Monday, January 26, 2009


Baking with the correct brand of yeast makes you practically an oncologist.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Recently read children's fiction

I haven't yet had time to blog about some children's fiction that I read in the past year. The novels usually went up on the sidebar with no comment. Here are a few that I enjoyed, in no particular order. I wrote something similar, only a bit more streamlined, for the Cal English blog.

M.T. Anderson, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. Volume I: The Pox Party, 2006

I described this book to my children's lit cohorts as "Johnny Tremain meets Vathek," and I stand by that description. Highly stylized, in pitch-perfect eighteenth-century prose, the novel follows a young boy in colonial New England who is highly educated, but who only learns the reality about his situation in the world once his formal education stops. I was rather blown away by this novel, in part because the technical mastery was so greatly superior to much children's fiction currently being published. I have not had a chance yet to read the second volume, which was just released in 2008. I did, however, read a bizarre hyper-satirical mystery novel by the same author, which I can only describe as Nancy Drew on McSweeney's. It exhibited the same stylistic mastery as Octavian Nothing, but was otherwise very different, and it was, like McSweeney's, irritating.

William Nicholson, The Wind on Fire trilogy, 2002-2004

This fantasy trilogy did something astonishing, namely it kept the parents alive (well, mostly) and unhated. The first book begins in a brave new dystopia, and the whole family is lovingly united in sticking it to the man, often in very satisfying ways. Sentimental at times, but also sweet, and there is a hilarious flying cat that makes up for quite a lot, to my mind.

Karen Karbo, Minerva Clark Gets a Clue, 2006

This appears to be a series, and I do not intend to read anything else in the series, but I found the first book quite amusing. Minerva Clark is an inquisitive middle schooler whose main guardians are her three older brothers, whom she unhesitatingly ranks by level of responsibility or flakiness. Minerva is a bit like Harriet the Spy, only she isn't neurotic. How can this be? Well, she's struck by lightning of course, and this causes her to lose her natural middle-school-girl self-loathing, astonishing the doctor. Very funny.

Mary Hoffman, City of Masks (2002), City of Stars (2003), City of Flowers (2005)

In the Stravaganza series, teenagers from present-day London are magically transported to Talia, the Renaissance Italy of a parallel universe. Hijinks ensue. I can see the City of X conceit getting a bit old (apparently there is another volume that hasn't made it to the Claremont Branch yet), but so far I've found Hoffman's world-building subtle and creative. The part that tickles me the most is the old man, William Dethridge, who comes from Renaissance England and speaks in early modern English, spelling and all. Hoffman has a good ear for this, and it amuses me that to the Talians Dethridge sounds normal, but to the English teenagers he sounds "old-timey."

Gail Carson Levine, Ella Enchanted (1997), Fairest (2006), and The Two Princesses of Bamarre (2001)

My attempt to post on Levine a long time ago was derailed by my having read Jennifer Holm's Boston Jane in the same week; praise was naturally superseded by a rant. I expected to dislike Levine, owing to the fact that a bad-looking Disney film existed based on one of her novels. But in fact I think she's great. I've read some reviews suggesting that her characterization is lacking, and I think that might be right, but also a bit beside the point. These novels strike me as interesting and well considered thought experiments, performed by a smart woman, in how you could conceive of a genuinely feminist princess story. These three different novels are three different kinds of answers, and they each have their successes and failings, but they are all interesting, they all engage serious questions, and they are all deeply interested in language.

Diana Wynne Jones, Dark Lord of Derkholm (1998), Year of the Griffin (2000), Power of Three (2003), Eight Days of Luke (1975), Hexwood (2002)

Oh, so many Diana Wynne Jones novels. Dark Lord of Derkholm is a very funny satire on fantasy conventions; a world full of magic is forced to give guided fantasy tours, complete with a seductive enchantress and a Dark Lord. A misfit named Derk, father to a multispecies family, is selected to be Dark Lord one year, and the whole family has to band together to pull it off and try to get rid of the devastating, exploitative tours in the process. In Year of the Griffin, the sequel, Derk's griffin daughter Elda goes off to the university, which turns out to be an extremely bootleg affair, especially when several foreign nations turn their wrath upon said university, including a series of highly trained assassins. Elda and her friends save the day with the help of some hard-core studying. I love that the undisputed leader of this world is a snakelike elderly lady named Querida. Power of Three is more or less a medievalist fantasy, or at least so it seems until we learn more about the Giants and the reader is forced to totally reorient. Well done, with that classic tongue-in-cheek Diana Wynne Jones style. Eight Days of Luke and Hexwood are myth-related fantasies in the style of Fire and Hemlock, by which I mean the protagonist is a normal child who is forced to enter into the logic of mythology. Hexwood is by far the more complicated and trippy, since a good part of it takes place entirely out of chronological sequence.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Overly confrontational physics

I spent the afternoon of New Year's Day pleasantly with my friend Katie and her five-year-old, Quinn, at Lawrence Hall of Science. I'd never visited before, though Quinn was an old regular there.

I spotted the shirt below in the gift shop.

I don't recognize the equation, though I can hear C.P. Snow roaring in my ear, Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?.

The humor of the shirt lies in the deformation of a set linguistic phrase, in this case, the faintly aggressive "What part of [X] don't you understand?" In its usual context, X is something very simple, such as "no." Ideally, it's something that doesn't have parts in the first place. This makes the question rhetorical: there's nothing to debate, because X is so very self-evident. If you understand X, as you must, then the conversation is finished.

The phrase is aggressive because it suggests that the reader/listener must be very stupid to have disagreed with the speaker; it suggests that such disagreement can only result from an inability to understand some part of the very simple X.

The phrase on the shirt deforms the template phrase by making X something visually complicated, with many parts. The humor turns precisely on our receiving the equation as complicated, difficult to understand. But it retains the aggressivity of the original template phrase, even as it undercuts itself. You must be very stupid not to understand X, which I am positioning as not at all simple; that is, you must be very stupid relative to me.

Indeed, we are not meant to be able to understand the equation, or even see it: unlike the template into which it is inserted, X is here rendered in small close-set type. It is the aggressive template that is emphasized by the shirt's typography; of the equation, we are only meant to catch enough of a glimpse to see that it is complicated and contains line integrals. It doesn't matter whether the reader can see or read the equation; it's assumed up front that the reader wouldn't understand it anyway.

The wearer of the shirt thereby lays claim to membership in a contemptuous literati, whose aggressivity is both incited and justified by the difference between the wearer's ability to understand X and reader's presumed, typographically enforced, and culpable inability to understand it.

This is one popular understanding of what it means to be a scientist.

Friday, January 2, 2009

MLA 2008

I haven't had much of a chance to write about MLA. I didn't go to very many panels this year; being local meant so much of my own life was right here, reminding me of its existence, whereas when you're alone in town with only the MLA to claim your attention, going to many panels seems logical and right.

One panel that I attended was titled "Why Teach Literature Anyway?" The panelists were John Guillory, Walter Benn Michaels, and Marjorie Perloff. Of the three talks, I found Guillory's the most convincing, which isn't surprising, since I also generally find his writing very convincing. Both Guillory and Perloff began their talks by close-reading the title of the panel, turning the tools of the trade on the language by which its validity is questioned. It struck me as a rather defensive move, though of course they did it well.

Guillory brought up the notion of the "lay reader," the hidden antagonist in our discipline, the figure against which the professional reader is counterposed, but also a kind of ideal reader, as in Samuel Johnson's "common reader." Guillory pointed out that "reading" as a practice is too often conflated with the reading of literature, which is the result of an insufficient attention to theories of media, and to the pleasures specific to writing as a medium. I think this is quite right.

Walter Benn Michaels said some things with which I very violently disagreed.

Marjorie Perloff gave a charming and funny talk that oscillated between theorizing the place of reading in contemporary life and offering close readings of Barack Obama's memoir Dreams from my Father. I didn't expect her to talk about Barack Obama, but in general it was the kind of response to the question of the title, Why teach literature anyway?, that her criticism led me to expect. I disagreed with her on several points but share her sense that the teaching of literature is fundamentally the teaching of reading, a complex and time-consuming practice. Teaching reading practices is central to the way I teach literature.

Perhaps I'll have time to write more about MLA later. Anyway, it's time for the annual link to Margery Kempe at the Feest of MLA.