Friday, November 28, 2008

In the Blink of a Book 1

Of course, as someone who spends her life thinking about, teaching about, writing about and actually writing books, it makes sense to talk more about books on this blog. So I thought I'd start my own 'In the Blink of a Book' segment. We'll see how it goes. The idea is basically to share two books each segment. One academic book - because I'm an academic - one fiction book.

Marina Warner's From the Beast to the Blonde
In many ways, this is the book that made me an academic. Seriously, everyone knew I was going to be an academic by the time I was about twelve. But I rebelled. Me? An academic? Never! Until I read From the Beast to the Blonde. "This is what I can do as an academic??? This isn't so bad..." The book is about fairy tale. The book captures the feminine spirit of fairy tale. The book gamely celebrates the importance of good hair days in fairy tale. This is a book that is both creative and scholarly. Warner writes in the spirit in which fairy tales are told, and that makes her that much more insightful. One of my favourite quotes from the book? "The enchantments also universalize the narrative setting, encipher concerns, beliefs and desires in brilliant, seductive images that are themselves a form of camouflage, making it possible to utter harsh truths, to say what you dare." (xvii) Can't you just imagine saying that with a flourish and courtly bow?

Jim Butcher's Dead Beat
I picked this book up because I loved the cover and the neat juxtaposition of detective pot boiler and magic... complete with a wizard called Harry. It's half way - or so - through the series, but that didn't bother me. The reason I include this? The introduction. "On the whole, we're a murderous race. According to Genesis, it took as few as four people to make the planet too crowded to stand, and the first murder was a fraticide. Genesis says that in a fit of jealous rage, the very first child born to mortal parents, Cain, snapped and popped the first metaphorical cap in another human being. The attach was a bloody, brutal, violent, reprehensible killing. Cain's brother Abel probably never saw it coming. As I opened the door to my apartment, I was filled with a sense of empathic sympathy and intuitive understanding. For freaking Cain." (1) Beat that, "It was a dark and stormy night," or even "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." There's also a scene with a dinosaur that shouldn't be missed, if I can get away with saying that much. This is not high literature, but it is fun.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Neil Gaiman on Christmas

You can check out a video here in which Neil Gaiman (and other authors including Gregory Maguire) talk about their family Christmas traditions.

You might also get a hold of a copy of "Nicholas Was," the story Gaiman wrote for his Christmas cards one year (Dark Horse had actual cards to sell with an illustration - I didn't say it was a cheery story). I love the idea of giving cards printed with your own Christmas story. One of these years, I'll feel creative enough to maybe do that...

Monday, November 24, 2008

Who are you?

In Children's Lit., we study Winnie-the-Pooh. I've never understood why more Children's Lit. courses fail to study this amazing work of literature. Or, in fact, why more English Departments don't include it in the curriculum - although, I do know of someone who professes to recite some of Pooh's hums in his poetry class.

Of course, now I'll find all the Children's Lit. subjects running Winnie-the-Pooh. But before I do, I came across Jeremy Clarkson's reflections on Milne in The Times here. (And, yes, I'm a Top Gear fan. I like watching them try to destroy the Toyota pickup on stressed-out days.) I think Clarkson (Tigger) is onto something. So, if you find yourself agreeing that everyone in the world can be categorised as a Milne character - and you are willing to ignore all the complaints in the comments section about pigeonholing people - you can try this quiz. I always personally felt more of a Piglet (Hammond), but apparently, according to this quiz, I'm Pooh...

Oh well... I always enjoyed the Tao of Pooh.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Downloading Princesses

Meg Cabot's first Princess Diaries novel is available to download for free. For those who have been wary of the Princess phenomenon, this is a good book to try out. It's not like the Disney films, either. As much as I secretly (or not so secretly now) enjoy the films, the novels have a much better balance that is closer to a Bridget Jones' Diary's form of fairy tale. Mia does not get a makeover to turn into the prettiest girl in school, for instance. She does get a makeover, but it's rather funnier. And her grandmother is far more hilarious in the novels - not a scrap like Julie Andrews (whom I also like, but... the grandmother in the novels is a treat not to be missed with her missing eyebrows and little, stressed-out dog).

Her blog entry about the free novel also includes one of her many drawings from high school. I love her series of romantic and fashion drawings, all executed during Algebra or other subjects in which she was not paying attention. She drew, I wrote. May those tales never see the light of day! They are hopefully long gone in tossed away geography notebooks. I do love school books, though, for their revelations of secrets and gossip and daydreams. And the study of such marganalia is an academic pursuit. Some view it as 'book abuse', of course, and others will repine that it effects the value of the book, but the history of readers revealed in the margins is fascinating and long may the practice continue. It may be one of the downfalls of the non-paper book. Much as we're losing the early drafts and manuscripts of novels, because writers are often simply editting on screen, we may lose the marganalia of readers as they read on screen.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


Rats 1: I seem to have a schedule filled with meetings. Rats 2: Other than that, a very helpful source supplied me with a news item of an - obviously - ratty nature. If you know of any Pied Pipers, let the council know.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Cats and Authors

Since the title of this blog does reference cats, I couldn't not point you here, to a piece in the Guardian about authors and their cats. The author of the piece already caught my thought about Neil Gaiman. Before the dog came on board, there was much cat-talk on his journal. Meg Cabot is also given to cat-talk on her blog, as in the case of Henrietta's obsession with drinking out of bottle caps that can be read about here. Even non-cat authors like J.K. Rowling (well, you could guess that - Sirius and Lupin?), have cat stories. But there are other options to cats and dogs. Tim Rice (lyricists count) lists his interests: history of popular music, cricket, chickens. We know Beatrix Potter loved rabbits. Emily Gravett had pet rats (okay, her daughter did - I'm stretching).

Why do authors expose their personal relationships with their pets? Do their pets give some insight into their writing?

Sunday, November 9, 2008

A Title For Your Academic Book

There was an interesting piece here in The Guardian about titling non-fiction. In particular, about the nature of the subtitle and how titles will grab - or not grab - the average reader. The comments section includes a particularly interesting discussion about the nature of the colon in the title and how the PhD thesis possibly promoted its use. I've always used the colon as a matter of course, though it has been occurring to me lately that it's a habit and not always necessary. Just as an earlier article talked about the need for plain titles that enable people to find your article through a simple keyword search, this article makes me think that perhaps we do need to rethink how we title our theses, articles and books. Perhaps we don't need to change at all - but it's worth looking at.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

More Fantasy Knitting

A friend, currently doing her PhD while valiantly ploughing through loads of teaching, the other night brought up Eragon. I still haven't read it. But she did point out that there was a character I'd like in the form of Angela the Herbalist, primarily because she likes to knit with her own yarn. And today my friend pointed out that Christopher Paolini features here in the Yarn Harlot's blog, holding, what else, the famous sock in progress (perhaps not so 'what else' to those unfamiliar with the online knitterly universe). Perhaps I should get around to reading it.

Although, right now I'm reading The Graveyard Book, shortly to be followed by The House of Many Ways and Inkdeath. Yes, the teaching is over, the grading of papers is almost over, so I can breathe once more and catch up on the brilliant new releases. The good thing about my job? It is kind of research!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Tonight's viewing

The Hobbit Enigma is on ABC1 tonight at 8:30. I like to think of this as retrospective mythology. Tolkien creates the myth of the Hobbits, science finds a very small skeleton and dubs it a Hobbit. The ABC blurb:

The Hobbit Enigma forces us to ask the most difficult question of all - what does it mean to be human?

There has also recently been Dracorex Hogwartsia, a new dinosaur species whose name is inspired by the Harry Potter series.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Hilarious Novel

While studying literature - and, admittedly, film and drama - one thing always struck me. This is an awful generalisation, but rarely did I have have a chance to study a text that was funny. You would get the occasional break. Jane Austen is funny. Indeed, so is Charlotte Brontë - as when Jane calls Rochester a Vulcan, albeit, not the alien sort with pointy ears and a lack of emotional maturity. By and large though, there were a lot of serious books, films and plays. Indeed, even when, on my own, I discovered Byron and how funny he is, I found that most academic writing about him was... well... serious. I mean, Byron found a way to use a phrase like 'very spacious breeches' in a poem! That remains my favourite line of poetry to quote. So perhaps it isn't simply the texts, but the way we study them?

I was disappointed, though, when I read in The Guardian a piece about the lack of women authors on a funniest novelist list in the New York Times. As pointed out, even the comments section of the original article largely cites male authors.

I do agree with those who offered Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm, though. If you haven't read it, you really should consider it. It is Jane Austen meets Emily Brontë - and Jane comes off best. Plus there's Seth.

And one comment-maker also remarked that children's literature is the real mine of hilarity in terms of the novel. Indeed - have a look at picture books like Emily Gravett's Spells (naked prince with interesting tatoo) and Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean's The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish (very funny sibling squabbling combined with a very unobservant father).

I wish I could teach an entire unit on picture books...