At the National Theatre: Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”

On a recent Wednesday evening, F and I took a weeknight out to see Shakespeare’s As You Like It at the National Theatre (NT). I had never been to the National Theatre but when I found out that they have £15 tickets to most shows — practically a steal in London — I jumped at the opportunity.

Aside from knowing the NT’s As You Like It production had gotten good reviews, I didn’t know what to expect of their production (would it be modern? Period?). I read As You Like It years ago so briefly refreshed my memory of the plot before the play started: essentially, the Duke gets overthrown and exiled, then his daughter Rosalind gets banished and so does young Orlando. Everyone ends up in a forest, there is some crossdressing and foolery, and all turns out well in the end.

The National Theatre’s production included an open office with computers, modern-leaning-corporate dress, and a brilliant set design to create the forest for the second half: the tables and chairs were attached in groups and lifted up into the rafters on cables to create obstacles and hiding places in the forest. Real people sat in high up in swings and the wings to create “live” forest sounds: hoots, howls, wind blowing, and more. There were also some great sheep.

As You Like It was such fun to experience. Seeing Shakespeare live brings so much more life to his words than just reading them on the page, and the actors did a wonderful job emphasizing the precision of Shakespeare’s language and turns of phrase. Rosalie Craig made feisty and fun Rosalind and was balanced by Patsy Ferran‘s Celia.

Although Rosalind and Celia shoulder much of the play’s plot, As You Like It is really an ensemble piece. There are plenty of laughs to be had thanks to Touchstone and Audrey, Silvius and Phoebe. There’s a bit of melancholy from Jacques. And there’s music! I had forgotten how much music is incorporated into Shakespeare’s comedies. The NT’s production of As You Like It did a wonderful job with the forest ballads, sung by an actor with a lovely, lilting tenor voice. The final scene was also largely sung and made for an enjoyable and happy end to a thought-provoking comedy.

I would highly recommend the National Theatre’s production of As You Like It. There is nothing like seeing Shakespeare performed live, and the comedies are accessible and fun for all. There is not a bad seat in the NT’s Olivier Theatre — our seats were in the very last row but because the theatre is sloped so steeply, we could see the entire stage without any heads blocking the view.

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Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen: M’smen

Hello and Happy New Year! Long time no blog… I lost a bit of energy and motivation for it last fall, but now it’s a new year and I have a new project that I hope to blog about regularly. Read on to find out more…

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As the holiday season approached last year, I stumbled upon a review of some new cookbooks, one of which caught my eye: The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook. The review explained that Hot Bread Kitchen is a social enterprise in New York City, helping migrant women share bread-making skills from their cultures while providing them with training and jobs. As some of you may know, working with migrant women is a passion of mine (as well as my job!). The fact that the cookbook included bread recipes from around the world had me sold. I sent the link to F, hinting that I might like the book for Christmas. He willingly obliged.

So, armed with a beautiful cookbook made up of a plethora of “multi-ethnic” (their words) bread recipes as well as extensive tips and techniques, I have made a 2016 intention to try two new bread recipes per month from the book. That’s roughly every other weekend, so it should be manageable. As I make my way through breads of the world, I will write short posts about my experience with the recipes (I will not post the recipes themselves). I hope you’ll join me on my bread-making adventures: “Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen.”

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Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen #1: M’smen

The first section of The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook is titled “Primordial Bread: Unleavened Flatbreads.” I have tried my hand at flatbreads before and make naan pretty often. I like the general simplicity of flatbreads — they don’t usually need much resting time and cook quickly in a hot pan on the stovetop. For my maiden foray into The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook, I decided to cook the very first recipe in the book: m’smen, a Moroccan flatbread.

The only ingredient for m’smen that I didn’t already have at home was semolina, which was easy to find at our local greengrocer or big Tesco. The other ingredients were plain (all-purpose) flour, salt, water, neutral oil, and salted butter.

Making m‘smen required a few stages of dough shaping and resting before cooking, so the whole process took me almost two hours. I started around 11am with a vigorous 6-minute arm workout of mixing the dough by hand (must get a stand mixer one of these days!), before dividing the dough into 12 balls and setting them on oiled baking sheets to rest for half an hour. I left to do some errands and ended up out longer than expected, so the dough actually rested for almost an hour.

Next, the recipe called for more oiled workspace (I guess my hands were well-hydrated by the end of the process?) to stretch each dough ball out, sprinkle it with butter/oil and semolina, then fold it over onto itself to create a neat little pocket:

post-stretching & folding

post-stretching & folding

Finally, each pocket must be stretched and cooked in a hot skillet for a couple of minutes on each side. The author of the recipe recommends drizzling hot m’smen with honey and having alongside mint tea. F and I did share the first bread with honey — yum — and reheated the rest in the evening to serve alongside falafel and yogurt sauce and Moroccan carrot salad. Once the m’smen cooled down, they were a combination of crunchy and chewy, with a pleasant flavor and a hint of sweetness.

cooking the m'smen

cooking the m’smen

I enjoyed the process of making m’smen. It was a relatively involved recipe with a lot of hands-on time, but the flatbreads turned out delicate and delicious — worth the time investment. The dough was quite sticky and very stretchy; it helped to keep my hands oiled. I’ll definitely make m’smen again and may freeze some to use as an alternative to sandwich bread.

Have you ever heard of “m’smen”? Have you every made it yourself?

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Book Review: Diane Chandler, “The Road to Donetsk”

I was recently contacted by Blackbird Digital Books to read and review a new digitally published novel, Diane Chandler’s The Road to Donetsk. I received a free digital copy of the book and no other compensation. All thoughts and opinions below are my own.

Photo from Google Images

In May 1994, fresh-faced 26-year-old Vanessa arrives in newly independent Ukraine from Manchester, England for her first international aid stint. From Kyiv (Chandler spells it Kiev, the Russian transliteration) Vanessa will oversee the implementation of a £3 billion program to help set up job centers and training to battle rising unemployment after the fall of the Soviet Union.

One of the first non-Ukrainians that Vanessa meets in Kyiv is Dan, an American working for USAID in Ukraine. Before Vanessa is properly introduced, we find ourselves in a propellor plane with her and Dan, on a last-minute trip to Donetsk for a coal mine tour. (Donetsk and its people, we quickly sense, will become a central part of the novel’s narrative.) Vanessa is immediately attracted to Dan’s relaxed American charm, and it does not take long before a romance develops. However, for the first third of the book the romance feels forced and awkwardly dropped into the otherwise fascinating and insightful commentary on Ukraine in its early days of independence.

Chandler vividly and accurately depicts Ukraine in its many guises: simple, sparkling yet laborious village life alongside grim and grimy underpaid miners; expat communities in Kyiv; vast steppe and birch forests; crumbling balconies and garish curtains; complex people who are hard to get to know. Chandler knows her stuff, having managed aid programs in Ukraine around the time she sets the novel. Vanessa’s story at times reads like Chandler’s memoir, so accurately and sensitively does the author portray Ukraine.

Vanessa begins her time in Ukraine as a stereotypical self-professed altruist; she feels a need to “help improve” the lives of the Ukrainians and yet shies away from learning from the people, about the people. Dan emerges as her mentor as well as her lover, feeding her astute commentary such as:

…it’s the way it is here. They expect you to come up with the answers. They always come prepared with their set piece, they toss a problem in the air and then they sit back wanting you to fix it for them. [..] Look, in the Soviet Union, you didn’t speak out, you didn’t offer solutions… (69)

Myriad cultural differences lie under the surface, differences so ingrained into each culture that Vanessa needs all the help she can get to begin to understand them. A surly Ukrainian colleague on the aid program staff helps dispel Vanessa’s naivety:

But do you really expect that we should welcome you here as missionaries? To show us the right ways? If so then you are misled. Because we are more clever than you. Have you any idea of the intelligence we needed simply to survive under communist regime? (355)

This could not be a more timely book, highlighting Ukraine’s precarious position between Russia and Western Europe that has been the case for much of history. This position is particularly relevant since the Euromaidan demonstrations starting in 2013 that have led to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and part of eastern Ukraine. In the context of the novel, a Ukrainian tells Vanessa at one point that Ukraine stands “at the crossroads between East and West, we are the prize which you and Russia fight over. It is like a tug of war” (354). How times have not changed.

As Vanessa struggles with her position as a western aid facilitator in a complicated country, her romance with Dan also develops its own complexities. The novel’s romantic elements start to feel less forced as Vanessa’s attraction to Dan develops a balance between Dan as a more experienced mentor in the aid world and Vanessa’s fresh, somewhat naive take on it. Recalling that this story is told as an older Vanessa’s memories, we start to sense that something may happen to doom the relationship. Will Ukraine get in the way?

Overall, Chandler’s novel is insightful and enjoyable to read. There are some inconsistencies, such as when Ukraine’s Independence Day is stated as August 25th (it is actually the 24th). I  also found some of the British slang stilted: Vanessa sits “keening silently”; why not just “weeping”? Despite these rough patches, The Road to Donetsk improves greatly after the first third and illuminates important and timely aspects of the aid world.

My reading experience was further enhanced by having lived in Ukraine for over two years as a US Peace Corps Volunteer. I often identified with Vanessa’s feelings and observations about the Ukrainian people and their lives. For example, I never did discover the answer to this conundrum:

…the young for the most part attractive and svelte, while the older peasant women had become almost tubular with age, their skin gnarled. At what point did this transformation happen? I wondered… (150)

Discussion of how Vanessa’s aid program impacts the country and people at the grassroots level also struck a chord with me, as this is what the Peace Corps aims to do in sending out volunteers to communities around a country. Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) strive to “walk alongside” the people to foster cross-cultural connections and transfer skills. I remember having similar feelings to Vanessa upon reading this passage near the end of the novel:

That we expect a programme to bring about a lasting and yet so radical change in three short years is unfathomable for me – although I did genuinely expect this back then. […] All those people who came into contact with our programme took with them skills and experience into the local economy, into their future… (383)

Many PCVs begin their service with expectations like Vanessa’s; however, we soon learn that despite all the grants we write and trainings we lead, implementing something sustainable in a country with such a different history, culture, and mindset can be nearly impossible. But the people who do come into contact with a PCV or other aid program take away skills and experience, along with memories, into their futures. The exchange is mutual and it changes us for the better.

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The Road to Donetsk has been named a Finalist for this year’s People’s Book Prize. You can purchase Diane Chandler’s novel from Amazon UK and Waterstones. Many thanks to Blackbird Digital Books for the opportunity to read and review this fascinating novel.

 

Book Review: “The Essence of Jargon”

Just a quick note to point you towards my most recent book review for Full Stop, of Alice Becker-Ho’s The Essence of Jargon. A teaser:

Slang both communicates and protects: those who understand slang — in this case, the “dangerous classes” — receive and absorb straight information, while those who are not part of the groups using such slang — i.e., policemen and other “adversaries” — are deceived by the double or covered meanings in the language.

Year in Review: 2014

Happy New Year! Frohes neues Jahr! З Новим Роком!

I can hardly believe it’s already 2015, can you? 2014 was quite a year, I hardly know how to sum it up. For brevity’s sake, let’s go with some good ol’ bullet points.

2014 by the numbers:

  • blog posts published: 92 or so
  • books read: too many to count — some for fun and lots for my MA course
  • miles run: 549 (quite a lot less than last year, due to hip/knee issues)
  • miles cycled: 2,028.65 (mostly commuting in London, but a decent amount of road cycling in the first half of the year)
  • courses completed: 2 (1 MA in English & 1 DELTA course)
  • countries been in: England, Portugal, Belgium, Spain, Germany, USA
  • weddings attended: 2

Looking back on my intentions for 2014, I more or less achieved most of them, although things like improving my German and staying in better touch with friends and family could always be worked on. My main intention for 2015 is to find a healthy balance between work, exercise, time with F, and my other hobbies like cooking. That comes with some sub-intentions, like building up my running mileage and speed without getting injured.

In some blog-related reflecting, here are two listicles of my top posts — via views and via my opinion — from 2014:

The 10 most popular posts in 2014 (your favorites?):

My 10 favorite posts/moments in 2014 (in no particular order):

Wishing you all a happy, healthy, and successful 2015

Summer “Issues”: Dissertation!

Apologies for the massive delay in MA updates. Last time I checked in, we’d finished courses and were writing essays and an exam. That all went pretty smoothly for me (though  nothing’s been marked yet so who really knows?) — the take-home exam was actually kind of enjoyable, as I’d prepared my texts in advance and just had to write close readings without worrying about bringing in secondary sources (some people did use criticism but it was optional so I chose not to for such short essays).

That was almost three months ago (!), and at that time I still didn’t have any ideas for my dissertation. Actually, writing about Mrs. Dalloway for one of my coursework essays made me really want to work on Woolf and trauma, but that quickly went out the window when I became overwhelmed by how much has already been written on Woolf (and trauma, in texts like Atonement and The Bluest Eye). I also wanted something more “relevant,” at least to me and my current life and experiences. So after some conversations and advice from my family, I turned toward cultural displacement/assimilation and spent a few weeks bumbling around on JSTOR by plugging word combinations into the search bars (“trauma,” “integration,” “culture shock,” “assimilation,” to name a few). Luckily, one mindless JSTOR session turned up an essay on Dave Eggers’s 2006 novel, What Is the What.

research in Senate House Library

research in Senate House Library

BINGO! I’d read What Is the What — and loved it — right before the Peace Corps and had forgotten how it deals with many of the issues of cultural integration, education, and international development that interest me. It was also a good choice because only four scholarly articles have been published on it, which leaves me room to form my own argument about it and not struggle to come up with something that hasn’t already been written on a hundred times.

Fast forward to now: I’ve re-read What Is the What twice; read lots of criticism and some theory on immigration, post-colonial novels, and storytelling traditions (to name a few); met with my supervisor twice (he’s great); and started drafting. It’s a bit overwhelming, as there’s a lot of material to juggle and an argument to work out and it’s all due on 1 September. But overall it’s going well and I am happy with my text and topic choice. I can’t tell you much because it hasn’t been marked (let alone written!), but it’s roughly about storytelling and voice and the immigrant experience, with some Toni Morrison thrown in for good measure.

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Birthday Wisdom 2014

Another year gone by…this one has certainly flown. My 26th year (yes, I turn 26 today but — as my dad has pointed out — it’s actually a celebration of living through my 26th year) has been a busy one and filled with new experiences and people.

the most recent picture of me (taken last week by Sarah)

the most recent picture of me (taken last week by Sarah)

Over the past year I’ve settled into my London life with F; having more “productive” things to do has helped. Gosh, how to begin without dissolving into lists? I’ll try to hit on the highlights and leave you with my family’s traditional Birthday Wisdom at the end.

The big event in my 26th year has been working on my MA in English here in London. It has been challenging to re-enter academia after three years out of formal education, but after the first term I started feeling more comfortable and have met and begun socializing with some great people from my program. It has also been great to work two part-time jobs in different areas of EFL/ESOL teaching/tutoring — I’ve built my own skills and have worked with some really inspiring people. That has led me to realize that — at least for the foreseeable future — I would rather teach English as a language (as opposed to literature). In the athletics arena, I’ve run twelve races over my 26th year. Half of those were cross-country, another fun new experience for me. All those races probably caused me to get injured, though, and I am slowly working my way back to peak running form while enjoying more swimming and cycling. I’ve also joined an incredible chorus and love having a musical outlet again.

All in all, it has been a busy and eventful year — I’ve been challenged mentally, physically, musically, and socially, and feel that I have grown in all of those areas while integrating further into my little corner of London and starting to feel like part of the Crouch End-area community. My Birthday Wisdom this year comes from the always-inspiring (and recently-deceased) Maya Angelou, who has said:

“You only are free when you realize you belong no place—you belong every place—no place at all.”

I wish you all another year of challenging yourself and belonging in all places.

At the Globe: “Much Ado About Nothing”

As a celebration for finishing our ‘Authors’ exams, Sarah and I headed down to Shakespeare’s Globe for a Thursday afternoon performance of the Bard’s comedy, Much Ado About Nothing.

inside The Globe

inside The Globe

The performance was excellent. I hadn’t seen a Shakespeare play live since attending the Oregon Shakespeare Festival with my grandma back in 2008, and this lived up to all expectations. I appreciated seeing Shakespeare performed in a simple and straightforward manner — as it should be. There were minimal props, simple costumes, and a cast of eight with almost everyone doubling parts. Now to the play:

First of all, Much Ado About Nothing is hilarious. The older I get the better I understand the language and get the jokes; Shakespeare really was a genius. This performance of Much Ado was very well-acted. Stand-outs for me were Emma Pallant as Beatrice and Simon Bubb as Benedick — they made a great pair, and Pallant and Bubb’s banter was brilliant to watch, as Beatrice and Benedick carry the bulk of the wit in the play. I — along with the audience — also took particular pleasure in Chris Starkle’s performance of Dogberry, for which he exchanged his serious Don John face for an aviator cap and Scottish accent. I was also surprisingly touched by the scene of Hero’s return — and Claudio’s surprise at it — near the end.

The production pleasingly and effectively incorporates a lot of music, too: the entire cast takes part, on accordion, tambourine, guitar…and they sing! (the well-known Shakespeare song, “Sigh no more, ladies.”) The early banquet/”revels” scene was done exceptionally well, with the music swelling and subsiding as sets of characters break away to converse.

Overall it was a top-notch performance. If you have a chance to see a Shakespeare play at the Globe, I highly recommend that you do it!

(Play aside, it was thrilling to sit inside a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe, the theatre most associated with his works. As it rained on and off throughout the performance, Sarah and I were very glad to have splurged on proper seats.)

Have you seen a performance at the Globe? What did you think?

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Recently in “Issues”: End of Term 2

Now that it’s almost the end of April and three weeks after classes have finished, it’s well past time for an MA update. Here’s a quick review of the second half of the second term of my “Issues in Modern Culture” MA program(me).

Modern Sex ended and I embarked upon a five-week Post-War American Poetry module taught by Mark Ford. He took a similar approach to this class as he did with the Elizabeth Bishop seminar, looking at how one could critically approach each poet if one were to write about him/her. Let me break down the seminars:

  • We started off with Robert Lowell, the best confessional poet you’ve never heard of! We read poems from his Life Studies (1959), the volume that basically kicked off the “Confessional Poetry” movement, which Sylvia Plath took up and made famous. Lowell came from the blue-blooded Boston Lowell aristocracy that traced its roots all the way back to the Mayflower. But dear Robert suffered from manic-depression and was in and out of hospitals for a good chunk of his life — these experiences, of course, he crafted into poems, such as the moving “Waking in the Blue.” Lowell was also good friends with Elizabeth Bishop and was highly influenced by her poetry. He represents the major trajectory of many post-war American poets — a trajectory that we talked about for almost all the poets we looked at in the class: early poems are grounded in formal tradition, then the poet has some sort of breakthrough into a new idiom of expression. The Modernist–>Postmodernist trajectory, if you will.
  • My favorite seminar was on Allen Ginsberg. I love reading Ginsberg, in part because of his Whitmanesque roots (since I also love Whitman). The seminar was somewhat comical because Mark spent much of the time talking about how Ginsberg is actually really hard to write about (“immune to literary criticism”), because his poetry and persona are pretty transparent to begin with. That said, there are definitely ways to approach him: Jewish inheritance, Ginsberg and money/capitalism/marketing, Ginsberg’s body, the Cold War and paranoia… If you haven’t read any Ginsberg, go read “Howl” and “A Supermarket in California” now.
  • Frank O’Hara frankly (pun intended) didn’t do much for me. Maybe because I don’t know New York City very well and many of his poems are set there. That said, the seminar was really good. We talked about O’Hara in the context of the New York School of Poets (who disliked Lowell and loved Bishop) and about his “camp” wit (think Sontag) and the city as central to his work. He wrote a lot of what Mark called “I do this, I do that” poems (“A Step Away from Them” is a good example) and “lunch poems.”
  • For the Adrienne Rich seminar, we covered Rich and the “female” poetry resistant to patriarchal oppression that she, Plath, and Anne Sexton wrote. “Diving into the Wreck” is a fun read that can be interpreted in myriad ways.
  • Our last seminar was on St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott, best known for Omeros, his rough re-interpretation of The Iliad. We read Book I of Omeros for the seminar and the discussion centered largely on Walcott’s hybridity and all-encompassing method that blends together European tradition with “New World” (North & South American, Caribbean) methods. Omeros employs some features of the epic poem and its characters all have some relation to myth and tradition.

Post-War American Poetry was a great course and I learned a huge amount about the poets, poetic tradition, and critical approaches to poetry, all of which has made me a bit more comfortable reading and talking about poetry.

On Wednesdays, Authors kept on plugging to the end of term. Our last four seminars (after Elizabeth Bishop) were on Sylvia PlathThomas Pynchon (full disclosure: I got about 1/8 of the way through Mason & Dixon), Tom Stoppard (Travesties is brilliant and hilarious — read it!), and J.M. Coetzee (I couldn’t stand Disgrace but the seminar was good).

So that’s it for courses.

But that’s not all for the program(me).

We still have a take-home essay exam for “Authors” and an essay each for Contexts and the two Options (Modern Sex and Poetry for me). Oh, and a dissertation proposal. All of those are due between 1 May and 2 June. Then we spend all summer writing the dissertation, to be handed in on 1 September.

What am I writing about for all these essays? I can’t disclose details since the essays haven’t been marked, but I can give you a list of topics/texts: Madame Bovary, Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, Sherlock, E.M. Forster’s Maurice, and Billy Collins. For the dissertation? No idea.

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Book Review: Andrew Ladd, “What Ends”

Just a short post today, in which I encourage you to head over to Full Stop and read my most recent book review there, of Andrew Ladd’s nice little novel What Ends. Andrew Ladd himself even called my review “very thoughtful”:

from the author himself

from the author

And as always, you can keep track of the other stuff I’ve had published online on this page.

More bloggy things coming soon: a flapjack fail, a review of my MA courses, teaching migrant women, and an updated banana bread recipe. In the meantime, how about some golden oldies to keep you going?

This Week in “Issues”: Reading Elizabeth Bishop

The second half of my second term of graduate school kicked off this week with a stimulating seminar on Elizabeth Bishop. Our professor, Mark Ford (also a poet; he even has his own little Wikipedia page!), helped us get into Bishop by discussing different critical approaches one could take if one were to write an essay on her. As I am not a “poetry person” and often struggle with identifying vague metaphors, this was a really helpful way for me to think about Bishop’s work (and poetry in general); Mark’s approach made it very accessible. Here are some ways one could approach Bishop and her poetry:

  • “Bishop and [anything]” (that could mean “Bishop and birds,” “Bishop and coasts,” etc.)
  • Queer theory: Bishop was a lesbian, so one could look at her in relation to other homosexual poets like Frank O’Hara or Adrienne Rich
  • Bishop’s post-war work in relation to the Modernist poets (Eliot, Pound)
  • Bishop and the tradition of Romantic lyric poetry (vs. the radical experimentation of many other “post-modernist” poets)
  • Postcolonial angle: Bishop traveled a lot and lived for a while in Brazil, so one could take a postcolonial approach to her Brazil poems
  • Looking at Bishop’s work through the lens of her selfhood and growing up “in a void,” with a dead father and insane mother — along with this, the concept of home/homelessness that is evident in Bishop’s life and poetry.
  • Bishop’s use of form: she was “technically resourceful” and used traditional poetic forms — villanelle, sestina, sonnet, ballad — in interesting ways
  • Bishop’s representation vs. experience of the world

Mark had us look at a few of Bishop’s poems to show how we could take some of the above approaches to her work. We started with “The Map” (1936), which Mark said was a good portal through which to approach the “Bishopian.” Here’s the poem in full:

Land lies in water; it is shadowed green.
Shadows, or are they shallows, at its edges
showing the line of long sea-weeded ledges
where weeds hang to the simple blue from green.
Or does the land lean down to lift the sea from under,
drawing it unperturbed around itself?
Along the fine tan sandy shelf
is the land tugging at the sea from under?

The shadow of Newfoundland lies flat and still.
Labrador’s yellow, where the moony Eskimo
has oiled it. We can stroke these lovely bays,
under a glass as if they were expected to blossom,
or as if to provide a clean cage for invisible fish.
The names of seashore towns run out to sea,
the names of cities cross the neighboring mountains
-the printer here experiencing the same excitement
as when emotion too far exceeds its cause.
These peninsulas take the water between thumb and finger
like women feeling for the smoothness of yard-goods.

Mapped waters are more quiet than the land is,
lending the land their waves’ own conformation:
and Norway’s hare runs south in agitation,
profiles investigate the sea, where land is.
Are they assigned, or can the countries pick their colors?
-What suits the character or the native waters best.
Topography displays no favorites; North’s as near as West.
More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors.

Lovely, no? This poem gave us a good start in talking about Bishop’s whimsy and her representation of the aesthetic vs. reality. Whimsy is everywhere, in the “moony Eskimo,” “stroke[ing] these lovely bays,” the printer “experiencing…excitement,” and taking the water “between thumb and finger.” Is Bishop here feminizing a masculine creation (maps, created by male explorers)? Or is this merely a childlike whimsy, as in posing the faux-naive question, “Are they assigned, or can the countries pick their colors?”

“More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors,” the poem ends. Bishop is playing with representation of a map as a piece of art, an aesthetic representation of historical, geopolitical reality. The art of the map is an escape from historians’ reality — but history still lurks at the edges.

After “The Map,” we went on to discuss the above and other aspects of Bishop’s poetry in: “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance,” “At the Fishhouses,” “Questions of Travel,” and “Crusoe in England.” Mark ended the seminar by noting that the different factions of American poetry in the post-war years all hated each other — but they all loved Bishop.

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Recently in “Issues”

I can hardly believe it’s already reading week and halfway through the term. Where did January (and half of February) go? I promised I’d write updates on “Issues in Modern Culture” — that obviously hasn’t happened since before the term started, so here’s a short recap of the past five weeks.

The Authors course plugs along with a different author and lecturer every week. We’ve had a seminar on Wallace Stevens, in which it was agreed that Stevens’ poetry is beautiful but often indecipherable (glad I’m not the only one who thinks so). Take “The Snow Man” as an example:

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Then NS, one of my favorite lecturers so far — he runs a great seminar — led a discussion of Jean Rhys and two of her novels that “are not Wide Sargasso Sea“: Voyage in the Dark and Good Morning, Midnight. Both somewhat depressing, but class discussion was interesting, as we started with word association and moved on to gendered spaces, notions of prostitution, and conflicts between emotion and transaction in Rhys. We had a somewhat odd seminar on Elizabeth Bowen — I’ll let you read Sarah’s post about that. Click to her post as well for a summary of our seminar on Nabokov‘s Lolita, which was with another of my favorite lecturers who is an incredible discussion facilitator. I agree with Sarah in that the seminar actually made me want to re-read Lolita, because Nabokov packs so much into the novel that isn’t evident on a first reading.

(No) thanks to horrible wind and rain and poor transport planning on my part, I missed the Chinua Achebe seminar…

Over in Modern Sex,” it has been a fascinating module as we’ve moved from Freud and Schopenhauer to Wagner, D.H. Lawrence (Sarah summarizes the Women in Love seminar), Thomas Mann and André Gide (part of “hebephilia week” as we’d done Lolita in the Wednesday seminar), and modern gay fiction. Our lecturer, HS, is clearly so passionate about the subject matter and he thus runs very engaging seminars.

The course began with considering the question, “What is modern sex/sexuality?” The modern conception of sexuality is that humans began to be categorized according to their sexual desires. We discussed how Schopenhauer and Freud address sexuality and sexual attraction in their writings: instincts, “debasement,” “neurosis” stemming from unappeased desire, and all that good (psychoanalytic) stuff.

The stage thus set by Freud and Schopenhauer, the second seminar involved watching the entire 4+ hours of Richard Wagner‘s music drama Tristan und Isolde — while I am not really a Wagner fan, the seminar did shed some light on Tristan and its subject matter (plus, it was fun to play with some German). We talked about formal and thematic musical and linguistic parallels (Freud’s “compulsion to repeat” reflected in Wagner’s use of Leitmotif; also use of alliteration and rhyme) and lots of dialectical themes: darkness vs. light, love vs. death, conscious self vs. instincts/will, delusion vs. reality in ideas of separateness and togetherness…it was a richly packed seminar with lots to think about (and music to enjoy!).

Our fourth seminar was on two short novels by Gide (The Immoralist) and Mann (Death in Venice) about men who are attracted to young, beautiful boys: ensuing discussions included amorality/immorality, Mann’s visual imagination, noble vs. debased love, and so on. For the last seminar we read excerpts from four modern “gay” novels: Vidal’s The City and the Pillar, Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance, Moore’s A Matter of Life and Sex, and White’s The Farewell Symphony. They were fascinating to read and discuss in terms of how homosexual fiction writing has changed from 1948 (Vidal) to the 1990s, and how narrative structure and point-of-view (3rd person vs. 1st person) influences how we absorb and think about the texts and stories.

I loved the Modern Sex course and am sad it’s over — now I have to think of a topic for the 4,000-word essay we’ll have to write; it can be about anything related to modern sex/sexuality. Talk about choice. Next module I’ll have five weeks of Post-War American Poetry, which should be interesting (and totally outside my comfort zone), and the Authors course will wrap up with…more authors!

For a full list of what we’ve read so far this term and in the entire program(me), head over to my Reading List page.

This Term in “Issues”: More Authors, Modern Sex, & American Poetry

Winter break is winding down. I’ve handed in my “Contexts” essay draft (on the BBC series, Sherlock) and await my tutor’s feedback. Term two of my Issues in Modern Culture MA starts next week. Here’s what’s in store…

The “Authors” course continues with a canonical author a week. Last term we covered Flaubert, James, Conrad, T.S. Eliot, Pound, Green, Joyce, Woolf, Cather, and Beckett. This term we’ll kick things off with Stevens, then move on to Rhys, Bowen, Nabokov, Achebe, Bishop, Plath, Pynchon, Stoppard, and Coetzee. With the exception of some Stevens and Bishop, I haven’t read any of the upcoming authors, which is both intimidating and exciting. I’m particularly looking forward to the Nabokov and Stoppard seminars, in part because of the material and in part because they’ll be taught by young female lecturers, who can be few and far between in the upper echelons of academia.

Last term, our second course was “Contexts,” which I really enjoyed. This term, our second course will be two five-week module courses. For each set of five weeks, we take one of three “options”: A) Film OR Ludic Literature OR “Modern Sex”; and then B) 21st Century Fiction OR “Cultures of the Night” OR or Post-War American Poetry.

First up for me: “Modern Sex: Eroticism and Literary Writing.” Great title, isn’t it? I picked it because the reading/seminar list looked the most interesting. The course description says,

This set of five seminars will explore cultural representations of desire, of sex and eroticism, and of sexual identity, from the middle of the nineteenth century until the present day.

Tantalized yet? Just take a look at the seminar titles:

  1. The history of “sexuality” (i.e., Freud and super sexist Schopenhauer): “introduction to ways of thinking about desire, the individual, the species, connections between sex, love and death.”
  2. Wagner, Desire and Death: watching and discussing Tristan und Isolde. Though I’m not a huge Wagner fan, I do like opera — this seminar was one reason I chose to take the course.
  3. D.H. LawrenceWomen in Love and DHL’s ideology about sex.
  4. Thomas Mann & André GideDeath in Venice and The Immoralist
  5. Modern Gay Writing and Cinema: works by Hollinghurst, Edmund White, Christopher Coe, Oscar Moore.

My second “option” module will be Post-War American Poetry, with one poet a week for the five weeks of term. We’ll do Ginsberg, Adrienne Rich, and Derek Walcott — I can’t remember the other two. Though I have never identified as a “poetry person,” this course appealed the most to me of the three options, and I figured it wouldn’t be a bad idea to branch out and challenge myself with some non-prose.

So that’s this term in “Issues.” The above courses run through March, then we have a month off, then we write write write (and write some more). I hope to post some updates and musings as the term moves along.

Is there anything in particular you’d like me to write about this term? Please let me know in a comment!

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