Dr Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall: A long digression about the horrors of graduate school

I have a PhD and I don’t have a faculty job. I do have a job in the academy with an academic leaning, so I’m considered an ‘#alt-ac’ (if you needed a label for me). There are a set of feelings I am meant to feel about this so-called slide in circumstances: shame, bitterness, regret, anger, sadness, overwhelming ennui, etc. I’m supposed to have horror stories of graduate school – nightmarish committee members, or a protracted and impossible thesis writing experience, or denied funding, or destroyed mental health.

Too bad I suck at the post-PhD dinner party game of reciting the escalating list of terrible things that happened during graduate school. I had a reasonably good time in graduate school: a fantastic supervisory committee who supported me in my work as well as in my recognition that I wasn’t going to go tenure-track, stable funding*, supportive family/friends/relationship,  and the self-awareness to know my thesis didn’t need to change the world (though it did change *my* world…) it just had to get… done. Plus I got to spend four years reading novels (and starting this blog!) and thinking about them in coffee shops whilst going to the gym whenever I wanted and staying out to all hours drinking pints and pretending to care about theory. I cannot overstate my privilege. Both as a graduate student (privileged to have the lucky set of circumstances I had during school) and as a person that could be a graduate student.

Even still, reading Suzette Mayer’s Dr Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall gave me anxiety nightmares. Our protagonist, Dr. Edith Vane, is a tenured professor at the fictional Canadian Inivea University. Her life – like the building she works in – is crumbling. Her long-awaited book experiences a troubling release, she is being threatened with ‘refreshing’ (a euphemism for firing) and she suffers from debilitating anxiety that impacts her personal and professional lives (of course there isn’t much distinction for her). She reminded me a fair bit of Stoner, the 1965 gem about the failed academic just trying to get by. A resonance that affirmed that while the structural conditions of the university have certainly changed in the intervening years, the pressure to publish and to be (seen as) successful have continuity.

The structural conditions are where this book does well enough. It pays attention to the economic disparity within the university between ‘have’ and ‘have not’ disciplines. It lays bare the demand for professors to outwardly demonstrate their perpetual productivity at the expense of actually being (let alone being productive) and with the consequence of radical deterioration in mental health. It calls into question the inequality within their ranks from adjuncts to administrators to endowed chairs. That said, it largely ignores the experiences of students – there are scenes of teaching, to be sure, but students are largely impediments to Edith’s happiness in their constant demand for feedback and for higher grades. That is to say we aren’t invited to consider how the crumbling structural conditions impact on learning. Which is fine. This book doesn’t need to be about that. Just pointing it out for all my (potential) teaching & learning readers.

So right. The crumbling structural conditions. For a book about an English professor I have to admit I found the mapping of plot and theme in the book incredibly… obvious. The physical building of Crawley Hall is haunted and falling apart. Edith, proxy for academics everywhere, is falling apart. The pathetic fallacy is noted. Again and again. I get it. I got it. I get it again.

So if it does okay in showing us some of the issues in Canadian post-secondary, it doesn’t fair as well is in the plot, writing and character development. Which is to say, unless you are a former academic yourself, hell bent on some masochistic exercise in reliving the trauma of your own experience, I can’t offer much encouragement to seek this one out.

*I feel a bit defensive about this part. I was crushed each year to not receive the giant scholarship, but got by on the usual TA stipend and by working part time. But because I *didn’t* get external funding, I *had* to work part time. And this part time work turned into the full time job I got before graduating. And my career now. So… thanks for not funding me, I guess?

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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction

My Absolute Darling: Why Reading is Tougher (and better) Than Watching a Movie

Gabriel Tallent might be a sadist. For the pain inflicted on the characters in My Absolute Darling and the attendant pain for the reader. Geeze but it is an intense read. Our protagonist, Turtle, is physically and sexually abused by her father: a survivalist/prepper who has isolated the two of them in the coastal forest of California.

For all the pain the novel describes, it does so with exquisite beauty. Like this reader felt uncomfortable for how frequently I stopped to admire the writing in scenes that are violent and disturbing.

I’d say the book is as much a character study as anything. Turtle is one of the most evocative and fully realized characters I’ve read in ages. It took me some time to adjust to the pain and disturbance of her inner world, but the third person limited narration was pitch perfect. It allowed for the reader to experience with Turtle the subtle and significant moments of character change, all while holding a necessary distance that (for me anyway) made the reading possible.

It’s also a book obsessed with setting. There aren’t many books that manage to make setting exciting. Sure lots of books make setting vivid, or integral to the plot, or thematically appropriate, but here the setting contributes to the violence: in its oceanic power, in its isolation, in the threat of (coming) fecundity.

Every so often I had to remind myself that Tallent imagined this story (I hope). Sat somewhere and thought okay, now Turtle is driving the truck and [this] happens. I had to remind myself because there are so many scenes that combine surprise and inevitability (what is the word for something that is both a surprise and inevitable?), so many moments of creative juxtaposition.

It was also a novel that reminded me how painful reading can be (especially compared to watching a film). In many of the scenes I wanted to close my eyes, but of course the only way to get through the scene was to read it and so to experience it. Sometimes I’d skip ahead, or skim, but felt I was cheating Turtle and so would go back and read properly, if with intense discomfort.

So while it’s an extraordinarily well written novel, I’d be remiss if I didn’t underscore (again) how difficult it was to read. And how it’s okay if you’d rather watch the news. Because that’s less distressing. Oh wait.

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Filed under American literature, Fiction

The Marrow Thieves: How Should I End Blog Posts?

Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves is a YA (maybe?), dystopic, post-climate-apocalyptic, fantasy novel that follows an Indigenous family as they establish familial and romantic ties while also trying to escape the clutches of predatory, murderous, white ‘Recruiters’ bent on capturing them and taking them off to ‘Schools’ to drain them of their literal marrow (and kill them) because their marrow combats the dreamlessness that has turned all white people into dream-zombies. *Breath* That is to say… it is a lot.

It makes its thematic concerns abundantly clear and accessible (presumably this is why it is understood as young adult fiction?): colonialism, settler-indigenous relations (past, present and possible-future), ecocriticism and trauma. There’s scope to discuss how/when children become adults, the intersection of history and story and the purpose of spiritual life and dreams. It feels like if you were teaching a literature/politics course you could not have ordered up a better novel to open conversations (or I guess if you’re a producer of the 2018 Canada Reads competition…). It is also bursting with similies. Like a water barrell overflowing in a rainstorm with similies.

As a story I didn’t love it. It was a quest narrative that didn’t articulate it’s quest until reaching the climax, as a consequence the reader is left adrift wondering if there might be a point to all the wandering (though I suppose there’s an argument to be made that the reader’s feeling of waywardness is intentionally mirroring that of the characters, but I don’t buy it). The characters themselves read a bit jumbled: there are a lot of them in the family and not enough attention is paid to individualizing each, so there is little emotional investment for the reader on what happens to any one of them. That said, the few characters that do receive a backstory are compelling, if not entirely complicated. There’s also a question of setting. They are forever walking north (like months and months) but never seem to get anywhere (again with the wayward wandering). And I did find the writing strayed into the cliche and the Literary Devices.

As a novel to spurr conversation I think it has merit. There’s ample opportunity to talk about the legacy and continued experience of colonialism, the continued profit off Indigenous bodies, the history of residential schools and the present of incarceration and child welfare agencie, the experience of Metis people within and against the state, and the representation of indigenous people as eco-warriors.

I never know how to end these posts. I feel like I’m always tempted to be like “read it” or “don’t read it,” and in this case I don’t know what to tell you, and maybe you don’t want me to tell you anyway, and so… END.

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Filed under Bestseller, Canadian Literature, Fiction, Young Adult Fiction

Grief Works: Why Thinking About Death Beats Cat Videos

I can’t remember the last time I read book length non-fiction. I’m going to guess at least a year. Maybe two, if you don’t count books for work. Which is to say it has to be a compelling proposition for me to entertain non-fiction (like I considered reading Fire and Fury but then thought – who cares, there are podcasts). But when I heard that the author of Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death and Survival, Julia Samuel, was coming to my city, I looked into the book. And that was enough for me to pick it up.

The gist: Samuel is a grief counselor and the book presents 15 case studies from her years of practice as a way of inviting the reader to consider how folks experience grief and keep living after significant loss. The book is broken into sections (death of a sibling, death of a partner, death of a parent, death of a child, facing your own death) and each section has three case studies and then some reflections on the chapter. The book concludes with some general notes about death and dying in Canada (presumably only for the Canadian edition), supporting others in grief, supporting yourself in grief.

I haven’t experienced grief up close. Yet. Samuels is great, however, at reminding the reader that it is only a matter of time – and chance – before we encounter death and grief, and that hiding from this certainty does nothing to protect us from the inevitability (sort of like my relationship with global warming, actually). And she reminds the reader without being scary or macabre.

In fact, I’d say the overarching mood of the book is ‘gentle.’ Readers are allowed space to digest as each case study is relatively short, and within them are moments of levity and reflection. (One complaint I have is that Samuels dwells a bit too much for my taste on her therapeutic process (i.e. how she needs to go slow in asking some questions because trust needs to be established first), but then I wasn’t reading it with interest in how grief counselling works, but I can see how other readers might have this interest).

I was talking to my dear friend S. about the book (as well as my mum and my Auntie P.) and sharing with them that what I found most valuable about the book (at this moment in my life anyway) was in supporting others in their experience with grief. But it was also a key read for me at the moment because I am – inexplicably? – preoccupied with knowing that those I love will die. And dwelling in this morbidity has been scary and disquieting and all the other feelings you’d expect to have. And while fiction does it’s best to help me prepare for death (there are no shortage of novels exploring all the many different ways death finds us), I suppose I wanted something practical. And this is a desire Grief Works frustrates. Samuels acknowledges the desire for a practical guide, and notes that these kinds of books do exist, but she resists giving a check-list because of her emphasis on how individualized and contextual grief is experienced. Sure she offers a few ‘pillars’ (meditation, running and visualizations seem to be her fan favourites), but these are couched in the insistence that each individual will have to find their own path.

So maybe what I’m most appreciative of is the way the book has opened conversations for me. I can say I’m reading, or just read this book, and it made me think about these things. Instead of being like “I’m thinking a lot about death these days,” which is odd because it is sunny, and springtime, and there are baby cats (aka: kittens) all over Facebook, I can use the book to begin conversations that let me know that other people are thinking about death, too. (And yes, I know I should check out a death cafe).

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Filed under Fiction, Non-fiction, Prize Winner