Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Reminiscences on the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter

So, twenty years ago yesterday, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was published. I've seen a few retrospectives of people dealing with their relationship to the series (one here and another here), so I thought I'd add mine. I have to warn you -- this is a True Believer as well as a Convert speaking. Back during my undergraduate days, I had sniffed haughtily at all the Pottermania surrounding me. In fact, I nearly punched the first person who ever called me a muggle: 

"What's a muggle, dear friend of mine whom I'd never punch under normal circumstances?" 

"You're a muggle."

Highbrow literary elitist that I imagined myself to be, I refused to read either children's books or popular books. That all changed during the fall of 2007 -- I remember because that's the year Cleveland came within two outs of reaching the World Series. Anyway, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows had just been published that summer and, while up in Kent for a friend's wedding, I browsed randomly through the Kent State bookstore and got two books just for giggles: Bill Reading's The University in Ruins and (you guessed it) J.K. Rowling's HP and the Sorcerer's Stone. This was nothing more than interesting side reading for me; I did a lot of side reading back then to stave off grad school burnout.

Well, the book stayed on my shelves a few months. That September, I read it over the course of a single afternoon. I remember thinking, "What a fun little book" -- clearly designed for younger readers, but fast-paced, inventive, and Rowling showed a clear talent for handling a narrative. The following weekend, I spent another pleasant afternoon reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Again, fun little book, if not anything exactly earth-shattering. The heroes were sufficiently charming, the villains sufficiently dastardly, and so forth.

Then, the next weekend, I read Harry Potter and the Prince of Azkaban.

I'm not sure when exactly I realized that I held the makings of a masterpiece in my hands, but it was definitely sometime during this book. It may have been near the end, just as Harry was realizing who had sent the stag Patronus against the Dementors. For the life of me, I could not remember the last time I had seen a writer bring together so many different plot threads so powerfully, so masterfully, in such a short time. And that was not even the end of my admiration; the denouement where Dumbledore explains things to Harry worked just as well as the culmination of the actual action. To weave a narrative that long without once letting it get away from you, to never strike a single wrong note when creating scenes back-to-back-to-back like that, all that takes an immense amount of craft. That's when Rowling hooked me.

Over the next two weeks or so, I basically put my Masters program on hold as I finished the series. I read Deathly Hallows in just one day -- from dawn to dusk, basically. I was no spring chicken, either -- I was 27 years old at the time, so none of that "you're too old to appreciate the books" argument for me. But let me tell you -- and I'll bench press the punk who makes fun of me for this -- but I still turn into an ole' blubber-face every time I even read a reference to Snape's "After all this time? / Always" scene.

That may be why, to this day, I grow immensely irritated when I hear someone explain -- however reasonably -- their dissatisfaction with the HP books. This is certainly a peculiar reaction for me, as no other book I admire causes that sort of reaction (not even the book I wrote my dissertation on!). But there it is. I'm just a HP partisan.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Life and Death of a Satellite & the Two Cultures

Recently been skimming through The Life and Death of a Satellite, a 1966 non-fiction work by Alfred Bester trying to popularize our space program. Bester's best known, of course, for being one of the giants of science fiction, but he dipped his oar into quite a few different waters. This particular book is really a "biography" of the OSO (Orbiting Solar Observatory) satellite, a project which was running concurrently in NASA with the manned spaceflight program. Two things lept out at me:

  1. Bester respects the Manned Spaceflight program, but in terms of science he considers it relatively useless -- it's where the public imagination is, but it's not very productive of genuine scientific knowledge.
  2. He takes his own swipes at the "Two Cultures" debate, C. P. Snow's famous notion that the sciences and the humanities lack any meaningful interaction between them. Bester has a "foot in each camp," as he says, and he reports that "it's the members of the humanities alone who are creating the hostility with fossil attitudes" (219).
Coming in the mid-1960s, I found his interest in defending the sciences pretty interesting. As late as the early 1900s, the humanities carried an much higher prestige than the sciences -- for example, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, very nearly didn't become a scientist at all (and throughout his life he felt comfortable quoting Dante and the Bhagavad Gita). By mid-century, people like Bester felt compelled to make a case for the sciences. 

Nowadays, of course, it's the humanities that are on the defensive. All the funding and the nifty new buildings go to scientists, and the public wonders what the heck we do. I remember a few years back when the Dean of Graduate Studies gave a short introductory speech to one of our English graduate research symposiums, and he -- a nuclear physicist, mind you -- admitted that he got into his field for the money and that, furthermore, he "had no idea what you guys actually do." He stayed for a few of our papers, which was extremely nice of him, but it didn't bestow a great deal of confidence about the university's general esteem for literary studies.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Job Market Woes: Rock and a Hard Place

Well, I'm officially 0 for 90 on this year's job market. I did have a few nibbles: a part-time lecturer position in PA, an nearby adjunct position, and a full-time position in Texas. Losing out on the Texas position was particularly hard -- spent three days of travel at my own expense for that interview. I can understand not being selected, but I'm disappointed they denied giving me a rationale after my explicit request for one. Their response was (and this is an almost exact paraphrase), "Our shortlisted candidates were highly impressive, and our committee faced a very difficult decision" -- a virtual masterpiece in non-information. Basically, such a statement can be interpreted in one of three ways:

  1. Sorry, pal, we can't be bothered to come up with a rationale.
  2. You lost the coin flip.
  3. You were nice, but unfortunately you weren't the internal candidate we already had in mind.
Depressing.

It kills me, though, that I passed up that lecturer position. True, Pennsylvania's a long way to move for a 1-year part-time position, and it was too early in the hiring season to commit to that. Still, it's more money than I made as a grad student, provided actual health insurance (which I've never had), and it would have given me more time to publish. Not to mention staving off homelessness for an additional year. 

But I'm really concerned about that adjuncting position. They offered it to me three days before I heard back from the Texas school; I asked them if they would mind me holding off confirmation until I heard back from that interview, and they said sure. Well, Texas didn't want me, so I e-mailed them back with my acceptance. That was a week ago, but I haven't heard back . . . and now I'm worried (adjuncting already being a tenuous proposition) that I lost out on that as well.

Depressing and depressing-er.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Marthon Final Proofreading Session for Scientia

Last night, Hillary Y. and I had one final 5-hour marathon proofreading session for Scientia et Humanitas. Since we had our "proofreading party" almost 6 weeks ago, I've been disappointing that we couldn't get Issue 7 out sooner. Alas, delays happen. Our marathon session last night, however, which was the first time I could personally delve into our InDesign software, went a long way to clearing up some of the lingering typesetting and proofreading issues we've been having. Hopefully we'll be able to go to press later this week, and I can completely call it quits on my MTSU career!

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Schizophrenic Short Story Reading

Returned home late last night. After 10 days of travel and nearly 3,000 miles, half by plane and half by bus, I can safely say that I'm exhausted. Nonetheless, these travel trips weren't the black hole of productivity that they normally are. I'm usually too motion sick to read in moving vehicles but, for whatever reason, I managed okay this time. Maybe I finally learned that I can survive if my books are (a) fiction, (b) relatively easy-to-read, and (c) good. My reading input -- about 1700 pages in total -- looked like this:
  • John O'Hara, The O'Hara Generation (22 short stories over his career)
  • Angela Carter, Fireworks and The Bloody Chambers (two short story collections)
  • Alfred Bester, The Star My Destination and The Demolished Man
  • Jim Butcher, Storm Front (book 1 of the Dresden Files)
  • Philip Roth, The Ghost Writer
The schizophrenic short story reading comes from O'Hara, Carter, and Bester. (Yes, yes, I know Bester's two books are technically novels, but older sf novels usually feel like short stories to me, maybe because the way they handle characterization and scene composition is often done in the highly abbreviated fashion of the best pulp short stories.)

What's interesting about these three writers -- and I hadn't thought of this until I'd gone through them -- is that, as short stories, they're all as different as different can be.

O'Hara: perfect example of literary realism. Simple plots. Finely nuanced psychological portraits constituting nearly the story's entire interest. Highly readable style. A strong concern with a regional group's (in this case, Eastern Pennsylvania) middle- and upper-classes.

Carter: postmodernist through the seams. Outrageous, over-the-top style. Highly symbolic and allusive. So "literary" that it's inaccessible to nearly everyone except English majors.

Bester: classic science fiction at its best. Great plots. Endless invention, both in terms of technology, new societies, and social groups. Rife with far-reaching ideas.

I may have liked the O'Hara best. Unlike Bester, he doesn't have far ranging ideas (or any ideas, really), but he has an extraordinary attention to detail and he creates wonderful character portraits. O'Hara is the one I successfully read over 32 hours of bus trip. After O'Hara comes Bester. His stuff's just really cool, and if there's a knock against him, it's that highly abbreviated short story style -- you get the feeling (as I do with many early sf novels) is that he's cutting corners to keep his novel under 60,000 words. That makes getting "in" to his novels pretty difficult. But for getting the reader to think outside the box of their own narrow experience, Bester is light years ahead of O'Hara.

But Angela Carter . . . alas, ye postmodernists! Carter's postmodernist foibles aggravate me to no end -- that wild prose, the pretentious symbolism, the alleged subversiveness of so-called shocking themes like sexual fetishes. Except for a few individual short stories like "The Bloody Chamber" (which I thought magnificent), most of her stories just made me roll my eyes and skim. Strangely enough, whereas O'Hara is nearly all dialogue, dialogue is very nearly absent in Carter. Also, when I felt clever after "getting" the symbolism behind her stories, I grew annoyed with myself because, when Carter' stories succeed, they do so largely because of that feeling of back-patting a reader gets when they realize they're smart enough to understand an Angela Carter story.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Travel Woes

Tomorrow's going to be a rough, rough day. We leave at 11:30 am for the airport, and we should touchdown in Nashville at 6:30 pm. That'll be fine, but I'll then head immediately for the Greyhound station. At 10 pm I'll embark on a 16-hour bus trip to Texas. At least I'll have one night to wash up and rest before the interview on Thursday.

On the plus die, I managed to read four (short) books during my week here in PA. I actually had to buy more books, since I didn't have enough for my trip to Texas. Efficiency, dear sirs, efficiency.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Busy, busy upcoming week

I flew up to Pennsylvania on Wednesday, half to see my family and half for my 20-year high school reunion. The reunion was last night; it was nice seeing everyone but also awkward, as anyone who's ever attended these things probably knows. I was extremely anti-social back then, so I don't quite have the experiences useful for making a reunion a memorable experience. As nice and mature as everyone is now, it's hard to come up with small talk after the standard "what have you been up to?" questions. The wife and I ended up leaving after a couple of hours. Glad I went, though.

Anyway, that's not where the busy week comes in. We're flying back to Nashville on Tuesday . . . and, Tuesday evening, I'll be taking a Greyhound to east Texas where I have a job interview. (The wife will head home directly.) So, I won't even have time to go home before I immediately start traveling again. It's a 32-hour round trip for a 1-hour interview, but this job looks like a pretty good fit for me, so the long trip is worth the risk, I hope. 

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Patricia A. McKillip

I've always had a vexed relationship with Patricia A. McKillip -- I go back and forth on how much I admire her novels. Originally, I'd gotten into her because she's a favorite of Stephen R. Donaldson. Much as I love Donaldson, though, I could never quite make out what he saw in McKillip. Part of that, I think, is that McKillip works so much with emotional abstractions that it was hard for Young Me to get a handle on her. To date I've gone through:

  • The Riddle-Master trilogy (2 out of the 3)
  • The Cygnet series (on which I wrote a bad narrative theory paper during my MA program)
  • Fool's Run (loved it)
  • Winter Rose (couldn't finish it)
  • The Forgotten Beasts of Eld (intriguing)
  • several short stores (loved them all)
Actually, here's a story about my general cluelessness. I've known forever that McKillip had been a World Fantasy Award winner -- but I couldn't figure out which of her books had won the award. (And no, this was not in the pre-Google days, hence the cluelessness.) So I picked up The Riddle-Master trilogy thinking that it must have been the winer. Nope, which is just as well, since I couldn't finish the series. Just too over-wrought. Although clearly showing The Hobbit's influence, it didn't even have any riddles in it.

Finally, though, I've just read McKillip's World Fantasy Award-winning novel: The Forgotten Beasts of Eld. Now that I'm older and wiser, I can see what Stephen R. Donaldson liked about it -- both he and McKillip have intensely melodramatic imaginations. McKillip practically hits you over the head with an intense lyrical Romanticism that emphasizes the Self (at least certainly portions of the self) above just about all other concerns. Now, such melodrama doesn't always bother me, but it does perhaps explain why I wax hot and cold on McKillip. When it's working, the melodrama can be effective. When McKillip misses, well, ouch. 

Anyway, it works with Forgotten Beasts, but I'm more intrigued with something I only just realized about her work. She gravitates to the operatic like a moth to light but, while this opera-quality focuses on human emotions, she examines a very limited set of human emotions. The biggies, in other words: love, hate, death, fear. The first half of Forgotten Beasts examines change, the fear of change, and restlessness (which is an impetus to change). The second half of the novel focuses on Love and Hate, beauty and destructiveness being corollaries to these. Although McKillip finds a lot of nuance to examine within these biggies, her tendency to melodrama basically elevates these biggies to the status of Platonic Ideas. Heightened by the lush lyricism of her prose, these biggies overwhelm all the other elements of human experience that can't be rendered operatically -- basically, everything humdrum, quotidian, ambivalent, etc. 

Here's another thing Donaldson certainly likes about McKillip: they're both hardcore humanists in that the Individual is the highest good. In McKillip, as it is in Donaldson, politics or sociology or economics exist, but only as means of heightening the themes they wish to explore about the individual self. That used to be my taste until the late 2000s or so, but alas, no more.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Garth Nix and the Abhorsen trilogy

So, a bit ago while composing my fantasy syllabus, I was embarrassed that coming up with female protagonists for fantasy novels gave me such a hard time. Not that there's a whole lot out there, but still. Anyway, I took it upon myself to try correcting that particular hole in my fantasy literary knowledge. My first excursion was into Tamora Pierce's Alanna, a 1984 fantasy text. That experiment, shall we say, was not a success. The protagonist, Alanna, pretends to be a boy so that she could become a knight, but the plot (and characterization) was so dull and predictable that I could barely finish the novel.

Then I tried Garth Nix's Abhorsen trilogy. . . . 

Quite impressive, I must say. I wouldn't necessarily place it in the first rank of fantasy fiction (the series is almost all plot), but that plot is fantastic and captivating, the world-creation truly unique, and Nix's style is admirable. I read the first book, Sabriel, constanty surprised at how quickly it went; I think I loved the first half of Lirael, the series's second book, most of all.

A few notes:

  • One comment made by Edward James during his luncheon speech was that the best contemporary fantasy overwhelmingly comes from Australia, and Nix certainly fits that bill.
  • Nix has two kingdoms -- the Old Kingdom where magic works, and Ancelstierre where technology (about WWI level) works.
  • The magic systems is intriguing. Rather than spellbooks, the main vehicle for magic is spellcasting.
  • There's very little foreign policy -- a very marked contrast from, say, George R. R. Martin. The two kingdoms go about their business, and that's pretty much that.
  • The series doesn't have very many minor characters. As a result, the series gives off the impression that the main protagonists and/or antagonists are the only people who matter. Most of the subjects of either kingdom go unnamed, and they're entire purpose is usually to be murdered horribly by the Dead.
    • Speaking of that, the citizens of the Old Kingdom are so constantly being slaughtered by the dead that it's hard to imagine their country having any kind of economy.
  • Disreputable Dog and Moffet the cat are truly great characters -- loved every minute of them.
  • I did think that Nix has major skill as a stylist -- nothing flashy or obtrusive, but powerfully effective nonetheless. I like to tell my more elitist colleagues that you only notice the style in bad books, but I nonetheless caught myself trying to figure out how how Nix managed to write individual scenes or paragraphs with such precision.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

And now it's officially official -- Spring Graduation, 2017

Well, by graduating yesterday, I have now joined the ranks of the academically unaffiliated and the unemployed. This is actually the first graduation since high school that I've attended -- I skipped both my BA and MA graduations. All in all, the experience was cool. Thankfully, a few years back MTSU decided to separate graduate and undergraduate ceremonies, so we managed to get out of there within 90 minutes.

Anyway, pictures:



That's all four of our graduating doctoral students from the English Department. From left: Sarah Gray, Mo Li, Fadia Mereani, and of course yours truly.

Another one: