Saturday, August 30, 2008

Amidst the rubble...

Yesterday, part of the beauty of largely self-scheduled work, I took a trip to the massive, annual Labor Day weekend flea market in Hillsville, VA.

The number of people and vendors is astounding, and a few minutes calculating the profit earned by the lemonade stands resulted in another "astounding." The only thing that could improve the crowd would be if the event took place in Flatsville instead.

It was early, damp, foggy, and cool when we arrived. The day before, it had rained all day. Walking through the parking areas was like tramping over a water mattress, except with more mud. The smarter sellers had tarps and straw spread around their tables to soak up some of the wet.

During the course of the eight-hour day, I walked probably seven to ten miles. The sun came out mid-morning and by noon the mud was turning into half-baked clay.

The booths are laden with dusty glassware in green, red, and blue. Boxes of assorted, yellowed papers are shoved under the display cases of old coins, Pez dispensers, and antique fishing lures. Enormous shelves hold reusable window etchings, hand-crafted jewelry, stacks of LIFE magazines, and dilapidated old books. Canvas is the decor of choice, followed closely by plastic.

The people mirror the goods. Fanny packs are back in style. So are grocery-style carts and hand carts with milk crates and a bungee cord. Baseball caps and sunglasses are sold on every table, but most people bring their own. Some are members of the old crowd, darting from table to table at 7 a.m. with eyes squinted to find a particular item before their competitors do.

Teenagers tend to stroll among the streetside vendors, looking at puppies, cheap perfume, and the college boy running the Funnel Cakes booth or the scantily dressed girl beside the Nascar display. Parents roam the aisles to find second-hand furniture and bulk lots of picture books while their two year old strains at the furry brown harness and leash fastened around her waist.

The true collectors know what they're looking for. They have to scrounge through four dozen dust and grime-coated boxes of miscellany to find one postcard from the 1950s. They have to scour ten different lots to locate an original Don Knotts autographed photo. Sometimes the search seems endless and pointless. But if it were easy, it wouldn't be so satisfying.

Me? I like people-watching. I also like hand-painted glass and old books. My prize find was an 1819 edition of collected works by Alexander Pope, in good condition. I found it in the midst of a big, has-never-seen-the-light-of-day-or-a-dustcloth box full of 1860s Algebra books and 1990s comics.

Hunting through all the rubbish to find the treasure is kind of like dealing with life and people. All of us have a lot of mildew and broken glass inside - remnants of our pasts, our families, our mistakes, our choices. And yet we're made in the likeness of God. So somewhere, underneath all the mess, there is something worth noticing, worth honoring, and worth seeking out.

Too often, I forget to notice. To honor. To seek out. I am so grateful that God never does (see Luke 15:8-10).

At the flea market, I watched a man find the one coin he was seeking. He lifted it from among the rest, polished it on his sleeve, and immediately tucked it into the vendor's plastic baggie with all the care of a museum curator. To him, the grunge no longer mattered, because he had found the treasure underneath.

Pretty powerful image, right?

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Life in 10 seconds

FINALLY finished Brothers Karamazov. I was looking back at previous posts, and I realized I started this book on May 14! It took me over 3 months to read!!! I don't think a book has taken me that long in...well, ever...

Funny, though, I'm pretty sure it was worth it. Now starting the much shorter "Silas Marner" and considering reading kiddie lit for a while to recover. Almost to the 20th C in my review of BritLit for the GRE. Trying to relearn HTML and CSS for work. Labor Day upcoming!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Life in 10 - almost

Finished "Memoirs of a Geisha" by Golden. Down to 150 pages in "Brothers K." Now studying English Romantics in my GRE subject review. Reading "Le coeur revelateur" by Poe as I struggle to remember French vocab. Beginning to request transcripts and gather info for grad school apps.

Top schools for now - also taking suggestions:

-WFU (Masters only)
-UNC-Chapel Hill (Masters first)
-Notre Dame

With acceptance rates in the <5% range, I probably need a backup plan, but I have so many [application fees] already!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

I needed another book list...

So, to continue the online transmission of dubitable statistics ;-), I stole this from Andrea. Only 41 - gasp! as an English major! Well, new additions for my reading list...

Apparently the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts’ Big Read program) estimates that the average adult has only read six of these books. At least, that is the statistic that is bandied about the internet. So, basically, this is a random unverified list with a random unverified statistic attached to it.
Here’s how it works:
1) Look at the list and bold those you have read.
2) Italicize those you intend to read.
3) Mark in red the books you LOVE.
4) Reprint this list in your blog

1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
2 The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
4 Harry Potter series - JK Rowling
5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
6 The Bible
7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell
9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman

10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare - still working on it...
15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveller’s Wife - Audrey Niffenegger

20 Middlemarch - George Eliot - (Silas Marner...much shorter)
21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald
23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
26 Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky - if I ever finish Brothers K
28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll

30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis
34 Emma - Jane Austen
35 Persuasion - Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis
37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini - brilliant
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden

40 Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne
41 Animal Farm - George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez - not big on mystic realism
44 A Prayer for Owen Meany - John Irving
45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale - Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding

50 Atonement - Ian McEwan
51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel
52 Dune - Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens - so much power
58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon

60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov - in a word, disturbing
63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary - Helen Fielding
69 Midnight’s Children - Salman Rushdie

70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville
71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
72 Dracula - Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses - James Joyce
76 The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal - Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray

80 Possession - AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web - EB White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

90 The Faraway Tree Collection
91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
94 Watership Down - Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl
100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo - masterwork

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Beyond blurry vision

Questions on my mind this week...
  • Sonnet: Petrarchan or Shakespearean?
  • Why did people in 16th C England write so much?
  • Will I ever finish Brothers Karamazov? and...
  • Why do decisions stress me out so badly?
In between studying for the GRE subject test, this week I have been making hard decisions about my job situation. I have learned well - perhaps too well - to look at both sides of an issue and measure the pros and cons. Yet the pessimist in me persists in saying both options have a lot of negatives, rather than a lot of positives. As a result, I fixate on the decision. "Stewing" is an appropriate word. And after I make it, I continue to second-guess.

I'm sure all of us have watched (or heard about) swimmer Michael Phelps make history with his 8 gold medals (100%) at the Beijing Olympics. One big story was the 200-meter butterfly, in which Phelps' goggles filled with water halfway through, leaving him blind.

Some people would have taken the incident as an excuse to fail. Phelps went on to win the race despite the incident. "From the 150-meter wall to the finish, I couldn't see the wall. I was just hoping I was winning," he told reporters.

As I think about it, I take a few lessons from Phelps and other Olympians.

Phelps was competing against himself and the clock as much as against the other swimmers. He would swim his best whether he was five lengths in front or a length behind. Slacking off when he was winning was not a consideration (see the 200-meter freestyle).

'Winning' does not always mean being better than the person next to you. 'Winning' does not always mean standing on the top of the podium. Just ask Oksana Chusovitina, the 33-year-old gymnast competing for Germany. In a sport dominated by 16 year olds, Chusovitina's reaction to her silver medal could hardly have been more jubilant.

And sometimes you just have to race blind, knowing that you are going in the right direction and using your best effort, even if you can't see the wall.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Philip Pullman's Dark Materials

*Warning - spoilers throughout*

...Read the book before you criticize it, I always say. And so I did. I encourage you to do the same.

Tragic. That is the one word that first comes to mind as I set aside the nearly 1,000-page collection containing Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy: The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass.

The plot is compelling; the characters, alive and covered with skin and hair; the emotion, fierce.

If there are snags in the fabric of story and philosophy, it is because this book is, in many ways, a refutation. When establishing a new order, an author can simplify without losing the credibility of his or her world. When dis-establishing an old order, an author has less leeway for simplicity.

And Pullman’s novels are distinctly disestablishmentarianist. His premise is that the Christian faith is, as one character says, “a very powerful and convincing mistake, that’s all” (p. 871).

This is the problem Pullman’s novels face. In one chapter Lyra and Will are battling a harpy in the world of the dead, and in another Pullman is alluding to the questions of grace and works that have occupied Christian theologians: “But your reading will be even better then, after a lifetime of thought and effort, because it will come from conscious understanding. Grace attained like that is deeper and fuller than grace that comes freely, and furthermore, once you’ve gained it, it will never leave you” (p. 909).

For the reader, the plot has fallen into a crevice and is momentarily lost, but the philosophical treatise replacing it is only half-formed and simplified to a child’s level.

The metaphysics of His Dark Materials imagine a tri-part human, containing body, soul (daemon), and mind (ghost). The properties of mind and soul are incompletely distinguished, but the body is declared the most important.

The epistemology stems from the idea that consciousness (Dust, Shadows, original sin) is a fundamental force in the universe and is the root of knowledge. Knowledge, therefore, comes from the pursuit of knowledge. Pullman paints the overarching narrative of human history as “a struggle between wisdom and stupidity” (p.899) rather than between good and evil: “The rebel angels, the followers of wisdom, have always tried to open minds; the Authority and his churches have always tried to keep them closed” (p. 899).

The ethics of His Dark Materials are decidedly situational. Lyra, as the Eve figure, uses truth and lies, cheating, and betrayal to accomplish her ends. “She felt warm and virtuous, because she did it for Will, never for herself” (p. 674), Pullman tells the reader. She deals with a shifting sense of reality that is not simply caused by her growth and maturity, but it is related to the nature of reality itself, according to Pullman. “I came to believe that good and evil are names for what people do, not for what they are. All we can say is that this is a good deed, because it helps someone, or that’s an evil one, because it hurts them” (p. 875), says Mary Malone.

As a consequence, Pullman’s is a dismal, self-preservationalist political world. Closing instructions tell Lyra and Will to “show [people] how to be kind instead of cruel, and patient instead of hasty, and cheerful instead of surly, and above all how to keep their minds open and free and curious.”

Other parts of the narrative invoke a Hobbesian view of reality that is parallel to rationales for the use of the atom bomb and for the ensuing arms race: “We never knew about [the subtle knife] when I first met you, Iorek,” Will says, “and nor did anyone, but now that we do, we got to use it ourselves—we can’t just not. That’d be feeble, and it’d be wrong, too, it’d be just like handing it over to ‘em and saying, ‘Go on, use it, we won’t stop you’” (p. 682).

Most classic (pre-postmodern) children’s novels carry the expectation that sacrifice will not go unrewarded and that beloved characters will be rescued from destruction, because there is someone who can always be trusted. Pullman’s protagonists are forced to realize that no one is safe or trustworthy, and that life does not have happy endings.

Elements in Pullman’s novel strike at comparable fantasy epics like The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien and especially like The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis, of whom Pullman was an especially vitriolic critic.

There are specific elements, like the names of the heroines: Pullman’s Lyra and Lewis’s Lucy. Motifs are echoed, like the beginning of both Lyra’s and Lucy’s adventures through an escape from censure into a wardrobe. Fierce, helpful animals (the lion Aslan and the bear Iorek) appear in both sets of novels. Powerful, magical objects appear in both Tolkien and Pullman. Parallel worlds, initially reached through a neutral world (Citagazze in Pullman, the Wood between the Worlds in Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew) are featured in Lewis and Pullman.

Even dialogue mirrors other works of fantasy. “I can feel war, Lyra Silvertongue; I can smell it; I can hear it” (p. 692), says Iorek at their parting. The quote has a parallel in The Return of the King, in which Treebeard says, “For the world is changing: I feel it in the earth, and I smell it in the air. I do not think we shall meet again” (p. 321).

Pullman readily admits the intertextuality of his books. “I have stolen ideas from every book I have ever read,” he said honestly in the acknowledgements. He cites Blake’s poetry and Milton’s Paradise Lost as central influences, but epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter also quote the Bible (angelic characters are drawn from the genealogies in Genesis), Emily Dickinson, Keats, and others.

Beyond the similarities, though, it is impossible to dismiss the extreme differences.

The worldview in Narnia and Lord of the Rings, from my perspective, is something pervasive and natural. It is inherently intertwined with the stories, as if the stories were created for their own merits and the worldview simply flowed into them (with possible exceptions in a few of the Chronicles of Narnia). By contrast, Pullman’s story and worldview are intertwined deliberately, as if the story was crafted to exhibit the philosophy.

Pullman’s novels centrally seek to remove something: the certainty and persuasion of the church. His attempts to set up an alternate worldview in its place are subtle and fragile in contrast to the crushing arguments he flings at Christian thought.

In The Amber Spyglass, there is a moment of realization and regret that, for me, was one of the most poignant in the entire trilogy. Mary Malone, who is called on by Dust (consciousness) to act as the serpent to Lyra’s Eve, pauses in relating the story of her downfall from faith. She says, “And then had come the discovery of the Shadows and her journey into another world, and now this vivid night, and it was plain that everything was throbbing with purpose and meaning, but she was cut off from it” (p. 878).

This is the emotion that Pullman’s His Dark Materials left in me. The threads of human love, sacrifice, honor, duty, and compassion are prevalent throughout the trilogy, but they always pause just on the edge of purpose, continuity, and meaning. It is as if their author, like Mary Malone, had come to that same edge and, turning away, were seeking desperately for an alternative way to find it.

For more on this topic, visit

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Real money

One way to make an event seem more real is to pay for an extremely expensive test related to said event.

I just registered for the GRE subject test, Literature in English. Pocketbook = ouch, Brain = yikes. The test date isn't until October 18, but that's just over 2 months to study all of British and American literature, literary theory, terms, critical methods, and anything else the test makers can think of.

Eh. Why am I worrying? And since when do I study for two months for any test? Perhaps I'll start in this case, since I don't have other classes to worry about.

In any case, the gauntlet has been thrown down. Especially since I decided to send my scores to Harvard.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Life in 10 seconds

Great visit with my cousin this weekend. Now reading "The Amber Spyglass," by Philip Pullman. Once I finish this one, I'll post my thoughts on the comparison between Tolkien, Lewis, and Pullman. Still chugging along in "Brothers Karamazov," after a brief hiatus. Big decisions in the works this week. More details forthcoming.


Yesterday, our pastor preached an interesting sermon on the oft-quoted Ephesians 5 selection on men and women. His take on the verses was that men and women have different designated roles, not different worth or superiority. Those roles are designed to counteract what happened at the Fall.

  • Adam's sin? Running away from the responsibility. Protecting himself at her expense.
  • Man's role? Staying. Taking responsibility. Loving his wife above himself.
  • Eve's sin? Pulling him down instead of lifting him up. Using her power wrongly.
  • Woman's role? Pushing Adam forward and allowing him to lead. Lifting/holding him up.
The idea that got me thinking was the concept of power as the ability to withhold.

My pastor described men's "language of love" as respect, and he said women are very good at figuring out how to withhold it. I think it goes both ways, but since I'm a woman, I'll follow his angle of thinking as I muse about this topic of withholding respect.

It is one consequence of not being given the direct leadership role. The thought process is something like, "If he would do it my way, this wouldn't happen. He's a fool for not doing it my way. Therefore, I don't owe him my respect."

It's punishment. Like withholding food, company, or intimacy, withholding respect is a statement of disapproval, of the other's failure. "When you get it right, then I will respect you."

It's a substitute for communication. We allow others to sense our disapproval without being honest enough to tell them why. That's a major difference between training an animal and living in a relationship. It's good if the animal can read your body language. A person shouldn't be expected to do the same.

The question is how not to give respect too lightly, but how not to withhold due respect. The line is finer than I once thought. I guess that's one of those things married couples especially have to figure out, but it certainly is food for thought in regards to all relationships, among women as well as between woman and man.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Grad School Schedule

Well, as autumn rolls around, I intend not to make the same mistake I made last year, i.e. waiting until December to make up my mind about grad school applications. This year, I will be on the ball. Here's my current attempt at a schedule for myself.

-study for English GRE subject test
-research grad schools and narrow list to 5-6
-contact professors at top schools

-study for GRE subject test
-register for GRE subject test
-take GRE subject test
-begin writing personal statements for schools

-contact and line up references
-finalize resume
-finish personal statements
-revise and proofread writing sample
-request transcripts
-request GRE scores

-collect, compile, and send applications

We'll see how well I stick to the schedule. Along the way, I also intend to begin my study of Italian, possibly refresh my study of Latin, and continue to advance my study of French. Once I settle on a location for this upcoming year, I hope to take a few classes at a community college to work on my language skills.

Fingers crossed for a better outcome this year!!!

Life in 10 - or not 10

Just got back from a week up north for a friend's lovely wedding. The hardest part about returning, besides saying goodbye to college friends - some for an indeterminate amount of time - was driving past the exit for my college and not turning off and going "home." Felt very unnatural and sad. But it was great to see everyone for a little while.

During the week, I read "The Other Boleyn Girl" by Philippa Gregory, an excellent historical fiction piece. Still working on "Brothers Karamazov."

Now back to the daily grind.