Monthly Archives: August 2009

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman

I finished The Graveyard Book on the train down to London on Saturday. It was good, as Neil Gaiman always is, and deserves every award that it’s gotten. Although, admittedly, I’m biased, since I read Neil Gaiman’s journal on a regular basis and also have no idea what else was nominated for most of the awards it’s won.

There is one comment that I wanted to make about The Graveyard Book, especially having recently re-read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: When are fictional characters going to realise that trying to avoid a prophecy only serves to bring it about? It goes all the way back to Greek tragedy and the Oedipus story. Trying to avoid the prophecy (trying to kill Bod, Harry, and Oedipus, respectively) in fact creates the terms by which the prophecy is fulfilled. It’s like fictional characters have no knowledge of what has come before. 🙂

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Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard

This is one of my all-time favourite plays to read. I ran across a copy at my grandparents’ house when I was a teenager and devoured it. I don’t know whether it was the Derbyshire connection or the math or the Byron (even though I hate Byron) or just the sheer genius that is Tom Stoppard, but I adored it from the minute I read it.

And I got to see it, this weekend, in London, in a production that has gotten nothing but good reviews. It deserves every one of them. The play is, of course, amazing, and the cast was incredible. There were quite a few people who are not huge stars or big names, but more “Oh, yeah, the guy from the thing!” type actors. Which is good because then you can focus on the show itself and not necessarily on being starstruck at seeing Matt Damon or Brendan Fraser or Alan Rickman or Charlton Heston or whoever you’re seeing. The only ‘weak’ point in the cast was the girl who played Thomasina [Jessie Cave, who was in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince] and it’s hard to tell whether it was her or the character that bothered me. She wasn’t as natural as the other actors, but then her character is 13 for most of the play so she may not have needed to be. Other people-I-recognized in the cast included Lucy Griffiths (Maid Marian in the recent Robin Hood series), Hugh Mitchell (Colin Creevey in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets), and Neil Pearson (Richard Finch in the Bridget Jones movies). Ed Stoppard, who played Valentine, I’d heard of (since he’s Tom Stoppard’s son, he’s gotten a bit of press for this play) but hadn’t seen in anything. He was fantastic – I understood Valentine as a character much more because of his performance.

It’s hard to explain what a Stoppard play is about. The people sitting next to me asked for a plot synopsis, and I told them that it was almost impossible to synopsize a Stoppard play, especially one that jumps time the way that Arcadia does. (Here is Wikipedia’s summary, though, if you’re interested.) It’s about math and science, literature, and sex. It’s about chaos theory, and how historically-based literary criticism is ultimately wrong. It is a working definition of dramatic irony, and – especially in a performance like this one – proof that the Second Law of Thermodynamics does not apply to literature. This is a play where the heat just keeps building and building, and it never comes anywhere near room temperature. It’s the type of play that makes higher-level math understandable, at least to me. It’s the type of play that makes me wish I’d studied it (math) more. It’s the type of play that proves how a good writer can be educational and interdisciplinary without being pedantic.

It is a play that combines ideas and characters. Valentine wouldn’t be as interesting if he weren’t passionate about math as he is, and if he weren’t so conflicted about the impossibility of Thomasina’s work. Bernard wouldn’t be interesting at all if he weren’t so passionate about Byron and his ‘discovery’. And Septimus….I was in love with Septimus after reading the play, but even more so now that I’ve seen him brought to life [especially by Dan Stevens, who is now on my ‘Watch him in anything he does’ list]. He’s especially good in the last scene, with Thomasina: he knows that it’s wrong, he knows he shouldn’t give in, and yet he can’t stop himself. It’s heartbreaking, and you could see the struggle, and the inevitability, in his performance.

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But you don’t have to take my word for it.

Reading Rainbow airs its last episode

This makes me sad. Reading Rainbow was one of my favourite shows, and featured some of my favourite picture books. Like this one or this one.

What I think is saddest is the rationalisation for cutting the show. I have no problem with using television as an education medium to teach kids how to read, with emphasis on phonics or whatever the current vogue method might be. Literacy as an ability is important.

No, what I think is saddest is the implication that once you know how to read, you’re done. That it’s not necessary to instill and foster a love of reading for its own sake. That learning why to read is not important, at least not as important as knowing how to read.

This is patently untrue. Literacy is so much more than just the ability to read – something that I’m afraid the educational standards overlook far too often. Teaching kids that reading is fun and enjoyable is just as important as teaching them how to sound out words. One of the biggest obstacles that teachers face is students that don’t want to read. They don’t see reading as something to be enjoyed, just something to be endured. But if we can teach children that reading is not just required, but recreational, then we can create teenagers who can and will read outside of class, and then we have adults who read for pleasure as well. And adults who read can change the world.

Reading expands your mind. It gives you insights into other people, other lifestyles, other countries, other times, and other ideas. Reading teaches in a way that the classroom cannot. And people who don’t read tend to be more close-minded than people who do, simply because they don’t have the breadth of mental experience to understand that there are different perspectives in the world. Aliteracy is just as much of a problem as illiteracy.

We need adults who will read, not just adults who can read. And in order to have that, we need to have children and teenagers who read because they want to, not just because they have to. That is what Reading Rainbow provided. It wasn’t just about the featured book – although each episode had a fantastic featured book. It was also about how that book could connect with your life: Gregory, the Terrible Eater, for example, led to lessons on healthy eating and getting along with your parents and making compromises. And it was also about ordinary kids telling about the books they liked, showing that reading is something that kids just like you did even when it wasn’t a part of school, and giving a range of ideas for what to read after the show was over.

There is a hole in educational programming now; I only hope that something fills it before it becomes a hole in our lives as well.

The original theme song

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Cynicism

There was an article on Huffington Post that I read yesterday that I wrote about, but it ended up being very emotional, so instead of posting it here, I’ll just link to it:If you’re interested.

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A disappointing mental_floss article

Literary Pilgrimages

I am actually a little bit disappointed in this list. There’s not a lot on there that is new to me. I didn’t know about Trilby, Florida, or Barnhill, but the others are either familiar or obvious. The other disappointment is purely personal – I really don’t care about Faulkner or Da Vinci Code tours or Anne Rice (and are there really no other literary connections to New Orleans? Somehow I doubt that. Wasn’t The Awakening set in New Orleans or at least southern Louisiana?). I was hoping for something on the list that I would see and go, “Oh, that would be so cool to go to!” Instead I went, “Done it; have wanted to go for years; done some of it; don’t care; eh, maybe someday; don’t care; how does this even count; don’t care; don’t care; eh, I suppose; done it; eh, I suppose; huh, interesting.”

I was also disappointed in the inconsistency of the list. Some of the items on the list were tours, some were locations, some had events….there was no consistency with the definition of ‘literary pilgrimage’. Barnhill isn’t described as even acknowledging the Orwell connection – it’s just “Go here! Orwell lived here once!”

The omissions of the list are also a bit disappointing. No Lake District, with its Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Beatrix Potter connections, to name a few? No Newstead Abbey or Eastwood [D.H. Lawrence’s hometown], she asks in a burst of regional pride? No Lincoln (home of Tennyson)? Oxford, but no mention of London with its walking tours of literary highlights [we did the Bloomsbury tour one year – FANTASTIC]? No Canterbury, one of the most famous pilgrimage locations in the English-speaking world since the thirteenth century? No Edinburgh (home of Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert Burns and Ian Rankin, among others)? Stratford-upon-Avon? Hannibal, MO? Dublin? The very first comment, with DeSmet, SD, home of Laura Ingalls Wilder (in fact, any of the Laura sites – they’ve all got at least SOMETHING up about her)? And those are just in the UK, Ireland, and the US – other countries don’t have literary pilgrimage sites?

I expect more from mental_floss. In the time I’ve been reading, I’ve gotten to really enjoy their list entries – I usually find them not just entertaining but informative. Maybe that’s just because they’ve usually been on topics that I don’t know that much about – unlike this one. One of the reason that I think this particular post is so disappointing is that it makes me question the quality of the other lists that I have read and will read.

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Harry Potter

When I saw Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince the first time, it had been a while – probably a year – since I’d read the book. I have the audiobook on my hard drive, so in order to refresh my memory (after the fact) of the details they’d left out and things they’d changed, I listened to it. Then I went to go see it again.

And then I went crazy and became obsessed with not just the books but the movies. In the last four days I have reread all the books (except Half-Blood Prince, since I listened to it) and rewatched all the movies. The movies several times. (I can’t concentrate in silence – I have to have something going on in the background. I know. I’m weird. I have, however, passed 10K words on my dissertation so I’m not being totally obsessive and academically useless.)

I know that Harry Potter is not the ‘best’ series in a literary sense, and that it tends to overshadow other children’s and young adult literature that is just as worthy of consideration. But it is a fun series nonetheless, and one of the things I am most impressed by is the world-building. Granted, there are things that are inconsistent – website after website has, I am sure, pointed them out. I don’t care. To maintain the level of detail that she has across seven books and however many years of writing takes incredible imagination, planning, organization, and memory. Seemingly insignificant details come back later, giving the books a richness and depth that is only fully obvious on a reread/relisten. It is something that I aspire to as a writer, and something that I look for as a reader. [I enjoy fantasy, but only really world-building type fantasy – I’m not really into the paranormal (vampires especially) unless they are a part of a bigger mythos as they are here.]

The obsession seems to fading now that I have actually gotten through all of the books – even Order of the Phoenix which I don’t think I’d reread since its movie came out. Maybe tomorrow I’ll be able to do something different. At least, until the next time this particular obsession hits.

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Some days, I wish I had studied science

Genetics was my favourite part of biology class, and is one of the reasons that I sometimes wish that I’d continued studying science past high school. I still follow science news, though, and was intrigued by this article about the Quagga. There are only 23 hides left, and yet from these 100+ year old skins they were able to extract enough DNA to analyse it and plan a breeding program. Thank goodness that there are still enough Plains zebras around to make such a project feasible. I doubt a similar program would work with the big cats or the rhinos (there’s a subspecies of black rhino, I think it is, that is near extinction): the gene pool just isn’t varied enough.

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