Monday, December 23, 2013

Christopher's Top Ten of 2013

Alas, 2013!  I knew him well, Horatio.  I haven't posted all my reviews, and I won't be able to until I'm back in Brooklyn in January, but I did reach 50 once again--six out of seven years now.  Here are my ten favorites from this year of reading.

10.) The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty -- This was a tough slot.  I might have easily put Herta Muller's The Appointment here or Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Blithedale RomanceI'm going with The Optimist's Daughter because it continues to mystify me.  What begins as a story of an adult woman dealing with the death of her father and her acrimonious stepmother changes several times over until it's something stranger and less easy to categorize.

9.) Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow -- This is one of three Africa books I read this year (including No Longer at Ease and Out of Africa) and it's certainly the one that has the least to do with Africa as it really exists.  Bellow's Africa is an elaborate fantasy, but its message about the difficulty of living life fully is powerful and real.

8.) Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card -- This was the year that Card's political conservatism caught up with him, as the Ender's Game movie forced to light some of the ugly and controversial things he's had to say about homosexuality in the past.  The thing that amazes me is that the Card who has said these things seems like a man who has never read Speaker for the Dead, much less wrote it.  The main idea of Speaker, like Ender's Game, is that it is impossible to truly understand anyone and not love them.  In this sequel Ender, disgraced but unknown, travels the universe "speaking" for the dead, as well as hoping to avert the destruction of another alien species by communicating exactly that kind of understanding.  Why is Card capable of imagining sympathy for pig-like aliens but not for homosexuals?

7.) Gilead by Marilynne Robinson -- I think I prefer Robinson's first novel, Housekeeping, but I will say that I think this book is more human and more sympathetic.  I'm not sure I've ever read a more honest and sympathetic portrayal of religion in human life.  And Robinson's prose, of course, is better than anyone else living.

6.) The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath -- Knowing that Sylvia Plath's novel about a young woman's mental unraveling is pretty much autobiographical makes it an even more affecting read.  The way that the narrator, Esther Greenwood, moves from the typical anxieties of young adulthood to paralyzing depression is chilling--and sobering.

5.) The Lost Estate by Alain-Fournier -- I'll say it: Better than The Great Gatsby. 

4.) The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay -- Macaulay milks a lot of laughter out of the sight of her fellow Britons running around Turkey writing their "Turkey books," yet she's constantly aware that The Towers of Trebizond is exactly that: too wrapped up in itself to really say or even notice anything significant about Turkey.  Few other books I've read have been as consistently funny and deeply sad.

3.) Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes -- What is there left to say about Don Quixote?  It's our greatest book about friendship, and our greatest book about imagination.  Modern literature owes more to Cervantes than anybody, Shakespeare (probably) not excepted.

2.) The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg -- My top two books this year are both from a class I took on the novel in the Romantic period.  Both are exceedingly strange.  The Private Memoirs are the story of a Puritan fanatic in Scotland who falls under the influence of his doppelganger, who convinces him to kill people for God.  Things do not go well for him.  I almost made this #1.

1.) The Monk by Matthew Lewis -- I think anyone who doesn't read literature written before fifty years ago because it's antiquated or stuffy ought to read The Monk.  It's got it all: Evil priests, Satanic pacts, forcible rape, infant corpses, dismemberment by demon, etc., etc.  This was my favorite book of the year because it was awesome.

That's a wrap!  As always, we're constantly looking for more contributors to our blog.  If you'd like to challenge yourself to read and write about fifty books in 2014, shoot me an e-mail at misterchilton at gmail dot com.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers

And as she sickened with this feeling a thought and explanation suddenly came to her, so that she knew and almost said aloud: They are the we of me.  Yesterday, and all the twelve years of her life, she had been only Frankie.  She was an I person who had to walk around and do things by herself.  All other people had a we to claim, all other except her.  When Berenice said we, she meant Honey and Big Mama, her lodge, her church.  The we of her father was the store.  All members of clubs have a we to belong to and talk about.  The soldiers in the army can say we, and even the criminals on chain-gangs.  But the old Frankie had no we to claim, unless it would be the terrible summer we of her and John Henry and Berenice--and that was the last we in the world she wanted.  Now all this was suddenly over and changed.  There was her brother and the bride, and it was though when first she saw them something she had known inside of her: They are the we of me.

Carson McCullers' The Member of the Wedding opens by saying, "It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old.  This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member.  She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world."  Mick Kelly, one of the protagonists of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, claims that "[s]he wasn't a member of any bunch."  Both Frankie and Mick spend their summers wandering around, isolated from other teenagers, hanging out with those much younger than them if they hang out with anyone at all.  They share the same anxieties about maturing, especially the fact that they have endured sudden growth spurts and are now taller than their peers.  Both seem to have a closer relationship with their family's black servants than with their parents.

If I thought about it, there would probably be dozens of other similarities--so many that you might uncharitably say that The Member of the Wedding is a rehash by an author who only has one idea.  But I prefer to think of this short novel as a variation on a theme, a single riff plucked out of the fugue that is The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and sent off on a jazz solo.  (In fact, at one point McCullers writes that in Frankie "a jazz sadness quivered her nerves.")

Frankie responds to her isolation and anxiety by developing an obsession with her older brother and his upcoming wedding.  As her caretaker Berenice says, she is "in love with" their wedding, and she makes plans to escape the boredom of her life by running away with the newlyweds after the wedding:

Frankie stood looking into the sky.  For when the old question came to her--the who she was and what she would be in the world, and why she was standing there that minute--when the old question came to her, she did not feel hurt and unanswered.  At last she knew just who she was and understood where she was going.  She loved her brother and the bride and she was a member of the wedding.  The three of them would go into the world and they would always be together.

Just as in Lonely Hunter, McCullers' ability to write from a child's perspective is really uncanny.  Frankie and Mick can be precocious at times, but they never seem like adults disguised in children's clothes.  In Member, McCullers gives Frankie a companion in six-year old John Henry, and their conversations are perfectly attuned, I think, to the way kids talk.  The triangular relationship between Frankie, John Henry, and their caretaker Berenice--one which Frankie is constantly trying to extricate herself from, and then returning to--is the heart of the novel.  I was really struck by these comments by Berenice on her ex-husbands, which serve as a warning to Frankie:

"Why, don't you see what I was doing?" asked Berenice.  "I loved Ludie and he was the first man I ever loved.  Therefore, I had to go and copy myself forever afterward.  What I did was to marry off little pieces of Ludie whenever I come across them.  It was just my misfortune they all turned out to be the wrong pieces... You and that wedding at Winter Hill," Berenice said finally.  "That is what I am warning about.  I can see right through them two gray eyes of yours like they was glass.  And what I see is the saddest piece of foolishness I ever knew."
Later on there's a really fantastic scene where Frankie, yearning to be older, hangs around a taproom until a drunken soldier asks her on a date.  She, however, does not know what drunkenness looks like, and interprets it as eccentricity.  This all leads to a very frightening scene in his hotel room which very nearly becomes a sexual assault; again, perhaps like the scene between Mick Kelly and Harry Minowitz at the lake in Lonely Hunter.  But here the danger and the fear are amplified, and make a stark contrast to the adult world of intimacy and companionship that Frankie thinks she will be able to enter at the wedding.

We know, of course, that Berenice is right; Frankie will never be part of her brother's marriage in the way that she wants to be.  Yet when the moment comes, when we think we are prepared for the final sadness, McCullers finds a way to make the ending even more heartbreaking.  Despite being a third as long, The Member of the Wedding is nearly as moving and sad as The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and seems to me like an author honing her most deeply held ideas, rather than an uninspired retread.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Lais of Marie de France

In your honor, noble King,
who are so brave and courteous,
repository of all joys
in whose heart all goodness takes root,
I undertook to assemble these lais
to compose and recount them in rhyme.
In my heart I thought and determined,
sire, that I would present them to you.
If it pleases you to receive them,
you will give me great joy;
I shall be happy forever.
Do not think me presumptuous if I dare present them to you.
Now hear how they begin.

Marie de France is the earliest known female French poet, although we're not totally sure she's from France and it seems likely that she wrote most of her works for English king Henry II.  Whatever.  She claims that these brief poetic tales of love and magic are translations from Breton songs called lais, though even that is dubious.  Wherever they come from, they're pretty delightful.

Mostly, they're about romantic love.  The first, and my favorite, "Guigemar," is about a young knight who has no interest in women until one day he's out hunting and comes across a magical androgynous white deer.  He shoots it--robbing the world of probably its only magical androgynous white deer--but the arrow rebounds and strikes him.  With its dying breath, the deer curses Guigemar:

Then she spoke, in this fashion:
"Alas!  I'm dying!
And you, vassal, who wounded me,
this be your destiny:
may you never get medicine for your wound!
Neither herb nor root,
neither physician nor potion,
will cure you
of that wound in your thigh,
until a woman heals you,
one who will suffer, out of love for you,
pain and grief
such as no woman ever suffered before.
And out of love for her, you'll suffer as much;
the affair will be a marvel
to lovers, past and present,
and all those yet to come.
Now go away, leave me in peace!"

In the very next moment Marie solves the dilemma that the deer has created--that is, where and how Guigemar will find the woman who will heal his wound.  Distraught, he boards a magical unmanned ship that whisks him away to a faraway world where he is received by a beautiful lady, trapped in a castle by her older, jealous husband.  Naturally, they fall in love and abscond together, where the hapless woman manages to get herself imprisoned by a completely different feudal jerk.  Guigemar kills him and saves the day.

It's such a simple little fairy tale story, but I love the weirdness and imbalance of it.  Why does Marie instantaneously solve the conflict she sets up?  Why is the prison story repeated twice?  I have theories about these question that I am including in a paper I'm writing for my Medieval Literature course, but those answers have very little to do with my first reaction to the strangness of "Guigemar."  Chivalric literature seems in my mind so ossified--knight beats evil lord for lady's hand, repeat--that it was really compelling to see that formula twisted and upended.

Another of my favorites is "Laustic." In this lai, a married woman and her neighbor fall in love merely by seeing each other through the window of their homes.  The woman's jealous husband asks her why she is always staring out the window, and she claims that she is delighting in the nightingale that sings in the tree outside.  The husband, perplexingly, captures the nightingale:

...I have trapped the nightingale
that kept you awake so much.
From now on you can lie in peace:
he will never again awaken you."
When the lady heard him,
she was sad and angry.
She asked her lord for the bird
but he killed it out of spite,
he broke the neck in his hands--
too vicious an act--
and thre the body on the lady;
her shift was stained with blood,
a little, on her breast.

Awesome.  After this, the woman sends the neighbor the bird's body, and he keeps it in a little iron casket around his neck for the rest of his life.  As you can see, evil husbands are a frequent theme here, and Marie seems to be narratizing the contrast between the cruel formality of marriage and the power of love constructed freely between two people.  It's actually a surprisingly modern/Western take on love, though at the time Marie's peers hotly debated the comparative value of marriage d'amour and marriage de convenance.

There's also a lai about a werewolf.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

How Soon is Now?: Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers, and the Queerness of Time by Carolyn Dinshaw

And though I feel I have achieved my fullest incarnation here as a professional, writing a book with reams of endnotes, I also feel a kinship with the amateur that I can only call queer.  I know, I know: I have been professionally trained as a medievalist, have taught full time for more than thirty years, and have been recognized and well rewarded.  So why should I ever feel myself to be an amateur in a world of professionals, ever lacking, ever behind?  Because I am a queer--a dyke and only sort of white.  Because I am a medievalist, and studying the Middle Ages is, finally, about desire--for another time, for meaning, for life--and desire, moreover, is so particularly marked for queers with lack and shame.  These feelings are not simply personal insecurities.  Like my queerness, my feelings of amateurism aren't a stage of development, aren't ever going to go away; as in the case of queerness, too, my goal is to contribute to the creation of conditions in which an amateur sensibility might be nurtured and its productivity explored.

Amateurism is at the heart of Carolyn Dinshaw's How Soon is Now?, but it is the kind of book only a well-regarded professional could have published: part academic work, part personal essay, compelling but a little off-balance, with chapter titles taken from the discography of The Smiths.  On its face it is a book about the Middle Ages, but often it's a book about books about the Middle Ages, and the cover illustration depicts Washington Irving's Rip van Winkle.

There is a queer way of experiencing time, Dinshaw argues, unregulated by the ticking-clock urgency of marriage and procreation.  She describes queer time in a number of medieval texts in which "straight" subjects find their time disjointed, displaced, or transformed.  The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, for example, abscond to a cave to escape Roman persecution of Christians only to wake up hundreds of years later in the Christian Empire. 

There is something about medieval texts, Dinshaw contends, that makes them ripe for stories of queer time, especially as an attraction for amateur medievalists who, through their non-professional (and thus, in a way, queer) passion for the time period, are out of joint with their own era.  Geoffrey Crayon, the narrator of Washington Irving's collection which contains the Rip van Winkle story is one of these, and as such is linked to Rip as a man out of time.

For each chapter, Dinshaw ends with a personal narrative connecting her own life experiences--her queerness and amateurism--to the observations she is making about medieval texts.  I like the way that How Soon is Now? puts its subject matter into practice; skipping merrily across centuries and between the amateur and the professional spheres.  But in the end, it seems somehow simultaneously overstuffed and half-finished, as the different threads that Dinshaw follows--time, queerness, amateurism, the Middle Ages--are never tied together in a satisfactory way.  Perhaps that's a heteronormative thing for me to say.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

And beneath Cornwall, beyond and beneath this whole realm of England, beneath the sodden marches of Wales and the rough territory of the Scots border, there is another landscape; there is a buried empire, where he fears his commissioners cannot reach.  Who will swear the hobs and bogarts who lie in the hedges and in hollow trees, and the wild men who hide in the woods?  Who will swear the saints in their niches, and the spirits that cluster at holy wells rustling like fallen leaves, and the miscarried infants dug into unconsecrated ground: all those unseen dead who hover in winter around forges and village hearths, trying to warm their bare bones?  For they too are his countrymen: the generations of the uncounted dead, breathing through the living, stealing their light from them, the bloodless ghosts of lord and knave, nun and whore, the ghosts of priest and friar who feed on living England, and suck the substance from the future.

In Ford Madox Ford's The Fifth Queen, Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's chief advisor, is a shrewd, conniving man who works tirelessly to discredit and destroy Catholics in England.  In Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Cromwell is equally shrewd and cunning, but with a golden heart to boot.  Ford’s Cromwell is a self-serving Machiavel; Mantel’s grieves for his dead wife and children, serves his king out of loyalty and perhaps love, and feels remorse for Thomas More’s public execution.

Unfortunately, Mantel’s Cromwell is also pretty dull.  She works hard to rehabilitate his image, but why?  Why, for instance, does Mantel feel the need to provide for Cromwell no fewer than four different “son” characters to act out his fatherly wisdom on?  Why do we need to know that he had an abusive father?  Ford’s vision of Cromwell makes sense in light of his Catholic dogmatism, but what is it that Mantel wants to say about the Reformation, or God, or human beings?  Maybe there are answers to these questions, but the book is such a muddle that it hardly seems worth trying to pry them out.  (The passage I quoted above is, I think, one really nice exception to that muddle-ness.)

Part of what makes Wolf Hall such a difficult experience is its insistence on historical completeness.  The bare bones of Cromwell’s story are pretty fascinating: His intimacy with his predecessor, Cardinal Wolsey, hounded out of office by Henry for failure to procure a divorce from Catherine of Aragon.  His role in the break from Rome and the establishment of Anne Boleyn as queen.  His struggle with More over the Oath of Succession, and the hand he has in his execution.  But these moments get lost in a torrent of historical minutiae and a superflux of historical characters.  The cast is so enormous that Mantel provides a reference table in the front in case you forget who is Thomas Wolsey and who is Thomas Wriothesley and who is Thomas Audley.  (Also, cracking jokes about how the world seems to be made up of people named Thomas doesn’t make it any clearer.)  I understand the rationale behind being faithful to history, but this is a novel, and not a textbook; so many of these people occupy such similar niches that deciphering the plot can be maddening.  Mantel’s writing is accomplished, but trying to differentiate all these characters through voice and description is a task only Shakespeare or Dickens could tackle.

So there’s six hundred pages of that, and then you realize: There are two sequels.  This story’s only a third of the way done!  Who, outside of the most devoted early modernist, has the energy to pick up the next novel, Bringing Up the Bodies, after making it through Wolf Hall?  Not I.  Which is a shame, because like a lot of people, I think the story of Henry VIII’s life is fascinating.  Maybe I’ll just start watching The Tudors instead.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Letters of Abelard and Heloise

Heloise went on to the risks I should run in bringing her back, and argued that the name of friend [amica] instead of wife would be dearer to her and more honourable for me--only love freely given should keep me for her, not the constriction of a marriage tie, and if we had to be parted for a time, we should find the joy of being together all the sweeter the rarer our meetings were.  But at last she saw that her attempts to persuade or dissuade me were making no impression on my foolish obstinacy, and she could not bear to offend me; so amidst deep sighs and tears she ended in these words: 'We shall both be destroyed.  All that is left us is suffering as great as our love has been.'  In this, as the whole world knows, she showed herself a true prophet.

It used to be that Abelard and Heloise were as famous as Romeo and Juliet as paragons of doomed love.  I guess that we prefer our love stories to be secular ones these days, but that's a shame, because the story of these two is so shocking and heartbreaking that it's hard to believe that it is true, and that we are fortunate enough to have these letters that passed between them.

Abelard begins by recounting the story of his life in a document called the Historia Calamitatum: The History of My Calamities.  He tells of how he was once a famous philosopher and logician, renowned but arrogant.  He carries on an affair with a young girl named Heloise, who became pregnant.  They marry in secret, and he hides her away in a convent, but her family, incensed at the scandal, breaks into his room late one night and castrates him.  Humiliated and disgraced, his disfigurement causes him to devote his life to Christ, and he becomes a monk.

Heloise, now a nun and a renowned writer in her own right, reads the Historia Calamitatum and writes a letter to her estranged husband, whom she has not seen in years.  What follows is a series of letters between the two, reflecting on what they have lost, each trying--and often, it seems, failing--to find solace in their religious communities and duties.  Heloise's letters are amazingly raw, and give a portrait of a woman still heartbroken over the loss of Abelard:

You know, beloved, as everyone knows, how much I have lost in you, how at one wretched stroke of fortune that supreme act of flagrant treachery robbed me of my very self in robbing me of you; and how my sorrow for my loss is nothing compared with what I feel for the manner in which I lost you... God knows I never sought anything in you except yourself; I wanted simply you, nothing of yours.  I looked for no marriage-bond, no marriage portion, and it was not my own pleasures and wishes I sought to gratify, as you well know, but yours... God is my witness that if Augustus, Emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honour me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess for ever, it would be dearer and more honourable to me to be called not his Empress but your whore.

Years later, Heloise confesses that she still yearns for Abelard sexually, that she cannot repent of their actions because she still wants to possess him in a way that is no longer physically possible:

Even during the celebration of the Mass, when our prayers should be purer, lewd visions of those pleasures take such a hold on my unhappy soul that my thoughts are on their wantonness instead of on my prayers.  I should be groaning over the sins that I have committed, but I can only sigh for what I have lost.  Everything we did and also the times and places where we did it are stamped on my heart along with your image, so that I live through them all again with you.  Even in sleep I know no respite.

In turn, Abelard tries to make Heloise see their sufferings as a gift.  He has come to see his disfigurement as a blessing:

And so it was wholly just and merciful, although by means of the supreme treachery of your uncle, for me to be reduced in that part of my body was the seat of lust and sole reason for those desires, so that I could increase in many ways; in order that his member should justly be punished for all its wrongdoing in us, expiate in suffering the sins committed for its amusement and cut me off from the slough of filth in which I had been wholly immersed in mind as in body.

It's startlingly strange to be able to pry into the intimate lives of two people who lived 900 years ago and see how profound their suffering is.  The later letters are considerably duller, as they concern Abelard's prescription of a rule for nuns (like the Benedictine rule that governs monks) at Heloise's request, but it is certainly more interesting with the subtext of their long and bitter history.

Abelard died first, and legend has it that when Heloise died, they opened up his tomb so that they could place her body in it, and his skeleton reached out and embraced her.  Your move, Shakespeare.

Roundup (Me, desperately trying to catch up)

The Life-Partner of Frankenstein by Batton Lash

"From what I heard, the county clerk was rendered speechless . . . He had never before seen people like these before . . . A strange pair who only wanted the same benefits and recognition that the state gives to any 'normal . . . .'"

Batton Lash has written an entire comic series about Alanna Wolff and Jeff Byrd, counselors of the macabre.  They are attorneys who represent supernatural creatures (one might even say, creatures of the night).  In this adventure, Wolff and Byrd represent Frankenstein and Lady Frankenstein, who want to get married.  The townsfolk (complete with pitchforks and torches), believe that such a marriage would be an (gasp!) abomination.  This is an extremely subtle metaphor for gay marriage.  So subtle, in fact, that I almost missed it during my first reading.

Not really.  To be fair, Lash is not trying to be subtle.  The comic is full of the most obvious criticisms of arguments against gay marriage (including the scene where the heterosexual, married couple is depicted as being unhappily married).  By the end, Frankenstein and his bride, Freda are given the right to be married.  Everyone lives happily ever after.

All in all, a fun, quick read.  

The Time-Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

“Clare, I want to tell you, again, I love you. Our love has been the thread through the labyrinth, the net under the high-wire walker, the only real thing in this strange life of mine that I could ever trust. Tonight I feel that my love for you has more density in this world than I do, myself: as though it could linger on after me and surround you, keep you, hold you.” 

I was expecting this book to be a tacky romance.  I was only partly right.  Niffenegger's playing with non-linear narrative works well: we get non-chronological puzzle pieces at different points in the novel and it is only in later parts of the book that we see where the pieces fit.  This adds a level of complexity to the novel that makes it a better novel.  My favorite aspect of this novel was the impending sense of doom that Niffenegger hints at early on.  We know for a long time that something bad is going to happen; we watch as the protagonists know too.

William Shakespeare's Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope by Ian Doescher

The desp'rate hour is now upon us--please,
I beg thee, Sir.  O help me, Obi-Wan
Kenobi, help.  Thou art mine only hope.

Every now and again someone has a simple but brilliant idea.  An idea that really should have occurred to someone long, long ago, but, alas, has not.  Ian Doescher has done a favor to humanity by having, and executing, a much needed idea.  So, now we have, Shakespeare's Star Wars.  Same story, now with more Shakespearean iambic pentameter.  We are a better society, now.

Substantively: the book is well executed.  The prose is faithful to Shakespeare; the plot is faithful to Star Wars.  Admittedly, the novelty of the idea wears a little thin by the end.  But, it's so much fun, I didn't care.  I desperately want to see a stage production.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

Telegraph Avenue feels a lot like Chabon’s attempt to write a Dickens or Tolstoy novel. Although it takes place exclusively in Oakland, it has an epic, world-weary quality to it, as its characters pass in and out of each others’ lives through fate or coincidence. There’s a plot, mainly circling around the music store owned by Archy Stallings, a black man, and Nat Jaffe, a Jewish one, and a lot of subplots, the most interesting of which revolves around Luther Stallings, Archy’s father, a washed-up blaxploitation actor trying to finance a new film and reconnect with his very estranged son--but it doesn’t feel like Chabon is primarily interested in turning the narrative cogs. He’s clearly world-building here, trying to make a character of Oakland the same way Joyce did of Dublin in Ulysses, an acknowledged influence on Telegraph Avenue.

That said, a book with a meandering main plot needs to keep its focus on its most interesting characters, and Chabon sometimes does, sometimes doesn’t. It’s good when he’s spending  time with Julie Jaffe, Nat Jaffe’s gay son, and Titus Joyner, Archy Stallings’ illegitimate offspring, and when he’s showing Gwen, Archy’s wife, and her partner, Aviva, Nat’s wife, running their midwifery business, and when we’re with Luther Stallings, as mentioned earlier. Archy and Nat, on the other hand, never clicked with me, and although the fate of their record store is the linchpin for much of the books denouement, it never carried much weight. I don’t want to be hard on Telegraph Avenue, because I enjoyed it. At times, though, it felt like a 250 page novel trapped inside a 600 page tome.

There was one other thing that bothered me about the novel, and that is that, at times, it feels like Chabon is engaging in cultural appropriation for the novelty of it. Things like the black folks in the waiting room at the hospital saying, “Oh shit!’ when a confrontation occurs, or the extensive digressions, from Gwen’s mouth, about being black in America, or the unbelievably bad section told from Senator Barack Obama's point of view. It’s not that Chabon shouldn’t have written about these things (well, maybe the Obama POV should've been cut), just that they sometimes felt like they could have been handled better, more realistically, more sensitively... differently, at least. This isn't something that usually bothers me in novels, but I couldn't get away from it here, even if I can't quite articulate why.

There are moments of transcendence here--Chabon is a very good prose stylist most of the time. I particularly liked a section in the middle which self-consciously emulates the Penelope section of Ulysses, covering the entire town and all the ongoing plotlines in one, long sentence. Ironically it's here, where things should feel most excessive, that they feel most controlled, and that Chabon seems to wrest control of his book away from digressions and toward the main event. It's just too bad those moments are separated by so many pages.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Shining by Stephen King

He did see.  He has been too easy with them.  Husbands and fathers did have certain responsibilities.  Father Knows Best.  They did not understand.

I read The Shining years and years ago (I've always loved King's novels, but I probably read most during high school, this one included), and in preparation for Doctor Sleep, the newly released sequel, I figured I'd read it again.  It did not disappoint.  I can't say it's one of my favorite by King, but it's still great.  In his story about the Torrance family, Jack, Wendy and Danny, King creates the feeling of claustrophobia, desolation and depression while slowly ratcheting up the intensity.

I'm sure everyone knows the basic plot at this point: Jack gets the job as the caretaker of a resort outside of Boulder when it closes for the winter.  His son, Danny, has some kind of psychic powers (the eponymous "shining"), which allow him to see the future and communicate telepathically.  Unfortunately for the Torrances, this power attracts the attention of the hotel itself, which is basically haunted.  The hotel uses Jack to get to Danny by slowly driving him insane.  Lots of scary stuff goes down before the climactic end (which, by the way, is different and better than the end of the movie).

What I notice and found interesting this time around was why Jack was so vulnerable.  The Torrances ended up snowed in at a deserted hotel in the first place because Jack lost his teaching job after hitting a student.  Before that incident he had struggled with his raging alcoholism that at one point contributed to him losing his temper and breaking Danny's arm.  Still, Jack and Wendy's relationship had been improving since Jack quit drinking and it seemed like this job would be the beginning of the family's second act.  However, they live in a time when the man was very much expected to be the provider for his family.  Wendy defers to Jack not just because he's an abusive terror, but because he's the man and it's the late 70s.  When the hotel's shenanigans start to escalate, the clear right move is to get Danny the hell out of there, but Jack resists, even going so far as to sabotage the snowmobile, cutting them off from the outside world.  Sure, the nefarious influence of the hotel plays a big role in this decision, but he's vulnerable to its thrall because he is afraid that if he gives up the caretaker job he won't be able to provide for his family.  He doesn't even consider that Wendy could try to find a job to supplement his income, and she doesn't bring it up either.

His growing delusions and insanity are fed by his insecurity and inability to live up to the ideal of the patriarch.  The hotel turns him against his family, but this is how it manifests: "What it really came down to, he supposed, was their lack of trust in him.  Their failure to believe that he knew what was best for them and how to get it."  The ghosts of the hotel continue to stroke his ego, convincing him that he's "management material" and that it's him it wants, not Danny.  It's not until Danny makes him realize that Danny is the hotel's intended prize that he snaps out of it just long enough to avert disaster.

As the economy stalled and women entered the workforce during this era, this bitterness and frustration must have felt very familiar to many men.  A perceived inability to provide for one's family became more than a present, practical problem; it became a threat the men's entire identity and their conceptions of themselves as men.  Just another way the patriarchy negatively affects men as well as women.

Beyond that interesting aspect, it's still a great book, and I look forward to sinking my teeth into Doctor Sleep.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Life of Christina of Markyate by Anonymous

'Tell me, Beorhtred, and may God have mercy on you, if another were to come and take me away from you and marry me, what would you do?'

He replied, 'I wouldn't put up with it for a moment as long as I lived.  I would kill him with my own hands if there was no other way of keeping you.'

To this she replied, 'Beware then of wanting to take to yourself the Bride of Christ, lest in anger he slay you.'

First of all, if you're anything like me, every time you look at the name "Christina of Markyate," you want to read it as "Christina of Mary Kate," as if this were an 11th century account of some Olsen twin associate.  I f only that were so.  In truth--or according to this account at least--Christina was the daughter of nobles in early Norman England who objected to her arranged marriage to a lout named Beorhtred.  (Another misreading: that really ought to be "Betrothed," right?)  She argued that she could not marry Beorhtred because she was literally married to Christ already.

Persecuted by her parents ("In the end she swore that she would not care who deflowered her daughter, provided that in some way this could be arranged") and Beorhtred, a hermit monk helps Christina by allowing her to live in a cell only a few inches wide for, like, years.  When everyone finally calms down and she's permitted to leave, she takes up the monastic life, impressing everyone with her spirituality and having visions, some of which border on the sexually explicit.

I found a couple of things interesting about Christina's story.  First, the anonymous author is believed to have been a monk at the parish of St. Albans, where Christina lived, and this would-be hagiography is to some extent a transparent attempt to bestow sainthood on Christina, thereby making St. Albans an important site of pilgrimage.  That attempt fails (for reasons I'm not familiar with) and so The Life of Christina of Markyate is interesting as an unsuccessful attempt at persuasion.  Second, I'm really fascinated by the way Christina's "spiritual" marriage precludes and overshadows any "earthly" one.  Here (as well as in the next book I'm going to review, the 12th C. letters of Abelard and Heloise) marriage and family are depicted as necessary evils, antithetical to a life of religious contemplation, and to be avoided if at all possible.  How did we get from there to the "family values" ideal of modern American evangelism?

Anyway, the bottom line is this: Brent should name his next kid "Beorhtred."

Monday, October 14, 2013

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

She opened her arms to the black bat and they flew to each other, embracing in the air like long-lost souls.  This is love, Ursula thought.  And the practice of it makes it perfect.

But it doesn't make it perfect, according to Atkinson.  In the end it's all rather pointless, I suppose.  At least that's what I think the message ends up being from Life After Life, though I'm not sure Atkinson means it to be.

In Life After Life, we follow Urusla, an Englishwoman born in 1910 after life.  Ursula dies constantly in the book, in a variety of different ways (flu, bombing raids, domestic abuse, etc), but is reincarnated as herself each time.  It's hard to tell if the first time she's born in the book is the first time she's born, but as she goes she picks up memories or flashes of her previous lives, like a strong deja vu.  Sometimes she uses this to her advantage (after three or four times she finally figures out how to avoid the Spanish flu), but sometimes not.  Sometimes her life turns out ok, but usually it doesn't.  She deals with rape and domestic abuse over and over, and struggles with the expectations of being a woman in the first half of the 20th century (though Atkinson's addition of these elements seems to be more about setting the scene than any kind of social commentary).

But still, it all feels kind of pointless, because no matter the outcome, as soon as she dies she has to start all over again.  The dreary lives are plenty dreary (and can be depressing as well), but the happy lives aren't that enjoyable because you know she'll probably end up dying in a bombed out building in London the next time anyway.  Toward the end of the book, after having spent part of a previous lifetime being friends with Eva Braun and getting to know Hitler, she brings enough of her recall into the next life and tracks Adolf down in 1930, sacrificing herself to kill him before he gets started.  I thought the book finally had some kind of closure, but turn the page and boom! here we go again!  Ursula has to do it all over again, this time without the foresight to take out the fuhrer, with the war happening anyway.

So really, no matter what she does, it doesn't matter, because she'll forever be caught in an endless loop, repeating life after life after life.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs

But what we have to express in expressing our cities is not to be scorned.  Their intricate order--a manifestation of the freedom of countless numbers of people to make and carry out countless plans--is in many ways a great wonder.  We ought not to be reluctant to make this living collection of interdependent uses, this freedom, this life, more understandable for what it is, nor so unaware that we do not now what it is.

I live in a pretty vibrant neighborhood.  If you've ever watched HBO's Girls, you've seen it--a densely populated collection of vinyl-siding houses interspersed with gritty warehouse and factory buildings that, for the most part, have been transformed into luxury loft spaces, artist's studios, and artisanal pickle companies.  There's a lot of young people and a lot of bars to service them, although it retains its old identity as a middle-class Polish neighborhood.  This vibrancy, of course, comes with consequences--skyrocketing rents, for one.  But also it has become prey for real estate developers wanting to cash in on the neighborhood's success by clearing out vast tracts of space for monstrosities like this one, called Greenpoint Landing:

Jane Jacobs died a few years ago, just before the boom that made such a development possible, but in 2005 she wrote a letter to Mayor Bloomberg responding to a similar plan centering around the old Domino Sugar factory in neighboring Williamsburg that simply and eloquently decried this kind of project.  Reading this letter--it was blown up and framed in a neigborhood coffee shop--made me want to read Jacobs' book The Death and Life of Great American Cities because I thought it might help me understand what's happening in my backyard, and maybe provide expression to the mute unease that I feel about it.

The central argument of Death and Life is that city planning--the way cities are physically designed and put together--has a tremendous impact on vibrancy and quality of life.  Jacobs is highly critical of the faddish trends of mid-century city planning, which advocated low-density communities with tons of open green space built on cleared land--which you may witness in the rendering above.  What good neighborhoods need to become vibrant, Jacobs argues, is four things: A mix of primary uses, small blocks, old buildings, and high densities.

Jacobs' explanation of these "generators of diversity" is so lucid, so persuasive, that I felt almost embarrassed not to see them as common sense before reading them.  Take the need for old buildings: Without them, Jacobs argues, where will fledgeling businesses find rents low enough to support them?  A quick scan of any major city shows this to be absolutely true; into new buildings go the Starbucks and Subways, while entrepreneurs seek out older storefronts or unconventional spaces, not only for their charm but because they have to.  What businesses are going to be crowded out by the full-scale clearing of the warehouses that occupy the site of the future Greenpoint Landing?

The other generators of diversity seem equally obvious, once Jacobs explains them: Areas that rely too heavily on single primary uses, like the financial district of lower Manhattan, are dead, dull places because they only have foot traffic at very specific times of the day; there are no good restaurants in the financial district because they would have to survive on lunch business alone.  Parks in these areas become breeding grounds for crime because there are huge swaths of time in which they are essentially unoccupied.  The need for small blocks seems silly, but it too makes sense; long city blocks are economic dead zones because they discourage pedestrian traffic.

Part of the fun of reading Death and Life is that it provides an interesting picture of what American cities looked like at mid-century.  For example, while we often read about how Detroit's woes derive from the collapse of the American automobile industry, apparently it's always been kind of a hellscape:

Virtually all of urban Detroit is as weak on vitality and diversity as the Bronx.  It is ring superimposed upon ring of failed gray belts.  Even Detroit's downtown itself cannot produce a respectable amount of diversity.  It is dispirited and dull, and almost deserted by seven o'clock of an evening.

But it's also fascinating to see what's changed.  Who knew that posh Riverside Drive was once "plagued by trouble?"  More fascinating still is to hear Jacobs' perspective on Brooklyn, decades before its economic renaissance:

If Brooklyn, New York, as an example, is ever to cultivate the quantity of diversity and degree of attraction and liveliness it needs, it must take maximum economic advantage of combinations of residence and work.  Without these primary combinations, in effective and concentrated proportions, it is hard to see how Brooklyn can begin to catalyze its potential for secondary diversity.

Jacobs deserves credit for her prescience here; north and west Brooklyn are all "diversity" and "liveliness" now, and, from what I can tell, precisely because it followed her advice.  But Jacobs also warns against the prospect of too-rapid development that eats itself, infusing areas with what she calls "cataclysmic" money, crowding out slow, healthy development that retains the qualities that made such development possible in the first place.  I can't think of a better example of that kind of mistake than Greenpoint Landing.  Let's hope this idea dies the horrible, fiery death that it deserves.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth

They all felt that he had summoned Death.  Death hovered over them, and they were completely unfamiliar with the feeling.  They had been born in peacetime and become officers in peaceful drills and maneuvers.  They had no idea that several years later every last one of them, with no exception, would encounter death.  Their ears were not sharp enough to catch the whirring gears of the great hidden mills that were already grinding out the Great War.  A white winterly peace reigned in the small garrison.  And black and red, death fluttered over them in the twilight of the small black room.

When the Kaiser Franz Joseph I is very young, he is saved from enemy fire at the Battle of Solferino by a young Slovene peasant officer whom he elevates to a Barony in honor of his service.  Thus begins the von Trotta dynasty, whose heyday is brief and whose decline mirrors that of the Austro-Hungarian Empire itself, already withered and irrelevant before the outbreak of World War I.  The Radetzky March begins with the Battle of Solferino, but its focus is on that Trotta's grandson, Carl Joseph, a lieutenant in the Kaiser's army.

Carl Joseph is an unexceptional soldier and a sensitive young man who slowly unravels over the course of the novel.  The military is his birthright, but one which he has difficulty being equal to:

For once, Lieutenant Trotta was rebelling against the military laws that ruled his life.  He had obeyed since earliest boyhood.  And he wanted to stop obeying.  He had no idea what freedom meant, but he sensed that it was as different from a furlough as war is from maneuvers.  This comparison flashed into his mind because he was a soldier--and because war is the soldier's freedom.

Carl Joseph is beset by disasters, some of which are his own making: Alcoholism, gambling debts--and a weak willingness to cover others' gambling debts--but also the death of his only close friend in an honor duel.  The duel itself is a symbol of an old order of prestige that is rapidly passing away, one in which Carl Joseph cannot fit in, but one which threatens to destroy him as it destroys itself.

The Radetzky March is notable for its thorough depictions of Kaiser Franz Joseph, including long passages of the Kaiser's thoughts.  (FYI: Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination sparks WWI, is Franz Joseph's nephew and presumptive heir.)  These passages, which depict the Kaiser as a complex man approaching senility, are the best in the book, I think:

The night was blue and round and vast and full of stars.  The Kaiser stood at the window, thin and old in a white nightshirt, and felt very tiny in the face of the immense night.  The least of his soldiers, who could patrol in front of the tents, was more powerful than he.  The least of his soldiers!  And he was the Supreme Commander in Chief!  Every soldier, swearing by God the Almighty, pledged his allegiance to Kaiser Franz Joseph I.  He was a majesty by the grace of God, and he believed in God the Almighty, who hid behind the gold-starred blue of the heavens, the Almighty--inconceivable!  It was.  It was His stars that shone up there in the sky, and it was His sky that arched over the earth, and He had allocated a portion of the earth, namely the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, to Franz Joseph I.  And Franz Joseph was a thin old man, standing at the open window and fearing that his guards might surprise him at any moment.

Contrast Franz Joseph's serene prescience with the anxious uncertainty of Carl Joseph and the soldiers in the first passage, the "patrolling soldiers" of the Kaiser's imagination to whom he assigns a kind of power.  I doubt very much that this is a historical depiction of Franz Joseph I, but it is compelling one that underscores the great chasm between the perspectives of the powerful and those marked for the trenches.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Making Our Democracy Work: A Judge's View by Stephen Breyer

Oh, the places you'll go with a practical
approach to judicial interpretation.
As we have seen, the Court has the duty to ensure that governmental institutions abide by the constitutional constraints on their power.  And it must continue to do so.

Thus, the Court can and should take account of purposes and consequences, of institutional competences and relationships, of the values that underlie institutional collaboration, and of the need to assert constitutional limits.


Similarly, the expressive values underlying the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishments" suggest that today the amendment would prohibit flogging even if many eighteenth-century Americans thought flogging was neither cruel nor unusual.

Breyer's book is a prolonged attempt to respond to originalism.  Should judges merely construe the words of the text, or should they consider other factors?  Are judges logicians or are they problem-solvers?

Under Breyer's view, they are problem-solvers; as problem-solvers, they should answer legal questions under a practical approach, taking into consideration legislative intent, the purposes and goals behind a statute, and the respective roles of different institutions within the government.  Why should we consider legislative intent?  Because the intent behind the law is valid interpretive evidence.  For example:

Does a friend who says 'all bicycle shops carry water bottles' mean to include secondhand bicycle shops?  Context revealing a speaker's purposes, not a dictionary that explains a word's meaning, provides the necessary help here.  Sam's mother tells him, 'Go to the store and buy some ice cream, flour, fruit, and anything else you want."  It is context, not a dictionary, that will help us learn whether Sam's mother has given him permission to buy fifteen comic books.

I find this analysis to be pretty compelling.  Language is complicated, and our understanding of it is not limited to dictionary definitions.  When we interpret what a speaker is saying, we do not rely only on the plain-meanings of his words, we also rely on contextual clues.  And, though we may not necessarily assume an author's intent is absolutely determinative, we nonetheless pay attention to what he was trying to say.  So it is that we do care that Heidegger was a Nazi when we read Being and Time, though we do not necessarily assume that Being and Time is a Nazi text.

Breyer also places much emphasis on the respective roles of different institutions within our Constitutional scheme.  Administrative offices are thought to possess a special expertise; so, they're entitled to a degree of deference in their fields (who knows more about the environment, the Environmental Protection Agency or an Article III judge?).

Unfortunately, I read this book 6 months ago, so my not great.  I'll conclude with this:  Breyer's book is aimed more for a general audience (where Scalia's is aimed more for a legal/academic audience); nonetheless, I found Breyer's argument to be more convincing.  Still, Breyer's analysis lacks the persuasive punch of Scalia's.  I mention this last point because, insofar as we need a liberal judicial theory to counter-balance originalism, Breyer's theory is insufficient.  It doesn't have the rhetorical simplicity of originalism.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and Other Stories by Franz Kafka

My grandfather used to say: "Life is astoundingly short.  To me, looking back over it, life seems so foreshortened that I scarcely understand, for instance, how a young man can decide to ride over to the next village without being afraid that--not to mention accidents--even the span of a normal happy life may fall far short of the time needed for such a journey."

"The Metamorphosis" is the touchstone we go to when we hear that favorite word of pedants, kafkaesque.  It's pretty freaky: man becomes bug, terrifies his family, and then somehow, preposterously, keeps becoming more bug--until he dies from a rotten apple lodged in his carapace by his resentful father.

But what I never knew is that Kafka's other stories are so much stranger, so much more unsettling than "The Metamorphosis."  That story, at least, can be summarized effectively; many of the stories in this collection (which I believe is complete) seem to be made up of nothing at all, but they are all kafkaesque in their horrible way.  One of my favorites is the story of the Ondradek, whom I remember from Borges' Book of Imaginary Beings:

At first glance it looks like a flat star-shaped spool for thread, and indeed it does seem to have thread wound upon it; to be sure, they are only old, broken-off bits of thread, knotted and tangled together, of the most varied sorts and colors.  But it is not only a spool, for a small wooden crossbar sticks out of the middle of the star, and another small rod is joined to that at a right angle.  By means of this latter rod on one side and one of the points of the star on the other, the whole thing can stand upright as if on two legs.

"He does no harm to anyone that one can see;" says the narrator of the seemingly immortal Ondradek, "but the idea that he is likely to survive me I find almost painful."  I think one of Kafka's greatest traits is that he seems to have an unfettered imagination; many of us, I think, have creatures like the Ondradek peopling the corners of our nightmares, but would we be able to get them on the page without giving into the impulse to change them, filter them, make them somehow more recognizable?  With that last line, as he always does, Kafka manages to turn the screw just a little tighter, to transform the merely repugnant into the cosmically frightening.

The other titular story is "A Penal Colony," narrated by a visitor to a prison island who is being given a demonstration of a machine that executes rulebreakers by inscribing their crime on their bodies with thousands of exsanguinating needles.  This story, too, has that last turn that makes it even more awful than that description sounds--though I won't spoil it here.  Worth mentioning, too, is the equally famous "A Hunger Artist," about a man who starves himself professionally dealing with the decline in demand for his art.  But so many more of these stories are horrifying for reasons I just can't place--why is the father of "The Judgment" upbraiding his son so awfully; what is it all for?  Kafka knows that real horror is not even in the unseen, as Anne Radcliffe believed, but in the un-understood, the incomprehensible and the inscrutable.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

It's a very difficult era in which to be a person, just a real, actual person, instead of a collection of personality traits selected from an endless Automat of characters.

Wife goes missing, all the evidence points to the husband.  Initiate the predictable flow of personalities, motives, and plot lines you'd expect.  The husband-narrator who won't admit to the reader that he didn't do it; the perfect wife, writing in her diary, about their almost-perfect relationship with hints of doom and gloom on the horizon.  The mistress, the detectives, the parents of the missing wife, the media, etc. etc. etc. etc.

We've all heard this story a million times.

Except not.  Flynn has done something remarkable; she has taken an over-told story and turned it into a page-turner thriller that presents compelling questions about: 1) personal identity in a society over-saturated with personalities/narratives, 2) the role of mass media in criminal investigations, 3) relationships, and 4) narratives and counter-narratives. (to name a few).

Flynn also does an excellent job of causing the reader to root for the wrong ending, multiple times.  Given that there is a major twist after the first part, it's remarkable that she nonetheless can trick the reader again later.

To shift focus to the thing of most interest to this reader, Flynn gives us a lot to think about re: media intervention in criminal cases.  Our constitution enshrines two rights that butt heads: our right to a fair and impartial trial and our right to a free press.  These rights crash into each other when we have a trial by media(fire): the media tells the narrative that sells, this is not always the narrative compelled by the (admissible) evidence.  Why should we care?  Because, when the media is telling everyone that a defendant is guilty, trifling things, like reading someone his Miranda rights, seem like an unnecessary interference in the guilty-verdict-machine.

Gone Girl, then, serves as a reminder that trial by media is an extremely broken process.  The media loves guilt-narratives, and hates defendants' rights narratives.  The presentation of the guilt narratives is destructive of how we feel about the criminal justice system.  I distinctly remember my aunt's response after Casey Anthony verdict: "I just don't understand how, with all that evidence, that jury could have found her not guilty."  However, she had not watched any of the trial at all.  (I also have not, but I do not purport to have an opinion as to her guilt).  I digress only to note that Gone Girl does not shy away from these questions, but embraces them and uses them to move the plot.

And that is only one thread, of many, that Flynn effectively gets across.  Definitely worth a read.

Hat tip to Brittany's and Billy's respective reviews.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Greatest Gatsby

"You see I think everything's terrible anyhow," she went on in a convinced way.  "Everybody thinks so--the most advanced people.  And I know.  I've been everywhere and seen everything and done everything."  Her eyes flashed around her in a defiant way, rather like Tom's, and she laughed with thrilling scorn.  "Sophisticated--God, I'm sophisticated!"
 . . . 
"Look here, old sport," he broke out surprisingly.  "What's your opinion of me anyhow?"
A little overwhelmed I began the generalized evasions which that question deserves.

I love so many things everything about this novel.  For the sake of brevity, I'll focus on one (semi-)timely thing.  The narrator, Nick, is hilarious.  And, I ascribe to the narrator not just what he says to us throughout the novel, but also the things he chooses to narrate about.  The novel spans an entire summer, but he chooses specific episodes to reflect the unfolding story.  These episodes and his voice reveal that the narrator regards the characters and events around him with deep cynicism.

So, when Nick shares Daisy's reflection that she is sophisticated, I read Nick as offering Daisy's reflection ironically.  When Nick describes Gatsby, I see him as attempting to present the innocence of Gatsby's dream as tragically hollow.  Although Nick indicates that, "Reserving judgment is a matter of infinite hope," Nick can't help telling the portions of the story that reflect poorly on the people around him.

In contrast to this Nick, is Tobey Maguire's Nick: young, innocent, naive.  When Daisy tells him that she is sophisticated, he believes her.  When he meets Gatsby, he is impressed with him, his ambition, and his dream.  When he tells Gatsby that "They're a rotten crowd," and that, "You're worth the whole damn bunch put together," he says it as a cheerful happy-go-lucky boy, making an observation intended to please the listener.

I hated Tobey Maguire's Nick.  And, I have to admit, the rotten crowd line is one of my favorite in the novel.  Nick drops the veneer of reserving judgments and opens up, he tells Gatsby what he actually thinks about Daisy and Tom.  And the comment is scathing.  But not Maguire's Nick, who delivers the line as though he doesn't fully appreciate its significance.

I'm being very critical of one aspect of a movie I otherwise enjoyed.  I thought Leonardo DiCaprio nailed Gatsby; he got the perfect combination of ambitious and nervous apprehension.  Daisy, Jordan, Tom, and atmospherics were all perfect.

Fun fact: comparing Luhrman's Gatsby to Coppola's Gatsby is an interesting compare and contrast in interpretation.  I especially enjoyed seeing 1974 Tom Buchanan to 2013 Tom Buchanan.  They're both faithful renditions of Tom, but the cultural currency defining Tom-ness is...different.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me, all the time, in the day, and in the nighttime, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing.  But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind.  I'd see him standing my watch on top of his'n, stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I came back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and suchlike times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he's got now; and then I happened to look around, and see that paper.

When it comes to the "Great American Novel," I feel like you have basically two options: Moby Dick and Huck Finn.  Then again, only one of those takes place on American soil--the other one's at sea and all.  Not only is Huck Finn a great novel, it's about America in a real sense.  The above passage comes just after Huck decides to do what he perceives is the "right" thing and notify Miss Watson that her slave Jim has run away, but his memories of Jim's kindness to him change his mind.  He rips apart the letter, exclaiming, "All right, then, I'll go to hell."  Huck is stuck in a kind of doublethink, caught between what he knows to be right and what he feels to be right, and that dissonance is at the very heart of slavery, as a philosophy and a legal institution.  Fumbling with that dissonance, trying to make these two "rights" one, trying to reconcile the ideal of America and its practical reality--these define American history, even past 1865.  I don't think I'm stretching when I say that Huck Finn attempts to do exactly that.

I've already written about Huck Finn here, so I'll refrain from writing a long review.  But the question that interests me now is: What's up with the ending?  The "I'll go to hell!" speech is so perfect and so cathartic, but it's then undermined by the "comic" ending in which Tom Sawyer reappears.  Huck convinces Tom to help free Jim, who has been captured, and Tom turns it into a Count of Monte Cristo-inspired game in which they dig tunnels under the shed Jim is kept in (instead of going through the door) and hiding useless implements in his food.  It's all very demeaning to Jim, whose humanity we thought had been firmly established in the above scene.  (Nor is it very flattering to Huck, who I hadn't thought of us as quite so stupid.)

If you were inclined to be critical, you might say that Twain squanders the moral seriousness of the novel, and that he compromises his artistic judgment to placate fans of Tom Sawyer.  I wonder, on the other hand, if the switch back into that book's mode isn't meant to make us queasy, to discomfort us.  Maybe it asks us: What are we doing when we tell stories?  Tom's is a story; so is Twain's--and history, a cognate of the word "story," is another.  What kind of story do we want our histories to tell?

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill

That the principle which regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes - the legal subordination of one sex to the other - is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other.

Wow. This book is brilliant.  Mill isn't just a good feminist-considering-he-was-writing-in-the-1860s, he's just a good feminist.  In The Subjection of Women (which, btw, is not a how-to), Mill tears apart any and all arguments for women being legally and socially subordinate to men.  Obviously, women not being able to own property and being totally subject to their husbands isn't really an issue anymore, but his arguments extend further than that to
general inequality between men and women, some of which unfortunately are still relevant.

Mill starts by refuting the argument that tradition and custom are proof of a natural order and are justifications for men's domination of women.  Mill points out that the contemporary system wasn't arrived at by thoughtful deliberation of learned minds; instead, it is a vestige of a time when strength and brutality were paramount, "the primitive state of slavery lasting on."  Men wanted women for sex and procreation and were physically stronger, so they subjugated them.  Mill admits that it's not as bad as it used to be, but the patriarchy still "has not lost the taint of its brutal origin.  No presumption in its favor, therefore, can be drawn from the fact of its existence."  He points out that because we've largely abandoned a system of might equaling right, we pretend its remnants don't exist to feel better about ourselves; but that doesn't mean it doesn't still exist, and it's important to call it what it is.

Mill also explains why it makes sense that the subjugation of women still exists.  First, the power is enjoyed by half of the population.  When a single dictator or a small ruling class wield power over large numbers of people, that power becomes largely unpopular and easier to fight against.  When half the population enjoys the power, it's a lot harder to make a top to bottom societal change.  Further, it's much easier to exert control over subjects when the exertion is so direct.  It is hard for one or a few to control masses, who are spread out and often unsupervised.  However, each woman is constantly under the watch and control of her father/husband and is utterly dependent on him (fortunately this is one of the outdated observations).  "In the case of women, each individual of the subjected class is in a chronic state of bribery and intimidation combined."  The opportunities and costs of defying him is much greater.  Thus, men dominating women still existed not because it was "natural" or "right," but because bringing about systemic change was so hard.  And of course it was hard for men to acknowledge this, for, as Mill asks, "was there ever any domination which did not appear natural to those who possessed it?"

This dynamic still exists, even as women have gained greater financial independence.  Because men didn't want mere slaves or servants, they indoctrinated women to seek men's approval as well.  "All the moralities tell them that it is the duty of live for others; to make complete abnegation of themselves, and to have no life but in their affections."  This still crops up today.  I've mentioned the Harvard Heidi-Howard study before, but this crops up in many areas.  Sisters are more likely to take care of aging parents their brothers; women are (still, somewhat) expected to give up their careers in order to raise children; girls are praised for being nice and sweet much more than boys, who are encouraged to compete and assert themselves.

"When we put together three things - first, the natural attraction between opposite sexes; secondly, the wife's entire dependence on the husband, every privilege or pleasure she has being either his gift, or depending entirely on his will; and lastly, that the principal object of human pursuit, consideration, and all objects of social ambition, can in general be sought or obtained by her only through him, it would be a miracle if the object of being attractive to men had not become the polar star of feminine education and formation of character."  

Mill goes on to explain how we all suffer from allowing being "born a girl instead of a boy...[to] decide a person's position through all life."  By only drawing from half of the population for skilled jobs and leadership positions, we drastically under use our human resources and we're all poorer for it (Mill also argues that any observable differences between men and women aren't dispositive because girls and boys receive disparate levels of education and are raised so differently).  Mill takes a free market approach: if you let everyone try to do whatever they want, those who are most suited for an occupation will get it.  If women can't perform a task because they are too fragile or not smart enough or something (he says for the sake of argument), then the market will prevent them from doing so and society won't have to bar them from it.  Another of my favorite truth bombs that he drops is when he points out that if it was in women's nature to remain in the home to bear and raise children, then the patriarchy wouldn't have to compel them to do it.  

I could go on and on.  Mill makes numerous great arguments and it was a treat to read, even if sometimes he was a little verbose.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Panopticon by Janni Fagan

You have to do the first things first--you have to begin at the beginning. This is the last time, I will never do this again. Begin at the beginning, pick a birth. You have tae do it like it is important, like it counts.

Anais Hendricks doesn’t belong anywhere. An orphan who’s spent her whole life being shuffled from foster home to foster home, she doesn’t even know her real name, let alone her real parents, and, when The Panopticon opens, she’s on the way to the titular institution, a sort of asylum/juvvie hybrid, accused of putting a police officer into a coma.

Not one to play the victim, Anais makes no particular effort to get her readers on her side--she is who she is, sex, drugs, bad attitude and all, from the first page. Thing is, Anais and her companions at The Panopticon feel like real, fleshed-out people, not marionettes. There are no out-of-character moments of sentimentality, no “I had a messed up childhood” confessions, but by the time the story ended, I was genuinely horrified and moved by the stories of these poor, lost souls looking for peace. Particularly moving was the relationship between Tash and Shortie, a terminal cutter and a “tough girl”, culminating in (MINOR SPOILERS) an impromptu wedding on a boat outing.

I keep coming back to the characters because this is a story about people, not about plot. Although Jenni Fagan, in her debut(!) novel, keeps things moving and even manages to deliver a couple gut-punches, the people are the real narrative, their stories, some of which go largely untold, some of which end sadly, but all of which feel achingly real.

I feel like, in some ways, The Panopticon made me a little better person--less prone to judge, more empathetic. It opened my eyes to a world I wasn't familiar with in a way that only novels really can. I recommend it without reservation, allowing that it gets pretty gritty and intense, to anyone who cares about people, and the forces that make them who they are. Or, if they just like a good story, well-told.

An admission, and an apology: Admission first: I really loved The Panopticon. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year and one of the best first novels I’ve ever read. Now the apology: I finished it and then circumstances kept me from writing my review while it was still fresh on my mind. Any shortcomings in this review are a result of that delay.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013


Obligatory Southpark Satan Photo.
"Nothing that happens in the circle can be told outside the circle.  There is no way out because there is no end in it.  

"Your parents have given you to us. They know what is  happening."
--Don't Make Me Go Back, Mommy: A child's book about satanic ritual abuse

There is a wide range of claims about dangerous Satanism and criminal Satanic cults being circulated in American society.  In brief, these claims assert that there exists a secret organization, or network, of criminals who worship Satan and who are engaged in the pornography business, forced prostitution, and drug dealing.  These criminals also engage in the sexual abuse and torture of children in an effort to brainwash children into becoming life-long Devil worshipers.  In their Devil worshiping rituals, these criminals kill and sacrifice infants, and sometimes adults, and commit cannibalism with the body parts.
--Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend

There are many silences to be broken here.  Perhaps the biggest one emanates from thoughtful women's advocates and child protectionists who doubt the logic of ritual-abuse claims but hesitate to speak out because they lack an analysis with which to articulate their skepticism . . . if there is anything that can be called satanic about ritual abuse, it is the cacophony of media and scholarly prurience that has silenced thoughtful exploration of its roots and meanings.
--Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt

In the 1980s and early 90s, Satan was around every corner.  Starting with the publication of Michelle Remembers, parents, policy-makers, and law enforcement fell under the spell of a hysteria driven by fears of ritualistic child abuse in day cares.  The hysteria quickly rose to prominence, being featured by Geraldo Rivera and 20/20; the hysteria caused Proctor & Gamble to change their logo.  Unfortunately, the hysteria did not stop at mere speculation: it fueled a series of highly publicized and celebrated trials and convictions of day care workers, all who vehemently declared their innocence.  In the most famous, the McMartin trial, the California spent seven years and $15 million dollars prosecuting day care operators.  Unlike many of the cases, the McMartin defendants were ultimately acquitted.

This is exactly the sort of thing you should be showing your children.
Don't Make Me Go Back, Mommy represents the hysteria.  The book is for child victims of Satanic abuse rituals.  It starts, "A book about . . . hurting and healing, suffering and surviving."  It ends with a list of suggestions to parents of the child-victims, with gems like, "Don't interrogate the child about what happened.  The child will talk about it in her own way when she is able.  Be patient."

Ironically, this missive prohibiting interrogation went ignored by the law enforcement community.  

By the mid-90s, the interest in supporting allegations of Satanic Abuse Rituals had shifted; in its place came an academic interest in showing how wrong the Satanic hysteria was about everything.  Instead of a vast Satanic conspiracy of rape, sacrifice, and blackmail, scholars uncovered a vast mechanism to badger children into false accusations and a criminal justice system eager to convict innocent defendants of crimes.  Coupled with sensationalistic journalism, those accused of these crimes stood defenseless.

P&G's Old Logo.  Very Satanic.
Satanic Panic chronicles the cult scare as a sociological/anthropological phenomenon.  It describes how rumors spread and, tracking newspaper articles and community meetings, how rumors transformed into belief in Satan and Satanic crimes: as rumors, which tapped into pre-existing fears about changes in social values, spread from person to person, they gradually were picked up by people posing as experts.  These experts, in turn, re-affirmed the Satanic cult legend, further spreading it.  Missing in this circle of information-spreading, is any foundation in truth.  

Satan's Silence, focuses more on the role of politics and law in the Satanic hysteria.  The authors place Satanic crimes as creating an alliance between conservatives (who could use the Satanic crimes as a moral target) and a branch of liberals (who used the child-victimization as an extension of feminist efforts to combat rape-culture).  The result was the creation of the perfect victim (innocent children) and the perfect enemy (evil, Satan-worshiping child molesters).  The authors include in-depth analyses of the science behind the accusers and how/why people bought into such patently absurd junk science.

The books, taken together, document an interesting (and I think mostly forgotten) witch hunt that consumed U.S. society for roughly ten years.  Although Satanism is not so much a pressing concern now, the problem posed by witch hunts and the circular logic they bring is a problem that seems to elude permanent resolution.