Jul 182014

Well, it was quite a surprise last week to be told that all the information we’d been given for the life writing class was actually from the previous course because, oops, the unit chair had been on leave for 6 months and had only gone back to work a couple of days before and she was completely disorganised. ‘Sorry, but I’m sure you’ll understand.’ (I’m sure she will understand when one of us is so disorganised that we can’t submit an assignment on time!) The information was distributed again this week, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s exactly the same as before. It seems that there is no difference between last year’s course and this one, so that was a whole week wasted. Pfft!

Some of the other students are interesting. There are a few who haven’t acquired the set texts yet, despite the details being available for the past couple of months. Obviously, they didn’t read the course notes. Some of them don’t want to pay for the books and think the university library should supply them. One student has already done the assignment that’s due in October, despite the fact that we haven’t even studied the relevant material yet. I don’t know, but I’m just keeping my mouth shut.

Fortunately, I’m not being graded on my group participation this time, although I do have to work with a group to produce a report later in the semester. I hope I don’t get stuck with the TALKERS. :P I know my inability to work with other people is a big problem for me (and for them, poor people!) and I should be more accepting and tolerant of social chit chat and whatnot. I don’t know why I’m so driven to just get on with the task at hand. I always end up doing most of the work in a group situation, because I think it needs to be done ‘properly’ and on time.*

Anyway, I have two essays to write in the next few weeks, so I don’t have time to read anything much besides PDFs, and there is a veritable forest of them growing on my desk. I’m learning things about life writing theory, though, so that’s good. It’s a very complex and contested field of study, apparently. I feel a bit snowed under by everything I have to do, but I’m making Molly a priority so she doesn’t feel ignored, and it’s rather nice to just switch off my brain and hang out with her. It’s also nice to sneak a few minutes here and there to catch up with your blogs, and have a little whine amongst friends. :P I’m sure things will settle down once I figure out what I’m supposed to be doing for the assignments. The due dates are staring at me as I write this, and yeah, I should be doing some research right now, so I guess I’ll go and dive into the library catalogue and see what it comes up with.

*The universal lament of the control freak! :)

Jul 162014

Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill, Alfred K. Knopf, 2014.

Jenny Offill teaches in the MFA programmes in three US colleges, a fact that is clearly evident in her writing: it has MFA stamped all over it. As I see it, MFA programme graduates tend to produce writing that is self-consciously ‘clever’ and workshopped to the nth degree. In her acknowledgements in the book, Offill lists forty people she wishes to thank for their ‘generosity and encouragement in matters literary and far beyond.’ I wonder how many of those people read and discussed the manuscript with her? The narrative has a slick and highly polished feel to it that does not reflect the rawness of the writing experience, which as I see it, is all about metaphorically sitting alone in a room with a typewriter and a quart of whiskey, and wiping the blood from your brow.*

Anyway, the narrative is presented in snippets – sentences, paragraphs and quotes – and it is up to the reader to piece them together to make meaning of the story. I am not sure that this form actually works all that well: I did not get much of a sense of who the characters were – I know what they said and did, and what one of them thought, but I felt as though I were viewing them from a distance, as if they were tiny little actors performing on a stage and I was way up in the Gods, or something.

This is a story about a woman’s experience of life – ambition, love, parenting, adultery, mental collapse, and about the aftermath of all those things. The wife – Offill does not use names, just labels – is a thwarted Art Monster. She wanted to be devoted to her art, like Nabokov, who (apparently) never furled his own umbrella or licked his own stamps. Despite a promising beginning at being an Art Monster, she fell in love, got married and had a child. The baby is difficult and cries a lot, and grows into a strangely knowing little girl. The wife teaches and writes and fights a plague of mice and bugs in her apartment… I did not understand the mice and the bugs, I have to say. I did not understand their significance, nor the necessity to use up precious sentences describing them and the (banal) attempts to combat them.

Another thing that bothered me is the way that quotes are used in the book without any citation. There are several instances of,’What [famous person] said’: [insert quote].’ However, I cannot find any reference in the book to the source of the quotes, so that, ‘What T.S. Eliot said: When all is said and done the writer may realise that he has wasted his youth and wrecked his health for nothing’, just appears in a paragraph of its own, without any attribution whatsoever. Did Eliot write this somewhere? Did he say words to this effect? If so, where is the evidence that he wrote or said that? Presumably, he did not say those words to the author herself, so where is the proof that those are indeed his words? Who wrote the sentence,’They change their sky, not their soul, who run across the sea.’ There is no citation, so maybe Offill wrote it? No, the Latin version of those words were actually written by Horace in 62BC. There are many such instances and I do not mind admitting that each one annoyed me a LOT. If quotes from other people are included in a published work they need to be attributed to their source. I have been told this at university so many times and it surprises me that someone teaching in universities does not think it necessary to include a list of sources for the words she has ‘borrowed’. How are readers supposed to know which are her own words and which are those of other people? I hesitate to call it plagiarism, because I think it is probably more an attempt to be ‘innovative’, but using someone else’s words without acknowledgement is still using someone else’s words without acknowledgement, no matter the intention underlying the ‘borrowing’.

So, the experience of reading this book was soured for me. I mean, come on, do I have to trawl through all of Wittgenstein to find where he wrote, ‘What you say, you say in a body; you can say nothing outside of this body.’ Is this a direct quote or is she paraphrasing? Throwing lines into your work willy-nilly like this just does us all a tremendous disservice.

Initially, after finishing the book, I gave it three stars on GoodReads. However, after brooding over the above issue for a while and re-reading some passages, I removed two stars. Upon reflection, I decided that the writing is all a bit smoke and mirrors as well; it is a bit too glib and lacking in depth. I think this is the problem with a lot of MFA programme writing – it just has a too-many-cooks feeling to it.

* ‘Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.’ – Gene Fowler.

Jul 122014

It’s over a year since Molly came to live with us, or as I’m sure she likes to think of it, it’s over a year since she enslaved us.


She is now fifteen months old and is pretty much fully grown, I think. She has turned out rather well, even though on many occasions my patience has been stretched as far is as it can possibly go! People who say that Maltese X Shi Tzu dogs are stupid just don’t understand them. Molly is extremely intelligent and picks up things in a flash, but she’s the most stubborn and wilful dog I’ve ever had. There is no such thing as instant obedience with Molly. She just looks at me and does the dog equivalent of rolling her eyes, thinks about it and weighs up the consequences of not doing what I want her to, and then, if she thinks she has no other option, she obeys. It took me a while to figure out that this is just the way she is, and I need to accept it and live with it.

We get along well and she’s my shadow when I’m at home. She likes watching DVDs with me, especially when there are planes and birds, and I’ve only heard her bark a few times so far. She’s the weirdest little dog imaginable and I have no clue how I ended up with a fluffy white dog, but Molly has brought us a lot of joy. She’s so happy all the time and is the best teacher I could have. She and Mr V have a real mutual admiration thing happening: he is so soft and tender with her and I can see now how he might have been with children, which is something I’ve always wondered about. It’s endearing to see a hard man display such soft feelings for something small and cute like Molly. Awww.


Of course, having Molly live with us also means that Molly’s hair lives with us, and oh my, what a lot of work that is. I spend at least 30 minutes every day grooming her, which includes brushing her teeth – most surprisingly she sits still and tolerates it – and then there’s the ongoing process of keeping her hair at a reasonable length. I clip her myself with scissors and it takes HOURS to make a half-decent job of it. I could probably save myself the trouble and get her clipped professionally, but I don’t altogether trust groomers to be kind to her. When she was a pup she used to put up such a fight against even being touched by a comb and I never thought she would get to the stage where she tolerates me handling her all over. As I said, my patience has been stretched on many occasions, but persistence and consistency have paid off. She knows all the usual obedience stuff and is very well-behaved most of the time. She gets along alright with the mean old cat, although he gives her a whack around the ears occasionally if he’s in the mood. She’s much faster than the cat, so although he did want to kill her when she first invaded his territory, he puts up with her now. Molly loves it when he chases her around the house, and I think the cat secretly enjoys himself, too. He has really slowed down over the past few months, and seeing as how he’s nearly sixteen, I guess he’s not going to be around for too many more winters. I don’t know how Molly would go with a little kitten – she’s got a terrier’s instinct to chase and shake things – so I have no plans to get another cat any time soon. Famous last words!

Although it meant several months of waking up every two hours to take Molly outside for a pee, the ghastliness of her having a grass seed stuck up her nose and having to be operated on to retrieve it, the interminable puppy play-biting, the chewing of EVERYTHING, the disciplining and training and ALL the money I’ve spent on her, I think that the decision to exchange a wad of cash for her was probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

I also credit Molly with keeping me half-sane while I was tapering off the medication, and giving me something to get out of bed for in the mornings. The way I see it, I made a commitment to look after her, and so I do. And, as I said, she’s an excellent teacher: I have learnt a lot from her about living in the moment, accepting people, and spreading the love.

Jul 112014

Hitler’s English Girlfriend: The Story of Unity Mitford, David Rehak, Amberley, 2012.

**Sorry for another negative post. I seem to have encountered some lemons lately.

I found Hitler’s English Girlfriend in the biography section at the library and thought the title was very strange, but being a die-hard Mitford tragic, I decided to borrow the book and give it a whirl. How bad could it be?

The answer to that question turns out to be, ‘VERY, VERY bad.’ It is so bad, in fact, that I laughed myself sick on several occasions. It is SO BAD that I could not tear my eyes away from the page, because, oh dear, the level of badness just kept increasing. It is actually SO VERY BAD that it is almost ‘good’, in a postmodern, farcical kind of way. The sad thing, though, is that I think readers are supposed to take this book seriously and believe that it is a ‘creative non-fiction’ treatment of Unity Mitford’s life. So, as I see it, there is a big problem involved with having this total load of cobblers floating about in the universe and appearing unexpectedly on library shelves. Although I would not usually write anything about a book such as this, I feel that I need to, just in case anyone else reads it and takes it seriously.

Unity Mitford was indeed fascinated by, and obsessed with, Hitler. This does not necessarily make her an evil woman, because a great many English aristocrats were Hitler supporters in the years leading up to World War II. Although casual anti-Semitism become dangerously virulent in Germany, I doubt many British people guessed that Hitler and his crew of psychopaths would actually follow through with their rhetoric and commit wide-spread genocide. I think that Unity Mitford was totally misguided and probably more than a bit stupid, however, I do not think she deserves to be treated in the completely simplistic and superficial way as she is in this fictional account of her life.

The Mitfords had an interesting family dynamic – the sisters were extremely strong personalities and had complex and intense relationships with one another. Unity and Jessica, who formed a clique within the family, ended up holding completely opposite political viewpoints: Jessica became a communist and Unity a fascist – and I cannot help but think that their childhood relationship had a lot to do with the way in which they both adhered so strongly to their chosen positions. In addition to this childhood rivalry, Diana, the most beautiful Mitford sister, ended up chucking over her rich and safe husband and throwing in her lot with Oswald Mosely, so what a coup it would have been for Unity, who was attractive but not startlingly beautiful like Diana, if she could garner the special attention of Hitler himself. I think that Unity was probably fairly naive and had no clue what she was getting herself into. I think she was like a child showing off to her family – look at me, look at me – and although Hitler was taken with Unity’s Aryan good looks and her upper-echelon family connections, she was never his ‘girlfriend’.

Besides the fallacious re-telling of Unity’s story, the writing itself made me laugh out loud:

The Mitfords lived in a huge and imposing stone country mansion called Asthall Manor, next to the church graveyard. There were also a number of farms about the place.

Jessica and unity, two little girls in puberty, strolling, running, and dancing among the churchyard tombs – picture it.

A farmer came around the corner of the church carrying a cute baby lamb folded in his arms.
‘She’s lovely!’ exclaimed Jessica.
The farmer smiled. ‘I’ll let you have her if you like,’ he said.
‘Oh will you? Oh that’s grand! Thank you, thank you!’
‘Her name’s Miranda,’ said the farmer.
Unity stared on with envious eyes. Why should she get it and not me? she thought to herself. Her eyes were normally a sparkling bright blue, but yes, that moment they were tinted green with envy.

The very next day, Unity fell at her father’s feet in the sitting room as he was reading the newspaper, astonishing him with her plea, ‘Oh papa, I want a goat! Please let me have it, oh please do let me have it!’
She promptly got one.
She didn’t want to imitate her sister and get a lamb, so she opted for the goat instead. Perhaps in a way it was a sign of her rebelliousness, since goats are often though of as a symbol of the Devil, while the lamb symbolises Jesus Christ (pp.18-19).

Here is Unity going to a dance, after she has shot herself in the head and, only in Rehak’s imagination, miraculously recovered:

Unity was seen boarding a rowboat to head across to mainland Mull for an evening of dance with Neil the boatman.
‘My, you are a big strapping woman,’ said Neil flirtingly as Unity hopped aboard.
She laughed at his remark. ‘I’m strong too. Would you like me to row?’
Despite being a tall and clumsy and slightly brain-damaged woman, Unity put her mind to it and danced very well that night. She was in a great mood.
‘I think you Scottish people are frightfully lucky for being able to wear the kilt,’ she said to Neil with a wink as they waltzed and reeled together.
The other people there were friendly to her and it turned out to be an exceptionally fun night that she would never forget (p.151).

And here is Unity, fully repentant, of course:

Untiy’s devotion to Hitler had destroyed her life and cost her almost all her friends. Hitlerism fucked her up, and had a destructive influence on her whole life. She lived to regret it – what an error of judgement, what a waste. But by then it was too late. Mankind would not forgive her, but would a loving and forgiving God? (p.153).

OK. Unity Mitford actually incurred significant brain damage when she shot herself in the head upon learning that England and Germany were at war. She never recovered enough to dance and flirt with boatmen. No, Unity Mitford was left confused, childlike, barely able to speak, and given to exhibiting difficult behaviours. Her mother took her to live on a remote Scottish island because she and Unity’s father had separated due to their political differences, and because Lord Redesdale could not stand to see his daughter so sadly diminished.

Apart from the egregious and fanciful writing in this book, there is also stark inaccuracy, as is evidenced by this paragraph:

Lord Redesdale didn’t like his daughters’ support of Nazism and communism, but as a passive and mild-mannered individual, he left it alone. He certainly didn’t dare challenge Unity, fond father that he was (p.38).

In fact, Lord Redesdale was one of the most eccentric, irrascible and belligerent of men. His bad temper was legendary and he was far from indulgent with his children. Before the war he and the girls’ mother were supporters of fascism, and he had extreme right-wing ideas and was openly anti-Semitic. When war broke out he recanted his fascist views, but Lady Redesdale remained a Nazi sympathiser and the couple ended up separating over the issue. It seems to me that the author has taken the bare bones of Unity Mitford’s life and constructed a fantasy that is just so ridiculous that all I could do was wonder why anyone would write such utter nonsense. Perhaps it is intended as a warning to young people about the dangers of anti-Semitism, but really, the entire book is just too ridiculous. There is another book about Unity Mitford, Hitler’s Valkyrie, which is equally as ridiculous and best avoided.

Poor Unity. She was conceived in Swastika, Ontario, and her parents christened her Unity Valkyrie. Sometimes I wonder if there really is something in the notion of destiny, and at other times I think that maybe Lear was on to something when he says, ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods,
They kill us for their sport’ (King Lear Act 4, scene 1, 32–37). But, in reality, I guess that all people make unhelpful choices, and karma just gets us all in the end.