peregrine book

November 30th. . Two kills by the river: kingfisher and snipe.  The snipe lay half submerged in flooded grass, cryptic even in death.  The kingfisher shone even in mud at the river’s edge, like a brilliant eye.


When Kirk Follo asked me if I’d read J. A. Baker’s book The Peregrine, I first wondered if it was kin to The Maltese Falcon, and my curiosity was piqued.  After five minutes of Kirk’s enthusiastic recommendation, I was sold on the book, but soon learned I was unable to buy it in Tiny Town.  The college library, however, rescued me, as the book was a New York Review classic paperback in ’67, long before I knew what peregrine meant.  And the library had it.  Kirk is a demanding and discerning reader and critic, but I still doubted I’d have the same life-enhancing experience I’d had with Jonathan Maslow’s The Owl Papers on Cumberland Island, GA over two decades ago, one of my two most exciting nature book reads (the other? Barry Lopez’s Of Men and Wolves).  Maybe I was wrong about that.


John Alec Baker has been something of a mystery man, the author of only two books, putatively a longtime librarian (but now Wiki says an auto company employee) born in 1926 and deceased, well, the literary world was unsure about that when the paperback was issued.  His life span dates in the book are listed as (1926-?), which is pretty unusual, since he was still alive and writing in 1967, though his hawk book suggests he had recently received a dire personal prognosis.  Turns out – rheumatoid arthritis, eventually followed by cancer from the arthritis drugs.  But I stray.


For a decade Baker was possessed by the shrinking population of English peregrines, and for almost a year (October to March, a kind of “peregrine year”) Baker traipsed about the fields, marshes and woodlands of a small coastal region in East Anglia, where he “hunted” (with field glasses and a notebook) and documented the local peregrines, a small population likely destined to follow their cousins to the undiscovered country via agricultural chemicals.  The slender volume he left detailing the flights and feedings, matings and general peregrinations [from L for wandering or foreign; I couldn’t resist] of the birds, which are paragons of hunting efficiency and beauty, their in-flight kills elegant, their mantling, plucking and feeding nearly ritualistic, their life force exciting and inspiring.  They have running (soaring) scrimmages with crows, who like to mob them, and seem prone to gambol and play, as well as simply to observe the comings and goings of other avians with British names like godwit, knot, fieldfare, the many plovers, gulls and other fishers that haunt estuarial territories.  Their primary provender is the woodpigeon, and almost without exception these hawks take their prey in flight, often by a steep vertical stoop at about a hundred miles an hour.


Look them up in Sibley or the Audubon guide, and you’ll find some specimen images a gray slate with black highlights, others the colors of a light-phase copperhead, but not until you read Baker describing them will you think that many writers have ever done justice to describing a bird, tweedy in pattern or arrowhead-schemed, moustached, hook-beaked, lethal-taloned.


So who needs to know so much about a bird?  Well, the subject is fascinating, the matter, but that’s almost collateral.  What truly matters is manner, the manner of observation and of rendering.  Both Pound and Stevens insisted that the test of sincerity is craft, Pound adding that absolute attention is prayer.  But Baker is not a snazzy or mandarin stylist, he’s not even aiming for the kind of magical flair Lopez brings to “nature writing.”  He just observes with such a quiet ferocity of spirit and mastery of material that the sentences, which often contain subtle incremental repetitions, spiel out as if they are the beautiful presences, instead of descriptions of those presences.  He’s not particularly clever or ornate, but he observes, describes, juxtaposes and reveals his discoveries in a manner that seldom approaches embellishment.


And he’s not there.  He’s the ghost voice, the transparent eyeball that delivers the is.  Except, perhaps, in the matter of color, all the nuances and overtones, undertones.  His writing has a kind of painter’s pentimento that mixes the colors of marshweeds, mudflats, the chill air across which the tierce (male) or falcon (female) etches its signature and swoops down to snatch the life from its prey.  Reading the descriptions of the raptors’ acts are near rapture, as if this book were the casebook meant to prove the truth of James Dickey’s “The Heaven of Animals,” in which he imagines the predator’s “descent/ Upon the bright backs of their prey// . . . In a sovereign floating of joy.”


Four or five hours’ reading, a penitential act for anyone who suspects he or she has loved and looked too glibly or pretended to master a body of knowledge never truly penetrated to its heartbeat.  But a providential exercise, as well.  The intricate stitchery by which the world has made itself, without flourish or boast, no vita to flaunt, but just the turning ceremony of each successive day seen by the most ravenous eye imaginable and delivered with one of the most earnest and unself-righteous hands conceivable.


There’s not much plot to this story, as Baker resists the temptation to anthropomorphize the creatures that spellbind him (but which he never claims to “love”), but reading it I feel that I have requested, echoing Robert Penn Warren, “Tell me a story of deep delight,” and that I’ve been heard by someone or something actually able to deliver the goods.  Owls, pileateds, and the red kites of Wales have long been my favorite birds, but Baker has offered a new candidate, and I’m all Zeissed-up, wide-eyed and ready to see for myself.  All I need is a map.

peregrine book 2

Here’s the beginning of Baker’s October 39 entry:

The wind-shred banner of the autumn sky spanned the green headland between the two estuaries.   The east wind drove drenching grey and silver showers through the frozen cider sky.  Birds rose from ploughland as a merlin flew above them, small and brown and swift, lifting dark against the sky, dipping and swerving down along the furrows.  All brown or stubbled fields shivered and glittered with larks; all green were plied with plover.  Quiet lanes brindled with drifting leaves.

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Red River: Texas, Massachusetts and Home Again (Part two of a rubicund blog)

(for Part 1, scroll down past part the second))

Stanza the Second

red riverI have not forgotten.  Rubicon.  Here’s the rub.  The Red River, which is also a Texas border and part of the legendary geography of Old West cattle drives, for those trying to follow my digressions as if . . .  never mind.  Red River is a designated cinema treasure, as Robert Osborne tells us, and it’s about betrayal, vengeance, private enterprise and violence, all with requisite dust, livestock and rubes.  Women appear and speak, even dispute.  They do matter, in a Hawksish way, but it’s a man’s man’s movie, a hawks’, not much on the “then the letting go” front.  Caesar deciding to take the reins from the self-satisfied and corrupt magistrates, to trump them, by hook or pilum.  Tough steer magnate Tom (big John) Dunson (do I hear a “dunce” in there?) determined to drive the 10,000 head to Missouri for the big lollapalooza bonanza, instead of the safer, closer Abilene payoff.  Like Austin and Mabel willing to risk all domestic harmony for a whole gaggle of folks (though A. D.’s wife Susan Gilbert Dickinson was already low-dosing on arsenic for some “mysterious illness”) for the pleasures of wrestling out of all that Victorian millinery and making the two-backed beast.  (I remember, much later than these simple discoveries, reading one of Mabel’s letters in which she mentioned the need in Japan for a western lady always to be armed with a button hook, as it was always necessary to remove one’s shoes-of-many-fasteners to visit a temple.  This is before Velcro.  Old fashioned Cupid was a harsh taskmaster, as was Baedeker.)  Hard not to mention in such flights of fancy that A and M called their attempts  to procreate “the experiment.”  Shades of Dr. Frankenstein.

But: Rubicon.  The ancients did have a romantic side.  Maybe the solicitor/accountant/untrustworthy trustee of Amherst College Austin had other powers and resembled more Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Whatsit.  On 9/11, 1882, A escorted M through rain and dusk to the Evergreens, his very own home and hearth, for a perhaps spirited game of whist.  En route, they paused, spoke.  That night he wrote in his diary the players’ names (including “Ms. Todd,” which is right neigh the German for “death”), weather conditions and some cursive scribble that I can only guess is “stranger lights & hound,” but I must be mistaken and wish someone with better eyes would transcribe it.  This I can read: early in the brief entry “not much going on,” but after naming the card party participants, Mabel’s last on the list, a line skipped, and then the single word: Rubicon.  Polly Longsworth, in her books Austin and Mabel and The World of Emily Dickinson interprets this trisyllabic ejaculation to mean that A confessed his dark desires to Mabel.  (Like to ask her about that possible hound, though.)

But there’s a little more, then a lot more.  Mabel also kept a journal, half a page for that day – the weather, the party, a formal reference to Mr. Muttonchops, and then, at the very bottom of the September 11 (-yes-) page, separate, penciled in (probably at a later date, according to Polly, who has seen the genuine article), the word, the red river, the cast die and irreversible decision, if such heart-smitten moments resemble decisions.  Added later to perhaps correct a semantic asymmetry between them.  The couple also created a charm, the code Amuasbteiln.  His name having swallowed hers.  They were busy as May bees and seemed to take to deceit.  THIS was the love that dare not whisper its name.  They were not adequately sly, however, nor could they manage to spring an offspring.austin rubicon

The “lot more” is Longsworth’s excellent 1984 Farrar, Straus, Giroux book Austin and Mabel: The Amherst Affair and Love Letters of Austin Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd, plus the later illustrated biography The World of Emily Dickinson, the latter in this matter especially valuable for the images of AD and MLT, especially those which show her eyes, which are mad as a rabid fox’s, and her parlors, which are more museums than spaces for work or sloth.  She was a natural-born curator, bless her heart.  His story does not end well, by the way, nor does hers.  If you want to know why, visit any cemetery; we all end up pretty much the same.

[Some notes:
*Emily D. was called among the neighbors “the myth.”
*She wrote in a letter, I think to Higginson, that her eyes were the color of sherry.
*Whist is bridge without bidding.  Nothing ventured . . . no dice.
*First name of the previous owner of my second-or-so-hand-copy of Longworth’s study of the correspondence was – and I hope is – Sherry.]

emilyBut there’s yet a brighter side, at least for me, at least for now.  I had made some of these discoveries about the Dickinson family scandal, particularly Longworth’s reprint and discussion of the letters, some time ago, before 1996.  I know this simply because, when I first met my wife (it was September, 1996), I had (Eureka!) been prepped by my adventures in reading: one word hammered its dactyl permanently into my spirit, and neither Marion Montgomery (John Wayne’s real moniker), Jeep products nor Julius Caesar could have been further from my fevered mind.  What I thought was Rubicon.

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Red River (Before the HowardHawksJohnWayne western) in Two Inpertinent Parts


Stanza the First. [rub icon?]

jeep rub

I have discovered that “Rubicon” now names a style of semi-compact faux-rugged soft-top Jeep and yet another failed TV series about espionage, but not many people in my neighborhood still use the phrase “crossing the Rubicon” to designate an irreversible and risky decision.  “The die is cast” is also fading from the popular vocabulary, and alea jacta est is more a ghost phrase than the conversation spice it once was among baby boomers who were herded into Latin classes.  Romans didn’t really use the “J” anyway.  In fact, the River Rubicon in northeastern Italy was never itself important as more than a border, a no trespassing sign, but it did play a major role in Roman law and the limitations placed on Roman generals flushed with victory.  The law forbade commanders to cross that stream at the head of an army, which might in unsteady times resemble a threat.  Their right to command, their imperium, stopped at the border, where the power of the magistrates activated.  To cross and proceed toward the place where all roads lead in full martial strength was a capital offense.  Maybe this kind of tension the historical moment when Truman and McArthur fell into irreversible conflict.  Mac tried to cross it the border, Caesar did.  Maybe the Romans should have built a wall.

Rubicon riverThe stream flowing south of Ravenna is called Rubicon because, as with ruby, the word’s root designates something red, like the clay which forms much of the river’s bed and stains the water reddish (but not radish, not even quite a crimson tide).  Once Julius Caesar defied the Senate and crossed with his soldiers on that cold day in 49 B.C.– with only a legion of three or four thousand, but symbolically a horde – war with Pompey and his cronies was inevitable, and much more than that minor river would run red . . . for three years, very red.

You have to wonder what the Jeep marketing wizards (are they still “Willis”?) were thinking when they chose the name.  It looks like an unsafe rugged vehicle, but overpriced and prone to rolling.  But then we’ve already had the Cressida and the Saturn, so the sky’s the limit.  Name away.  (I want an Orion, for winter driving).  And I guess if I had a Rubicon I might feel more decisive and hardened by frontier campaigns sleeping beside my gladius under the stars and facing the war axe and battle cry of the menacing Gauls.  I’d want my 4-wheel drive Rubicon to be red as a fox.

caesarBut there must be more to the flight of associations than all this fiddle, and there is.  The idea of crossing into dangerous territory, rolling the dice and making a monumental decision will always be part of our lives, and the phrase “crossing the Rubicon” once carried significant gravity and the weight of historical association.  It was useful.  It was cultural and worldly and a pleasure to pronounce.  It could be employed inappropriately by a Woody Allen as self-satire, but it could also suggest the havoc and suffering Caesar’s domestic conquest carried.  Maybe the convenience of that Siri voice can reverse the loss of such pertinent words.

Once upon a time, straying from some rambling research on Emily Dickinson (no stranger to the irrevocable, heart-scouring decisions – the soul selects its own society – then shuts the door), I found myself reading her brother Austin’s letters and some of his journal entries.  And there it was, without the “crossing,” just the simple signature pronouncement rubicon.  Here’s a code to wrinkle the forehead and throw the brain’s electro-chemical switch.  Not to be left behind by the youthful and beautiful, I thought simply “WTF?” (a favorite FM radio station).

old austinI won’t play coy.  Though it was an unopened door for me, I already knew there is an invisible but not completely clandestine portal in the Dickinson family’s Homestead that reads “Her Brother’s Disgraceful Affair.”  I knew this skeleton-not-really-in- the-closet involved Mabel Loomis Todd, editor marquee, illustrator, promoter who played a role (of debatable value, for editorial and litigious reasons) in bringing to light the work of the genius spinster mystery foremother of American poetry.  I also knew that Mabel (whom I can’t stop associating with pancakes or Black Label beer) was married to an Amherst College astronomer, who perhaps should have looked about him through a magnifying glass or his own specs instead of a telescope, but that’s another story.  The outlaw couple conducted their trysts during the period of their “white as the fresh driven snow” (sere and austere Austin’s words, not mine) affaire de coeur in the downstairs parlor under Emily’s chambers – this I didn’t know.  Though Maple and Emily never actually met, the poet admired the future editor’s deftness on the eighty-eights, requested that the tunes continue and on occasion left sherry and even a poem at the bottom of the stairs for the musician and the mutton-chopped Victorian whose 1890 image reminds me of (a)Lizzie Borden’s father, (b)Lawrence Talbot in half-wolf mode and (c)David Selby (who has published two volumes of poetry himself!) as Quentin Collins in TV’s Dark Shadows, and he never looks in those later pictures as if he’s a dormant volcano ready to spew embers like Krakatoa.  In 1854, however, he had the look of a neutered Heathcliff.  SO . . .  hanky-panky, coded rendezvous in the crepuscular world where poems and love are made.

Part two coming soon

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5 Years of Shenandoah Online

Screenshot 2016-04-07 23.37.58


One of the projects I started working on more than five years ago was bringing the Shenandoah Literary Magazine online. I got the gig thanks to the late and very great Claudia Emerson, who I had been working with on a literary journals class at UMW. Many smarter than me can speak to Claudia’s legacy as a poet, but I can and will testify to what an awesome teacher and person she was. I miss her regularly.

Claudia Emerson

Claudia Emerson

In the Summer of 2010 I started working with Rod Smith, the editor of Shenandoah, and he agreed to move the journal to a WordPress multisite instance that Martha Burtis and I designed. Screenshot 2016-04-07 23.15.43

Five years later it’s still going strong, in fact it has steadily been picking up traffic since 2011 when it first took the plunge online. What’s more, I have a very agreeable relationship with Rod. We work pretty well together, and I think we’ve made a fairly good team. I enjoy managing the site so that he can introduce a new cadre of Washington & Lee University students to the journal each semester. These students help bring some excellent writers  to the open web gratis. It also keeps me connected to the work I did with Claudia for the literary journals course. That was the most praxis-oriented course I’d ever been a part of, and I loved it. We had four or five groups of students per class that were tasked with both conceptualizing and creating a full blown literary journal in less than 15 weeks.

My own teaching was greatly influenced by Claudia’s willingness to experiment and explore, and after we ran the Literary Journals course together for a couple of semesters I got the offer to teach CPSC 106 (what would soon after forever be known as ds106!). In a strange convergence, at the same time I was working on Shenandoah’s first online issue, a bunch of us got the idea to bring ds106 to the open web as well. And while my work with ds106 and Shenandoah has been very different, in my mind they are deeply connected. So early this week we pulled the trigger on the tenth online issue signaling the fifth year of Shenandoah online. Time flies when you are populating the internet with both high (Shenandoah) and low (ds106) CULTURE!!!

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Revisiting Gatsby’s Greatness

by Caroline Todd

Generally, it’s hard for me to pick favorites. If I’m asked, my “favorite” movie or TV show is bound to be the one I’ve seen most recently. Books, though, are easy: hands down, my favorite is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The quintessential English major answer, I know, but it’s well-loved for a reason – it’s so, so good. Artistically speaking, it’s one of the most gorgeous books I’ll ever read and I come back to it again and again for its language alone. I’ve read it several times now, all in different seasons of my life, and I find more in it to unpack every time I open it. Like Edith Wharton writes in The Age of Innocence, Gatsby never fails to “happen to me all over again.” I lose myself in Fitzgerald’s delicious prose, to be sure, but that’s only half the fun. The most important part is discovering something new, and the purity of feeling I experience in the process, every time I reread it.

GreatGatsbyCover1I received Gatsby as a Christmas present from my grandmother when I was in ninth grade and I read it for the first time on a plane to New York a few days later. Of course, fifteen-year-old me didn’t really understand what went on in the novel. It went pretty far over my head, as it tends to do. It took another try my junior year of high school to begin to grasp the major themes Fitzgerald presents. But looking back on it, I kept some distance from the narrative for a whole host of reasons – it’s certainly not as simplistic as some high school teachers present it to be. Gatsby is so much more than color symbolism of whites, golds, yellows, and the ever-infamous greens, and that’s difficult to convey to the average sixteen-year-old.

This time around, though, was special. Re-reading the novel in a college classroom this term has enriched my understanding of Gatsby like nothing else could. On the first day of class my professor acknowledged that our reading list included classics like The Sun Also Rises and The Sound and the Fury, which many of us had read before. The important thing to realize, he told us, was that we approach works differently when we re-read them. Obviously that differs with age and the intellectual exposure to literature at a deeper level, but it’s also dependent on what we’re going through at certain points in our lives. After a breakup or a family trauma, for example, the anxiety that marks modernist works like Gatsby feels even more despairing.

Take, for example, what just might be my favorite paragraph I’ve ever read:

When they met again two days later it was Gatsby who was breathless, who was somehow betrayed. Her porch was bright with the bought luxury of star-shine; the wicker of the settee squeaked fashionably as she turned toward him and he kissed her curious and lovely mouth. She had caught a cold and it made her voice huskier and more charming than ever and Gatsby was overwhelmingly aware of the youth and the mystery that wealth imprisons and preserves, of the freshness of many clothes and of Daisy, gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor.

It’s beautiful, sure, but there’s an underlying sadness to it that sends my heart plummeting all the way to my stomach. Nick Carraway narrates this passage to us after Gatsby realizes Daisy’s voice, one of her most charming features, is “full of money.” The language used to describe their encounter in this passage, ripe with objectification, contrasts wildly from the idealistic terms he uses to describe Gatsby’s love earlier in the novel. I can’t help but think that maybe it’s not Daisy Gatsby loves so much after all, but the idea of the lifestyle, “bright with the bought luxury of star-shine,” she leads, and Nick’s language suggests that that’s what he feels to be the case as well. But ever the tragic hero, Gatsby makes Daisy his “grail” anyway, and he follows his quixotic mission to the grave. And Gatsby’s untimely death suggests that a figure with his level of idealism can’t survive in the twentieth century no matter how hard he tries.



Though that’s certainly not a cheerful thought, the best literature is supposed to open us up to the highs and lows of human experience. It makes you think even if it tells you something you don’t want to hear. And Gatsby, all about the inability of Jay Gatsby’s “extraordinary capacity for hope” to survive in a postwar social order, is a 189-page sucker-punch to the gut. I’ve hung my head and ugly-cried over it too many times to count. Sometimes the beauty of Fitzgerald’s language is what gets me. Other times it’s the sheer desperation of Gatsby’s futile quest for Daisy that leaves my chest feeling hollow. Or maybe those first signals of their relationship’s end hit a little too close to home.

No matter where we come from, we bring our own lives to a text similar to the way authors do. The richer our own experiences, the more potential we have to connect with the slice of an author’s life we’re presented with in a text. Reading is more rewarding when we bring something to the table, too. Though I’ve got a year and a half until my college graduation and I’m not in a position to wax philosophical about days gone by, I have been around the block a few more times than the high school version of myself who read The Great Gatsby in AP Language class. Regardless, at a fundamental level, our experiences have just as much to do with the way we read as authors’ intended effects do. And that’s what makes reading so fulfilling. Books like The Great Gatsby stick around because they force us to confront what it means to be human. Because the best literature gets personal.

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National Poetry Month: From Bedtime Stories to Pubs

by Rachel Baker

“I hate poetry.”


“It’s too abstract, I don’t know where to start. I feel like need to read it 100 times before I understand what they’re trying to tell me.”

This interaction with my friend got me thinking about how many times I’ve heard some variation of the phrase, “I hate poetry.” And it’s kind of a lot.

People have given poetry and poets an elusive stigma that is far from reality. Although I enjoy poetry, I too am guilty of this. Poetry is the friend I’ve been afraid to make. Maybe she’s too cool, too smart, too aloof for me, but something has stopped me, a creative writing minor, from ever seriously writing a poem.

The general population does not want to put a lot of effort into a leisure activity like reading. And most poetry does not qualify as a “beach read” discussed in the previous post. However, I do not think poetry is a like a new language that you have to learn in order to appreciate a work.

12201Before I saw quatrains and iambic tetrameter, I heard a childhood lullaby. A small body curled up in a too big bed, I would ask my dad to tell me a story. He would rattle off fictional encounters with alligators in the sewers beneath the city, stories of his crazy yellow lab who made my grandma’s hair grey, but when all imagination ran out, he would recite rhymes that had somehow been filed into his memory. “Whose Woods These Are” became my favorite request, but most people know the poem as, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” I don’t know if I even processed the fact that it rhymed, because to me it was a bedtime story, a sweet melody out of my hero’s mouth. As I drifted off to sleep I was captivated by the images of trees billowing with snow and a small pony stomping its hoof with anticipation. Maybe it was because a snow-filled wood was a rare sight to eyes that had only seen five North Carolina winters. Maybe it was the way my dad spoke, his voice putting on a show, questioning, pausing, low and slow. Maybe it was the alluring quality of isolation, dark and deep woods that knew no bounds. But regardless of the reason, I was enchanted. Robert Frost’s famous repeated lines became the last thing I heard before I entered my dreams.

My love for “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” has little to do with craft and a lot do to with its link to my dad and a time in my life to which I can never return. There is no doubt that the poem is good in a literary sense, but craft does not make the hairs on my arms stand up, or chills trickle down my legs. Poetry is a lot more accessible than most think, and although a lot of great poems contain layered metaphors and require a second reading, not all great poems have to be complicated. It is often the emotional quality that leaves a lasting impression.

IMG_3758 I attended my first poetry reading during the Féile na Bealtaine Music & Arts Festival when I was in Dingle, Ireland. A man standing on the bar welcomed us into “the noble church of the spoken word,” better known as Dick Mack’s Pub. People spilled out the door, and I stood squished between a classmate and a weathered man without any shoes. Suddenly I was five again, in awe of the beautiful words that filled the room. Some poems were read in Irish and some were in English, some gave me chills, and some made me laugh, some took place thousands of years ago, and some took place on a modern day soccer field. I like poetry, because it invites reader or listener interpretation. Standing in that pub I realized that each poem meant something different to the poet.

This April is the 20th anniversary of National Poetry Month, which was inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996 as a way to increase awareness and appreciation for poetry. I would encourage everyone to push their poetic bounds this month, read the Poem of the Week or dive into Shenandoah’s archives. Maybe I’ll even write a poem.

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Spring Break: Sun, Surf and David Foster Wallace

by Mansie Hough

Spring Break is rapidly approaching at W&L, which means that booklovers are hunting for the perfect, easygoing vacation novel. One of the most classic ways to relax in that precious week off for so many is to slide into a bathing suit, blend a margarita, and head to the beach or the pool with a book in hand. Blogs and publications try to capitalize on this phenomenon every spring season with a new list of the top 10 “beach reads” from that year. But what exactly constitutes a beach read? It’s one of those amorphous subgenres, like slipstream or absurdism, which you can’t exactly define, but you know them when you see them. Most of the world seems to agree that a beach read is a trashy, throwaway novel that you can easily digest in a few poolside sittings, and has little to no intellectual or artistic value. Like a trip to the beach, these books are supposed to be as entertaining and non-taxing for the reader as possible.

But do summer reads have to be easy? Is there such thing as a “literary beach read,” or does the presence of any literary merit automatically disqualify a book from being considered a beach read? Many of Jane Austen’s works were, during her lifetime, considered tacky romance novels meant for rich housewives to read on the couch. And, as we all know, they are now considered literary classics, and are being taught in the majority of higher educational institutions. So what exactly is a beach read? What are its criteria, and is there a perfectly executed, exemplary beach read out there? Of course, much of this is all relative to your perspective on what “easy” means, and what you are looking to get out of your “relaxing” reading experience. There might be someone out there who takes Finnegans Wake or Infinite Jest to a carefree weekend getaway in The Keys, for all I know. Google “smart beach reads,” and you’ll come up with hundreds of lists basically titled “Summer Beach Reads! But DON’T WORRY, they’re highbrow and not embarrassing.” To get a better idea, let’s take a look at what types of books have been classified as beach reads throughout the past.

  • Nicholas Sparks

    Nicholas Sparks

    Romance, preferably something involving travel or set in an airy seaside town like Cinque Terra. Based on no research, I would probably say this is the most popular type of “beach read,” and where the category cross references with “chick lit.” Popular novels here span across many centuries, and include the aforementioned Jane Austen crew, Wuthering Heights, Gone with the Wind, Jane Eyre, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Delirium, Something Borrowed, and anything by Nicholas Sparks, John Green or Sarah Dessen.

  • Mysteries and suspense, another popular tote cohabitant with towels and sunglasses. These mysteries usually feature a female protagonist in her 20s or 30s with a dark or depressing past. Other popular elements include visiting the POV of the killer and a sexy detective love interest. A long list of contenders includes Gone Girl, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, Jennifer DuBois’ Cartwheel, Tana French’s In the Woods, and Tom Savage’s A Penny for the Hangman. One could also look into genre celebrities like Dan Brown and James Patterson.
  • Stories that warn against upper class frivolity and failure. Nothing like sipping on a daiquiri by the pool and watching drama unfold in the Upper East Side, or listening to the Lost Generation lament the deterioration of the American Dream. Novels here include Anna Karenina, This Side of Paradise, Gossip Girl, Kimberly McCreight’s Reconstructing Amelia, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, and, of course, The Great Gatsby.
  • This is, personally, my favorite kind of book to unwind with on vacation: collections of whimsical short stories and memoirs. In her second memoir, Why Not Me?, Mindy Kaling jokes with the reader that he or she found the book in the “Stress-Free Summer Beach Reads” section of the store. Of course, there are certainly short stories and memoirs that don’t fit into the beach read category; a lavish Spring Break vacation probably isn’t the most fitting place to read Elie Wiesel’s Night. But you can gleefully dip in and out of David Sedaris’ Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, BJ Novak’s One More Thing, Aimee Bender’s Willful Creatures, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, and celebrity memoirs such as Tina Fey’s Bossy Pants and Stephen Colbert’s satirical I Am America and So Can You! This Spring Break and summer, I’m hoping to delve deeper into works by Nick Hornby, Dave Eggers, and Kelly Link.

This is where my confusion about what constitutes a beach read begins. I know people who would consider Egan’s work literary—Goon Squad did win a Pulitzer, after all—and yet she is included in some recommended summer reading lists I’ve seen. I’m not saying this means it should be taught in college literature classes, but there is something to be said for a collection that you can enjoy for entertainment value in a more relaxed setting, and then sink your teeth into upon a more devoted rereading. I’d like to see, for example, where a Joyce Carol Oates or Raymond Carver might fall on this spectrum, as I think their stories are entertaining both superficially and on a deeper level. The economical quality of writing that short stories and memoirs require allows for this cross section of literary and popular fiction. So, to answer my own question, I say yes, there is such a thing as a “literary beach read.” Now, I say this hesitantly and at the mercy of those who are more well read and educated on literary fiction than I am, and I can see reasons why someone might disagree with me.

What do you think? Whether you think I’m crazy or you agree, I hope you can find the perfect story to dive into (or bask in) this coming Spring Break.

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Revisiting Peter Pan

by Hendley Badcock



J. Hogan’s 2003 film Peter Pan is my favorite version of the classic fairy tale, although Steven Spielberg’s 1991 film Hook is a close second. Maybe you prefer the original 1953 Disney movie or one of its sequels. Or the 2004 film Finding Neverland or Pan, which came out just last year. Or you could be a traditionalist and just really prefer J. M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy. Regardless, we certainly are not short of options when it comes to enjoying the story.

Fairy tales like Peter Pan have survived not only through their abstract adventures and supernatural characters, but also through their narrative lessons and social commentary that both children and adults can grasp. Entertainment lies just at the surface of a timeless fairy tale. Tolkien writes that “a ‘fairy-story’ is one that touches on or uses Faërie [a fantasy realm which humans can experience], whatever its own main purpose may be: satire, adventure, morality, fantasy.”[i] Modern writers continue to modify or extend the narrative of fairytales to better analyze or critique their current culture.


Barrie’s Peter and Wendy has replanted itself in the cultures of every generation since its first on-stage production in 1904 and its publication as a novel in 1911. Literary critics speculate why we’ve held on so closely to Peter Pan and its exciting, mysterious, alluring fantasy world of flying across the stars and fighting pirates. Allison B. Kavey and Lester D. Friedman attribute its endurance to its unique genre, “one that is originally written for children, but not primarily read by adults and absorbed by children through other media, such as films.”[ii] They cite Peter Pan as an alter-reality for twenty-first century men and women’s desire to stay young and beautiful and to escape the constant demands and responsibilities crowding our schedules.

The above-mentioned films have all tweaked the story or perspective of Peter Pan in some way, but one of the most interesting renditions I’ve come across since I’ve been in college seems a bit like fan fiction but is writing with a biting, witty tongue. In her 2013 chapbook Darling Hands, Darling Tongue, poet Sally Rosen Kindred argues that women suffer from oppressive binds of traditional Victorian and Edwardian gender stereotypes in Barrie’s Peter and Wendy. She comments on the original work’s sexism by recasting the story’s largely unheard female characters of Tinker Bell, Wendy, and Tiger Lily as the focus of her verse.

In “Tiger Lily Leaves the Book for Now,” Kindred assigns angry and smart speech for the extremely self-aware American Indian princess. Tiger Lily, is the least active or vocal of Barrie’s women. Although Tiger Lily assumes command over her father’s tribe on Neverland, the princess embodies a paradox of power and passivity in both her femininity and ethnicity. She’s portrayed as an erotic, exotic parody to Peter and the Lost Boys. Be mindful that the British Empire was rising to the height of its global spread in the early 1900s.


Disturbed by Barrie’s racist and sexist portrayal of the girl, Kindred’s Tiger Lily lives in the present and embodies modernist ideals more so than any of the other characters in verse:


If my mouth were a place
the plot came aground, found
sand, found words rounded like wet stones
and teeth,
if my arms                                                                               5
held bones demanding description
and each bone were a song
or a weapon,
if my fists were full of opals
I’d keep reading.                                                                     10
If my lips moved in this story
we could talk.
I’ve shut your book. Just think
if my sisters and brothers were more
than a smudge on the page, than Redskins                  15
moving in tandem, marching
in some dim
ellipse, waiting to be elected
for salvation
or the Superbowl.                                                                   20
Imagine me, waking: the chapter’s
light defined
by my lids swinging wide.
I want to be specific, arch my left
brow, my story                                                                       25
all linguistics
and technology. I want to be so ugly
you can’t look. I want a family
but you’ve given me a beer in the cheap seats.
Make me a crazed spiral,                                                        30
nautilus scrawling
Newton’s laws in the sand. Or a girl, fine,
and American, I’ll do it still:
all I need’s something to write with,
a quarter or a cigarette.                                                            35
I’ve thrown down your book.
Bend or kneel to find it. Open it
back up, light your fervent candles.
I’m the patron saint of getting out of here.


Tiger Lily, who never speaks in Barrie’s original work, here speaks in the first person and addresses the original author directly, assertively telling him that she has “shut” and “thrown down” his book (24-25). She makes a deal with the author—“if [her] mouth were a place the plot came aground,” “if [her] arms held bones demanding description,” “if [her] fists were full of opals,” “if [her] lips moved in this story” (24). Given the same attention and authority as other characters, Tiger Lily would be willing to reconsider her rejecting Barrie and Peter Pan. She indeed shows signs of agency and ambition, as she prefers to construct with her mouth and eyes an alternative plot.

Tiger Lily is also intelligent and crafty, appealing to her male oppressors with language they might understand—the language of professional football. But she also mentions physics as she alludes to “scrawling Newton’s laws in the sand” (25). After all, the third law of motion is all about action and reaction and Kindred is responding to Barrie. Additionally, she knows what she wants—“to be so ugly [he] can’t look,” as well as to have a family (24). The former resists any sexual objectification that was present in the novel. The latter cannot be bought from her with “beer in the cheap seats” (24). It is clear Kindred’s Tiger Lily will not settle for any nonsense and nothing less than she deserves.

Kindred could not see Tiger Lily sustaining Barrie’s time period and thus created an agentic, decisive, and serious young woman who demands equality and respect. But, writing with a new perspective and current society in mind, Kindred successfully extends the story of the trapped and voiceless women of Peter Pan and challenges our repeated acceptance of a one-hundred-year-old plot.


[i] Tolkien , J. R. R. . “On Fairy-Stories.” Trans. Array Tree and Leaf. George Allen and Unwin, 1964. Web. 10 Mar. 2014.


[ii] Kavey, Allison B., and Lester D. Friedman. Second Star to the Right: Peter Pan in the Popular Imagination . Rutgers University Press, 2008. Print.


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We’re All Mad Here

by Mansie Hough

Whether it takes form in a classic piece of literary fiction, a creatively creepy poem, or a pop-culture beach read, I love a good mystery story. It seems the genre, in all its broadness, will never run out of innovative ways to look at human nature, psychology, and the concept of trust. Mystery, when done well, is tricky and engaging for both the reader and the author. The active reader must think critically, suspiciously, and frequently when reading a good mystery story. If that reader is me, she must also resist the temptation to quickly search the ending on Wikipedia or stay up until 5 am on a school night to find out what happens. More crucially, though, for an author, great difficulty lies in some crucial decisions: which information to withhold, when to schedule big (or small) reveals, how to set a tone that puts people on edge, and suspect characterization. Not surprisingly, a lot of these issues can either be solved or exacerbated by the mystery’s narrator. We all learned about this in school when our English teachers taught us about the unreliable narrator.


Perhaps the greatest and most well-known example of the impact of an unreliable first-person narrator came from the notoriously unnerving Edgar Allan Poe. In classic works like “Annabel Lee,” ““The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Bells,” the mentally unstable narrators speak in either fast-paced, jumpy styles or a voice that drones on and on about petty surface details of the plot. Additionally, Poe’s narrators rarely, if ever, stop to question the possibility of their own insanity. It’s always the world’s fault rather than their own, and that’s if the narrator can even come around and acknowledge they are in an unusual situation. The narrator in “Annabel Lee” has romanticized his love interest so much that he regresses to a childlike, obsessive state, and this distorts the way the story is told. Similarly, in “The Cask of Amontillado,” Montresor sees no other reasonable reaction to being insulted other than to brutally murder the culprit, which results in an inappropriately casual mention of the incident. And, finally, “The Bells” shows us that depending on the point of view of the story’s narrator, symbols of beauty, hope, and joy can quickly turn into something much more dark and sinister. Poe’s innovative use of perspective in these stories puts the reader into a position of uncertainty and uneasiness from start to finish, and the deeper subplot comes from the narrator’s twisted rendition of the surface plot.

By no means did Poe invent the unreliable narrator—the trend can be identified in certain Ancient Greek works and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. But by focusing on the narrator’s delusions, Poe popularized a strategy that has been applied to a diverse array of literary works. Ralph Ellison used the tactic in his 1952 novel Invisible Man. In Invisible Man, the plot develops independently as we witness the anonymous main character begin to psychologically break down. Kate Chopin employs the unreliable narrator in her work of short fiction The Awakening—not exactly a mystery, but the strategy works well for her. In the end, we are left as an audience to decide if the main character Edna’s self-destructive actions are a result of an oppressive society or her own selfish mania. Edna is not the same unreliable narrator as one that Poe would dream up or as Ellison’s unnamed protagonist. Montresor is a vicious, narcissistic madman; Edna is a conflicted liar; The Invisible Man is an anxious, paranoid victim. One could even say Huck Finn and Holden Caufield are unreliable narrators as they cannot see past their lack of experience to tell a truly accurate story. It’s hard to draw the line at where unreliability ends and distinct narrative voice starts, because every first-person narrator will tell a story hindered by personal biases to an extent. But that’s why the Poe-esque exaggerated unreliability is so interesting and lends itself well to diversity in voices and tones.

So what has become of the unreliable narrator in pop culture mysteries today? Our old pal is thriving, in the form of a literarily controversial condition: amnesia. S.J. Watson’s wildly popular 2011 novel Before I Go to Sleep features a first-person narrator who suffers from short term memory loss, and must slowly piece together secrets around who she has become in the time that she lost. Similarly, Paula Hawkins’ 2015 novel Girl on the Train uses the main character’s alcoholism to (literally) black out important clues and scenes pertaining to an ongoing investigation. Ruth Ware’s 2015 novel In a Dark, Dark Wood uses violence-induced amnesia to muddy its mystery’s waters as well.


Amnesia and memory loss can be a tough point in mystery thrillers. It is quite difficult to pull this method off without making the story feel contrived, convenient, and implausible. If critics do not deem your use of memory loss successful, be prepared for a barrage of sarcastic jokes about the Adam Sandler film 50 First Dates. But, when done right, this tool paces the story in a unique way that makes the reader feel helpless as he or she struggles along with the frustrated, mentally exhausted narrator. This approach also throws a wrench into the “likely suspects” trope of the genre. When the narrator’s mental facilities and memory are totally intact, it’s easy to rank all tangential characters from “definitely a psychopath” to “not a chance.” However, amnesia yanks this rug from underneath us and forces us to be more in the present moment with the narrator, and this makes us vulnerable. All of these enjoyable results of an unreliable narrator are reasons why I love mystery stories, and I am excited to see what the trend will twist into next.

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A Different Take on Spring

by Camille Hunt

The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and the flowers are blooming. Each year, the turning of seasons from winter to spring conjures up the old pastel cliché of green grass and warm weather, Easter eggs and daffodils Literature sometimes provides an alternative vision of spring, however; poet William Wordsworth puts a dark spin on the bright season, particularly in his late eighteenth century poem “Lines Written in Early Spring.”


Wordsworth’s “Lines Written in Early Spring” reflects his concerns about the development of industrialization, which took hold during his 19th century writing career. The Industrial Revolution took place from the 18th and 19th centuries, transitioning Europe and America from primarily agrarian to urban societies. Industrialization introduced new technology, mass production, and a focus on factory work. The birthplace of the Industrial Revolution was Great Britain, its extensive deposits of coal and iron ore setting it up as an abundant source of raw materials. Nature took on a completely new meaning; it became a source to be exploited to contribute to a material world. Where Nature previously existed as the allegorical provider of life, industrialization made it a source for man to create a new life for modernized humans. The poet considers “What man has made of man” in his verse of alternate rhyme.


I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.

To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.

Through primrose tufts, in that green bower,
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths;
And ‘tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.

The birds around me hopped and played,
Their thoughts I cannot measure:—
But the least motion which they made
It seemed a thrill of pleasure.

The budding twigs spread out their fan,
To catch the breezy air;
And I must think, do all I can,
That there was pleasure there.

If this belief from heaven be sent,
If such be Nature’s holy plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man?

The first stanza of the poem has only become increasingly relevant over time. Man is now facing the consequences of the Industrial Revolution, the repercussions of “what man has made of man.” The wild weather this spring has made the season unpredictable, fluctuating between snow and temperatures above 80 degrees Fahrenheit. With each warm, sunny day, we might be “In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts / Bring sad thoughts to the mind,” at first elated by a cloudless sky before being reminded that an abruptly hot day amidst rising and falling weather patterns could be a result of global warming.

“What man has made of man” goes against what Nature made man to be. Man has made itself a rival of Nature, a creator with no right to change what Nature created, and yet that is what we have done. We do not live harmoniously in Nature’s world, and each unnaturally warm spring day comes with a nagging reminder that the warmth we enjoy now is the result of “What man has made of man.”


Poet Wendell Berry’s 2009 poem “A Speech to the Garden Club of America” echoes Wordsworth’s thoughts in a modern world. Published in the New Yorker, the poem continues Wordsworth’s lamentation of “What man has made of man,” referencing the burning of fossil fuels to sustain the lives of men instead of living by Nature’s laws, asking, “Why not survive / By Nature’s laws that still keep up alive?” and denouncing “our economic pyre / That draws from ancient rock a fossil fire, / An anti-life of radiance and fume.”


Thank you. I’m glad to know we’re friends, of course;
There are so many outcomes that are worse.
But I must add I’m sorry for getting here
By a sustained explosion through the air,
Burning the world in fact to rise much higher
Than we should go. The world may end in fire
As prophesied—our world! We speak of it
As “fuel” while we burn it in our fit
Of temporary progress, digging up
An antique dark-held luster to corrupt
The present light with smokes and smudges, poison
To outlast time and shatter comprehension.
Burning the world to live in it is wrong,
As wrong as to make war to get along
And be at peace, to falsify the land
By sciences of greed, or by demand
For food that’s fast or cheap to falsify
The body’s health and pleasure—don’t ask why.
But why not play it cool? Why not survive
By Nature’s laws that still keep us alive?
Let us enlighten, then, our earthly burdens
By going back to school, this time in gardens
That burn no hotter than the summer day.
By birth and growth, ripeness, death and decay,
By goods that bind us to all living things,
Life of our life, the garden lives and sings.
The Wheel of Life, delight, the fact of wonder,
Contemporary light, work, sweat, and hunger
Bring food to table, food to cellar shelves.
creature of the surface, like ourselves,
The garden lives by the immortal Wheel
That turns in place, year after year, to heal
It whole. Unlike our economic pyre
That draws from ancient rock a fossil fire,
An anti-life of radiance and fume
That burns as power and remains as doom,
The garden delves no deeper than its roots
And lifts no higher than its leaves and fruits.

As we transition into spring this year, let us be mindful of our relationship with the earth and appreciate the life it sustains. Wordsworth and Berry, too, would encourage us to accept what Nature provides, not exploit what Nature produces.


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