Saturday, May 31, 2014

[Review] "A Field Guide to American Houses" by Virginia Savage McAlester #bookaday

My response to "A Field Guide to American Houses" (Virginia Savage McAlester 1984 revised 2013 Knopf) is that of a lay person. However, the guide is the definitive reference book for architectural students. A lay person such as myself doesn't read the guide with the close reading strategies of an English teacher; rather, I read the book, and will continue reading it, through the lens of "place" and its rhetoric function in American homes and American literature. 

The guide is a visual and textual mapping of American home designs from the 1700s to the present. Simply, by referencing the guide, both professionals and lay people such as myself can place our homes and those of our communities, states, and nation in their historical and geographic contexts. 
I became keenly interested in the rhetorical function of home and architecture years ago, but my interest really came to life when I discovered a resource about the representation of homes in "Uncle Tom's Cabin." I still have a printout of the document in my filing cabinet but can't seem to locate it on the internet now. The juxtaposition of geography and the structures of homes in UTC resonated with me. 

Other books have informed my interest in homes as rhetoric: "Rebecca," "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," "My Antonia," "The Tragedy of Macbeth," "The Great Gatsby," "The Fountainhead," "A Raisin in the Sun," are among these. Even some YA has piqued my interest in the rhetoric of home, most recently "Reality Boy" by A.S. King. Of course, gothic literature, such as Poe's short stories, most notably "The Fall of the House of Usher," succeed in no small part because of their grounding in this place we call home. Of course, I'd be remise in not mentioning Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily." 

I mention these texts because "A Field Guide to American Houses" is a resource that I'll use in constructing lesson plans, particularly those texts that rely so much on place. From elevation design and influence to the way homes are grouped geographically to how designed is influenced by economics and war, "A Field Guide to American Houses" is chalk full of information I'd thought little about. 

Even the New Millennium Mansion (McMansion) in its obnoxious existence on too small lots took on new meaning as I read about its origins and its response to economic conditions. These homes, says McAlester, are part of the New Traditional Architectural movement that has at times been critiqued as "derivative." McAlester defends the movement as having unique features and its creators: They understand classical principles and architectural styele well enough to subtly alter or rearrange elements to create New Traditional home designs, not copies--houses instantly familiar yet subtly different from the homes that inspired them. Architectural historian Vincent Scully describes this as a 'conversation across the generations.'" (725)

Thinking about home design as "conversational" makes me think about how these topics can become conversations in my classroom. Additionally, the NCTE 2014 convention theme "Story as the Landscape of Knowing" resonates with me as I think about landscape as place, home as places where we create stories, and design that grounds us in a sense of nostalgic longing for the past as we simultaneously look to the future. 

Throughout the book one finds images of homes in a variety of geographical locations. Thus, looking at the home styles in states where I've lived became a fascinating scavenger hunt. The images of homes sent me searching for information so that my reading took a non-linear trek, as though I was journeying across the blue highways marked by squiggly lines on maps. Idaho, unfortunately, is woefully underrepresented in the book, probably because it has had no real influence on home design, unlike Illinois and California. 

If I were to criticize the book in any way, it would be in its absence of color photography. I imagine the utilitarian purpose (to inform) of the guide justifies the inclusion of only black and white photographs. Still, our cultural and architectural heritage is quite colorful, and "A Field Guide to American Houses" is a fun way to learn about the vernacular of our homes. 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

In Memory of Maya Angelou, a Phenomenal Woman Who Has Taught Us to be Phenomenal, too

When I learned about Maya Angelou's death today, I thought about Shanice, a young woman from Jamaica whom I taught and who graduated last year. Maya Angelou would love Shanice as much as I do because Shanice embodies the phenomenal characteristics Angelou describes in "Phenomenal Woman," which is Shanice's favorite poem. Indeed, Maya Angelou is Shanice's favorite poet. It might be fair to say that Angelou is Shanice's inspiration and her muse. 

When Shanice was in ninth grade, she interpreted "Phenomenal Woman" for her poetry interpretation assignment and created a very cool illumination of the poem, too. Shanice took the hardest classes she could find, including dual enrollment classes that she often could not afford. She took the classes anyway because she knew her own ability to be phenomenal was intertwined with her learning. When Shanice enrolled in Communication 1101, the dual credit course I teach, I couldn't let her not get the credits because the class is very challenging, so I found a "scholarship/grant" for her. Shanice excelled in the class. 

Just as Maya Angelou, Shanice is a stunning and charismatic woman. I know "Phenomenal Woman" has inspired Shanice through difficult times and that she aspires to live both the poem's and the poet's ideals. 

I mourn the death of Maya Angelou and celebrate her life, especially as I teach and meet so many phenomenal women. 

On her facebook page, Shanice reposted the following:

Thursday, May 28, 2014
Statement from Dr. Maya Angelou’s Family:
Dr. Maya Angelou passed quietly in her home before 8:00 a.m. EST. Her family is extremely grateful that her ascension was not belabored by a loss of acuity or comprehension. She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace. The family is extremely appreciative of the time we had with her and we know that she is looking down upon us with love.
Guy B. Johnson



Shanice, May 22, 2014
"Phenomenal Woman" by Maya Angelou
Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I'm not cute or built to suit a fashion model's size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I'm telling lies.
I say,
It's in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I'm a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It's the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I'm a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can't touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them
They say they still can't see.
I say,
It's in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I'm a woman

Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

Now you understand
Just why my head's not bowed.
I don't shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It's in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
'Cause I'm a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That's me. 


I can think of no greater tribute to Maya Angelou than that I and others work to help young women everywhere discover their inner phenomenal woman. I <3 you, Shanice. You will carry on Maya Angelou's vision as you become more phenomenal with each passing year.