Posts

On Academic Book Prices, and Other Subjects...

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Over at my other blog, Finite Eyes (about academic subjects, and things related to my job as Interim Director of Interdisciplinary Studies at Plymouth State), I've got a few new posts, including one on the pricing of academic books, which might be of at least vague interest to Mumpsimus readers.

There's also a post thinking about John Warner's excellent book Why They Can't Write. And a post that's gotten tons of traffic after being Tweeted out by a few prominent academics' accounts: "Cruelty-Free Syllabi".

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

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I keep recommending Maria Dahvana Headley's most recent novel, The Mere Wife, to people, and so it seems I should write a little something about it.

(Had my summer and, especially, fall been less fraught, I would have written about The Mere Wife some time ago, because it's a terrific novel and Maria and I have been friends for more than 20 years now, making me very much inclined to tell the world when I think she's done great work. But life intervened, as it does. Here I am, though: World! The Mere Wife is great work!)

The Mere Wife  slyly elides some of the differences between novels, epics, and narrative poems. Novels are omnivorous monsters that eat up every form and mode they encounter, and a writer who knows this — who, in fact, revels in it — is set to wrangle and wrestle the beast into a powerful shape. Since The Mere Wife is inspired by/riffing on Beowulf, a raid on the fortresses of other storytelling forms is especially appropriate. There is a freshness to this n…

On Moderan by David R. Bunch

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For The Millions, I wrote about David R. Bunch's extraordinary Moderan, recently republished by NYRB Classics for the first time in about 50 years and with material that's never before appeared in book form.
Here's a taste:
Moderan collects dozens of brief stories set in a future world apparently destroyed by nuclear bombs, a world where the landscape has been entirely paved over with plastic and the surviving humans have transformed themselves into cyborgs, their bodies mostly replaced with metal, leaving only a few flesh-strips as evidence of their old form. The men with the most metal become warriors whose identity is merged with the Stronghold that houses them, and the pleasure and glory of Moderan is the warring of its Strongholds. (Most of the stories in Moderan focus on Stronghold 10, the best at warring.)  The new-metal men hunker down in their Strongholds and wage war against each other. War is the most exciting thing in everyone’s lives, the way to prove strength …

Why They Can't Write by John Warner

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Over at my more academic-and-pedagogy-focused blog, Finite Eyes, I have written a post of thoughts about and inspired by John Warner's valuable new book, Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities.

A taste:
Why They Can’t Write is not primarily aimed at writing teachers, particularly not teachers with some background in composition & rhetoric. While there’s certainly much of interest to comp & rhet folks, Warner’s goal is to make available to a general audience the insights that have been central to composition pedagogy and scholarship for decades. “With this book,” Warner says on page 5, “I want to speak to policy makers, educators, parents of school-aged children, and even students themselves, so we can engage in conversation and collaboration that will meet the needs of our culture and communities.”

As I read it, I thought about who I would want to give this book to once it comes out in paperback. Yes, I’d love all the comp & r…

On William Plomer for The Modernist Archives Publishing Project

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The Modernist Archives Publishing Project ("a critical digital archive of early twentieth-century publishing history") has now published a biography/bibliography I wrote about William Plomer, the man who, among other accomplishments, links Virginia Woolf and James Bond.

Back in 2015, I wrote here about Plomer's little-known novel The Invaders, and that post explores what most fascinates me about Plomer: his reticence and, honestly, his failure. As I said in the MAPP bio, The Invaders is
a story of class conflicts and homosexuality, though the presentation of the latter was so quiet that one of the directors of Jonathan Cape, Rupert Hart-Davis, complained of the protagonist in one scene, “You don’t say, and hardly even infer, whether they went to bed together or not,” but Plomer refused to be more explicit (Alexander 194). When the novel was published, E.M. Forster wrote a letter to Plomer criticizing the ambiguity, which he admitted he felt was a failure in his own work…

A Writer of Our TIme by Joshua Sperling

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Over the last few years, Verso released Portraits and Landscapes, two collections of John Berger's writings edited by Tom Overton, who is writing a biography of Berger. Meanwhile, Verso recently published Joshua Sperling's A Writer of Our Time, subtitled "The Life and Work of John Berger". It's partly a biography, partly a critical study, partly a tribute — and works well as each, so long as the partly is emphasized. In his introduction, Sperling says one of the goals of the book is to "provide a fuller picture of Berger's development", and that it does admirably.

Though I look forward eagerly to Overton's biography and I hope that fuller critical studies appear, Sperling's book is tremendously useful and welcome now as we reckon with Berger's legacy. Sperling says that Berger's "stature is undisputed, but the total significance of his work is often misunderstood. He simply produced too dizzying an array of forms for a culture …

Patriot (Seasons 1 and 2)

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Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous. —Nathanael West, Day of the Locust

1.
I want to say a few words in praise of the Amazon Prime show Patriot, which I never would have watched without a friend saying how strange, surprising, and affecting it is. Because of work and life, I haven't been able to read any fiction more than the occasional short story for a month or so now — my brain is pulled in too many other directions for me to hold a novel's details in mind — and few movies or tv shows have felt like anything other than loud wallpaper. This state of mind probably contributed to my appreciation of Patriot, as its mood fit so well with my own moment.

Patriot does not seem to have gathered many viewers, at least not among people I know or critics I read. (Amazon, like other services, doesn't release viewing numbers, so we can only use anecdotal evidence to guess about popularity or lack of it.) Season 1 got noticed here and there, Season 2 less so. In a media envi…

Ghosts: In Memory of Elizabeth Webb Cheney

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My mother died on November 3, 2018. She was, in so many ways, my first reader and my first editor. Five days before her death, she asked me to write her something to read. I went home that night and wrote the following essay. I brought it to her the next day. Her eyesight had weakened, and she didn't have a lot of stamina, but she was able to read a couple paragraphs of it. It turned out to be the last thing I wrote while my mother was alive. I read it at her memorial service, and numerous people asked to have a copy of it, so I am posting it here for all who are interested. 


Ghosts
by Matthew Cheney

A reader of horror stories, and a fan of horror movies, I am familiar with ghosts and hauntings. As I’ve grown older, though, it seems strange to me that ghosts are typically represented as frightening, that being haunted is considered undesireable.

Certainly, screaming banshees flying through the ruins of gothic mansions at midnight aren’t exactly comforting. But I’m thinking of a dif…

The Haunting of Hill House (2018)

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Mike Flanagan's Netflix miniseries The Haunting of Hill House is not an adaptation of the Shirley Jackson novel The Haunting of Hill House. The miniseries is a work of its own, separate, unique — but haunted by The Haunting of Hill House. And not only The Haunting of Hill House: the miniseries is also haunted by the first adaptation of Jackson's novel, the classic 1963 film The Haunting, and by numerous other stories and movies (The Legend of Hell House, The Shining, etc.).

During the first few episodes, I thought the connection to Jackson's novel was unnecessary, perhaps even burdensome. I assumed somebody had bought the rights and then, through the tortuous (and torturous) process of Hollywood development, the novel got more and more distant from the project while remaining contractually bound to it. Perhaps, I thought, Flanagan was able to do with this property what he'd done with Ouija: Origin of Evil and convince the producers to let him make the movie he wanted t…