acquiring, collecting, reading, adapting

Month: March, 2014

Review: The Luminaries

The Luminaries
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is something strangely ethereal about Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. Perhaps this is not surprising, given the celestial nature of the title and the star charts that underpin the structure of the novel. At 848 pages, you might expect something heavier in subject and tone to match the literal weight of the novel itself. Instead, the novel is almost airy, the words—particularly late in the novel—seem almost to rise off pages that are incapable of holding onto them.

The novel gives the appearance at first to be an old-fashioned Victorian yarn of the sensation novel variety: there’s a mystery, a missing person, a possible ghost, several ship wrecks, an opium-smoking prostitute, a fortune teller, stolen gold, a fairy-tale-like story involving women’s dresses, and a young man seeking his fortune in a country far from his home. Indeed, the story even opens on a dark and stormy night, when our fortune-seeker accidentally walks into the back room of a bar where a secret meeting is taking place. And yet, despite these trappings, this is not at all the juicy, engrossing Victorian pastiche I expected. Instead, Catton enchants.

Initially, it was a bit hard for me to get into the book, though I couldn’t understand why, since I am used to reading lengthy nineteenth-century tome with huge casts of characters. In The Luminaries, there are 13 male characters taking turns telling their stories, plus a couple of additional characters that were involved in the stories but not telling them. I found myself re-reading passages and feeling a bit confused about the roles of different (male) characters. I didn’t even bother with the astrological charts, and while I feel a little bad about that, since I’m sure they added something for those who could read them, I knew it wasn’t for me. The novel begins as a bit of a puzzler: wide in scope, crowded with characters, and involved in revisiting details of a mystery over and over with only the tiniest movement toward a new piece of information. But once I gave myself over to it, and once a few very crucial details became known (perhaps we would disagree about what were these crucial details), the story began to take off at a rollicking pace, only to slow down again and focus in again toward the end. At first the effect of the ending is frustrating, as you basically have already inferred the backstory Catton is filling in. But then something amazing happens: the story, the pages, the words, begin to unravel before your eyes as white space begins to engulf the text and the descriptions of what is happening in a chapter become longer than the scenes themselves. And then, the final disembodied words, quiet and intimate after a whirlwind description of the mechanizations of fate. To me, the ending of this novel feels, more than anything else, like blowing on a dandelion and watching the seeds scatter.

I have no idea whether or not this review even makes sense, much less compels a reader to pick up the book. But I wanted to try to capture the feeling of reading this novel. I can say I found it beguiling, and am astounded by the feats Catton achieves. I cannot give it 5 stars, as the technical feats, for me, outweighed the heart of the book too much; though I was intellectually engaged, I was never drawn fully into the novel. But I still recommend it.

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The Tyranny of Five Paragraphs

This is the second of my three promised blog posts for the Write-A-Thon for Boston 826. Please sponsor me in this fundraiser for an incredible nonprofit writing and tutoring center serving Boston Public Schools.

In early March, the College Board announced a significant change to the SAT that has gotten a good deal of press: they have made the test’s essay portion, introduced in 2005, optional instead of mandatory. The charge against the SAT essay component has been led by Les Perelman, former director of MIT’s writing program (now a research affiliate), who proved that the essay was flawed by showing that students could ace the essay by eschewing facts and following a formula (make your thesis an answer to the prompt, use big words, write as much as possible, include a quotation in the conclusion, etc). Many high school teachers and college writing instructors applauded the decision to remove the essay from the test, based on its flawed nature.

Last week, I read a frustrating essay by a college writing instructor claiming that the dismissal of the essay portion of the SAT reflected our society’s lack of interest in writing and the development of ideas. Yet it seems clear to me—and to many college writing instructors—that it has been the standardization of essay writing itself that has reflected our society’s lack of interest in writing and stunted our students’ ability to develop ideas. This comes as no surprise whatsoever for college instructors, but as a supervisor of writing tutors, I thought it might be interesting to discuss some of the observations I’ve made that bolster instructors’ own observations, but from a different perspective.

Each year, around 80 students apply for my university’s writing fellows (undergraduate peer writing tutors) program. I hire about 22 and personally interview between 40 and 50 applicants each year. Most, though not all, of the applicants are first-year students who, if hired, would begin the program as sophomores. As part of the application process, I ask students a lot of questions about their writing backgrounds and processes as well as their definitions of writing terms.

Interestingly, the applicants who received “5” on the AP test—and thus have been exempted from the university’s first-year college writing requirement—generally have a harder time answering these questions than students who took at least one semester of college expository writing. Many of them have difficulty pinpointing any differences between high school and college writing, even though they often submit, as part of their application, high school writing samples that have weaker thesis statements, shallower analysis, and less effective uses of outside sources than their counterparts who took at least one semester of college expository writing. (Last year I had to explain to a student that the reason her application was rejected in the first stage was because the high school writing sample she submitted contained plagiarism in the form of inadequate paraphrasing.)

Far more troubling, though, is the way many students describe certain elements of the essay. When asked to define a thesis statement, many students explain that the thesis should be an answer to the question asked in the prompt, but when asked what they would do if there were no prompt, the students fumble. Most students “define” a thesis statement in vague terms (it’s the “essence” of your paper, or the “main idea” or the “heart”), but what bothers me much more are the extremely specific but short-sighted definitions. For many students, a thesis statement must be “three-pronged”; in other words, it must include “three main points” the essay will cover. When asked why there must be three main points, most students who answer this way simply say, “I don’t know… three is a good number” or something to that effect. (The answer, of course, is because a five-paragraph essay has three body paragraphs, each of which contains one of the main points mentioned in the thesis.)

Recently, I heard an even more upsetting variation on the magic number three’s role in essay structure. When asked to explain the structure of a paragraph, one student described a paragraph as a mini-five-paragraph-essay: with a topic sentence, three pieces of evidence, and a concluding sentence. Imagine: all paragraphs should be five sentences long.

Many of the students who are able to offer ways they find college writing to be different from high school writing focus on structure: they have realized that you actually cannot write, say, a 10-page paper (or even a 5-page paper for that matter) using only five paragraphs. Some of them are able to articulate that realization and the struggle to figure out what the structure of a paragraph and essay really should or can be once they realized that the five-paragraph model wouldn’t work. Sadly, even some of the students who realize it doesn’t work nevertheless suggest it as a method for the imaginary student they are pretending to tutor in the interview to use if that student is struggling to structure an essay.

What both gives me hope and saddens me are the stories of students who grew to love college writing after hating it in high school. These students describe loving to write when they were younger, but feeling hemmed in by the rigid structure taught in high school. One student explained her frustration over handing in an essay she was really proud of because it felt risky—she felt she had challenged herself with an unusual topic—only to have the essay returned with nothing but comments about the essay’s structure and grammar. These students describe college writing as “freeing”—allowing them to explore topics that interest them and challenge them, that allow them to craft a sustained argument and use whatever structure they feel is the best for what they need to say. Sometimes they even say they can be more creative with their academic writing.

This post is not at all intended as a dig toward high school teachers, so please do not misinterpret it as such. I completely understand the need for high school teachers to teach the five paragraph essay: these teachers are only trying to help their students succeed at the task they have been given, which is to write a structured essay in 25 – 40 minutes. The problem is that too many students walk away from high school thinking that the five-paragraph model is the way to write an essay.  Some of them answer the questions I ask with such confidence, even though their answers reflect a simplistic idea of writing. They are the students who follow the rules, who ace this particular way of doing things, and who are going to be very confused when they encounter an assignment that will not allow them to write this way. And because they “mastered” the five-paragraph model well enough to be exempted from taking a class that focuses specifically on developing writing skills and process, they will encounter this problem in a much less forgiving and process-oriented environment.

I used to view the five-paragraph essay as a harmless tool, a way to teach the basics of structure to a beginning writer. When I taught college writing, I found it to be a rather interesting exercise to “un-teach” the five-paragraph mentality, because it is very strong proof that writing is something you can and should develop and grow with over time. But when I think about how deeply I value process, and how the exam-model does not allow for process, I become more troubled by the formula. And when I hear the stories of the students who felt their creativity, their desire to take risks, their intellectual ambitions were stymied by the rigid, shallow, and arbitrary structure of the five-paragraph essay, I begin to think the model is not harmless, but damaging. When Quentin Miller, the author of the Cognoscenti article bemoaning the loss of the SAT essay, laments that his students do not understand that writing takes time, and energy, and practice, and that they do not need to think of themselves as “bad writers” just because they struggle at it or just because someone, somewhere, told them they were bad at it, he could very well be talking about the many students who have exciting ideas or unusual but valid writing styles that are de-valued by a cookie-cutter way of looking at the complex process of writing.

The Trouble with Mrs. Hughes

*Spoiler alert: this post contains specific, spoilerific details about season 4 of Downton Abbey, which finished airing in the U.S. this month.

This is the first of my three promised blog posts for the Write-A-Thon for Boston 826. Please sponsor me in this fundraiser for an incredible nonprofit writing and tutoring center serving Boston Public Schools.

Before I begin my comments on Season 4 of “Downton Abbey,” I would just like to take a moment to acknowledge that sometimes I think I’m a little crazy to keep watching after the train wreck that was Season 3 (or, for that matter, the train wreck that was season 2), but also that in many ways, Season 4 was better-written than the show has been for quite some time, in terms of the writers’ ability to keep a storyline going for more than one episode. For whatever reason, I don’t seem to be able to quit the show. There’s just something about that damn piano and violin motif that provokes a pavlovian response in me.  It’s like that duh-duh sound on “Law and Order.” I’m hooked.

This season started, of course, with one of the most controversial and upsetting events in Downton history, when Anna was raped by the valet of a guest. I am not going to dwell on the scene itself, nor am I going to go into its effects on Anna, or how it was a cheap shot to use a rape to “liven up” the Anna-Bates plotline, which had apparently gotten boring (because, you know, happy married life is totes boring). Instead, I am primarily going to focus on how the depiction of Anna’s rape emphasized seemingly unrelated figurative language that threatened violence against other women on the show, and how the application of that language to the beloved housekeeper Mrs. Hughes normalizes the idea of violence against women.

One of my favorite characters on “Downton Abbey” in previous seasons, Mrs. Hughes has always been the voice of reason, the problem solver, the one who shows mercy when Carson has been too strict. As this season has shown more than ever before, she’s the one you go to when you have a problem you can’t tell anyone else (though she might tell everyone for you). And perhaps most of all, she is the moral center of the show, which makes some of the language given to her this season particularly dangerous, especially considering that, for a short time, Mrs. Hughes was the only person who knew what happened to Anna.

Mrs. Hughes’s questionable language begins as a result of a second instance of nonconsensual sex on the show. At the end of the same episode as Anna’s rape, Edna, another lady’s maid, disappears into Branson’s bedroom after she had been plying him with drinks all evening. Before I remembered that I was watching a dubiously scripted soap opera, I thought for a moment that “Downton Abbey” might be sophisticated enough to compare and explore two different instances of rape. Silly me. Instead of the show depicting what happened to Branson as rape, it turned out just to be a set-up for Mrs. Hughes to tell Edna off for the viewers’ entertainment.


Showdown between Mrs. Hughes and Edna

What was supposed to have been (and which was so for many viewers) a satisfying show-down had an unpleasant and deeply problematic tone.  In calling Edna’s bluff about being pregnant with Branson’s child, Mrs. Hughes threatens to call the doctor and have Edna examined. When Edna protests that Mrs. Hughes “can’t force” her to submit to the examination, Mrs. Hughes snaps, “Oh, yes, I can.  First I’ll lock you in this room, then when he’s arrived, I’ll tear the clothes from your body and hold you down if that’s what it takes.” The threat of tearing Edna’s clothes off and forcibly restraining her while a doctor performs an exam would have been disturbingly suggestive of rape even if Anna had not herself just been attacked, but placing this language so close to the scene of Anna’s attack seems either to be deliberately in reference to the attack or appallingly thoughtless. Further, this language suggests that some women “deserve” such treatment even if others don’t. While I am certainly not defending Edna’s actions—which, again, I see as rape—the fact is that the show, while acknowledging that Edna was not “seduced,” as she tried to claim, does not seem to be drawing a parallel between Branson and Anna. Instead, the show’s version of the story is that Branson made an error in judgment involving a scheming, promiscuous woman who keeps a birth-control manual in her room, and the audience is encouraged to cheer on Mrs. Hughes’s sexually-suggestive, violent threat.

This type of linguistic slippage occurs again in episode 6, when a disillusioned Ivy returns to Downton after Jimmy, in typical date-rape fashion, has claimed Ivy “owes” him after he has paid for several trips to the theater and movies. When Ivy tells Mrs. Patmore and Mrs. Hughes that Alfred would never have treated her that way, Daisy lashes out at Ivy for ignoring Alfred while he was at Downton. Ivy seems confused by Daisy’s outburst, but Mrs. Hughes tells Ivy, “you had it coming.” While Mrs. Hughes was presumably referring to Daisy’s reaction, the similarity to Jimmy’s sentiments—that Ivy should have expected the dates to come with a “price”—implies that Mrs. Hughes’s could also mean Ivy “had it coming” in terms of Jimmy’s advances.

These two incidents are much less prominent, of course, than the way that Mrs. Hughes essentially takes control of the discourse surrounding Anna’s rape. Despite Anna’s insistence that Mrs. Hughes tell no one about the incident, Mrs. Hughes proceeds to tell several people. While it is clear that Mrs. Hughes is trying to help Anna, it was dismaying as a viewer to see Anna’s ability to tell her own story taken away from her, multiple times. And of course it’s Mrs. Hughes who discovers evidence that implies Bates murdered the man who raped Anna, which allows her to control the discourse around Bates’s actions as well. She even tells Lady Mary about the ticket in Bates’s pocket,  for no apparent reason, other than perhaps to convince Mary, and by extension the audience, that Bates’s actions—which involve, in addition to MURDER, repeatedly questioning Anna’s behavior toward Green prior to the rape, stalking Anna after the rape, hovering creepily in the shadows waiting for her, and badgering her to tell him something she isn’t willing or ready to discuss—are justified. It’s understandable, because of course, it’s really all about him, not Anna.

Mrs Hughes

Mrs. Hughes finds evidence of Bates’s crime

If these incidents had been distributed among various characters, there may have been a different effect. But because they were all associated with Mrs. Hughes and situated in emotional scenes clearly designed to invoke in the viewer a feeling of triumph in response to Mrs. Hughes’s words, the overall effect naturalizes and encourages social policing of women’s bodies, emotions, and decisions.