Here and Back Again

I went twenty days without posting here, and it's been an eventful time, pretty much all to the good.  I took care of some giant final tasks for my father's estate, taught some classes, made progress with planning classes for the summer and fall, volunteered on a movie shoot, wrote a screenplay for a web series a friend hopes to make in Minnesota (more on that as it develops), started another screenplay I hope to browbeat another friend into filming, wrote a very difficult review of a book I'd hoped to be able to say more good things about than I was able to (more on that later), and submitted a couple of short stories to places that might be friendly toward them, since though I haven't written any new stories in quite some time, I do have a couple that have proved difficult to place with publishers because I stubbornly insist that their weirdnesses, lacunae, contradictions, and nonsense are not flaws, but charming and essential features.

In amidst it all, there was some reading.  Here are a few highlights...
  • I picked up a copy of Robert B. Parker's Looking for Rachel Wallace after reading Ron Silliman's praise of it. And it does, indeed, provide plenty of interesting fodder for anybody interested in such things as gender and machismo. It's also pretty darn entertaining.

  • Speaking of machismo, I picked up Richard Sellers's Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole, and Oliver Reed from the library because it looked like a light read and I realized I knew nothing about the actual lives of the four actors it discusses. It is, indeed, a light read, but also a depressing one -- it is nothing but stories of four immensely talented people being drunk, boorish, irresponsible, and destructive. I couldn't help thinking of a much better book, Tom Dardis's The Thirsty Muse: Alcohol and the American Writer, where the destructive effect of alcohol on the later work of Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway is contrasted with the blossoming of Eugene O'Neill's writing once he quit drinking. Sellers makes a point of noting that Burton, Harris, O'Toole, and Reed all said they had no regrets about the effect of alcohol on their lives, but it's obvious from the book that their lives were deeply hurt by their drinking.

  • I finally got around to reading Troll: A Love Story by Johanna Sinisalo (aka Not Before Sundown), which won the Tiptree Award for 2004, and which I've been meaning to read at least from the time it won the award. I should have read it then. Actually, I wish I had read it before it garnered any accolades, because I think my expectations for it pretty much ruined it for me. I expected a truly great book, and got a merely good one.  And sometimes a bit less than merely good.  I found the insertion of various excerpts from fictional texts tedious and obvious, the story itself at times rather silly, and the final images more goofy than affecting. I certainly would not have disliked it all as fully as I did had I come to it blind, and I expect I would have found it more surprising and more compelling if I'd had no expectations of it being of a particular quality when I began. Alas. My loss.

  • James Naremore's More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts was a great joy to read. Naremore wrote one of my favorite books on Orson Welles, as well as an early and perceptive little book on Psycho and, most recently, a pretty good study of Kubrick. But More Than Night may be his masterpiece -- full of insights that help make even some films I've seen many times seem almost new.

  • Truffaut: A Biography by Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana was illuminating about certain moments in the life of one of my favorite filmmakers, but it was on the whole disappointing because it spends comparatively little time on each film he made, so it ultimate felt to me quite thin. I'll have to give Truffaut at Work at try, since the Dartmouth Library has a copy, and Bill Krohn's Hitchcock at Work is marvelous, marvelous, marvelous.

  • Perhaps my favorite book read in the last month, if not during all of 2010 so far, is Helen Merrick's The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms. It's full of insights, provocations, information. I'll be writing more specifically about it in the future, but for now, just know that if you have any interest in feminism, cultural history, and/or genre fiction, you'll get a lot out of this book.
Meanwhile, just a few days ago I discovered that over a year ago Norton released a Critical Edition of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, edited by Francis Abiola Irele. I love the Norton Critical Editions, but the NCE of Things Fall Apart may be the best one I've seen. The novel itself takes up just over 100 pages, and the whole book is nearly 600 pages long -- rich with background material, interviews with Achebe and other people, reviews, analyses, various material related to Achebe's critique of Heart of Darkness, etc. It's a thing of wonder and beauty.

I immediately wanted to use it in a course. But what course? I don't get to teach an African literature course, and would be hesitant to teach one at the college level, anyway, at least beyond the introductory level -- my interest in African lit is the interest of a passionate hobbyist, and my knowledge is full of gaps, ignorance, and, I'm sure, inaccuracies.

But I've been struggling to come up with a new syllabus for a course I'm teaching for the second time in the fall, The Outsider. My previous syllabus wasn't a disaster, but I'm more experienced with the sorts of students who take this course now, and I wanted to change a few things (not so much the texts, most of which actually worked pretty well, as my approach and writing assignments). The thing that I kept coming back to was the experience of teaching Nervous Conditions, a book I had had great luck with in a high school course on African novels. My Plymouth State students almost unanimously hated it -- mostly, I discovered, because they had trouble understanding it. Not the language, which is perfectly straightforward, but the cultural background. In the high school class I used the book in, by the time we got to it we had spent a few weeks learning about themes of certain similar types of African literature and the cultural situations of some of the writers. We'd had a bit of that in my first try with The Outsider, but not to an extent where it sunk in enough. College students in central New Hampshire in general education courses need to spend real time on learning about the world from which writers write if those writers are not writing from worlds that appear frequently in the students' experience of life and of media representations. Indeed, when it comes to an African country, the students need even more time to work through their knowledge, perceptions, and assumptions because so much of what they know, perceive, and assume is reductive or, often as not, flat-out wrong. Thus, Kafka made more sense to them than Dangarembga. I had not been prepared for that.

Thinking about this and about the wonderful Norton edition of Things Fall Apart , I had a eureka moment -- why not devote the entire course to African literature and perceptions of Africa in non-African writing? Surely, I could do this while also sticking to the basic idea of the Outsider course.  The general course description requires only that the course look at literature and film, include discussions of the individual in relationship to society, and emphasize differences in cultures, and include such topics as "gender, sexuality, race, class, wealth, behavior, and socialization."  No problem.  And with a course of this level -- the most basic and general offered by the University -- I wouldn't need more than my own hugely-incomplete-but-adequate-enough-for-this-purpose knowledge.

What would happen, I thought, if we read not just Heart of Darkness and Things Fall Apart, but also The Story of an African Farm and King Solomon's Mines? And then move from there to books by post-Independence African writers? (That would also let me use another great Norton book, Modern African Drama). I immediately started making a list of possible texts -- and then realized I should probably limit myself to books currently in print, since that would make things a bit easier when it comes to making books available to 25-30 students...

Lo and behold, lots of things I wanted to use are currently unavailable. I was particularly annoyed to discover that Ngugi's Devil on the Cross is out of print. Grrr. One of the most important novels by one of the most important African novelists. Not available. And so many others, too. Not available.

But many great books are available, and I've ordered copies of some I haven't yet had an excuse to get hold of. Now I've got the excuse. I expect at least some of my posts here over the next few months will be about the books I'm either revisiting or encountering for the first time as I prepare for the course. I'm looking forward, too, to rereading Things Fall Apart, which I last read no more recently than nine years ago.  First up, though, will be The Story of an African Farm, which, I'm sad to say, I've never read before.

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