“My call is the call of battle, I nourish active rebellion.”

That the poet Walt Whitman was a rebel who celebrated democracy, nature, love and friendship is well known.  What isn’t well known is that Gavrilo Princip, the Bosnian Serb who assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, felt inspired by Whitman. Let’s think about that. Could it be that poetry played a role in igniting World War IYes, says the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1980.  Milosz notes that Whitman was popular among Europeans in the late 19th century, which is how an American poet contributed to the outbreak of World War I.

Whitman, Walt. “Song of the Open Road.” Leaves of Grass. Doubleday, 1926, p. 131.

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“It was impossibly large and full of beauty and danger in equal parts – and we wanted it all.”

Paula McLain’s novel The Paris Wife describes Hemingway’s earliest years as a novelist writing in Paris after WWI from the perspective of his wife, Hadley. It’s a wonderful novel, set in one of the most dynamic literary periods, where James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Hemingway were inventing the Modernist movement in bars and cafes. McLain, an accomplished poet with an MFA from Michigan, dares to evoke Hemingway’s hypnotic, infectious cadences in prose that rises to the challenge. This book belongs to the emerging genre of “speculative literature,” which blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction.

McLain, Paula. The Paris Wife. Ballantine, 2012, 72.

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“By and large, art both instructs and entertains us.”

George Anastaplo continues “It instructs us partly by entertaining us; it entertains us partly by instructing us.  We are likely to learn from that which amuses us; we are likely to enjoy that which seems to teach us something” (1).  This collection of essays is written not by a professor of literature, but by man called “the Socrates of Chicago” who was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. He was fearless – when navigating B-17s during WW II, arguing in front of the Supreme Court, or writing books on a range of topics, including these essays on Shakespeare, Dickens and Twain.

Anastaplo, George. The Artist as Thinker: From Shakespeare to Joyce. Swallow Press, 1983.

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“The world is too much with us.”

Two-hundred years ago, when William Wordsworth published the poem that begins with the line quoted above, critics were not impressed.  In fact, they ridiculed him for using the words “of the common man” instead of using a scholar’s proper poetic diction.  Wordsworth sparked a revolution. It took many years, but it eventually became widely accepted that accessible poetry can be great poetry. In 1950, the critic who wrote the introduction to this selection of poetry noted that we “more than ever” benefit from Wordsworth’s work.  Fast-forward 67 years: Could it be even more relevant than ever before? Perhaps so!

Wordsworth, William. “The World Is Too Much with Us.” William Wordsworth: Selected Poetry edited, with an introduction, by Mark Van Doren. The Modern Library, 1950, p. 536.

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“Many modern books on ‘style’ have suggested that there are only two styles: good and bad.”

This book, Clear and Simple as the Truth, takes a much different view.  The authors argue that there are many styles for writers to choose from – including contemplative, classic, romantic, plain, oratorical, practical, and diplomatic.  This book focuses primarily on the classic style – its history, conventions, philosophy, and features. An example of the classic style is “We hold these truths to be self-evident . . .” People who write in the classic style are interested in identifying “truths” that everyone can recognize. Conventions of this style include being focused, assured, clear, and not at all interested in discussing ambiguities.

Thomas, Franci-Noel and Mark Turner. Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose. Princeton University Press, 1994, p. 72.

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“Researchers found that students who wrote prolifically before high-stakes performances, like examinations and final papers, significantly improved their performance on their final work” (69).

Interestingly, in this study by Ramirez and Beilock (2011), as summarized by Gary R. Hafer in Embracing Writing, it didn’t matter whether students wrote about the subject matter or about their emotions and anxiety – what mattered was how frequently they wrote. Hafer makes a case for encouraging students in all disciplines to write every day for ten minutes.  This practice, he notes, always leads to greater fluidity and facility with the language; it can lead to more experimentation, reflection, planning and searching for ideas.  This aligns with new research on the advantages of frequent, short work over sporadic, lengthy sessions.

Hafer, Gary R. Embracing Writing: Ways to Teach Reluctant Writers in Any Course. Jossey-Bass. 2014.

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“Every work of literature has both a situation and a story.”

The situation, Vivian Gornick explains in this book about the art of personal narrative, is the context or circumstances, while the story is “the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say” (13). Gornick argues that the most difficult and important work of memoirists is to understand why they are telling their story. The writer of memoir should undergo “an apprenticeship as soul-searching as any undergone by novelist or poet.” If they don’t, Gornick warns, they can fall into “the pit of confessionalism or therapy on the page or naked self-absorption.”  For the story to succced, the purpose must be clear.

Gornick, Vivian. The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001,

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“Can you tell a story that doesn’t begin, it’s just suddenly happening?”

In each of the six short stories in this collection, which won the 2015 National book Award, things suddenly happen on the first page: there are no descriptions of the setting, no background information.  Instead, the story seems to be already happening.  In an interview, author Adam Johnson said, “I just work relentlessly in scene.  I don’t believe in summary or exposition.” Fast openings can make the reader feel uncomfortable, and, in fact, many of these stories are about desperate people with unpleasant problems. Why read them? They are astonishing, perceptive and brave, by turns surprising, wondrous, comic and devastating.

Johnson, Adam. Fortune Smiles. Random House. 2015.

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“This all sounds very messy”

What I’m looking for – perhaps what we’re all looking for – are learning principles that are most likely to lead to long-term retention – even if they’re messy. In Small Teaching, Jim Lang describes a learning principle called “interleaving” that requires two things: spacing out learning sessions, and working on multiple skills simultaneously (instead of mastering one before moving on to the next).  A solid body of research indicates that interleaving leads to significant improvements in learning. Even though it’s much easier to work on one thing at a time, it’s better for long-term memory to return repeatedly to sets of skills.

Lang, James M. Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. Jossey-Bass, 2016.

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“Keeping secrets was the family business.”

What should you tell?  What should you leave out? These used to be the most important questions for memoirists and for writers of all genres.  However, I have come to believe that we are entering a new era where the boundaries of realism are being pushed to the limits by Karl Ove Knausgaard and others, including Michael Chabon, who said in an interview that his novel Moonglow was based on his conversations with his real-life grandfather. The book’s Acknowledgments say it’s based on Chabon’s great-uncle. What is true? What do you want to believe? are becoming the questions that matter.

Chabon, Michael. Moonglow. Harper, 2016.

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Five Intriguing Ideas from 2016 Books

This blog focuses on one idea from one book each week, and so selecting just five from the 50 or so that I’ve published in 2016 is a challenge. But after looking through them all, I have to say that the ideas that I enjoyed the most from the books I read in 2016 describe the nature of artists, heroes, teachers, writers, and learners.

What artists do: The great poet Mary Oliver describes the nature of creative work in Upstream. She writes, “creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity. A person trudging through the wilderness of creation who does not know this – who does not swallow this – is lost.  He who does not crave the roofless place eternity should stay at home” (28).

What heroes do: The word “hero” is not what would come to mind when you meet the protagonist in Richard Russo’s novel Everybody’s Fool. In fact, Chief of Police Douglas Raymer is a fellow who has more than his share of remorse, grief, aggravations, self-doubt, and regret.  However, Russo shows us how heroes can evolve and develop, despite the odds.

What teachers do: Sometimes we need to examine our goals. Many teachers believe that “covering” content is most important.  But is it?  Habits of the Creative Mind by Richard E. Miller and Ann Jurecic is based on the belief that “education, properly understood, is the process of cultivating creative and curious minds.” Our job is not to focus on content, but to help students create new habits of thinking.

What writers do: When great writers retell each other’s stories, you get to compare their style, sense of humor, and all the individual traits that distinguish them.  That’s what makes the new series of novels that are based on Shakespeare’s plays so much fun. Margaret Atwood and Anne Tyler both show us what writers do to stories when they re-envision and rewrite them.

What learners do: As Sarah Rose Cavanagh describes in The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion, learning involves emotions far more than many of us ever realized. While we’d like to think that we rely on reason, researchers now tell us that learning is both fueled and guided by emotions. Those who are interested in how learning works should know that emotions can support or suppress learning.

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Five Best Novels of 2016

The five novels that rose to the top of my 2016 list are:

The best word to describe Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton is exquisite. What I love about Strout is her ability to dive right in to the heat of the moment without engaging in melodrama or explanation. The clarity of her vision is astonishing.

The book that made me laugh the hardest this year was Richard Russo’s Everybody’s Fool. I’ve waited years for this book – and if you read his Nobody’s Fool in the 1990s, you’ve been waiting with me.  Russo knows how to make flawed people into heroes – not saints, but the sort of heroes you wish were your friends.

Binge-reading Jane Smiley’s The Last Hundred-Year Trilogy is an experience I’d recommend to anyone who would  like to see how legacies are created and destroyed. The strongest character in this series was Time – sometimes heavy-handed, sometimes arbitrary, but always in control.

In other hands, the stories of dysfunction families can be, well, tiresome.  However, Ann Patchet’s Commonwealth is a page-turner that is artful, engaging, masterful. I couldn’t put this book down.  So much of it rings true – the way great revelations always are illuminating, regardless of the circumstances.

I can only imagine how much Shakespeare would have enjoyed seeing his play The Tempest reimagined by Margaret Atwood in the novel Hag-Seed. I have a feeling that he would have been delighted.  This book sparkles with playfulness, which is why I’m looking forward to sharing it with my students this spring.

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“Attributes like confidence, enthusiasm, and likability can be perceived in the briefest of exposures.”

In The Spark of Learning, Sarah Rose Cavanagh describes a study where students were asked to rate professors after seeing 30-second videos of lectures that had no audio. The students’ ratings predicted with surprising accuracy the professors’ actual end-of-semester evaluations. It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that in teaching – as in most human interactions – how people “feel” about how we present ourselves matters. Cavanagh reviews evidence from neuroscience, psychology, and education to argue convincingly that if we activate positive emotions (interest, curiosity, and wonder) and minimize the negative ones (anxiety, frustration, and boredom), we can boost student performance.

Sarah Rose Cavanagh, The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion (Morgantown, WV, West Virginia University Press, 2016), 63.

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“There’s work to be done, there are plots to be plotted, there are scams to be scammed, there are villains to be misled!”

This may be Margaret Atwood’s greatest masterpiece. In Hag-Seed, she retells Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” by turning it inside-out and adding a layer.  It’s a play within a play within a novel.  This restructuring results in a  hybrid form of story-telling that’s actually very funny.  In her version, prisoners discuss “The Tempest” while staging it as part of a literacy class taught by a visiting director with ulterior motives.  The criminals candidly discuss murder and revenge from a professional perspective.  This is a laugh-out-loud book for readers with all levels of acquaintance with this classic play.

Margaret Atwood, Hag-Seed. (London: Hogarth Shakespeare, 2016″), 10.

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“Bernard Shaw said you should try everything once except folk dancing and incest.”

img_2725This is how Michael Billington, “the” British theater critic, who has reviewed more than 9000 plays over the last 50 years, begins his piece on “Oedipus the King” by Sophocles. Charming, gossipy, insightful, authoritative, knowledgeable, and passionate, Billington is a great writer. It’s hard to imagine what kind of person wouldn’t discover something interesting here. Despite his blind spot – he seems to think that an older, white, male view is the default rather than an unjust construct – his four-page summaries of these 101 plays are packed with insights that only someone with great depth and breadth of experience could summon.

Michael Billington, The 101 Greatest Plays: From Antiquity to the Present (London: Faber & Faber Ltd., 2015), 21.

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