Life and Other Matters

Most of my posts recently have been about books I’ve read or playlists I’ve created, and while those things are all awesome, it’s been a while since I’ve given just an everyday normal update about life. And I really should because life happens outside of the books I’m reading and the music I’m listening to.

You’ve seen a lot of mentions of my thesis in my blogs, if you’ve been following for awhile. Naturally, the thesis-writing eclipsed my life for a long time. I started writing on Monday, Jan. 25 and wrote the last chapter on Friday, March 9. In those six and a half weeks, I managed to write 96 pages with a 4-page bibliography.

I submitted my thesis, after several read-throughs, edits, and slight revisions, on Tuesday, March 20, and I finally heard at the end of April that I had officially passed. Then, I had to officially title that huge paper, check the formatting, print 5 copies on expensive paper, and attend a session to upload my thesis to the database. The hardest part may have actually been the naming. How does one summarize 96 pages of info in just a line or two? Here’s how:

Seeing that title page made it feel sort of real–as if I’d actually just spent years working on an M.A. and had managed to write extensive criticism of awesome books. Exciting!

The title quote comes from Patrick Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go, one of the three books on which I wrote my thesis. (The other two were Alan Moore & David Lloyd’s graphic novel V for Vendetta and China Mieville’s detective novel The City & the City.) “Heteroglossia” is an idea formulated by Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin; it’s the idea that the writers who are repressed manage to resist the dominant ideology of a political regime through becoming heteroglot, embracing a variety of languages and ideas instead of just blindly accepting the one hegemonic ideology they are being fed. I amended his theory and looked at ways that characters within these novels were able to salvage elements of language and culture in order to resist or overthrow a totalitarian governmental regime.

If I’ve lost you, I apologize. It’s hard to explain months of research and writing in a paragraph or two. Nonetheless, I have to say that writing my thesis was by far one of the coolest experiences I’ve had. Despite the long hours and exhaustion, I haven’t had nearly as much fun in a long time. I loved the books I was writing about, the theories I was reading, and the connections I found in three distinct literary works. And, honestly, in the few months following my thesis, I felt a deep loss that I was finished and didn’t have anything so huge to pour my life into.

Finishing the thesis was the last requirement for graduation, though. I am now an M.A. Here’s a picture of me in my regalia with my lovely thesis advisor, Dr. Shea Stuart:

Now, not only did I finish my thesis, I also won an award: the Gayle Bolt Price Award for Excellent in Graduate Student Writing. To celebrate, I went to dinner in Shelby with some of my professors and received the plaque then:

 From left to right:

Dr. June Hobbs was the English department chair during my time as a student at GWU. She taught a class on the American Renaissance in literature in Spring 2011. She is delightful, brilliant, and a woman of many varied interests. She’s also an expert on all things relating to death and cemeteries, a topic which I already found to be fascinating.

Dr. Shea Stuart: I never had the opportunity to take one of Dr. Stuart’s classes, but when I described my thesis idea to my academic advisor, she suggested I ask Dr. Stuart to advise my thesis. I sent an email describing my ideas, and from the moment I sat down in Dr. Stuart’s office during our first meeting, we were fast friends, bonding over our shared loves of China Mieville, Neil Gaiman, Doctor Who, and all things British and sci-fi. I never expected to find a thesis topic that merged so many of my academic and “fun” interests, and Dr. Stuart fostered and encouraged those ideas (and still does!).

Finally, Dr. Theado is the current English department chair (GWU has a five-year rotation, and his turn has arrived). He is the only professor that I had the privilege of taking for two classes. In spring 2010, he taught a class on African-American literature, and in spring 2011, he taught an incredible class on Contemporary Trends in Literature. Both of those classes introduced me to a wide variety of authors I’d never studied before, and Dr. Theado’s chill, laid-back, discussion-style classes were a great fit for a fast-paced summer school course.

I’m blessed to have studied under these brilliant men and women at Gardner-Webb, and I can’t imagine a better experience for my M.A. than what I found there.

Beyond grad school, other cool things are happening. Since I have a Master’s degree now, NGU has added another course to my load. In the fall, in addition to the 2 sections of developmental writing that I normally teach, I’m also teaching a section of 1320, the second level of freshman writing, which focuses on argument and literature. I am both excited and nervous because it’s been a while since I’ve taught a class for the first time. In fact, in August, I begin my FOURTH year as a college instructor. I cannot believe that many years have passed.

But for now, it’s summer time, and I’ve been trying to relax although, honestly, that’s not working out so well. I’m filling up my time with activities and friends, but it’s a different kind of busyness, unlike the school year. I have friends getting married and having babies (not the same friends, to be clear). I’ve been going to the movie theater a lot; Harvin and I have a lengthy list of films to see this summer, and we’re racking up Regal Club points for our effort. I attended my first comic book convention this past weekend, and the Fourth of July is next week, during which I will spend most of the day with my small group.

August quickly approaches, and I will, for the first time in a long time, not have to balance work/teaching and my own schoolwork. But for now, there are books to read and films to watch and people to see. Happy summer!

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Thoughts while Driving

I practiced a bit of metacognition on my lunch break today.

I left campus for lunch today, and while driving to TR to pick up a sandwich, I thought about life, about conversations that happened at girls’ night last night, about thoughts that are persistent, about Jesus and the Gospel, about heaven and hell.

I also thought about how I think about all those things. Metacognition.

I thought about the fact that my thoughts are so harsh and unrelenting, and I thought about the fact that if I say those words out loud, they evaporate as if sound waves infiltrate the lies. I also thought about the fact that I have so many great thoughts while I’m driving, but by the time I get back to my computer or to a place where I can sit with a notebook, those thoughts are gone. I have composed manifestos and memoirs in my head on many occasions, only to lose them when I arrive at my physical destination. On rare occasions, I manage to arrive home with an experience that fills up so much of my existence that I cannot rest until I have written those thoughts down, and I stay up late writing about storms and sunsets.

Mostly, though, my thoughts while driving are replaced quickly by emails, tweets, Facebook notifications, breaking news, and responsibilities. When I’m no longer alone with only my internal dialogue to keep me company, I move out of the role of a thinker and a writer and into another role with, seemingly, more urgent needs. I can rarely recapture the thoughts I found so beautiful when I was alone.

Today, however, I thought, once more, that I should invest in a recorder to leave in my car for those moments. Then, I remembered that I’d discovered that my BlackBerry actually has a voice recorder (let’s stop pretending I’m technologically advanced, shall we?). I pulled it out and spent almost 7 minutes just talking to myself (let’s pretend like that doesn’t make me sound crazy).

When I sat down to write this post, I listened to my recording. Once I got over that initial weirdness of hearing my own voice unfiltered, I found my recording to be amusing and poignant and revelatory. I spent the first minute or so commenting on the oddity of talking to myself, but when I finally settled into my train of thought, I discovered that my own words, speaking Truth back at me, are powerful in vanquishing a negative mindset. The result is that I reminded myself of just how big God is. I reminded myself that the plans I had were not the plans He had, and I recognized (audibly) that His ways are not mine, and His kingdom is more important than my puny plans.

In those 7 minutes, I thought about Jesus’ words, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” And if the Kingdom is here, but not fully here, then the kingdom of hell is warring against the Kingdom of heaven. When I choose to focus on the ways that the kingdom of hell is present–in heartache and loneliness, in difficulties and darkness–then I’m making a choice not to focus on the glory of God and His Kingdom on earth. My friend Jane said as much to me last night; she essentially told me that when I look at the future and think, “there’s no way that will ever happen,” then I’m not allowing God to work. There is conviction in that statement, and as much as I hate to say the words aloud or type them in this post, I live my day-to-day life trying to make things work in my own way, in my own time, and with my own power, and I don’t acknowledge the ways that God could be leading me. And when I cry out in anger and frustration that I don’t have an answer and things aren’t working out the way I want them to, He is always there reminding me that there’s a better way: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”

This is not a new struggle. These are not new truths. Every day, my own sin and stubbornness and willfulness create a barrier between me and my Father. Some days, I let the barrier remain. Other days, I drive in my car, talking to myself, reminding myself of the truth of God and that the blood of Jesus and the grace of God have covered EVERY ONE OF MY SINS. In these moments, I can recognize that, ultimately, the goodness of God will win out over the blackness of evil.

I write these words for my own sake, more than anyone else. This will be a post that I will turn to on the days when the Kingdom doesn’t seem so near, when I forget that He is enough. Moments of clarity like this will remind me on those days when my thoughts are muddled and confused and fearful.

My Father is a living God, and His grace is sufficient for me. His mercies are made new every morning, and there is nothing I can do that can separate me from my Father’s love.

A Reading Roundup

I’ve been a wretched blogger lately. Let me be honest: when I was writing my thesis, I got out of the habit. It happens; maybe there are only so many words in me, and most of those needed to be devoted to that glorious monstrosity. I would like to declare that, now that I’m an M.A. without half the responsibilities of a few months ago, I’ll be a better blogger. That might not be true, so I’m not making promises. But here’s the second post of June, so that’s at least some semblance of progress.

I last posted a book review two months ago, when I finished John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. Since then, I’ve read quite a few stellar books, so here’s a quick review:

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods

I began this novel on a road trip from Williamsburg, VA. My friend Jenna was driving the whole almost-8-hour trip on that rainy Sunday, and I finished the first 200 pages before we arrived home. What a perfect way to begin a book that is, at least in part, the story of a road trip across America. The protagonist of the novel, named Shadow, meets the mysterious Mr. Wednesday, who offers him a job as an assistant/bodyguard. Shadow, an ex-con and recent widower, joins Mr. Wednesday in what becomes a battle of mythological forces across America. This novel is a fascinating tale of what happens to gods and goddesses when their worshipers immigrate to America as well as the way in which new gods and goddesses form as society evolves. In the midst of searching for the gods of America and preparing for a coming war, Shadow is also on a quest to discover life after the life he once cherished dissolves. I’m a huge fan of Gaiman’s writing style (across genres–in novels, movie/TV scripts, short stories, comic books, and books for children), and this book is beautifully written and incredibly evocative of American culture (from a man who is, natively, a Brit). Hopefully, I’ll soon read the companion novel Anansi Boys, and according to Gaiman’s Twitter feed, he is currently adapting the novel for a script for a television show.

China Mieville’s Railsea

Mieville is one of the three authors I studied for my thesis. He is quite prolific, turning out a book a year for at least the past four years, all of which have been incredibly well-written and thought-provoking and distinct. This novel, his first young adult novel in several years, is a retelling of Moby Dick. Instead of ships, however, the crew travel on trains along the railsea, in a fascinating world that Mieville has created. The protagonist of the novel is Sham ap Soorap, a doctor’s apprentice who longs to salvage the wrecks of trains along the railsea. His captain, instead of hunting a great white whale, is searching for a great Southern moldywarpe, with whom she had battled (and lost) years before. One fabulous aspect of this novel, as my thesis advisor pointed out in our conversations about the book, is that, instead of allowing the beast to act as metaphor (as Melville did in Moby Dick), Mieville jumps straight to the point: each captain is in search of a “philosophy” that drives his or her journeys across the railsea. The moldywarpe becomes this captain’s obsession, but Sham soon discovers his own philosophy after finding a photo memory card in a trainwreck. The results of his search are fantastic and fascinating. One downside to this book, however, is that those not familiar with Mieville’s style might have a hard time with his language use and the sci-fi content of the book. Mieville is part of a movement of sci-fi writers called the “New Weird,” and his novels definitely are not written for every audience (but what book is?). My suggestion: if you want to try reading Mieville, start with his detective novel The City & the City (the book I wrote my thesis on), an work your way through the rest of his books from there.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker

I knew as soon as I picked this novel up that I would love it–the title, the steampunk cover, and, of course, the dystopian premise. Also, even though I haven’t heard much about it (as with, say, The Hunger Games), the novel did win the Michael L. Printz Award (sort of like the Newbery for young adult literature) and was a National Book Award finalist. Prestigious. The book follows Nailer, one of the titular ship breakers, who is part of a “light crew” responsible for crawling through the bowels of wrecked oil tankers to scavenge for copper and other materials to sell. After a vicious storm hits the Gulf of Mexico, where the novel is set, Nailer is scavenging aboard a clipper and discovers a wealthy young girl alive in the wreckage. Eventually, Nailer and “Lucky Girl,” as she comes to be called, must flee the coast in an effort to reunite her with her father’s people and also escape from people who want both Nailer and Lucky Girl dead. The novel, as most dystopian novels are, is an interesting portrayal of society; following whatever disaster wrecked the country, cities have been destroyed and people fight for survival, yet, still, the wealthy remain powerful and the poor remain powerless. Like so many other dystopias, this novel focuses on class consciousness in a prominent way, and I, personally, am glad to see the social commentary take the focus instead of a love triangle in which a girl must both decide whom she loves as well as overthrow a government. In this novel, Nailer and Lucky Girl really do have to fight really hard for survival, and the consequences of that fight are revealed throughout the novel.

Currently

Most of the rest of my planned summer reading follows this sci-fi/fantasy/dystopian theme, unsurprisingly. I’m currently about halfway through Max Brooks’ fascinating novel World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, and I’ve just checked out the companion novel to Ship Breaker, which is called The Drowned Cities. Soon, too, I plan to delve into a lengthy novel called 1Q84, which has been both critically acclaimed and bestselling, a rare feat in the publishing world these days. That novel is 925 pages, though, and I’ll be honest and say I’m a bit intimidated by the sheer size and weight of that book. Still, I’m told it’s a worthy conquest. Perhaps in a few weeks, I’ll have more wonderful books to write about!

27: The Second Annual Birthday Playlist

Two years ago, when I turned 25, I posted a playlist I’d made of songs inspired by My List of Things to Do Before I Die. Last year, I made an official birthday playlist–26 years of life, 26 letters of the alphabet, and a favorite song for each letter. I had so much fun making that playlist that I decided to make it an annual tradition.

This year, on Sunday, I’ll be 27, a number that has no immediately recognizable connections to music. I, thus, decided to make a themed list with 27 songs. Should I make a list of songs associated with 27 places I’ve been? A top song from each year of my life? 27 rules of grammar (which sounds like so much fun!)?

All of those are great ideas, but none really fit where I am right now. At 27, I have just graduated with my Master’s in English, having finished a thesis on some of the greatest books I’ve ever read and having won an award for excellence in writing. The theme of my playlist erupted naturally out of my top passion in life: literature.

I set out to create a list of 27 songs with literary references. Many are songs that I love because of the direct literary references or because they remind me of great works of literature. Quite a few are on the alphabet playlist from last year. And, of course, my favorite bands–Switchfoot, Mumford & Sons, Arcade Fire, The Gaslight Anthem, and Bloc Party–are heavily featured because of the literary quality of their music.

I give you, then, 27 songs about literature:

[Note: All the links are to YouTube videos of the songs, some official, some fanmade. I also created a complete playlist on YouTube, mostly for my own use, but here’s the link to that.]

1. “Great Expectations,” The Gaslight Anthem

“And I never had a good time / I sat by my bedside with papers and poetry about Estella.” This is the opening track from TGA’s fantastic album The ’59 Sound. The title and the mention of Estella are both in reference to my favorite Dickens novel, making this a natural choice for the opening to my 27 playlist. Even the music video evokes imagery of Miss Havisham’s house.

2. “Doublespeak,” Thrice

After compiling my playlist, I realized that I was a few songs short of my goal of 27, so I Googled “songs with literary references,” and this is my favorite of the few that I added from those lists that I found. “Doublespeak,” of course, is a reference to Orwell’s 1984, one of the  great British dystopian novels.

3. “1984,” David Bowie

Another one of my recent finds. I had no idea that Bowie had originally planned an entire concept album based on 1984. This song and several others are the results of that intention, but apparently, that didn’t work out.

4. “Oscar Wilde,” Company of Thieves

I took a class last summer on Irish lit, and while playing my iPod on shuffle driving home from class one night, this song played. Perfect for my playlist!

5. “Resistance,” Muse

Easily one of my favorites on this entire playlist. This song mentions the “Thought Police,” another reference to 1984. However, this song has a much stronger literary connection for me. Muse’s album Uprising came out in September 2009. Around that time, I read Patrick Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go and its sequel The Ask and the Answer for the first time. Just after finishing the second book, I was driving home listening to “Resistance,” thinking about Todd and Viola and the incredible world Ness had created when it occurred to me that this song was the perfect soundtrack for those books. Ness himself has said on his blog that Uprising as a whole could be the soundtrack for his books, and I certainly agree. I listened to this song many, many times while writing about The Knife of Never Letting Go for my thesis. Actually, I listened to a lot of Muse in general while writing my thesis…

6. “The Heart is Scarlett,” The Winter Sounds

There’s only one video of The Winter Sounds performing this song, and it doesn’t do this incredible song justice. I’m not sure if “Scarlett” is an actual reference to Gone with the Wind, but what I love about TWS anyway is that this song is from their album Church of the Haunted South. The first time I heard TWS playing, I met Patrick, the leader singer, and asked if the title was an intentional reference to Flannery O’Connor, who called the South a “Christ-haunted landscape.” I’ve written a few essays about that idea over the years, and I love it, so this song makes it onto the list because of the connotations of Southern literature.

7. “Afternoons and Coffeespoons,” Crash Test Dummies

Another one of my recently discovered songs. I love that it’s in reference to T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which has one of my favorite lines in poetry: “I have measured my life in coffee spoons.” Echoes of Eliot are throughout this song, so it’s definitely worth a listen. Also, this video is from their appearance on Letterman in 94, so it’s a classic!

8. “One Headlight,” The Wallflowers

This one was also on the 26 list, but it’s one of my favorites, so here it is again! Also, this might be a stretch, but I included it because of the reference to Cinderella. It’s a fairy tale, so it totally counts as literature. And I get to listen to The Wallflowers even more.

9. “Ready to Start,” Arcade Fire

 Yet another song from the 26 list, and also, another reference to a fairy tale: “All the kids have always known / That the emperor wears no clothes.” Also, a darn good song.

10. “Ares,” Bloc Party

A mythological reference to the Greek god of war. This song is angry and alive and really fantastic to write to. Actually, along with Muse, I wrote much of my thesis to Bloc Party, particularly their album Intimacy, of which this is the first track. And I’m super excited because their first studio album in four years will be released this fall!

11. “The ’59 Sound,” The Gaslight Anthem

The second song from TGA to be featured on this playlist, this one also contains a reference to Dickens: “When we float out into the ether, into the Everlasting Arms / I hope we don’t hear Marley’s chains forged in life.” The words are so literary: the idea of ethereal angels dates back to the Victorian age, and of course, they reference A Christmas Carol. Love it!

12. “Sigh No More,” Mumford & Sons

Seriously, these guys are some of the most literary musicians I know of. The title of this song (and the album), as well as the opening lyrics to this track come from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Even though I’ve owned this album for two years and listened to it hundreds of times, this song still makes me a little giddy.

13. “Richard Cory,” Simon & Garfunkel

Inspired by the Edwin Arlington Robinson poem of the same name.

14. “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road,” Elton John

I do love Elton and his excessively large eyewear. This one, obviously, was chosen because of the reference to L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz.

 15. “Faust, Midas, and Myself,” Switchfoot

 My favorite track from Switchfoot’s 2006 album Oh! Gravity. They weave together the story of the man who sold his soul to the devil and the story of a man overwhelmed with greed to comment on what’s really important in life. This video is a live version from their 2009 Hello, Hurricane tour.

16. “Wandering Star,” Portishead

The first song I’ve included on this playlist with a biblical reference. Jude 12-13: “These are spots in your love feasts, while they feast with you without fear, serving only themselves. They are clouds without water, carried about by the winds; late autumn trees without fruit, twice dead, pulled up by the roots; raging waves of sea, foaming up their own change; wandering stars for whom is preserved the blackness of darkness forever.” I don’t want to be a wandering star, but I sure do love this song.

17. “Timshel,” Mumford & Sons

 Timshel is a Hebrew word, sometimes translated as “thou mayest,” that appears in the Genesis story of Cain and Abel, as well as in Steinbeck’s East of Eden.

18. “America,” Simon & Garfunkel

A few months ago, I started reading Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods while my friend Jenna drove us home from Williamsburg on a rainy Sunday. I read the first 200 pages of this book in the car and was immediately captivated by the story of Shadow, who is hired by the mysterious Mr. Wednesday, and, thus, begins a journey into understanding the mythology of American culture. Although Gaiman includes a lot of musical references in the novel, I realized, on that slow, rainy day, that no song would better fit the way I felt at that moment than this song.  Thus, while there are no specific literary references, this song seems undeniably connected to one of my favorite novels.

19. “Daughter’s Lament,” Carolina Chocolate Drops

Okay, so maybe this one is cheating a bit since it comes straight from The Hunger Games: Songs from District 12 and Beyond soundtrack, but it directly references a mockingjay and is so perfect for the whole series that I decided to include it in the mix.

20. “Never Let Me Go,” Judy Bridgewater

Judy Bridgewater doesn’t actually exist. But in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go, the protagonist Kathy H. listens to this song on repeat on a cassette, and the song is a vital plot device. When the novel was adapted into film, this song was recorded for the soundtrack and is absolutely perfect, I think, especially as it so eerily contrasts the tone of this subtle, beautiful dystopian novel that is one of my favorites.

21. “The Cave,” Mumford & Sons

This song makes me think of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Nature. I’ve written about it before here. Plus, this video wins bonus points for being recorded in a book store.

22. “City with No Children,” Arcade Fire

P.D. James’ book The Children of Men was adapted into the brilliant film Children of Men, marking a rare occasion when I love both the book and films versions of a text. This song, down to the title, is a perfect soundtrack for the book.

23. “The Prayer,” Bloc Party

If F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby were contemporary, this would be the perfect soundtrack. The song has that same theme of being young and driven to acquire one all-encompassing desire, despite the consequences. The singer could be Jay Gatsby. (Also, the video is a little trippy.)

24. “Shankill Butchers,” The  Decembrists

In Irish lit last summer, I did a presentation on a poem called “Wounds” by Michael Longley. My professor, who is a huge Decembrists’ fan, referenced this song after my presentation because “Shankill” is referenced in this poem about war in Northern Ireland.

25. “Banana Co,” Radiohead

I didn’t know this song existed until yesterday, but I’m so glad it does. This song is a reference to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, one of my favorites. In the novel, members of the Buendia family work at a banana company, which is the source of revolution.

26. “We Used to Wait,” Arcade Fire

This song has a reference to Eliot, too! Eliot’s “Prufrock” opens with “Let us go then, you and I / While the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized on a table.” This song has a very similar reference: “Like a patient on a table / I want to walk again / Want to move through the pain.” Both texts question the fragility of life, of trying to hold on. These are–in all seriousness–two of my very favorite texts.

Note: this video shows the project The Wilderness Downtown that accompanies the Arcade Fire song. I love it!

27. “The War Inside,” Switchfoot

 All right, so this song doesn’t have a specific literary reference, but Jon does sing, “I feel like we’re livin’ in sci-fi,” and let’s face it, I have been living in science fiction for months with the writing of my thesis. Plus, this is my favorite song from their last album Vice Verses, and I love it, so it seemed appropriate to close the playlist this way.

 Happy 27 to me!