Thursday, July 12, 2018

An appreciation and note of gratitude for David Womack

I received word that David Womack, a true mentor and influence on my life, passed away on July 11, 2018. For someone that had such a huge, giving heart, it's a sad irony that it was that physical organ that failed him.

For a few semesters when I was in college, I lived at his house in Tuscaloosa. At the time I appreciated all he did, but I wasn't capable until much later to fully fathom what all he had done for me. His selfless actions in the service organization we were a part of was truly inspirational.

It's my fault that a post thanking him for all he did has not appeared here before now, so I guess I'm trying to make up for it. The best I can hope to do is pass on to my boys his spirit of service and dedication to others.

So here's a totally embarrassing pic (yeah, I'm in there somewhere) taken outside of David's house, I'm guessing from the fall of 1982. The poses are an inside joke...

Saturday, June 02, 2018

FDR, Jefferson, and...Spiderman?

"[G]reat power involves great responsibility."

Sounds like something from Spiderman, but it's part of a line from Franklin D. Roosevelt's undelivered Jefferson Day Speech. Coincidentally, Jefferson Day was officially recognized by FDR beginning in 1938. Anyway...the speech can be found at The American Presidency Project (for now—they note they are working on a new website). Roosevelt died in Warm Springs, Georgia the day before this speech was to be given, and it's an interesting read. Here's one part:
The once powerful, malignant Nazi state is crumbling. The Japanese war lords are receiving, in their own homeland, the retribution for which they asked when they attacked Pearl Harbor.

But the mere conquest of our enemies is not enough.

We must go on to do all in our power to conquer the doubts and the fears, the ignorance and the greed, which made this horror possible.

Thomas Jefferson, himself a distinguished scientist, once spoke of "the brotherly spirit of Science, which unites into one family all its votaries of whatever grade, and however widely dispersed throughout the different quarters of the globe."

Today, science has brought all the different quarters of the globe so close together that it is impossible to isolate them one from another.

While science was bringing everyone closer together, it was also working on the Manhattan Project at the time of the undelivered speech, further making isolation impossible.

It's always been easy for me to remember when FDR died since it was a day after my parents were married. Both of them were in the service at the time, but I never heard if it cast a pall on their short honeymoon (nor do I really want to know).

I found this speech thanks to a footnote in John Lewis Gaddis' book On Grand Strategy, which offers a peek into part of the Studies in Grand Strategy course.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Homeschool reading this semester

I wanted to pass on a few of the books and movies the boys and I read and watched this semester for school (6th and 8th grades). My goal was to tie in reading with our U.S. history class as much as I could. This isn't all we covered, but a few of these were such fun that I wanted to post about them. We skipped a few obvious choices because I knew they would be covering them when they take some "outside" classes for high school credit. I'm not saying it's the best coverage for kids of this age and some of thees probably should have waited until they were older, but, overall, in combining the two grades it seems to have done fine.

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane may be the most obvious choice to read while covering the Civil War, but it's a good one to focus on personal experiences within the overall arc of the war. I had fun watching John Huston's 1951 movie version with them while they also learned about Audie Murphy. We complemented that with some of Ambrose Bierce's war stories, as well as parts of Ron Maxwell's Civil War movies (including Copperhead) and Ang Lee's Ride with the Devil.

I re-read John Williams' Butcher's Crossing with the boys, finding a second read of the book extremely enjoyable. Yeah, it has its weak spots, but it was a lot of fun to see them get a feel for what was involved to be on a buffalo hunt...not to mention providing a great example of the laws of supply and demand. The buffalo hunt scene from Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves was thrown in, too, so they'd get a different appreciation for such an event. For a further taste of the Western experience, we read some of Mark Twain's and Bret Harte's short stories.

We read plenty of short stories written or set in the first half of the 20th century from William Faulkner, Shirley Jackson, and Eudora Welty. Yeah, my southern roots show through.

When covering World War II, we read Elie Wiesel's Night, and I felt the need to apologize to them for assigning it (while at the same time stressing the need for them to understand what happened). For a different approach to reading about World War II, check out this link to the first part of a three-part story (from a more detailed book) about the first (accidental) circumnavigation of the globe by a plane.

Currently, I'm picking short books for us to read now and through the summer that tie in with what we've covered with history. Mikhail Bulgakov's Heart of a Dog probably isn't standard fare for 12 & 14 year-olds, but they're picking up on Bulgakov's barbs quite well.

I guess I should add a disclaimer that I don't recommend this reading program for any grade or age. But as I've said, we're having a lot of fun.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Tradycyjna Medycyna Chińska

I'm happy to report my wife's book has been translated in Polish! Which is funny since she gives me grief about the books I read from Central European authors. I've proposed a book tour of Poland, but I doubt our budget can handle it at the moment. You can dream, right?

Since I'm talking about her book, I'll include a picture of a copy in English. Available from discerning bookstores everywhere.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Forthcoming: Black Renaissance by Miklós Szentkuthy

Contra Mundum Press has made available some excerpts from the forthcoming book Black Renaissance by Miklós Szentkuthy, the second volume in his St. Orpheus Breviary series. The samples can be found at this link. Needless to say, I'm excited and looking forward to the release.

The sample contains the beginning of the introductory essay by Nicholas Birns, "Startling Dryness: Szentkuthy's Black Renaissance." An earlier version of Birns' essay can be found in the July 2013 special issue of Contra Mundum's journal Hyperion. The journal also contains more of the second section on Brunulleschi than the sample does.
Note: I initially assumed Birns' essay in the book was the same as the earlier online version. Contra Mundum kindly let me know the essay has been updated and revised and I have corrected my comment. Thanks for the correction!

A few excerpts from back cover of the book (the last page of the sample), parts of which were also used on the cover for Marginalia on Casanova:
Black Renaissance, the second volume of the St. Orpheus Breviary, is the continuation of Miklós Szentkuthy's synthesis of 2,000 of European culture. St. Orpheus is Szentkuthy's Virgil, an omniscient poet who guides us not through hell, but through all of recorded history, myth, religion, and literature, albeit reimagines as St. Orpheus metamorphosizes himself into kings, popes, saints, tyrants, and artists. ... "Orpheus wandering in the infernal regions," says Szentkuthy, "is the perennial symbol of the mind lost amid the enigmas of reality. The aim of the work is, on the one hand, to represent the reality of history with the utmost possible precision, and on the other, to show, through the mutations of the European spirit, all the uncertainties of contemplative man, the transiency of emotions and the sterility of philosophical systems."

There's more on the back cover of the three characters dominating the book, and the introductory essay goes into detail about why St. Dunstan was chosen as the opening/guiding saint chosen for Black Renaissance. I'll close with some comments from Szentkuthy’s prospectus for the first volume, which provides a guide to the series:
The name “Orpheus” expresses the underlying conceptual tone: Orpheus wandering in the underworld is an eternal symbol of the brain straying among the dark secrets of reality. The aim of the work is, firstly, to portray the reality of nature and history with ever more extreme precision, and secondly, to display through variations in the history of the European mind an observer’s every uncertainty, the fickleness of emotions, the tragic sterility of thoughts & philosophical systems. The reason for placing the epithet “Saint” before “Orpheus” is because the work seeks to portray both European history and the vegetative world of nature from an essentially religious, supernatural viewpoint. Although both the lives of the saints, as well as the other figures, famous books, and cultural manifestations of history are, in point of fact, nothing more than different features of a lyrical self-portrait, the various roles and masks of the author as it were, the work is in essence “religious,” because form love to politics the emphasis throughout is on the battle of the body-politic of God and the body-politic of the world.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Emily Wilson and translating The Odyssey

I have yet to read Emily Wilson's translation of The Odyssey, but I fully intend to soon. In the meantime I have been keeping up with her Twitter account @EmilyRCWilson, where she selects passages from the poem and compares various translations and explains why she chose the words/phrases she did for these selections. It's a great look behind the curtain as she
comments on how translators such as George Chapman (1615), Alexander Pope (1725), T.E. Lawrence (1932), Robert Fitzgerald (1961), Richmond Lattimore (1965), Robert Fagles (1996), Stanley Lombardo (2000), and Stephen Mitchell (2013) have interpreted different words, phrases, and concepts from the original Greek into English.

The quote is from the page at her site that gathers the various tweets on each passage and her comments. If you have any interest in The Odyssey, these threads are essential reading. As Dan Chiasson put it in his article at The New Yorker, Wilson is "The Classics Scholar Redefining What Twitter Can Do."

There are many articles mentioned at Wilson's home page, but I want to link to a few I found helpful.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Minutemen unplugged

The Minutemen: Mike Watt, D. Boon, George Hurley

I owe a debt of gratitude to Dangerous Minds for their post Minutemen Unplugged: Punk Legends' Rollicking Acoustic Jam on Cable Access TV, 1985. Their post covers the important points of the short performance, although when I saw them in Dallas earlier that year (1985) their set only lasted a little over an hour...and still had at least 30 songs.

If you're into punk nostalgia, watch the show at Dangerous Minds or from the YouTube embed below this post. A great stroll down amnesia lane.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Studying Thucydides in Zimbabwe

I received a nice note from a teacher in Zimbabwe ("somewhat isolated from the academic world," as they put it) commenting that my posts on Thucydides' The Peloponnesian War has helped them and it has paid off for their students. That note, along with other nice comments from students reading the book and finding help from my posts, cheer me every time I see them. While the stats are unimpressive to commercial sites or bloggers, I find it astounding that there have been over 300K visits my posts directly about Thucydides' work. I hope those posts continue to help others working to make sense of a seminal work of literature and one of my favorite books. I'm sure I'll revisit it and add some more updates since I feel my notes have only scratched the surface of what makes it so original.

I'll be back after a couple of days, after recovering from exploring Yosemite with my family and then going back to pick up my boys once their three-day class there has finished. Meanwhile, I want to express my gratitude for everyone who has let me know how much those posts have assisted their reading and understanding of Thucydides.

I leave you with how the sky above Half Dome looked yesterday...

Friday, February 16, 2018

Radio show: This'll Take A While

The other day I was changing channels on Sirius XM and landed on BYU Radio, which I had no idea even existed. I was getting ready to change the channel when I realized the conversation was on Moby Dick, and I ended up listening to the remainder of the show. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and when I got home I found a list of shows and listened to another episode. The description of the program on their website is

BYUradio's "This'll Take a While" brings you engaging and often digressive conversations about film, books, geography, culture, art, hockey, and pretty much everything else. Join Professor Dean Duncan of the BYU Film Department for expansive and captivating conversation.
Judging by what I heard, I'll second both the 'engaging' and 'digressive' parts of the conversations. I'll list some of the episodes that pertain to literature, at least generally (through early February 2018) with their description in case others are interested in listening to them. There are several ways to listen and/or download episodes, but I'll limit my links to the show's website. It looks like the show recycles through older episodes in between the newer ones, so check their schedule and listen in if you're a satellite radio subscriber. And if you find other shows as engaging as this one, please let me know!

BYU Radio is currently channel 143 on Sirius XM. "This'll Take A While" comes on at 1pm Pacific time.

Exploring the Nature of Evil, in Literature (original air date Feb 5, 2018)
The BYU English department's Dennis Cutchins joins Dean to discuss the benefits of reading challenging, difficult material. They also consider those occasions when a reader might just decide to get himself out of there!

Moby Dick (Jan 22, 2018)
BYU English professor Stephen Tuttle joins Dean to enthuse at considerable and joyful length about Herman Melville's inexhaustibly great 1851 novel.

Two Anxious American Authors (Jan 8, 2018)
Carl Sederholm is a professor and administrator at BYU's department of comparative literature. He is also a connoisseur of the weird, which is why we have invited him to illuminate the wild and continuingly resonant work of Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft.

Stephen King, mostly (Nov 27, 2017)
The University of Vermont's Tony Magistrale and BYU's own Carl Sederholm visit the show to assess, analyze and celebrate this undeniable American literary and cultural phenomenon. Have you ever wondered where to start reading this guy, or if you want to start at all? We've got you covered!

On Swedish Literature, Mostly (Feb 27, 2017)
BYU Comp. Lit's Chip Oscarson discusses some of the chronologies, key motifs and powerful practitioners that have helped overachieving Sweden so repeatedly catch the world's attention and imagination. And as usual, Denmark and Norway keep trying to butt in.

Are Myths True? (Aug 8, 2016)
BYU classicist Seth Jeppesen visits Dean to explore the deep roots and continued relevance of Greek and Roman mythology.

A Short History of Comic Strips, Comic Books, Graphic Novels (Jul 11, 2016)
American Studies scholar Dr Kerry Soper joins the program to draw out some of the surprising and productive family resemblances that exist between these popular and so-very-present art forms.

Classical Foundations (May 30, 2016)
Dean welcomes BYU classicist Roger MacFarlane for a conversation about how present in and important to contemporary life those old Greeks and Romans really are.

Walter Scott and the Evolution of the Novel (May 29, 2016)
Dean welcomes literary scholar Paul Westover to discuss the numerous innovations and vast influence of this great and too often underappreciated Scottish man of letters.

Your Autobiography (Apr 25, 2016)
BYU English department chair Phil Snyder joins Dean to open up some of the whys and ways of examining your own life, and writing your own history.

Don Quixote (Apr 11, 2016)
Spanish scholar Dale Pratt joins Dean for a celebration of Miguel de Cervantes' incalculably important, inexhaustibly enjoyable literary milestone.

Commedia dell'Arte (Aug 9, 2015)
Commedia dell'arte is a type of Italian theater that revolutionized the stage. Dean's conversation today starts with Janine's own theater history in Utah, taking courses in Italian and history at BYU, and her heavy involvement in Dramaturgy as well. Anyone interested in stage productions today can learn more about a branch of theatrical history during this episode.

Brush up Your Shakespeare (Feb 24, 2015)
Elizabethan scholar Rick Duerden joins Dean to discuss some of the surface challenges and endless benefits of studying the world's greatest writer.

The American Short Story, Pt. 2 (Feb 6, 2015)
Dennis Cutchins returns to talk about ten short stories that will change your life. Inhospitably, Dean waxes skeptical about the impulse to make lists.

The American Short Story, Pt. 1 (Jan 28, 2015)
Dean and BYU English’s Dennis Cutchins use Bill Murray’s "The Man Who Knew Too Little" as an entrée into their discussion about American short fiction. Listener beware!

Translated (Feb 27, 2014)
Daryl Hague, a translation professor in BYU’s Department of Spanish and Portugeuse, talks about the letter and the spirit of language and its translation.

Chris Crowe II (Oct 1, 2014)
Chris returns to our program to discuss the need for tough topics and tough talk in teen literature. He and Dean also get grumpy about all those lucrative fantasy franchises for young readers.

Reading (Jan 23, 2014)
Bruce and Margaret Young get beyond books in a discussion about the innumerable texts that moderns need to decode, and the expansion that attends their successfully doing so.

Teens, Reading (Dec 23, 2013)
We’ve got a glut here! Navigational tips from Chris Crowe, a distinguished scholar and writer in the field of adolescent literature.

Writing Books is Hard, Pt. 2 (Nov 20, 2013)
One would think the work would be done upon completion of writing a book. In reality, there's an entirely new battle to fight after you finish. Veteran author Ignacio Garcia discusses the details with Dean.

Writing Books is Hard, Pt. 1 (Nov 13, 2013)
Do you think reading academic books is a long and tedious task? You should try writing one! Fellow-scholars Daryl Lee and Megan Sanborn Jones join Dean to talk about the travails of academic authorship.

Learning to Read (Jul 6, 2012)
Dean talks with Bruce and Margaret Young about reading, how we learn it, how we may have to re-learn it, and some of what we get out of the whole arrangement.

Why I Read Long Books (Jun 1, 2012)
Some people won’t read a book that exceeds a certain number of pages, but BYU Humanities professor Joe Parry is not one of those people. Join Joe as he talks with Dean about the reason he ventures into books that some people would only use to keep their boat trailer from rolling.

Harry Potter (Jul 12, 2011)
Dean delivers a radio essay about JK Rowling’s beloved franchise. He discusses narrative trajectory, filmic adaptation, and the benevolent place that popular culture so often plays in our private lives.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Disappearance of Émile Zola: Love, Literature, and the Dreyfus Case by Michael Rosen

The Disappearance of Émile Zola: Love, Literature, and the Dreyfus Case by Michael Rosen
Pegasus Books, 2017

I have to admit I've never really connected with Zola's books. I find things I appreciate and like in his writing, but its more in fits and starts than for a sustained reading. What interested me in this book was Jean Barois by Roger Martin du Gard, which included a cameo by Zola during one of the trials in the Dreyfus affair, and my interest in following up on what happened after Zola's libel trial.

A little background if you aren't familiar with Zola's famous 'J'Accuse' letter printed in the Parisian daily L’Aurore on January 13, 1898: 
French Captain Alfred Dreyfus had been accused of passing French military secrets to the German embassy. Based on documents believed to be forged, Dreyfus was convicted of treason. The case received heightened public scrutiny as Zola and others were convinced the French army was trying to cover for the real guilty party(s) and also because of antisemitism (Drefus was Jewish). Zola's letter was addressed to the French president, laying out his beliefs that deceit, forgery, incompetence, antisemitism, villainy, and "the defeat of justice and plain truth" in the case resulted in a guilty verdict. Zola highlights that his letter exposed himself to a libel charge, hoping that such a trial would allow new evidence in the Dreyfus case to exonerate not just himself but Dreyfus, too. During Zola's trial, Dreyfus' case was not reviewed and the author was found guilty of libel. About to be fined and sentenced to a year in prison, Zola fled to England.

Rosen's book follows the author's flight across the channel and his time in England (February 1898 to summer 1899), when he was able to return to France after Dreyfus' verdict was overturned and Zola's follow-up trial was postponed. It's a lively story at first, as Zola arrives in London without any luggage not able to speak English, having to pantomime any request. Just four years earlier he had been the focus of adulatory receptions in London's literary circles, but now he was a fugitive intent on hiding his identity. Eventually he settles in a Norwood hotel suite for most of his stay in England.

Making matters even more complicated was Zola's thorny personal life. His wife Alexandrine and his mistress Jeanne Rozerot (and her two children with Zola) came to visit the author in England at different times, reflecting a similar arrangement the trio had arrived at in France so Zola could share time with both women. While in England, Zola maintained his writing habits and was able to begin a new series of novels (Les Quatre Évangile), as well as other short works. 

Rosen reconstructs what happened through Zola's fastidious letter writing to Alexandrine and Jeanne, the memoirs of his daughter Denise, and a book written by Zola's English translator and publisher Ernest Vizetelly. The account can become monotonous at times, resulting from Zola's tendency for a structured, repetitive routine.  Other times, though, his fugitive life provides something out of a spy thriller (although not nearly at the same level). His flight to England generated many newspaper articles in Paris as the press published articles claiming he was in Switzerland or Norway before finally confirming he was only across the channel. His political maneuvering earned him reticent friends in socialist circles, but they were instrumental in Dreyfus' eventual pardon Dreyfus. Rosen sums up the contradictions Zola had to deal with upon his return to France, in that

throughout the period of the Dreyfus case, his exile and the last months of his life was that the France he wanted (republican, humanist, secular, democratic and evolving toward socialism) was not the France he had written about in 'J'Accuse', faced in his own trials, or fulminated against in his most miserable moments in exile. So when, in his literary mind, he placed France at the head of a movement to humanise the world, this was a France that he knew didn't exist yet. What's more, by identifying imperialism as an evil that other powers were guilty of, he had either to efface the imperialism of France itself or claim that whatever France did, could do or should do outside of its own borders was as a humane, civilising force. (page 231, hardback)
The upper echelons of the French military never forgave Zola for his role in publishing their conspiracies regarding the Dreyfus case. Zola's stay in England proved to be a great strain, something he never seemed to fully recover from. The antisemitism he fought against ended up making him a target of the same hatred and prejudice. Three years after returning to France, Zola and his wife died from carbon monoxide poisoning related to a stuck chimney flue, with rumors of murder never confirmed.

Rosen has produced a mostly lively account, where the severe turbulence of this period of Zola's life clashes with his desire for spending time with his family. *ahem* Families. At times the recounting of the author's routine and his concerns became repetitive (because Zola repeated them often) , but overall it's an solid documentation of the author's place and standing in the Dreyfus case while examining Zola's life in general and this period in particular.

Also included in the book is a postscript that highlights the BBC Radio 3 program "Zola in Norwood", covering parts of this story in an interview with Madame Martine Le Blond-Zola, Émile's great-granddaughter. Also included is "Angeline," a short story by Zola, inspired in part by some of the English countryside the author visited.