Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Art of Doing Nothing

Today it's the kind of hot where, if you have AC, its not worth the trouble to leave it. I've done very little today and felt pretty guilty about it, too. That is until about an hour ago when I thought it might be worth practicing the art of doing nothing. These passages from The Great Gatsby were coming to mind, the ones that capture the ennui and the heat of that hot Long Island summer. Daisy and Jordan practically melting into the furniture, for example:

The only completely stationery object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor(12).

Or later in the summer when the heat makes them crazy enough to drive into the city and cram up in the Plaza Hotel for an afternoon. Now this is the kind of heat I'm talking about, when a breeze is only slightly more refreshing than exhaust:

The prolonged and tumultuous argument that ended by herding us into that room eludes me, though I have a sharp physical memory that, in the course of it, my underwear kept climbing like a damp snake around my legs and intermittent beads of sweat raced cool across my back. The notion originated with Daisy's suggestion that we hire five bathrooms and take cold baths, and then assumed more tangible form as "a place to have a mint julep." Each of us said over and over that it was a crazy idea - we all talked at once to a baffled clerk and thought, or pretended to think, that we were being very funny...

The room was large and stifling, and, though it was already four o'clock, opening the windows admitted only a gust of hot shrubbery from the Park. Daisy went to the mirror and stood with her back to us fixing her hair.

"It's a swell suite," whispered Jordan respectfully and everyone laughed.

"Open another window," commanded Daisy, without turning around.

"There aren't anymore."

"Well, we'd better telephone for an axe --" (133).

So in lieu of a breeze, I've found this great mint-flavored sparkling water at Whole Foods. Brings the temp down a few degrees. Here's to Gatsby and to doing as a little as possible on this hot Sunday afternoon...

Friday, July 25, 2008

in the middle

I'm in the middle of several books right now - can't just keep it to one. I remember a professor at W&L once telling me that she would read five or six books at time, and I couldn't remotely fathom that. Well, here I am, stewing over which one to pick up this morning. To add to the pile, I really want to get Rick Bragg's new book The Prince of Frogtown, which is a memoir about this father. If you haven't read Rick Bragg yet, go now to and order anything you can get your hands on. He is that good. I still think he has one of the best first lines ever in Ava's Man. He opens by describing his grandmother: "She was old all my life." Ahh. See what I mean?

So what I will probably pick up this am is Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. I'm teaching this right after March in my War in American Literature course this fall. I had no idea whether or not I would be able to play these two off of each other, but already I'm seeing some good connections, which makes me so incredibly excited about this class. I find this novel devastating. All that beauty and terror in such razor-thin prose. Yesterday I read the part where Lieutenant Henry gets wounded by a mortar shell and braves the ambulance ride to the field hospital, and I had to go down for a two-hour nap afterwards. It just knocked me out. Hopefully it will not have the same effect on my students.

Thursday, July 17, 2008


I just finished rereading Geraldine Brooks's novel, March, which I'm teaching to seniors this fall. I struggled at first on this rereading, wondering if my students would find it interesting. The jury will be out on this one until about October; nonetheless, I am excited about some of the teaching possibilities that the novel presents. Brooks focuses on the absent father in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women and imagines his journey south to serve as a chaplain to Union troops during the Civil War. March, who is an idealist and a man of "moral certainties," struggles to reconcile his beliefs with the complex world that is presented to him in war-torn Virginia. One thing I love about the book is that March has casual encounters and experiences with several historical figures, many of them writers. He lives alongside Emerson and Thoreau in Concord, Mass., aids John Brown well before the Harper's Ferry raid, and goes to a luncheon in honor of Nathaniel Hawthorne. He teaches Phyllis Wheatley and Frederick Douglass to former slaves during his time in the South. I think/hope I can weave all of these folks in while we're reading the novel as a way of introducing my students to more 19th century lit. Plus, I noticed that Brooks borrowed Louisa May Alcott's Hospital Sketches for her own depictions and modeled one of her characters off of Harriet Jacobs. Lots to work with here; I could conceivably spend the whole semester playing off this one novel. Above all, I most excited about the fact that Marmee and March are utterly human and therefore completely frustrating characters. Their decisions, omissions, and reactions with regard to each other should spark some serious Harkness discussions:)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

At Princeton. Taking a break from reading...

These are photos from my two weeks at the Klingenstein Summer Institute. Some of my new colleagues (Mahasin and Rika featured above) and I spent a lazy afternoon on Princeton University's campus, which is absolutely stunning. My photos do not do it justice, but I tried to capture the variety of architecture and art that we encountered on our stroll. The shopping and eating alone are enough reason to spend four years in this town; plus, I hear the academics are pretty good, too.