About Grace @ Cultural Life

Hey there, I'm Grace. I blog at culturallife.wordpress.com, about things that I love. Academia, language, books, music, movies, food, cooking....

Joy Williams — Venus

The journey that led to the release of Joy Williams’s new album, Venus, was an eventful one, marked by the separation of The Civil Wars. The four-time Grammy award-winning duo, comprised of Joy Williams and John Paul White, split in 2012 after citing “irreconcilable differences”.

In recent interviews about the experiences which gave rise to the songs that we hear on Venus, Joy talks candidly about the personal challenges and sadnesses in her life over the past few years, from losing her father to Stage 4 cancer to coping with troubles in her marriage and adjusting to becoming a new mother. In this detailed song-by-song look at the album, Joy discusses the inspiration and the writing process behind each song.

When I heard the first single, Woman (Oh Mama), from Joy’s new album, it wasn’t what I expected. As a Civil Wars fan, I thought that their Americana country/folk influence would feed into Venus. However, Joy is venturing into new territory with her solo album: The Guardian describes it as “grownup pop”.

As a listener, you sense that Joy has done a lot of work, personally and professionally, to move into a different space. This has made her music stronger and although Venus has been described as “pop”, the eleven tracks on the newly released album are not mindless pop tunes: they are songs with lyrics about pain, letting go and having the courage to work through change.

Joy’s voice has extraordinary strength and beauty and Venus encompasses a range of genres, from the upbeat tribal sound of Woman (Oh Mama) to the quieter piano melody of What a Good Woman Does. “Hear me/I haven’t lost my voice without you near me,” Joy sings in the latter track, which clearly refers to The Civil Wars parting ways.

Joy certainly hasn’t lost her voice! Venus is an exciting new musical direction for her, with powerful and inspirational lyrics sung by a stunning voice.

Venus is out now. You can find it at Amazon and other music sellers.

Amazon US: VENUS

Amazon UK: Venus

Disclaimer: this post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase on Amazon via one of the links above, a small percentage will go toward my graduate school fund. This doesn’t cost you anything.

Sunday Snapshot

I’m not feeling great today. I think I am still recovering from exams and the build-up to getting my degree result. I’ll write a post about finishing my undergraduate degree soon, when I have more energy.

In the meantime, here’s a Sunday Snapshot with a very apt quotation!

Kittens are born with their eyes shut. They open them in about six days, take a look around, then close them again for the better part of their lives. ~Stephen Baker

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Blogiversary: Cultural Life turns 4!

Four years ago today, I sat down to write my first post on Cultural Life. For the first few months, views from blog visitors trickled in and comments were a rarity, but during the last few years, my blog has attracted more and more visitors. One of my posts was even Freshly Pressed! I would love to be FPed again in the future: it gave me such a boost to continue blogging and the comments from readers were lovely.

My blog stats are still modest compared to some bloggers who get thousands of views per week and hundreds of comments on every post, but to me, blogging isn’t all about statistics: it is about community. I feel a part of the WordPress community and I have  ‘met’ so many amazing bloggers whose writing has inspired me and motivated me to keep blogging.

When I look back at old Cultural Life blog posts and think how much I have learned and how my writing and approach to blogging has changed in the past few years, it makes me excited for the changes that will, no doubt, take place in the next four years.

To all my readers, thank you for taking the time to read, comment and leave feedback on posts. It is truly appreciated!

Like It Or Not, Language Is Changing

Last night, I was idly browsing online on my phone while waiting for some friends to join me, when I stumbled across this issue which was submitted to an agony aunt column in The Guardian: My daughter sounds uneducated because she says ‘like’ so much. The parent who contacted the agony aunt is concerned that their daughter’s use of the discourse marker, ‘like’, is making her sound ‘stupid’ and ‘uneducated’.

As a linguist, the parent’s question immediately caught my interest because it is representative of common folk linguistic judgements, i.e. “beliefs about language held by non-linguists” (Hartley & Preston, 1999: 237). Perceptual dialectology is one of the many fascinating subfields of linguistics and it elicits folk linguistic attitudes and judgements about language. Preston’s (1989) work in the U.S. found that judgements are commonly based on the ideology of the ‘standard’, in other words, correct vs. incorrect language. This type of judgement is exactly what we see in the concerned parent’s question to an agony aunt column.

It could be argued that one of the most pertinent questions about language attitudes is how these judgements are entrenched within us. No language or dialect is inherently wrong, it is simply that a particular phoneme (a unit of sound) or a word has become “enregistered” as a marker that is associated with certain characteristics. The concept of enregisterment has been discussed by Barbara Johnstone, Professor of Rhetoric and Linguistics at Carnegie Mellon University, who has focused on enregisterment in the variety of American English that is spoken in Pittsburgh (e.g., Johnstone et al., 2006; Johnstone, 2009). However, enregisterment is a concept which we can apply to any variety of language: it refers to the way in which “indexical meanings get attached to linguistic forms” (Johnstone, 2010: 31).

The use of the discourse marker ‘like’ is a prime example. Take a minute and think about the characteristics you associate with someone who uses ‘like': “and then he was like, ‘I said no’, and then I just like laughed and it was really like awkward”.

We know that users of ‘like’ are more likely to be young (Dailey-O’Cain, 2002). Perhaps the teenage girl in the photo is a ‘like’ user. Also, ‘like’ is commonly associated with the stereotype of the Californian Valley Girl, i.e. vapid, materialistic young women who do little more than shop and obsess about their appearance. From this, we can deduce that attitudes toward ‘like’ are often unfavourable because it has become enregistered as a marker of the speech of a social group which is considered to be young, ‘airheaded’ and unintelligent. A study by Dailey-O’Cain (2002) concludes that “the use of like is associated with more negative perceptions of the speaker” and found that “Informants perceive [people who use like] as less educated” (p. 73).

At this point, considering that studies have shown that ‘like’ is often negatively evaluated, you might think that the parent has valid cause for concern. However, if I were the agony aunt who responded to this letter, I would have answered it very differently. I would point out that language has changed for centuries and it will continue to change for centuries after you and I leave this earth. The increasing use of ‘like’ as a quotative in phrases such as “I was like…” is simply an example of language change. Next, I would suggest that if we spent less time viewing language as we think it should be (the prescriptivist viewpoint) and more time observing language as it is (the descriptivist perspective), perhaps we could attempt to sidestep these stereotypes and snobbish biases about people who use particular varieties and dialects.

We all speak differently….and that’s okay. If everyone spoke in the same way, linguists wouldn’t have any fun!

References

Dailey‐O’Cain, J. (2000). The sociolinguistic distribution of and attitudes toward focuser like and quotative like. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 4(1), 60-80.

Hartley, L.C. & Preston, D.R. (1999). The names of US English: Valley Girl, cowboy, Yankee, normal, nasal and ignorant. In Bex, T. & Watts, R.J. (eds.). Standard English: the Widening Debate. London: Routledge, pp. 207-238.

Johnstone, B., Andrus, J., & Danielson, A. E. (2006). Mobility, indexicality, and the enregisterment of “Pittsburghese”. Journal of English Linguistics, 34(2), 77-104.

Johnstone, B. (2009). Pittsburghese shirts: Commodification and the enregisterment of an urban dialect. American Speech, 84(2), 157-175.

Johnstone, B. (2010). Locating Language in Identity. In C. Llamas and D. Watt, (eds.). Language and Identities. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 29-38.

Preston, D. R. (1989). Perceptual Dialectology: Nonlinguists’ Views of Areal Linguistics. Dordrecht: Foris Publications Holland.

Far from the Madding Crowd (2015): a masterly adaptation of Hardy’s novel

Bathsheba Everdene is a young and independent woman who inherits her uncle’s farm and intends to manage the farm herself: an unusual role for a woman in the Victorian era. At the beginning, Bathsheba works on her aunt’s smallholding where she meets a young shepherd, Gabriel Oak, who lives a frugal life but has managed to purchase his own flock of sheep. When Gabriel proposes marriage, Bathsheba refuses:

“I HATE to be thought men’s property in that way, though possibly I shall be had some day […] It wouldn’t do, Mr Oak. I want somebody to tame me; I am too independent; and you would never be able to, I know. (FftMC, ch. 4)

The next time they meet, their circumstances have reversed: Gabriel’s flock of sheep were driven to their deaths over the cliffs by an unruly young sheepdog and he has fallen on hard times, travelling from town to town in search of work. One night, he arrives at a farm where a hayrick is burning and the fire is threatening to destroy the barns. After helping to put out the fire, Gabriel discovers that the owner of the farm is, in fact, Bathsheba and he finds employment there as her shepherd. As the story progresses, Hardy introduces more characters who vie for Bathsheba’s hand in marriage: the dashing and vain Sergeant Troy and Mr. Boldwood, the gentleman farmer with an unhappy past.

I studied the novel when I was fifteen and I loved it: Hardy’s descriptions of rural life and the vividness of his characters encouraged me to read several of his books. However, Far from the Madding Crowd is arguably the warmest of his novels. It contains tragedy, but to a lesser extent than the sheer bleakness of Hardy’s other novels, such as Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. As I enjoyed FftMC so much, I eagerly anticipated the new movie adaptation of it and I was not disappointed. It is a beautiful adaptation of Hardy’s novel.

Carey Mulligan portrays the lead character and she is an ideal casting choice for Bathsheba: the audience watches her progression from a headstrong young girl to a woman who has reached a greater level of maturity by withstanding trials in her farm business and her love affairs. Mulligan conveys this progression through her expressive voice and mannerisms in a performance that deserves to win awards. Her three suitors are played by Matthias Schoenaerts (Gabriel), Michael Sheen (Mr. Boldwood) and Tom Sturridge (Troy).

This adaptation has been filmed with attentiveness to the essence of Hardy’s original work. It was filmed on location in Dorset and it shows panoramic views of Hardy’s Wessex countryside, as well as close-up shots of buds unfurling and a snail crawling up a fern. Scenes such as these create an evocative setting for the film. The setting is more than just a backdrop: the bucolic landscapes are as much a part of the film as the characters themselves.

I particularly enjoyed the moments of wry humour in the film. For instance, Bathsheba asks Gabriel for advice about her love life and when he asks why she is choosing him as her confidante, she responds that he is someone who can give her objective advice. Clearly, Gabriel is the last person who could give Bathsheba an objective perspective as he is still deeply in love with her! “You’re asking the wrong man,” he replies.

Gabriel repeats this line later on when Mr. Boldwood is nervously awaiting the arrival of Bathsheba to a Christmas party at which Boldwood is planning to propose. His fingers are trembling so he asks Gabriel to tie his bow tie for him: “Is there a knot which is particularly fashionable?”. It made me smile as Gabriel, clad in the everyday attire of a farm labourer, is evidently the wrong person to ask about such fripperies as the latest fashions of tying bow ties.

Of course, some of the plot details have been trimmed to condense the book into a two-hour movie. In the book, there is a scene where Bathsheba saves Gabriel’s life when he is sleeping and his hut fills up with smoke, but this has been omitted in the film. However, the structure of the plot is accurate and the screenwriter has not diverged wildly from the novel.

With a gorgeous soundtrack, stellar acting and wonderful locations, it was such a treat to see this masterly adaptation of Hardy’s novel on the big screen. I enjoyed it so much that I went to see it twice!

“Far from the Madding Crowd poster”. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – Wikipedia film poster

Far from the Madding Crowd was released on May 1st, 2015. Have you seen it? Are you a fan of Thomas Hardy’s writing?

Taking a break…

Time waits for no woman…the clock is ticking and my deadlines are calling (Public domain image source)

I haven’t blogged in a while. Where you can find me? Down the rabbit warren that is Google Scholar, getting (enjoyably) lost and immersed in a sea of interesting research. If you’ll excuse the use of another animal-related metaphor, I’m busy beavering away in preparation for my final undergraduate exams.

As much as I love blogging and reading your blogs, I am taking a blogging break until the end of May. As I have exams starting on May 11 through May 18, I have little time to spare for blogging right now.

Meanwhile, happy May Day and see you at the end of May. I hope you have a wonderful month. Do you have plans for this month? If you’re a student like me, are your exams looming on the horizon?

On the Difference Between Pursuing Grades and Exploring Interests

At this time of year, the pressure builds up for most college students. Spring break is over for many students, there are multiple deadlines for papers to be turned in and preparation for exams is in full-swing. But perhaps this pressure could be reduced if more students took a deeper interest in their classes. Arguably, students who are driven solely by grades come away from their college experience with a lot less knowledge than students who are motivated by interest.

Public domain image source

Exploring my intellectual interests is something that motivates me. I have posted before about how inspired I am by studying linguistics and how it is my aspiration to teach linguistics. In February, I applied for grant funding for graduate study and writing my research proposal felt great, chiefly because it involved my own original ideas, informed by the literature I read. All questions have to come from somewhere and in academia, you have to know what has been said already to generate new research.

However, I recently found myself losing sight, just a little, of the bigger picture and having to be particularly intentional in reminding myself what it is. Of course, grant funding is highly competitive. I am awaiting the decision, which I will hear in the next few weeks, and in the mean time my work is keeping me busy (hence, the sparsity of recent posts on my blog). To get funding, I need to get excellent results in my undergraduate degree and even then, it may not be awarded to me. Naturally, this has been on my mind quite a lot and I have been working solidly during Spring break: writing, writing, researching, and writing some more.

The idea for this post arose when I realized that I have been working so hard, focusing on getting the grades so I can continue my academic career, that my enthusiasm kept dipping. Personally, I find the more I fixate on pursuing grades, the less creative I become in exploring ideas. Grades are important, yes, because they are a measure of academic excellence. But I would argue that there are two versions of doing ‘well': a materialistic version where you check all the boxes, such as being at the top of the class, a straight-A student, achieving a 4.0 GPA….etc. We hear a lot about the “straight-A student” as the benchmark for academic excellence, perhaps more so in high school contexts than in college. To me, this implies that the system prizes material scores over the other version of doing well: exploring ideas, learning because you want to learn, and not simply because you want a good transcript.

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While traditional grading systems, such as the letter grade, are deeply rooted in the education system, my personal opinion is that students should place less emphasis on getting a perfect test score and, instead, focus more on intellectual interest. Being engaged with what you are learning results in better work. Yes, it feels great to do well in an exam, but scoring perfect grades should be merely a byproduct of study that is motivated by wanting to know more, by curiosity and absorption. As I wrote above, I found that placing too much focus on the endpoint spoils the journey and results in work that is less creative and less intellectually engaged. I’d rather focus on the second version of doing well!

The ‘curse’ of the smartphone

Two months ago, I joined the 21st century. The keys on my trusty Nokia phone (which, at 14 years and counting, could be described as a senior citizen) began to freeze. One key went first and then another one. It made texting very difficult when I couldn’t use the most commonly used letter in the English alphabet (e, if you’re curious). Gradually all the others followed suit, in a kind of arthritic surrender. My phone switched on and off with no problem, but without the use of its keys, it was nothing more than a useless relic. Thus, I succumbed to the thing I have been resisting: I bought a smartphone.

Public domain image source

Everywhere you go, you see people glued to their phones. A few years ago, phones were functional: you could make calls and send texts and that was the limit of their capabilities. Does anyone remember the game, Snake? I used to enjoy playing that! But that’s so old-fashioned now, when today’s phones are all-singing, all-dancing pieces of technology.

In class, it is standard for people to pull out their notebooks and pens, followed by their smartphones, which they place on their desks as though they are a life-giving force to which they need to be permanently connected. One thing that really bugs me about smartphone use is when I’m talking to someone and they are staring at their phone. Whatever happened to manners? Put your phone away!

Public domain image source

Since purchasing my smartphone, I have made a conscious effort not to become somebody who stares at their phone all the time. It can be tempting to check it when I hear the ping of my email alert, letting me know that another message has landed in my inbox, but when I’m busy working at home, I leave it upstairs and out of earshot. Admittedly, despite my reluctance to get a smartphone, it has its uses. I like the to-do list app I downloaded because it allows me to stay uber-organized. But I won’t relinquish my Filofax anytime soon! Technology is useful but not when it becomes something from which we can’t tear ourselves away.

In the wise words of Steven Spielberg:

“Technology can be our best friend, and technology can also be the biggest party pooper of our lives. It interrupts our own story, interrupts our ability to have a thought or a daydream, to imagine something wonderful, because we’re too busy bridging the walk from the cafeteria back to the office on the cell phone”.

What do you think? Are smartphones the source of a modern-day affliction or do you love your phone?

“Solitude is a human presumption”: Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer

“Solitude is a human presumption. Every quiet step is thunder to beetle life underfoot”

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Prodigal Summer is the second novel by Barbara Kingsolver that I have read. She is arguably most well-known for her bestseller, The Poisonwood Bible (published in 1998), but I became acquainted with her writing when I read and enjoyed Flight Behaviour (2012) last year. In many aspects, Prodigal Summer (2012) is similar to Flight Behaviour: both novels are set in rural locations in the South (Virginia and Tennessee, respectively), nature and ecological themes are key points, and female protagonists with grit and independence are at the forefront of these novels.

Three stories form the plot of Prodigal Summer. There is the reclusive “hillbilly accent[ed]” biologist, Deanna Wolfe, who lives in a mountain cabin and works as a forest ranger, maintaining the trails and protecting the wildlife. A few miles below the mountain, Lusa Maluf Landowksi has married into an insular family that does not readily accept her. Meanwhile, a couple more miles down the road, two elderly neighbours, Garnett Walker and Nannie Rawley, live in bordering properties and bicker about God and farming on an almost daily basis, but perhaps they have more in common than they can see.

Kingsolver’s background as a biologist is clear in her writing, as she brings environmental themes into her stories and writes about them with eloquence and insight. I enjoy her evocative descriptions of Southern Appalachia and she writes about nature in a way that I find very soothing. The human stories are well-drawn too. I don’t always enjoy stories with multiple main characters and story-lines, but Kingsolver executes this literary technique with smooth transitions. The chapters alternate between “Predators” (Deanna’s story), “Moth Love” (Lusa) and “Old Chestnuts” (Garnett and Nannie): the stories are different but the characters are living out their lives against the same backdrop and the location is as much a part of the novel as the human characters.

Have you read any novels by Barbara Kingsolver? Do you like the blend of ecological and human themes which seems to be characteristic of her writing?