Pride and Pedantry
n. Pedantry is an excessive attention to the rules or paying strong attention to the minor points of learning.
You all know Jane Austen, right? Sparkling, witty conversation about the most mundane of social situations. And you know literary fiction. Maybe you don’t know Ann McMan, yet.
First, may I say what a pleasure it was to hold and read a real print book, with a wonderful cover, a blurb on the back cover, and did I mention the real paper? I try to be both egalitarian and open-minded, to embrace the best of twenty-first century technology, so yes, I have a Kindle. It has advantages. One can carry an entire library in a pocket, read in the dark, have books instantly installed. The downside for me is that there is no battery life that can live through a beginning-to-end reading of an entire novel. The love I developed as a child for books, libraries, the heft and feel and smell of it all has not yet downgraded to nostalgia. I’m just saying.
Next, a small word about the basic plot, which does not do the book justice, but here goes. Beowulf for Cretins, A Love Story, is set in a small New England liberal arts college, and focuses on Professor Grace Warner, who plows through a heavy load of Freshman lit 101. After seven years of this drudgery, she is set for tenure, breaks up grading theme papers by working sporadically on her first novel, which accomplishment is also many years in the making. Enter Dr Abbie Williams, newly appointed college president, and to Grace’s embarrassment and dismay, her partner in a one-night fling some time before. Now Grace believes she will never make tenure, never finish her constantly rewritten novel, never find true love and a lasting relationship. Populated by quirky characters, like a student stalker, an academic rivalry for the one open tenure position, her life philosophy of nothing-ever-works-out seems certain to be reaffirmed.
Next a word about college English classes, wherein I languished, having my writerly soul crushed by a freshman lit 101 instructor who simply bled red ink over my every profer, and who called me her “little enigma” because my first drafts were so very bad, and my rewrites so much better. (But really, where did I have to go but up?) Did I ever have a stalker crush on my nemesis? Hardly. Her name was Atlanta Ashby and she was very old, always dressed in glaring black and white, reminding one of a railroad crossing. Still I could sympathize.
As I could and did sympathize with poor, hapless Grace, whose Catholic upbringing left her with that same, vague fear of the nuns who taught her life lessons in platitudes, with the same inbred Catholic guilt that only affirmed her lifelong habit of underestimating herself, and her ability to affect outcomes more satisfactory than had been manifested thus far in her life.
One of the benefits of forced early retirement means I no longer have to lie and take a sick day when I stay up all night reading. Some books are just too good to be read in stops and starts. Beowulf for Cretins is so well-written, so funny, and so smart that I felt no shame at all when I simply kept reading. Also, the book proceeds at a brisk pace, with rhythm and timing.
So, a love story, wherein the humor is embedded in discussions of things like “Cartesian dualism, eucatastrophe, (that’s a real thing, look it up) and the quantum mechanics of free will– these are the supreme triumvirate of love and longing.” So states author Ann McMan. There is also the comparison of the constructs in Beowulf to The Lord of the Rings, (I could write that paper, I really could) and the jokes are organic to the characters, so believable with their weighty philosophical pondering about self determination, the existence or not of God, the concept of deaus ex machina, and the situations that Grace succumbs to, including rescuing and neglected and emotionally needy dog, her endless ability to keep running into the woman of her dreams, her inability to believe that things could work out well.
At its heart, Beowulf for Cretins poses questions, and responds to those queries with the possibility of joy. Like a catechism, like a call and response, the push toward love, the pull of fear, McMan, with dead-on writing, convinces us that the possibility of happy endings can become probability, nd she does it with such a deft hand that we want to meet CK and Grace and Dean, Grady and Lorrie and Abbie for drinks in one of those ubiquitous coffee bars that simply must exist next to those ivy colleges.