Once Upon a Time...

Carl V. at Stainless Steel Droppings has lured me into yet another fantastic challenge, wicked blog-fiend that he is. Perhaps it is that I first read about it at 4 a.m., but I think its allures would have worked their wiles on me at any hour, frankly. It is the Once Upon a Time Challenge, and the beauty of it (for me, and I suspect for many others) is that it will include many a work that I would inevitably sneak off to read in a guilty corner anyway while I should be working on other challenges, reading groups, and, well, the work I get paid for. The challenge will lend this surreptitious reading a much-needed dignity.

The challenge officially began five days ago, on March 22, and will run until the very toll of midnight on Midsummer's Eve (June 21), at which moment, presumably, all unread books will turn into pumpkins. Carl V. provides a number of different options for those with more or less time to devote to the challenge (or those who have varying levels of interest in and intimidation by the genres at its core). The one I have chosen is this: read five books from the four genres of Folklore, Fantasy, Mythology, and Fairytale.

I have tried to represent a range of genres and time periods in the list below, but have sorely neglected the fairy tale. Be soothed (as I am) by the fact that I have spent quite a bit of time, at various points in my life, reading fairy tales, from the Brothers Grimm and Anderson to Angela Carter and Bill Willingham's Fables comics. After my list of five - which is a bit serious, even stuffy, at times - I have added some "alternates" which I might dip into, time permitting (and I have a feeling that other reading will give way before it). This list will almost certainly grow when I have returned home from my travels and can take a gander at my bookshelves.

  • Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde
    • I am already midway through (cheater!) this last in Fforde's flights of fancy on fantastic travel through the literary canon and the police procedural. (Can I add that my boyfriend and I had a huge fight the other night about the definition of "procedural"? It was a battle of epic proportions, and a draw was finally called.) I must also admit that it is on my Chunkster Challenge list. But the extreme dryness of the next entry on my list should make up for my hedging here.
  • Morphology of the Folktale by Vladimir Propp
    • A crucial work of theory and analysis that (as far as I know without having read it) investigates the core frameworks behind folkloric narratives of all types.
  • Metamorphoses by Ovid
  • The Golden Ass by Apuleius
    • These last two works are from my ongoing project based on the list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Ovid's Metamorphoses, a long poetic work from which much of what we recall of classical mythology is drawn, is perhaps the more familiar of the two. The Golden Ass uses a fantastic premise (its protagonist, who is somewhat absurdly fascinated by magic, is transformed into a donkey) to contain a series of folktales and mythological narratives. It is also - according to Wikipedia - the only extant Roman novel.
  • A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
    • A classic of modern fantasy (and first in a famous series) that I have started several times, but somehow never finished. Well, now is its time.
Alternates/Extra Credit List:
  • Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake
  • Inkheart by Cornelia Funke
  • The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke
  • Sabriel by Garth Nix
  • A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin
  • Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino
  • Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
  • The Light Ages by Ian MacLeod
  • A Sudden Wild Magic by Diana Wynne Jones
  • Trickster's Choice by Tamora Pierce
  • Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner
  • A Thousand Nights and a Night
  • Grendel by John Gardner

Thinking, Blogging, Thinking some more....

The irrepressibly smart Wendy of caribousmom (she of the brilliant New York Times Notable Book Challenge) has "tagged" me as one of her five choices for the Thinking Blogger Awards. I am, I have to say, utterly charmed to have been included and not a little bereft of words to express my excitement.

At any rate, I have fallen behind in my blog reading in my recent travels, so I will take a few days to cast my eye over the vast and colorful blog landscape before returning to post my list of five "Thinking" blogs (a list that will no doubt fail to encompass the breadth of my blog affections). A fuller post on the subject lurks in the near future....

A political interlude

Despite the strange silence that has reigned over my blog in recent weeks, weeks of travel far and wide over this fine nation of ours, rest assured that I have been reading, watching, and thinking. In fact, I am currently in the midst of Martin Chuzzlewit, have just started the (so far strangely ungothic) Mysteries of Udolpho, and am staving off my Tar Heel withdrawal (A whole week between basketball games, since I missed the women's game on Tuesday. A Whole Week!! April will be a grim and haggard month) by reading The Last Dance, a book about the Final Four that a Dookie friend loaned me. His act of friendship is all the more profound given that 1) Duke made an uncharacteristically early exit from the NCAA Tournament this year and 2) the book uses as its case study the 2005 tournament, which UNC won.

The common ground of Chapel Hill (site of my beloved alma mater) brings me to a topic which has taken possession of me this afternoon (it is still late afternoon on the West coast), bringing to a halt all reading and watching, but not all thinking: the press conference that John and Elizabeth Edwards gave from Chapel Hill today, announcing that her conference has returned and is no longer curable.

The first part of the conference can be seen here (courtesy of the miracle of YouTube):

and the second part here:

I have to say I find this press conference astonishingly mature, honest, and loving. In what must be an extraordinarily difficult time for them as a family, they clearly explained to the voters, the press, and their donors how and why they came to their decision to stay in the race, and it is (to me at least) obviously more about their (specifically HER) conviction that their progressive platform is necessary for America at this very moment than it is about personal ambition. The most moving part of the whole event, for me, is when a reporter asks whether John had ever considered saying to Elizabeth "I know you want me to keep going, but I just will not/ cannot," and John Edwards replies that he would never mandate anything to her, nor she to him. (Do you "mandate to"? "For"? Aargh - my arch-nemesis, prepositions.)

I don't often talk about politics on my blog, largely because I find myself plentifully capable of offending people without even venturing outside the topics of art and literature rather than through a lack of interest or strong feeling on the subject. For some reason this was just so profoundly moving to me - both harrowing and uplifting, somehow - that I had to write something. I am quite a bit more sentimental, I must admit, about politics than many of my analytical friends would find comfortable. I think they have the vague fear that sentiment and politics inevitably combine to form something like fascism. I don't always agree with Edwards, but I have a longstanding affection for him, and think that he would make an excellent president. In fact, I think that Elizabeth would make an excellent president, but I am equally sure she would be a profoundly effective First Lady.

Part of the sentimental hold the couple has on me results from a primal democratic bond that is almost familial: the very first vote I ever cast, age 18, was for Edwards, when he himself was running his first campaign in North Carolina, against Lauch Faircloth for the state's junior Senate seat. To date this remains my most effective vote: Edwards won by a relatively small margin, and that election launched him on the national stage (much to the dismay of North Carolinians). In a field of Democratic possibilities that make me feel more hopeful that I have since that very first vote, the Edwardses have my support and best wishes, both politically and personally.

Updates from the March Mad

I am sad to say that a combination of work deadlines, travel and March Madness have resulted in a sorely neglected blog this week. Perhaps the most sinister effect of the travel, at least, has been the necessity of returning books to the library or leaving them at home before I have finished them - making my "currently reading" list (to the right) absurdly long and my "just read" list comically short. I was forced to abandon Twilight of the Superheroes, which I was busily burrowing through, before I left home on my current trip. I am glad to say this at least - it is a book of short stories, and although I would rather have read it all at once for thematic coherence, at least it won't suffer from a huge reading gap in the same way a novel will. I was 2/3 of the way through it when I callously returned it to the library, and found it, well, very readable but somewhat hard to distinguish from similar works by Lethem, Chabon, and Franzen dealing with jaded New Yorkers of a certain age (30s to middle aged) dealing with gothically bourgeois family problems and using (in the first, eponymous story at least) comics as a metaphor for coping in a millennial world. At any rate, more on this when I have actually finished the book. Weeks from now. Sigh.

Most of the films I have seen of late I have watched on long train trips. This has led me to an odd conclusion about travel: my presence on the Amtrak manages to evoke -- without fail -- the most lurid explorations of sex and nudity from the DVDs I am watching. It is like there is a vast Hollywood and Netflix conspiracy to embarrass me in front of my fellow travelers. "House of Sand" (a truly lovely movie which I hasten to recommend) was the first of these incidents, but yesterday I was turned into a shifty-eyed fast-forwarder by not one but TWO discs - "My Life as a Dog" (a charming, odd movie, which insists that there are some things even quirky small town life has trouble curing) and "The Sopranos" Season Six. Ah well.

At any rate, I have just returned from my local bookstore with a few books, one of them of use for my New York Times Notable Books Challenge:
1) Them: A Memoir of Parents by Francine du Plessix Gray
2) All Aunt Hagar's Children by Edward P. Jones
3) The Colour by Rose Tremain

Now - back to basketball.

"Salt of the Earth" (1954)

Do you still think you can have dignity only if I have none?
-Esperanza to her husband, on women's right to political expression
Salt of the Earth (1954)

I have discovered a rather large soft spot in my heart for (of all things) union and labor dispute movies. OK, so these films are sometimes quasi-propagandistic (or openly, proudly so), and don't always yield the subtlest of arguments, plots or characterizations, and there is also this to be said - I have seen only the very best of the genre so far. My favorite of the early Soviet movies I watched through my "1001 films you must see before you die" project was certainly Eisenstein's Stachka (Strike, 1924) with its delightfully odd evocation of Ben Jonson's style of typed characterization. My favorite of the documentaries I watched while following along with Filmspotting's recent Documentary Marathon was Harlan County, U.S.A., Barbara Kopple monumental 1976 documentary about a coal miners' strike against Duke Power in Kentucky. This last is a must-see movie, for the triumph of labor efforts by wives and sisters where the men were hemmed in by the law, for the extraordinary central character Lois Scott pulling a gun from her bra, for the marvelous scene in which a dispute breaks out between the women over a husband who may have strayed and another women chimes in - I'm paraphrasing here, since it has been a few months - "You can take my husband. I'm not here for a husband - I'm here for a CONTRACT."

Maybe it is the feminist element in many of these movies (on top of the other progressive social arguments) that keeps drawing me in. The most recent of the strike movies I have watched, Herbert J. Biberman's Salt of the Earth (1954), rehearses the facts of Harlan County, U.S.A. in fictional form some twenty years before they occurred. Biberman's film was itself based on a real strike by zinc miners, and its cast is largely made up of union members who had participated in the strike. Ramon and Esperanza Quintero (played by union president Juan Chacon and the stunning Mexican actress Rosaura Revueltas) become leaders of the miners and the women's auxiliary group, despite Ramon's persistent belief that it is below a woman's dignity (and in fact an abandonment of her children) to join a picket line or speak in union meetings.

Their demands: equal safety standards for Mexican and Anglo-American miners, pay equity, and (the women's demand) better sanitation standards in the company-owned housing. It is not until the women go on strike and the men see how much work goes into caring for the children, washing clothes, preparing food, and above all chopping wood for hours and hours every day because there is no plumbing in the company housing that they appreciate the seriousness of their wives' demands and the terrible threat poor sanitation poses to their families' health.

This film, which faced serious threats during production (shots were fired at the set during shooting, Revueltas was deported on a questionable passport violation midway through the filming and had to be replaced by a body double, the film had to be hidden to protect it during editing in Los Angeles), draws heavily on the influence of both Eisensteinian propaganda films (the close-ups of women are particularly reminiscent of Battleship Potemkin and Stachka) and the Italian neorealists. From the latter influence, Salt of the Earth draws a largely non-professional cast (significantly less grating though no less photogenic than the populations of similar experiments I have seen) and a certain amount of reliance on children to evoke maximum pathos. This film did not reach the soaring (and sometimes unnerving) beauty of these progenitors, but neither did it inspire the sinking boredom I sometimes felt in (great! I know! They're great!) films like Potemkin and La Terra Trema. It is surprising gripping, and surprisingly modern in its sexual politics.

Most impressive, perhaps, is the way the intimate details of Ramon and Esperanza's marriage are so seamlessly echoed by the larger political events of the strike. This is not a subtle comparison (the oppression of women in the home = the oppression of the working classes in industry), but it is a well crafted one, and this is largely a result of the ambivalent and nuanced manner in which the marriage is drawn. This is no allegory: it is a portrait of how you can love someone without respecting them, and oppress them while believing that you are protecting them. The moment in which Esperanza finally declares her independence is, to say the least, rousing, and it is no coincidence (SPOILER AHOY!) that the film ends with the company thugs evicting the family and gutting their house of its accustomed belongings, only to have the striking men and women forcibly replace the furniture, but with a difference. The idea of the home must be renewed and regenerated, if it is going to work at all.

Salt of the Earth (U.S.A. 1954)
dir. Herbert J. Biberman

Other grains of salt:
  • Wikipedia has a VERY interesting, tidbit-filled article on Salt of the Earth, as well as one on Rosaura Revueltas.
  • Michael Selig writes an informative article about the pressures brought to bear on the film during shooting, editing, and distribution because of its political content. Both this article and the Ceplair article below contain images from the film - worth looking at!
  • This 2004 article by Larry Ceplair for Cineaste covers a number of releases (books and DVDs) that marked the film's 50th anniversary. I admit to a strange eagerness to read more about this film. Perhaps I should start with a broader topic - does anyone know what the best book about the Hollywood 10 would be?
  • Catherine Lavender at CUNY has put together a basic study guide for the film, including historical context and questions to ponder.
  • The Salt of the Earth: The Only Blacklisted American Film website contains a bevy of excerpts and links.
  • The College of Santa Fe held a conference to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the film's production. The website for this conference (which included Barbara Ehrenreich, Noam Chomsky, and Howard Zinn on its advisory board) contains information about the filmmakers and gives you an idea about academic responses to the film.
  • For more information on the DVD, or to buy it, go to Amazon: Salt of the Earth (this version is packed with extras) or (the VERY affordable, but no-frills version I watched) Salt of the Earth.

"The Road" by Cormac McCarthy

[The following review may contain some spoilers, the most extreme of which (dealing with the book's ending, will be marked. But there is this to be said: it is not really a book one reads for the plot.]

Query: How does the never to be differ from what never was? (27)

An apocalyptic world, shrouded in an ashy haze that blocks out the sun, populated by cannibalistic cults and terrified stragglers. A man and his young son (unnamed, everymannish, distanced by third person narration) follow the road, the remnant of a civilization that disappeared within the last few years, towards an unknown hope. It seems they might be seeking others like them, for whom there are still basic laws of morality (you shall not steal from the living, you shall not eat human flesh), but every encounter with another human being sends them spiralling into violence and terror. They scavenge for food, struggle to stay warm, try to keep moving, and the father is coughing up blood.
Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it. (110)

This is not, I must warn you, a jolly book. It is a book about survival, and the remnants of morality in an apocalyptic landscape. It is an exploration of how one negotiates love amidst hopelessness. McCarthy's prose is plain and action-oriented - the majority of the novel is taken up by flinty, curt descriptions of the basic actions of life: searching the surroundings for danger, acquiring food and water, protecting yourself and your family from cold and detection, trying to read the landscape for any indication of where you are or what to do next. From time to time, a surreal (and often dream-based) passage will burst forth, but to be honest, these sections are not as beautifully written or as gripping as the intense focus of the plainer prose.

But even more striking is the almost choric use of dialogue: father and son say little to one another, but they retread the same conversational ground repeatedly, in exchanges which point to the uncomfortable impossibility of ever really knowing someone else's interior life. What are you thinking? -the father repeatedly nudges - Aren't you going to talk to me? And from the son: Are we going to die? [No.] Are you lying to me? [No.] Would you lie to me about this? [Maybe.] Which is kinder, the novel asks us, a lie which comforts in the moment, or a harsh truth that prepares you for the future? The son, who stands in for an absolute, naive, and implacable moral idealism against his father's pragmatism, would have the truth. When they encounter others on the road (a man who has been hit by lightning, a little boy among the ruins of a city, or - most horrifyingly - a cellar-full of people caught by the cultish cannibals), the son is the voice of empathy (against the survivalist demands of self-interest), the morality that asserts the absolute necessity of acts of kindness and altruism for the survival of humanity. And it is this voice which is always disappointed, always crushed, but always willing to remind the father of the compromises he has made in his soul to gain the questionable gift of survival.

The plainness of McCarthy's plot and language make this into a modern allegory, in which the Road comes to play the same fraught and contradictory symbolic role (it is destiny, leading on to a hopeful future, rewarding their devotion with the promise of enlightenment, but it is also fatalism and entrapment) as it has in stories going back to the works of Chaucer, Bunyan and Spenser.
I think we're about two hundred miles from the coast. As the crow flies.
As the crow flies?
Yes. It means going in a straight line.
Are we going to get there soon?
Not real soon. Pretty soon. We're not going as the crow flies.
Because crows don't have to follow roads?
They can go wherever they want.
Yes. (132)

His prose is plain, but shows the almost baroque love of unusual and archaic language amidst this plainness that I have always heard associated with him (this is my first finished McCarthy novel). At a certain point in the novel, it was teaching me an average of one new word per 8 pages: discalced (unshod!), fire-drake, lave, mastic, rachitic, siwash, skift, claggy, quoits. The boy picks up clichés out of nowhere, it seems, magically resurrecting conventions of language that died in the cataclysms of his pre-speaking life. From time to time, a turn of speech will seep through from our time, revealing the possibility that this is an allegory for our politically embattled world:
[Speaking about the possibility of meeting other fugitives]:
And they could be carrying the fire too?
They could be. Yes.
But we don’t know.
We don’t know.
So we have to be vigilant.
We have to be vigilant. Yes. (182-3)

You can see here the trace of an aspect of the novel that made me slightly uncomfortable: the religious overtones that drive their survival. Why keep going in a world of suffering? To “carry the fire.” (At one point – p.143 - they encounter a sort of a holy man named “Eli” on the road, devoid of all sympathies and beliefs, pure in his faithlessness. He tells them “There is no God and we are his prophets.” Which seems to me to be an apt summary of the book.) Is this religious striving simply a self-deluding justification for the callous acts that guarantee each day of continued life? Or is the father’s belief that his son has this flame, and must survive to carry it on, more than just an evolutionary imperative, a reflection of the boy’s supernally keen empathetic abilities?

The stripped down quality of the language yields a sort of interpersonal blurring: long patches of dialogue yield no character attributions (i.e. “the boy said”) to guide us, and because virtually all the characters are male, pronouns frequently seem self-reflexive when they are not. How much distinction is there between the man’s sense of self(-preservation) and his sense of his son?

At its best, this stripped-down, hard-as-rocks language, focusing on the most basic actions, gestures of survival, yields a cynical philosophical symbolism that recalls Beckett:
What if I said that he’s [the boy] a god?
The old man [Eli] shook his head. I’m past all that now. Have been for years. Where men cant live gods fare no better. You’ll see. It’s better to be alone. So I hope that’s not true what you said because to be on the road with the last god would be a terrible thing so I hope it’s not true. Things will be better when everybody’s gone.
They will?
Sure they will.
Better for who?
Everybody. (146)

These moments are my favorite ones, the ones I have most often quoted throughout this review; instants of perfect mundanity, and perfect poetry.

“The Road” (USA 2006)
Cormac McCarthy

More encounters on the road:
  • Wikipedia has entries for The Road and Cormac McCarthy, the latter including a quite snazzy picture of the author giving the camera a suspicious glare
  • Malcolm Jones writes a review for Newsweek that is somewhat optimist (or even simplistic) about the book's moral quandaries, but amusingly summarizes the entire range of the book's concerns using the Library of Congress subject headings from the copyright page.
  • Alan Cheuse's review from NPR can be found here...
  • ...and Janet Maslin's for the New York Times here.
  • You can examine or buy McCarthy's book at Amazon: The Road.

And now, a few questions for those who have also read “The Road.” In other words, glaring SPOlLER ALERT from this point until the end.

1) On p.74, there is a sudden shift in narrative voice – while the rest of the novel is in the third person, a single paragraph at the top of the page is in the first person, in the father’s voice. What is odd is that this passage deals with memory and seems to “correct” the central narration: “He doesn’t remember any little boys.” What is going on here? Does this happen at other points in the novel, points that I just missed?

2) What did you make of the ending? I must admit that I found it slightly disappointing (all but the last paragraph, about brook trout, which was so spontaneous and unaccountable that I found it oddly thrilling), rather too steeped in the scantily fleshed out religious component of the novel, and rather too pat (as if it were just the playing out of the man or the boy’s fantasy of a happy ending). Also, if the road has a larger allegorical (or spiritual, or historical) significance, what does it mean that someone has been following them, and that the boy turns back and retraces their steps. What does it mean that when his father dies, he does not keep going? What does it mean that he identifies his father (who was loving to him, but uncomfortably harsh with others) with God?

Conferences and Bloodied Noses...

... and an update in which there is (luckily) no overlap between the two.

No sooner had I finished and turned in my latest dissertation chapter (Huzzah! And thanks for the support, everyone!) then I rushed south to give a conference paper. The conference itself was much friendlier than the last I went to, and I met many people who seemed primarily motivated by a joy in knowledge and inquiry, so all in all it was a refreshing experience.

I must admit to being delighted by it right off the bat, when I wandered into the hotel to find that we were sharing the conference spaces with another group (and I may be slightly off on the name here) - the Order of the Sons of St. Patrick. Before I could register I had to wade through a friendly ocean of vivid green sports coats and an abundance of free beer. It held out the promise that these sorts of gatherings did not (by their very nature) having to be claustrophobic, droning events serving primarily as professional pissing contests. So thank you, Sons of St. Patrick. Because of you, I approached the whole experience differently. Sadly, today, my Irish friends were replaced by a less exuberant (but probably no less fun, once you get to know them) gathering, whose banners declared them to be mutually obsessed by "Nutrient Removal."

My paper was at the crack of dawn this morning (the last day of the conference), and I am glad to return to the land of free time, reading (I was so exhausted last night that I stopped reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road ten pages from the end. TEN PAGES!!! I will be done and reviewing soon, patient fellow NYT Notable Booksers!), and, most importantly, college basketball.

I rushed home today to see my beloved basketball teams, lights of my alma mater, apples of my eye every December through March - the North Carolina Tar Heels - play two tremendous basketball games. The women (led by the irrepressibly energetic and clever Ivory Latta) played for the ACC Tournament Title. I haven't always been as loyal a supporter of women's college athletics as I would like to be, and am only really a few games into getting to know this time (too too late, considering Latta is a senior) - I blame lackluster coverage in my northern outpost - but already I know that this is a team of phenomenal personalities, like Rashanda McCants (whose parents must have very strong genes - she looks exactly like her brother, Rashad, who was on the most recent UNC Championship team) and Erlana Larkins. A highly entertaining game - I will be following the NCAA Women's Tournament closely. Phew - feminist chops redeemed.

But then came another cause of anxiety: the second men's Duke-Carolina game of the season. For those of you who don't find college basketball tremendously interesting, I will say this by way of context for the Duke-Carolina rivalry. If there was a season in which Carolina lost every single game, except for the two it played against Duke, there would be a lot of Tar Heel fans (myself included) who would say "Well... that wasn't such a bad year," and swallow the hurt and ignominy of the rest of the season.

So this game was high tension. And it was a phenomenal game, marked by a valiant opposition from Duke and a Carolina team playing (mercifully) better than it had in recent games. Then, in the final seconds, with Carolina in possession of a double-digit lead, a Duke player named Henderson who had otherwise played admirably and cleanly for the rest of the game fouled our star player (the exhaustingly industrious Tyler Hansbrough) HARD. So hard that poor Tyler (maternal instincts burst from my every pore) lay for some time on the ground, blood gushing from his face, before rising up in a rage and being rushed off the court by staff. I don't want to get into too much detail about this melodramatic turn of events (which has assumed a strangely central importance in my life -- I am pulling hard against its rip tide intensity), because Henderson is a student and a non-professional, learning his craft and prone to impulsive lapses of judgment, and I am sure he feels intense remorse about causing his fellow player such gruesome harm and thus overshadowing his unusually strong play at tonight game (a few minutes before the foul he had been named the Duke player of the game by whatever corporate body sponsors that sort of thing; now he is suspended for the first game of the ACC tournament). Furthermore, it is this culture of rabid blaming, which Duke's coach seems all too eager to perpetuate*, that creates the sense on the players' part that NOTHING (including dignity, ethics, morality, respect for the opponent) is as important as winning the game or the rivalry of reputations.

So it was a long afternoon of heart-wrenching basketball. I will be back with more literary and cinematic posts soon, I promise...

*If you read this article, you should listen to the recordings of the coaches' press conferences. Take my advice and avoid the "Comments" section, however: some of the opinions expressed there are so totally consumed by rivalries and school hatreds that they have forfeited their sense of empathy and humanity utterly.