Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

Chapter 22, “What We Whispered and What We Screamed,” marks a change in Tara Westover‘s journal writing.

Reread the final pages of the chapter, 195-97, and write a short response that describes that change.

Post your response of twenty-five words or more as a reply. Next week we will turn back to your responses as a starting point for our conversations about Educated and the craft of writing.

Remember to check your CVCC email and Blackboard regularly for updates and assignments.

Wherever you are in your reading of Educated, I encourage you to look back at the pages where Tara Westover recounts her first days on campus at Brigham Young University (155-58). Stepping into the unfamiliar–as she was then and we are now–is always difficult.

As we continue our study of Educated, consider not only what Tara Westover’s memoir reveals about the craft of writing but also how her resiliency can serve as a model for us in this time of uncertainty.

Remember to check your CVCC email and Blackboard regularly for updates and assignments.

We will get through these days.

This post serves as both a welcome back note and a blog entry on the writer’s craft, the second one I’ve written with you. (I posted the first one on January 22.)

I’m always grateful when I discover that readings and assignments in my various courses dovetail. It reminds me that although the particulars of the courses differ, communicating effectively in writing and closely examining written texts are fundamentals they all share.

Two dovetail discoveries occurred earlier this semester. The first one happened when I was reading the composition students’ weekly assignment in The Norton Field Guide to Writing. It was in the chapter devoted to description. There the textbook’s authors include excerpts from two pieces of writing about multiple sclerosis that together illustrate lucidly the differences between the general description of objective nonfiction and the concrete, significant details and voice that bring creative nonfiction to life. Read the two excerpts that follow and consider both the differences between the words and how the words in each excerpt affect you.

First, a description from a brochure published by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society:

Multiple sclerosis is a chronic, unpredictable disease of the central nervous system (the brain, optic nerves, spinal cord). It is thought to be an autoimmune disorder. This means the immune system incorrectly attacks a person’s healthy tissue.

MS can cause blurred vision, loss of balance, poor coordination, slurred speech, tremors, numbness, extreme fatigue, problems with memory and concentration, paralysis, and blindness. These problems may be permanent, or they may come and go. (qtd. in Bullock et al. 444)

Second, an excerpt from “On Being a Cripple,” by Nancy Mairs, a writer with MS:

During its course, which is unpredictable and uncontrollable, one may lose vision, hearing, speech, the ability to walk, control bladder and/or bowels, strength in any or all extremities, sensitivity to touch, vibration and/or pain, potency, coordination of movements–the list of possibilities is lengthy and yes, horrifying. One may also lose one’s sense of humor. That’s the easiest to lose and the hardest to survive without.

In the past ten years, I have sustained some of these losses. Characteristic of MS are sudden attacks, called exacerbations, followed by remissions, and these I have not had. Instead my disease has been slowly progressive. My left leg is now so weak that I walk with the aid of a brace and a cane, and for distances I use an Amigo, a variation on the electric wheelchair that looks rather like an electrified kiddie car. I no longer have much use of my left hand. Now my right side is weakening as well. I still have the blurred spot in my right eye. Overall, though, I’ve been lucky so far. (qtd. in Bullock et al. 443-44)

Another dovetail discovery occurred when my composition students were studying Chapter 11 of Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated. The latter half of that chapter, “Instinct,” depicts Westover’s brother Shawn reining in the frightened gelding, Bud, preventing him from throwing Tara.

As my composition students and I examined the series of conflicts that propel the chapter forward, it occurred to me that the concluding pages of Chapter 11 would serve as an ideal segue from our study, in English 126, of creative nonfiction to our study of fiction. That scene exemplifies the structural similarities between fiction and memoirs, such Westover’s, that follow the same narrative arc.

In the span of only two and a half pages, Westover presents five conflicts: (1) Bud, the gelding, in conflict with the angry mare, (2) Tara in conflict with the frightened Bud, (3) Tara in conflict with herself (Should she let go of the saddle horn?), (4) Shawn in conflict with the mare, and (5) Shawn in conflict with–and ultimately prevailing over–Bud. Thanks to Brennan for pointing out the fourth conflict, which I had overlooked earlier.

Lastly, I’ll address our final in-class reading on March 12, Christopher Durang’s For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls. Not only did Durang’s play let us exit laughing, it also showed us how quirky, well-wrought parody can pull readers into a play regardless of their knowledge of the source. When Lawrence says: “I call this [cocktail stirrer] Q-tip because I realized it looks like a Q-tip” (19), readers will laugh even if they don’t know that he’s a spoof of Laura Wingfield.

Remember to check your CVCC email and Blackboard regularly for updates and assignments. We will get through these days–and exit laughing again, I hope.


Bullock, Richard et al. Chapter 42: “Describing.” The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Handbook. 5th ed., 2019. pp. 443-44.

Durang, Christopher. For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls. Christopher Durang: Twenty-Seven Short Plays. Smith and Krauss, 1995. pp. 12-27.

Graphic Title: Victorians Online, For Reading like the Dickens

Dear Readers,

As we begin a new chapter online, consider how less remote we are than the arctic explorer Robert Walton was when he wrote to his sister, Margaret Saville, in England.

Since our seated classes were canceled before your copies of the Victorian volume of the Norton anthology were issued, I have included in this blog post a list with links to texts that we’ll study that are available through Project Gutenberg.

Before I write more about the list, I should address the subtitle of the paper-craft graphic above (one I created recently during some much-needed time away from the screen). The phrase “like the dickens” is not a reference to the Victorian author. It’s a euphemism. More specifically, it’s a minced oath: an expression that’s created by altering the spelling or pronunciation of a word that’s considered profane. Shakespeare penned the minced oath “like the dickens,” for “like the devilkins” (little devils), in his comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor, which he wrote more than two-hundred years before Charles Dickens was born.

Now to the list, and a second one that follows. The first is a chronological list of the longer Victorian works that we will study. The second includes the MLA-style works cited entries for the four texts, plus MLA style entries for both Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein on Project Gutenberg and your Barnes and Noble paperback edition. When you write about these texts, you will need to include MLA-style documentation. Bookmark this page for quick reference.

Remember to check your CVCC email and Blackboard regularly for updates and assignments.

We will get through these days.

Sincerely sequestered,

Dr. Lucas

Longer* Victorian-era Readings

*Longer readings for English 242. By Victorian standards, these book-length works aren’t long; A Christmas Carol and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are novellas, and “The Speckled Band” is a short story.

Sample MLA Works Cited Entries

Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. 1865. Project Gutenberg, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/11/11-h/11-h.htm. Accessed 22 Mar. 2020.

Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. 1843. Project Gutenberg,  https://www.gutenberg.org/files/46/46-h/46-h.htm. Accessed 22 Mar. 2020.

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.” 1892. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1661/1661-h/1661-h.htm. Accessed 22 Mar. 2020.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. 1818, 1831. Introduction and Notes by Karen Karbeiner. Barnes and Noble, 2003.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. 1818, 1831. Project Gutenberg, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/84/84-h/84-h.htm. Accessed 22 Mar. 2020.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. 1886. http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/42/pg42-images.html. Accessed 22 Mar. 2020.

 

A sailor kills a bird of good omen, his destructive act dooms his shipmates and curses him with retelling the tale over and over: So the story of the Ancient Mariner goes. Yet those plot details convey neither the epic nature of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem nor its influence on later writers. Only the poem itself places readers fully in the imaginative realm of the tale, but its late eighteenth-century diction creates a gulf between the poem and contemporary readers. Consequently, one of the challenges of introducing “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to millennial students is bridging that gulf. Iron Maiden’s adaptation offers one solution. By eliminating the shifts in the narrative voice and updating the story with contemporary language, their heavy-metal version draws listeners into the story with emphatic rhythms that capture the spirit of the original lines.

Archaic words, such as “stoppeth” (line 2), have a way of stopping readers in their tracks, calling attention to their temporal distance from the poem. Along with the distancing effect of the language, the shifts from one speaker to another can pose problems for twenty-first century readers. Although the Mariner tells his own story, the first words that he speaks are in the fifth stanza. The four stanzas that precede his first words are voiced alternately by an unnamed narrator and the wedding guest who becomes the Mariner’s captive audience. In prose such shifts are easily navigated with paragraphing and dialogue tags. Most poems, however, lack such signals, and their absence in Coleridge’s poem compounds its difficulty. Not only are some of the words obstacles, it’s not always clear who is speaking them.

Iron Maiden’s adaptation eliminates those issues with updated diction and a consistent narrative voice. Rather than shifting speakers, Iron Maiden’s version presents the tale sung by a single storyteller, not the sailor himself, but a narrator who tells listeners to “[h]ear the rime of the ancient mariner” (1). Those first words of the song, penned by lead singer Bruce Dickinson, form an imperative sentence: a command with the understood subject “you”—“[You] hear the rime . . . ” (1). I am master and commander of this story, Dickinson seems to say, and you will hear it now. Such is the power of the imperative. Rather than leaving the reader questioning, as Coleridge’s first stanzas may, Iron Maiden’s song speaks directly to listeners, taking hold of them with the pull of a powerful tide, drawing them out to sea to witness the Mariner as he kills the albatross and seals his fate.

The nature of that fate, that the Mariner must tell his tale over and over, is effectively emphasized by the song’s repetition. The recurrence of the words “on and on,” which first appear to underscore the length of the voyage (17, 18) are repeated in the last line: “And the tale goes on and on and on” (89). That ending may be more fitting than the original. The “sadder and wiser” (624) listener at the end of Coleridge’s poem also appears in the last verse of the song. But by returning to the retelling of the story, the song’s ending shifts the focus from the wedding guest who hears the story only once to the teller who must tell it over and over.

Making the Mariner’s story more accessible through song is valuable not only as an introduction to the poem but also as a starting point for understanding its influence on later English writers, including Mary Shelley, the second-generation Romantic who featured both images and lines from the poem in her novel Frankenstein. Coleridge’s poem was one of Shelley’s favorites, one that she first encountered as a child when the poet recited it in her father’s study (Karbeiner xiii). Iron Maiden’s version captures the spirit of what Mary Shelley, Coleridge’s fan girl, heard: the epic ballad of an eighteenth-century rock star.

Works Cited

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The Norton Anthology of British Literature: The Romantic Period. 10th ed. Stephen Greenblatt, General Editor. W. W. Norton, 2017. pp. 448-64.. EMI, 1984.

Iron Maiden. “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Power Slave. EMI, 1984.

Karbeiner, Karen. Introduction: “Cursed Tellers, Compelling Tales—The Endurance of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. 1818, 1831. Barnes and Noble, 2003.

What makes a book a page-turner? If it’s fiction, it’s the narrative arc. If it’s nonfiction, it’s the same arc imposed on truths that are stranger than the lies of novels. Tara Westover’s Educated is a case in point. In the chapter where she recounts performing the title role in the musical Annie, the prevailing image of the teenage Tara is not one of herself, but rather Tara as the iconic orphan, her “brown hair [dyed] cherry red” (86). By depicting herself as that fictional heroine in a chapter that ends with Y2K, Westover creates a rags-to-riches narrative in miniature, a nesting doll within the larger Cinderella story of the memoir.

At the beginning of the chapter, as Tara rehearses for Annie, the source of tension that drives the narrative is her father’s obsession with preparing for what he proclaims will be the post-Y2K chaos that will usher in the Second Coming of Christ. Gene Westover’s adherence to Y2K conspiracy theories and his distrust of doctors and public schools set Tara apart from the other teenagers in rehearsal. The Worm Creek Opera House, like the ball in Cinderella, is another world, where the words people spoke “seemed ripped from another reality” (86).

From her father’s obsession with Y2K, the source of tension in the chapter shifts to the obstacle that presents itself when Tara learns from the director that she must provide her own costumes. The old, tattered clothes that Annie wears as an orphan in Act I are a cinch to find in the Westovers’ basement, but in Act II Tara must take the stage in the beautiful dresses that Daddy Warbucks, Annie’s millionaire benefactor, buys for her. Lacking the dresses that she needs sends Tara and her mother on a search—a heroine’s quest—for suitable ones. Westover recounts that she and her mother drive one-hundred miles round-trip, scouring every second-hand store to no avail. It seems that Tara will have no gown for the ball, but her mother devises another plan as a last resort: She drives Tara to Aunt Angie’s house, where Angie loans Tara some of her daughter’s Sunday dresses. Helping Tara try on the fancy dresses, “knotting the sashes, fastening the buttons, plumping the bows” (87), Aunt Angie becomes the fairy godmother of the moment, setting Tara back on her path.

Annie isn’t the only stage role Tara plays, but it’s the only one Westover describes in her memoir; she doesn’t even mention the others by name. They remain the unnamed characters in “the next play” and “the one after that” (87). By limiting the depiction of her theatre life to Little Orphan Annie, Westover leaves readers with the image of her as the scrappy heroine whose rags-to-riches narrative parallels her own story as well as Cinderella’s. And the last pages of the chapter present another link to the girl with the glass slipper. In both stories, the heroine believes that the world will change at midnight. But in Educated Gene Westover’s delusions are the real fairy tale. After 2000 arrives without incident, Tara looks at her father watching television in the dark, noting that “[h]e seemed smaller to me than he had that morning” (91).

In Bruno Bettelheim’s classic study of fairy tales, he observes that “[i]f Cinderella is to become master of her own fate, her parents’ authority must be diminished” (257). Readers of Educated see that parental authority diminish as Tara watches her father become smaller in her eyes—as parents, both real and imagined, often do. Westover’s readers enter the terrain of Buck’s Peak knowing that the perils of an abusive brother, a paranoid, delusional father, and a three-ton pair of scissors aren’t the exaggerated obstacles of a fairy tale or comic strip. Instead they’re genuine threats in a hard-knock life that Tara only narrowly escapes. She doesn’t live happily ever after, but she does achieve an education and a sense of self—if not a sense of peace.

Works Cited

Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. 1976. Knopf, 1977.

Westover, Tara. Educated. Random, 2018.

A Lust for Lists

Posted: August 23, 2019 in Reading, Teaching, Writing

This semester I created a new introductory assignment for my students in English 112: Writing and Research in the Disciplines. The idea came to me while I was thinking about the work involved in producing a bibliography. That gathering and compiling of sources, an essential part of the research process, is a tedious undertaking for many students. Yet list-making, itself, is something that many of us turn to in discussions of our favorite things. Think Maria von Trapp and Oprah. The list could go on.

It occurred to me that such lists could serve as introductions, getting-to-know-you opportunities that would also offer practice in compiling MLA-style bibliographies, discographies, filmographies, and TVographies.

Creating lists of their favorite things—whether books, music, films, or TV series—may make the process of producing citations less dull. I hope it does. Even if it doesn’t, the lists will offer us starting points for conversations about some unfamiliar things that may someday join our own lists of favorites.

For my top-five list, I chose my favorite Common Reads—or as some schools call them, Campus Reads or Interdisciplinary Reads. I have these books on my brain because I’m currently teaching Tara Westover’s memoir Educated, this year’s Interdisciplinary Read at Catawba Valley Community College. As I meditate on Tara Westover’s book, my thoughts turn to how her memoir differs from other Common Reads that I’ve studied with my students.

Exploring a single book, such as Westover’s, over the course of a semester bears witness to the volumes we can learn about writing through the slow, careful study of well-wrought prose. When the pages are only slightly more familiar to me than they are to my students—which has been the case with every Common Read that I’ve taught—the experience has enabled me to model the pursuit of lifelong learning that I aim to foster in my students.

Bibliography

Quinones, Sam. Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opioid Epidemic. 2015. Bloomsbury, 2016.

Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Crown, 2010.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus. 1991. Pantheon, 1992.

Westover, Tara. Educated. Random, 2018.

Whitehead, Colson. Underground Railroad. Doubleday, 2016.