essays

Cheek by Jowl by Ursula K. Le Guin

“I have been asking for thirty years why most critics are afraid of dragons while most children, and many adults, are not”

“fantasy is not primitive, but primary”

6380284This book contains a series of essays on fantasy by Le Guin written in a highly assertive and critical tone. I think I will re-read this every year because it’s a little manifesto worth memorizing. The dominant essay in this collection is the central one (also the longest) focusing on animals in children’s literature and fantasy.

Le Guin begins the series of essays in debunking three stereotypes attached to fantasy like: (1) the characters are white (2) it’s a fantasy land in the middle ages (3) fantasy by definition concerns a battle between Good and Evil. She explores the reasons why some children’s literature is often in a pre-industrial setting, and how fairy tale retellings don’t necessarily mean changing the story, rather, poaching at it and getting into it.

“it interests me that most of these ‘lifelong’ children’s books are fantasies: books in which magic works, or animals speak, or the laws of physics yield to the laws of the human psyche.”

Le Guin questions what the making of fantasy really entails. For instance, a woman may turn into a troll in fantasy, but what does it really mean for a woman to turn into a troll? She compares it to “realist” literature like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Could one say that she has morphed into something monstrous?

Le Guin then turns her attention to the fantastic elements in other novels we consider great ‘realist’ and ‘serious’ literature like Moby Dick.

“The fantasy element of Moby Dick is Moby Dick. To include an animal as a protagonist equal with the human is—in modern terms—to write a fantasy. To include anything on equal footing with the human, as equal in importance, is to abandon realism…Melville’s white whale isn’t a real whale, he’s a beast of the imagination, like dragons or unicorns; hence Moby Dick is not an animal story, but it is a fantasy.”

In the main essay focusing on animals Le Guin examines how we used to be around animals in our earlier stages and what fantasy tries to capture:

“Animals were once more to us than meat, pests, or pets: they were fellow-creatures, colleagues, dangerous equals. We might eat them; but then, they might eat us. That is at least part of the truth of my dragons. They remind us that the human is not the universal.”

“As hunter-gatherers, our relationship to the animals was not one of using, caretaking, ownership. We were among, not above. We are a like in the food chain…each is at the service of the other. Interdependent. A community. Cheek by jowl.”

In literature we find interdependence between animals and nature, coexisting with humans in the same spaces. Lucretius’s poem On the Nature of Things shows us, Le Guin emphasizes, that “Lucretius saw no barrier between man and the rest of creation.” As we distanced ourselves from nature an animals with cities, and passed the industrial period, we separated ourselves from other species “to assert difference and dominance.”

Le Guin spends the rest of the book showing us the many ways in which fantasy as genre, found often in Children’s Literature brings us back to this imagined past where animals are integrated in society as equals. She examines Bambi, The Jungle Book, The Wind in the Willows, among many others and discusses how these points reinforce her thesis, and why they have been so successful. Le Guin uses some of her own stories and shows how she has tried to capture certain things and for what purpose.

Lastly, a part of this book that stayed with me, is Le Guin’s reaction to the Harry Potter phenomenon. Granted, this collection came out the same year as The Deathly Hallows, and didn’t examine in detail the overall effect and its subsequent ‘merchendise, Potter-world, Fantastic Beasts, and  Jack Thorne’s Cursed Child‘ but Le Guin has a bone to pick with the critics who had for years shunned fantasy and all of a sudden went along with the main crowd. Le Guin writes that she finds it normal for the public to fall in love with Rowling’s fantasy because they found something they missed out on since childhood, but she says:

“How could so many reviewers and literary critics know so little about a major field of fiction, have so little background, so few standards of comparison, that they believed a book that was typical of a tradition, indeed quite conventional, even derivative, to be a unique achievement?”

Le Guin blames the modernists, realists, and curriculum builders as well as the Edmund Wilson and his generation who labelled ‘realism’ and its various forms as the only kind of ‘serious’ literature. I love her criticism, brutal honesty, and analysis. All Cheek by Jowl has made me want to do is to read her all her essay collections and all her Science Fiction and Fantasy which is all now on my immediate TBR.

This book is one really well-written argument. The whole time I was highlighting and thinking of all the professors to whom I would like to send a copy. I think this book is perfect in how it’s written and how it delivers its argument. I was trying to think of a retort and couldn’t because her argument was that well done. Even in parts that I felt differently towards going in, I found myself converted by the end. Everyone should read this book.

Infinite Jest | David Foster Wallace | Announcement | Resources

“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow. of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy

IMG_20170515_111929_651announcement-clipart-cliparti1_announcement-clipart_09This post is part announcement, part resource. Earlier today I came across a tweet from Ennet House announcing that they will begin reading Infinite Jest as a group this summer starting with June 1 and ending with September 18. That is a total of 15 Weeks and 4 days, or 109 Days. I figured I might read this work properly and take better notes. The first and only time I read this work was by using Audible as a crutch and without too much highlighting/note-taking. This shouldn’t come as a surprise but this reading journal blog’s name is heavily inspired by Infinite Jest, so I figured why not provide a reading schedule and various resources, as well as opportunities to join read-along groups on this very same forum. The Ennet House Reading group will be meeting in Vancouver, but they allowed an open window for those of us willing to join in online. Ennet House has a Tumblr as well as a Reddit Page where there will be discussion. Main discussion HERE <–

I created a downloadable and printable form of the reading schedule with space for noteworthy quotations and notes. Click here for the Infinite Jest Reading Schedule. If you can’t join in now for this summer and you want to appropriate it to a different 15 week chunk it is up to you. The resources will still be here for you to use. The breakdown was created by Ennet House but I added the spaces for notes and created the PDF for convenience.

You can find copies of Infinite Jest on Amazon, your local bookstore, several used bookstores, and it doesn’t matter if you use the 20 Year Anniversary edition or the earlier ones. Ideally, you should use the softcover edition like the one in the image above because I can say for sure that the pages correspond to the reading schedule.

Public Library Dewey Decimal Number 813/.54 20
Academic Library, Library of Congress Call Number: PS 3573.A425635

RESOURCES:

David Foster Wallace Bibliography

By David Foster Wallace

Novels:

  1. The Boom of the System (1987) Written as Masters Thesis
  2. Infinite Jest (1996) Excerpts from Infinite Jest first appeared in Grand Street, 1992.
  3. The Pale King (2011) Published posthumously—his unfinished novel.

Short Story Collections:

  1. Girl With Curious Hair (1989) published in Europe as: Westward the Course of Empire Tales Its Way
  2. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (19(99)
  3. Oblivion: Stories (2004)

Non-Fiction / Essays

  1. Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present (1990), coauthored with Mark Costello
  2. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997)
  3. Up, Simba (2000)
  4. Everything and More (2003)
  5. Consider the Lobster (2005)
  6. McCain’s Promise (2008 paperback reprint of Up, Simba)
  7. This is Water (2009) Transcript of Convocation Speech
  8. Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will (2011)
  9. Both Flesh and Not (2012)
  10. String Theory: David Foster Wallace Essays on Tennis (2016) published posthumously

About David Foster Wallace—Biography/ Interviews

  1. Although of Course in The End You End Up Becoming Yourself by David Lipsky (2010) Mostly a transcript of an interview between David Lispky and David Foster Wallace back in 1996 near the end of the tour for Infinite Jest. Recent film The End of the Tour featuring Jason Segal as DFW is based on this transcript.
  2. Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by D.T. Max – Biography of DFW
  3. Conversations with David Foster Wallace edited by Stephen J. Burn (2012) A compilation of several interviews with David Foster Wallace/ The transcripts
  4. The Last Interview Series: David Foster Wallace (2012)
  5. Farther Away” Essay by Jonathan Franzen

Academic Works about Wallace’s Work

  1. Elegant Complexity: A Study of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (2007) Greg Carlisle
  2. David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest: A Reader’s Guide by Stephen J. Burn (2012)
  3. The David Foster Wallace Reader (2014) This 976 page book contains almost every other aspect of David Foster Wallace’s work, for instance it has the syllabus he designed as a professor for writing/reading courses at Pomona College, and additional excerpts not present in the texts above.

Online Resources/Forums/Archives

  • Audible has a 56 Hour-long Audiobook for Infinite Jest, and all his other works are there as well. I found that the audiobook really kept me going the first time.
  • Most of David Foster Wallace’s Archives are at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin Texas
  • The Howling Fantods – largest DFW fan group promoting News, Resources, and updates about DFW since 1997.
  • Several Facebook Groups: The Broom of the System being a dominant one
  • Goodreads Groups
  • Several interviews with DFW have been placed on YouTube
  • Two Films have come out based on 1. His life: The End of the Tour (based on Lipsky’s perspective of Wallace in 1996) and 2. His Work: Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
  • Don’t forget your public library! Both academic libraries in universities and public libraries will have most of Wallace’s works. If you prefer the online forum, OverDrive is connected through your library card and you can access most of the works mentioned.
  • In 2015 another group kept detailed records of their reading in a blog called Infinite Summer
  • A great Video Book Review of Infinite Jest by “FortheloveofRyan

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Of Men and Women | Book Review

pearl s buck

Pearl S. Buck

Pearl S. Buck (1892-1973) was a bestselling author of fiction and nonfiction, celebrated particularly for the ground-breaking depictions of rural life in China. He best work The Good Earth which is a trilogy, received the Pulitzer Prize in 1931, and in 1938 she received the Nobel Prize in Literature for her body of work, making her the first American woman to do so. She spent most of her life in China (Zhenjiang) because her parents were Presbyterian missionaries. She was educated in the U.S. at Randolph-Macon Women’s College, then returned to China, married John Lossing Buck and moved to Nanking.

Her novels dealt with the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the changes in the East post-WWII, and rural China. In 1934 Buck left China to be near her daughter who was mentally ill and hospitalized in New Jersey. In her later years Buck started engaging in philanthropic projects. Because there were practices rendering mixed-raced children unadoptable—in particular, orphans from the war—she founded Welcome House in 1949, the first international, interracial adoption agency in the United States. She died in 1973 from lung cancer in Vermont. The Chinese government objected to Buck’s portrayal of the country’s rural poverty, and in 1972, banned Buck from returning to China.

front cover buckOf Men and Women is a series of essays that Pearl S. Buck wrote and published in 1941 where she examined the differences in relationships between men and women in China versus the United States. She writes:

“Very early, therefore, I perceived that women together led a life of their own”

“In China the home was not what it is in our country, a thing apart from men’s lives except when they return to it for food and sleep. The real life of the nation went on in the home.”

She explores the set-up of the Chinese household that would often include “three-four generations under connecting roofs” versus the American lifestyle where only the nuclear family would be found living under the same roof. Children would then grow up not knowing just one household leader/alpha, but have a multi-generational experience.

She then turns her attention to the different ways women were educated in the East versus the West. In China “women handed down to women a vast lore of history, custom, ritual, and practical knowledge which educated them and made them a part of the great national whole.”

Buck asks in this series of essays one essential question:

“Why do so many American women seem not happy in being women when they have the freedom to make what they will of themselves? And why do women and men not enjoy each other more in my country?”

Although Buck emphasises that despite everything she prefers the American way over any other, and thinks the progress done in the West is one to strive for, she noted that American women, while educated, free, and supported, were still viewed as a separate entity from men, and there was still a miscommunication between the two. Buck examines how relationships between men and women are different in every country, and it’s that difference that makes it a nation of its own. She writes that a traveler should examine how in every country men and women feel towards each other or “the reality of that country has escaped him.”

“For no human being was created to be solitary, and when it is cut off by doubt and distrust and lack of understanding from the other to whom instinctively it turns, whom nature has created for it, then strange stops and blocks and ills are inescapable.”

In the epilogue Buck writes that it has been thirty years since she wrote this book (in preparation for a newer edition back in 1971). She writes that the China she spoke of “is no more…how changed! Communism rules, and Communism has totally altered the relationship between Chinese men and women.”

Thus, I would urge the reader to remember, when reading this collection, that these essays were written in 1941, reprinted with an added epilogue in 1971, and then reprinted now in 2017 for this brand new edition. In the interim, China, and America have changed drastically.

The collection includes a brief biographical note and several images taken from Pearl S. Buck’s archive.

Many thanks to Open Road Integrated Media for sending me this work for review. This electronic edition will be published on June 27, and is currently available for pre-order on Amazon. Open Road Integrated Media focuses on publishing ebook editions of older works of literature and nonfiction.

*The biographical note at the top is a paraphrasing of the biographical note in the text.