Thursday, December 31, 2009

Alfred Lord Tennyson's "Ring Out, Wild Bells": A Poem for New Year's Eve

"Ring Out, Wild Bells" (from In Memorium A.H.H)
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

While New Year's Eve is certainly a time for celebration, I have always had a greater fondness for New Year's Day. The idea of being able to make a fresh start holds enormous appeal, and a new year gives us the opportunity (at least in theory) to get rid of all of the problems and baggage from the previous year.

"Ring Out, Wild Bells" is perhaps the perfect poem to end the year. Besides calling to mind the sounds of celebration, it also reminds us the importance of ringing out the old, destructive tendencies that we have while replacing them with more benevolent behaviors and ideas.

Here's to 2010 - may it have a larger heart and a kindlier hand than the past year.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

More of My Favorite Christmas Songs (2009 Edition)

Despite my curmudgeonly ways, I love Christmas music. One of the greatest things about the iPod is that I can listen to Christmas music in public in the middle of summer without anyone looking at me strangely. Sadly, some of my most played songs on my iPod are Christmas songs. Here are a few more of my favorites:

"Joy to the World!" by The Butties

You don't think that the world needs a Beatles cover band? And that, if it should exist, it shouldn't be fronted by the guy who plays Ted on Scrubs? Just listen to this song and try not to smile.

"God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/ We Three Kings" by The Barenaked Ladies with Sarah McLachlan

I love this stripped-down mash-up of these two songs. Not only do they go together surprisingly well, but the bluesy tone taken by the singers and the musicians give it a quality that isn't often found in really good Christmas songs (usually, when Christmas songs take this route, it sounds like they are trying too hard to be cool).

"Another Christmas Song" by Stephen Colbert

No matter how many times I see the video or hear this song, I always crack up a little. Besides Colbert's manic joy, the lyrics are a delightfully metacognitive take on the commercial viability of Christmas songs. Colbert pleads with us to buy his song while including every Christmas cliche possible (sample lyric: "Chestnuts glisten on a silent night/ Sleigh bells kissin' by candlelight/ The tree is frozen, the winter's bright/ Who'd have thought the wise man looked so white?"). Genius.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Reader's Block

December is a time to prepare for the holidays, overdose on sugar, and reflect on the past year. Just taking a quick look at my blog and my LibraryThing pages, I've realized that I've been stuck in a reading rut this year. I haven't read as many books as I did last year; 2008's grand total, according to my tags at LibraryThing, was 72 books read, while 2009's is only at 59. Similarly, I haven't reviewed as many books this year on the blog. Although I know that we are supposed to focus on quality, not quantity, I feel like I'm having a bit of reader's block. This might be due, in part, to a big change in schedule (I've been reading a lot of academic texts this year for my dissertation, and I also started working with a new class), but I'm still a little bummed about it all.

Nevertheless, I'm looking forward to the Christmas break, and I'm hoping to do some more reviews in the new year. Maybe I'll even get inspired to procrastinate from my real work and knock out a review or two before the end of 2009 :)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Nostalgia Critic's Top 12 Greatest Christmas Specials

I love the Nostalgia Critic. Even though he usually seems bitter and angry in his videos, he doesn't hesitate to give credit where credit is due (even if it is somewhat grudging). He also occasionally shows his softer side, as he does in his rundown of the top 12 greatest Christmas specials. Although I don't agree with all of them (I don't love A Christmas Story and I did not find Mickey's Christmas Carol moving), he mentions a lot of lesser-known specials that are certainly worth watching. So, without further ado, here is the video:

Friday, December 4, 2009

Christmas Love Songs for the Desperate and Needy

I have a soft spot for Christmas and romance, but I have never really thought of the two as natural partners. However, judging from the Christmas movies playing on Lifetime and ABC Family and the five million holiday-themed jewelry commercials in constant rotation, most people (or, at the very least, most people in charge of movies and marketing) think that Christmas is a romantic time of year. Perhaps this association explains the numerous Christmas songs that have to do with romance.

Done well, these songs can be very touching. Unfortunately, something that songwriters and singers have yet to learn is that, when combining romance and Christmas music, it is wise to tread with caution. Individually, Christmas carols and love songs must be handled with utmost care in order to keep from becoming cloyingly sweet or completely cheesy. When put together, this combination can be more dangerous than mixing bleach and ammonia and attempting to clean your unventilated bathroom. The over-the-top emotion and unabashed pathos that often accompany Christmas and romance can lead to a perfect storm of kitsch that leaves nothing but a few strands of tinsel in its wake.

There are many versions of the romantic Christmas song, but most annoying are the Christmas love songs that revolve around the intense desire to find true love (or, at the very least, get a holiday hook up). In most of these songs, the singer (or one of the singers) is alone, and the song acts as a desperate plea for love, company, and affection. Although this sounds like it has the potential to be effective, in most cases, it is just depressing or laughable. Here are some of the worst offenders:

"Baby It's Cold Outside"

"Baby It's Cold Outside" is perhaps the creepiest songs with this theme. It is, in essence, about a guy who is trying to convince/ coerce a woman to spend some more time with him. He gets some unexpected assistance in this quest by the weather. Emphasizing the unsettling thought that this song is about sexual harassment and/ or date rape is the girl's line: "Say, what's in this drink?" Although we are probably supposed to believe that she is referring to his excellent bar tending skills, I think I can safely say that, when most people hear this line, they are thinking that he slipped roofies into her cup of eggnog.
  • Worst Versions: While no version of this song is good (or even acceptable), the worst rendition is Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey's. Nick doesn't sound horrible, but Jessica's vocals are so bad that I am convinced Nick slipped some sort of sleeping pill (rather than a date-rape drug) into her drink in order to get her to shut up. Honorable mention for the worst cover of this song goes to Rod Stewart and Dolly Parton.
"Please Come Home for Christmas"

This song needs a dose of Prozac, stat! If you take away the music (which isn't half bad), what is left is the lyrical equivalent of a drunken voice mail message. Without too many vocal theatrics, this song is bearable and fills a niche for people who must deal with breakups during the holidays. However, when the singer becomes overwrought, the song takes a decided turn for the worst.
  • Worst Version: Jon Bon Jovi, without a doubt, has the most depressing and over-the-top version of this song. While the Charles Brown original is the perfect example of how "Please Come Home for Christmas" benefits from a straightforward interpretation, Bon Jovi opts to give it the the full Celine Dion/ Whitney Houston treatment. Be certain to watch the unintentionally hilarious music video, which features Bon Jovi making out with Cindy Crawford and smelling an abandoned Santa hat.
"What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?"

At first glance, the singer sounds so utterly depressed that hating the song would be like kicking a puppy. Unlike the somewhat playful quality of "Baby It's Cold Outside" or the impassioned pleading in "Please Come Home for Christmas," the singer here seems to have abandoned all hope and sounds like he (or she) is one rejection away from doing something desperate. That said, this song seems awfully manipulative, and its blatant use of guilt to get a date on New Year's Eve makes me think that the singer isn't nearly as downtrodden as he or she tries to appear. Based on the lyrics, it is almost impossible to turn the singer down. In most cases, I can't see anyone rejecting a date request that includes the lines:
Maybe I'm crazy to suppose
I'd ever be the one you chose
Out of a thousand invitations
You'd receive

Ah, but in case I stand one little chance
Here comes the jackpot question in advance
What are you doing New Year's
New Year's Eve?
  • Worst Version: This probably has to go to the much maligned American Idol runner-up Clay Aiken. It isn't that I hate his voice, but his interpretation sounds much too cheery and smooth. Aiken emphasizes that fact that the phrase "What are you doing New Year's Eve?" is a pickup line you get from that insincere douche who's hitting on every girl at the bar. While this is more straightforward than the soulful pleading found in numerous other versions, it doesn't make the song any better.

Teaching Twilight: Should Teachers Use the Book in the Classroom?

When I attended the NCTE National Convention last month, I was very surprised at the number of breakout sessions that revolved around the idea of using Twilight in high school English classes. Most of the session descriptions noted that Twilight’s themes and literary devices could help students understand different aspects of more traditional literature. Additionally, lesson plans and articles, like this one by Jennifer Morrison, laud the series's merits.

Despite my intense dislike for the books, I wouldn’t have a problem mentioning them as a modern example certain literary themes and ideas, and I don’t want to prevent students from talking about them (if only for the hope that the students would look at the damn things critically rather than fawning over the characters).

However, while I can see teachers using Twilight to teach about the Byronic hero (or, in the case of Edward, the abusive, asshole, moronic hero) or literary allusions, I also believe that there are so many issues at hand when using these books. Beyond the horrible model that Bella presents for teenage girls and the other anti-Twilight sentiments I have already shared on this blog, here are a few more problems that could come with teaching this book to high school students:
  • Using a Twilight-heavy approach would inevitably alienate some students (not every teenager drinks the Twilight Kool-Aid). Most teenage boys (and some teenage girls) really don’t like the books, and I can’t see them getting too excited about classes completely dedicated to Twilight. While you might get some girls squeeing with delight at the fact that you mentioned Twilight in class, you will also get some kids rolling their eyes in disdain or mentally checking out so they don't have to hear more about this already overhyped book.
  • It might come off as condescending. We all know adults who try to be cool but end up being patronizing instead. Since I know that I would not be able to use Twilight on a long-term basis in my classroom without some obviously false enthusiasm (and some thinly veiled sarcasm), it is probably best that teachers who loathe this book stay away.
  • Just because they like it doesn’t mean that it’s any good. Beyond the bad prose, the ludicrous plots, and the awful, awful characters, I would have a hard time being able to use this book as any sort of model. Yes, teens love the books, and I can even see, to an extent, why they become so addicted to the series. However, history has shown that being popular and addicting does not equal being good.
  • Getting past the cult of Twilight could be very hard. Spending some time looking at this book critically could be fascinating, but some students might not be able to get past the blind adoration to acknowledge other people's genuine concerns. It is hard for many people (teenagers and adults alike) to understand and accept different views on an issue they feel passionately about and to not get overly critical or emotional when someone has a differing point of view. A quick look at the many Twilight forums and Amazon reviews shows that some of the fans do not tolerate any sort of criticism against the book, and trying to get a rationale discussion or debate about the book could lead to scary, scary places.
Please feel free to weigh in on this debate. Would you use Twilight in an average high school English classroom?