one example.  I could go on.  And on.

Is the explosion of crime literature in Ireland a symptom of literature being devalued?  I don’t think so.  But then, a lot of the crime literature I’m reading is extremely well written, extremely well plotted.  The innovations that crime literature brings to the table may not be in terms of plot, but of content and the way that they offer up for public consumption a more realistic view of what is happening in the contemporary world.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Eng. 180 and Beyond: For the Love of Irish Noir

I’m finding my academic ADD to be particularly irritating right now.  I’m three weeks out from my deadline to finish my Focus portfolio for my comps (the one on contemporary Irish prose) and for the most part, I’m on track to do that.  Of course, that does not preclude the stress dreams of late (I’m mostly prone to the ones where the brakes in the car fail or my teeth fall out).  But then I get up in the morning, make my tea, sit down in the brown chair in my grandparents’ living room, listen to the wind in the leaves, the loons on the lake, try to ignore the irritating buzz of boat motors and jet skiis, drink my tea, and remember that my life is pretty dang good.

My ADD right now has to do with this corollary thing I’ve picked up in the last few months (mostly because the book I’m writing my paper on, what I’ll present to the IASIL conference in three weeks, is on Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea, billed as a murder-mystery)—Irish crime literature.  Naturally, I see this as a gorgeous hybrid of the crime literature class I’m teaching in the fall and my focus list.  Contemporary Irish crime literature?  Yes, please.  I’m reading Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett in my spare time (yes, that’s sarcastic) to get ready for the class, as well as anything else I can get my hands on to build up a better base for what I’m going to teach.  But I keep getting side tracked into Irish noir.  I don’t have time to be side tracked, but I can’t stop, so I’m trying to make a productive something out of it, so I can justify the time I’m spending on it.

This is not a small genre either, as I’m learning—enough going on there that I’m going to work up a syllabus on the subject, partly for the fun of it and partly to build up my folder of ready-to-go classes to teach.  I’ve got a creative writing class worked up (which I taught Spring 2012) and I will work up an introductory Irish lit class for my Focus Portfolio requirements—but I also want to work up an advanced Irish lit class.  The dream class, as it were.  Just as I think that teaching crime literature—both classic and popular—provokes us to conversations that we might not have otherwise, narrowing that idea to a specific place is right up my place-conscious alley, so to speak.

But when I came across Andrew Kincaid’s article “‘Down These Mean Streets’: The City and Critique in Contemporary Irish Noir,” a couple of puzzle pieces I hadn’t known I was missing fit into place.  Kincaid wrote of the eminent Declan Kiberd’s questioning (in 2005) where the literature that reflected the economic boom of the Celtic Tiger—and Kincaid argues that the literature has been written, but not in a form that Kiberd recognized:  crime literature.  Crime literature, especially of the noir/hard-boiled variety (pioneered, of course, by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, among others) is the genre that reflects the “violence, ugliness, the distrust, the moral conflicts, and tempo that are inherent in the moment” (41).  Later, Kincaid writes that “In noir the city is not a mere physical backdrop in which the plot can unfold; the city itself functions as a central character, frequently determining the emotions of the hero as much as in any naturalist narrative” (41).  This is true.  And something I’ve based a lot of my teachings on, no matter what kind of text we’re looking at and no matter what type of class I’m teaching (composition, creative writing, or literature).  Looking at any type of writing through the lens of place studies then opens up the opportunity for students to question how place functions in their lives, what kind of role it plays.  Of course, this type of looking-outward is the goal of any class.

I’ve written here before of my deep and abiding adoration for John Banville and his crime-writing alter ego, Benjamin Black.  I found Elegy for April in a thrift store recently, which was rather exciting, and was a welcome return to the world of Quirke (since I was disappointed by The Silver Swan, though I might have to reread it to be sure I disliked it as much as I remember).  And also the amazingness of Tana French’s In the Woods.  I haven’t gotten a chance to read more of her work, but I can’t wait till I do.  I picked up Declan Hughes at the library yesterday (surprised that the little library had any of the names on my list), but I’m only a few pages in, so I have no opinion yet.  I did lend Christine Falls and In the Woods to a lady I’m cleaning cabins with this summer—and she was nearly speechless with adoration for Christine Falls when I saw her the next week.  She said she’s halfway through In the Woods and will be hard-pressed to say which one she likes better.  (This, given my Chocolat savant dreams, made me exceptionally happy.) 

What teaching—or taking—a class in such a narrow area offers is beyond the benefits I’ve mentioned, because one place is not like another place.  Crime fiction set in Los Angeles is not the same as that set in Boston or northern Minnesota or Dublin.  Each place has its own character, its own particular set of cultures and problems.  It’s like I wrote when I posted on Benjamin Black’s Silver Swan—I know that 1950s Dublin is a very specific place with its own very specific issues and cultural expectations and gender roles.  (Which is why I loved Christine Falls more than Silver Swan, because those pieces played a role in the plot.)  And being able to teach these things on a literature level (or a creative writing level) means giving them the tools to be aware of everything they take for granted when they read a book “for fun.” 

A friend did her project in our Women’s Rhetoric class this last semester on sex trafficking in popular fiction and in her presentation, she talked about who the protagonists were, what they tended to do for a living, how the law was involved (cops, lawyers, or journalists, generally made up the bulk of careers)—but the thing that stuck with me was how she said even if a woman was the protagonist, trying to stop this trafficking, she more-than-frequently fell into the hands of the bad guys herself and needed the male protagonist to save her.  So even though we had a strong female in the lead of the story, she still needed to be saved by a man.  And now I’m on the lookout for whenever I see that happening in any story I read—and awareness is the largest challenge of academia, that moment where my student says, “I never thought about it that way before” the sweetest.  If our students don’t recognize that something is happening, we can’t have any sort of a discussion about it.