Thursday, July 30, 2009

Google says ...

Yet again, the Google Ads associated with my blog deserve mention. Check out this evening's:

Um ... I'm not even sure what to say about this one! So what about my recent posts has triggered the "desperate older lady" and "lonely couch-dweller" facets of the algorithm? Peculiar, to say the least!

The Pit

I tried. I really, earnestly tried to finish Frank Norris's The Pit (1903). But I just couldn't do it. Norris is a fascinating author (just look at that character, would ya?) but I found both The Pit and McTeague rather tough to get through, which is a shame because there are so many reasons why I should have loved reading them both.

The Pit takes place in Chicago, where I have numerous friends living. It investigates the wheat trading floor (aka the pit) at the Chicago board of trade, and forces the reader to examine how the acts of individual traders can have a global impact. So-and-so corners the market and runs up the price of wheat - great for them, good for farmers, awfully bad for the Europeans hoping to turn that wheat into bread.

The book is most fascinating and pertinent for our time on this point. If there was ever a time to be reminded that numbers on the stock market are connected to actual products/services/people, it surely is now. The Pit of course deals with a tangible commodity: wheat, as opposed to dividends and mortgage-backed securities, or whatever the hell we've all been talking about for the past few months, which makes its story more simply told. Crops are changeable, and the people with the most information about those crops are able to use those changes to their advantage, and rake in huge profits while starving half the world.

This aspect of the novel is also intriguing because it reminds us that there was a time when America fed huge parts of the world, when America really was a giant breadbasket, and when American farmers were valued on a global scale. Don't get me started on how drastically things have changed. It makes me feel too sad, too helpless, too small.

I love its turn of the century setting, and I'm intrigued by the main character, Laura, and her inscrutable desires. And yet ...

I just couldn't finish it. Try as I might to pick up the lovely Penguin edition with its delicious photographic cover, I found myself reaching for Gaskell's Wives and Daughters instead, every time. Norris's Saturday Evening Post style has never spoken to me in the way that Dreiser, or Hawthorne, or Sedgwick have. I'm sure that I'll have Norris on my lists for my doctoral exams, and at that time I'm sure I'll slog back through one of the novels I've already broached, but until then I must leave you with this rather charming description of Chicago and invite you to compare it to today:

Chicago, the great grey city, interested her at every instant and under every condition. As yet she was not sure that she liked it; she could not forgive it dirty streets, the unspeakable squalor of some of its poorer neighbourhoods, that sometimes developed, like cancerous growths, in the very heart of fine residence districts . . . Suddenly the meaning and significance of it all dawned upon Laura. The Great Grey City, brooking no rival, imposed its dominion upon a reach of country larger than many a kingdom of the Old world. For thousands of miles beyond its confines was its influence felt . . . It was Empire, the resistless subjugation of all this central world of lakes and the prairies. Here, mid most in the land, beat the Heart of the Nation, whence inevitably must come its immeasurable power, its infinite, infinite, inexhaustible vitality. Here, of all her cities, throbbed the true life - the true power and spirit of America; gigantic, crude with the crudity of youth, disdaining rivalry; sane and healthy and vigorous; brutal in its ambition, arrogant in the new-found knowledge of its giant strength, prodigal of its wealth, infinite in its desires.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Preparing to Prepare

It suddenly occurred to me, today, that I have only two days left at my current job - what may very well be my last office-oriented, 9-5 job ever.

Here's hoping, right? Graduate school is such a crap shoot, these days, but having made the decision to return, all I can do is remain positive, right? Well, since I've decided it's right, we're just going to go with it.

What will I do with my days almost entirely of my own design? Will I be able to get out of bed at 9:00 AM if I don't have to be at class until 1:00 PM? Will I actually be more willing to keep my house clean once I have a dishwasher and my very own, conveniently placed washer and dryer? Will I starve on my pathetic stipend? Will I make time to read Salon and Slate so that I can continue to feel informed and engaged in the life of my culture (the culture which, incidentally, I am purporting to be a scholar of?) Will I (pretty please?) have more time and dedication to keeping in touch with my friends on a two-way basis and convince them that I have adopted the habit of returning phone calls?

And oh, yeah, will I convince anyone at all that I'm worth the time and money they're investing in me?

I propose the next week as a test: I will not be working, but have plenty to do. Can I write that piece I've been contemplating? Can I get through my class materials? Can I make a dent in the list of articles and books I should read?

We shall see.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

You Too Can Be Proud of Yourself For Not Discriminating Against the Disabled

So, if you've been to a movie theater lately, you've probably seen this spot from the Foundation for a Better Life. If you're unable to follow the link, here's the gist:

It's homecoming, a beautiful girl gets up on stage and announces two attendants, she pauses ... announces the winner with a surprised, but genuinely excited smile. The camera moves behind some heads ... they pan onto a pair of orthopedic shoes, and pan up to reveal: the young woman with Down's Syndrome who's just been named Homecoming Queen. "True Beauty: Pass it On" the narrator croons.

The ad informs you that this is a "True Story" and the website has the facts to back it up, and somehow that convinced them that this manipulative schtick wasn't offensive (it's true, right!?) Well yes, that one lovely young woman with Down's Syndrome was voted Homecoming Queen by her class is wonderful for that particular young woman.

But whose "true beauty" is the ad referring to? The woman with Down's Syndrome is necessarily more "truly beautiful" because of her disability? Or are the physically beautiful girls who aren't disabled "truly beautiful" because they've elected her?

Don't get me wrong - I don't believe the ad is mean spirited, or entirely stupid. But I do think it exemplifies the practice of assuming that all disabled people are of a type, thereby denying them full personhood. "People with Down's Syndrome are all beautiful on the inside" denies that people with Down's Syndrome are as uniquely complex as all the "normal" people out there.

The Charlottesville reactions to this spot are always a priceless groan. If only they could get a look at the absurdly patronizing Reader's Digest style essay accompanying the video on the Foundation's website.


Monday, July 6, 2009

The E! Channel Investigates A Common Place

First: "E News" interrupted "Chelsea Lately" with the "Breaking News" that Michael Jackson's funeral may or may not have begun. Like it was a tornado warning. Seriously.

Second: The "E News" lead story that followed "Chelsea Lately" was "what made Debbie Rowe lose it on the paparazzi?" Well, as you can see from the video here, it's pretty damned obvious: the photographers are shoving her, and she's telling them not to "f**king touch" her.

Hm, what could it be that's upsetting her and making her "lose it?" Maybe that random predatory strangers are f**king touching her? The comments on this YouTube video are typical. She's a dangerous, crazy bitch. Well, then, count me among the Crazy Bitch crew. And throw in most of my friends, too, I think.

There is an unwritten rule for stranger encounters: Touching explicitly prohibited. When a woman says "don't touch me" she means it.
A creepy guy asking creepy questions, or following you, or continually attempting to make himself the focus of your attention is one thing - it can be unsettling, unnerving, and irritating.

But when said person touches you? Sound the alarms. I've said "don't touch me" with a steely chill I could hardly believe more times than I can count, and I'm not exactly hitting up the clubs every weekend.

We teach pre-schoolers that unwanted touching crosses the line. So why should we give the gutter press greater interpersonal freedoms with our fellow American Citizens than we give any other random person on the street? Because after all, that's all these jackasses are - random persons on the street taking unauthorized photos of a complete stranger. Why do we let them stop traffic, trespass, stalk? And why do we patronize media outlets that utilize these unauthorized photos? The impediments to total consumer awareness are so frustrating, but the blind acceptance of this ridiculous photographic phenomenon is depressing.

PS: No, I do not know the individual in the above photo. By googling "creepy guy" this gentleman was lucky enough to pop up in the first ten. He is apparently the lead singer of the band These Arms are Snakes from Seattle. The caption for the photo says "looks like a creepy guy, right?" I can't say I disagree.

Le Tour! Le Tour!

The Tour de France began again on the Fourth of July, and Lance Armstrong is back in the mix (in case you hadn't heard).

So, if you get sick of the three-ring circus of speculation surrounding Sarah Palin, you should check it out on Versus. They play the live broadcast from 8:30 AM Eastern and then replay it in condensed form at 2:00, 5:00 and extended at 8:00.
Why do I love le Tour? Is it the snappy British commentators?
Is it the fantastic camera work that makes you feel like you've visited France and several surrounding countries?
The excitement of competition?
The fact that, now after several years of watching, I feel like I know what I'm talking about, recognize the competitors, know a bit of their history, and am able to understand the significant ins and outs of the competition as it's happening?
Why, yes.

But the whole thing is just way more fun when you have someone to root for. For years my mother and I rooted for Lance Armstrong. Every year we told ourselves that it didn't matter how far back he was in the flat stages - once he got into the mountains he would climb to the top, leave the rest of them in the dust. But no matter how sternly we told ourselves that, we were always on the edge of our seats until he had earned a substantial lead.

And even though it's pretty easy to see that the guy's a bit of a jerk, at least he's a jerk who can put his money where his mouth is. Commentator Bob Roll crowed this year that he was so happy Lance was back to give some personality back to this thing. He's exciting, he's wily, and he's really damned good at this.

It was hard to be a fan in the past few years. Floyd Landis was more than exciting, with breakaway after breakaway taking him into the yellow jersey. My whole family got into the excitement and then -- he's disqualified for doping. And then over the next few years everyone and their mother is disqualified for doping. Distressing, to say the least.

But now, after a few tours in which only a few big names remained, le Tour is back! It feels alive again, it feels exciting again. I'm back to explaining to friends and co-workers why it matters that so-and-so didn't have his team with him, what they're doing pulling little cans of coke from the back of their jerseys, why the peloton all gets the same time, why breakaways hardly ever work, but are worth the shot, and (most often) how there can be a team sport with an individual winner.

It's fun, it's beautiful, it's fascinating, it's worth a look!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Free Mrs. Andrew Klavan

I simply could not let this one get away. Thank you, Glenn Greenwald, for bringing this disgusting post to the attention of those who would never in a million years bother to read a pathetic little boy like Andrew Klavan.

Greenwald quotes Klavan's recent evaluation of The Hangover as follows (emphasis mine):

A lot of critics get all huffy about this depiction of the sexes - read the silly little fellow who wrote the review in the New York Times by way of example. The standard line seems to be to blame it all on childish filmmakers pandering to adolescent audiences. But you know what? I suspect a lot of it is simple realism. More and more often I meet young guys just like this: overgrown kids who are their grim wives’ poodles. They sheepishly talk about getting a “pink pass,” or a “kitchen pass,” before they can leave the house. They can’t do this or that because their wives don’t like it. They “share” household and child-rearing tasks equally - which isn’t really equal at all because they don’t care about a clean house or a well-reared child anywhere near as much as their wives do. In short, each one seems set to spend his life taking orders from a perpetually dissatisfied Mrs. who sounds to me - forgive me but just speaking in all honesty - like a bloody shrike. Who can blame these poor shnooks if they go out and get drunk or laid or just plain divorced?

I’m the old-fashioned King of the Castle type: my wife knew it when she married me, she knows it now, and she knows where the door is if she gets sick of it. And you can curse me or consign me to Feminist Hell or whatever you want to do. But when you’re done, answer me this: why would a man get married under any other circumstances? I’m serious. What’s in it for him? I mean, marriage is a large sacrifice for a man. He gives up his right to sleep with a variety of partners, which is as basic an urge in men as having children is in women. He takes on responsibilities which will probably curtail both his work and his social life. If he doesn’t also acquire authority, gravitas, respect and, yes, mastery over his own home, what does he get? Companionship? Hey, stay single, dude, you’ll have a lot more money, and then you can buy companionship.

All right, I know, I’m a mean old man. But I’ve also been blissfully married for 30 years to a woman who wakes up singing. I think some of these young guys have been sold a bill of goods, I really do. I think they’ve been told what they’re supposed to be like and have sacrificed what they are like. Maybe their marriages are more “fair” than mine but just looking at them, I think they’re miserable. And I suspect, deep down, their wives are probably miserable too.

If you ask me, they’d be better off staying in Vegas.

Holy, freakin' crap, are you kidding me? What a wonderful life for a woman - "my way or the highway, bitch." Oh, but I guess he's given his wife what she really wants (his majestic sperm, of course), so that she can fulfill her "basic ... urge" of "having children."

My incredulity knows no bounds.

Greenwald pithily points out that big bad tough guy war hawks like Klavan are usually encouraging other people (including the women they so clearly detest) to go die in foreign countries for them. They wouldn't demean themselves by actually doing the fighting they're so keen to promote.

And God forbid such important, manly men should be expected to do anything so petty as actually want to get married because they're in love with someone, or respect their fellow human beings, even the lady ones.

I say, with all due respect, good luck, Mr. Klavan, I wish you all your just deserts.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Last night TCM played Ninotchka (1939), the wonderful movie that corresponds to the famous tagline "Garbo Laughs!"  Greta Garbo is a bolshevik-to-the-bone official from Moscow who must travel to Paris to supervise three of her bumbling comrades who are having trouble selling off some jewels confiscated during the Revolution.

The duchess who used to own those jewels just happens to also be in Paris, and a fellow former aristocrat (who now serves as a hotel waiter) tells her that her jewels are within reach.  She sends her lawyer/boyfriend, Melvyn Douglas, to get them back.  He and Garbo's stern comrade meet and ... well you can guess the rest: love, night clubs, witty repartee, it's all very 1930's.

And like the best 1930's movies it only gets better the more you think about it.  As these memorable quotes demonstrate, the movie is surprisingly poignant and its anti-communist message is at once hilarious and sympathetic to those who have found themselves caught up in its works.

Take this one, for example:
Leon: What kind of a girl are you, anyway? 
Ninotchka: Just what you see. A tiny cog in the great wheel of evolution. 
Leon: You're the most adorable cog I've ever seen. 

Garbo's performance is legendary - she plays it straight, and her stern comrade's hard-lined Marxisms roll off so naturally that they're easy to almost miss, making this one of those movies that only gets better the more often you watch it.

Yet, like all truly honest accounts of bolshevism and Marxism (as opposed to reactionary, ill-informed braying) the movie allows that there is something seductive about the argument that some should not work for the leisure of others.  Ninotchka is constantly addressing the figures of service that typically silently populate the backgrounds and doorways of glamorous movies.  In doing so, the movie gives these characters (and the true-life counterparts they represent) a voice.  So many movies represent these figures as a silent, undifferentiated mass of bag carriers, waiters, and cigarette girls.  But here they are shown to have individuated personalities, to be concerned about their tips, and to enjoy a good joke as much as the next guy.

Perhaps the most important figure in this respect is Melvyn Douglas's butler.  Douglas asks if the butler wouldn't rather live in a communist state so that he didn't have to do all this serving all the time.  "Far from it" says the butler - it might be nice not to have to serve, but he'd be less than pleased to have to divvy up his life savings with the rest of the state. 

Throughout, the movie keeps up this subtle, nuanced critique of the Soviet Union.  Scholars today are fond of saying that Marx was right about capitalism, but wrong about Communism, and this movie would seem to lend credence to that theory.  It is strange that we subject ourselves to the arbitrary power of "money" and "value," and it is unfortunate that such a system seems to necessarily depend upon valuing people and their work as lowly as possible.  Spend a few hours with an overview of Marx's theories (don't bother sifting through Capital yourself unless you're writing a thesis or something - it's interminable) and see if you don't look at your job a little differently the next day.

And yet, Communism, the supposed solution to this problem, has been soundly debunked.  It doesn't work.  It never did work.  It isn't going to work.  It shouldn't work - under the guise of liberation it denies basic human freedoms.  And this movie makes no bones about it as Garbo and Douglas whip off zinger after zinger like this one:

Ninotchka: The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.
So, in sum, it is a rather delightful and astute analysis of Communism, made all the more poignant by being filmed in 1939.

But, like so many movies from the 1930's, where it is delightfully "modern" in terms of politics and culture, it suffers on points of gender.

Garbo's Ninotchka is "made a woman" by her love for Douglas's character.  Before she was a stern, hard-working woman with hefty responsibilities.  She fought against the Poles at 16, she has worked her way up through the ranks to become Special Envoy.  She denies her gender, demanding that it not be made into an issue.  She's in charge, end of story.

Until she gets a look at that chic hat, that is.  Yes, dear readers, all the power and authority she's accumulates disintegrates in the face of Parisian fashion - hats, dresses, negliges, slips ... what's a girl to do?  Combine that with a man who'd like to teach you the ways of love, and a woman's defenses are useless.  The movie practically sighs with relief as Ninotchka realizes that she doesn't have to be the big boss lady all the time now that she's got a man who would like to take care of her.  To be so powerful is unnatural in a woman - a point made clear by the fact that the three bumbling comrades, whose bolshevism is skin-deep at best, are also surprised to find that they are being supervised by a woman.

And in this the movie's critique of Communism suffers slightly, as well.  Sure, Paris is great if you have mysteriously limitless funds with which to buy designer clothes, and if some well-intentioned rich man decides to take you under his wing.  But what about those cigarette girls who are only too happy to wear little French Maid outfits and entertain elderly Soviets if it means a good tip?

And what about the Duchess, whom Douglas's character unceremoniously forgets as soon as he sets eyes on the younger, more beautiful Ninotchka?  She falls into that classic stereotype - the rich, older woman who barely deserves an ounce of consideration.  She is manipulative and predatory, pathetically tying younger men to her purse strings so that she won't be all alone - clearly a character worthy of scorn (see also: An American in Paris).  


This movie was remade in 1957's Silk Stockings with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse.  And, being that it's the 1950's, the aforementioned gender themes are amped up by ten.  Charisse does a rather beautiful ballet literally in homage to all the beautiful things she can wear in Paris, and frequently sits at Astaire's knee, explaining how he's taught her that being a woman means completely subsuming yourself to the life a man. 

I know, I know, wipe those tears.  You can have it, too, if you only keep dreaming!

Ninotchka: A+

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


Reading today about the plea deal Chris Brown struck, I'm reminded of a little conversation I had with my hair dresser this past week.  Brown and Rhianna were seen at the same basketball game, leading many to speculate that they were getting back together.  My hairdresser brought this up as a Rhianna song came over the radio, saying "She's getting back with him, stupid, stupid girl."

I had been terrified that she would say something like "everyone deserves a second chance" or "it was just one time."  But she didn't.  She said that Rhianna was stupid, which allowed me to relievedly sigh "I know, I'm so sick of hearing that 'he just made a mistake'..."  

In the mirror I saw her shake her head and frown.

"I mean, guys make mistakes, they do ... whatever ... but these two are role models.  They have little kids looking up to them."

And I kept my mouth shut.  I didn't say to this woman, who is a couple years younger than me, that no, guys don't just 'whatever'.  Guys don't just 'make mistakes.'  'Just one time' is one time too many.

I like to think that I was too shocked to know how to properly respond, but I'm afraid that I simply didn't want her to get angry at me and mess up my hair.  And now I'm worried about what insidious falsehood I may have helped to perpetuate.  

Was she speaking from personal experience?  Or for the benefit of another person in the salon?  Is she, or a co-worker struggling to deal with a violent domestic situation?

I don't know, and I've misplaced my chance to have any positive affect on the situation.  Strident declarations that any form of domestic abuse is always cause for ending a relationship probably don't help someone who's fearfully waiting to see if there will be a second time.  I wish I had said something, anything, that would have hinted at all the avenues people have for extricating themselves from such an emotional quagmire ... but even now, days after the fact, I'm not sure what that would be.

I think that everyone knows these things about domestic violence.  That everyone watched the videos in grade school and high school - that everyone had family and friends who reinforced the messages conveyed therein.  But in thinking this, I forget just how damned privileged and hyper-educated I am.  

Confronted with an actual situation, in which I was actually beholden to this woman, to the woman she was protecting, to everyone, to say something - I had no words.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Inside Pandora's Box

One of the few great things about working 9-5 has been my ability to listen to the radio all day every day.  Previous workplaces have required me to keep my radio so low that I couldn't effectively listen to NPR, but at my new place I'm able to listen to the radio at really, rather inappropriate volumes.  My like-minded co-worker and I each have our own space, and are all alone in this big basement, so if you happened to stop by you're likely to hear Terry Gross, Tom Ashbrook, or the sweet, incongruous mashup of rock 'n' roll and folk streaming from my Pandora stations.

The greatest gift that Pandora has given me has been a new and deeper appreciation of early rock's girl groups.  I've always loved the Ronnettes and the Supremes, but where was I before I had ever heard "I Want a Boy For My Birthday?" or "Party Lights?"

Really, who among us hasn't said that we'd like a boy for our birthday?  All the girl power in the world can't really stop a heterosexual 14 year old from wishing that her birthday came complete with a little bit of boyfriend.

Don't get me wrong - despite my obsession with all things vintage, I am not one of those poor deluded few who believe they would have been happier living in the 1950's or 60's (have you seen a girdle?), but the carefree, shameless pining of those good old teenaged-love songs always has, and hopefully always will, strike a chord within my day-dreaming little heart.

Oh, and the wailing awesomeness of "Party Lights" cannot be expressed in words.  I strongly encourage everyone to listen to both!


Thursday, June 18, 2009

Sutpen's Hundreds Hall

So, there are enough gushing reviews of Sarah Waters's The Little Stranger that it hardly seems worth the trouble to write another one.  But, considering that I haven't read a contemporary novel in almost three years, I thought it awfully significant that I was compelled to read this one, and did so in approximately 48 hours.

This book is really good.  Like, really, really good.  And creepy, and atmospheric, and thought-provoking, and tricky, and imminently fun to read.

In the best ghost story tradition, The Little Stranger makes the ordinary life of a single house suddenly become extraordinarily unsettling.  Is there really a supernatural presence?  Or have the psyches of the home's residents gone rogue and begun manifesting themselves physically?  Or is someone simply playing a dirty trick?

While a few reviewers found this ambiguity to be dissatisfying, I was only once frustrated with the text.  After the first 100 pages or so, when the ghosting kicks in, I was disappointed to read a paragraph in which the spookiness of a mirror come to life is meticulously explained.

"It was all the more sickening, somehow, for the glass being such an ordinary sort of object . . . it made one feel as though everything around one, the ordinary stuff of one's ordinary life, might all at any moment start up like this and - overwhelm one" (150).

Oh, Sarah Waters, why ruin such a nice moment with such over-explanation?  I was prepared not to like the rest of the book, but thankfully, this was my only moment of real irritation.  I'm sure if I read again calmly I'd find other such small details - but it doesn't matter: I was too busy turning pages, and cautiously observing the suspicious night that had snuck up outside my unshaded window to notice them.

The many themes of the text are right up my alley - Post-war England, a great big house that used to employ dozens of servants and now has only three, the family within trying to make sense of their new place within society, and the outsider who tries to find his place within their place.  The war, the legacy of rigid classism, the many lives that had passed through those walls . . . the setting is perfect for Waters's tale, and it puts me in mind of another ghostly story about a post-war declining aristocracy, Absalom!, Absalom! by William Faulkner.  

There are plenty of surface similarities: The house in The Little Stranger is called "Hundreds Hall" and the house in Absalom!, Absalom! is called "Sutpen's Hundred."  Both occur after a cataclysmic war (WWII and the Civil War, respectively), and both are told from the point of view of outsiders who find themselves drawn into the webs being woven and re-woven inside these homes' majestic decay.

Faulkner's masterpiece is a good counter-balance to Waters's thriller.  Faulkner's story unfolds in a swirling mess of narrative asides, parentheses, and re-tellings.  The whirl-pool spins and spins, touching only the edges of the story before sucking you in, down to the bottom where it all rests.  But Waters's linearly (if unreliably) narrated story of memory and place is complemented by Faulkner's drastically un-linear narrative.  Faulkner's maelstrom mimics the storytelling in our own lives.  His text alternately remembers, forgets, and repeats, just as we do so often.  

The ghosts haunting each story may only be the shadows of regret, our yearning for the past, or the inner-selves we repress in the light of society - but that's not going to stop you from looking a little differently at that darkened closet the next time you shut your eyes.

So, with great pleasure I heartily recommend both books!  And would love to hear from anyone else who's read either one.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Power of Sympathy*

E.M. Forster’s Howards End puts me in a typical quandry.

Either I:

A.) Admit my initial impressions that this is a very engaging book that takes a rather progressive woman’s perspective; that this book advocates for women and gender equality - only to have it later pointed out to me that my impressions are incredibly wrong and the book is in fact a sexist attempt by a manipulative man to forward his own patriarchal agenda by making it 
seem like the woman’s perspective.


B.) Wait to express any opinion until I’ve read the “established” opinions of other scholars – then draw my own conclusions, which, invariably are heavily influenced by the things I’ve read.

Which brings up the point that I am, unfortunately, the world’s most sympathetic reader.  My friends and colleagues have been quick to point out that this is a virtue, not a vice, but existing in the competitive world of English Graduate Studies, it’s hard to convince myself.  When everyone else shows up with their articles eviscerated by scrawling, angry denunciations, it’s hard to look at one’s own carefully highlighted copy and not feel that you’ve been had.  “Actually, that just means that you’re not a dick,” says one helpful friend, “trying to make your own reputation by skewering others without actually giving their arguments a fair hearing.”

“You’re a generous reader, and I encourage and appreciate your generous readings...” says Michael Levenson, as I try to find a way to rescue “Melanctha” from the pits of utter racism (maybe it’s actually about the problem of a limited vocabulary – we’re all necessarily racist when we only have so many ways of referring to each other.  Maybe it’s actually Stein’s way of begging for a more nuanced form of language!) “...but no.  I think in this case it’s safe to say that this is a racist text.”

Well, for what it’s worth, I think it’s nice that Forster gives voice to the double standard, that the heroine flat-out tells her husband “you’re using a double standard when judging your sexuality and my sister’s.”  And I guess you could say that 
Howards End is all about what to do with these new women who quite literally leave their father’s house to find one of their own?  The back of my cheap-o Vintage Paperback edition has a quote from Lionel Trilling that says, essentially, who will inherit England?  Will it be the artistic, the bold, or the conventional?

Ultimately, I’m afraid to say that I don’t really care.  
Howards End was a wonderful read, and I believe it’s  a wonderful book, but it didn’t move me to want to explore its themes the way other books have.  Maybe it’s the simple fact that it takes place in England, and I’m so hopelessly mired in my fascination of all things American right now.

Maybe it’s that I finished the book two weeks ago and its joys have already been usurped by Frank Norris’s The Pit

I quite simply don’t have much to say about it – but check back tomorrow when I’ll have read other people’s opinions about the book and, not doubt, have decided that it’s an endlessly fascinating piece of work about why men should take back England from the hysterical women who are running it into the ground.


*Shout-out to all you 18th Century American Novel buffs!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A Ferrell Bear Extravaganza

So, Will Ferrell was on "Man vs. Wild" last night with Bear Grylls.  If you have no idea who, or what I'm talking about, you have no idea what you're missing.  My future husband and I have a collective TV-crush on Bear Grylls.  He's an ex-British Ranger who gets dropped off into inhospitable locales and has to find his way out.

It's your typical survivor show, except that Bear himself is unbelievably charming in that typical, dry, subtle British way.  He'll bite a snake in half (literally), and say "hm, not the best."

The show's opening disclaimer hilariously says "situations are sometimes presented to Bear so that he can demonstrate survival techniques."  I love the thought of a crew looking around the Swiss Alps and saying, "hm, it looks like that snow shelf would fall if you tread on it, let's see what happens if Bear tries."

The situation presented to him last night was dragging Will Ferrell's ass out of the arctic circle.  I'm not a huge fan of Will Ferrell, but last night's show was freakin' hilarious.  I cannot, for the life of me, find a clip of the scene right after they landed, but picture it:

Will Ferrell fills the left of the frame, eating the emergency twinkie (ten minutes in) and discussing a variety of silly things, while over his left shoulder, Bear Grylls scrambles up an ice embankment gathering twigs.

The camera work was impeccable, and Will Ferrell didn't overpower the hour.  He was, after all, actually stuck in the Arctic Circle, actually descending mountains, wading through the snow for hours, etc.  If this Will Ferrell were in the movies, I would enjoy them a lot more.

It's replaying tomorrow, and I'm sure many more times after that on the Discovery Channel.  It is well worth the watch!

Small Things

Quick Post: My co-worker just went off to a Dr.'s appointment, and I reiterated some of the doctor-going advice she and I have discussed in the past.  You know, stuff along the lines of "be specific" "don't be afraid to run down every single symptom you've ever felt," and "make him answer all your questions."

Catch that?

That's right, yours truly, assumed that her doctor would be a man.

One more thing: what has happened to two of my favorite things: Television Without Pity and XXFactor ?  The TV Website that used to be a haven for snark-loving smart kids like myself is now spewing factually inaccurate, E-Entertainment style drivel. 

The where do I begin with the monstrosity that is the new "Double X"??  Hm, let's take the absolute best blog on and relegate it to a pink-emblazoned, "chick corner" of the internet.  Let's surround the blog with incipience on interior design and make sure it's all housed in an unwieldy, ugly format with multiple bugs.  And, while we're at it, let's significantly lower the standards for content, such that a "blog post" may now consist of two sentences of background info, one humongous block quote, and two final sentences about how "interesting" the block quote is.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Whispering on NPR

So, I wrote this post about two weeks ago, thinking that I had actually posted it to the blog.  I had not.  I have been neglectful, but only because I've been stressing to find a place in my new home.  By the way, I'm already sick of horses, horse metaphor, and horse lingo.  You are on notice, Kentucky.

So, this untimely post will have to do for today, but tune back in soon for my thoughts on the most fabulous of topics, including: the weird, more than a little creepy tombstone for "America" a wack-a-doo in Charlottesville has erected (to include a discussion of none other than Herr Karl Marx) ; Today's second hour of On Point Radio, and the notion that our entire lives have become corporatized ; the funny things you hear on Pandora (a hint) ; movies: Valkyrie, Drag Me to Hell, and Terminator ; and books: E.M. Forster's Howards End

Why, whenever people get on NPR, do they insist upon whispering?  My guess is that they’re simply not close enough to the mic, or that the local radio station where they’re sitting doesn't have good enough sound equipment.

Either way, it’s painful to listen to – just when they get to the crux of the sentence, they seem to lilt ever more softly, as if this in itself indicates the seriousness of what they’re saying.  The different voices heard on NPR  and other media outlets are fascinating.

When I say “poem voice” do you know what I’m talking about?  That voice that otherwise normal-speaking people affect whenever they begin to recite verse?  Because poetry is ... Serious ... Ephemeral ... More Important Than Ordinary Words ...

True, true, and true.  Which is why we don’t need to say them in a stupid, ostentatious way.  Poems are serious, ephemeral and more important than ordinary words because of the way they’re written, not because of the tone they’re read in.

Which is why I find that “poem voice” is most often affected when reading what I consider [one’s own] really bad poetry.  You know, the kind of poetry that obtains the term “poem” merely by being a few otherwise grammatically normal sentences broken up over multiple lines?  If you didn’t use poem voice for these poems it would be more obvious that “hey, that lady’s just reading a few sentences!” (

Don’t get me wrong, there are certain ways that one’s inflection or pacing should be changed when reading a poem – but they usually have something to do with the content of the poem. Like a song (imagine that!) it doesn’t work to sing every song in the same “song voice” -  you have to give inflection to a song based upon its individual character.

Second only to “poem voice” is “scholar voice” which is often accompanied by a slight backward tilt and subtle shake to the head, the gentle half-closing of the eyes, and repetitive, slow, circular gesticulations.

See: Graduate English Department.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Boss Says "Build a House," We Comply

Did you see Bruce Springsteen last night?  I did!  And if you have never seen Springsteen live, you don't know what you're missing.  

It seems to be a media meme to downplay all things The Boss.  Slate, alone, has recently published or re-published three articles by Stephen Metcalf discussing Bruce's carefully contrived on-stage persona, and lamenting his decision to cheese-out at the Superbowl Halftime Show.

Though I was personally appalled to hear that Bruce had allowed the Superbowl producers to fill his "audience" with paid extras, I'm not sure that I agree that his performance there struck such a discordant note.

Now, I'm no expert on the man and his catalog.  I am necessarily a late-comer to his career, which started a decade or so before I was born.  But I can say, without qualification, that the two Bruce Springsteen concerts I have attended are, hands down, the best concerts I have ever been to.  And I have been to my fair share.

What is it that makes Bruce so enigmatic, whereas others that I love prove to be so damned disappointing live on stage?  

My only explanation is that Springsteen is, frankly, a Rock Star.  Unaccountably yet undeniably sexy, charismatic, energetic, frenetic, and most importantly, talented.  On Tuesday night he forced us to love him by grinning through the entire performance like he was having the time of his life; by picking up an adolescent boy to join him on stage, then fireman-hold-ing him back to his family; by clasping hands with a 16-year-old in braces held on the shoulders of her boyfriend and singing "Spirit singing our birthday song" to her and letting her sing it right back to him; by literally rolling around at the edge of the stage, and allowing the fans to hold him up and (miraculously) let him go ... twice; by taking poster-board requests that resulted in an awesome version of The Kinks' "You Really Got me Now";  and doing it all while playing really, really good music really, really well.

And that is perhaps the single greatest thing about a Bruce Springsteen concert.  You don't have to know every word to every song because every song he plays is immeasurably enjoyable the very first time you hear it.  With hooks that catch right into your ear, and harmonies and melodies that well up inside you despite yourself, and exuberant performances from every member of the band, you just can't help yourself from grinning right along with that neat guy on stage.

I am an acknowledged sucker for all things Cathartic Cultural Ritual.  I cheer when the lights go down, I cheer when the lights flash onto the audience, I drum the seat before me to coax them back for an encore, I jump out of my seat and clap to the beat, and I sing along when I know the words.

Despite this, I maintain that my constant analysis of just why this enclosed arena pumped full of eardrum bursting noise fills me with unspeakable glee, inoculates me from a certain someone's teasing suggestion that I would have cheered right along with the rest of the Colosseum as the Romans slaughtered tens of thousands of animals and people.  

It's a preposterous suggestion.  I, of course, would have been fed to the lions for being a Christian who campaigned for an end to slavery, animal rights, democracy and gender equality.  

I was totally born this way.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Algorithm Says ...

I had to almost immediately follow up my last post with something more lighthearted.  The Google AdSense Ads that appear on my sidebar are a subject of infinite fascination for me.  Like, Facebook, which recently decided that I have no interests other than weddings and now exclusively displays advertisements for pieces of the wedding-industrial complex, Google's algorithmic idea of this blog's target audience is rather titillating.

While reviewing my last post, I was offered these friendly purchasing opportunities:

1. A marketing method promising to be the answer to ineffective cold calling
2. Christian Fiction Novels
3. Historical Romance Novels
4. Tips on Writing a Book
5. "Inspiration for Females" - whatever that means.

They got me pegged, huh?


Are You a Bad Mother?

I listened to Terry Gross's interview with Ayelet Waldman, the woman who infamously wrote that she loved her husband more than her children (in a far more nuanced way, of course), and it stirred up all the fears and anxieties I have regarding motherhood.  It is more than worth a listen, not the least because Waldman's opinion of why you should love your husband more (or at least as much) as your children is an important counter-point to the beatific mother-as-jesus sacrificial figure we're inundated with, but also because she very painstakingly and painfully describes she and her husband's (author Michael Chabon) decision to abort their 4-month old baby boy after learning that he had a genetic precondition that might have resulted in his being born mentally retarded.

Except, it might not have.

What on earth are women to do in the face of choices like these?  How on earth are we supposed to make decisions like this?  Are we equipped to counteract what Waldman openly calls her own "cowardice" in the face of all that would be involved in caring for a disabled child.  "Our entire lives would have changed" she says, to which I reply almost instinctively, "well isn't that selfish!" Your life might have changed, therefore this child doesn't have the right to live?

My point here isn't to say that Waldman did the wrong thing.  My point is that it's impossible to say whether Waldman did the right or wrong thing because it's impossible to know whether her child would have been born disabled, or not, and it's impossible to know how their lives would have actually changed because of their son's (dis)abilities.

For God's sake, isn't pregnancy terrifying enough without throwing this Sophie's Choice into the mix?  Is it better to save a child years of a painful existence, or to let nature (or God, if you happen to believe in God) take its course, having faith that you are not being given more than you can handle - or, is it better to eliminate the chance of suffering even when you're also potentially eliminating the chance of a perfectly healthy life?

So, great.  Where does this leave us?  Stranded, that's where.  Stranded in a sea of choices, with plenty of "experts" on either side to tell us which is the right decision, and plenty of feel-good optimists on either side also telling you that you should just "do what you feel is right."

Thanks.  That's the problem, isn't it?  Knowing what is right?  Isn't that one of the most persistent and intractable problems of human existence - deciding what is right and convincing ourselves to do it?  Is it wrong to even tempt ourselves with these choices?  The problem of technologies such as these is that once they're available, it's impossible to take them back again.  You can't close that box once it's been opened, Pandora.  

And so we add another chip to the pile stacking up against ever making us feel that we are good enough to our children, our spouses, our society.  I guess things were just getting a little too rosy now that women and children were only occasionally dying during childbirth/infancy.

Embittered I remain until next time.

Thursday, April 30, 2009


Given that I'm a literary scholar (try that on for size), people often ask me what I'm reading, so I think it would be nice to give an update on what I'm reading.  Plus, this will encourage me to read more things more quickly.   I'm guilty of going through fits and starts of reading - devouring books very quickly, then going on strict hiatus.  

Recently I've read: The Small House at Allington (1864) by Anthony Trollope, which is the basic victorian novel, with such stunning gems of victorian maleness as assertions that a woman could never be convinced to marry after being jilted by her fiance because in the moment she accepted that first proposal she gave up herself to that man's life, and she simply couldn't get herself back.  I paraphrase, but only just barely.  If you've never heard of Anthony Trollope, it's no surprise.  Like many 19th-century authors, Trollope was outrageously popular in his day, but suffered from the aesthetic revolution of the early 20th century, and today is rarely found on syllabi (though this is also due, perhaps, to the fact that his novels are all, like, 10,000 pages long).  But I feel a certain rumbling beneath the academic ramparts to re-examine these passed-over authors.  Contemporary critics are typically interested in Trollope's treatment of women, which, despite my earlier characterization, is often nuanced and interesting.  And often not.  But, you know.

Right now I'm reading the (in)famous Pamela (1740) by Samuel Richardson.  The basic story of this epistolary novel is as follows: Pamela, whose parents were well-educated school teachers fallen on bad luck, is sent out to service to good Madam B who notices her fine sensibilities and educates her "above her station" by teaching her to play the part of a genteel young lady (playing cards, fine embroidery, carving chickens, writing a fine hand, reading things other than novels, etc.)  Upon Madam B's death, her son, Mr. B, begins to take notice of the alluring Pamela.  He begins to give her gifts of fine clothes and to ask her to embroider him special vests!  But the plot thickens as his attraction to her becomes more ... lascivious.  He begins to make advances, but being a virtuous wench, Pamela refuses them.  So, naturally, he has her kidnapped and imprisoned in his country house where his other servants are more amenable to his plans to rape her, or, ruin her "by force," as they say.  After about a month of imprisonment, Mr. B comes to the country house to do the deed, except Pamela's consistent virtue, and her impressively written letters and journal, all convince him that he can't stand to be without her, and will marry her in spite of the shame and dishonor it will bring on his family.  And, of course, despite herself, Pamela totally loves him because he's totally handsome and rich and they get married and, you might think the book would be over there, but it's not, because it continues for another 200-300 pages explaining how hard it is for a woman to go from servant to mistress in the 18th century.

You might be saying to yourself, gee, thanks!  You just gave away the whole thing! To which I would reply, the plot is not the point!  Which is one of the most stunning changes when you become a graduate student.  While many of us still enjoy the first reading because of the plot - I will probably never become one of those people who can read the footnotes on the first go around because they always give things away (seriously, don't read them.  Oxford is the worst!), the rest of the time I'm reading for far more.

The plot of Pamela is well-known, and in no way surprising or page-turning.  The frustration many readers feel with epistolary novels is that the plot doesn't seem to have much of a role.  They're far more concerned with the inner-workings of the characters, and their ability to express themselves to each other.

There are all sorts of class dimensions going on in this book which fascinate me.  Richardson was not a member of the English Aristocracy, being rather a member of the mercantile class, and it's fascinating to see Pamela stand up for herself as an autonomous British citizen with rights in the face of her tyrannical Master, Mr. B.  A good introduction will take you through the class implications of the story, but what I'm most interested in are the ways that Pamela is able to make sense of her situation because she's been so well-educated and encouraged to read.  Again and again she refers to books to explain her position to herself and others, using them as analogies for her situation.  Without her extended education, would Pamela have had the tools to hold off Mr. B for so long?

I don't think so, which makes the cover page of the book make perfect sense.  By reading, women were reinforcing their virtue, not endangering it, as many contemporaries would contend.

One last word, in favor of 18th-century novels:

Are you under the impression that the earlier centuries were far more prude than ours?  That they didn't talk about sex, or show their ankles, and other Victorian-inspired niceties?  Allow me to disabuse you of this impression (and to encourage you to revisit your notes from that Shakespeare seminar while I'm at it).  18th-century British literature* is bawdy and raucous and salacious and outrageous -  you just have to know enough about their vocabulary and culture to catch on.  When Pamela, post-wedding night, declares herself "thrice-happy," you're not the only one who thinks she's giving away some rather intimate information.  And what's the big deal with the women always falling down?  Oh, right, 18th-century ladies didn't wear underwear.  And skirts ... falling ... you get the idea.

I'm just saying, give it a try.  I recommend beginning with Tom Jones and working your way up to Tristram Shandy, which is neither 18th, 19th, or 20th-century standard, but is its own unique little lovable morsel (just like Uncle Toby.)

I remain Your humble servant,

 * And if you've ever wondered how best to continue having sex with your dear departed lover, you have only to ask the French (hint: it involves embalming, wax, and some fancy hidden springs.  And the linked book, by the way, is to die for.)

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Back Away From the Mic!

Jeez Louise, is there anything more annoying than listening to Pat Buchanan on the radio?  I mean, aside from his impossibly stubborn old-guy opinions ("When I worked with Nixon!.. you know!  That guy that lied and cheated and was thrown out of office! Yeah, he taught me a lot!"), the man cannot manage to speak for a full sentence without doing that awful ... I don't even know how to describe it.  Like sniffling and licking your lips at the same time ... it's disgusting.  And my man, Tom Ashbrook, can't your sound editors do anything about this!?

And also, does it change your opinion about a lot of things (the Pulitzer, for example?) to know that Doris Kearns Goodwin is a bona fide plagiarist?  Something to think about ...

Oh, and Eva, you must sing and dance for an update.  To entice you, I offer a morsel: the wedding will take place in May 2010 (after my first year of the new school).  So consider this an unofficial "save the date" until you receive an actual "save the date."

Monday, April 27, 2009

Love and Marriage

I found a couple of delightful post on the interwebs today about the difficulty of being a truly feminist bride.  This is a topic near and dear to my heart, since I am both a feminist (though I prefer the term anti-gender-essentialism-and-discrimination-ist, it doesn't have the same zing!) and a bride-to-be.

I generally agree with both Broadsheet and Jessica Valenti that breaking from the traditional wedding script is almost impossible these days unless you're willing to offend most of your family and ... yourself.  Some feminist somewhere made the astute point that gender may be a construct, but that doesn't mean it isn't real.  

So maybe I have been engineered by my society to want a big wedding with all my friends and family.  Maybe this urge is deeply implicated in patriarchal power, but it's also something that, damn it, I want!  

And what is truly more feminist?  Doing what others tell you is the appropriate thing (in this case: it's anti-feminist to have a traditional wedding), or doing what you feel is appropriate for yourself and your marriage without deference to overarching power structures (and of course the academy and the feminist movement within is also a power structure that has come to "construct" us as women).

The answer seems pretty clear to me.  The beauty of the feminist revolution is that now we women have the intellectual and civil right to follow ourselves.  I don't want to exclude half my friends and family by having a teeny-tiny ceremony.   I want to dance like a maniac in a wedding dress, which, I believe, requires a reception.  And, oh yeah, I want to wear that big white wedding dress (which, by the way, is fabulous).

And isn't that the best part of life as a 21st century woman?  I'm not, actually, obligated to deconstruct myself and examine how I can simultaneously not even seriously consider just flat out changing my name (the new debate: to hyphenate, or to not hyphenate - discuss amongst yourselves), and devolve into raptures at an organza-chiffon blend that makes me look so hot!

Now, don't get me wrong, I do not want my marriage vows, or anyone's marriage vows, to include the words "obey" - but isn't the point really that it's not my place to force my beliefs on other people, and vice versa?*  To become truly comfortable with that premise, and truly comfortable within yourself and your own ideals and your own person, is such a lovely, lovely place to find oneself.   And when you find yourself in that place with someone who seems to have been cosmically created to fit that self like a loving little puzzle piece, why wouldn't you want to say: you and me.  It is you and me.  Forever...

Until we have babies.  But don't even get me started on that!

Cheers, ya'll!

* Important Note: vigorous discussion and debate is not the same thing as forcing your beliefs upon others.  It's actually the opposite - it's expressing your beliefs and allowing another to express theirs as well.  Cable news: I'm looking at you.  Oh, and while I'm looking, can you stop hiring disgraced politicians to give "political analysis"?  What, are you stupid?  I mean seriously!  That's like asking a cheater how to pass the test: they never actually knew the answers ... that's why they cheated.  Jeez.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Newsflash: Bug Takes Advantage of my Eco-Friendly Attempts to Persuade Him Out the Door

Is this what our natural order has come to?  That a giant, irritating horsefly is not at all perturbed by my attempts to threaten him with a rolled up paper because he knows very well that, no matter how many times I threaten it, I will never actually have the heart to smash him?  His perch on the molding above the door secured, I sit down to write my first blog post in an egregiously long time.

What am I doing?  Well, right now I am not working, as I should be.  My ridiculously awesome job (which will soon be available), which involves my showing up kind of whenever I feel like it, leaving kind of whenever I feel like it, reading blogs with an actual purpose, doing a minimal amount of data entry and mail preparation and always, always listening to NPR at inappropriate volumes, allows me a brief moment to post about the most wonderful of all topics: me.

Why would I leave such a job, you ask?  Well, as nice as it is, it has only enhanced my desire to get back into the classroom, this time as teacher and student.  I have finally been accepted and funded at a few decent PhD programs, and have decided on the University of Kentucky in Lexington.  Which means I will actually, eventually, someday, probably be called Professor.  My wonderful job is ensconced in a scholarly institute and my envy of those harried, tired, stressed academics wandering the halls, in charge of their own time and their own lives and their own interests was just too much for me.  I applied, and I emerged victorious, thanks in large part to the support of the wonderful professors here at the University of Virginia.   So the soon-to-be hubs and I will move in August, and embark upon approximately half a decade of life as a church mouse.  Hey, at least I've got a job for the next five years.  How many people can say that these days?

I also have a new website and blog, Sweater Girl Knits where I discuss my newly found passion for creating my own vintage clothes and encourage other people to do so too!  If you like knitting or vintage clothes, you should check it out.  If you don't like these things, you should consider doing so.  And if you have your very own blog or website you should probably link to me.  Because it will help my google stats.

No seriously, please link to me.

And after that shameless bit of self-promotion, I've decided to institute my very own "How Radical are you?" scale.  Inspired by Slate's "Lipstick-o-Meter" I've decided to keep track of how deeply I traverse the spectrum from insipid dinosaur Caitlin Flanagan to flame-throwing Camille Paglia. (Please note: the likes of Ann Coulter, having frequently demonstrated that they are, in fact, sub-human, are beyond the spectrum.)  

Present Status: Pretty generally pissed off about a lot of things and unwilling to keep quiet about it anymore: Joan Walsh.

Check out her column.  Who knew that the same woman that frequently irritated me when arguing with Chris Matthews and his ilk, was actually a ball-busting lady reporter whom I enjoy reading, and that this fact would further solidify my hatred of all things 24-hour "news"?  Her recent report on the disgusting William Kristol is a good case in point. 

Now, Joan Walsh and I do not agree about everything all the time.  And like many of us, she can descend into group-think and emotional responses.  But I appreciate her guts, and her political engagement.  And if there's one thing I've learned, it's that if I'm going to be a successful academic, and achieve my dream of being a multi-millionaire blogger who gets paid to jet around and have opinions about stuff, I'm going to have to actually.. you know .. articulate opinions about stuff.  Publicly.  And not just to my cat.  Who is a very good listener.  And never disagrees.

So keep checking here and enjoy a front-seat view of my quest to actually become Dahlia Lithwick (who, for the record, is totally my friend, evidenced here by her response to my email!  Though, I would disagree that I was writing to "chide," but ... you know ... eye of the beholder, etc.)  One day, I dream of being able to eruditely explicate just what is so troubling about a bunch of crony Supreme Court Justices guffawing their way to a ruling that Strip Searches of Thirteen Year Old Girls are completely appropriate.

Until next time,