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

Friday, August 31, 2012

Eng. 180: Arthur Conan Doyle

What a whirlwind week of Sherlock Holmes it has been--and I'm actually really sad to see him go.  Since none of my students signed up for the Conan Doyle author presentation (not really surprised, since it came up really fast), I did it--and that meant I got to watch the British Sherlock series and call it "research."  The movies themselves I didn't watch again until this week.  I love my job.  Watching the Robert Downey, Jr./Jude Law Sherlock Holmes yesterday, I picked up on a lot of things I hadn't on previous watchings--like Holmes wanting to dissect Blackwood's brain (Victorians were big on phrenology), etc.

Monday started with the author presentation, which was lovely if I do say so myself.  Then we jumped right in and talked about "A Scandal in Bohemia."  Whether it was Monday, only the fourth time we'd seen each other, the first day of a new author (and era), or something else, my class was sleepy and difficult to engage in conversation.  But we did get to talk about gender and class, as well as narrative structure and other fun things.

On Wednesday, I changed my tactics for our discussion of "The Speckled Band."  I divided them up into groups (hopefully covering those who didn't read their assignment), then assigned each group a specific question.

  • What role does the built environment play in this story?  How is it being used?  Where can you identify where it is playing an active role in the plot (making things happen or preventing them from happening)?
  • What purpose does the natural environment play here?  Where is it being used, to what purpose?
  • How is the environment itself literally a part of the narrative structure?  (After all, this is actually a locked-door mystery.)
  • Where can you identify where what Conan Doyle/Holmes/Victorian society values?  And how is what they value being threatened by the crime?
  • Where is class reflected by how Conan Doyle uses place in this story?

I let them go for a while and then we came back together--and while we're still stuck in the question-and-answer stage of awkward discussion (rather them talking with each other), they mostly got what I was hoping they would.  The built environment--mostly in the use of Stoke Moran--plays an active role in the plot, because without the renovations that Grimesby Roylott is making to the house, Helen Stoner would not have been moved into the room where her sister died (and she suspects was murdered).  I just love that.  Nature is regarded as threat here, not a pastoral paradise.  Even when Grimesby Roylott shows up at 221B Baker Street and he is described in terms of the natural world (bird of prey, etc.), he's also described in terms of how he fills the doorway.  Brilliant.

Today, we finish up our Holmes unit with "The Red-Headed League."  We talked motive today, as that was our specific theme for the day.  Why do we do what we do?  I told them the story of my college math professor who once told us that the root of all conflicts was either money, sex, or power.  Yup.  In our class, we questioned not only why the criminal-villain does what s/he does--but an even more interesting question we rarely consider is why does the detective do what s/he does?  Holmes, for the most part, does it because it saves him from being bored, it's a mental challenge.  He doesn't do it for the greater good, to clean up the streets, for justice, or any other more noble calling.  I can't wait to talk about motive further as we keep reading--should be interesting when we get to Raymond Chandler... 

In the classic detective stories we've been reading, and specifically Conan Doyle this week, the mores of Victorian society, the ideals of honor, class, and gender roles are incredibly important--and a lot of the villain's motives are related to those elements.  That John Clay is the bastard of a royal duke is important, because it puts Clay outside accepted society--even as he invokes his grandfather's blood to get better treatment (and the aristocracy would have received better treatment anyway).  It is also important to remember that Holmes only investigates crimes of the "higher order," not the lower class of crimes, which I term to be crimes of survival (like stealing because one is hungry).  Murder is fairly rare in Conan Doyle, so the idea that more is at stake than the body is incredibly important.  In only one of the three stories we read for this week is there a murder.  Murder is much more common in contemporary crime literature and in many cases, motive is moot, simply because the villain functions as simply "evil," a psychopath or sociopath whose mind does not operate on the same wavelength as "normal" people.  Also, the theme of revenge/justice is also more common as a motive for crime in contemporary crime literature.  Should be interesting to explore as we move into Agatha Christie's "The Mousetrap" next week.

"The Red-Headed League" is different in the narrative structure itself--generally, there is no interaction of Holmes with the crime.  In this story, the crime he is investigating has not happened yet and his goal is to foil the plot.  In the classic detective stories of this type (and in modern times, the tv show Monk is a good example), the story is divided in two:  the story of the crime is self-contained and the story of the investigation is self-contained and never the twain shall meet.  Mostly.  But writers break their rules all the time.  Almost never in this type of story does the detective have a personal relationship with the criminal he is tracking--but in this story, Holmes has been after the culprit for quite some time.We spent the first part of class talking about all the rules that Conan Doyle is breaking here, narratively, what makes "The Red-Headed League" different from the other stories we've read--and the first thing one of my students said was that the crime hasn't been committed yet, that the plot is about preventing the crime, not catching the villain after the fact.  The other major thing my students observed is that Holmes has a personal relationship with the villain, John Clay--and this is another breaking of general rules, where the crime and the detection are separate, that the detective has no personal stake in catching the villain.  

Note to self:  this group does not say much when we're in a large group.  In the future, lesson plans must include some sort of group work.

In other news, congratulations to William Kent Krueger on the release of his new Cork O'Connor book Trickster's Point, which debuted at #12 on the New York Times bestseller list!  Couldn't have happened to a nicer guy and a better writer--and I can't wait to introduce him to my students, both in the first book in the O'Connor series (Iron Lake) and via Skype when we get to talk to him face to face.

And the good news this morning is that Dennis Lehane has agreed to do an email interview with my class (hopefully next time I teach a class like this it will fit better with his schedule)--so we still get to ask him questions about Mystic River!

Life is good.  I picked up some Ken Bruen and Declan Hughes at the library a couple of days ago, so if I get some free time this Labor Day weekend, I get to spend to take a tour of Galway's seedy side with Ken Bruen and Dublin with Declan Hughes.  And we (hopefully) get the bad guys.  Interesting to see how the literature of social order functions in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland...

Friday, August 24, 2012

Eng. 180: If It Bleeds, It Leads

Today, as I prepped to teach my English 180 Lit students about Edgar Allan Poe as the father of crime literature (though I actually sort of disagree with that, because crime lit can be traced back to ancient literature like the Bible), the father of the detective story (more people agree on that), I opened my Safari to see that Lance Armstrong will be stripped of his Tour de France titles and banned for life from the sport.  A gunman has shot several people at the Empire State Building.  If it bleeds (even it's emotionally), it leads.

Today's Reading:  Edgar Allan Poe.  "A Cask of Amontillado," "Fall of the House of Usher," and "Murders in the Rue Morgue."  Also, Margaret Kane, "Edgar Allan Poe and Architecture."

But that was a good way to segue into my class, as we're questioning what constitutes literature--and I referenced how many of them wrote in their Short Histories about preferring to read articles and such online.  Most of the exposure we get to crime "literature" is actually on the front page of our newspapers.  Food for thought, if nothing else.  And, I said, what I saw today just in those three articles is an extension of what I talked about on Wednesday.  If crime literature is the literature of maintaining social order, then to see that Lance Armstrong is being punished for cheating (regardless if you think he's guilty or not), to see that Anders Breivik is being punished for killing 77 people--that simply reaffirms that crime disrupts the social order and the purpose of whatever we write about it (of course, that's a huge generalization) is to reestablish that social order.

I started class by asking my students to free write for a bit, about where they're starting to see connections, where they're starting to see things showing up in what they're reading that becoming familiar.  I always find that students participate in a discussion much more willingly when they've had a few minutes to think through their pens and have an answer of a sort in front of them.  Had I just asked that question point-blank, I would have gotten nothing.  When we came back together, they had some good answers (and I hope they use some of them in their first Think Pieces, which are due on Monday) about being able to pay attention to what Margaret Kane was writing about (we read her 1932 article on Poe and architecture).  I came into class this morning, admittedly, pessimistic, wondering how many of my students would just read the Cliff's Notes...

Today's shocker:  when I asked how many had read Tom Clancy, nobody raised their hands.

We talked our way through Margaret Kane first, because this is their first exposure to a critical article.  Yup, not anybody's idea of fun.  But not all writing is here to entertain you (a dig at how many of them said they hated reading and literature because they expect to be entertained by it, they expect to be able to relate to it)--and I was fairly pointed on that fact.  And in the scheme of things, Kane is pretty tame.  I asked how many of them read the information about where and when it was published (nobody) and the looks of surprise when I said it was published in 1932, priceless.  Of course, I needed to mention that a woman writing literary criticism like this in the 1930s is pretty rare--and thus important.  I drew a map of sorts on the board (ironically, with a red marker) of Kane's article as we deconstructed it, made an outline, sort of.  My outlines never follow linear patterns.  They loop, they have arrows that go different places, and this article outline was no different.  But by the time we got through it, and I asked how many were starting to see what she was doing, I got nods from most of the class.

This is good.

I asked how many had read Kane first (not too many) and it's definitely a different reading experience when you read her first and then read the Poe stories, knowing what to look for.  So after we talked about the exteriors Poe uses, huge and old and decaying, and the interiors (the ways he uses irregularly shaped rooms, windows to control light, etc.) I divided them up into groups, gave each group one of the stories, and had them look for these things.  Because about half my class showed up without the stories or the article, it was hard, and by this point in the class I felt extremely rushed, because I hate 50 minute classes.  I feel like we just get into something and then we have to shut it down because the class is over.  So I rushed through what they found--and I also didn't want to make any more of how many of them did not bring their texts to class--and then I talked through the stories.

I started with "A Cask of Amontillado," mentioned various things about class and the built environment--and that it's a good example of what I talked about on Wednesday about early crime literature being in the realm of revenge/justice.  (Heads nodded when I said that--yay, connections!)  But the whole point of me assigning this story is not just the built environment leading to Fortunato's death, or that this is a story of murder without a detective--it is the story of the perfect crime.  Montressor never gets caught, not even after fifty years.  Admittedly, Gothic is not my specialty, but this strikes me as an anti-Gothic story--that a secret from the past that should threaten Montressor's present doesn't.  This is a story of the perfect crime.

In "Fall of the House of Usher," I asked my students how many of them knew what a "tarn" was.  Nobody.  How many looked it up?  Nobody.  Google is your friend, people.  In this case, it's important.  A tarn is a mountain pool that is formed in the circque created by a glacier.  (And in my head I could see Hart Lake at Holden Village, up in the Cascades of Washington State.)  The reason it's important is not just in terms of the natural environment, but it is a shaped environment, a built environment of its own.  We made the easy connections of equating identity with the built environment of the house, even to questioning whether it is the house itself which is killing both Madeline and Roderick.  I told my students that gender is really interesting in Poe stories, because the women are generally dying, dead, or completely off stage.  We didn't get time to talk about all the interiors Poe uses here, which made me sad.   We get the juxtaposition of pre-Enlightenment superstition against the post-Enlightenment reason--against the Victorian obsession with death.  (I talked about Victoria and Albert, but when Usher was published, Albert still had two decades in front of him.)  We talked about the Victorian fear of being buried alive (as this was an extension of the pre/post-Enlightment conversations about what happens after death.  We talked about how the good crime/suspense writers play into the contemporary fears of its audience.  For Poe, it was being buried alive.  For Tom Clancy, it was the Cold War.

And then we only had a precious few minutes to get through "Murders in the Rue Morgue."  I told my students that if they only skimmed this or if they didn't read it, go back and spend some time with it, because this is the first detective story.  This is the root from which everything else grows--either follows and imitates or goes the other direction.  (I got some nods.)  I talked about the divide between the police detective and the private detective.  The emphasis on reason.  The importance of physical data as a means of deciphering truth.

All in all, I was fairly satisfied with the day, our first real time together talking about the page.  I did assign too many stories, and maybe I'd choose to spend my class time differently next time so we could actually talk about the stories--but the reality is that it's Friday, most of my class didn't bring their texts so they couldn't really talk about the stories, so even if I'd assigned something different, I don't think it would have mattered in the long run.  On Monday, we start Arthur Conan Doyle--and I'm doing the author presentation for that one.  Should be interesting!  Might have to watch some Robert Downey, Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch for extra research.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Eng. 180: On the Student Need "To Relate" to "Like"

On Monday, the first day of class, I assigned "A Short History of Your Reading Life" to my Intro to Lit class, due yesterday (Wednesday).  The assignment served several purposes for myself as the teacher--diagnostic, to see if they could follow basic instructions (like MLA formatting), as well as getting insight into what they were bringing into my classroom.  I just finished reading and commenting on their histories--and the results are mostly what I expected, but a few things that shouldn't have surprised me did.

Across the board, the number of students (a great majority of them) admitted to flat-out hating reading.  Some of them used that as a springboard to talk about a parent or a teacher who then inspired them to the greatness of reading--but even as I wrote "have you told your teacher thank you?" in the margins (because I know that most of us don't thank our teachers, since we're so far gone from that atmosphere when the reality of what they did for us kicks in), I kept getting stuck at "I hated/I hate" reading.  (I got a lot of "I hate nonfiction," which was disconcerting to me as a nonfiction writer, though I'm pretty sure they have no idea that creative nonfiction exists, that they have a similar mindset to my sister K3, who once told me that "When I think of nonfiction, I think about books about sharks.")

What was clear, though, wasn't that they actually hate reading--they hate being told what to read.  And they're completely unaware of the irony of some of their favorite books (that they've identified) as coming in a class where they were required to read it...)  But I just wanted to write "tough shit" in the margins, because who says that who cares if you actually a like a book or not?  For myself, as I have said elsewhere, I loathe Norman Mailer, but that doesn't mean I didn't learn how to put a sentence together from him.  Sometimes there's a great teacher who teaches them that Shakespeare is relevant, that To Kill A Mockingbird is brilliant--but if these students can't relate to the character or the plot, then their default reaction is hate.  And this disturbs me on many levels, on a word-choice level as well as the default reaction itself.  One great observation was "I don't always enjoy assignments over lame books in class."  Sigh.  Not an isolated opinion.

When they talk about hating books and hating reading, about lame books that have no relevance to their 21st century life, the reality I am coming to understand is that that means the books should always be written to entertain them, on their terms.  The main characters should be people that my students should be easily able to slip into.  If you can't relate to Odysseus in The Odyssey (and they're reading that in high school these days???), who's fault is that?  How much responsibility do you, as the student, bear for making something relevant, important, thought-provoking?  But as their teacher, I see that as part of my great opportunity and challenge.

I suspect this mentality started in my generation and has trickled down to this Millenial generation, but I have no research to back this up--and I haven't done any research to see what we as teachers do to combat it, except teach better.  And since this is my first time teaching literature--having only taught creative writing and composition before--it's something I hope to gain more insight about as the semester goes on.

So, for those of you who are following along at home, here's your writing assignment for today:  in the comments section, write me a paragraph or two that encapsulates "A Short History of Your Reading Life."  You could choose to concentrate on a single book, a single person, a specific episode in your reading history--but really, it's wide open.  Can't wait to see what our histories look like!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Night Before Christmas, I Mean, The Semester

It's the afternoon before the new semester and all through the 400 sq ft apartment, nobody is moving, not even the furballs who haven't budged since 9:00 this morning and who I occasionally check to see if they're still breathing.  The sun is brilliant through my windows that are not west-facing and it's just a great afternoon.  I spent the morning chatting with a friend I haven't seen for the summer and now I'm wondering what I do with the rest of my time before I head to bed, dream of dancing syllabi, and wake to the butterflies of the first day of class--and hope it's not the dream where I show up to the first day to a class I didn't know I was supposed to teach and I'm naked.

This semester, I'm trying something different:  I'm sending my reading list (and my syllabi) to various friends and family, in hopes that they might be interested enough to read along with my class and me (because what we're reading is really interesting, if I do say so myself)--so when I talk to them about what I'm doing in my classes, they'll know what I'm talking about.

So.  Here's the reading lists:

151H:  Silent Spring, Rachel Carson; The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan; The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot.

180:  Poe ( “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “Fall of the House of Usher,” “A Cask of Amontillado” ); Arthur Conan Doyle ("A Scandal in Bohemia," "The Speckled Band," "The Red-Headed League"); Agatha Christie's "The Mousetrap"; the 1946 version of The Big Sleep (with Bogart and Bacall); Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca; Dennis Lehane's Mystic River; William Kent Krueger's Iron Lake; Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation.  And we'll read an excerpt of Joy Castro's novel, Hell or High Water, because she's kindly agreed to come to our class to talk about it.

There it is.  If you're wanting a more specific reading schedule, let me know and I'll send you one.  Otherwise, keep checking in here and feel free to comment when we get to a book you're reading along with us.  Here's to expanding our community of readers and writers!

Saturday, August 11, 2012

On Re-Reading Andrea Barrett's "Ship Fever"

I returned from Montreal on Tuesday night, after a truly excellent conference meeting of the International Association for the Study of Irish Literatures. An amazing ten days in a city I'd never been to before, exploring not just the newer downtown areas of Montreal but Old Montreal as well, the sites of the World's Fair and the Olympics. But then, after the conference, I went on the post-conference tour to Quebec City and Grosse Ile. It's been nearly a week since I was there and I'm still struggling to find words for the experience. And so, as I'm unpacking my Jeep in Lincoln and trying to remember where things go in my apartment after being gone all summer, I pulled out Andrea Barrett's Ship Fever and felt the need to reread the story "Ship Fever."

 I've written before about that strangely intimate experience of reading a book in its setting--and if you haven't tried it, you must--and that experience doesn't change much if you read something after you've been to the setting.  Most of my memories of Grosse Ile right now are sensory and tactile, the absolute oppression of the sun, the way the wind picked up at a very specific moment (more on that in a moment), the movement of the ferry on the St. Lawrence River, the notes that Patrick pulled from his pipe, his flute.  I have much to write about Patrick, our musician, and Grosse Ile, but that's for another time, another place.


We arrived at Berthier Sur Mer about 45 minutes after leaving Quebec City and we had about an hour before the ferry would take us to Grosse Ile.  Grosse Ile is one of several islands in an archipelago in the St. Lawrence River, not the largest, and it was the quarantine station for the port of Quebec from 1835-1937.  It was never an immigration station, like Ellis Island; its sole purpose was to evaluate the immigrants for illness, specifically the ones most likely to lead to epidemics (cholera, typhus), quarantine them on the island until they passed inspection, and then they could go on to Quebec City or Montreal.  As we approached the island, an immense stone cross dominated our vision.

Grosse Ile, from the ferry.

This is the Irish Memorial Cross, erected in 1909, to honor the nearly 5500 Irish who are buried on Grosse Ile.  Here's the thing about Grosse Ile that stung me first:  In the whole of the island's 105 year history, there are 7553 buried on the island (they are very deliberate about saying buried, not died--more on that later) and 5424 of those died in 1847 in a six-month period.  These were overwhelmingly Irish, fleeing the worst of the Great Famine.  Reread that.  Three quarters of those who are buried on Grosse Ile died during six months, mostly of the typhus epidemic.  Most years, Grosse Ile processed 20,000-30,000 immigrants--but in 1847, the number was closer to 100,000.  There wasn't room for that many healthy people, let alone sick.  This is intellectual knowledge, not knowledge in your bones.  There's a difference.

We got a very brief history of the island from our tour guide, Pierre-Loup, and then we walked in the incredible heat, the umbrellas we'd brought against warnings of rain raised against the sun.  Then the rise of the landscape changed and at first all we could see was a mowed expanse and a picket fence.  And then the wooden crosses inside the fence came into focus, large white crosses placed at odd intervals.  We followed Pierre-Loup up the hill until we could fix the entire expanse in our field of vision.  What we were seeing was still not clear--I mean, I assumed it was a cemetery, but then Pierre-Loup told us what we were looking at.  

Yes, this is the Irish cemetery and there are nearly 5,000 people buried here.  I could probably have figured that out on my own.  But what I couldn't comprehend was what I was looking at and I blamed it on the heat, the fact I had no personal connection to what was happening here.

And then, what Pierre-Loup was saying finally clicked:  yes, this a the mass grave.  That much I could understand.  But I assumed that the people were buried on the raised portions of the cemetery--but that's not right.  Everyone who died on the island got a coffin and they all got their own coffin.  The coffins are buried three deep here.  And when the coffins and the bodies began to decompose, the land collapsed.  So the people are buried in those spaces where the land dips.  For some reason, that froze my mind in place.  I had no more thoughts, no more associations.  

Memorial for the physicians who died tending the sick, 1847.

And then Patrick began to play a lament.  Margaret read a poem.  And some of our group began to weep.  I did not.  But I let Patrick's music grieve for me.

Cholera Bay, 
where ships carrying cholera docked, away from the main wharf

So, then, rereading "Ship Fever" after seeing the landscape for myself was, again, that incredibly intimate experience I've come to recognize as what happens when you know a book's setting.  I tried to imagine the St. Lawrence choked with tall-masted ships, the water thick with debris tossed overboard in an attempt to ease the quarantine inspection, all the human voices, the smells of the bodies, the sickness, the death, the constant burials and the constant hammering of coffins.  But as I read the story of Lauchlin Grant, Nora, Susannah, and the other characters, I knew the landscape of their stories, knew it as it was windblown into the pores of my skin and baked by the sun.  It matters that now I know what the approach to Grosse Ile looked like, felt like.  It matters that now I know what happened here, how it happened, because now I know what Grosse Ile felt like, to me.  It's a type of empathy, but not quite.  And so "Ship Fever" is all the more affective to me, because now I know the bedrock of Barrett's words planted into that soil.

So, today's question:  what works of literature have you read in its setting (or works whose setting you know intimately)--what is your experience of reading when you know the landscape the writer is writing about?