29 December 2013

Submergence by J.M. Ledgard

People ask, what kind of writer do you want to be. I say, I want to be like Brancusi. I want my writing to have that rigour, that beauty, and that ability to see the world in a new way.
—J.M. Ledgard
Coffee House Press is one of the very few publishers whose books I will buy simply because Coffee House published them (another, in case you're curious, is Small Beer Press. Apparently, I am partial to publishers with beverages in their names). At this year's AWP conference, I happened to pass the Coffee House booth, and I was curious to see what was new. On a table at the front of the booth, J.M. Ledgard's Submergence grabbed by eye: a novel partially about events in East Africa, with a cover blurb by Teju Cole, published by Coffee House ... how could I resist? I could not. Life caught up with me, though, and I didn't have time to read the book until this week.

I begin by writing about where and why I bought the book because I'm trying to stay specific and concrete when what I most want to do is enthuse and exclaim, and I fear hyperbole, and I fear overselling the book, setting up expectations that can't be met by anything written by a mortal. I want to say: This is the best contemporary novel I have read in a long time, and I've read some excellent contemporary novels this year. I want to say: If you can only read one book in the next week/month/year, read this book. I want to say: We need more books like this book, and yet how can other books be like this book? I want to say: This book could change your life.

I won't really say any of that, though, because it all sounds jejune, and anyway, different readers respond differently. For instance, at The Guardian, Todd McEwen had a generally negative response to Submergence. Reading his review made me think terrible things about Todd McEwen, I will admit, but it also reminded me that some people are blind stupid illiterate unimaginative willfully ignorant willfully narrow in their aesthetics stupid stupid stupid opinions vary. Rather than foaming at the mouth like a madman, I shall try instead to describe a few of the many qualities I find so admirable in this extraordinary book.

(If you would rather judge for yourself, Bomb published a good excerpt.)

16 December 2013

Reading In the Heart of the Country

I create myself in the words that create me.
In the Heart of the Country
I've recently completed a draft of a paper on J.M. Coetzee's second novel, In the Heart of the Country, writing about the book and its contexts (with regard to trauma theory and Afrikaner Nationalism), but as I read various scholarly analyses of it, as well as reviews of the novel when it was first published, what struck me was the book's relative neglect compared to Coetzee's other novels, and the general lack of enthusiasm for it. When I first read it some years ago, I found it befuddling and often tedious. But it stuck with me, even haunted me, and that's why I decided to take some time digging into it. Older now, more experienced in reading Coetzee, I found it immensely rich and a powerful reading experience. Though I've spent a few months reading and re-reading it closely, I still feel like I'm only beginning to get a grasp of all it's up to.

It is impossible to sum up In the Heart of the Country through a simple phrase such as, "This novel is about _________." That blank is full of possibilities. Those possibilities are, in fact, primarily what the book is about: the possibilities (and limits) of meaning.

13 December 2013


Over at Press Play, I have a new text essay to accompany Leigh Singer's video essay on dragons in movies. Here's a taste:
In confronting dragons, humans confront an ancient, alien Nature. Unlike the other popular fantasy figures these days—vampires and zombies—dragons are not transmuted humans, but rather something beyond us, other than us. Often, they are represented as deeply greedy, and this is their fatal flaw (e.g. Smaug in The Hobbit). They guard, hoard, and covet. Within most fantasy stories, they're part of a medieval environment and their greed stands in contrast to the commons. The triumph of the little human against the dragon is a heroic reappropriation of resources and a signal of the human ability to triumph over the hoard of Nature—the dragon must die for civilization to advance. 
You can read the whole thing at Press Play.

06 December 2013


11 February 1990

I was 14 years old on the day Nelson Mandela walked out of prison. I remember the television I watched it on, the room I was in, the couch I sat on. I was a white kid in rural New Hampshire, and I remember being overwhelmed with inexpressible hope, inchoate happiness.


I knew that there was widespread interest in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, in the United States of America, but to see that reflected in the conduct of the people when I arrivedd in New York was something very encouraging, very inspiring. The excitement of the people, the remarks they made which indivated unwavering solidarity with our struggle — in the street, in buildings, offices and resident ... flats — it was just amazing; it swept me from my feet completely ... To know that you are the object of such goodwill makes one humble indeed. And that is how I felt.

—Nelson Mandela: Conversations with Myself p. 377


Mandela's death yesterday was certainly no surprise — indeed, obituary writers have had their copy prepared for some time — and yet I was deeply shaken. Though I have some South African acquaintances, I've never been there. Mandela's death has no practical effect on my life, because the Mandela I know is an image, a recording, a representation, something beyond his body's life or death. And yet it is wrenching to think that we now live in a world without Mandela.

There have already been countless tributes, of course, some excellent. (Keep your eyes on Africa Is a Country for some of the best. See also Timothy Burke's excellent "Be Nelson Mandela". And Ta-Nehisi Coates' "Apartheid's Useful Idiots".) Here, I want to note the moment, to remember just how sad it felt to live in the hours after Mandela had gone, and then to replace the sadness with the memory of the hopeful happiness I felt that day when I was 14.


When I was among the crowd I raised my right fist and there was a roar. I had not been able to do that for twenty-seven years and it gave me a surge of strength and joy.

—Long Walk to Freedom p. 491

01 December 2013

Film Textbooks, Take 3

A solidly popular post here continues to be one I wrote in 2009 about textbooks for introduction to film courses. I updated it once, way back in 2011, but enough time has passed that it deserves a quick update again.

First, I should say: Because I've started a Ph.D. at UNH, I'm not teaching film these days, except for a summer class online. So I haven't been thinking about film textbooks too much recently. But I do think about it, mostly because I really miss teaching film. It seeps into everything I do, though — this term, for instance, I'm taking a required course for all new grad students who are teaching First-Year Composition (yes, it's a little awkward having 15 years of teaching experience and taking a course like this...), and for my research project for the class I decided to research the use of film analysis in FYC classes. (If you're curious, you can see the results of all that research here. Creating a Weebly site was a class assignment, so I used it as a place to park my project.) I still love film textbooks, though, and have kept current with a few of them.

I was disappointed with the changes between the second and third editions of the textbook I used most frequently, The Film Experience. It's not bad, just not as thoroughly re-envisioned as I hoped it would be. I had hoped it would have more material to help students understand shot and scene analysis, for instance. These are pretty common assignments in intro to film classes, and yet I don't know of any textbook that provides a really excellent model. I still like The Film Experience best of the textbooks I know, however, because it is closest to my own approach to film history and theory.

The latest edition of Film Art is just as gorgeous as previous ones, and the book remains a tremendously thorough guide to formalist film analysis. I really considered using it for my summer course, but in the end I just couldn't justify the cost, because I need a textbook that's broader and more ecumenical.

My experiences with The Oxford History of World Cinema, The Cinema Book, and A Short Guide to Writing About Film were mixed, and I wouldn't use any of them again, though I think they're all useful books. The problem was that The Oxford History was overkill for my class, The Cinema Book just didn't have the right topics for my Deviants class, and A Short Guide is much too expensive for what it is. We used all of the books in class, but none of them as fully as I had hoped, and A Short Guide in particular was just too thin and sketchy for what the students had to pay for it.

For my First Year Composition course next term, I'm using Signs of Life in the USA, a Comp textbook with a popular culture focus, including a pretty good chapter on film (with an essay by Matt Zoller Seitz, whose presence in the book immediately made me happy). With luck, in a few years I'll get to teach a proper film course again, but until then I'm just going to have to make do...