21 June 2006

The five-paragraph theme has long been a staple of the composition curriculum. This can be credited to several factors: it is simple, makes its case clearly, and is easy for the reader to understand. It is also versatile--the form can be applied to almost any subject. Most important to students, however, is its simplicity.

A five-paragraph theme begins with an introduction. This paragraph is designed to catch the reader's attention, state the subject, and limit it to the single topic which will be discussed. This may be done with a funnel, bringing the reader from a broad opening topic to the limited thesis; an interesting or startling quote which is pertinent to the subject; or a brief anecdote. The most important part of this paragraph is the thesis, which is usually its final sentence. This sentence states the writer's position on the topic.

Once a thesis is stated, it must be developed. This occurs in the paper's body paragraphs. When there are three major points supporting the thesis, each will be given a body paragraph. This is what usually happens, because unless the writer has at least three points, she probably doesn't have enough support to justify holding the position her thesis presents. In developing the thesis, examples are often helpful in clarifying exactly what is intended. This clarity is important, because these are the paragraphs which explain the writer's argument.

After evidence in support of the thesis has been presented, most of the writer's work is done. All that remains is to let the reader know that the paper is finished. This requires a conclusion. The most common method of conclusion is the summary, which briefly recaps the evidence and restates the thesis.

And this results in a five-paragraph theme. By following the simple format of introduction, development, and conclusion, anyone can write a paper on almost anything. What remains is to revise the paper, if time allows, and put it into the required manuscript form. This done, the writer may turn it in knowing that, while it may not be the most exciting paper in the world, it will present her argument clearly and competently.

Brown, Dan. Angels and Demons. 2000: Atria Books, New York

By now you’ve heard of The DaVinci Code. Maybe you’re planning to see The DaVinci Code. Maybe you’ve even read The DaVinci Code. If you have read it, you have probably also read Angels and Demons, Dan Brown’s first book about Harvard professor of religious symbolism, Robert Langdon.

This page-turner starts when Langdon is recruited by the Conseil Europeen pour la Recheche Nucleaire to investigate a murder. Who died? The inventor of a process to produce commercial quantities of anti-matter. Even worse, the anti-matter is missing. Why call Langdon? The evidence points to an ancient, long-defunct group, the sworn enemy of the Catholic Church and the subject of Langdon’s most recent book: the Illuminati.

Langdon has twenty-four hours before the anti-matter containment system collapses. It is hidden somewhere in the Vatican, where the Cardinals have gathered to elect the next Pope. Langdon’s knowledge of Renaissance art (and a lot of help from the Vatican archives) allows him to locate and follow the Illuminati road to enlightenment, chasing one step behind the killer. He doesn’t make it, though, and the explosion is beautiful. Yet The DaVinci Code follows this story. Read Angels and Demons yourself to see how.

Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions). New York: Oxford University Press, 1977/2000.

What do Marxists, Freudians, Structuralists, New Critics, Post-Colonialists, Feminists, and Deconstructionists have in common? “I don’t know” is not a correct response—but “I can’t understand them” is. The other right answer is that they all apply unique analytical frameworks to the study of literature in an effort to understand “what it means”. But most of us would say “I don’t know.”

Part of the confusion comes from all those different schools of criticism—I couldn’t keep them straight as a graduate student, either. Culler solves this problem by approaching the subject through the common underlying questions that any critic is trying to answer. The book fits eight chapter and an appendix into 133 pages, with each question getting a chapter; Culler only addresses various schools in the appendix. This makes it very easy to follow his clear, concise discussion of the philosophical issues that inspire both literature and the ways of studying it.

Literary Theory is part of an Oxford series that runs from Ancient Philosophy through Empire, Engles, and Ethics to Molecules, Music, Nietzsche and The Twentieth Century: there were about 150 titles in 2000. Each is written by an acknowledged expert on the subject (Culler teaches at Cornell and has published several books). They are designed to provide “stimulating ways in to new subjects,” or a high-level over-view. They are ideal for getting the “big picture” before starting a distributive requirement class because they will help you understand, quickly, both why it is important and how interesting it really it—to someone.

We've watched Jeff Daniels use the Purple Rose Theatre Company as a personal launching pad for his career as a playwright for years and accepted this as the price of theatre in Chelsea. We should have seen it, instead, as practice, because Daniels has finally gotten it right.

He has gotten close before. Escanaba in da Moonlight, Norma and Wanda, and Across the Way were all good in more ways than not. But Guest Artist is not just a funny play—something we expect, because Daniels does comedy well. It is not just a well-crafted play, nor interesting as a concept. Each of these plays showed an artist coming to grasp with voice, concept, and craft. With Guest Artist, Daniels has matured. His craft is evident in the plotting and pacing, the use of repetition and so many other tricks writers use to reinforce message, surprise, and entertain. His love of the art for its own sake has never been more apparent, nor his idea of art's, and the artist's, role.

Yet what makes this an important play is not its technical competency—this is only a necessary foundation, and building it is a skill now thoroughly mastered. What makes it important, even worth all those years of practice, is in both what it says and how it is said.

'How' first. The piece is set in a bus station in Steubenville, Ohio, where a young theatre apprentice is to meet Jim Harris, a playwright commissioned to provide the local troupe's next offering. The relationship that develops between the two seems to be based on Daniels' own with Lanford Wilson, adding an emotional depth to the work. The two never leave the bus station (read it as Sartre's hell), using it instead as a platform for the power struggle that is Guest Artist's 'what'.

Harris, as noted above, owes the Steubenville Players a new play, and has come to be part of its production. He doesn't want to deliver. This is where the years of practice come into play: the construction of this interplay is flawless, almost effortless, leaving us with a pair of perfectly realized characters in an entirely believable situation.

This combination, in turn, drives the 'what'—and allows Guest Artist to become important. This is not a philosophical vehical, but Harris lets Daniels share his views on the playwright's role, theatre's role, and the writing process in contemporary society. The political, emotional, and artistic are not 'subjects' or 'themes', but passionately held beliefs, fears, and personal insights from Harris and the apprentice as they struggle to make sense of themselves, their world, and their work. Here, at last, Daniels has moved from using the theatre as springboard, metaphor, or representation to presenting theatre as life, and in so doing announces himself as an important new playwright, even if he isn't really new.

Paige, LeRoy (Satchel). Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever. 1962: Doubleday, Garden City, NY.

In 2006, the National Baseball Hall of Fame wrapped up a special research effort into the Negro Leagues’ history. They collected box scores from almost every game, and they have finally tabulated statistics for these nearly-forgotten players. They celebrated by electing seventeen new members to the Hall, including former Detroit Stars first-baseman Mule Suttles. A large part of the research has now been released in the new book Shades of Glory: The Negro Leagues and the Story of African-American Baseball by Lawrence D. Hogan.

I’m sure that Shades of Glory is a fine book, but I’m reading Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever instead. An autobiography from Satchel Paige, crafted from interviews with David Lipman (who also wrote biographies of Bob Gibson and Branch Rickey), it provides a first-hand look at the Negro Leagues. Paige’s distinctively colorful voice carries a joy we are to assume infected these players, in spite of the harsh circumstances of their professional and personal lives. Yet Satch starts his story several games into his first major league season, when he was forty-one, so we know it all worked out for the man many thought should have broken baseball’s color barrier before Jackie Robinson ever finished college.

That's "flea," not "slea": The Argument for Modern Typefaces

John Donne's Poetry. Arthur L. Clements, ed. 2nd. ed. New York: Norton, 1992.
Donne's Poetical Works. H.J.C. Grierson, ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1912.

Donne's collected poetry was first published in 1633, two years after he died. Since Donne didn't prepare his work for the press, controversy over his intended meanings seems inevitable. These two critical editions, however, agree that the first record of a poem the one least likely to have been corrupted; both use the 1633 edition as their base of authority. Poems not published in 1633 take authoritative readings from either the first published edition or the manuscripts.

Which means that both editions present, generally, the same text. Now listen: Donne's collected poetry was first published in 1633, two years after he died. These lines are more than 350 years old. While they are good, and are important in the development of English poetry, enough is enough.

The Norton Critical Edition is enough. In a single paper-back volume, it presents the greatest bulk of Donne's work, with selected criticism to help focus study and to place him in a historical context, an extensive selected bibliography to guide further study, an introduction explaining the textual concerns, and notes, at the back, listing major deviations from the text as printed and their sources.

Grierson's two-volume tome, on the other hand, is too much for all but the most hardened scholars. It not only sorts, classifies, and notes all versions of all the poems attributed to Donne, it also delineates the sorting, classifying, and noting process. The introduction and commentary are extensive; they require an entire second volume. The poems, printed in volume one, are done in their original fashion: no spelling--or even symbol--changes have been made to accommodate the reader, meaning 's' can be read as 'f,' or 'u' as 'v,' if one does not already know how the lines run. Notes on textual differences, however, are instantly accessible at the bottom of each page.

The Grierson edition is for someone who already knows Donne well. For those already acquainted with him, it makes intimate conversation possible. For those just trying to meet him, though--even for those who don't mind close friendship, but don't need to know every secret--the Norton will serve as well, and will cost much less.

Leprecons, trolls, and fairies, an unsupervised twelve-year-old, and criminal ambitions. Sound like a good combination? Well, it's not Harry Potter—much less involved, both in terms of plotting and character development, and meant for a slightly younger audience. It's not even Lemony Snicket, which aims for an even young crowd—but Artemis Fowl, by Eoin Colfer, delivers the same sort of fun. In the first, eponymous adventure, Fowl seeks out the fairy-folk in order to steal their gold and right his family's fortunes. This happens at the expense of Holly Short, the first female fairly member of the Lower Elements Police Reconnaissance unit, whom he kidnaps. The LEPrecon rescue efforts include a tunneling dwarf, a troll, and temporarily stopping time, but are still no match for Fowl's genius.

This series, which began in 2001, has been extremely popular with tweens. I read it in an afternoon, with lots of lazy napping between chapters, and now I need to find book two in the series.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories is the most accessible of Salman Rushdie’s novels, and this little book is almost perfect. No, seriously—in the way that The Great Gatsby, The Old Man and the Sea, or A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is perfect: a brilliantly cut, brightly polished little gem, with well-drawn, believable characters working through a well-paced, reasonable (given the magical realism of the circumstances) plot.

Set in an imaginary Kashmir, in a fictional now, Rushdie’s masterwork (and I say this knowing full well what a truly magnificent book Midnight’s Children is—but it, like Moby Dick, is a wonderfully, humanly flawed work, of such scope and complexity that perfection is unthinkable) is appropriate for children, in spite of the adult themes which spark the plot. Haroun, himself a child, undertakes to save his father’s career (and marriage) by traveling with a water genie to Earth’s second moon. Here, he must intervene in a war and reverse an intentional environmental disaster to save the Sea of Stories, from which his father draws the stories he tells for a living.

Of course, it all works out in the end and Haroun learns the value of stories. Read it as an environmental metaphor, as an allegory for contemporary degradation of our humanity, or simply for fun—but read it.