Archives: 1/5/2007-4/17/2007

Tuesday, April 17, 2007 April is the cruelest monthThe famous quotation from T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” will echo even more harshly from now on for the families and friends of the Virginia Tech shooting victims. The most eloquent response I’ve seen is here. I can only echo these prayers and say “Amen.”4:20 pm edt

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

My English teachers (part 2)

During my first school years–grades 1-4–we lived in Banner Elk, NC, which is now surrounded by fancy ski-resorts and full of upscale retirement or vacation “cottages.” When we lived there, it was a pretty, but not wealthy town with a one school for first through eighth grades, a county high school, a junior college (now a 4-year college), a hospital, and an orphanage (now a shelter for abused children, youth, and families). I certainly remember all of my elementary school teachers–Mrs. Coffey, whom every first-grader loved; Miss Laura Hall, who held the second graders to high standards in cursive writing and weaving streamers precisely around the annual Maypole; Mrs. Madison, who thwacked my palm when I couldn’t do third-grade arithmetic, thus inadvertently pointing me towards a literary career; and twinkling Mrs. Perry, the most charming fourth-grade teacher ever. However, I have to say that the teacher who influenced me most to love literature during this time was not an official teacher at all, but a family friend and neighbor, Mrs. Linder. After her husband’s death she had retired to their rustic vacation cottage in Banner Elk long before it was a fashionable place to be; the two of them had had lived well, read widely, and traveled far.

Mrs. Linder’s house was crammed with books and souvenirs from exotic countries, and because she loved books, she had collected many objects with literary connections or significance. At least once or twice a year she would invite a small group of “young ladies” to tea. Mrs. Linder, a tiny, smiling, white-haired lady, welcomed us in. The table would be set with delicate china cups and saucers. If we were especially fortunate–and the weather was pleasant–tea would be served in the “tea house,” which seemed like a miniature playhouse to us, but was, I suppose, modeled after a Japanese tea house. Also on the table—figurines of china, glass, or carved ivory or wood. “This is Chanticleer,” she would explain, holding up a brightly-colored rooster, and tell us her version of Chaucer’s story from “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale;” or holding up a miniature ivory whale, “Here is Moby-Dick, the white whale!” I recall we were particularly intrigued by a cast-iron music box in the shape of a pirate seated on a chest full of gold, with which she illustrated “Treasure Island.”

At eight- or nine-years-old, of course, I had never read any of these books, and I would not read them for myself for many, many years after this, but Mrs. Linder made hunting whales, and roosters tricking foxes, and pirate treasure, sound so exciting that eventually I was ready and willing to give them a try. “Pieces of eight!”

3:46 pm est

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

My English teachers (part 1)

I suppose I could also entitle this series, “How I became an English professor,” although I really did not start out with that career in mind at all. In fact, most people don’t end up in the careers for which their college majors supposedly prepare them, and yet they are still gainfully and often happily employed. I should also acknowledge my inspiration for these retrospectives, my editor and colleague in studying English and popular culture, David Lavery, currently holding the Chair in Film and Television at Brunel University, London, who blogged his literary inspirations last year.

Naturally, or rather, fortunately, my first English teachers were my parents, who were great readers and who read all kinds of books to me and my two siblings practically from the time we were born. I say “fortunately,” because all too many parents do not read to their children, and yet, as I was telling my English 102 students the other day, reading aloud with children is one of the best ways to encourage their future academic success. Besides that, it’s just fun!

Among the books my parents gave to us and read with us: almost every title by Dr. Seuss, A.A. Milne’s poems When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six, as well as the Winnie-the-Pooh stories, the Jungle Books of Rudyard Kipling (we especially loved hearing the story of the snake-fighting Indian mongoose Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, because we actually had a pet African mongoose for a while), and the “Chronicles of Narnia” by C.S. Lewis. I still have my battered, mismatched set! When my sister, brother and I were older–in junior high and high-school–my father decreed that we would read a book together as a family during summer vacations. The two that I remember best are To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, and The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. We still kid my dad about the earnest wisdom of Ben Franklin, but we would not trade those evenings together on the patio of our cottage by Lake Munkamba for anything. That was what I learned from my first English teachers, my parents–however wonderful a story may be, it’s even better when you share it with those you love.

6:45 am est
Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Medieval scholars struggled with technology, too

A few weeks ago, thanks to the grace of my university, I received a new computer that is much faster than the previous one, has more memory, and looks really cool with a silvery CPU and a bigger monitor. The new computer then required a new printer, also bigger and faster than the old one. And, oh yes, a new operating system, which has its quirks.

I enjoy learning new things, but now and then–usually when I’m in a hurry–they develop some interesting glitch or reveal an inability to do something I could always do with the OLD thing, whatever it was. You know what I mean.

So imagine how I laughed when a friend pointed me to this YouTube video, Introducing The Book. Best thing since Augustine discovered silent reading (thanks to St. Ambrose), and a whole lot funnier.

4:53 pm est

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Because it’s Stonehenge!

Intriguing archaeological theories about Stonehenge from ABC news. The last time–the only time–I was there, it was midsummer and they’d had to cordon the stones off to protect them from overly enthusiastic New-Age celebrants, as well as random idiot tourists who thought a piece of an ancient monolith would be a great souvenir. And that was [mumble-mumble] years ago. It’s probably worse now. Still, the place was awesome. So the discovery of a nearby village and an additional, larger ring just adds to the fascination and mystery–or perhaps brings us a little closer to understanding what it was all about.

7:31 pm est

Almost famous!

Or what passes for almost-fame in the 21st century–I discovered that the press release for my SC2 paper (May 2006) was t blogged by at least one blogger. Nice!

I’ll be talking more about Buffy in February, at a “Watch and Learn” evening sponsored by Campbell’s Mabel Powell English Club, and in March at the UNC-Greensboro BtVS mini-conference.

9:36 am est

Monday, January 29, 2007

A book a day

A dream! or a nightmare! or both? My brother gave me “The Book Lover’s Calendar” page-a-day calendar for Christmas, and now every day there’s a tempting new book title and synopsis staring me in the face. If only I could drop everything, rush out (or click away) to the nearest bookstore or library and start reading some of the books that have sailed past just this month, such as the Sherlock Holmes take-offs by Caleb Carr (The Italian Secretary) and Michael Chabon (The Final Solution), or the biography of astronomer Henrietta Leavitt by George Johnson, or one that’s been on my “To-Be-Read” list for a long time, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies. Usually each page-a-day of such a calendar goes straight into the trash, but I want to keep a list of some of these tempting titles, because someday, I’ll have time to read them all.

3:29 pm est

Monday, January 15, 2007

Professionals known when to break the rules

Sometimes when my composition students are reading an essay, I tell them, “This writer is a professional–she knows how to break the rules to good effect. Don’t try this at home! Or at least, not in my class, until you’re really sure you know what you’re doing.”

One of my favorite TV writers, Jane Espenson talks about effectively breaking the supposed rule against splitting infinitives. “Supposed rule,” because, as she notes, “this rule has absolutely nothing to do with anything about the way English evolved or is structured, but was imposed on the language by scholars who felt English at its purest should work like Latin, in which the infinitive is a single word and cannot be split anyway. This, one should note, is a very silly reason to mess around with imposing rules on speakers of English.”

So next time you hear Captain Kirk promise “to boldly go where no man has gone before,” at least you can rest assured that he’s not breaking any grammar rules in outer space.

4:16 pm est

Thursday, January 11, 2007


The author of one of my favorite books, which became one of my favorite movies, is in the news today: Harper Lee, who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, turned out to accept an award from high school students performing a play based on her novel.

Last year, Miss Lee gave interviews for the first time since 1964 about her life and work. Among other things, she said that one reason she had not written another book was that she had “‘sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement … I hoped for a little but I got rather a whole lot and in some ways this was just about as frightening as [if the book had been rejected completely.'”
Instant success can be just as daunting as instant failure. On the other hand, she did graduate from law school, and she’s still with us. Here’s to Harper Lee!

6:42 am est

Friday, January 5, 2007

Self-promotion that incidentally also promotes my church

I feel compelled to mention that starting this Sunday, January 7, I’ll be teaching a Sunday school series at Trinity Church, Fuquay-Varina> on “Faith and Film.”

Anyone interested issues relating to the gospel and popular culture is welcome. The class meets at 9:30 a.m. (except on Jan. 21, when the annual congregational meeting will take its place).

I expect to draw on some of the resources Dr. Jaclyn Stanke and I used last year in our Honors Course, “Popular Culture and the Sacred.” We hope to teach this course again in the near future.

1:53 pm est