Friday, August 26, 2011

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, by Karen Russell

The title of this 2006 story collection, the first by Florida author Karen Russell, is a good clue to the book as a whole. Russell’s world is easily recognizable even as it is weirdly bizarre. It combines the magical realism of writers like Borges Gabriel Garcia Marquez with the lush psychological realism of Eudora Welty (who herself is something of a magical realist). Each of these stories takes a surprising and new approach to its subject. Each story seems a kind of hallucination in which distinctions between dream and the real are blurred and sometimes simply not there.

An example is the first story, “Ava Wrestles an Alligator,” a young girl’s story of her life with her sister and father (Chief Bigtree) in a roadside alligator park called “Swamplandia.” The girl’s hulking older sister goes out into the swamps in the night to lay with ghostly lovers. Does the young narrator, naively uncomprehending, simply believe the stories her sister tells? Is her sister what she seems—a deeply disturbed young woman, or something more? The genius of this story is that it doesn’t allow the supernatural to be reduced to a matter of limited narrative viewpoint.

In “Haunting Olivia” a brother and sister search for their dead sister’s underwater ghost.

“Z. Z.’s Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreamers” is about a summer camp for children with sleeping disorders. The two main characters dream about historical events that have already happened. The camp leader’s wife suffers from paranoid dreams about ravenous packs of dogs which she acts out in her sleep by killing her husband’s beloved sheep.

My favorite story is “from Children’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migration.” A boy tells his family’s story of traveling west on a wagon train. They suffer storms, sickness, squabbles with other families, marital tensions. The story’s descriptive powers are considerable—I was reminded of Charles Portis and True Grit. As things grow more difficult, the boy’s parents’ marriage is increasingly strained, but finally they resolve their difficulties. The one unexpected element in this story is that the boy’s father, Asterion, is a minotaur.

In “Lady Yeti and the Palace of Artificial Snows” a boy talks about the ice rink where people from his hometown go to escape the heat of the summer and the tensions of their middle-aged and disappointed lives. The palace features a group of skating monkeys, a DJ who never takes off her Yeti costume, and an apocalyptic artificial snow storm with blizzard force winds. Inside the ice rink, the rest of the world falls away.

In “The City of Shells” a janitor tries to rescue a little girl stuck in a huge artificial conch shell at a New Jersey amusement park as a hurricane approaches. He ends up stuck in the shell himself.

“Out to Sea” describes an ocean-bound retirement community where each elderly person lives in his or her own private boat. Focused on an old man who falls in love with the young woman who’s assigned to be his companion (she’s doing community service), the story is sad. The final paragraph: “When he was a boy growing up on the swamp, Sawtooth used to know all of the constellations, but now he has forgotten how to find them. Overhead, the sky lurches in unfamiliar, opalescent swirls. All around him, the muted yellow lamps of his neighbors’ boats blink off quietly, one by one, until Sawtooth is left alone bobbing in the darkness.”

In “Accident Brief, Occurrence #00/422,” the Waitiki Valley Boys Choir flies to the top of a glacier once each year in a ceremony that is meant to cause an avalanche and that is also an important community ritual. The narrator’s befriending of a mute boy in the choir leads to dark tragedy after their helicopter crashes. The setting seems to be entirely fantastic—descendants of the Moa tribe and the pirates who overran them populate the story. The boy is angry because his father ran off and his mother has married to another man, Mr. Oamaru, whom the boy resents.

Most of these stories don’t end conventionally. They just stop, and the effect is unsettling. “Haunting Olivia” ends in a cave where a young boy is looking for his sister. “The City of Shells” ends with the girl and janitor stuck in a conch shell. “Children’s Reminiscences” ends with a covered wagon family headed for what seems a bleak disaster. The stories are set in or near a swamp in central Florida. Yet their world seems an alternative one to our own—place names, histories, geographies--all different and unfamiliar. A number of the stories involve children who have lost their parents, especially their fathers, or who in some way come from families in crisis. This collection, including its title, struck me as novel, whimsical, interesting, and off-kilter. Fantasy and nightmare commingle, but the human element in each story never falls from view.

Loneliness is a major theme—the loneliness of children forced into adulthood, lost or abandoned by parents, facing calamity in any number of forms, children who encounter too soon the void of the world.

Dracula, by Bram Stoker

One of the interesting aspects of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (1897) is its narration. The story is told through letters, journal entries, newspaper accounts, memos, and so on. The effect is of a first-person narration by a number of narrators, some of whom don’t survive the story. Another interesting element is the fascination with late 19th century technology: dictaphones, phonographs, typewriters, trains, boats (transportation in general), science, medicine. Countervailing against the modern, of course, is the novel’s fascination with the irrational—with demons, magic, superstition, vampires, the undead. What most surprised me about the book, which I have long avoided, was how melodramatically entertaining it is.

Stoker is continually telegraphing his readers about events soon to occur. His technique isn’t especially refined or sophisticated, but he gets the story told. Early in the book, when it’s clear that Lucy is being preyed on late at night by the evil Count, Professor Von Helstrom warns his associates that they must never leave her side. Someone must always be in the room to protect her. Yet whoever it is that happens to be there protecting her always finds a way of leaving, if only for a few minutes, during which time the Count gets his dinner.

Dracula is especially delicate about women, yet women are almost always Count Dracula’s victims, and an exorbitant Victorian eroticism infects the story surrounding Dracula and his female victims. Also evident, but not overly apparent (both Lucy and Mina Harker are Stoker’s versions of the saintly Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin) is the xenophobia. Count Dracula comes from eastern Europe, Transylvania, and before that from Turkey. Fears of the East, of darker-skinned races, of Jews in particular, are often apparent. Dracula is an early reaction against globalism.


The foundations for the animated feature Rango (dir. Gore Verbinski, 2011) lie in old films about the American west, especially of the Clint Eastwood/Sergio Leone variety, an essay by Joan Didion from the late 1960s, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, Carlos Castaneda, and Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Early in the film we get a brief glimpse of Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo speeding down a highway in a blue Cadillac. This gives us a clue as to what’s to follow. Not that the film concerns drug addled hallucinations, but that the desert landscape, the creatures who inhabit, are beyond the range of the usual documentary about western wildlife. Of course, Rango is no documentary.

Rango does a surprisingly good job of entertaining its viewers and of pointing out the impact of encroaching civilization on the American western deserts. The environmental dimensions of the desert are pitted against the demands of ruthless corporations for water and for replacing old ways with new ones.

This animated comedy depicts the desert landscape and its characters in a hyper-realistic yet comically exaggerated and caricaturish way. Even without a plot, Rango would be fun to watch simply as an exercise in animation. But it does have a plot: a lizard is thrust from the cage where he has lived all his life. He’s a tall-tale spinner, and when he stumbles into a desert town, his stories convince the townspeople that he is a great hero who will bring water to their parched settlement and vanquish their enemies. Rango must prove himself, win the female lizard who’s attracted his fancy, and defeat corruption and corporate greed.

I enjoyed this film.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Goals, Challenges, the Future

The Franklin College, after four difficult years of budget drawdowns, remains a strong and vital part of the University of Georgia.  With the national economy’s slow movement towards recovery, and state tax revenues beginning to grow, we now turn to the task of building for the future.  In some cases rebuilding means restoring faculty lines and programs lost to budget reductions.  In others it means focusing on new programs that build on our core strengths and meet strategic needs of the university and the state.  It definitely means working to improve faculty and staff salaries.  But it also means, in the broadest sense, building for the future.

While traditional departmental and disciplinary boundaries continue to define the superficial structure of the Franklin College, interdisciplinary connections and collaborations are fundamentally altering its shape.  These connections are evident across the College.  The sciences are now fundamentally interdisciplinary.  The developing Institute of Bioinformatics offers an example of a program that is being built across departmental and collegiate boundaries.  Another is the Interdisciplinary Life Sciences graduate program, which involves ten departments (six from Franklin) across five colleges and is administered by the Franklin College Dean's office. Faculty members in English have worked with the new School of Medicine to develop curricular modules for teaching humanities and arts to medical students, and Franklin has successfully recruited a number of jointly appointed faculty members with the UGA/MCG partnership campus here in Athens.  Franklin College faculty members make up the majority of UGA’s growing Faculty of Engineering.  The four arts units—Music, Art, Theatre and Film, and Dance—have begun meeting with the Georgia Museum of Art and the Performing Arts Center to discuss mutual issues and plan events that utilize their diverse talents.  The new Director of the Willson Center for Humanities and Arts, Nicholas Allen (whose appointment begins in January 2012), has been charged with developing interdisciplinary connections among the arts and humanities at UGA.

Intra-college and cross-departmental initiatives in research and instruction are an essential part of the Franklin College profile.  As UGA’s oldest and largest college, the Franklin College appropriately must serve as a leader in breaking down boundaries and forging partnerships that benefit the faculty and students of the university as a whole.  The extent to which Franklin can accommodate and adjust to such new initiatives and lines of development in the immediate future will be a major measure of its success in providing students with the best possible education, and for faculty a teaching and research environment reflective of the best practices and finest institutions of  higher education in the nation and the world.

Franklin must therefore also look to create and/or strengthen its partnerships with other units on campus.  These could include (but not be limited to) the Grady College (film and television studies), the Terry College of Business (art and music business programs; economics; capitalism studies), the College of Education (teacher education), and the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (genomics, bioinformatics, all the biological sciences).

As in the past, Franklin must continue to hire faculty of the first rank with proven reputations in research and teaching.  New faculty must bring to the College a record in research and creative activities that will enhance our research programs.  We must strive to increase external funding, even as federal support may diminish.  Partnerships with private corporations and foundations may offer new funding sources.  In any case the College must encourage faculty who seek external funding by providing a strongly supportive research environment.  This will include providing, when appropriate, staff positions that assist in the development and writing of funding proposals.  It will mean working with other offices on campus to improve resources for research computing.  (The College is considering a college-level research computing position as one part of that strategy.) It also means working to ensure that research space is appropriately allocated and shared, that funds are available for faculty whose scholarly work requires travel, and that faculty have the equipment they need, whether funded through private or external funds or through funds from the University, to conduct their research.  The development of a reasonable system that allows faculty extended periods for research is essential.  The best teachers in Franklin College are often the strongest researchers and artists.  An environment supportive of both research and teaching benefits everyone.

Current and new faculty must not only be able to teach well using proven methods, but must also be proficient in new and alternative methods of instruction.  Although the University undergraduate student body has a fairly traditional profile (most first-year students having just graduated high school), it is not unreasonable to expect new student populations to develop—adult students, distance students, disabled students, international students—whose needs faculty must be prepared to address.  The College has recently employed a college-level instructional technologist to help faculty take advantage of new technology-based instructional resources.  Other such positions may be needed.

Franklin has an excellent record in developing opportunities for students to study abroad.  Working together with the Office of International Education, and with other units on campus, Franklin must over the next few years continue to encourage and support study abroad.  We offer a number of excellent opportunities for study in Great Britain and Europe.  We have developed opportunities on all seven continents, but we need to deepen and expand our global reach. The strongest need for study abroad programs is in South and East Asia, especially China and India; and we must also expand our programs in Africa and South America.  A strong administrative interface that puts students in touch with programs sponsored by UGA and other institutions, and that facilitates their study abroad, will remain important.  So also will be courses and programs that promote literacy in international languages and cultures.  The Franklin College already offers an impressive array of language courses (more than two dozen languages, from Arabic to Zulu, are regularly taught) along with a growing number of internationally focused majors through our language departments and area studies institutes and centers.  New language sequences, sometimes using alternative means of instructional delivery, will be necessary as we move further into the global 21st century.  Recently Franklin College has worked with other units to develop a summer Intensive English Program, which is bringing more international students to UGA.

In the coming years external funding will become even more important for Franklin College.  It will be a source of support for academic and cultural programs, professorships, lectures, and scholarships, especially need-based scholarships that open UGA’s doors to students from diverse backgrounds who may need help in order to attend.  To make this possible, we must continue to define and convey the Franklin identity to the University’s many constituents, but most specifically to our alumni.  We must continue to build a strong, involved Dean’s Council and enhance our cadre of major donors to all areas of the College.  The future health of the College depends on a successful and vigorous development program, which in turn rests on a strong foundation of outreach, communication, and visibility of the Franklin College among alumni, friends, and citizens of the state and beyond.

All of these areas of growth represent tremendous opportunity, some risk-taking and entrepreneurial spirit, and the prospect of organizational change going forward.  Faculty, students, and staff are naturally inclined to resist change.  We all tend to be comfortable within structures and programs we have known for years.  Franklin must continue to evolve, not just by fitting new ideas within old models of operation, but by creating new models to support state-of-the-art programs and practices with greatest impact and efficiency.  It must be receptive to internal and external proposals for constructive change.  It must plan to work in partnership with other colleges and units of the University and with the external community on a local, state, national, and international basis.  An important way to begin reducing resistance to change is to begin discussions among faculty, staff, and students about where the College should move in the coming years.  Such a discussion will of course be tied to the broad themes of the University’s strategic plan, but it may include new themes as well.  Franklin College must be a leader in implementing university-wide objectives while creating new areas of strength which advance the interests of the university as a whole.  In the coming year we will lay the groundwork for a college-wide strategic planning process, opening conversations with all of the College’s constituencies to generate ideas and proposals for the future of the Franklin College and the University.