What are you reading?

Dr. Alison Graham-Bertolini, Fall 2015

Kiese Laymon is a young black American male who writes about how he maintained (and continues to maintain) his dignity and sanity while growing up in a world rife with systematic injustice and violence toward black men. Despite being in the midst of, and sometimes the focus of, institutional and systematic violence, Laymon is able to take a step back, to give us perspective on the suffering of an entire demographic, while keeping the essays personal and real. Laymon suggests at the start of the collection that the book is meant to flow like a musical composition, and that becomes evident in the multi-vocal presentation of some of the subject ideas where he brings in voices of others in his family (either directly or like an echo) and community. He occasionally strikes a discordant tone, or plays for a while in the minor key, which, like most great music, makes the composition more interesting and complex. 

Especially wonderful is how he writes of pop culture and current events; Hip-Hop and black comedians, for example, are portrayed as arbiters of coalescence within the black community. And how he credits the women in his life for providing him with emotional balance and solid advice as he matured.

Dr. Bruce Maylath, Spring 2015

I recently finished The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, by Amanda Ripley, a reporter for Time and The Atlantic Monthly. What piqued her interest in this topic was the quick and dramatic rise of scores on the PISA tests over a 25-year span by such countries as Finland, Poland, and South Korea, while the scores in the US stayed stagnant—and low. (PISA stands for “Programme in International Student Assessment” and is administered by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.) 


In the decades following the destruction of the Second World War, Finland, Poland, and South Korea had abysmal school systems. Yet, by the 1990s, their societies decided to undergo drastic educational reforms, with a view to improving their children’s knowledge and their nations’ economies. 


To find out what they did and how the new systems have yielded the best results in the world, Ripley decided to follow and interview an educational constituency rarely consulted in academic research: students themselves. To start, she followed three American students who spent a year of high school abroad: a student from Minnetonka, Minnesota, who went to South Korea; one from Oklahoma who lived in Finland, and one from Pennsylvania who studied in Poland. She also sought out students from these same three countries abroad who were spending a year in U.S. high schools. 


What she found is far more insightful than the arguments that one usually hears or reads in the debates about reforming America’s educational system. For those who really want to know what has been proven to work, this book is eye-opening. It’s a volume that would be well worth every American’s time to read. I recommend it especially for our English education majors and alumni.

Dr. Verena Theile, Fall 2014


What are you reading, what is the genre, and who is the author?

I read a lot this summer, but this one sticks out: The All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness. I’d read the first two parts (A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night) a while back and so re-read them when the final installment (The Book of Life) came out in July 2014. As I’m sure you can tell by the title, it’s a fantasy series, but it consistently crosses over into historical fiction, probably because the author, Deborah Harkness, is a historian. Trained at Mount Holyoke, Northwestern, and UC Davies, she now teaches European History at USC. Not surprisingly, her academic work and her fiction coincide: both draw on the history of natural philosophy (as the place where magic and science meet) during the early modern period.

Can you give a brief description of the book?

Also not surprisingly, Harkness’s heroine, Professor Diana Bishop, is an accomplished historian of alchemy and a faculty member at Yale University who, at the point the book begins, is conducting research at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Dr. Bishop is also a witch, but only reluctantly so: it’s in her blood. She knows she’s got magic, but she is careful not to use it. She wants to live a normal life and do normal professor things: track historical evidence, spend hours-days-months in the archives, publish her findings with an important university press, make tenure, and get promoted.

And she’s doing very well for herself … until one day she calls up Ashmole 782 from the archives. 

Historically, Ashmole 782 is a lost manuscript from the extensive library of Elias Ashmole that was catalogued when his library joined the Bodleian holdings, but that has never actually been seen, read, or held by scholars and whose contents are entirely unknown to us.

This book, in other words, should not have been brought to Dr. Bishop. She should have received a notice from the rare books librarians instead, telling her that the book could not be located. But they do find it, and she does get it, all without realizing what a rarity lies before her. That is, academically she is unaware, her witch-sense, on the other hand, goes on alert the moment the book appears. It vibrates with power and tingles at her touch.

Our straight-laced hero panics, worried she might be discovered, that people will notice she’s a witch and question her academic work perhaps as a result. And so she gives Ashmole 782 only a cursory glance, briefly noticing its alchemical illustrations, but then returning it to the stacks post-haste. But she isn’t quick enough. Other creatures witness to her discovery, and all, it turns out, have been searching for this particular manuscript for centuries.

As creature-scuttlebutt has it, this lost manuscript holds vital information about the creation and destiny of all species: humans, witches, demons, and vampires. All four species coexist in our world, more or less peacefully, and all of them are now determined to use Dr. Bishop to retrieve the book for her ... for it has never appeared for anybody but her.

The series traces the history of Ashmole 782 and Dr. Bishop’s connection to it through the centuries, as she locates it briefly as part of John Dee’s famous library and then at the court of Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor in Prague in the 16th Century and, but then loses it again as her pursuers draw closer.

A famed Oxford geneticist, Dr. Matthew Clairmont, who also happens to be a 1500-year old vampire (heartthrob-alert!), accompanies Dr. Bishop on her adventure. Needless to say, he is smart and gorgeous, and, to add some drama to the fast-paced suspense-romance plot, their cross-species union is entirely forbidden by the witch-demon-vampire community. Humans are blissfully unaware meanwhile of all things supernatural, naturally.

What do you like about the book?

I like everything about this book: It’s smart. It’s funny. It’s suspenseful. It’s incredibly well written. It’s got all kinds of supernatural lore woven through its plot, and it’s brimming with fascinating, historical detail…all at the same time! Its characters are intricately developed and alive, full of internal conflict and radiant with power, pride, and insecurities. The story itself takes place in awesome locations (the greatest early modern archives in Europe and the US) and time periods (Elizabethan England and Prague at the time of Rudolf II), allowing us to travel alongside its heroine and to take in the sights and sounds of places both familiar and foreign. I’ve been to most of the archives, Drs. Bishop and Clairmont visit together, but I’ve only read of the people they meet and dreamt of the discoveries they make.

As the trilogy explores archives and takes us to places on different timelines, it weaves together fact and fiction in the most interesting and intelligent ways. We see impoverished but brilliant John Dee being bullied by his overbearing wife; we experience the magical court of the eccentric Habsburg emperor and encounter political intrigue at the court of the perhaps even more eccentric Tudor queen; we meet the mysterious School of Night and anticipate Christopher Marlowe’s untimely death; but we only hear about Shakespeare, hanging out at taverns, gathering stories, and trying to make a living.

And through it all runs a pretty awesome love story.

Who would like this book?

I think this trilogy has a little bit for everybody. It’s definitely fantasy though, so one would have to enjoy that genre. It helps to love Shakespeare (it does with most things in life) and the early modern period, but I think, by and large, one really just has to be a fan of good writing and story weaving. The details and descriptions in this book are pretty amazing.

If you love books, you almost automatically, I think, love books about books, and that’s what this is. It’s a little like Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, but better and less convoluted. It turns historical discovery into a game without giving short shrift to the enormous learnedness that goes into the process of research and writing or sacrificing its fictional plot.

Have you read any other books by this author? (If so, what are they?)

I wrote my dissertation on the history and representation of magic and science on the early modern stage, so I was familiar with Harkness’ two academic monographs, John Dee’s Conversations with Angels: Cabala, Alchemy, and the End of Nature (Cambridge UP, 1999) and The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution (Yale UP, 2007), before I picked up A Discovery of Witchcraft (Penguin, 2011). Like her fiction, her historical work is impressive in its depth and detail, truly spell-binding.

Do you have a favorite quote from the book?

Dr. Diana Bishop is a kick-ass, no-nonsense academic. She loves her work, and she is very, very good at it. I love seeing her at her work, and I love seeing her fall in love with (no surprise here) her over-protective vampire boyfriend. Unlike in other novels with similar love-conflicts, here it’s he who has to figure out how to live with her, adjust his behavior, and rein in his instincts. Nobody saves this here lady-in-distress. She weaves her own fortune and takes care of the ones she loves in the process.

I probably like the line “Te absolvo!” best, because it centralizes and resolves some of the major conflicts in the book so effectively, and it occurs at a moment of intense physical and emotional pain. But the book really is full of great lines and great characters. Ysabeau de Clermont is deeply sarcastic and brilliant in her brevity, and the life-like portrayals of Sir Henry Percy and Lady Mary Sidney humanize history, while Rudolf’s and Elizabeth’s caricatures distort and mock it in intriguing and truly hilarious ways.

The most famous lines from the books are…

“It began with absence and desire. It begins with blood and fear. It begins with a discovery of witches.”

“I saw the logic that they used, and the death of a thousand cuts as experimental scientists slowly chipped away at the belief that the world was an inexplicably powerful, magical place. Ultimately they failed, though. The magic never really went away. It waited, quietly, for people to return to it when they found the science wanting.”

“In this room we understand why this war might be fought…it’s about our common belief that no one has the right to tell two creatures that they cannot love each other–no matter what their species.”

“My ideas about vampires may by romantic, but your attitudes toward women need a major overhaul.”

“Just because something seems impossible doesn’t make it untrue,”

“As fast as I can tell there are only two emotions that keep the world spinning year after year…One is fear. The other is desire.”

“Together we lifted our feet and stepped into the unknown.”

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