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    Sobriquet 57.4

    Monday, August 10, 2009
    Since I'm writing this in the middle of an electrical storm and I haven't much confidence in either my internet connection or my apartment's ability to keep the power on, I will keep tonight's entry brief. I looked at two essays today, only one of which really offered much for scholars interested in Elizabeth Costello. The first piece I looked at, Paulo de Medeiros's "(Re-)Constructing, (Re-)Membering Postcolonial Selves," while an interesting look at identity formation in postcolonial contexts, only mentions Elizabeth Costello in passing. The second essay, Margaret Lenta's "Coetzee and Costello: Two Artists Abroad," on the other hand, deals exclusively with Coetzee's 2003 novel. Although much of Lenta's text is given up to plot summary, the critic does raise valuable questions about the role of literature in shaping peoples' ideas and the nature of Coetzee's relationship to Costello and her various literary interlocutors.

    For tomorrow: Read.

    Works Cited

    de Meidros, Paulo. "(Re-)Constructing, (Re-)Membering Postcolonial Selves." Stories and Portraits of the Self. Eds. Helena Carvalhao Buescu and Joao Ferreira Duarte. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007. 37-49.

    Lenta, Margaret. "Coetzee and Costello: Two Artists Abroad." English in Africa 31.1 (2004): 105-120.

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    Saturday, October 11, 2008
    I'm going to try to play catch-up a bit today and discuss a few of the articles that I haven't yet mentioned.

    Over the course of the past three days, I read two essays -- Gerald Gaylard's "Disgraceful Metafiction: Intertextuality in the Postcolony" and Margot Beard's Lessons from the Dead Masters: Wordsworth and Byron in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace -- dealing with the ways in which Coetzee draws upon British Romanticism to layer, enrich, and nuance his novel. Of the two, I personally found Beard's reading to be a bit more useful for my own purposes, but Gaylard's essay is an equally strong contribution to the body of criticism surrounding Disgrace. Although Gaylard does not limit his exploration of intertextuality to Coetzee's engagement with the Romantic period, he does devote the strongest sections of his essay to its prominent place in the novel. Beard, on the other hand, uses the professional specialization in the Romantic poets she shares with David Lurie to highlight, among other things, the city-country, pastoral-urban, and simple-sophisticated binaries Coetzee invokes through David Lurie's fascination with "masters" such as the rakish Lord Byron and the almost willfully quaint William Wordsworth. Her strongest observations come when Beard addresses the critical misreadings of pastoralism in several previous studies of he novel.

    I also read Neville Smith's "Difference and J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace," an attempt to place Coetzee's novel among a growing body of fiction commenting upon the ways in which cultural and social prejudices have displaced biologically-motivated bigotry as a means of enforcing difference and maintaining positions of power over others. Smith does a wonderful job of making his case, though the essay does seem to make the same point ad infinitum. Smith also devotes a good amount of time to a survey of the critical response to Disgrace, situating his reading squarely in the center of many scholarly discussions of Coetzee's text.

    For today: see previous post.

    Works Cited

    Beard, Margot. "Lessons From the Dead Masters: Wordsworth and Byron in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace." English in Africa 34.1 (2007): 59-77.

    Gaylard, Gerald. "Disgraceful Metafiction: Intertextuality in the Postcolony." Journal of Literary Studies 21.3-4 (2005): 315-337.

    Smith, Neville. "Difference and J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace." Journal of Literary Studies 23.2 (2007): 200-216.

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    Monday, September 1, 2008
    All right. Here I am, fifteen minutes into September, still working my way through the criticism on Disgrace, a task I had initially hoped to have completed no later than 11:59 PM on August 31.

    At any rate, in between re-reading Waiting for Godot and Oryx and Crake and watching YouTube videos featuring Ralph Nader (let him in the debates, already!), I managed to read Diane Green's "'A Man's Best Friend is His Dog': Treatments of the Dog in Jane Eyre, Kate Greenville's The Idea of Perfection, J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace, and Jean Winterson's 'The 24 Hour Dog.'" Green's essay, while often interesting, strikes me as perhaps a bit too presumptive, often assuming the validity of highly metaphoric readings of particular scenes in Coetzee's novel without providing any real evidence to convince a healthily skeptical reader of such validity. Not surprisingly, given the article's title, dogs are given an uncommonly -- and often contradictory -- set of metaphoric meanings ranging from black Africans (149) to white Africans (150), Indeed, Green argues, "[a]t different times and from different perspectives the dog in this novel is symbolic of every character and race" because of "how radically the position of underdog can change" (151). While I do not find all of her arguments convincing, I do think Green provides us with a strong reading of David Lurie's character as one of diminishing value, drawing interesting parallels between the disgraced academic, post-Apartheid South African society, and the abandoned bulldog, Katy.

    For tomorrow: Read another article.

    Work Cited

    Green Diane. "'A Man's Best Friend is His Dog': Treatments of the Dog in Jane Eyre, Kate Greenville's The Idea of Perfection, J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace, and Jean Winterson's 'The 24 Hour Dog.'" English 52 (2003): 139-61.

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    Thursday, August 14, 2008
    I am pleased to report that the once-towering pile of Disgrace criticism sitting on my desk has shrunk considerably over the course of the summer. I always knew the amount of criticism on Disgrace would dwarf the amount devoted to Age of Iron, The Master of Petersburg, Elizabeth Costello, and Slow Man, but this has been an epic struggle for me. I mean, after a while, an overwhelming sense of deja vu hits you and you begin to feel as if you have already read what you're reading at the moment. Usually, when that feeling hits me, I moan and groan to myself and move on, hoping that what seems the same is actually different. Today, however, I discovered that a full three of the "unread" essays I had sitting before me were really, truly versions of essays I had already read. Indeed, while titles differed a bit and a few sentences were added here and there and a couple of phrases were reworded, the essays were, in fact, the same. Oh, I was delighted . . . I am now sixty pages further into my reading than I was earlier in the day and I didn't even have to put effort into it!

    Anyway . . .

    Of the essays I reviewed over the past couple of days that were not slightly modified versions of themselves, two (Gareth Cornwell's "Disgraceland: History and the Humanities in Frontier Country" and Ron Charles's "A Morality Tale With No Easy Answers") were articles that I had originally read several years ago when researching my first article on Disgrace, so I was not wholly unfamiliar with the terrain. At any rate, I do not hesitate to say that Gareth Cornwell stands alongside Rita Barnard as one of the Coetzee critics I most enjoy reading. His prose is extremely accessible, his foci interesting, and his research comprehensive. In "Disgraceland," Cornwell contextualizes Coetzee's novel by juxtaposing events in the book with historical accounts of Salem village and Grahamstown, highlighting several thought-provoking parallels between the relationship of the indigenous Xhosa inhabitants of the area with the European settlers and the interactions of blacks and whites in Disgrace. The essay also includes an exploration of the novel's intertextual relationship with "The Humanities in Africa," foregrounding the limitations of the values bestowed by a (romanticized) European past in contemporary South Africa.

    Charles's review, while brief, does an admirable job of highlighting many of the novel's key themes.

    Finally, the third essay that I read, Tim McIntyre's "Autobiography and Confession in Boyhood, Youth, and Disgrace," focuses primarily on Coetzee's autobiographical writing. Although he only briefly discusses the novel, McIntyre argues that Disgrace foregrounds the necessity of selfless love so painfully absent in the young John of the memoirs: "[w]hat is central to Disgrace are the same issues that are paramount to the Confessions of St. Augustine: the slow growth of love in the heart of the protagonist and the impersonal passion for truth that drives the writing" (177).

    For tomorrow: More reading.

    Works Cited

    Charles, Ron. "'A Morality Tale With No Easy Answers." The Christian Science Monitor (Boston) 10 November 1999: 20.

    Cornwell, Gareth. "Disgraceland: History and the Humanities in Frontier Country." English in Africa 30.2 (2003): 43-59.

    McIntyre, Tim. "Autobiography and Confession in Boyhood, Youth, and Disgrace." J. M. Coetzee: Critical Perspectives. Kailash C. Baral, ed. New Dehli: Pencraft International, 2008. 170-178.

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    Sunday, February 10, 2008
    Amazingly, I managed to finish today's rather hefty load of grading by early evening and finished a fascinating--seriously--essay on sexuality among older individuals (it mentions several of Coetzee's texts), all before ten pm.

    Of the three essays I've read this weekend, Thomas Walz's "Crones, Dirty Old Men, Sexy Seniors: Representations of the Sexuality of Older Persons" is, by far, the best. It says quite a bit about the state of contemporary literary criticism that the most interesting, most readable journal article I have read since I began working my way through the critical writing for my dissertation in December was written not by a literary scholar but by a gerontologist from the University of Iowa's School of Social Work. Although Walz's essay only marginally addresses Coetzee's novels, I found myself happily reading through the entire article, taking notes and reflecting upon the many acute observations the author makes regarding sex and sexuality among the aging.

    On Friday, before a night of bowling with my friends, I somehow found the energy to resist napping all afternoon and read one of the essays I was dreading the most. Now, I should emphasize that it was the subject matter (Derrida's philosophy) and not the author of the essay (Derek Attridge) that had contributed to the dread. In fact, had the essay been written by anyone other than Attridge, with whom my correspondence has been extremely cordial and whose previous articles on Coetzee have struck me as extremely solid examples of criticism, there is an exceedingly good chance that I would have skipped over the essay entirely.

    Jacques Derrida, for the uninitiated, is one of the biggest names in the pantheon of poststructuralist theorists whose collective impact on literary (and other cultural) studies effectively redefined the field between the sixties and nineties. Known as much for his radically new, post-Nietzschean, post-Heiddegerian deconstruction as for the abstruse language with which he delivered his ideas, Derrida gained legions of followers and detractors. While I can acknowledge the presence of interesting ideas and clever wordplay in Derrida's writing, I count myself among the large number of Derrida's detractors. I find his writing needlessly abstract, the bulk of his ideas mundane, and the misappropriation of his work irreversibly damaging to my field of study. Like that of Gayatri Spivak, Derrida's writing defeats itself by effectively rendering the ideas it expresses almost impossible to decipher for the vast majority of hominids. Over time, as I read through literary scholars eager to cite Writing and Difference or Margins of Philosophy, I developed an aversion to any and all criticism drawing upon Derrida's theory. So, when "Expecting the Unexpected in Coetzee's Master of Petersburg and Derrida's Recent Writing" appeared among my search results, I shuddered.

    Fortunately, Attridge is one of the few scholars out there capable of taking Derrida's philosophy, distilling it into more coherent language, and applying it to literature in a way that illuminates the fiction. I find Attridge's application of Derrida's concept of arrivant (from Aporias) to Coetzee's novel actually provides a good deal of insight into the dark sense of waiting pervading The Master of Petersburg. Furthermore, unlike some of the poststructuralist literary critics one encounters every so often, Attridge writes in clear, precise language, a trait of his for which I am particularly grateful.

    I also read over Sue Kossew's "The Anxiety of Authorship: J. M. Coetzee's The Master of Petersburg (1994) and Andre Brink's On the Contrary (1993), which, while not wholly original in scope, does provide a reasonable reading of Coetzee's novel, focusing on the creative process and the role of writing in an author's life.

    For tomorrow: Transcription.

    Works Cited

    Attridge, Derek. "Expecting the Unexpected in Coetzee's Master of Petersburg and Derrida's Recent Writing." Applying--to Derrida, eds. John Brannigan, Ruth Robbins, and Julian Wolfreyes. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996. 21-40.

    Kossew, Sue. "The Anxiety of Authorship: J. M. Coetzee's The Master of Petersburg (1994) and Andre Brink's On the Contrary (1993)." English in Africa 23.1 (1996): 67-88.

    Walz, Thomas. "Crones, Dirty Old Men, Sexy Seniors: Representations of the Sexuality of Older Persons." Journal of Aging and Identity 7.2 (2002): 99-112.

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    Tuesday, January 1, 2008
    Well, I finally got to the end of my stack of criticism on Age of Iron. The last essay I read, Michael Marais's "'Who Clipped the Hollyhocks?': J.M. Coetzee's Age of Iron and the Politics of Representation," examines, among other things, the function of South African literature and its obligation to present a truth beyond the truths presented by the apartheid-era governments. Although the essay does not seem likely to figure into my dissertation, I can say that Marais is clearly one of the better Coetzee scholars out there and, as I progress beyond Age of Iron into the author's later works, I am certain I will seek out Marais's work early on in the process.

    Since it is quite late, I will keep this entry short. Over the next few days, I will do some last minute pre-writing, reviewing notes and such, look over a few books and otherwise prepare to start the chapter on Coetzee. Finally. I am nervous about the whole thing, but I figure I have to start and see what comes of the effort. At least I'm further along today than I was a few weeks ago when I started this blog project.

    For tomorrow: Finish writing the extra-curricular essay and, if there's time, (re)read a few passages on Age of Iron in the book-length studies of Coetzee.

    Work Cited

    Marais, Michael. "'Who Clipped the Hollyhocks?': J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron and the Politics of Representation." English in Africa. 20.2 (1993): 1-24.

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    Saturday, December 22, 2007
    Okay, so I spent the early part of the day packing up my office and helping one of my coworkers move the contents of her old office to her new one, which means that I was well-neigh tuckered out by midday. To make myself feel a bit more academically productive, though, I printed out a few hundred pages of criticism from some PDF files I'd received via the university's interlibrary loan service. Still, the printing, collating, and stapling of a dozen or so critical articles hardly qualifies as the sort of work I'd hoped to accomplish today so, after a few hours of socializing, I managed to read David E. Hoegberg's "'Where is Hope': Coetzee's Rewriting of Dante in Age of Iron."

    Having already read Sheila Roberts's essay on the same topic, I must admit that I am still not wholly convinced that Coetzee based the structure of his novel, in part, around the organization of Dante's famed poem, though Hoegberg's article does make a more compelling case than Roberts's. Though he identifies the conflict between Black and White South Africans in the nineteen-eighties as an echo of the White Guelph/Black Guelph hostilities tearing through Dante's thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Florence among other analogues, it is the emphasis upon direct experience that really forms the meat of Hoegberg's article. Both Dante and Mrs. Curren, the critic argues, must undertake a journey into the Underworld (literally in the Inferno and figuratively in Age of Iron) in order to grasp the truth about the political strife afflicting their respective societies.

    Overall, Hoegberg's essay does identify a number of parallels between Coetzee's novel and Dante's poem, a good portion of which, at the very least, seem to support the critic's assertion that Coetzee may have crafted a parody--which, according to Linda Hutcheon is an "ambivilance set up between conservative repetition and revolutionary difference"--of the Inferno (77). In the end, however, Hoegberg arrives at many of the same conclusions about Coetzee's literary purposes as quite a few fellow critics, suggesting that if Coetzee did, in fact, imbue his novel with the intertextual references the critic identifies, it is only a very minor aspect of Age of Iron, and one that merely serves as one of several ways for Coetzee to comment on the individual's struggle to preserve humanity and achieve understanding in the face of violent social struggle.

    For tomorrow: Read another article and keep working on the extra-curricular writing.

    Works Cited

    Hoegberg, David E. "'Where Is Hope?': Coetzee's Rewriting of Dante in Age of Iron." English in Africa. 25.1 (1998): 27-42.

    Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms. New York: Methuen, 1985.

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    Sunday, December 16, 2007
    I'm going to keep today's entry brief because I've been up late addressing some non-dissertation work that's due tomorrow, the sort of loose ends one always finds oneself tying together at semester's end.

    In any case, I did review the four articles I assigned myself last night, which puts me in pretty good position to begin writing within a week or so...finally.

    I found Gilbert Yeoh's "Love and Indifference in J.M. Coetzee's Age of Iron" somewhat more thought-provoking than most criticism I have read regarding the novel. I also learned a new word: chiasmic, not to be confused with the equally cool "chimeric." Regardless, though I do not agree with Yeoh's almost purely negative interpretation of Mrs. Curren as a selfish, ultimately unloving woman, I do appreciate his attempts to prove the unreliability of her narration. In doing so, the author opens Coetzee's novel up to a broader range of interpretations. Additionally, in foregrounding Curren's preoccupation with literal and figurative motherhood, Yeoh rightfully invites readers to consider the metaphysical and existential importance of maternity when evaluating the relative morality of the elderly woman at the center of the novel. Furthermore, Yeoh's advocacy of Vercueil as the true hero of the novel is both refreshing and convincing.

    Both Rosemary Jolly's "Voyages in J.M. Coetzee's Novels: Narrative Conquests in Foe, Narrative Exploration in Age of Iron" and Mike Marais's "Writing With Eyes Shut: Ethics, Politics, and the Problem of the Other in the Fiction of J.M. Coetzee," on the other hand, seem to focus on many of the same issues critics regularly discuss in relation to Coetzee's fiction. Still, Jolly does identify Age of Iron as a thematic departure from Coetzee's previous work, even as she treads familiar critical ground while Marais admirably attempts to wrest Coetzee's fiction away from the postcolonial readings of Jolly and Kossew. Although neither essay seems poised to figure into my dissertation in any but the most cursory of contexts, the depth of their readings do make me question my initial evaluation of the novel as lacking universality.

    The fourth essay I read, Sheila Roberts's "'City of Man': The Appropriation of Dante's Inferno in J.M. Coetzee's Age of Iron," is an interesting specimen of good criticism taken a bit too far. Although Roberts does a nice job exploring the intertextual aspects of Age of Iron, she occasionally fails to provide adequate support for her assertions, thereby weakening what could be a very strong interpretation. Still, despite the odd unsubstantiated comment, Roberts's essay stands out as one of the better--and more sympathetic--considerations of Curren's spiritual and psychological isolation as well as a fine assessment of the mother-daughter dynamic present throughout the text. So, while some of the references to Charon and Virgil seem forced, Roberts does succeed in furthering the critical discourse surrounding two of Age of Iron's most significant themes.

    For tomorrow: Review two articles more.

    Works Cited

    Jolly, Rosemary. "Voyages in J. M. Coetzee's Novels: Narrative Conquests in Foe, Narrative Exploration in Age of Iron." Matatu: Journal for African Culture and Society. 11 (1994): 61-70.

    Marais, Mike. "Writing with Eyes Shut: Ethics, Politics, and the Problem of the Other in the Fiction of J. M. Coetzee." English in Africa. 25.1 (1998): 43-60.

    Roberts, Sheila. "'City of Man': The Appropriation of Dante's Inferno in J M Coetzee's Age of Iron." Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa. 8.1 (1996): 33-44.

    Yeoh, Gilbert. "Love and Indifference in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron." Journal of Commonwealth Literature. 38.3 (2003): 107-34.

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    Again, I find myself happy to report that this weblog project has done its job. Despite the fatigue, despite the nagging I doan wanna echoing in my mind, I did make the trek out to Ithaca and I did read two articles.

    The nice thing about the trip to Cornell today--other than the fact that their library subscribes to many of the periodicals my home library does not--is that I can now make certain lofty-sounding statements that are undeniably, if misleadingly, true. For instance:

    I worked on my doctorate at Cornell.

    Or, alternately:

    I did graduate work at Cornell.

    Granted, statements like I did graduate work at the Charlotte International Airport and I worked on my doctorate at the International House of Pancakes in Vestal, New York are also equally valid.

    I can recall visiting Cornell several years ago with my best friend and feeling absolutely miserable. Both of us had been rejected by what was, for us, the one school we most wanted to attend. Both of us had turned down the University of Chicago and other top-tier universities to take advantage of the opportunity not to go into debt by accepting a full ride from a school of lesser renown, and both of us found the grass to be considerably greener on Ithaca's side of the fence. I imagine much of my longing stemmed from the fact that I had been told, repeatedly, that a school's name matters and that a degree issued by a less well-known institution would make finding a job in an oversaturated market that much more difficult

    In any case, the impressive buildings and decidedly collegiate feel of Cornell's campus still elicits--though in a markedly duller form--that fear-tinged sense of "had I gone here, I'd get a job no problem." Still, if there's anything I learned from my thesis supervisor at the "Ivy of Canada," it is that a school's name is not nearly as important as a scholar's work, which was my reason for being in Ithaca in the first place. I decided not to dwell on the pining.

    So, I enjoyed my time at Cornell's excellent Olin Library, exploring the nooks and crannies of the venerable library and taking some satisfaction in noting that my carrel at school is much nicer than those of my peers at Cornell (is it just me, or does that scene in the film version of American Psycho when Patrick Bateman pathetically compares his business card to those of his colleagues come to mind?). Of the articles I managed to locate, I selected two to review today.

    The first, a rather brief essay called "In Pursuit of the State: Uses of the Detective Novel Form in Recent South African Fiction," examines Age of Iron alongside novels by Andre Brink and Alex La Guma and posits that Coetzee fiddles around with the conventions of detective fiction to "confound [the reader's] expectations" (29). While not terribly convincing in its assertion that any genre-specific aspect of detective fiction is actually present in the novel, Susan Thornton's article is refreshingly clear and readable and, ultimately, provides a few precious nuggets of information I may actually be able to build upon in the chapter I plan to begin later this month.

    If anything, Thornton's essay provides me with insight into two aspects of the novel's plot that I had overlooked: Vercueil, Mrs. Curren's consort, is black and Mr. Thabane, Florence's cousin, is a police informer. The latter information actually surprised me, leading me to wonder how I had been oblivious to certain--retrospectively obvious--clues while the former reminded me of a similar issue one encounters in several articles dealing with Disgrace. Although South African critics seem to take it for granted that Melanie Issacs's surname implies that she is not white, many international critics simply assumed the young woman was white, thereby missing an extremely important dimension of her and David Lurie's "affair." Here, in Age of Iron, I had envisioned Vercueil as Caucasian. Clearly, one's cultural ignorance can color what someone like myself sees in his or her mind's eye. Although the information has little bearing on my own use of the novel to discuss broader themes in Coetzee's ouevre, it is an interesting reminder that, as a reader, I must not always trust my uninterrogated interpretation of a given text, lest I overlook any number of potentially misleading subjective cultural biases.

    The second essay I read, in stark contrast to Thornton's, is one of those tediously abstruse pieces of literary criticism weighed down by unwieldy poststructuralist language. At times I felt as if Johan Geertsema was more interested in using the novel to illuminate linguistic theory than vice versa, and I found myself frustrated by the author's persistent use of theory-laden argot in lieu of equally effective, less specialized language. In the end, however, "'We Embrace to Be Embraced': Irony in an Age of Iron," despite its anfractuous prose, does provide some support for my own reading of the novel and will, in all liklihood, make an appearance in my bibliography.

    That said, it is time for bed.

    For tomorrow: Read no fewer than four articles on Age of Iron.

    Works Cited

    Geertsema, Johan. "'We Embrace To Be Embraced': Irony in an Age of Iron." English in Africa. 24.1 (1997): 89-102.

    Thornton, Susan. "In Pursuit of the State: Uses of the Detective Novel Form in Recent South African Fiction." Griot: Official Journal of the Southern Conference on Afro-American Studies, Inc. 10.2 (1992): 29-39.

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