Monthly Archives: August 2013

“Mourning his loss as a man and a king”

Irish poet Seamus Heaney has passed away today at the age of 74. Seamus HeaneyThe Nobel laureate is considered one of the greatest Irish poets, and his work is felt by many to capture the essence of Ireland and the Irish condition. Heaney won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, and was also awarded the Golden Wreath of Poetry, the E.M. Forster Award, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, the PEN Translation Prize, T. S. Eliot Prize and the Whitbread Prize twice over the course of his career.

Heaney’s poetry collections include Death of a Naturalist, Door into the DarkNorth, Seeing Things, The Spirit Level, and Electric Light, among others. He also wrote prose and plays, as well as did extensive work translating poetry.

Along with his incredible body of poetry, Heaney is also famous for his excellent translation of the Old English epic Beowulf, from which I offer the final lines in his memory:

young Heaney“They extolled his heroic nature and exploits

and gave thanks for his greatness; which is the proper thing,

for a man should praise a prince whom he holds dear

and cherish his memory when that moment comes

when he has to be conveyed from his bodily home.”

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Review: Gone Girl

I read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl nearly a month ago, but have taken my time in posting a review. Mostly, I just wanted to sort through my feelings about this novel before I committed anything to the digital page. At first I thought I didn’t like this novel, despite being completely unable to put it down. Then I thought I did like it, just not as much as everyone else seemed to. Finally,  I realized that this is a gripping thriller, but I hated the main characters to the point that I didn’t really care what happened to them, and rather felt they got what they deserved. Gone Girl

Gone Girl is the story of the disappearance of Amy Elliot Dunne, the wife of Nick Dunne. Flynn follows the narrative in two strands, with each chapter alternating between Nick and Amy as the narrator. Each chapter is headed with either a date or the number of days since Amy’s disappearance. The first section of the novel is comprised of the initial days after Amy’s disappearance as told from Nick’s point of view, and entries from Amy’s diary that span the years between their first meeting and the present.

The fast-paced opening chapters work well for the novel, as do the mysteries that pile deeper by the page. Nick admits that he’s a liar — even keeping a tally of the lies he tells the police in their investigation — but for the most part you don’t know which statements in particular were the lies, or why he told them. My disgust with the characters began to emerge at this point, but I was still undeniably hooked on the novel. I felt like I couldn’t stop reading, no matter what. When the truth behind Nick’s behavior is finally revealed, the picture shifts to include all this new information, but Flynn has many more revelations to come.

The major twist in the novel comes in the second section, and I have to say, though I guessed at part of it, I did not even begin to grasp the enormity of the situation. It was during this second part of Gone Girl that I decided I had no love left for any of the main characters, and realized that I was so turned off by them and their behavior that I didn’t really care if they lived, died, got sent to prison, or received any other consequence that might come to pass. Flynn is a strong writer and a fantastic storyteller, but I felt that she perhaps went a little too far in how grotesque she made the characters. Flawed is to be expected. Dark is acceptable. But under whatever nastiness is shown, there has to be something left for the reader to root for or to care about in their protagonist. I didn’t find that here, and instead felt I was left with only villains. Or perhaps that was Flynn’s point: evil only begets more evil, whether karmic or otherwise.

The novel, as I said, is a nail-biter. I read it pretty quickly, even though my pace slowed in the latter portions. As the mystery is wrapped up, Gone Girl transitions from the kidnapping/murder investigation to more of a spy-game feel, where hidden agendas, retaliation, and covert warfare drive the plot. You should know going into it that this novel is dark and twisted, and that there are no real happy endings — nor does anyone really deserve them. If you can overcome your revulsion to some of the characters’ major features, you might even like this novel more than I did. But then, I’ve always been one to hold a bit of a grudge.

Happy Reading!

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A Must-Read Essay

Mark Edmundson, a professor of English at University of Virginia, recently published an essay entitled “The Ideal English Major.”

I strongly urge you to read it, whether you’re an English major or just an avid reader and writer. It is wonderful in many ways, and — without hyperbole — one of the best explanations I’ve ever read of what I do and why I love what I do. You can read the full essay here: http://chronicle.com/article/The-Ideal-English-Major/140553/

Some highlights:

Becoming an English major means pursuing the most important subject of all—being a human being.

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The English major reads because, as rich as the one life he has may be, one life is not enough. He reads not to see the world through the eyes of other people but effectively to become other people. What is it like to be John Milton, Jane Austen, Chinua Achebe? What is it like to be them at their best, at the top of their games?

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Real reading is reincarnation. There is no other way to put it. It is being born again into a higher form of consciousness than we ourselves possess. […] Given the ragged magnificence of the world, who would wish to live only once? The English major lives many times through the astounding transportive magic of words and the welcoming power of his receptive imagination. The economics major? In all probability he lives but once. If the English major has enough energy and openness of heart, he lives not once but hundreds of times. Not all books are worth being reincarnated into, to be sure—but those that are win Keats’s sweet phrase: “a joy forever.”

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The English major at her best isn’t used by language; she uses it. She bends it, inflects it with irony, and lets hyperbole bloom like a firework flower when the time’s right. She knows that language isn’t there merely to represent the world but to interpret it. Language lets her say how she feels. The English major believes in talk and writing and knows that any worthwhile event in life requires commentary and analysis in giant proportion. She believes that the uncommented-on life is not worth living. Then, of course, there is the commentary on the comments. There must be, as Eliot says, a hundred visions and revisions before the taking of the toast and tea—and a few after as well. But I sometimes think that the English major’s most habitual feeling about the linguistic solution in which she swims isn’t practical at all. What she feels about language most of the time is wonder and gratitude. For language is a stupendous gift. It’s been bequeathed to us by all of the foregoing generations.

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The English major: in love with language and in love with life—or at least hungry for as much life as he can hold. But there’s something else, too. The English major immerses himself in books and revels in language for a purpose. You might even call it a high purpose, if you’re disposed to such talk.

***

What we’re talking about is a path to becoming a human being, or at least a better sort of human being than one was at the start. An English major? To me an English major is someone who has decided, against all kinds of pious, prudent advice and all kinds of fears and resistances, to major, quite simply, in becoming a person.

Edmundson has captured the essence of my love of language, reading, and writing beautifully and simply. Well done!

Happy reading!

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