Sunday, February 26, 2012


It may be a cliche for English majors to say, but I've always loved Austen. Pride and Prejudice is one of my favorite books--there is no romantic hero quite like Mr. Darcy. My love for Austen may be even more cliche, considering my level of academic engagement. Since my specialties are in the long 18th and 19th centuries and Austen rather deftly fits into the turn of the century, her books encompass everything I love about reading.

So it was with great delight that I read Frances Burney's Evelina this afternoon. Published in 1778, with no small indebtedness on her part to Dr. Johnson, it's the story of a country mouse making her way into society and surviving the attempts to regain her fortune which has been wrongfully taken from her. Lord Orville, the hero, is very much like Mr. Darcy, but perhaps even better, because Lord Orville knows when to laugh. Darcy is solemn all the time, but Orville is able to laugh in genuine delight when something warrants it.

Many of the concerns are the same. Both Evelina and Elizabeth Bennet are concerned with the impact their families will have in how they are seen by society, and both have an acute awareness of their own particular social failures. To be honest, as I think about it, perhaps the reason these novels were successful, and in Austen's case, remain so, is because so many teenage girls recognize the situations.

For example. I love my dad. He is, without a doubt, quirky, and it took a long time before I came to love and embrace (and in some cases, emulate) that quirkiness. But for a good portion of my teenage years, he was also a source of some embarrassment, usually caused by his sartorial choices when going to the grocery store (and the tendency to sing "If I Were King of the Forest" from The Wizard of Oz in the parking lot).

But at the tender age of thirteen, at my first boy-girl dance, after which my father was taking several friends of mine home (including the boy I liked), my father came to pick me up wearing the following outfit: red and black checked pajama pants, a maroon t-shirt with a paint stain across the front, a gray zip-up sweatjacket, a Cincinnati Reds ballcap, and topsiders with no socks. More to the point, he came inside. Where everyone could see him.

I was mortified. (So was my mother.)

While this has, in the ensuing years, become a memory that spawns laughter for all involved (and yes, some of those friends do remember my dad's wild pajama pants--and some still see him in them when he goes to the grocery store on the weekends, though the red and black checked have been replaced by pairs printed with the Grinch, Oscar the Grouch, DC Comics and Pink Floyd), at the time, it was positively horrifying. I could generally deal with the outfits going to the grocery store, because as I well knew, I was really the only teenager who actively liked going to the grocery store with her dad, and opportunities for embarrassment in front of my peers were minimal.

My point in relating this story has been that we all recognize that feeling of being embarrassed in front of someone we really want to impress by someone we know and love for their own quirky attributes, and at some particularly socially important time. For Evelina, it's as she's being presented to society and moving out in the world. Being thirteen and growing up in small-town Kentucky, the first boy-girl dance is about as similar to late 18th century Britain social situations as I can get.

But the beauty of these books is that the hero always sees past the embarrassment to the true inner beauty of the heroine and accepts her no matter what. That's the love story in these books and the part that I think every person who reads them resonates with--the simple idea that one person can love another without any judgments....and then live happily ever after.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

On Writing

I was in a professional development seminar yesterday, taking notes, when something hit me.

I love to write.

I don't mean the intellectual activity of writing, though I love that too. No, I mean the actual, physical act of writing, of putting pen on paper and watching ink spill forth. Of even sitting at a computer screen, tapping at keys and watching words simply appear like magic. I suppose it's what makes a brand-new notebook special--what makes a brand-new notebook with a pretty cover even more special.

What caused this? It wasn't the professional development seminar. Though it was informative, it didn't have anything to do with this physical act of writing, and I was taking notes on the idea of voice in non-native speakers' English when it struck me. Now, part of this, I feel certain, was the fact that Cengage had a book rep there, and he had given me a pen.

I love these pens.

I got two of them last year, and was upset when they didn't last me all the way to this year.

I might have more than two right now.

Actually, I might have a lot more because I was tempted by their shiny brilliance every time I went by the table. (To be fair, he left a BUNCH for anyone to take after the seminar was over, so I don't feel bad about having a bunch, since everyone had a chance to get them and had left by the time I got there and snagged them. And now I will have them for a LONG time. Buahaha!) And I would totally buy these pens if I could figure out who made them, but my perusals of the office supply aisles have been for naught.

Anyway, something about the tail of a cursive 'y' caught my eye, and I stopped for a moment to simply appreciate the act of writing. I really do enjoy writing, especially by hand, though I'm never terribly happy with my handwriting for long, because the faster I go and more excited I get, the less beautiful my handwriting becomes.

It reminded me of an E.L. Konigsburg book I read when I was a kid: The View from Saturday, which won her a second Newbery Award. In it, one of the main characters is taught to use a fountain pen. The fountain pen--refillable, mind--is extolled as the most virtuous of pens, rather than the soulless ballpoint so in use today.

Personally, I've always been a ballpoint pen girl myself, though I've been picky about what kind. I love Bic pens, but not the crystal ones. I'm a fan of the RoundStic pens. I enjoyed Sharpie pens for a while, as the logical, less messy follower to felt-tip pens, though they were not fast enough for me to take notes in class. SnarkyWriter gave me an InkJoy, PaperMate's new pen (which is being featured on their website's front page right now), and I found that not having to press down on the ball resulted in quite a bit of mess, and I had ink all over myself. Mostly, I've used their Write Bros. pen.

But I've found that many of my favorite pens have come to me from various places. I have a KEA pen (the Silver Dyna Pen), and another one also emblazoned with the KEA logo (a variation on the Arctic Frost). I've several Clic Stics from a variety of organizations, and two Tri Stics with my alma mater's Continuing Education logo that I love dearly. In my pen jar, I've also several of the aforementioned Round Stics, Sharpie pens, Write Bros. in various colors, a PaperMate Mystix in orange (which I believe they've quit making). I've also a purple Pentel Energel that I use sometimes for grading, though I'm not a gel pen person.

But my favorites are always the ones I pick up. Working in a pharmacy as an undergraduate, I picked a number of pens from drug reps. I have a pen from a Marriott hotel, one from a Drury hotel. I've a blue pen I think my father bought. I've my Cengage pens. And like anything else, my tastes will change. It may be that by next year, I will no longer want the Cengage pens, and at that point, they will drift out into the world, thieved and given away. Pen karma.

But what matters is finding THE pen for the moment...and then finding that perfect curve in a word and smiling because it's just so fun.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Book Review: Knits for Nerds

Full Disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.

Take a look at what's out today, everyone! Toni Carr's Knits for Nerds was published today, and never, in my life, have I regretted being a crappy knitter before.

Until today.

The first thing I noticed was from the introduction--all the pictures were taken at NEIL GAIMAN'S HOUSE.

I can has?

There are only five patterns labeled "Easy" out of the 30+ patterns in the book, three of which are scarves--but really cool scarves. One is an easier version of the classic Dr. Who scarf:--basically this, but skinnier (and perhaps a little shorter). Unfortunately for me (but fortunate for all those who are more skilled knitters out there), there are some truly awesome patterns in here.

If I'm going through what I desperately want to add a +5 modifier to my knitting skill for, the number one thing is Carr's "Aim to Misbehave Brown Jacket." It's gorgeous, and I want it! Based on Firefly's Browncoat pattern, I couldn't help but think that River Tam would have had a Browncoat in this pattern. And as long as I'm on the Firefly themed patterns, the cunning scarf (one of the easy patterns) and the cunning socks might go well with the Jayne hat I crocheted for my brother-in-law a few years ago. Yeah. You know you want one (and knit patterns for the hat can be found all over the internet).

Other beautiful things I loved? The "Secret Beaded Bag." Done in purple tweedy yarn and embellished with some really pretty beads, it's inspired by Herminone Granger's Bag of Holding from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The "Light of Earendil" shrug is delicate and beautiful, and way beyond my skill level. It features a leaf pattern and beading, and makes me wish I was the kind of English teacher who could get away with the ethereal kind of clothing (all I can get away with is my tie-dyed skirt). One particular strength of this collection is the number of bags--including a laptop bag which can be spread out to make a chessboard.

My enthusiasm for these patterns not withstanding, there are a few bombs, which one would expect. The Princess hats (all based on Star Wars hairstyles) are a bit silly (though I can definitely see how "Padme's Battle Cape" would work for roller girls), and the Catwoman hat is patently ridiculous. And to be honest, I wasn't much of a fan of many of the patterns in the third section of the book that dealt with comics and manga, but that's more of a style thing on my part than a reflection on the patterns. Also, the sci-fi trivia used to fill in blank spaces at the ends of patterns is a bit hokey--if you've bought this book, you know the answers to these questions.

There is a fairly good how-to section at the back of the book to assist those novice knitters, like myself. Now if I can just get to where my purling doesn't look like a cat has taken its claws to my yarn.....

Overall, there is more good than bad in this book, and the "Aim to Misbehave Brown Jacket" is worth the price of admission alone. If you're a geek crafter, this is definitely a book for you. Grade: A-

Monday, February 13, 2012


What is this? Where am I? Why can't I breathe through my nose?

In all seriousness, I have done almost nothing but read and fret in the last week. What have I been through? The Origin of Species (amazing), Darwin's Plots (academically interesting), a couple of books on 18th century history (in order to help calm my nerves about the exams at the end of March), a book on Victorian ideas, Lisa Kleypas' Because You're Mine and Eloisa James' This Duchess of Mine. Plus some Matthew Arnold for my dissertation. This upcoming week has more 18th century study, plus Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest and a study of Victorian and modern poetics.

I had a very productive trip to Half Price Books this weekend. My husband and I had headed home for a family wedding (which was incredibly beautiful) and took three giant boxes of books to sell back while we were there (for which we got a grand total of $20. At least that paid for some of the books we bought and got the boxes out of the house. Half Price is a wonderful place, but it does not pay well). But I came away with three Eloisa James novels and a cross stitch book for fun, and several books that I think will come in handy for dissertation and exam studying--a book on general Victorian culture - What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew - the Norton 18th century anthology, a book about Herschel's discoveries, and a book called Apes, Angels and Victorians about Victorian perceptions of evolution, which is not a bad haul.

In the meantime, I'm also waiting for books to come from Amazon that I've ordered for my dissertation as well. I've ordered copies of some of the major Victorian scientific works of the era - Paley's Natural Theology, Chambers' Vestiges of the Natural Creation, and Lyell's Principles of Geology. At the same time, I've also ordered The Kristeva Reader and Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition to help me develop the theoretical underpinnings of my argument.

And yes, I am perfectly aware of how boring all that sounds and what an English nerd I am. In any case, I have a preliminary outline of how I want my first chapter of my dissertation to go, which is surprising in and of itself. Also, I really need to be working more on my prospectus instead, but my first focus really needs to be exams. Naturally, I'm hiding in romance novels. The Kleypas and James novels were pretty good, though I much preferred the Eloisa James novel--for one, it had much more of a seemingly conceivable plot.

No, what I really wanted to talk about today was Darwin. Most people who have talked to me in the last few weeks have heard this spiel already, but The Origin of Species is one of the most beautifully written books I've ever read.

Having been brought up in a semi-evangelical household, I'm not sure what I was expecting when I began Darwin. My parents never pushed creationism on us--certainly not literal creationism, but when you're homeschooled, you get some of it by osmosis through some of your textbooks and I certainly had friends who did take a very literal interpretation of it. In some aspects, I think I expected to open up The Origin of Species and find the devil waiting to pounce. I also think that I expected a very dry, dusty scientific tome that I was going to have to slog through to get anything out of.

I could not have been more wrong on both counts. Darwin was very respectful of the religious aspect. He never denies God, and he's very careful in The Origin of Species not to make any conclusions involving man (that's another book). Darwin was, by no means, an atheist out to eliminate God from the world. He was actually a devoted churchman who was buried in Westminster Abbey. And yes, he realized that there were going to be repercussions from the theory--he discusses them somewhat in the book. But he never dismisses the idea of a Creator. He is moving away from a literal interpretation of Genesis in order to make the geological and cosmological record fit with Christianity.

I've been having a discussion about this with Dr. K, and she says that this is no different than what John Henry Newman was doing. An Anglican turned Catholic who was looking for what he felt was the best, closest way to doing things the way Christ wanted, Newman felt that something had to change in the way that we conceived of the Old Testament. It couldn't be God, because God was perfect from the beginning. So what he came up with was instead the idea that it was not God who had changed, but humanity. Genesis makes sense for a less educated people who could not comprehend the intricacies of the universe. Like Christ does in the New Testament, the Old Testament teaches through stories, metaphor and analogy. Humanity is changing and becoming more advanced and increasing in their understanding. The only difference is that Darwin was coming at it from the scientific view and Newman from a religious view.

And in doing so, Darwin establishes a natural world in some of the most beautiful language. It's almost poetic in spots--how else could it be when you're describing something completely new and wondrous to the world?

Yes, I still realize that I'm an English nerd.

In any case, I feel like we should do with The Origin of Species what I've always felt we should do about other books, like Harry Potter and Twilight -- read it before making a decision about the merit of it. And I think we should do one more thing--take Darwin as he wanted to be taken, not as the a) evil of all mankind or b) the savior of the agnostics/atheists/evolutionists. Darwin falls somewhere in the middle of the creationism/evolution debate, and it's always in the middle where I look for truth.