Hottie of the Month: Phillis Wheatley Thursday, May 31 2007 

Phillis WheatleyMay’s hottie (just in the nick of time) is Phillis Wheatley (ca. 1753-1784), an eighteenth-century African-American woman who was a slave and a poet. While PJ and I were in Boston last week, we saw the Boston Women’s Memorial on Commonwealth Avenue, a series of three statues of Bostonian women: Wheatley, Abigail Adams, and Lucy Stone.

Wheatley was the first black American to be published. She is also credited with originating the genres of African-American poetry and African-American women’s literature. She was born in Africa and kidnapped and sold into slavery when she was about 7-years-old. She was purchased by a Boston tailor and quickly learned English and how to read and write.

Her poems, which were mostly about religious subjects, were first published in England, since no one in America was willing to print them. In fact, Americans initially doubted that a slave woman could have written these poems, and so Wheatley was subjected to an interrogation by several prominent Bostonian men to determine whether she did indeed write them. They concluded that she did.

This poem, which gives a taste of her work, is inscribed on the memorial:

Imagination! Who can sing thy force?
Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?
Soaring through air to find the bright abode,
Th’ empyreal palace of the thund’ring God,
We on thy pinions can surpass the wind,
And leave the rolling universe behind:
From star to star the mental optics rove,
Measure the skies, and range the realms above.
There in one view we grasp the mighty whole,
Or with new worlds amaze th’ unbounded soul.

As eighteenth-century British literature scholars and teachers attempt to diversify our canon, Wheatley and Olaudah Equiano have begun being included in anthologies of British literature. While her work (and Equiano’s autobiography) is admirable for its literary achievement and historical significance, it seems a bit of a stretch to include her in an eighteenth-century British literature course.

Wheatley died young: she was only about 31-years-old. Despite her acclaim as a poet, she died in poverty while working as a scullery maid in a boarding house. Not only is she an important figure in American history and literature, but she is now also May’s hottie of the month!

Patty Griffin, Pink, and Thomas Gray Wednesday, May 30 2007 

This week I’m teaching poems by Thomas Gray, William Cowper, and Oliver Goldsmith in my honors class. The goal is to gesture toward Romanticism. I love all three writers and their works, so it’s a good note to end our class on. (Here’s a cool site on Gray.)

But one side effect of teaching Gray’s “Sonnet on the Death of Mr. Richard West” and “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” is that it puts you in the mood for music that expresses the loss of loved ones.

As I’ve been reading and teaching Gray this week, the artist who keeps coming to mind is Patty Griffin, not that all her music is sad or anything like that, but quite a bit of it is mournful or about loss. I recently downloaded her album Impossible Dream from Napster. I really like “Love Throw a Line,” “Rowing Song,” and “Useless Desires.”

While Impossible Dream is good, I think 1000 Kisses is a more satisfying album. “Making Pies” alone is a masterpiece. “Be Careful” and “Mil Besos” are also among my favorites. The song that’s been coming to my mind this week is “Rain.” Here’s the video:

I love this video. I don’t usually like animated videos, but I think the animation works really well in this one: it captures the tone of the song without becoming too maudlin.


Back from Boston Monday, May 28 2007 

PJ and I had a great time in Boston. He attended the American Literature Association Conference, and I toured some of the sights. We also ate really well, and I got in a lot of walking.

We arrived on Wednesday afternoon. After checking into our hotel, we took a walk through the Public Garden and Boston Common and along Commonwealth Avenue, which contains statues of famous Bostonians. We then met one of PJ’s former colleagues from Oakland for dinner at Stephanie’s on Newbury. I had the macaroni and cheese with prosciutto and truffle oil, which was deliciously rich. For dessert, I had the peach and raspberry cobbler. It was great seeing his colleague again; it’s always fun to have good conversation over an excellent dinner.

On our way over to the restaurant, his colleague took us into the Boston Public Library to see the reading rooms and the courtyard. Leave it to a group of English professors to turn a library into a tourist destination, but it’s a wonderful building and would be a great place to do research or just sit and read. She was telling us about how she used to go there to read Henry James novels while she was in college. Here’s a picture I took of the library the next day:

Boston Public Library

We also walked around for a bit after dinner, mostly along Commonwealth Ave. again. This time we were searching specifically for the statue of the poet Phillis Wheatley, a slave and the first African-American writer to be published in America.

On Thursday and Friday, I continued sightseeing. PJ was able to come to a few things with me, but he missed a lot since he had to go to his conference. On Thursday and Friday, I saw and/or visited the New England Aquarium, Old North Church, Paul Revere’s House, Faneuil Hall, Quincy Market, the Old South Meeting House, the Fine Arts Museum of Boston, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and the South End and Chinatown neighborhoods. I’ll blog about a lot of these sights over the next week or so.

In the meantime, I need to check the scores at the French Open and get caught up on my grading, both of which leave me with one overarching question: why aren’t we on semesters already?!

What I’m Listening To: Bright Eyes Wednesday, May 23 2007 

PJ and I went to a Bright Eyes concert on Sunday in Columbus. We’ve been listening to their music for the past several weeks. We’d read various stories and reviews of their work (and about Conor Oberst in particular) for some time. I think PJ really got into them when he saw this video of theirs:

Anyone who’s seen Shortbus will recognize some of the people in the video. (John Cameron Mitchell directed both, of course.) It’s a great long song (PJ and I sing it to each other all the time, metaphorically speaking), and a perfect video. He had me watch it one day, and I immediately shared his love for it and for Bright Eyes (PJ has always had great taste in music).

So, on Sunday we drove to Columbus, ate dinner at our favorite restaurant, Haiku, and then drove over to the Wexner Center for the concert. There were two opening acts. The first was Oakley Hall. I’d never heard of them before, but I thought they were fine. Here’s a little taste of their music:

They were followed by Gillian Welch, who we love. We heard them — Gillian Welch and David Rawlings — before at the Stuart’s Opera House in Nelsonville. Here’s a sample of their music, one of their best songs, “Time (The Revelator)”:


Off to Boston Tuesday, May 22 2007 

This has been a long and arduous quarter. Teaching 17 contact hours a week when you’re used to 8 is a real killer! So, to give myself a break, I’m accompanying PJ to the conference of the American Literature Association in Boston. We leave tomorrow and return on Saturday. I’m planning on eating well and visiting a couple of museums, along with a few other landmarks, some of which will hopefully be eighteenth-century related.

I’m hoping to return with lots to blog about, especially since next week should be a relatively easy teaching week — only one day of class for the gay lit course (to finish Hard and Transgeneration) and tutorials on mid- to late-eighteenth-century poetry (Gray, Goldsmith, and Cowper), which I am looking forward to. So, I anticipate having more time to blog once this week is over. (Yippee!)

Wednesdays are going to be blogging about music days, so hopefully a pre-written blog will appear tomorrow about what I’m listening to at the moment. Otherwise, I’m off to Boston until the weekend.

Teaching Tristram Shandy Sunday, May 13 2007 

Over the past two weeks, I’ve been teaching Laurence Sterne’s eighteenth-century novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. It’s not a novel that I ever thought that I would teach. I embarrassingly admit that I hated it when I was in graduate school — I’m much more of a Richardson fan; I like the more traditional realist novel. But when I was creating the syllabus for my HTC class, I decided that it was about time I teach one of the great mid-century novels that I had never taught before. It was either Tristram or Tom Jones. I obviously picked the former.

On the whole, I’m glad I taught it. It’s certainly one of the most challenging books I’ve ever read, much less taught. (Why do I keep hearing the punchline, “Read it? I haven’t even taught it yet!” in my head?!) We spent two weeks on the novel. Even though this is an honors class, that was really pushing it, I think. On the one hand, my students had to read a lot of difficult material in a relatively short time. On the other hand, at least they don’t have to spend any more time on it if they didn’t like it!

We read the first five volumes of the novel the first week. I also brought in excerpts from Melvin New’s Laurence Sterne as Satirist (1969) to illustrate one of the foundational readings of the novel. His emphasis on the text as satire helped us link it back to Pope and Swift, who we had just read the week before. We finished the book for week two, watched the 2005 movie adaptation, I presented them with excerpts from Dennis Allen’s “Sexuality/Textuality in Tristram Shandy,” published in Studies in English Literature in 1985, and they each wrote a 5-page essay on it. I used Allen’s article to illustrate more recent trends in criticism and it certainly does — lots of gender and sexual stuff. (My students have stopped being surprised that the eighteenth century is so bawdy!) I also got to explain signs, signifiers, and signifieds, which is always fun!

I can’t claim to have any great insight into Tristram Shandy, and I’m pretty sure I don’t understand much of it. But it is a great work, and I’ve decided to give it a go in my regular eighteenth-century lit class. I’m not at all confident that it’s going to go well, but I want to keep teaching it until I feel like I have some sort of handle on it. (I realize that I might retire first, though!) Tristram is a novel that teaches its readers to read differently — it defies linear reading practices and the expectations of a typical realist novel.

Several of my students wrote reviews of the movie for their tutorial paper last week. Here’s the trailer:

I first saw this movie in Montreal. At the time, I didn’t really care much for it, since I thought it could have followed the novel more closely. But, since we were reading it, I figured it would be good to show it to my students and let them decide for themselves whether it was a good adaptation or not.


A Love to Hide: A Review Saturday, May 12 2007 

Un amour à taire is a 2005 French film that was originally made for television. Here’s the trailer for the film (it’s not of very good quality, but it’s the best I could find with subtitles):

A Love to Hide is billed as a gay love story set during the Nazi occupation of Paris in 1942. Sara, a Jew, has just witnessed the deaths of her parents and sister. With no where else to go, she asks her childhood friend, Jean, for help. Although she’s been in love with Jean since they were children, she soon discovers that he is gay and in a four-year relationship with Phillipe. When Jean’s brother, Jacques, is released from prison, his jealousy over Sara’s continued love for his brother leads him to commit a rash act, one that eventually destroys their lives.

I’ll start with what I didn’t like about this film: it’s entirely predictable. Once you realize that this isn’t a love-conquers-all kind of film, you know exactly what’s going to happen. From Jacques’s reappearance from jail, you know he’s trouble, despite his claims to love his brother no matter what. A little before each twist and turn in the story occurs, PJ and I definitely saw around each corner. It’s certainly not a subtle film.

But it’s not trying to be subtle. A Love to Hide is an unabashedly sentimental film — much like Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby — and it uses that sentiment to make us care for these characters so that we feel the horror as their lives and loves are destroyed by the Nazis and their collaborators. That we see each blow before it falls only makes this sentimentalism all the more powerful. By the end, we (or perhaps the original French television audience) is meant to mourn for the inhumanity inflicted by the Nazis, for the institutionalized gay bashing that so many of the French were willing to aid and abet, just as they aided and abetted the systematic genocide of Europe’s Jews.


What I’m Listening To: Rusalka Wednesday, May 9 2007 

Since watching Julián Hernández’s Broken Sky, I’ve been slightly obsessed with the aria that plays during my favorite scene, which I described in an earlier post. Since everything worth seeing or hearing is on Youtube, I’ve been watching clips of various divas performing this aria, “Song to the Moon” from Dvorak’s Rusalka.

My favorite version of this is Rita Streich‘s performance:

Other sopranos’ clips on Youtube include Gabriela Beňačková, LuciaPopp, and Renee Fleming. They’re all good too, but there’s something special about the clip of Rita Streich. Maybe it’s that she seems to have less polish or something.

I was first introduced to classical music through my dad. He loves Dvorak and Mahler, which probably led me to love Brahms and Tchaikovsky instead (is there a gayer form of teenage rebellion!?). But I guess I’m now coming around to appreciate Dvorak, and maybe I’ll start browsing around in his other works as well.

Perhaps oddly, music and literature were the first ways in which my dad and I could connect when I was a teenager. Since he’s my adoptive father, we had some difficulties getting along for quite some time. I think it got easier once I became a teenager and came to like some of the things he liked. He first exposed me to Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, Pathetique, which became my favorite piece of music as a teenager and young adult. It’s very dramatic and emotional, just right for a gay teen growing up in a religiously conservative family in southeast Texas. (I listen to it now and can only just tolerate its over the top emotionalism.) He also introduced me to great books, including Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and especially Kakfa. (I still don’t know what he was thinking getting me to read The Castle!)


Volver: A Review Sunday, May 6 2007 

PJ and I finally saw Pedro Almodóvar‘s Volver, starring Penélope Cruz. Here’s the trailer:

Volver is about three generations of women. Raimunda, played by Cruz, lives in Madrid with her drunk and lazy husband and their daughter, Paula, played by Yohana Cobo. After their aunt dies, Raimunda’s sister, Sole, played by Lola Dueñas, miraculously encounters their mother, who died in a fire along with their father when the two sisters were children. After a violent act disrupts Raimunda’s marriage, she takes over a nearby diner and slowly begins to learn the truth about what really happened to her parents years before.


Athens Film Festival: Two Reviews Saturday, May 5 2007 

The Athens International Film Festival took place from April 27th to May 3rd. It’s one of the annual events that just about everyone in Athens looks forward to. Because of my teaching schedule, I only had time to see two films this year: The Host and The Lives of Others. Both were good.

Here’s the trailer for The Host:

The Host is ostensibly about an amphibious monster, presumably a mutated fish, that terrorizes sunbathers on the shores of the Han River. Gang-du, who works at a food stand near the shore, and his daughter, Hyun-seo, are among the crowd of people running for their lives when the monster strikes. When Gang-du accidentally lets go of his daughter’s hand, she is snapped up by the monster, who soon disappears into the river. After authorities, worried about the monster and an apparently related break-out of a new virus, evacuate the area, Gang-du receives a call from his daughter, who says she’s still alive. The rest of the film follows his efforts to convince his family and the authorities that he must return to the sewer system surrounding the river to rescue her.

While that’s the ostensible plot, the movie is really an allegory about the destructive impact America has on countries like South Korea. We watch in the opening scene as an American military official orders his Korean assistant to dispose of toxic chemicals by pouring them down a sink drain. This pollution is what presumably leads to the monster’s mutation. As the film progresses, we see additional ways in which American foreign policy and military intervention harms the Korean people.

On the whole, this is a really good film. PJ and I were told by friends that the movie is comic more than suspenseful, which is the only reason I agreed to see it. Parts of it are hilarious. The trailer shows a brief glimpse of a scene in which Gang-du and his relatives are mourning Hyun-seo’s presumed death. Their mourning keeps getting more and more outrageous. By the time they are all rolling around on the floor, I couldn’t stop laughing. The movie’s a little long — a good 20 minutes (at least) could have been cut out of the middle — and I really didn’t like the ending (I just didn’t get it). But I certainly enjoyed it for the most part.

The Lives of Others won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film this year. Here’s the trailer for it: