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Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

This is a reading/personal post rather than a teaching one. I am taking part in the MS Read-a-thon this year. I have a friend with MS and I’ve always been a keen reader; I’m also super competitive and have just fallen off the leader board on the Read-a-thon site so I’m trolling for donors. A $2 donation will get you a tax deduction. You can donate to me here and see what I’ve been reading. There’s also a link under “donate” in the links section.

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A colleague of mine recently mentioned that, in the race to meet a billion outcomes, we had perhaps lost some of our love of and fun with language. One of my teaching resolutions for 2009 is to spend more time on activities that inspire a love of our crazy language. Here’s an interesting start:

This is what happens when you put the complete works of Shakespeare into Wordle. It generates a cloud of the most common words, size indicating frequency. I think this would be a great tool for creating vocabulary lists that are a bit more interesting and a bit less listy.

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‘The Saddest Noise, The Sweetest Noise’ by Emily Dickinson is a poem of contrast and paradox. The “noise” of the title is the birdsong that haunts the poet, reminding her that although the seasons continue, individual immortality does not exist. The beauty of nature is both intensified and undermined by the memory of lost friends and family.
The setting of this poem is the edges, the in-between places, the “magical frontier” between Winter and Spring; and the moment before dawn, “night’s delicious close”. These edges are, according to British myth, the realm of faery so these allusions bring with them an air of beauty tainted with mischief and loss.
In the same way, the beauty of the changing seasons is tainted by the knowledge of that which cannot and will not be renewed: the lives of lost lovers. The memory of whom is “cruelly dear”.
Unlike other Dickinson poems, the persona here is neither childlike nor innocent, she is fully aware and even world weary. Yet in spite of this she can still appreciate and connect with nature. Her feelings, too, are on the edges. She hesitates, she “almost wish”es and Summer is “almost too heavenly near”. That last line conveys the awkwardness and anticipation of the emotion rhythmically.
Finally, the poet finds herself separated from those she loves and cruelly reminded of this fact by nature. But she is not alone. The poem uses inclusive language, particularly first person plural, to generalise the experience. We, too, have lost loved ones and must suffer through reminders of that loss as the seasons change.

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‘Iron’ by Primo Levi
Related Text Analysis


‘Iron’ is a biographical essay by twentieth century Italian-Jewish chemist and writer, Primo Levi and forms part of his greater work The Periodic Table. It chronicles his developing friendship with a fellow chemist and outsider during a time when fascism was spreading, like a cancer, across Europe.
Levi pictures fascism using a variety of metaphors including “the night of Europe”, a disease, and a “grumous dew” with a terrible “stench”. In contrast, Chemistry and the scientific method are pictured as “white”, something “from which a emanated a good smell, dry and clean” and “an antidote”.
Within this safe but ever narrowing world where rationalism triumphs over propaganda, Levi meets Sandro, who he describes as “blasphemous”, “laconic” and “sarcastic”. Sandro is a “loner”, “the quiet one”. Levi, too, is an outsider but not by choice: “the laws against the Jews had been proclaimed…following an ancient pattern, I withdrew as well.” The allusion here is to the ostracisms and proscriptions of the Jewish people across the centuries, an horrific tradition beginning in Egypt’s biblical past four thousand years earlier.
In an attempt to capture Sandro’s personality—which remains “elusive, untamed”—and their friendship, Levi engages two seemingly contradictory central metaphors: the elements of their chemical studies and the wild but pastoral scenery of the Piedmont region. Sandro is “made of iron” (hence the title of the essay) but also “cat with whom one could live for decades without ever being permitted to penetrate its sacred pelt”. Their friendship is “cation and anion” (a mixing of positive and negative ions) but also something personified and wild, “a comradeship was born”.
It is only when the action moves from the lab to the wilderness that this conflict is resolved. Matter, personified as “Mother” and “teacher” is not to be found in the lab but in the “true, authentic, timeless Urstoff, the rocks and ice of the nearby mountains”. This appropriation of the German word for element empowers Levi’s writing, his use of language, like the wilderness, is outside the control of fascism. It is here in this “island”, this “elsewhere” that Sandro finds “his place”, “a new communion with the earth and sky”. The use of Christian allusion within what is consistently pictured as a pagan setting serves to devalue and mock the colleagues who “were civil people…but withdrew” with their “dozing consciences”. The mocking tone is broadened to include the whole of Italy, “the small time pirate”.
In contrast to those who warrant Levi’s derision, Sandro is spoken of with a respect bordering, at times, on awe. As well as being “made of iron”, Sandro is a paradox, displaying “sinister hilarity” and “splendid bad faith”. He becomes not only Levi’s comrade but also his teacher preparing them both for “an iron future, drawing closer month by month”. The “iron” in Levi’s future is surviving Auschwitz, for which his treks with Sandro helped prepare him. But “they didn’t help Sandro, or not for long”. At the end of the essay Levi anchors the almost mythological Sandro to history, “Sandro Delmastro, the first man to be killed fighting in the Resistance with the Action Party’s Piedmontese Military Command”.
Levi’s chronicle of a significant but short friendship between two outsiders is also a struggle—like the chemist “fencing” with the elements—to “dress” his “elusive” friend and their friendship in words. Ironically, although Sandro was “not the sort of person you can tell stories about”, stories are all that remain, “nothing but words”.

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I have been thinking about which texts I would use for this Area of Study. I have been intermittently reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers. Intermittently because of its heartbreaking nature. I need other texts with lighter subject matter in between bouts of pure grief and the deeper joy that comes after. It is a wonderful but also a difficult text. Dave’s interior monologues as his mother dies are pure agony to read because they are so realistic. His easy going relationship with his younger brother swings between self indulgence and intense concern. I won’t write any more about this book because I don’t think I can analyse its eclectic techniques effectively within the confines of the Area of Study.

A shorter text which I think will work well is Primo Levi’s Iron, Potassium, Nickel. It, too, is a memoir, chronicling Levi’s experiences from working at the Chemical Institute in Italy, through the exploitation of his skills by his enemies, to his seeing out the war in a concentration camp. The other text I’m thinking of is one of Shaun Tan’s picture book. The Arrival would be good, but so would The Red Tree, The Lost Thing or Tales from Outer Suburbia. The images from the Belonging WebQuest is an excellent place to get started with an analysis of Shaun Tan’s work and I’ve really enjoyed exploring it.

An unusual suggestion which came up during a search I was doing yesterday is The St Crispin’s Day Speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V. The aspect of Belonging being portrayed is shared experience, in this case; war.

Being Shakespeare, this has lots of great language techniques to analyse, which is what I’m looking for in a related text.

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All three of my texts end with a relationship being firmly established. In P&P and B&P, this relationship is a marriage and this has been the goal, if not of the female leads then at least of their mothers, all along. Bridget ends up with her Darcy but, in the modern western tradition (begun, I think in Four Weddings and a Funeral), they are not married. In fact, they have not yet reached the committed stage of “moving in”. The values portrayed by this are clear: women need men, preferably men of high social status and great intelligence and it is up to the women to somehow catch these men regardless of the obvious initial indifference of both parties.

What if we changed the ending of on of the texts? The cultural pressure in both P&P and B&P towards marriage is perhaps too great to be disregarded but I think we can work with Bridget.

‘Come on,’ said Mark Darcy.

‘What?’ I said.

‘Don’t say “what”, Bridget, say “pardon”,’ hissed Mum.

‘Mrs Jones,’ said Mark firmly, ‘I am taking Bridget away to celebrate what is left of the Baby Jesus’s birthday.’

I took a big breath and grasped Mark Darcy’s proffered hand. Then I shook it firmly. ‘Thank you for all your help Mr Darcy but I’m afraid I have other plans.’ I smiled as both Mark and Mum gaped at me in astonishment.

Outside in the snow Jude, (no-longer-Vile) Richard, Shazza and Tom were waiting by the mini. ‘Come the fuck on,’ called Tom as I squeezed into the back of the tiny car.

Tuesday December 26

9st something, alcohol units lost count at twelve, cigarettes 0 (but one fat cigar), calories outnumbered by warm festive thoughts.

10am Woke in a hotel room in Paris. Little bit hungover but secure in the knowledge that Daniel, Mark, Julio and well-meaning but interfering parents are an ocean (well, a channel) away.

11am At itty bitty bistro on Left Bank with best friends. Have finally realised the secret to happiness, and it is with deep regret, rage and an overwhelming sense of defeat that I have to put it into the most cliche words in the English language: Be yourself and surround yourself with people who love you.

Next post: how does Bridget represent all five Bennet sisters?

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During discussion in class today a student asked, “isn’t that the one where they randomly burst into song?” He was, of course, referring to one of my chosen appropriations, the Bollywood film, Bride and Prejudice (see previous post for an example of a musical number from the film). This got me thinking about the links between the cultural context of a text, the values portrayed (and questioned) in the text and the narrative and stylistic conventions of the genre. Characters randomly burst into song because it is a Bollywood film, not because it is an appropriation of a Jane Austen novel.

Similarly, Bridget Jones chronicles her weight loss and gain and smoking and drinking habits as well as the ups and downs of her love life, not because she is supposed to be a modern Elizabeth Bennett but because she a single woman of a certain age. What she shares with Lizzy (and with Bride‘s Lalita) is the pressure to marry and to marry well. In all three texts marriage equals social mobility, something that is valued across the three texts and their cultures.

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