Monday, March 31, 2008

YA novels at

I'm finally following up on Michelle's tip about the YA novel reviews at They're pretty fluffy, but often funny, and they tend to be aimed at books that I did, in fact, read as a child, but which never made it into my personal canon -- e.g. Paula Danziger's The Cat Ate My Gymsuit (perhaps one of the best reviews in the series), Ellen Raskin's The Westing Game, and Katherine Paterson's Jacob Have I Loved. It's interesting to be reminded of these books.

Apropos of the recent conference, they also do Alanna and the YA-lit-as-advertising phenomenon.

Adventures in reading in French aided solely by a crummy concise dictionary

The first chapter of Émile Zola's Nana (1879) is set in a theater. I was engrossed at once, but ... what was this about twins? Hey, twins again! Why are there so many twins in this theater? And showing up in the oddest places, seriously!

For instance, "Fauchery, qui avait pris sa jumelle, regardait la comtesse ..."

He... looked at the countess, having taken her twin sister to the theater? I thought he came in with la Faloise!

This was the last straw. The last twin, as it were.

But alas, Harper-Collins only confirmed my confusion: jumelle was indeed the feminine of jumeau, and it did indeed mean "twin."

And then my eye wandered down from jumeau and saw jumelles (npl): binoculars.


Well, that makes more sense.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

On encountering your fifth grade class trip in the Moore archive

I don't know whether it is still the case that fifth-graders in Newport News routinely visit the Mariners' Museum. I admit that when I was a fifth-grader I was bored to tears by most of the exhibits, coming as I did from a family that was emphatically not the boat-owning type. I was interested in the exhibits of figureheads and in the rooms full of miniatures -- the handcrafts -- but found the large room full of watercrafts merely dull.

I'm reading a fascinating book on early twentieth century museums, Catherine Paul's Poetry in the Museums of Modernism (U of Michigan P, 2002). Theoretically, it's not overwhelming, but it's full of great archival finds, including an account of an unpublished review that Marianne Moore wrote about a 1937 exhibit on surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art, titled "Concerning the Marvelous."

In an early draft of this essay, according to Paul, Moore compares the exhibit to the Mariners' Museum, using what my fifth-grade self considered essentially a big building full of boring crap to explain the curatorial rage for order.

"The objects that Moore finds together in the Mariner's Museum talk to each other, creating an impression of sea-faring life: collected shells combine with tattooers' apparatus; painted Portuguese boats, mastheads, whale skeletons, and walking sticks show what sailors brought with them on voyages as well as what they found. From these objects visitors are expected to piece together the big picture to which each object -- marvelous in its own right -- contributes; both the exhibitor's processes of selection and display and the visitor's interpretive ability shape that big picture." (146).

I must say that it's pretty much 100% certain that in fifth grade, I would have liked to see surrealism at the MoMA much better than the collection of small watercraft at the obligatory local maritime museum. But then, it's probably the podunk nature of that particular museum that suits it to Moore's purpose.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

I seem to have a little problem.

I, um, hate William Carlos Williams.


Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Alan Garner, caught in the middle

I've been pondering Alan Garner ever since Farah Mendlesohn told me at MLA that he didn't fit into my media schema (namely, that the Oxford School seeks to reproduce medieval media environments). The work she cited was The Stone Book Quartet, a late work that I still haven't managed to lay my hands on, although I already have some theories about it (surprise, they're related to Philip Pullman).

But the works I've read by Alan Garner are The Owl Service and Elidor, both from the 60s, and the first thing to say about those particular works (of course!) is that they do fit right into my schema; the book is the land and the land is the book. Yes, the paper copy of the Mabinogion rips apart and flutters into the breeze, but that's because the children are living it. What is this but the sign-as-emanation-of-reality?

But what really stands out to me about Alan Garner's work is that the cuddly, discursive narrative voice and the loving world-building that one is used to encountering in Oxford School works is simply not there. The style of these books is telegraphic and abrupt; when Roland keeps insisting that the fate of Elidor is the most important thing there is, we're nearly on the side of Nick, who rejects Elidor, even though we know we're not supposed to be. We know almost nothing about Elidor; unlike in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, in which we are made to see that Lucy has indisputably stumbled on a wonderland, the style of Garner's writing insists on the fragmentary, uncertain way in which Roland perceives Elidor, and even suggests that Elidor can be seen in no other way.

     "He knelt, his head on his
     forearm, looking at the quartz:
     white: cold: hard: clean.
     ----But a stain was growing
     over it: his shadow, blacker
     and blacker. The light was
     changing." (36)

When the children go to Elidor, it's shrouded in darkness, and it's really in no way clear what's supposed to be interesting or nice about it, or why anyone should want to save a nasty place like that. Most things are left unexplained -- for instance, we never understand who the enemy is, only that they must be stopped. In The Owl Service, the problem is that there is no enemy -- only multiple rounds of human failing (that must be stopped!). Motivations and meanings -- why is Elidor dark? who made it so? who is Malebron? why should the Song of Findhorn save Elidor? -- are subsumed by structures of organization: Elidor is dark, so whoever made it so must be defeated, etc. Character, too, is subsumed by roles; "Childe Rowland to the Dark Tower came," as the epigraph puts it; who cares why?

The epigraph is, to me, emblematic of Garner's positioning within the Oxford School, because I think that, like Philip Pullman after him, he really is looking to counter the medievalized episteme of the 1950s Oxford School with a modernity that favors the book of nature over the books of men -- for this reason, he quotes King Lear, but elides both the source of the reference, the medieval Chanson de Roland, and its nineteenth century descendant, the Robert Browning poem (even though the protagonist's name is spelled "Roland" and not "Rowland" as quoted in the epigraph). If Garner wants to insist on an embodied and non-symbolic relationship to the land, chronicling Roland's direct if imperfect perception of Elidor rather than a reconstructed, synthetic vision thereof, the logic of the narrative is nonetheless imported from medieval romance.

These are interesting and atypical books.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Canons of Children's Literature

March 15, 2008
Maude Fife Room, 315 Wheeler Hall
University of California at Berkeley
Panels are free and open to the public

Keynote speaker: Paula Fass, Department of History, UC Berkeley

The UC Berkeley Children's Literature Working Group presents a one-day conference on the intersections between children's literature and notions of the canon. The conference will address such topics as how canons are defined within children's literature; how children's literature operates within national, transnational, and postcolonial canons; and how traditional notions of canonicity are being reshaped through children's literature in new media.

Sponsored by the Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities and the Center for British Studies.

Conference Website

Saturday, March 1, 2008

I've had it up to here with the New York Times. Right now I'm fuming about their magazine article on single-sex education. I'm not necessarily opposed to single-sex education, but this article leads off with a description of a school based on the theories of Leonard Sax, who, despite his M.D., is not a responsible scientist, and merely uses pseudo-scientific handwaving to bludgeon people into believing his repulsive sex stereotypes.

According to Sax, the reason boys and girls should be taught separately is that they are so radically physiologically different that they cannot possibly learn in the same way. Men are from Mars, women are from Venus; they are as unlike each other as night and day; they might as well be different species. They probably are. Never mind that school as an institution began and in many ways remains thoroughly patriarchal, and that at one time girls weren't even allowed to go to school. No, according to Sax, mainstream schools are effeminate and reward girly behavior such as doing homework or reading, which is like totally bad for boys.

From the article:

The boys like being on their own, they say, because girls don’t appreciate their jokes and think boys are too messy, and are also scared of snakes. The walls of the boys’ classroom are painted blue, the light bulbs emit a cool white light and the thermostat is set to 69 degrees. In the girls’ room, by contrast, the walls are yellow, the light bulbs emit a warm yellow light and the temperature is kept six degrees warmer, as per the instructions of Leonard Sax, a family physician turned author and advocate who this May will quit his medical practice to devote himself full time to promoting single-sex public education.

Hmm, I wonder why those boys have these sexist fantasies of what girls are like? Could it possibly be that by being segregated from girls and told that girls and boys are so different that they can't even learn in the same room from the same teacher, they are being taught to internalize sex stereotypes? I wonder.

It wouldn't be so repulsive if any attempt were made to actually understand or account for the supposed research that Sax invokes. But the first hints that Sax's claims might not be totally backed up by studies are buried on page four.

Observe this sleight of hand, in describing Michael Younger's irritation with Sax's "work":
While Sax, a gadfly, enjoys telling this story, Younger calls it “a fiction,” though he does concede “that certain aspects of Sax’s work suggest an essentialism about boys and girls which is not borne out by reality as exposed in our own research.”

What is Michael Younger calling a "fiction" in this paragraph? Presumably Sax's story about how Younger threw out a talk he was going to give solely to refute a lexture of Sax's. But the confusing way that the paragraph is written makes it sound as if Younger's objection -- i.e. that Sax's essentialism isn't borne out by research -- is actually a concession, not to the truthfulness of the anecdote about his throwing out a talk, but to Sax's theories tout court.

I know that the New York Times is a festering bastion of misogyny, but such blatant irresponsibility is unforgivable.