acquiring, collecting, reading, adapting

Review: The Paying Guests

The Paying Guests
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I want to start by saying I have loved all of Sarah Waters’s previous novels and consider myself a big fan. She is one of the few contemporary novelists whose new novels I actively anticipate, and I was fortunate enough to get to see her in person when this book was released in Boston.

That said, I did not love The Paying Guests. Is it I who have changed, or is it Sarah Waters? I honestly do not know. Is this novel just engaging in a genre I don’t care for and that’s the problem? Perhaps.

This novel seemed slight to me, unlike her other novels, which are so rich in detail, character, and plot. I was interested in both Frances and Lilian as characters, but in some ways I feel I never got to know them fully. For Frances, it is as if the “real” story of her life has already passed by the time we meet her character. Every time we hear about Frances throwing a shoe at a police officer or having escapades with Chris, I think, why couldn’t we have had this story instead? I feel like a novel about Frances before and during the war would have been so much more interesting. I realize the problems with this; after all, this novel is explicitly about what happens when that part of yourself you thought was dead is reawakened. But for one reason or another, the love story was never terribly convincing to me, and the setting seemed somehow staged for the purpose of the love story rather than something that made it inevitable.

Another problem for me was the use of close third person POV. At first I enjoyed it, and in some ways it is necessary, since as readers we should probably be unsure about Lilian’s emotions and motives. But ultimately the problem was that it often seemed to make Frances into a spectator in her own life. There were so many passages where Frances is just observing and describing what other people do rather than doing anything herself. This is an annoyance of mine about many novels; if the character is just going to observe most of what happens in the story, why have everything filtered through her POV?

Still, with all this, I did like certain aspects of the novel: the wonderful opening, the historical detail (of course), the importance of the house and the way Frances and her mother are annoyed by having lodgers upstairs (as a quiet person who lives in a first-floor apartment, I can relate to the annoyance of hearing footsteps upstairs!), the slow build, the introduction of a whole new storyline late in the novel that made things a little more interesting. But something about the novel overall felt very forced, and the ending really seemed like a cop-out. I am giving this four stars instead of three just because I don’t want to bring down the star rating, since I still love Sarah Waters despite everything.

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Review: A Gate at the Stairs

A Gate at the Stairs
A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like other reviewers here, I am more familiar with Moore’s short stories, which I absolutely adore. Ultimately, I found the book to have the same brilliance and razor-sharp wit of the short stories even though I found it uneven.

At first, I was disappointed by this novel and found it difficult to get into because Moore was making what seemed like a series of rookie mistakes. (God, does it make me sound like an asshole to say that or what?) The first problem for me was that Moore didn’t give us enough information about the narrator before putting her into the situation of being interviewed for a job by the other main character in the book. So what happens is, we then get a rumination or further explanation from the narrator after every interview question the employer asks. The problem with this is twofold: it disrupts the flow of the conversation, and it means that we are thrust too quickly into a situation where the stakes could be high for the protagonist but we don’t yet know what those stakes are, because we don’t know the protagonist well enough. So, for example, if we had known Tassie’s background as the daughter of a potato farmer before the conversation begins, then when Sarah gets excited about the potatoes (yes, she gets excited about potatoes), it would make so much more sense and would allow us to feel something along with Tassie. Instead, we simply learn more about Tassie’s opinions on her father and the potatoes (really this does make sense in the novel) THROUGH the conversation, which maybe sounds like a good idea, but it just slows down the conversation itself and makes it hard to see how Tassie is interacting with Sarah in the moment, which should be the important thing. Then, right after that, Tassie goes home for Christmas, which has the weird effect of making you feel like Moore is stalling something. I have mixed feelings about that one, because I do understand the importance of having her go home, but it made the whole thing a little harder than it should have been to get hooked.

BUT, once I did get hooked, I was REALLY hooked! The bizarre and hilarious and poignant interviews with pregnant mothers, the critiques of the adoption industry, the commentary on America’s particular brand of racism—these were all provocative and insightful and certainly as darkly witty as any of Moore’s short stories. She does try to pack a great deal into a very short book, so in some ways it feels like the story of Tassie’s job as a nanny and the utterly tragic and heartbreaking victimization of her young charge does not gel with the story of Tassie’s family and her brother’s decision to join the army. And for me, since the story of Tassie being a nanny was so incredibly interesting, I just wanted more about that and less of the other part. But at the same time, this is a coming-of-age story, and in a sense, the story of Tassie’s brother runs parallel to Tassie’s story. Not understanding the world and not knowing what they want their place in it to be, they both enter into it with a kind of oblivious trust and optimism, to disastrous results.

This novel gets a bonus star for some nicely-done, quasi-subtle references to Jane Eyre. (The use of “quasi” in that sentence is my own reference to A Gate.)

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Review: The Way We Live Now

The Way We Live Now
The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So, it took me pretty much all summer to read this book, which means Trollope probably wrote it faster than I read it. Ok, that’s a slight exaggeration, but he did only take eight months to write it. That’s, like, more than 100 pages a month. The man was a writing machine.

This is only the third Trollope I’ve read (Barchester Towers and The Prime Minister were the other two and yes, yes, I do know it’s weird that I only read book two of the Barsetshire Chronicles and book five of the Palliser series; blame my grad school advisor). I’ve often wondered why no one seems to read Trollope these days (more on that in a moment), and I do think that reading The Way We Live Now would be satisfying for anyone interested in the Victorian novel or a generous, leisurely-paced story.

The thing I think was best about this novel was how thoroughly and convincingly Trollope is able to inhabit each character’s perspective. Even the vilest characters have their own point of view, and Trollope seems able to convince me of those characters’ motives and grievances; I would find myself often understanding and even sympathizing with characters even when I knew they were wrong or irrational. Someone once told me that Trollope really loves his characters, and I believe it. As a consequence, he does psychological realism really well; in fact, I would say he is on par with the best Victorian novelists in this regard. It was disappointing to see the female character diminish into romantic gushiness and nearly all the best characters expelled from the community toward the end, but those things are fairly typical of a Victorian ending.

So why don’t people read him anymore? Well, it might just be the length of the novels, but I think it’s something else. This novel, perhaps considered his masterpiece, is beautifully done and fun to read, and his characters, especially the female characters, are mostly more psychologically complex and realistic than, say, those of Dickens. But in addition to a certain stylistic bravado Dickens has that Trollope doesn’t, it also lacks that weirdness, that ability Dickens has to make things creepy and strange, his interest in compulsion and masochism that makes those novels, in turn, so compulsively readable. Trollope lacks the wildness of a Bronte, too, though Marie Melmotte seems transplanted from a Bronte novel, which is why she’s so great. I would say Trollope is more like George Eliot than Dickens or Bronte, but even then, there is a lack of profundity to his work that makes Eliot’s so gorgeous. Like Gaskell, another little-read Victorian novelist, Trollope fills out the Victorian literary landscape and perhaps even exemplifies what people think of when they think of Victorian literature, but without the things that really make the writing stand out.

In any case, I still loved the novel; it was a really enjoyable read with memorable characters. My favorites were Marie Melmotte, who claims her father can “cut her to pieces” but she won’t give up her (feckless) lover, and Lady Carbury, for whom “if there was anything in life she could not forgive it was romance.” And the satire of contemporary economics could almost have been written today. There was quite a bit of repetition—perhaps reminding serial readers about where they left off—but I still enjoyed the pace. I would recommend it to anyone who likes Victorian novels or history. Personally, I plan to read more Trollope.

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Bronte Sisters set

It’s been a while since I posted about my book collection.

The Novels of the Bronte Sisters

The Novels of the Bronte Sisters

Set: The Novels of the Sisters Bronte; 12 volume set. This is a complete set of the finished seven novels by the Brontes — Villette, Shirley, Jane Eyre, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall are two volumes each — plus the famous biography of Charlotte Bronte by her friend and fellow novelist Elizabeth Gaskell.

Authors: Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, Anne Bronte, and Elizabeth Gaskell

Publisher: John Grant, Edinburgh

Publication Date: 1905

Acquired: $60 for the set, purchased at a flea market in Rowley, MA. It was hard for me to spend that much money, but after some internet research, I’m starting to feel a little guilty… because I think I got a major steal.

Comments: I have mixed feelings about grouping the Bronte Sisters’ works in a set or as a literature course. On the one hand, it makes perfect sense: their novels have similar themes, the settings are influenced by places they grew up together, they gave each other support and feedback on the first few novels. On the other hand, I always feel like they get dismissed to some extent when they are lumped together–as if any of the books could have been written by any of the sisters. You, dear reader, know that’s not true. Each sister had her own obsessions, perspective, and distinct writing style.

Still, it does make some sense to group them, and it was exciting to see a set–although I was not surprised such a thing existed, I had never personally seen it before. This set is a muted red color, with pretty gold lettering and a flower symbol on the spine. Very ladylike. The set is in decent condition; the bottoms and some of the inside pages have age spots, but everything is intact and the spines are in good shape.

Spines of a few of the books

Spines of a few of the books

Each book has one or two illustrations. I was expecting scenes from the books, but instead these were illustrations of the supposed “originals” of various characters or settings in the novels.

Title Page for Agnes Grey

Title Page for Agnes Grey

A portrait of Charlotte Bronte's best friend Ellen Nussey, supposedly the "original" for the character of Caroline in Shirley

A portrait of Charlotte Bronte’s best friend Ellen Nussey, supposedly the “original” for the character of Caroline in Shirley

A lovely set, and I think it’s worth way more than I paid for it! Antiques Roadshow?

Review: The Country of the Pointed Firs

The Country of the Pointed Firs
The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I need to be honest in my reviews, right? For the sake of transparency?

I found this book so incredibly boring when I started it that I almost quit a number of times, often avoided reading it, and typically fell asleep while attempting to read it. It took me much longer than it should have to read for that reason. This made me feel like a bad person and worry that I had lost patience. I thought I enjoyed slow narratives.

It was quite amusing to me when, early in the book, the narrator realizes at one point that she had gotten bored with an old sea captain’s stories and had stopped listening. If the narrator can’t pay attention to the stories, how can I be expected to?

But then, the narrator realizes that she has been rude and refocuses her attention, so I tried to follow her lead and did grow to like the book more. I still didn’t love it, but eventually I became used to its pace and lack of plot enough to enjoy certain things about it. Certain stories, such as that of “poor Joanna,” are haunting, and I did enjoy the bonds between women and the regular referrals to herbal remedies. Still, I was overall disappointed by the structure, which consisted a lot of character sketches and individual monologues. It was as if people were just waiting around for someone to show up so they could tell a story. Which, I mean, might not be that unrealistic, if you are lonely and live in an isolated place. But if you contrast this with Elizabeth Gaskell’s _Cranford_, which is what I thought the novel might be like (since both focus on rural areas with aging, mostly female populations that are visited by younger but not exactly youthful female narrators), you will find it has much less humor and liveliness. While Cranford’s women dwell on the past, they also interact with each other and have new adventures, which certainly seems like a much preferable way to age.

While the main book is largely stagnant, I found some of the additional stories in my edition much more enjoyable. “The Foreigner” is another Dunnett’s Landing story, and while it has a similar basic structure (Mrs. Todd telling our narrator a story about someone who has died), there is something richer and more beautiful about it, for my own taste, than the stories in the main part of the novel. “Martha’s Lady” was, for me, the most enjoyable story; it deals with an entirely different set of characters and tells a beautiful story of romantic friendship. I am glad I had the endurance to read these additional stories, as they were my favorite parts of the edition.

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Nonlinear Viewing and the Pleasures of Making Meaning

This is the third 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.


I promised myself I wouldn’t write about “Game of Thrones.”

But since it’s all I’ve been watching the past few weeks and I have a blog post due, I have decided to write about my experience of viewing the show. I began watching it in the middle of season two (episode 6, to be exact), watched to the end of season three, then went back and watched season one. This way of watching the show (which was not deliberate, for the record) prompted me to think about how we read and understand texts.

I am fairly certain that what I will describe here has been explained by narrative theorists, structuralists, and/or reader-response theorists. But frankly, as I’m not in grad school any more and am writing this for my own pleasure, I am not going to bother looking it up. If you want to tell me about theorists who discuss these ideas, feel free. I also am not going to catch up on three years of internet writing about “Game of Thrones” either, so deal with it.

Requisite SPOILER ALERT: This post contains plot spoilers for “Game of Thrones.” It discusses the show as if you have either watched it, already know the plot, or don’t care about spoilers. It also discusses the concept of what it means to have a plot spoiled in the first place.

First, let me quickly say that I was always skeptical of the show before watching it, am not a fan of the fantasy genre, and did not read the books. I had a vague sense that it was like Lord of the Rings, but with a lot more misogyny. Predictably, given that I don’t like Lord of the Rings (don’t hurt me!), and I certainly do not like misogyny, I was convinced the show was not for me.

Perhaps more importantly, I already knew about two of the major plot twists of the show, which happen at the ends of seasons 1 and 3. I didn’t know the details of the season three twist, but I knew the basic gist. Hearing about these plot twists made me a bit more interested in the show, but also made me think I had missed the boat. After all, now that I knew what was going to happen, I figured it was too late to start watching anyway.

My husband began watching the show while I was out of town, and even offered to stop watching until I got home, but I declined. One day I came home from work while he was watching and I got sucked in, despite my initial negative impression—in the span of the first 20 minutes or so of watching, I witnessed two women use their bodies to manipulate men, which initially confirmed all my negative assumptions about the show.

What exactly sucked me in? I can’t say for sure because I am reconstructing this from my memory, but I think part of what sucked me in was the fact that one of the first scenes I saw featured Ygritte, who as many of you should already know, is played by the actress who played the first maid to escape “Downton Abbey,” the one who learned how to type so she could leave service and enter a different type of service—I mean, secretarial work. Why would this suck me in? Well, I hadn’t seen her in a while, yet I recognized her immediately, but then she would turn a different way and I would question myself—was it really her? It’s not that I was so invested in that “DA” maid character, but I wanted to see if I was right. So I kept watching, but of course that meant I was watching the scenes between the ones she was in, and then I couldn’t help but become curious about what was going on. And then who should show up but Charles Dance, who plays the evil Tywin Lannister but to me is better known as the evil Tulkinghorn from “Bleak House,” but I actually couldn’t place him for some time—I only knew instinctively that he was evil and had been on a Masterpiece Theatre production. So at first what was going on was not a game of thrones but a game of, “now what other British costume drama do I know you from?” Which is one of my favorite games.


Obviously, it’s nothing new for actors to go on and play other roles, nor is it uncommon to cast familiar actors on purpose; in fact, the entire economy of Hollywood has been based on the assumption you would seek out familiar actors since the silent years, when actors first became movie stars. But of course, it’s a little different with television, because if these are bit players, you didn’t show up on purpose to see them. Instead what happens is you bring a set of associations with them: Tywin/Tulkinhorn is evil, I already know that, and Ygritte/typing maid is a spunky, likable lass who does things her own way. So already I’m getting the feel of things, right?

So now that I’m in the world a bit, I need to figure out what’s going on. I actually think the first character who hooked me—and I very much doubt I’m alone in this—was Arya. This is partially because I had NO idea what was going on with her at that point in the story. My husband kept trying to explain it, but it didn’t make sense—she had been posing as a boy, but I didn’t know why, and she wasn’t anymore, and Tywin doesn’t know she’s a Stark, and she only has one more death wish left—HUH? The mystery of it drew me further in; I wanted to understand her motivations and history and future.


I was rather pleased with myself that, with the exception of Arya, I thought everything else was easy to figure out. I was really patting myself on the back about it. But now, looking back on it, I know how much time it really took to put all the pieces together. Sure, some characters, such as Robb and Catelyn Stark—were pretty easy to figure out. But some of the smaller or more complicated characters took much longer to figure out because of how completely out of context they were.

To make meaning, I had to do what we all have to do when we read or view a film or show: I needed to assess the elements of each scene—Who are these people? What is their relationship to each other? What are they doing or discussing in this scene? Then, as I watched further, I could put each scene in context: Ok, now this is happening because this other thing happened earlier. For each new scene with a character I had seen before, I needed to remember the earlier events in order to assess any new information that was introduced. And of course, because the information is visual, I could only base my understanding of the characters on how they reacted to other characters and/or their environment. In other words, context is everything, and memory is constantly being engaged when you read or watch something, even though you are “moving forward” in time.

Because I wasn’t introduced to the characters in a linear fashion, I had to work harder than the viewer who began at the beginning and had the events presented linearly. But at the same time, my struggles lay bare the cognitive work that goes on even when we begin at the beginning. What’s more, it was incredibly fun. If I had watched from the beginning, I think it still would have been fun because I would just be enjoying the show, but watching the show out of order increased my consciousness of how fun it is to try to figure out what’s going on in a text.

And I do think that viewers have to struggle at least a little, at least at first, to follow what’s going on with this particular show. Whatever else I might think of it—and I have a lot of opinions—I can no longer dismiss it as simplistic. I mean, I guess it’s possible to show up each week and just watch for the boobs and the blood, of which there is a-plenty of both, but surely there is an easier way to get your thrills if that’s what you want. This show has a great number of characters, and while it may not be terribly difficult to keep the main characters straight, just the fact that you can’t point to a single protagonist reveals it to be more complex than many television shows, and of course, the multitudinous minor characters often play important or unexpected roles.

So, what of the spoilers? As you may have guessed, having an idea of what would happen did not ruin my enjoyment of the show, though it did change it. In all fairness, while I did not know exactly what was going to happen with the red wedding or to whom, the name, to my mind, said it all: I knew that two families would join at a wedding that would turn out to be a massacre in which only the hosts would survive. A few minutes into watching the show, I saw Robb and Talisa talking on the battlefield and, while I didn’t know for certain, all indications pointed to these two as victims. For one thing, love makes you vulnerable; for another, broken promises are clearly going to come back to haunt you in a world like this. My husband, who, despite our talking about it last year, had forgotten about the red wedding, and even he knew Talisa was going to die. When they married in secret, I briefly thought I had guessed wrong, but the specter of the bridge and the broken promise (which I had not yet witnessed being made) soon re-emerged as a new threat.


I was not going to feel surprise, then. This enjoyable reaction was replaced with a different feeling: impending dread. One of the awful enjoyments of the third season was the molasses pace at which the characters drew toward that wedding; my stomach was in knots for several episodes. My biggest fear, which I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t have had if I didn’t know what would happen, was that Arya would get to the wedding on time. Rather than the plot twist being ruined, I found an alternate enjoyment in the anticipation of a scene that had been hinted at so much. And of course, as an added pleasure, when I finally went back to watch season 1, I was able to see more clearly how certain things had been set up; for instance, what Maester Aemon says to Jon Snow about choosing between duty and love seems much more directed at his brother and father than at him.

All leads to why, even though having the plot “spoiled” takes away the specific pleasure of surprise, it does not ruin the enjoyment of the text. Because while there is enjoyment in surprise, it cannot be the only enjoyment—how could that be possible? And while a major strength of some shows, such as “Game of Thrones,” lies in the idea that the rug can be pulled out from under us at any time, this is not its only strength, nor is it the primary experience of viewership. Although what happens is important and pleasurable—and arguably part of what gets us hooked—it is the why and the how that keeps us going.

And this is a show that could arguably be viewed as hinging entirely on what happens, not why or how. As my supersmart friend Anne Moore points out, serial television is structured around cliffhangers in way that encourages binging. Even given this observation, though, the “Game of Thrones” cliffhanger structure seems aggressive. After all, when a show ends its first episode by having an adult character push a ten-year-old boy from a tower after he witnesses incestuous sex, it’s safe to say that cliffhangers (or falls?) and plot twists and the endings of episodes are vital to the identify of the show. And yet, here I was, getting sucked in despite knowing about several of the most aggressive of these twists.

Honestly, the excessive hue and cry over spoilers and alerting us to them has gotten old. A show that can suck you in when you start in the middle must be doing something right with its storytelling. The middle is the story. It’s where we spend our time. We do not read or watch in order to get to the end; we do so to stay in the middle for as long as we can, or as long as we enjoy the text.

After all, we cannot remember our beginnings, and our endings are both unknown and unknowable to us, as well as something we are staving off to the best of our abilities. It’s the middle where we make meaning.


Review: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After reading The Luminaries, I decided to go with something brief. And yet, despite its brevity, there was something similar about The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and it had to do with expecting one thing from the book and getting something very different. Based on the description from the back of the book, I expected a story about a woman whose honesty and sexual daring and pedagogical experimentation led to her tragic self-destruction. However, Miss Brodie’s unorthodox pedagogy stems entirely from a cult of personality rather than a nurturing of intellect. Instead of telling the girls the standard way to think, Miss Brodie simply tells the girls a different way to think. But she still dictates their thinking; despite her proclamations to the contrary, she does not really teach the girls to think for themselves, but rather, she exhorts them to think the same way she does, and she pins stifling destinies and identities upon them based on her own perceptions of them. Her politics reflect her style of teaching.

Of course, one could argue that she actually does succeed, with Sandy, who betrays her. But my sense is that Sandy’s development has little to do with encouragement from Miss Brodie. She already has such an active imagination, fantasizing as she does about having relationships and conversations with fictional characters as well as people from Miss Brodie’s past. Then again, perhaps she is not an independent thinker, but rather just another version of the fascistic Miss Brodie, seeing everything through the lens of her own experiences and knowledge, with no sense of the effects of her actions on other people. One of my favorite parts of the novel is when Sandy wonders whether it is Miss Brodie or her own perception of Miss Brodie that changes so drastically as she comes of age.

Spark’s style is admirable; her use of temporality is masterful and her sentences crackle with a terrible and precise beauty. Though brief, this novel was enjoyable and provocative.

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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.