Nerd of the Month: January 2016

Meet Trevor Stankiewicz, J.D. Salinger and Taylor Swift aficionado, actor, playwright, Stanford Program Assistant, and our first Nerd of the Month of 2016!

TrevorMicName: Trevor Stankiewicz or Tree Stank

Current life status: I just graduated from Cornell and I am currently living in Brooklyn, NY! I wrote a play about the genocide in Darfur, and it was just produced off-Broadway at The Cherry Lane Theater. In February, I’ll be traveling to Sudan and Ethiopia to perform the play as well. (To learn more about The Darfur Compromised or to help them fund their projects abroad, visit their crowdfunding page.)

Relationship to Great Books: Stanford PA in the glorious summer of 2015

Nerdy fun fact: I won the Continental Math League Award for the State of New Jersey when I was in 3rd grade. I peaked too early.

Nerdiest attribute: I think I have very nerdy hands. I’m not quite sure what I mean by that, but it is my answer.

Favorite book: Franny and Zooey!

Currently reading: American Gods by Neil Gaiman. I also just finished A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, and since I’m only like 50 pages into American Gods, I currently feel much more connected to A Monster Calls. So this is my way to answer honestly but also throw some nerd love to Patrick Ness. Not that he needs or wants it.

Languages spoken: I speak Old English, and my focus at Cornell was actually Medieval Studies. This has less to do with my interest in Medieval Studies and more to do with a crush I had on a Medieval Studies graduate student.

First fictional crush: My gut is saying Holly Golightly, but that might be more an Audrey Hepburn thing. Can I pick Audrey Hepburn? I know she’s not fictional, but she died like a month after I was born.

Which author would you want to write your story?: Stephen King, for sure. You either get a crazy horror story, or he goes Shawshank or Green Mile with it, and Frank Darabont makes it into a beautiful movie. Starring Tom Hanks as Trevor Stankiewicz.

Hardcover or paperback?: It’s all about that paperback life. Maybe it’s because I’m an irresponsible 20 year old and can’t be trusted with nice things, but my books need to be mobile. Also, my favorite place to read is on the beach, and I’m just not ready to expose my hardcover books to the harsh salty air that sea life exudes.

TrevorTheaterIf you were building the perfect literary debate team, which three authors would you nominate for your team?: My first pick would be Harper Lee because she created Atticus Finch, who upon second thought might be my actual first fictional crush. My second pick would be J.D. Salinger because Zooey is one of the best debaters and most critical characters I’ve ever experienced in literature. Rounding out the team would be Dr. Seuss as a wildcard.

What’s the best point of view for narration (first-person, omniscient, second person plural, etc.)?: My favorite narrator would be Lemony Snicket in his Series of Unfortunate Events, and he uses omniscient. The omniscient narrator, especially that omniscient narrator, creates such a great opportunity for comedy and irony between the reader and the characters.

What question would you like to ask future Nerds of the Month?: Who is the most misunderstood character in literature?

 

A Literary Tour of Oxford

During our past three summers at the University of Oxford, we’ve loved getting to know this amazing little city with all its hidden treasures. It seems that everywhere you turn in Oxford, you’ve stumbled upon another piece of literary history. As we get excited for summer number 4 at Oxford’s Somerville College, here is a list of some of our favorite literary sites (and accompanying literature) to visit every year.

Christ Church College

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The quad at Christ Church College.

Although each of Oxford’s 38 constituent colleges is a sight to see, Christ Church is one of the most literary. It’s where Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) first met the Dean of the College’s daughter, Alice Liddell, who became the inspiration for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This is an especially exciting visit for Alice fans during the 150th anniversary of Carroll’s most beloved novel.

As if that were not enough literary history for one place, Christ Church College was used to recreate the iconic Hogwarts staircase and dining hall in the Harry Potter films.

Accompanying reading material: The Story of Alice by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

Alice’s Shop and Café Loco

CafeLoco

GB Oxford students enjoying an Alice in Wonderland cream tea at Cafe Loco.

Right across from Christ Church College are two shops dedicated to all things Alice, also especially suitable during the 150th anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The first, Alice’s Shop, was the inspiration of the Sheep’s Shop that Alice visits in Through the Looking Glass. Today, this shop is dedicated to all thing Alice, where one can find everything from Alice-themed toys and books to tea towels and jewelry.

Next door is Café Loco, an Alice in Wonderland themed tea shop where you can immerse yourself in a traditional cream tea with a Mad Hatter twist.

Accompanying reading material: Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

New College

If you walk fifteen minutes north of Christ Church College, you’ll come across New College, another of the constituent colleges used in the Harry Potter movies. Our favorite spot at New College is the cloisters, which are beautiful on their own, and even more exciting when you realize you’re standing by the very tree where Mad Eye Moody turns Malfoy into a ferret in The Goblet of Fire.

Cloisters

The cloisters at New College, where scenes from Harry Potter were filmed.

The Eagle & Child Pub

eagle_childA little further north, this public house was a frequent meeting place for the Inklings, a group of Oxford dons which most notably included J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis, of Lord of the Rings and Narnia fame, respectively. Known locally as “the Bird and the Baby,” the Eagle and Child is a great place to stop for sustenance, literary inspiration, and a pint (if you’re old enough). We recommend the Cheddar, Potato and Spinach Pie.

Accompanying reading material: The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip and Carol Zaleski

Wolvercote Cemetery

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GB Oxford students pay homage to Tolkien at Wolvercote Cemetery.

Wolvercote Cemetery is a ten-minute bus ride from downtown, and we found the bus ride to be almost as much fun as the visit—most of us had never ridden on the top level of a double-decker bus before!

The key site on this visit is J.R.R. Tolkein’s grave. He and his wife are buried under a rose garden plot bearing a headstone labeled “Luthien” and “Beren.” Hard core Lord of the Rings fans will remember the story of Beren, a mortal man, and Luthien, his immortal elf-maiden wife who chooses mortality for her love. It’s a very touching detail, and like any good literary pilgrimage spot, it’s a good place to meet fellow lovers of Tolkein’s works and share in a dedicated reading of The Hobbit.

Also buried at Wolvercote are numerous Oxford scholars, including Sir Isaiah Berlin, a philosopher who is frequently featured in our Great Books curriculum.

Accompanying reading material: The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkein

Blackwell’s Bookshop

Blackwell’s is a required destination for any bibliophile. The shop’s small façade belies the absolute mountains of books hidden beneath it. A visit to Blackwell’s starts out normally enough: you enter the first floor of what looks like a perfectly normal bookstore.

Blackwell_bookstore

Blackwell’s misleadingly small storefront

Then you turn a corner, and find a staircase. At the end, a gigantic room of books…and another staircase. It’s hard to find the end of this amazing bookstore. Blackwell’s has its own art shop, a cartography room, an entire print music store, and more book-loving gifts and memorabilia than you are likely to find anywhere else.

Blackwell2

Not nearly all the books inside Blackwell’s.

Accompanying reading material: Literally anything you can or cannot imagine.

Are you interested in visiting these amazing sites of English literary history? Join us at Oxford for an unforgettable summer of literature and travel.

Nerd of the Month: December 2015

Meet Anna; writer, poet, interpretive tambourine dancer, veteran Stanford camper, Taylor Swift’s biggest fan, and our final Nerd of the Month of 2015!

Name: Anna Rose KoppelmanAnnaMic

Current life status: I live in New York City and I go to the Calhoun School. I am currently using these questions to procrastinate from homework while marathoning Scandal (I’m a real multitasker). I also write blog posts sometimes.

What kind of music do you listen to when you study?: Taylor Swift—always Taylor Swift.

Relationship to Great Books: I have been a camper for the last two years at Stanford. I plan on never leaving Great Books like even after I become a PA.

Nerdy fun fact: If you give me a topic I can do really bad free style slam poetry.

Nerdiest attribute: Sometimes after a joke I push up my chunky black glasses to make a point.

AnnaLily

Anna with her friend Lilli at Great Books Stanford.

Favorite book: The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I keep the quote: “There’s nothing like deep breaths after laughing that hard. Nothing in the world like a sore stomach for the right reasons,” above my bed surrounded by a bunch of pictures of Great Books people. No matter the mood I’m in I always seem to find a quote from the book that matches my feelings. There’s another quote in the book: “It’s strange because sometimes, I read a book, and I think I am the people in the book.” I am always able to find myself in the pages of Perks. I have read it over 10 times every time I read it I learn something new about myself.

Currently reading: I am currently on page 34 of Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance.

Favorite word: Plethora. There is a plethora of words I could go with here (see what I did there) but I chose plethora because once I used the word on a date and the boy described me to his friends as “the kinda girl that uses the word plethora in a sentence.” I don’t know what kind of girl that is but I am very happy to be one.

Least favorite word: Caress— No exciting story here it just creeps me out to the highest extent.

First fictional crush: I used to have a pretty big things for George in Arthur, but then I was won over by Binky whose bad boy qualities got me very intrigued. Later I would settle for Buster’s kind personality. If I was part of the Arthur series there would definitely be a problem with me trying to date everyone in the friend group. (Side note: Am I the only Stanford person who thinks Noah Rosenblum is a little bit like Mr. Ratburn?)

AnnaSarahKay

Anna with her poetry idol, Sarah Kay, during a Guest Speaker talk at Stanford.

Which author would you want to write your story?: This is nearly and impossible question. Either Mindy Kaling or Stephen Chbosky…if Sarah Kay would like to write a book of poems on my life that would be ideal.

Hardcover or paperback?: It depends. I feel like people assume you are reading something with way more importance when it’s hard cover. However there is something to be said for the humble brag of reading Proust’s Search of Lost Time in paperback.

December Bookshelf: Books to Give and Get this Holiday Season

We at GBHQ know that books make the best gifts, because between the pages of each present is an entire world waiting to be unfurled.  Here are our top recommendations for all the readers on your holiday shopping list this year.

The Marvels by Brian SelznickMarvels_Standing
Brian Selznick’s newest novel perfects the form he popularized in The Invention of Hugo Cabret.  The Marvels tells two related stories back to back: the first, told entirely in Selznick’s beautiful drawings, chronicles generations of the Marvels, a family of Shakespearean actors living in London.  The second story, written in prose, tells the story of a young runaway, Joseph, his mysterious uncle Albert and the secrets of his London home.  As the secrets of the house begin to reveal themselves, Joseph learns “Aut visum aut non” (“You either see it or you don’t”) as the juxtaposed stories begin to converge.

This is an engaging story for readers of all ages, especially for Shakespeare enthusiasts, and the book’s gilt pages and quality illustrations make it a beautiful gift in and of itself.

Atwood_HeartGoesLastThe Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood just released a new book in September, and fans of such Atwood classics as The Handmaid’s Tale are so excited.  This book is a great gift for fans of science fiction, particular speculative fiction, the form Atwood has perfected, in which she imagines a world just a little bit past our own, where dystopian inevitabilities have become realities.  This latest novel deals with a near future in which the prison industrial complex has become the primary economy, and where families may choose to voluntarily imprison themselves for half the year in a twisted suburban timeshare scenario.

Don Quixote: 400th Anniversary Edition by Miguel de CervantesRestless_quixote
Give the classics lover in your life a new take on one of the most popular novels in literary history.  This new edition, by international publisher Restless Books, includes original artwork, a video teaching series, an exclusive online discussion forum, and a new introduction by Great Books co-founder and Academic Director Ilan Stavans.

Twain and Stanley Enter Paradise by Oscar HijuolesTwainStanleyParadise
Pulitzer Prize winning author Oscar Hijuoles was fascinated by the friendship between Mark Twain and Sir Henry Morton Stanley (the journalist and explorer famous for the line “Doctor Livingstone, I presume?”).  Although Twain has endured far more in the contemporary American imagination, at the time he said of his friend Stanley, “When I contrast what I have achieved in my measurably brief life with what [Stanley] has achieved in his possibly briefer one, the effect is to sweep utterly away the ten-story edifice of my own self-appreciation and leave nothing behind but the cellar” (from an 1886 introductory speech).  Hijuoles was fascinated by the friendship of these two giants of American culture, and was working on the book right until his death in 2013—the novel was just published posthumously in November 2015.  Its epic, decades-spanning scope, as well as cameos from the era’s literary luminaries from Bram Stoker to Arthur Conan Doyle, makes Twain and Stanley Enter Paradise a great gift for historical novel buffs, especially those with a love of Victorian literary history and adventure stories.

Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself by Walt Whitman and Allen Crawford
Sometimes, the best gift for a classics lover is one of their favorite books with a new twist.  We recommend Whitman Illuminated, which takes one of his most beloved poems and illustrates it across 234 pages—like monkish manuscripts, with a modern twist.

WhitmanIllustration

Each of the beautiful pages in this book is a gift in and of itself, and you can buy many of Crawford’s prints, if you’d prefer to hang one on your wall.

A Poem for the Holidays

As you gather with family and friends for this holiday weekend, consider reading and discussing this poem together. A GBSP favorite from us to you:

Those Winter Sundays

Robert Hayden, 19131980
Sundays too my father got up early 
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold, 
then with cracked hands that ached 
from labor in the weekday weather made 
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him. 

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking. 
When the rooms were warm, he’d call, 
and slowly I would rise and dress, 
fearing the chronic angers of that house, 

Speaking indifferently to him, 
who had driven out the cold 
and polished my good shoes as well. 
What did I know, what did I know 
of love’s austere and lonely offices? 


Nerd of the Month: November Bonus

We are so thankful to all the amazing nerds that make our Great Books community wonderful. Thus, for American Thanksgiving, we are offering a special BONUS Nerd of the Month to thank all our nerds! Meet Rosy, community activist, veteran Stanford Program Assistant, sunscreen’s biggest fan, and November’s bonus Nerd of the Month!

Name: Rosy CapronRosyHeadshot

Current life status: I graduated from Wesleyan University in 2014 and am currently working at the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford. Recently, I committed to spending more of my time outside of work reading. I picked up some nasty habits in college, namely that of jumping to criticisms and comparisons, rather than just immersing myself in a narrative. So I’m learning to read, and I’ve started tutoring youngins at the Boys and Girls Club.

Relationship to Great Books: Stanford PA in 2014 and Lead PA in 2015! 

Nerdiest attribute: I suppose it’s my tendency to relate what I’m seeing and doing to concepts in social theory. How do open source and the “sharing economy” each affect the ownership of the means of production? What would John Stuart Mill have to say about affordable housing policy?  Applying knowledge to the world is basically the purpose of an education, but I’ll cite this as a “nerdy attribute,” since it makes for either fun or dreadful conversation, depending on the company.

RosyPitch

Rosy and fellow PA Elle tell the Stanford Program (creepily, in unison) about dystopias.

Favorite book: The Martian Chronicles and The Bluest Eye have stuck with me for years, and I wished that The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay would never end.

Currently reading: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

Favorite word: Spooky.

Least favorite: French words and phrases used in English. My clunky Midwestern mouth can’t handle it.

Which nerd in history would you most like to have a late brunch with?: A late brunch with the author and activist Jane Jacobs, preceded by coffee with the (in)famous urban planner Robert Moses. The political drama that unfurled between them was fascinating, but I’d really just want to hear some life lessons. Jacobs was an autodidact, community organizer, and mother. Moses was a visionary, relentless in his pursuit of power. They might have a lot to say about success and social change.

Which author would you want to write your story?: Someone who’s popular but not too well respected, like Dan Brown. The book would be widely read but never accepted into the Great Books canon, to be ravaged by the critical eyes of our young scholars. It could also be turned into a film where I’m portrayed by someone famous and handsome like Helen Mirren or Shia LaBeouf. Maybe I’d have a cameo as a cashier.

RosySpongebobs

Rosy and her crew at Stanford.

Hardcover or paperback?: Paperback! Tucks into a purse more easily.

What’s the best point of view for narration?: Of course Piers Gelly asked this question. Omniscient narration makes it easy to appreciate difficult characters whose personality flaws might otherwise obscure their motives. But reading isn’t always supposed to be easy! First-person narration challenges us to crawl into other people’s heads. Haruki Murakami makes me uncomfortable because his characters are so cold and emotionally stunted and I want to run far, far away from them, not reside in their brains.

GBSP Bookshelf: National Book Award Nominees, 2015

Last year, I fell so in love with one of the National Book Award fiction nominees that I decided to read all five contenders, simply to prove that my favorite deserved the win. While this didn’t exactly work out in my favor, I’ve decided to make my November reading challenge a tradition. I’ll admit that because I wasn’t trying to prove a point this year, my reading wasn’t as enthusiastic or driven as it was in 2014. However, I do appreciate the opportunity to read some really excellent, contemporary literature every year, some of which would otherwise never cross my path. So, once again, since you probably don’t have time to read five books before the National Book Awards tonight, here are my reviews.

Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson
ajohnson_fortunesmilesI always have difficulty reading collections of short fiction, so I was dismayed to see that there were two short story collections among the five fiction nominees this year. I have trouble keeping track of point of view shifts when I’m trying to read quickly, and this makes me try and find coherence among stories that are not necessarily connected. This was certainly my struggle with Fortune Smiles, which tells stories as diverse as: a Silicone Valley tech developer and his recently paralyzed wife; a UPS driver in Louisiana in the aftermath of two devastating hurricanes; a breast cancer patient and her author husband; a pedophile computer programmer and the children he cares for; a former Stasi prison guard who denies the injustices of his past; and a pair of North Korean defectors trying to adapt to life in Seoul.

It is absolutely refreshing to read a book that attempts to capture such very different voices and perspectives within its pages. I recommend taking more than a single night to read this book, as each stories stands alone, and deserves to (the exception being “Dark Meadow,” the story about the pedophile which we learn is the creation of the breast cancer patient’s husband in the story “Interesting Facts”).

My favorite story was the first in the collection, “Nirvana,” in which a man grapples both with his wife’s rare disease and the recent assassination of the American President by programming a digital holographic projection of the President. The main character, and ultimately, everyone he sees, uses the President as a vessel for their problems and solutions, and I could have read an entire novel that took place in this world.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
hyanagihara_littlelifeThis 736-page novel, also short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, is a daunting masterpiece. It follows four college roommates—JB the artist, Willem the actor, Malcolm the architect, and Jude the lawyer—as they grow, struggle, and become successful in their fields. At first, I despaired; I did not have the patience to read the struggle-until-you-make-it stories of four privileged men in New York City for more than 700 pages. Thankfully, the focus of this novel shifts primarily to Jude, the friend whose mysterious past separates him from the others, and which they sometimes resent. Over the course of the novel, we follow Jude into the secrets of his past while watching their ramifications unfold in his present.

This novel was beautiful, and intimate, and I am still thinking about the characters. It should be noted that its realistic, honest portrayals venture into realms of trauma that are painful, and at times might be triggering to readers. I don’t know how the Man Booker nomination will affect the decisions of the National Book judges, but this novel is my pick based purely on the immersive reading experience.

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy
aflournoy_turnerhouseThis novel tells the story of the Turner family, their thirteen children, and their house in Detroit. It jumps back and forth in time, between the Turners’ initial migration from Arkansas to Detroit in the 1940s, and their children’s present-day personal struggles. Most compelling among these is the eldest son, Cha-Cha’s, haunting by a “haint” as he tries to keep his family together through a period of change. The changes within the family are clearly mirrored by the changes to their neighborhood in Detroit.

Mostly, I wish this novel were longer. With the exception of those brief glimpses into the past, the matriarch and patriarch’s characters are developed through the eyes of their thirteen children. While this is perhaps an accurate portrayal of family history and collective memory, I really wanted to hear more from Viola and Francis Turner—especially Viola—as they transitioned to their new lives in Detroit. I also wanted to understand more about Cha-Cha, and formerly his father’s, “haint.” It was easy to care about these characters, and I would have enjoyed learning much more about them.

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
lgroff_fatesandfuriesThis book is probably the most popular of the five nominees, so I was confused by how little I was enjoying the first half of the book. It tells the story of a young married couple, Mathilde and Lotto (short for Lancelot, of course) as they struggle to come into their own as artists and lovers. The first half of the book, “Fates,” is from Lotto’s perspective, and I did not enjoy reading about this vapid actor/playwright who barely acknowledges his wife within his narrative. As I have already mentioned, I have very little patience for the struggles of the artistic bourgeoisie.

I understood the book’s hype by the second half of the novel, “Furies,” which is told from Mathilde’s much darker and more interesting perspective. Here we see that where Lotto fondly remembers their bohemian poverty in their first New York apartment, Mathilde remembers skipping meals in order to pay the bills. Throughout, themes of Greek tragedy pervade, including interjections into the narrative by a sort of Greek chorus in parentheses. This device is clever, and serves to unify the two disparate narratives in a satisfying way.

Refund by Karen Bender    
kbender_refundThis is another short story collection, which, again, I have difficulty reading even when I’m not rushing through self-imposed reading challenges. I therefore appreciated that this collection of short stories was unified around the theme of money; all of the characters are motivated by needing, wanting, getting, and having money. Karen Bender is excellent at rendering relationships between characters, whether the wealthy grandfather and his estranged granddaughter, the husband and wife in debt, or the woman grieving the sudden death of her friend. I also really enjoyed Bender’s writing style; it’s simple, but beautiful in that way that addresses universal concepts in ways you’ve never thought about before. I kept finding myself highlighting phrases and thinking, “huh, I’ve never thought about competition between siblings like that before, but you’re absolutely right.” While I did appreciate a unifying theme to tie the stories together, I felt that the characters portrayed were less diverse and uniquely interesting than those from Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles.

The verdict: A Little Life ought to win for its beautiful scope and intimacy with its characters. The Turner House will win for telling the story of a place as much as a family, especially because Detroit stands out among a pool of novels that take place in New York and the San Francisco Bay Area. Fortune Smiles will win for its creative diversity of perspectives. All are absolutely worth reading, no matter which one the judges pick tonight.