best of ENGL 165, and some news

This spring I got to teach a literature course called Short Fiction (ENGL 165), and I loved it. As I said the other day, I’ve also had the chance to work with my friends’ 8th grade daughter: we read one story a week and talk about it on Friday afternoons, as a supplemental to her schooling-from-home. She’s followed along with my college students (freshmen through seniors), and kept up just fine. This was all wonderful: I got to talk about stories I love. (For this class, I made an effort to choose stories from authors of all identities; and I was also careful to only teach stories I like.)

That said, I had some favorites, some stories I can’t get enough of, that are deep and layered and complex enough to bear 10 and 15 readings and hours of discussion, that I can’t stop talking about, that I love to read aloud… and I thought I’d share that shorter list here. (Linked where available.) I have a top three:

And some honorable mentions:

What a privilege, to assign extraordinary literature and to talk about it. And I’ve had some lovely feedback from the students. In fact, maybe it’s time to share this news: I’ve landed the Irene McKinney Fellowship for a second year, and will be teaching again this fall. I’m honored and thrilled. Maybe I’ll get to teach Short Fiction again, or maybe it will be a different lit class… and I’ll have more stories to explore. Lucky, lucky me.

National Theatre Live at Home presents Frankenstein (2011); and my weekly update

Last week’s NT Live release was 2011’s Frankenstein, which is viewable here until this Thursday night, when we get a chance to see Antony and Cleopatra.

Well, it had to happen: there had to be an NT Live production I was less taken by. I found less to revel in here than usual. I’m sure the acting was very fine, but it felt a little indulgent, in terms of theatricality. Opening scenes in which the Creature discovers himself and the world around him went on a little long for my patience. The pacing in general felt a bit draggy, and the themes of trying-to-be-god and man-is-monster not terribly uplifting… which might have been my feelings about the novel, too, actually. Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternate playing the two lead roles, Victor Frankenstein and the Creature; this film version offers Cumberbatch as the Creature. Again, very good acting I’m sure, but I often felt a little impatient; I didn’t buy into the drama as I usually do. This production also included just a few musical sequences and the odd spot of comedy, both of which felt a bit out of place in a story that’s otherwise, well, quite serious. If you love Frankenstein, do check this out, of course, and I’d be interested in your take. This one was not so much for me. Ah, well. This week will be better.

In other news, since around the beginning of shelter-in-place orders, I’ve been having weekly literature talks (by phone) with the 8th-grade daughter of some friends of mine. We are heading into our seventh week together. L has mostly read short stories that I’ve also taught to my Short Fiction class (semester wrap-up coming later this week!), and our discussion follows what I’ve done in class; I’ve found her to be at least as ready as my college students (freshmen through seniors) to handle the elements of fiction and the real-world implications of the themes of these stories. It’s been an absolute pleasure – and now that my own semester has ended but my chats with L continue, I’m still more grateful for this small-scale opportunity for a little teaching, a little talking, a little contact with a lovely, clever young woman. Last week I asked her to assign me a reading, based on our recent discussion of dystopian fiction (following stories by Shirley Jackson, Ursula Le Guin, and Lidia Yuknavitch), so we discussed chapter 3 of The Hunger Games. And now I’m going to be reading that book. Good job, L.

In other news, I have been sorry to learn that my book review gig with Shelf Awareness will be moving to a digital reading format due to the pandemic and resulting difficulties with printing galleys and ARCs… it all makes perfect sense and there are far bigger issues to be sad about, but still I was sad to realize that all my reading-for-review will be moving away from hard-copy. My first e-reader arrived in the mail last week, and I’ve been loading my e-galleys and DRCs (that’s digital review copies, previously advanced review copies which were printed) onto it and doing my first reading. The Kindle Paperwhite is much smaller than I’d expected. But it’s pretty easy to use, once I got it set up, and the small, lightweight physicality of it is nice, I admit. I guess I’m torn between feeling grumpy about this new development, and committing myself to liking this, since it’s going to happen regardless. I’m trying hard to commit myself to liking it. And to be fair, nothing about the reading experience is hateful so far – although I definitely miss the feel of pages and the ability to take my notes on a bookmark and even underline passages on real paper. (I’m aware that the e-reader has highlighting & note-taking functions. It’s not the same; and it’s not nearly as easy.) Well, we’ll see, but I’m trying to get happily on board.

In other news, let’s see… I’ve enjoyed a few TV series online in the last two months (already!) of work-and-everything-else-from-home. I fell in love with Luther and then even more in love with The Wire – I may very well turn around and watch the latter again. I ripped through season six of Bosch, and was glad to see that my enjoyment of that series has not suffered from my recent disappointment with a Connelly novel on audiobook (that review to come).

Spring is off-and-on here in central West Virginia, and when it’s on, Hops and I walk miles and I ride my bike on the local trails, which have been mucky for weeks and weeks but are super fun nonetheless; I’ve also put in some trailbuilding & maintenance with my new friends here. Oh, that’s right: I’ve begun a new little project via a new Instagram account, wvwildlifewanderer, where I document the plants and animals (mostly plants, much easier to observe and photograph) that I see around here. I’m trying to learn how to recognize trees and flowers, which does not come easily to me, but it’s been a rewarding process so far.

What have you seen, onscreen or in the world, that intrigued you lately?

Short Fiction

I thought it would be fun to share with you some of the reading I’ll be doing this semester, for an other-than-usual reason: I am teaching the undergraduate lit course Short Fiction (ENGL 165) to a mix of freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors, and I’m very excited about it. My students will read something like 50 stories this semester, and we’ll discuss elements of fiction (like plot, setting, character, point of view, style, and theme) in context of those stories. I cannot imagine that I’ll be writing about each one for you all here! (Although I suppose it’s possible that I’ll be moved to write about a few standouts. And some are already covered, of course.) But I thought at least you might appreciate a list of what stories I have in mind.

I’m using an anthology as a textbook: The Story and Its Writer, which also includes pretty good text on those elements of fiction, and supplementary materials such as analyses and author commentaries. I’ll also use Jon Corcoran’s The Rope Swing – we’ll discuss how it functions as a whole as well as in each individual story. And there will be a few “extra” stories that I’ll scan for my students. So, the list – in no particular order for now.

  • “I Stand Here Ironing,” Tillie Olsen
  • “Crazy They Call Me,” Zadie Smith
  • “A White Heron,” Sarah Orne Jewett
  • “Sonny’s Blues,” James Baldwin
  • “Interpreter of Maladies,” Jhumpa Lahiri
  • “Desiree’s Baby,” Kate Chopin
  • “Samuel,” Grace Paley
  • “The House on Mango Street,” Sandra Cisneros
  • “The Blood Bay,” Annie Proulx
  • “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • “Everyday Use,” Alice Walker
  • “The Man Who Was Almost a Man,” Richard Wright
  • “Yellow Woman,” Leslie Marmon Silko
  • “Girl,” Jamaica Kincaid
  • “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” Ursula K. Le Guin
  • “A Brief Encounter with the Enemy,” Saïd Sayrafiezadeh
  • “Harrison Bergeron,” Kurt Vonnegut
  • “The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket,” Yasunari Kawabata
  • “Journey to the Seed,” Alejo Carpentier
  • “Prisoner on the Hell Planet: A Case History,” Art Spiegelman
  • “The Shawl,” Cynthia Ozick
  • “A Continuity of Parks,” Julio Cortázar
  • “Looking for a Rain-God,” Bessie Head
  • “Cathedral,” Raymond Carver
  • excerpt from Persepolis: “The Veil,” Marjane Satrapi
  • “The Moths,” Helena María Viramontes
  • “Dimensions,” Alice Munro
  • “Brownies,” ZZ Packer
  • excerpt from Palestine: “Refugeeland,” Joe Sacco
  • “Vision Out of the Corner of One Eye,” Luisa Valenzuela
  • “The Colonel,” Carolyn Forché
  • “The Fellowship,” Alison Bechdel
  • “The Swimmer,” John Cheever
  • “Barbie-Q,” Sandra Cisneros
  • excerpt from Barefoot Gen, Keiji Nakazawa
  • “The Things They Carried,” Tim O’Brien
  • “Appalachian Swan Song,” Jonathan Corcoran, from The Rope Swing (RS)
  • “The Rope Swing” (RS)
  • “Pauly’s Girl” (RS)
  • “Through the Still Hours” (RS)
  • “Felicitations” (RS)
  • “Corporeal” (RS)
  • “Hank the King” (RS)
  • “Excavation” (RS)
  • “Brooklyn, 4 a.m.” (RS)
  • “A Touch” (RS)
  • “Pea Madness,” Amy Leach, from Things That Are
  • “Four Boston Basketball Stories,” Brian Doyle, from The Mighty Currawongs
  • “The Pull,” Lidia Yuknavitch, from Verge
  • Any Other,” Jac Jemc
  • The Little Mermaid,” (Daniel) Mallory Ortberg
  • Who Will Greet You At Home,” Lesley Nneka Arimah

This list includes writers of various ethnicities and national backgrounds, gay and trans writers, Westerners and non-Westerners, graphic stories, recent and historic ones. It is probably a few stories too long – definitely subject to some change, but not much. I meet my students in just a few days, and I want us to more or less have a plan.

What do you think? A class you’d be interested in??

break for a personal update: on teaching

Whew. I’ve finished my first week teaching writing composition classes to freshman (and a couple of sophomores) at a little liberal arts college in West Virginia. This is a big change for me. Aside from Hops’s ugly shock at being left home alone for hours every day!, I’ve been wrestling with lesson plans, reading and writing assignments, and managing a class full of variously bored, overanxious, and sleepy 18-year-olds. It is simultaneously maybe the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do, and potentially one of the most rewarding.

For our second class meeting, I had all my students write me a letter of introduction, sharing as much of themselves as felt comfortable. This allowed me to judge the writing skills and grammar they entered with (not perfect, but often not terrible either), and see them as individuals with their own interests and concerns. I was touched at how much some of them did choose to share. And I learned how many of them are genuinely nervous about passing my class (with a C or better, required to move on to the next one). I’ve been trying to communicate to each of them that I’m here to help them pass – every last one of them – as long as they’re putting in the work and asking me for the help they need.

It feels kind of overwhelming, the idea of having readings, writing exercises, grammar lessons, and class discussions (etc.) ready for every class meeting between now and early December. All their faces and needy brains out there in a sea of challenge. Just learning their names! (I have my smallest class down; the next one, pretty much there; the last, still kind of a mess.) I am trying to remind myself that even though I’d like to be perfect every day, professional and polished, that’s not a realistic goal. I’ve pointed out to them that I’m not perfect, either, but I don’t want to overstress that point, lest they worry that I’m nearly as much at sea as they are!

At this point, for better or worse, I’m committed to the syllabus, schedule, and textbook I’ve set. So we’ll just venture out together, me and these 47 kids. Wish us luck.

I have scaled my book review work way, way back. But I also have a backlog of work ready for this blog into the month of November as of now. I think we’ll make it into the new year easily enough with a three-day-a-week schedule; come January, we’ll see. This work remains important to me, as I think it always will. But I obviously have some day-to-day priorities right now that take precedence.

And January sounds a long way off still. Lots of essays to shepherd and grade between now and then; lots of individual conferences and who knows what little crises to face. I’ll be out here learning as I go.

Teacher friends, if you have words of wisdom for me, I’d be grateful to take them in the comments below. Or just send me your good wishes. I’m headed back into reading my students’ words and figuring out what’s next…

another new beginning: pagesofjulia in the classroom

I am honored to announce that I’ve received one of two Irene McKinney Fellowships from my MFA alma mater, West Virginia Wesleyan College. This is a nine-month teaching appointment there on campus in Buckhannon, WV; I’ll have three sections of writing composition in the fall and three sections in the spring, one of the latter possibly being a literature course. So, I’ll be pausing my van travels there this summer, with the option to restart them the following May.

I am excited and intimidated; I think it will be great.

Again (are you accustomed to the fluctuations yet?) my work for Shelf Awareness will decrease to give me more time for my day job. I don’t yet know what this will mean for the blog, but we always work something out, don’t we? Stay tuned… it’s still some months away, but I wanted to share my news. On to the next big thing.

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