November miscellanies: a young lady’s entrance into the world, ‘Liberal Arts,’ and Christmas highlight lists

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The winter garden,” by Humphry Repton architecture and landscape designs, 1807-1813. Pencil, ink, and watercolor on paper. (J. Paul Getty Museum)

I feel like every November is the same for teachers across universe: students have colds, bugs, or allergies that incapacitate them (and make you cling to your hand sanitizer like a totem); final papers have looming due dates; students visibly crave Christmas break long before Thanksgiving; and everyone seems like they could use just a bit more rest.  Teaching on a university academic calendar makes the Christmas holiday seem much more imminent than secondary school, too, since finals begin barely a week after Thanksgiving Day.   My students and I will meet a mere four times before finals week begins—that timing feels too fast (it always does).  So, like all the other teachers in the cosmos, my November was its usual haze, but I’m happily slouching towards Advent.

Reading.

Evelina: or, The History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World by Frances Burney.  This late eighteenth-century novel was on one of my prelim lists: an epistolary, novel-of-manners at its best, but, I’m sorry to say, not my cup of tea.  There’s a lot to be said about the deceptiveness of this type of novel’s form (a collection of letters, which makes the author more of an “editor”).  For one thing, the fact that we’re reading letters adds an element of realism to the story, something the early novelists valued.  On an even deeper level, the epistolary novel invites this question: At what point do we forget we’re reading a letter?  This is one of Evelina‘s greatest strengths—there are times when a long letter stops feeling like a letter, and we allow ourselves to get immersed in the narrative.  Yet we’re always shocked out that revery when the present letter ends.  It’s a strange reading experience, definitely not what we’re used to with most contemporary literary fiction; in fact, it’s not even what we’re used to with Austen’s novels, which celebrate the strangely omniscient, attached-to-some-more-than-others narrator.  It’s not difficult to see this novel’s value, but it’s a completely different animal from something like, say,  Wuthering Heights.

Some other exciting reading material from November.  BJ brought home this used set of the Compact Oxford English Dictionary.  Oh, how wonderful to have an OED of one's own!
Some other exciting reading material from November: BJ brought home this used set of the Compact Oxford English Dictionary. Oh, how wonderful to have an OED of one’s own!

Even amidst all of my prelim exam texts (I finished off 15 works this month alone!), I did manage to read the first book in the Outlander series (by Diana Gabaldon), a mash-up of historical fiction, fantasy, and romance (which I was not expecting).  This was a really entertaining read, but I think I’ll skip out on finishing the series.  I can understand why people get so excited about the Outlander books: the heroine (a trained military nurse who served in WWII) has compelling skills that allow her to meet vital needs within an eighteenth-century setting, thus making it seem like it doesn’t take much to fit in with another century’s culture (and as a woman, at that).  Some of the world-building details are a little confusing to me, though.  (i.e., She touched that stone and now she’s in a different century?)  Maybe those sorts of details get worked out later on.

Even though I enjoyed it, I’m not sure what to make of Outlander.  But I will say this: I once had a creative writing teacher who lamented that, too often, we are romanced by previous historical periods, to the extent that we act as if the best times have already passed.  “But we are always improving and always reforming, even when it may not feel that way,” she said.  “How could we not look forward to the future?”  I think about this writing teacher’s words whenever I encounter escapist historical fiction—are we pining for an old order that wasn’t much of an order at all?  That’s the thought I kept returning to while reading this book.

Snow by Orhan Pamuk.  I have been tackling at least one piece of contemporary literary fiction in this wild prelim season (which has kept me squarely within the fourteenth through nineteenth-century range), and it’s taken me months to make progress on this novel.  Originally, I started on this book by Orhan Pamuk because I thought it might give me insight into Turkish culture, something I became interested in after doing English lessons with a few Turkish couples this summer.  But it offered so much more than merely a window to another culture.  Set in a secluded Turkish city, the novel follows a poet named Ka through encounters with extreme religious conservatism in a snowy winter landscape. For Western readers, this novel does a fairly good job of introducing the basics of the headscarf debate in contemporary Islamic communities, something few Westerners consider when they think of contemporary Islam.  It would be easiest to categorize this as a political novel, but Pamuk’s subject matter often resists such a stark categorization.  For me, this book is about the poet’s work.  It ultimately argues that being a poet requires a posture of openness, and that poetry itself cannot help but arise from its circumstances.

Watching.

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Film poster for “Liberal Arts,” originally distributed by IFC Films. *

Liberal Arts, written and directed by Josh Radnor.  I came across this film randomly on Netflix, a site which always surprises me with how many great independent films it has in its library.  Like Jesse, the film’s protagonist (played by Radnor, of How I Met Your Mother fame), I understand the urge to be nostalgic about a liberal arts education.  Jesse, age 35, returns to his alma mater to speak at a beloved professor’s retirement party, and, in the midst of his overbearing nostalgia, gets involved with a sophomore drama major named Zibby, age 19 (Elizabeth Olsen).  The romance between the two characters is interesting, mainly because we can understand why Jesse is so captivated by Zibby even when, as viewers, we can perceive all of the ways in which she still needs to mature.  I won’t give away the ending (it’s not what you’d expect), but I will say that this film shows the power of what a liberal arts education can do for a human being: it makes you skeptical of pleasure for the sake of pleasure, it teaches you to articulate the movements of your conscience, and it encourages you to empathize deeply and serve others even when your attentions to those in need don’t make complete sense.  Also, keep your eyes open for Zac Efron’s ethereal performance as “Nat,” a spirit guide only a true liberal arts graduate could dream up.

Christmas Highlight Lists. 

I have to admit, I am a very quiet reader of other blogs.  I almost never comment, but I have a few sites that I follow faithfully because I think they show the fullness of what a blog can be as a evolving text.  (There is a whole conversation we could have about blogs as rhetorical spaces and the interpretive communities they cultivate, but I’m not going to go there!)  What I love about this time of year, though, is that the blogs I follow pretty consistently set an example for an intentional Advent season.  They make Christmas lists of “highlights” that they want to prioritize throughout the season, and they are straight-forward about the traditions they aren’t interested in pursuing.  Following their lead, I have three things I’d absolutely put on my Christmas highlight list, so I’m going to jot them down here for safe keeping:

Alas, the only downside to final assignments is that they must be graded.  This is a pretty grading scene I captured during one of Waco's most blustery winter days so far.
This is a pretty grading scene I captured during one of Waco’s most blustery winter days so far.

The English 1302 Departmental Final.  This is an odd thing to add to my Christmas bucket list, I know, since it’s more of a professional obligation than a holiday event; but, for some reason, I’ve come to associate this exam period (which almost always falls at the end of finals week) with Advent.  This is usually my final goodbye to my students: they hand me their blue books after writing their essays in a giant lecture hall, they give me a smile and a merry Christmas, and then they’re off.  Some of these students are ones I’ll never see again; some will come back for other classes or for visits later on.  Mostly, this is my last goodbye.  What I love the most is watching them walk away from the exam with peace: finals are usually done, their cars are packed up, and they are headed home.   This idea of watching them walk on to the next big thing is why it’s on my bucket list.  I don’t want to take that last farewell for granted.

Getting dressed up with all the bells and whistles of the season to attend our department’s annual graduate student Christmas party.  In nearly five years of living here in Texas, this is one of my favorite holiday traditions—my favorite literary people, raucous carol singing, and late-night dancing makes for the perfect celebration of the end of finals and the start of a true rest period.  What I value the most about this particular party is its embrace of extravagance, even when the party itself is for (and thrown by) a collection of reasonably money-strained graduate students.  But while this party is at the top of my list, it’s not the only one we’ll attend this season.  I love going to Christmas parties, and, truthfully, that means all the Christmas parties.  We’ll even host one for a our small group (of mostly college students) during finals week, so I’d say say we’re absolutely getting our fill of Christmas party cheer.

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Yes, it is held up by old books and a large stump.

A Christmas Tree.  Since we’ll be with BJ’s family on Christmas Eve and the week after, our Christmas tree sits lonely during the height of the season.  But I love to have it set up on the night of Thanksgiving and following.  Our tree is little this year, but I’ve tried to make is especially bookish to make up for its lack of size.  In the past, we’ve shelled out a hefty amount of money for a sizable tree, but I’m not really in the mood for unnecessary spending this year.   In fact, this is going to be our only big decoration this year.  We rarely put out twinkle lights, we don’t own a door wreath, and I’d rather not stage any Elf on the Shelf shenanigans.  This Christmas, I want to keep things simple (and admittedly budget-friendly) so that we can go into the new year with an element of peace.

Mementos.

I love souvenirs from loved one’s vacations: this is one of the best I’ve received yet, brought home from BJ’s trip to San Diego for a religion conference.  Yes, it’s Shakespearean lip balm set.  It’s perfect.

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“To thine own lips be true!”

Today’s miscellanies post is linked up with Leigh Kramer’s monthly “What I’m Into” series.

* Fair use rationale under US Copyright Law: this low resolution image accompanies commentary that directly addresses the film itself; its use does not compromise the integrity of the image or the film which it promotes.

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