Monthly Archives: September 2010

Beatrix Potter: How to Be a Naturalist

In a departure from custom, today’s post focuses on journal writing.  Beatrix Potter may best be known as the author and illustrator of Peter Rabbit, Squirrel Nutkin, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and other classics, but she was also a world-class naturalist who kept a fascinating journal. My colleague Kate Chandler, who teaches many of our college’s “ecoliterature” […]

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Internet Nastiness: Crying to Be Heard

There has been a lot of complaining in recent years about the lack of civility in social discourse.  The breakdown of common courtesy and mutual respect in town hall meetings, Congress, and other venues threatens (some believe) the very foundations of our society. In his article this week, Jason Blake talks about how the internet […]

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A Poem about the Stoning of Women

My colleague Jeff Coleman recently wrote the following poem about the stoning of women in places like Somalia, Iran, and Taliban-controlled regions of Afghanistan. He tells me the poem was triggered by an article in the New York Times about Iranian executions, but for me it brought to mind the Somalian stoning two years ago […]

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Who Owns the American Revolution?

Ever since Barack Obama was elected, we’ve been hearing claims that his presidency is illegitimate. Any number of people—including some who should know better—are draping themselves in revolutionary garb. This includes those responsible for the Republicans’ recent Pledge to America, where the authors declare “the governed do not consent.” The reference, of course, is to the […]

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Blasphemy + Laughter, Not All Bad

Spiritual Sunday I was teaching Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale on Friday and had a sudden insight: laughter, even blasphemous laughter, is not an enemy to spirituality. In fact, it can be a means of deepening our connection with the divine. I will make my case through Chaucer. The Miller’s Tale is about as bawdy as it […]

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Michael Vick, Escape Artist Extraordinaire

Why do I find myself rooting for someone guilty of an abominable crime? And yet this Sunday, when the Philadelphia Eagles play the Jacksonville Jaguars, I will find myself cheering for Michael Vick. The stories of the dog fighting ring run by Vick will turn any stomach. He went to jail for it and now […]

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Clooney Is Clark Gable + Cary Grant

Film Friday I’ve spent many hours talking about film with my friend Jim Bershon, a retired dentist who loves movies. When my life became too busy a couple of years ago, Jim took over a monthly film series at a local senior center that I had started. He sent along the following introduction to his […]

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When You’re Sick, Call the Musketeers

I seldom get sick but, when I do, I become a wimp. Generally my illnesses take the form of stabbing sinus pain, and I retreat into a cocoon of misery and imagine myself about to die. As is appropriate for my melodramatic self pity, my mind invariably fixates upon a literary scene composed during France’s […]

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A Poem for Those Who Love to Read

  My father is a master of light comic verse, a genre often not taken seriously by literature departments. The ability to lift the spirits, however, is a precious gift that should not be underestimated. The following poem, about a lover of reading, is a reference to Jesus’s instructions (in Mark 4:21-22) that we not […]

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How the Rich Cry Poverty, Austen Style

John Kenneth Galbraith, noted economist and author of The Affluent Society, used to read Jane Austen before he sat down to write. He wanted to achieve the author’s light ironic touch in his own work. Yesterday another liberal economist had me thinking of Austen. Paul Krugman, the Nobel laureate who writes for the New York […]

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Atwood and the Eve of Destruction

Margaret Atwood’s most famous novel may be her futurist nightmare The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). In her two most recent novels, Atwood returns to the dystopian genre and paints a picture of a world in which unbridled capitalism, environmental devastation, urban decay, sexual license, runaway gene splicing, and extreme income disparity rule the earth. My book […]

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The Lord Is My Shepherd, I Shall Not Want

Spiritual Sunday This past Sunday in our Episcopal Church, the 23rd psalm, it seems, was everywhere. We read the psalm itself aloud and sang two or three hymns that were versions of it. The gospel lesson dealt with the parable of the lost sheep, a comforting passage given its assertion that “the good shepherd” loves […]

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Imagination Unleashed: Children on Bikes

Sports Saturday I bicycle virtually everyday to the college where I work, about a mile and a quarter from home.  Unless it’s raining or snowing, motorists can see me pumping along, my pants tucked into my socks, my necktie blowing in the wind, my backpack weighed down with laptop, lunch, and the Longman Anthology of British […]

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The Titanic and Adolescence, 2 Disasters

Film Friday I have been recently writing about how Jane Austen’s 17-year-old heroine in Northanger Abbey uses gothic novels to negotiate the challenges of early 19th century life. Today I talk about how the greatest box office success in Hollywood history did the same for middle school girls in 1997. In fact, a major reason […]

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The Church and the Chimney-Sweep’s Cry

In his August 29 Washington Mall speech, rightwing television commentator Glenn Beck attacked (among other things) the notion that Christianity should be concerned with issues of social justice. He accused Barack Obama and liberation theology of distorting Jesus’s message. For the President, Beck said, it’s all about victims and victimhood; oppressors and the oppressed; reparations, […]

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Moving Beyond Adolescent Fantasies

Sometimes I will discover that two different works start talking to each other simply because I happen to be teaching them both at the same time. This week Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (from my Jane Austen first year seminar) and John Keats’ Eve of St. Agnes (from my British fantasy course) engaged in one of […]

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Lit and Our Impoverished Political Culture

I’ve been thinking about how shallow and dishonest political speech has become in recent years. Then again, maybe it’s always been like this and I’m just noticing it more. When politics enter the picture, it appears that people start becoming stupid. Outlandish claims and ridiculous reasoning are either (1) accepted as factual or (2) seen […]

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Singing a Lullaby to a Dead Son

From time to time I have reported on my friend Alan, who is dying of cancer but who continues to hold his head up and, to the amazement of us all, refuses to get depressed. We held another one of our salons in his honor this past Thursday. After hearing Alan report on the latest […]

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Believe in the Utter Sweetness of Your Life

A beautiful Yom Kippur poem by Philip Schultz.

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The NFL as Chicago Slaughterhouse

  Sports Saturday Football season has begun, with a full slate of games scheduled for tomorrow. The good news is that the seven-month drought known as offseason ends for fans of America’s most popular game. The bad news is that, once again, young men will go back to permanently damaging themselves as they fling their […]

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My Favorite Film: Spirit of the Beehive

Film Friday In today’s post I write about my favorite film, one that pulls me into the world of a child’s imagination like no other artistic work. The film is Victor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive (Espíritu de la colmena), which came out in 1973. The film is set during or immediately after the Spanish […]

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The Bard’s Defense of Midsummer Marriage

Teaching a course in British Fantasy has given me a new perspective on Midsummer Night’s Dream, our first work. The course could be called (borrowing from Bruno Bettelheim) “the uses of enchantment” because our focus is on how and why people turn to fantasy. In our class discussion, we decided that Shakespeare uses his green […]

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Most Plagiarists Fail to “Sin Nobly”

Jason Blake’s guest column this week is on the issue of plagiarism. Jason’s experience matches my own: it takes more work to produce a successful plagiarism than to write an acceptable essay. Plagiarism is generally so obvious that the plagiarist resembles Tom Sawyer in the episode involving memorized Bible verses. As you may recall, students […]

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Obama Finds a Balm in Gilead

Marilynne Robinson  I’ve been meaning to write for a while on Marilynne Robinson’s mesmerizing 2006 novel Gilead. I learned recently that it is one of Barack Obama’s favorite novels, which gives me an opportunity to explore how a work of literature impacts someone that we all have a stake in. This isn’t meant to be […]

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A Tribute to the Workers of the World

Here’s a special Labor Day post for the workers of the world—those who have jobs and those who don’t, those who are overworked and those who are underemployed, those who are treated fairly and those who are exploited, those who are just starting out and those who have been working for a long time, those […]

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Entering the Days of Awe

Spiritual Sunday Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is a time of year when Jews do a spiritual self assessment and take upon themselves responsibility for the sins of the world. As the “days of awe” commence this coming Wednesday, I went looking for a good Rosh Hashanah poem. I found an excellent one by […]

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Neruda and Ted Williams: A Fantasy

Sports Saturday My colleague Israel Ruiz in our Spanish Department is an enthusiastic baseball fan. He is also Puerto Rican and I have learned a lot about the Puerto Rican love of baseball from him. For instance, did you know that Puerto Rico is second only to the Dominican Republic in providing active Latin American […]

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Beowulf (the film): Fathering Monsters

Jolie as Grendel’s Mother  Film Friday I’m teaching Beowulf at the moment and of course my class wants to know what I think of the movie, by which they mean Robert Zemeckis’s animated 2007 version rather than the 2005 Swedish film Beowulf and Grendel. Neither is very good but it’s interesting to see what each […]

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The Inner Hell of a PTSD Sufferer

Larry Burrows photo, 1966 Continuing on with connections between Barack Obama’s reading list and the winding down of American involvement in Iraq, I notice that there are a number of Philip Roth novels. As the list is from when the president was in his twenties (for the most part), it is missing a more recent […]

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Exiting an Iraqi Heart of Darkness

Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now  As I listened to the president talk last night about the withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq, I found myself thinking of a book on his reading list, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. (See last Thursday’s post for the entire list.) In his talk, Obama mentioned how he had disagreed […]

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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