Monday, May 30, 2016

Mad Men: The Conference

Mad Men: The Conference was a great success. Martina and I just finished watching the series a week ago -- after getting married, I've watched more television and film in the last five months than I have in the last 18 years. (Never in my life have I owned a television, but then Pop Culture pulled a fast one on me by inventing Hulu and Netflix.) Anyway, we loved Mad Men and, despite my pro forma elitist sneer at narratives in new media, not even I can deny that Mad Men has easily surpassed the vast majority of literature I've read. Martina, for her part, was extremely excited to participate in an academic conference -- although working at university administration for 18+ years, she never really did the academic-y side of academia before. Granted, we both went to the fantastic Tolkien Seminar in Leeds last summer, organized by the Tolkien Society, but that was smaller and less formal than most conferences. (The quality of the papers, however, was just as good if not better.)

So she was super excited about Mad Men: The Conference. We actually did 1 1/2 days of the two day conference, since I was conferenced out by noon of the second day. (I tried telling her, of course, that real academics actually hate conferences and try to attend as few panels as possible, but she would have none of that.) We saw a number of smart papers, including some by fellow MTSU people, and Martina and I especially liked final keynote speaker, a professional television critic named Matt Zoller Seitz.

Although a journalist and not an academic, his insights and observations were easily superior to many of the jargon-filled academic papers we listened to. That led Martina and I to briefly discuss the whole "academic vs. non-academic" thing, a topic which Seitz himself also addressed. Basically, the whole distinction is rather superficial, obviously, but people on both sides place inordinate amounts of emphasis on it. This issue applies to Tolkien studies as well, since so much good work is done outside of peer-reviewed publications. I actually came up with a list of what I see as the specific advantages of non-scholarly scholarship:

  1. Reading blogs, you get a better sense of someone's interest and where they're coming from than if you just read their scholarly articles. This is important, since I find myself understanding their articles better after I get a sense of a scholar's personality and interests. We all know that biography is important for literary criticism, but it's just as important for understanding scholarship.
  2. You also find out what other people think about the articles you've already read. In one sense, of course, that's what official reviews are for, but blogs give allow people a bit more freedom in expression.
  3. It's easier to pick up "factoids" through blogs. To this today, I have a tough time keeping everything in Tolkien straight -- gotta look it up before I write about it. Blogs are one way of keeping up with the factoids that interest people, which also helps to re-focus my attention on stuff I had initially thought less interesting.
    1. Especially useful is when people point out "fake facts" that various people have uttered. Indeed, only thanks to one such post did I realize that Gandalf's power resides in his staff -- a completely obvious point once you think about the Edoras scene, but one which I had paid insufficient attention to. I've had dozens of cases like that.
  4.  Blogs also make it easier  to find who who's influencing who and denote the various circles in Tolkien scholarship. 
Granted, I almost never look to fan blogs for interpretations -- generally, they just aren't as illuminating as the interpretations in the peer reviewed stuff. (Even there, there's a good amount of scholarship that stops short of working its arguments into a broader context.)

None of that, though, really applies to Seitz, who, although a journalist, differs from an academic only in that he explicitly addresses a general audience -- as he noted of Rogert Ebert, Ebert could easily keep up with any film semiotician on their own turf, and the same applied to Seitz as well. Seitz further excels at situating his Mad Men criticism into both journalistic and academic contexts, and Martina immediately subscribed to his twitter account.

I loves me some rage

So, lately, I've been doing a lot of work on rage. It initially formed the core of one of my dissertation chapters, but now it's bloated to incorporate a few chapters. My current chapter** uses rage as a centerpiece. Here's a problem: I haven't found many good discussions of rage. I'm using a Straussian perspective, so of course Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom (who did the relevant translation of The Republic, where the thymos constitutes one of the three parts of the souls) are major influences, but these discussions haven't quite handled all my lingering questions. That's why my writing goes so slow: I think I understand a concept, then I start writing about it, and my detail-oriented constantly encounters subtleties of formulation that I never suspected before. Several other books that I looked which mention thymos give unsatisfactory definitions of it.

Anyway, thus it was with gratitude that I then encountered Angela Hobbes's Plato and the Hero. Here, in about a paragraph, is the single best description of thymos that I have yet see:

  • “I wish to claim that the essence of human thumos is the need to believe that one counts for something, and that central to this need will be a tendency to form an ideal image of oneself in accordance with one’s conception of the fine and noble.” Failure to live up to this results in anger, self-disgust, or shame. “This ideal of oneself also needs to be confirmed by social recognition: others must treat one in accordance with one’s self-image,” and obtaining this recognition not only requires self-assertion and maybe aggression, but “any offense committed to one’s self-image by others will prompt anger and a desire to retaliate” (30). Yet thumos is no mere driving force. It responds to reason and social expectations. It’s susceptible to a proper education. 

Saruman will have a warped thumos (i.e., his anger) that gets out of hand; otherwise, the above is a perfect description of Boromir, the most recognizably heroic (non-Christian) character in the book. Anyway, I feel like baking Dr. Hobbes a cake or something.

**Get this title, "Harken Not to Wild Beats: A Look at Rhetoric and Rage in Saruman and Thrasymachus." Ain't that fantastic? Makes you want to start reading immediately, don't it?

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Golden (or Gilded?) Age in Tolkien Studies

After a year of dissertation research on ole' Tollers, I can't believe I'm just encountering Troels Forchhammer's Tolkien Transactions, a fantastic attempt to catalog on-line Tolkien commentary, news, and criticism. It's a gold mine.

So now I'm catching up on old posts, which is why I'm a few months late to the following debate.

Apparently, a November article in the Los Angeles Review of Books, "Tolkien Criticism Today" by Norbert Schürer, has caused a bit of a stir among Tolkienists. He reviewed a series of seven recent books on Tolkien, noted that some were much, much better than the others, then criticized such tendencies in the weaker books as bad writing, failure to properly develop the argument, preaching to the choir, etc. But while Schürer does have some infelicitous comments ( although LOTR doesn't have "unrelenting" heroism, I like to be generous in my interpretation of such statements), what really seemed to raise people's hackles was claiming that "Tolkien studies is in a sad shape."

That, of course, is hyperbole. As a field, Tolkien Studies is actually booming, particularly among academics, but there's also a lot of truly horrendous waste-of-time crap out there. One of the benefits (flaws? okay, flaws,) of doing a dissertation on limiting funding is that one has to read a lot of work in a very short amount of time. That means I have to "gut" academic works and make almost-but-not-quite snap judgments on their quality. Some books -- a distressing number, in fact -- are quickly deemed to be utterly worthless, so I move on. (Some of these have even gotten positive academic reviews by Tolkienists.) But the crap I find tends to be crappy for precisely the reasons Schürer points out: bad writing, bad arguments, pointless digressions, relatively senseless compare/contrasts, etc.

The ubiquity of such crap is the reason I always check a book's publisher beforehand -- McFarland, for example, will publish mostly anything; whether it's good or not entirely depends upon the individual author.

Hence the following two responses to Schurer, I think, are motivated almost entirely by the claim (which can be seen as insulting) that Tolkien Studies is in a "sad" shape, rather than to Schürer's better points.

The question of Tolkien Criticism by Robin Anne Reid.
  • Reid's very good at pointing out the weak points in Schurer's argument, but I still suspect that Tolkien Studies has more than its fair share of bad work in the field. The reason, to me, seems simple: the free publicity of the films means that some publishers are willing to publish almost anything on him.
  • At the end, though, she attacks Schürer's authority for making any sweeping claims of Tolkien scholarship (i.e., he publishes in 18th-century literature, not Tolkien). While I get the motivation, I heartily dislike the strategy, since it unwittingly marginalizes all commentators on Tolkien who do not publish their opinions in the academic journals.
  • I basically agree with Forchhammer's assessment: "I agree with Reid on most counts, but I also feel that, even with the impressive lists of MLA search results, she appears very defensive, attacking the weaknesses in Schürer's critique, rather than addressing the strong points."

"Tolkien Criticism Unbound: A response to Norbert Schürer" by Luke Baugher, Tom Hillman, & Dominic J. Nardi, Jr.
  • The same from above applies here, but they deserve a special shout-out for mentioning the journal dedicated solely to Joss Whedon, Slayage -- incidentally, the journal co-founded by my dissertation advisor.  :)
  • Also, random tidbit: Nardi published a truly fantastic article on politics in Tolkien in Mythlore.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Forays into Children's Fantasy: Grahame, A.A. Milne, and L. Frank Baum

Some interesting stuff here. The English stuff was pretty good -- and Winnie the Pooh was even laugh out loud funny -- but I really hated The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. That's one of those not infrequent cases where the movie was surpassed the book by far.

The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame

When I told my friend Sarah, who had done her MA thesis on adaptations of children's books, that I'd just read Wind, she asked me two serious question. (1) Did you like it? (Answer: yes, which was clearly the right answer and the one least likely to cause me bodily harm.) and (2) Who did you think was the hero, Mole or Toad?

It didn't take me more than a second. "Initially Mole, but I think Toad hijacked the book halfway through." Then we bs'd a bit about that and Milne's play adaptation of the novel, Toad of Toad Hall.

And while I did like this book, a few things stood out to me. First, the prose is suprisingly literary -- especially insofar as I've come to expect that children's lit writers try to simplify their prose as much as possible. (Baum's prose was almost insultingly simple.) In fact, I tended to skip the long descriptive passages, especially of nature -- as much as people tell me such things are important, I still continue to be unexpressably bored by them. No one ever got a revelation about human nature from talking about the grasses growing along a riverbank.

Anyway, let's talk Toad. I initially thought him amusing. Then I really grew to hate him. I mean, hate him.

We'll start off by situating a basic feature of Wind: it seems extremely geared to the comfortably middle-class young adult. All the characters have lavish breakfasts (and in fact there's plenty of food-porn here -- although why is Badger serving ham? Isn't that akin to cannibalism?) and the novel really puts forth the importance of the idea of "home." Mole gets quite nostalgic about his, and so do all the others. It made me wonder what someone who did not have a stable home, or a comfortable home, would make of this book, or to someone who had a home they absolute hated.

But Toad. Toad's basically an English country gentleman. He doesn't have to work for a living, having inherited a quite comfortable income, and he fritters away this income on increasingly eccentric hobbies. Besides having a jovial sort of charm that his friends find endearing, he does no good to anyone that I can see. He basks in class privilege, and he's a burden to his friends, none of whom are as well off as he. He also abuses people who have to work for a living -- first the unattractive female washerwoman who helps him get out of prison, then the unattractive barge-woman from whom he steals a horse. He's still a good comic character, but he's also a good bit funnier for anyone with lingering rosy feelings about the gentlemanly upper-classes. I really want to call Toad a more benign, less fascist version of Donald Trump, although I suppose that comparison still wouldn't work too far.

Winne the Pooh & The House on Pooh Corner, A. A. Milne

I liked these two books, the best of the children's lit I'd read recently. I vaguely remembered the Disney cartoon, but I especially wanted to read these thanks to Frederick Crews's two brilliant parodies of academic criticism, The Pooh Perplex and Postmodern Pooh.

Things I noticed, in no particular order.

  • These books are hilarious. I laughed out loud several times. 
  • Although not as consciously "literary" as Grahame's style (which works to Milne's benefit), Milne's prose nevertheless sounds quite nice. 
  • I was also struck by the basic narrative technique. Milne presents these stories being told in real time to Christopher Robin, his son, and there's often a feeling that the outcome of a chapter changes in real time in response to Christopher's response to the story being told. I found that strangely charming.
  • And I really liked Winnie's and friends' struggles with reading. And their journey to the North Pole. And getting Eeyore a house. And Piglet's worry about "fierce" animals. And Owl pretending to be smarter than he really is. As someone whose last name is "wise," I can thoroughly relate.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum

Alas, then there's this one. I remember the movie quite well -- and now I realize that every change the movie made was for the better. Wizard's episodic plot really got on my nerves, especially since every new chapter loved to repeat the quest-object of every major character. How many times, really, do we need to hear that the Scarecrow needed a brain, etc., etc.? The confrontation with the Wicked Witch of the West was over in a page or two, so has none of the narrative suspense of the film. The flying monkeys were a yawn-inducing deus ex machina for several plot-points. And I found it weird that Baum kept repeating that it's okay to kill witches so long as they're really wicked. It made me wonder if he had a mother-in-law who he considered a witch, and he was hoping some adolescent would take care of his problem for him.

Anyway, not much else worth talking about with this one. I'm surprised that the book became such a classic; there just seemed to be little actually engaging about it.

Monday, May 23, 2016

University of Solitude

Aaaaaaaand . . . she's launched!!!!

Matej just made the paperback version of University of Solitude available on Amazon. (The Kindle version has been ready for a few weeks.) I couldn't be prouder of the missus for pulling off such an immense translation project. Having a book to her name is already a great coup for her resume. We decided that I shouldn't appear as a co-translator just for that reason, although me not knowing a word of Slovak also helps. (Martina did all the hard translating, I only helped with the copy editing and proofing.)

But that doesn't matter. I still feel protective of the book. I don't have great hopes of the book doing all that well, actually, especially since Jon Stewart's movie about the same topic (i.e., someone falsely accused of espionage in Iran) didn't do well. Still got the fingers crossed, though.

Here's the website for University of Solitude

Friday, May 20, 2016

Those Weary Citation Blues

So, the Modern Language Association has just come out with a brand new edition. It's as if they thought, "Hey! We know our citation style is fine but, just for shoots and gaggles, let's have it marry APA and produce the ugliest baby possible." What followed is an abomination of nature/citation. In short, they're moving away from a prescriptive, rules-based citation style (because rules are repressive formalist thinking, a la Strunk & White) to a citation style that emphasizes the "rhetorical situation" of citation.  Basically, you have to have all the major elements (title, author, etc) in a set order, but everything else is apparently up to the citer. Which is all fine and well for practicing academics who already know the principles of citation, but try explaining this to freshman. It'll be a nightmare.

Anyway, here's an example of the ugliness. Actually, the new citation method for monographs isn't all that bad. We go from

  • Jacobs, Alan. The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. Print.


  • Jacobs, Alan. The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. Oxford UP, 2011.

I can actually live with that, once I get used to it. The citation for articles, however, is where bibliographic putrescence regurgitates itself upon the stage:

  • Kinkaid, Jamaica. “In History.” Callaloo 24.2 (Spring 2001): 620-26. Web.

That beautiful, stream-lined style has now been whacked by the APA ugly-stick**:

  • Kincaid, Jamaica. “In History.” Callaloo, vol. 24, no. 2, Spring 2001, pp. 620-26.

Say whuh? The above combines all the virtues of a run-on sentence with the helpfulness of tedious distraction. Apparently, including all those abbreviations is supposed to make reading the citation "easier" under the assumption that, previously, it wasn't immediately obvious to people who cite texts for a living which numbers indicates the volume, issue, or page numbers. Now, when I was a kid . . .

**okay, technically, APA doesn't use the "vol." and "no." stuff, but I'm making a point here, so hush.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Forays into Children's Fantasy: Alexander and Cooper

So, to avoid working on the diss, I've been working on some classics of fantasy literature. Either I've become fantastically  picky and judgmental (see what I did there?), or -- well, okay, I've just become fantastically picky and judgmental. Here goes.

The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander.

Made me bored and impatience. I vaguely remember seeing The Black Cauldron (book 2) in my middle-school library, but I never tried it -- something warned me away, proving once again that the child be wiser than the man. This time around, I read four of the five books (skipping book 4), and I knew going in to look for the Welsh influences. Well, the Welsh was all fine and good, although I never felt the appeal that many others apparently do. But the books themselves annoyed the hell out of me. The protagonist, Taran, is just some random boy who, for no reason that I could fathom, becomes the leader of his group. He collects a motley assortment of comrades, including a wayward prince who doesn't mind following 14-year old boys, a princess who's inevitably going to fall in love with the protagonist, and a Gurgli. And eventually Taran becomes a king. Of course.

The above, I admit, is an unfairly snarky synopsis. Unfortunately -- and this is a problem with most early fantasy -- the plot was so predictable that an experienced fantasy reader could predict every twist and turn. Alexander has a true talent for nice set pieces and quirky characters, but the overall plot was achingly familiar. And even the things I liked, like the three sorceresses in The Black Cauldron and the giant Grew in book three, while cool in themselves, felt almost "predicatably" quirky, quirkiness being almost a stock character. Worse, Alexander's final book, which is apparently the most well-renowned, tried its darnedest to fit in every half-loved character from the previous four books, I had difficulty fending off the dizziness which came from my eyes rolling too hard. Nothing but fan service before "fan service" became a thing.

Considering that I love Harry Potter, I absolutely refuse to say that I was "too old" to appreciate it. I certainly could see the appeal; if I was a publisher, I'd easily recognize this as something worth noticing. But a plot-driven fantasy featuring a generic teenager just isn't going to do it for me personally.

The Dark is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper.

Blech. Blech. BLECH. Unlike The Black Cauldron, of which I'd read (maybe) a chapter of in middle-school, I'm virtually positive I read the entire book 2 of this sequence, the eponymous The Dark is Rising, in high school. (It was the assigned reading of some book program or another.) If memory serves, I absolutely hated it then, and I absolutely hated it now. In fact, of the whole 5-book sequence, I skim-read the first book and only managed to get through half of the second one. Couldn't bring myself to attempt the final three.

First, I'll admit a personally shortcoming. The Arthurian legend completely bores me to tears. Always has. Like The Prydain Chronicles, which I knew because criticism often mentions its Welsh connection, I knew the Dark Sequence because criticism likes to notice its fidelity to Arthurian and medieval material. But whereas the Alexander books had recognizably good writing, I just saw nothing noteworthy about Cooper's.

Let's take the first one. Again, pretty standard fantasy plot: children protagonists enter a far-off location, encounter some Bad Guys and a not-so-mysterious Magician-Guide-Figure, and then successfully complete a quest. Fine. Nonetheless, nothing really stood out. Although I vaguely remember the children all having different personalities, I can't recollect what those personalities were, nor even the names of the children themselves. The Bad Guys were foppish rather than ominous. And my complete lack of interest in the Holy Grail made that a singularly awful McGuffin, although one can't fault Cooper for that.

As for The Dark is Rising itself, though, I stopped half-way through because it so thoroughly resembled every other formulaic fantasy I'd ever read. An 11-year old protagonist is the promised one of some prophecy, the bad guys hold some grudge from thousands of years back, Mr. Magician Exposition explains everything to the protagonist, and so on, and so on. Considering my intense dislike of this book as a teenager, I have a tough time imagining people's fascination with this series.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Betty McDonald, famous American writer?

The wife-bear finally came back! She's been gone two weeks, first for a four-day trip to New York City, where she met up with two women from Czechland, then for an extended sojourn to Seattle, Washington. Her best friend, Dasha, has been talking for decades about seeing the home of her favorite writer, Betty McDonald.

What? You never heard of Betty McDonald. Well, rest assured -- you're not alone. One of the idiosyncrasies of growing up in a communist country -- prior to 1989, anyway -- is that certain American writers get absurdly famous for sometimes incomprehensible reasons. Here's everything you ever wanted to know about Betty McDonald but, in short, she's a forgotten popular writer of four autobiographical novels centered on life in the northwest during the 1940s. Although her commentary about the local Native Americans has not aged well, she's mildly amusing in an ironic sort of way. I've only read The Egg and I, purchased in the Czech Republic, but didn't quite grasp Dasha's obsession. Martina, for her part, really loved the book as a kid but, after re-reading it recently, found herself really put off by the mild racism, and also found that the jokes weren't as funny as she remembered. C'est la vie.

Oh, and speaking of American writers strangely popular in the communist eastern bloc countries: James Thurber is another of Martina's favorite. When we first started dating, she was shocked to learn that I lived in Columbus, OH for two years without ever reading him or visiting his house, just a few blocks down from Ohio State. So, when we spent time in Columbus, we made the Thurber house a must-see destination. Pretty nice -- they even fund a writer-in-residence. I bought a copy of his collected short stories there in the gift shop as well. I really enjoyed My Life and Hard Times, which is also what Martina remembered best from her childhood, but the rest of his work -- mostly columns for The New Yorker -- lacked anything really important to say, so I never finished them.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Friday, May 13, 2016

U.S. Government in the 19th-century - Today!

Wow. So, if you enjoy stories about the incompetence of government bureaucracy, keep on reading.

So, they scheduled the work visa interview for me and Martina. (Shes' Czech, and we've already been successfully married on the marriage visa.) The interview's in Memphis. I just called them and said, "Hey, that's 4 hours driving away, isn't there something closer -- in Nashville, maybe?“ Apparently not. There's only one such USCIS center in Tennessee, and Gangland-Memphis is it.

So, never mind how it screws over pretty everyone without easy transportation -- at least the Greyhound is a relatively straight shot. (Although an 8-hour trip on Greyhound . . . blech.)

I had a second question, though. “ I don't have my birth certificate, but I do have my passport. Will they accept that document?“

The rep replied, “ Well, that depends on the center. You would have to schedule an interview to ask. Would you like me to schedule an interview?”

“No. I told you, I live four hours away. I'm not going to drive 8-hours round trip to ask one question. What's their phone number?”

“They don't have a phone.”


“They don't have a phone.”

(repeat sequence twice, but add various interjections like "seriously?” and ”you got to be kidding me“)



And you know what makes the situation worse? It takes between 5 and 30 days to order a birth certificate . . . meaning that it might not arrive in time for the interview.

Grrrrrrr. And double grrrrr.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Proofreading party

Had our Proofreading Party for the upcoming 6th issue of Scientia et Humanitas. For a while I thought I was going to be the prettiest girl at the party, but a staffer and the editor-in-chief both arrived on time. (Mini-rant: my biggest pet peeve is people who lack the professional courtesy to answer their e-mails. We never really expected anyone to show up, but e-mails letting us know would be nice. As it was, I figured it would only be me and the EiC today.)

But things went well, regardless. Got most of the articles proofread, and I'll finish correcting the Word .docs tonight. The faculty reviews should come in by Monday -- ironically, Scientia's advisor is currently at the Medieval conference in Kalamazoo, along with about a gazillion Tolkien scholars. I've kept thinking that MLA was where the action was at, but I may have to change my thinking on that.

Anyway, I'm ridiculously proud of Scientia. Our nine authors put in an insane amount of work. This is going to be a good issue.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Halloo out there!

Well, here 'tis . . .  my first foray into blogspot.

I used to be a fanatical (stratofanatical, even) blogger back in the day, first with deadjournal -- as the initial free alternative to livejournal -- then with livejournal itself. I got out of the habit, ironically, around the time I bought my first laptop and graduated my M.A. program . . . about 2008 or so.

But, lately, I've developed a bad habit. Every time I desperately wish to avoid working on my dissertation, I tend to distract myself with Tolkien blogs. There's a surprising number of blogs kept by top scholars in the field, and reading through them has given me unique perspectives on various Tolkienana which doesn't normally make the mainstream academic sources.

We'll see if the old urge re-kindles. Since all my reading (and thinking) has been focused heavily on academic matters of late, that'll probably be the direction this initially goes. Time will tell if Stratofanatic's Emporium is here to stay.

For the nostalgically-minded, my old lj hangout: