Welcome to the blog for the Villanova English department! Visit often for updates on department events, guest speakers, faculty and student accomplishments, and reviews and musings from professors and undergraduates alike.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Book Party for Prof. Alan Drew

Main Point Books in Wayne hosted a party on May 25 in honor of the Random House publication of English professor Alan Drew's new novel Shadow Man.  Family, friends, faculty and students flocked to the party, highlighted by Prof. Drew's reading of selected passages from the novel.

Shadow Man on sale at Main Point Books.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Gaby Watson at the House of the Seven Gables

English major Gaby Watson took a little trip to Salem, Ma., this week--to visit, in her words, "my dear friends Hepzibah and Clifford"!  Gaby adds that she felt the house's "gothic energy."

Gaby at the House of the Seven Gables

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Prof. Evan Radcliffe: Unitas in Caritate Award

English professor Evan Radcliffe  has been named the first recipient of the university's newly created Unitas in Caritate Award for Outstanding Service.  Congratulations, Evan!

Dr. Evan Radcliffe with Dean Adele Lindenmeyr, Dr. Louise Russo, director, Health Professions Advising and Associate Professor, Biology, Tolle Lege Award for Outstanding Teaching (full-time) and Dr. Barbara Zimmerman, instructor, Computing Sciences, Tolle Lege Award for Outstanding Teaching (adjunct).

Monday, May 22, 2017

English Majors at Commencement

Graduating English majors played significant roles at the 2017 Commencement.  Maria McGeary was selected to give the invocation, Colin Lubner the benediction.  The speeches, in the words of one faculty member, were "lovely and complex."  Read the speeches below.

Our seniors also showed their creativity with awesome hat decorations!

Maria McGeary's Invocation:
Good morning family, friends, faculty, and distinguished guests. And to the class of 2017, congratulations!

It feels like just two days ago we were celebrating 100 days until graduation, packed into Ardmore Music Hall dancing the night away and praying that someone had made a huge mistake and done the math wrong. But no such luck, because here we all are.

Today is about looking forward. It’s about the futures we’ve all studied hard and planned for, and the parents, family, and faculty who believed we could make it to this stage. It’s about smiling for a few too many pictures and drinking enough Gatorade to make it through brunch without Grandma knowing that you were out all night. Don’t worry, Grandma, I was up all night writing this speech.

Today is also about looking back, and celebrating the last four years. In the spirit of that endeavor, I invite you all to think back to one of the first experiences we shared. No, not the awkward luau. I’m talking about ACS. Everyone walking out of here with a diploma today took the Augustine Culture Seminar. All of us too, read The Confessions of St. Augustine. Okay, maybe you didn’t read it cover to cover, but you read the important parts and skimmed the rest.

As we know, Augustine is the original wildcat, the guy who started it all way back in the years A.D. when they walked uphill both ways everywhere they went and knew a thing or two about hard work. It makes sense that graduates of an Augustinian University would be required to read his most important work. What makes a bit less sense, perhaps, is that our University is founded on the life and teachings of a man who spent his early years in the practice of advanced debauchery and related shenanigans.

Before writing this speech I went to the library to check out a copy of The Confessions, and I read it cover to cover. That’s a lie, I didn’t do that. I intended to, but I got there and it was much longer than I remembered, so I threw it back to freshman year and skimmed for the important parts.

The book certainly lives up to its title. St. Augustine was not a perfect man, and hardly on the yellow brick road to sainthood in his twenties. At one point he writes, “Lord, Grant me chastity and self-control, but please not yet.” Prior to coming to Villanova, I did not know that this was a thing that you could do, pray, Lord, give me the strength to stop doing all of the things I know I shouldn’t be, but not for, say, another five or ten years.

I also didn’t know that ‘winningest’ was an actual word in the English language. And before revisiting The Confessions a few weeks ago, I had forgotten that it was a call to “take up and read,” that led Augustine to turn the corner. He was called to indulge in philosophy and theology, to convert to Catholicism, and to spend the rest of his life inspiring others to do the same.

Over the past four years we too have changed profoundly. Not one of us seated here today is the same person who rolled down Lancaster Avenue in late August, with matching Bed Bath and Beyond towels and palpable anticipation of what was to come. Since that day we’ve changed majors, veered down different career paths. We’ve been altered by friendships, classes, and conversations. We’ve changed the lives of others through service, travel, donation, and dialogue. We’ve made mistakes too, both big and small, and we’ve overcome them.

As I considered this I realized, it makes all the sense in the world that our school is founded on the life of an imperfect man and his profound transformation. What better model for the spirit of a University like Villanova than a man who bettered himself through the pursuit of truth, unity, and love, and was courageous enough to confess it to the world in words that still resonate with us today?

Augustine’s rocky road to sainthood may not make the front page of the campus brochure, but his call, Tolle Lege, does. Is that not the same call we answered four years ago? Take up and read. Take up and learn, change, grow.

Yes, we Wildcats know about change. We also know something about climbing lampposts, and that the Radnor Police have some of the finest looking horses this side of the Schuylkill River. But we’ve learned that change, ungrounded in our past, by tradition, by memories, is dangerous. As Augustine wrote, “The higher your structure is to be, the deeper must be its foundation.” Without a foundation, we hurtle into the future without the touchstones to recall where we came from.

Long after this ceremony ends we will continue striving to become the people we want to be. Along the way we will become the people we were meant to be, and perhaps those two people will resemble each other. But the roots of who we are, are the people who raised us, the siblings, friends, professors, and mentors who bore witness to our successes and failures.
Our roots are here now, in the halls of the dorms, the steps of the church, the counters of Holy Grounds, and the bleachers of this hallowed Pavilion. Our touchstones are the books we read, the songs we sang, the people, places and ideas we fell in love with.

I am proud to have dug my roots here, with all of you. Ours is a University founded on the human capacity for remarkable change. Where all it takes is a good friend, a bone marrow match, a day of service, or 4.7 seconds and a great shot, to shake things up. And behind each of those seemingly small moments is hard work, perseverance, the support of community, and love of others. Our shared accomplishments, celebrated today, will remind us who we were as individuals, and who we became together.

Today we enter a world that is changing more rapidly than ever. The instability is terrifying, but it’s also nothing we can’t handle. Our hearts are restless, and we are ready for what comes next. The past four years with you at Villanova have been the greatest adventure. And now, class of 2017, it is time that we take up and find new lampposts to climb.

Thank you, and go Cats!

Colin Lubner's Benediction:
We’re nearly there, folks.  I’ll be brief.  Maybe.
But bear with me, okay?  For a moment.  Let me take our last few minutes together to talk about something that, by now, you’ve probably heard way too much about: change.
But let me start by talking about fire.
Terry Pratchett, who was a very wise man, once said this.  “Give a man a fire, and he’s warm for a day, but set fire to him, and he’s warm for the rest of his life.”
Terry Pratchett was also a very funny man.
A synonym, for setting afire, is to ignite.
Ignite—a verb. By the OED: To subject to the action of fire.  To heat to the point of combustion or chemical change.
To ignite: To heat.  To the point of combustion, or chemical change.
Villanova’s call-to-action, for those unaware, is to “ignite change.” Not in the short term.  Not to “ignite” for four years, then to cool off, to burn out. It is to “ignite,” period.  To ignite without period—with a beginning, perhaps, but no end. I say this because, on a day like this, it is tempting to talk about change in the past tense.  Graduation, from any institution, seems to entail a conclusion, a completeness. We have changed, the argument goes. Changed others, changed ourselves.  Now we are formed, we are forged.  Now, we may cooly reflect.
Now, we may chill.
I don’t buy that.
To be fair, though (and, confession time, parents, professors): We’ve been doing a lot of chilling, this past month.  A lot of talking.  Talk about nothing, mostly.  Talk about everything.  Something.  Something to make sense of these last four crazy years.  I’ve talked, at least, and I’ve listened.
What I have learned:
Generally, we were far poorer people our freshman years.
Generally, we were also, financially, far richer people.
I have learned how a campus might change, and change for the better.
The construction, on that middle bit, by Alumni—finished.  The parking garage—finished.
Bartley... somehow, it got even nicer.
The tunnel, to our West Campus—that’s changed.
Our American president has changed.  We have witnessed political change.
We have witnessed, in the arc-lights of the tunnel leading to our West Campus, violence.   We have also witnessed, in candlelight, union.
Villanova has changed, these four years, and the change has been deeper than mere masonry, than mere concrete.
And just as Villanova has changed, and settled into its change, so have we.  But this settling has been uneasy, incomplete. That’s the last thing I’ve learned from my chilling, my talking.  How very afraid many of us, myself included, are.
Another quote, I think, is overdue.  Mary Shelley, Frankenstein: “Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.”  It’s an appropriate  quote, for two reasons.  First is its meaning: It is a great change, graduating, and a sudden one, and difficult, in many ways, to many people here.
It is also appropriate because of Shelley’s age.  Nineteen, when she wrote that.  On a day like this, it is difficult to listen to a quote like that, and be okay with change.  To be okay with not being formed, not quite, not yet.
Change is frightening, isn’t it?
My grandfather could not be here today. That’s been a change, for me, these last few months.
When he was a boy, he and his mother lived in a tarpaper shack.  Right down the road, in fact, in Philadelphia. This shack—it was freezing in the winter, stagnant in the summer.  And he got sick of it, one day.  He was nineteen—the same age as Mary Shelley—and he changed.  He learned how to build a house.  He built his mother a house.  And he kept on changing.  He started a company that poured concrete.
His change, too, was concrete, and was deeper than concrete.
All without an education.  Without this.
He was nineteen.  And on a very literal level, he made it his job to keep people warm.
When we were nineteen, cozy and warm in Sullivan or Alumni or Fedigan, we were studying.  Chilling, when circumstances allowed it.  But mostly studying.
He was very proud of me, my grandfather.  Very impressed with my education, very impressed with this school.  He appreciated what an education is, and what it is not. An education is not a degree, a testament to what we have become.
Villanova has not made us into who we are.  What Villanova has given us is an environment in which we have become, and, more importantly, the tools to continue becoming.
He would have liked to be here today.  Very much.
But things change.
I am afraid, yes.
But mostly, I am excited. I am so, so excited.
I want no one—not one of us—to view this day as an ending.  It is an ending in other ways, yes, and an accomplishment, to be sure.  But please do not feel as if we are done becoming.  Be open to newness—within your communities, within your work.  Be open to the potential within yourself and within others.  Embrace these unfilled spaces.  Be excitable.   Excite.
I’ll quote one more person, one more time.  Neil Gaiman, who is a very wise man, once said that “the worst thing a speaker can do is go on too long.”  I agree.
To exit, then.
To excite, by the OED: To move up, stir, instigate, incite.
To excite, by the OED: To render an atom excited.
Fire, among other things, involves the excitation of atoms.
To excite, then.  Not by the OED, this time, but by Only Me: To ignite.
I am excited. I am very, very excited. You have excited me.
This school has excited me.
Villanova’s Class of 2017:
We exit.
Thank you.

Commencement 2017

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Recommended Summer 2017 Reading from English Faculty


I'd recommend Colson Whitehead, who just won the Pulitzer for The Underground Railroad.
This semester I read his zombie book, Zone One, with one class, and a selection from Sag Harbor with another, and both were successful.  He is an amazingly talented writer.


This summer I'm planning to read two recently published novels:  Lidia Yuknavitch's The Book of Joan and Omar El Akkad's American War.  Weird Fiction guru Jeff VanderMeer says of The Book of Joan, a post-apocalyptic riff on Joan of Arc, that the novel employs both "realism and fabulism . . . to "break through the white noise of a consumerist culture that tries to commodify post-apocalyptic fiction, to render it safe."  The well-received American War imagines a second Civil War that runs from the years 2074 to 2095.


Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk—a sardonic look at the Dallas Cowboys’ reception for wartime heroes.

Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone—a richly textured novel set in Ethiopia, knowingly influenced by the author’s medical background.


I’ve been recommending Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love as summer reading.  I read it over Christmas break and found it completely absorbing, if also strange, unsettling, and even somewhat repellent.  Dunn creates a family of circus freaks—Arty, who has flippers instead of limbs; Elly and Iphy, a pair of piano-playing Siamese twins; Oly, a hunchbacked albino dwarf and the novel’s principal narrator; sweet Chick, a clairvoyant with kinetic superpowers; and their parents, Al and Crystal Lil Binewski, young carnies in love who intentionally beget this genetically-modified brood to boost flagging ticket sales.  Dunn imbues these liminally human forms with altogether human psychology and domestic intimacy.  It’s one of the best-written works of fiction I’ve read in the last several years.


I'll be sitting down to this debut collection of short stories by Lesley Nneka Arimah.  The collection is getting big-time praise from big-time writers like Roxane Gay, Aimee Bender, and others.  I'm thinking a possible invite for the 2018 Villanova Literary Festival.


This summer, I will hope to get through the following:
Philip K. Dick, Ubik - always try to read at least one sci-fi novel a year
Rachel Cusk, Outline - highly rated autobiographical reflections on marriage and divorce, first of a series that has been compared to Knausgaard's My Struggle
Charles Maturin, Melmouth the Wanderer - early gothic, about a man who sells his soul to the devil and spends the next 150 years wandering the world in search of someone to release him from his pact, enough said
Marcel Proust - Within a Budding Grove (second part of In Search of Lost Time) - the Moncrieff translation, because I like my translations written as close as possible to the period the book was written because the prose of every era has its own rhythms and turns of speech


I sped through all seven of Lynn Flewelling’s Nightrunner novels, a super fun fantasy series featuring multiple plots (quest, espionage, romance, captivity, adventure) and fully realized queer characters. The series provides hours and hours of cozy diversion, yet it also has much to say about contemporary politics: its most consistent theme concerns how frauds, crooks, and megalomaniacs use xenophobia in their accumulation of power.

Another novel with unforgettable queer characters is Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. It’s a YA narrative about two teenage boys in California falling into friendship, negotiating the strain of conflicting feelings, and being as good to one another as they know how. It’s gorgeous. I cried. And I’m waiting eagerly for the sequel, which comes out either this year or early in 2018.

Unlike many in the fantasy genre, N. K. Jemisin’s intricate and extraordinary The Fifth Season (winner of the 2016 Hugo) hinges liberation not on a lone individual’s heroism, but on collective effort and community building. It’s the first in a trilogy. The second, The Obelisk Gate, is, I think, even better than the first, and the final volume, The Stone Sky, comes out August 15th.

For a book that doesn’t divert from but rather predicts the present political moment, Octavia Butler’s 1993 Parable of the Sower is chilling and prophetic. Featuring the victory of a racist presidential candidate promising, as his slogan tells us, to “Make America Great Again”; the privatization of public goods, including water; the tightening of borders; and paramilitary mobs, it’s Butler’s dystopia, at least as much as George Orwell’s 1984, that we should be turning to now for answers on where the United States may be headed.

And--finally, briefly--because I can’t help myself: I just finished Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, and, wow wow wow, it is as good as everyone says and then some.


Layli Long Soldier's WHEREAS is of the best first books of poetry I've read in a long time and among the best books I've read this year. Long Soldier is a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe. WHEREAS finds the edges where personal and collective experience meet, and uses lexicon and the language of official state documents to think about personal identity and power. If that sounds super dry--it's not, at all, but allows us to think about how the individual exists in and is defined by the collective or the institutional. There are poems about the poet's daughter, and poems about genocide, and sitting side by side, the different kinds of poems (some in prose, some lineated) start to become metaphors for each other...


I’ve read two “climate fiction” (aka cli-fi) books recently that were quite engrossing.  The first, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife, is an ultra-violent (truly! Be warned!) futuristic novel about drought and its consequences in the Desert Southwest.  The other, Jenni Fagan’s climate change novel The Sunlight Pilgrims, tells the story of a transgender girl attempting to grow up in the midst of a near-future global winter created by climate change.  While I think the novel could have done more to interconnect the two narratives thematically, it is still a compelling and timely read.  This summer, the first books on my list are Omar El Akkad’s new, critically-acclaimed apocalyptic novel, American War, and Charles Brockden Brown’s 1799 novel Arthur Mervyn, which is set during a yellow fever outbreak in Philadelphia in 1793.


Along with the rest of you, this summer I’ll be reading Shadow Man by the great American novelist Alan Drew.

I’d also like to recommend two very recent books of poetry (first collections for both poets):

The first is Portrait of the Alcoholic, by Kaveh Akbar. The poems in this book know what it feels like to desire boundless possibility (“If you / could be anything in the world // you would”), and yet remain determined to discover poetry in the world as it is (“It all just means so intensely: bones / on the beach, calls from the bushes, / the scent of edible flowers / floating in from the horizon”). I love this poet.

The other is Whereas, by Layli Long Soldier. Her book’s title borrows from the language of the American government’s 2009 “Apology to the Native Peoples of the United States”; the book itself attends to the insufficiency of such official speech and is always finding ways out, into truths for which our history has had no place: “Things are circling back again. / Sometimes, when in a circle, if I wish to exit, I must leap.” This is an important and beautiful book.


My summer readings choices: 
Mark Doty, The Art of Description (amazing book on reading poetry; every poem he talks about is worth reading again).
Wendy Lesser, Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books (it's sheer pleasure to read about her pleasure in books; and there is a reading list in the back that includes some of my favorites: Austen, James, Cather, Faulkner, Forster, Bishop, Dickinson, etc.).
Rebecca Read, My Life in Middlemarch (a book about one writer's love of a book and how particular moments in her life intersected with particular moments in Eliot's Middlemarch. Of course, then you'll want to read or reread Middlemarch!).
Henry James, The Golden Bowl (Read ANYTHING and everything by Henry James, and then read it again).
The New York Stories of Edith Wharton (ed. Roxana Robinson: this collection is wonderful. You'll want to read it straight through for Wharton's balance of keen social criticism and tenderness toward her characters. The introduction is also wonderful!)
Louise Gluck, The Wild Iris (this book is beautiful poetry, austere and moving and the arc of the book, the way all of the poems fit together, is exquisite).


One of my favorite books is Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather.  Based on the true lives of two French missionaries to the American Southwest, it celebrates friendship, faith, art and how various cultures affect each other.  I never tire of its simplicity and power.


I recommend Louise Erdrich’s LaRose, which I just finished reading. It is a beautiful and sometimes heart-breaking novel that tells the story of two families as they confront unspeakable loss. Like most of Erdrich’s fiction, it is an expansive story. While the majority of the novel takes place in the early 2000s, the history of boarding schools and Indian Adoption Project haunt its pages. 


Libra by Don DeLillo 
Who assassinated JFK?  DeLillo embraces fiction to address one of the greatest controversies in American History.  From the point of view of CIA operatives and Oswald himself, we explore the forces and scenarios that "might" have culminated in the death one of America's beloved leaders and the "setup" of one of history's most notorious assassins.


Yay to summer reading!  I’m looking forward to reading Swingtime by Zadie Smith, Alan Drew’s new novel, of course, and then re-reading Ulysses before teaching it in the fall!


I’ve enjoyed a number of Richard Russo’s novels as well as his memoir, but I’ve never read Empire Falls, which is probably his best-known book.  So it’s on my list for this summer.  Russo is noted in part for his unsentimental portraits of small-town American life; Empire Falls, set in Maine, is one of them.  The novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2002 (and was then adapted for HBO).


Sweet Lamb of Heaven by Lydia Millet
This book just came out in paperback, and I haven’t finished it yet, but I’ve read enough to report that it’s a perfect summer book if you like suspenseful page-turners. It was long-listed for the National Book Award and a finalist for the Pulitzer. It starts off with a pregnant wife whose husband does not want the child. After the baby is born, the woman has unexplained auditory hallucinations and the husband moves out of the house. Once she moves out of town, however, he starts hunting her down. The plot feels dangerous and strange but also literary.

The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman
If you love language, nature, and science, you’ll be fascinated by this examination of birds’ intelligence. For example, chickadees have “one of the most sophisticated and exacting systems of communication of any land animal,” with a syntax so powerful that they can let other chickadees know where they are, where food is located, and what predators are near, including how big and how dangerous those enemies are. (FYI, they don’t worry much about humans.) When Thomas Jefferson was tired, his pet mockingbird soothed him to sleep by singing human tunes that were popular at the time. Like this year’s One Book Villanova, The Genius of Birds shows that human intelligence is different from, but not superior to, that of other animals.


I fell hard this semester for Andrea Levy's Small Island (2004). It's a novel about Jamaican immigrants in London during and after WW II (and my London students told me it's been made into a popular miniseries in the UK). The novel moves its point of view around among characters in ways that draw readers into one worldview, then suddenly leaves us reevaluating what we thought we knew. I find it such an absorbing read that only after I close it do I notice the finely crafted structure - the interrogation of relationships between family and state politics, the beautiful symmetries and figurative arguments that play under the surface. 

Check out last year's recommendations!

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Awards Ceremony 2017

Medallion of Excellence winner Stephen Purcell
Newly corded English majors!

Bella Burda (fall 2016 Eng 1975 essay prize winner), Prof. Cathy Staples (teacher of the two winners), Elizabeth Johnson (fall 2016 Eng 1975 honorable mention)