Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Olivia Manning, _The Great Fortune_

This is the first volume of "The Balkan Trilogy," a paperback of which I picked up remaindered for $1.99 or so back in the late 1980s or early 1990s, shortly after it had been turned into a Masterpiece Theatre production starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson (ditto its sequel, "The Levant Trilogy"). Somehow twenty years slipped away without my so much as opening it, even though it had the signal honor of being reprinted as a New York Review of Books Classic in 2010. Then, somewhat out of the blue, it was tapped by the book club my spouse and I belong to...

... and it turns out to be excellent. All six novels center upon Guy and Harriet Pringle, a recently married young English couple, who owing to Guy's teaching position at a university in Bucharest are in Romania in the fall of 1939 when Germany and the Soviet Union descend on Poland. The Great Fortune takes us up to the fall of Paris in 1940. The ambiguities and uncertainties of the "phoney war" period find their analogue in the the tentative, what-in-the-world-is-he-thinking, what-have-I-done-now feints and parries of the Pringles' brand new marriage. As the marriage gets serious when Harriet has to deal with a strange rebuff from Guy (he casts her for, then dismisses her from, an amateur Shakespeare production he is organizing) and at the same time gets a sudden offer to run off with one of his colleagues, so the war, after a winter's hibernation, gets serious as the Germans invade Belgium.

The writing is strong, brisk, intelligent, the characters sharply drawn (especially the shamelessly cadging Russian aristocratic exile, Prince Yakimov), the sense of history looming over one's shoulder convincing. Not surprising that Anthony Burgess called this "the finest fictional record of the war produced by a British writer." It certainly measures up to the the other British WW II novels I've read (Anthony Powell, Evelyn Waugh).

It's a stroke of genius, for instance, that the Shakespeare play Guy Pringle is mounting in Bucharest is Troilus and Cressida -- a systematic dismantling of the romance of war. On virtually every page is a deft descriptive touch; from a balcony on a rainy afternoon, Harriet looks out on the crowd watching the funeral procession of an assassinated prime minister: "As the band drew near, the umbrellas, quilted below, moved towards the kerb: the police, wearing mourning bands on their arms, rushed wildly along the gutter pushing them back again." It had never occurred to me that a crowd of umbrellas, seen from above, would resemble a quilt; but as soon as I read that, the whole scene popped into my imagination.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Nell Freudenberger, _Lucky Girls_

THIS BOOK AND its author have collected quite a few honors: the PEN/Malamud Award (for "excellence in the art of the short story"), designation as a New York Times Notable Book, Freudenberger's being chosen by the New Yorker last summer as one of the "Forty Under Forty" fiction writers.

There are five stories here -- generally speaking, they are intelligent, subtle, well-mannered stories about intelligent, subtle, well-mannered people, for the most part U.S. citizens whom circumstances have taken to the south Asian sub-continent. Nuanced, evocative descriptions of settings... carefully integrated exposition of the characters' pasts... faintly enigmatic, open-ended final paragraphs...

... left me almost perfectly unaffected, to tell you the truth. Everything perfectly just-so, like a 19th century academy piece.

The last story, however, won me over and gave me reason to look forward to the next Freudenberger that wafts my way in Granta or the New Yorker. "Letter from the Last Bastion" is original in form (a 60-page college application essay that its author will never send), its plot revelations surprising and effectively paced, and it actually has something interesting to present about the composition of fiction.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, _Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses_

MY FACULTY COLLEAGUES and I are being encouraged to read this, and being the co-operative faculty member I (sometimes -- nay, often) am, I read it. Unwelcome news.

Arum and Roksa conducted an extensive study (almost 2400 students on 24 different campuses) and found that most undergraduates are not making much headway in mastering "critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills" during their first two years of college.

Why not? Well, they're spending a lot less time studying than they used to, with more time than formerly devoted to part-time jobs, volunteering, clubs and activities, and general hanging out. It also turns out that they can get away with studying less because their instructors are assigning less work (specifically, reading and writing) than they once did. It's a sweet deal all around; the faculty can spend more time on their research, the path to bigger rewards and more prestige, and the students can spend more time hanging out.

Specifically, courses in explicitly pre-professional majors -- business, education, communication, computer science, social work -- seem to require less in the way of reading and writing, with concomitant slowed acquisition of critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills. Not exactly a surprise.

More surprisingly, "active learning," "collaborative learning," and greater involvement in student life activities, which have been energetically advanced in recent years as means to increase student engagement in learning, turn out not to be helpful in developing critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills. So, what is helpful? More reading, more writing, studying alone. Which doesn't sound fun.

The takeaway seems obvious to me: those faculty in business, education, communication, computer science, and social work better get cracking and build a little rigor (rig-gah as Teddy Roosevelt would say) into their curricula toot sweet.