August Reading Goals

August's reading has a theme: "getting caught up in all my long-neglected challenges."

  • ARCS from various sources
    • Sin in Second City by Karen Abbott
    • The Guardians by Ana Castillo
  • Book Groups
    • One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey (Classic Literature)
  • Challenges
    • Down Under
      • Gilgamesh by Joan London
      • Voss by Patrick White
      • The Cardboard Crown by Martin Boyd
    • NYT Notable Books
      • Gate of the Sun by Elias Khoury
      • Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
      • Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
    • Non-Fiction Five
      • In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
      • 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare by James Shapiro
    • Book Awards
      • Empire Falls by Richard Russo
    • 52 Plays/52 Weeks
      • let's try again for 10 plays in 4 weeks
  • Preparations for teaching
    • The Iliad by Homer
    • Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
    • as much of James Joyce's Ulysses as I can manage
  • Other
    • Tales from Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
    • Runaway by Alice Munro
    • The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster
    • Noisy Outlaws, Unfriendly Blobs, and Some Other things that aren't as scary... ed. Ted Thompson
  • Books from June/July [all optional, if I finish my August books - ha!]
    • [The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami]
    • [Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami]
    • [The Vision of Emma Blau by Ursula Hegi]
    • [Gilead by Marilynne Robinson]
    • [The Bone People by Keri Hulme]


D is off to jury duty today, so I made a valiant sacrifice and sent Harry with him to while away the hours. But not before I had made a troubling but utterly UNSPOILERY discovery (at 2 a.m., when I was surreptitiously reading it so that I wouldn't be totally left in the dust when he finished it today): Harry is my age. In fact, he is older than me by about two and a half months (or, to put it more clearly, he was born two and a half months before I was, although he is much younger than I currently am in the books). That just isn't right.

But it reveals a further interesting thing about the book's magically apocalyptic internal history (and I apologize if this sounds ignorant to those of you who have read the last half of Deathly Hallows - I am still only on page 350 or so): not only is it not set in our Muggle present day, but it takes place in the mid nineties, in a pre-9/11, pre-7/7, pre-Iraq and Afghanistan wars Britain. This had just never occurred to me before.

OK, maybe I should stop talking about the novel until I have actually finished the damn thing. Legal system of California! Let my boyfriend and his fat, fat children's book go!


Today I am fascinated by micronations, tiny communities that declare their independence from other established countries. I was reminded of this interest while reading about Hay-on-Wye, the Welsh book town that was ruled for the last few decades by King Richard, a toilet plunger-wielding bookseller. But then I recalled my visityears ago to Christiania, a hippy micronation of squatters in an old military camp in Copenhagen. And we haven't even touched on the many libertarian maritime micronations of cruise ships and platforms, the odd commonness of micronational seccession in Australia in recent decades, or the new development of the purely conceptual, internet-based micronation.


My condolences go out to Skip Prosser's family and the Wake Forest community. The university's basketball coach died yesterday of a sudden massive heart attack. He was a credit to the schools he worked for, and had a great history with Wake Forest. I hope that fans from other schools in the conference will be empathetic with Wake's players and fans in the upcoming academic year and season.


Years ago, I took a women's fiction course that began with the professor asking the question "Can the reader tell, based on an author's prose, what the gender of the writer is?" In other words, is women's writing (as an artifact: the writing-as-a-text rather than the act- or experience-of-writing) coherent and distinctive from men's? I would love to teach a course like this in the near future (perhaps incorporating creative non-fiction, poetry and drama as well), and I think this is a fruitfully troubling question with which to start. My professor said that she used to hand out unfamous passages from famous works of literature by men and women, and ask her students to identify the gender of the writer. They were almost always wrong.

Well, now there is the Gender Genie (a moniker that I am sure could yield a delightful feminist/identity studies reading). You can go to this website and enter in a passage of text (preferably more than 500 words long) from a book, your blog, your dissertation, whatever. It will then do a terribly-scientific-I'm-sure analysis of the types of words you use, and tell you what the gender of the author is.

To my great delight, I found out that most of my blog entries (especially those written with the more abstract language characteristic of my academic persona) reveal a thoroughly male author. [This blog entry, the part I have written so far, barely edges into the female side of the spectrum, with a female score of 737 and a male score of 702.] I know I am using a pseudonym here, and even my real name is actually somewhat gender-ambiguous, so I will hasten to add that I, like my blog, am female.

So, I don't really know what else to say about the Genie. Other than - wow. There is a great gender studies dissertation in there somewhere.


What a very odd story from the New England Journal of Medicine about a nursing home-dwelling cat who appears to have the ability to sense impending death and the sympathy (an anthropomorphizing word, I know) to give comfort to the dying. Also intriguing is this discussion about Oscar's story from the Washington Post. I am fascinated by the range of responses the story has evoked, and by how much these responses say about our values (about how life ends as much as about how we relate to animals, including our fellow humans).


Today's poem was again from the July 23, 2007 New Yorker (on whose cover polar bears and penguins frolic on a summertime NY street). My periodicals will probably be supplying most of the poetry for this project until I return to Connecticut in late August and am reunited with my library. At any rate, today it was David Ferry's poem "Lake Water" that came into my life, a poem in which (like Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach") the metaphysical seeps into the poet's gaze over vasty waters.

In the long first section of the poem, in which the speaker describes the "plane of the lake" through a series of metaphors, slant glances at its sexuality and childlikeness, I distrusted the poem, which seemed to fill the mouth with too many words for comfort, beauty, or even basic communication. How delightful, then, to find that this distrust was a device, as the poet turns our suspicion back on the act of metaphorizing in the second and third sections.

The second section, my favorite, begins with a reversal of the first's metaphor:

The plane of water is like a page on which
Phrases and even sentences are written,
But because of the breeze, and the turning of the year,
And the sense that this lake water, as it is being
Experienced on a particular day, comes from
Some source somewhere, beneath, within, itself,
Or from somewhere else, nearby, a spring, a brook,
Its pure origination somewhere else,
It is like an idea for a poem not yet written
And maybe never to be completed, because
The surface of the page is like lake water,
That takes back what is written on its surface,
And all my language about the lake and its
Emotions or its sweet obliviousness,
Or even its being like an origination,
Is all erased with the changing of the breeze
Or because of the heedless passing of a cloud. (63, emphasis mine)
Here is the circularity of metaphor: the poem is (about) a plane of water, which is like a page of poetry, which itself lake-like it the delicacy of its surface tension, the precariousness of its balance, the mystery of its sources and movements.

The final section takes "Lake Water" in an unexpected direction, to the face, just after death, of someone the speaker knew: unaccessible, uncommunicative, like a poem, like a lake.

"But maybe," the final line adds, "my saying so is a figure of speech."

Crimen Ferpecto/The Perfect Crime (2004)

Rafael was born into sales. Quite literally: his mother went into labor in one of Madrid's ritziest department stores, so naturally her son went into a life of labor as a salesman in the women's section of that very store. This job, uncoincidentally, provides him ample opportunity to exercise his two great (and related) talents: womanizing and convincing customers to spend money. When a management position (complete with job security and huge financial benefits) becomes available, Rafael battles with his nemesis, the toupee-sporting men's department clerk, for the job, only to lose it when he convinces a woman to spend above her means (her enormous check, which seemed to guarantee Rafael the job, bounces).

Of course, Rafael and his new boss immediately begin to fight (there is a disappointing sexual subtext here - Rafael's virile ability with the ladies is contrasted to the nemesis's frustrated homosexuality), and, during one of these fights, our "hero" accidentally kills him. In a panic, he tries to hide the body in the basement, but before he can burn it, the corpse disappears....

Rafael is played by Guillermo Toledo, who also starred in 2004's Only Human (which I reviewed here) as the Palestinian Rafi who falls in love with a Jewish girl and undergoes terrible comic contortions while being introduced to her family. Crimen Ferpecto shares a certain almost-surrealist zaniness with Only Human, and I appreciate this quality, but bright wackiness never raises these films above the level of very inventive but formulaic sitcoms. [I should note here that I consider unformulaic television comedy to be some of the world's most enjoyable art.]

One of the major imferpections of this particular film is its fascination with the psychology of machismo. I suppose in describing it that way, I am projecting what I hoped it would be: a comic dissection of how a playboy thinks and acts, and the entanglements that result from imperfect self-reflection. Perhaps this is too moralizing an approach to take to comedy; although I don't think, by any means, that comedy as a genre is exempt from the moral reflections of art, surely it (like any other genre) shouldn't be forced into moral arguments.

Nonetheless, it is uncomfortable that we are meant to (and do!) sympathize with Rafael as he becomes ensnared by a homely stalker who seems to symbolize all of womanhood, and with the many men who are trapped into an instant public marriage by wedding-hungry girlfriends on a popular and, I hope, fictional reality television show ("But honey," one befuddled mechanic says while the cameras swarm around him,"Isn't this a private decision?" His veiled and gowned beloved all but licks her chops in response.).

The film implies that a playboy's greatest fear is not death, pain, or imprisonment (all of which threaten Rafael for much of the movie), but rather the public humiliation of being linked to an ugly girl -- the humiliation of laughter and the control others have over him that this laughter denotes. Would that I could believe that this was a self-reflective comment on the nature of comedy, and the perils of being a dashing clown -- both themes the movie toys with -- but the script isn't quite witty enough to justify this type of winking analysis.

Amusing, but it might make your skin crawl for its macho enthusiasm.

Crimen Ferfecto / The Perfect Crime (2004)
dir. Àlex de la Inglesia

In other news...

D's roommate became my hero of the day by walking up to me and handing me her copy of the new Harry Potter, which she had just that moment finished reading. I had been thinking I would hold out until August to read it, since I have such a backlog of July books left to read, but now that it is actually here, in my hands (well, not literally, since I am typing right now), it is working a one-ring-to-rule-them-all type spell on me. [Update: I am now a hundred pages in. It is a good thing the Fellowship didn't send me off to Mount Doom.]


Angelina Jolie is going to be Grendel's mother. After the year I spent with Old English (I have to repeat this fact to myself every so often, because I can't believe I actually did it), several months of which was with Beowulf, I find this image impossible to reconcile with my idea of the text. So I am sort of looking forward to it. More entertaining than the movie, however, would be footage of the pitch meeting where this film proposal was discussed with studio execs. I can only imagine how they reacted. You can read some early gossip about the film at First Showing.


I have decided, thanks in large part to Loose Baggy Monster's poetry and short fiction resolution, that I don't read enough poetry. I was thinking that next year, I would institute a project along the lines of my 52 Weeks/52 Plays project, trying to make poetry a daily habit (in as small or as large a dose as I can muster on any given day).

But then I thought, to hell with that - there is no time like the present (and nothing quite like an impulsive decision that will help me put off work on my dissertation). So today, I had my first daily encounter with poetry, a strange toying with conventional verse by Rachel Hadas that begins:

As months and years accumulate
I miss you more and more.
Forgetting where I put the key,
I sometimes find a door.

The poem, "The Cold Hill Side," only three stanzas of lulling singsong rhythms and evocations of Hallmark emotion and chivalric isolation, comes from last week's New Yorker (July 23, 2007). It has a strange quality (I have not decided, and I doubt whether I will be able to, if it is successful or not - I have a strange aversion to making holistic or "objective" evaluations of art), flirting with sentiment while unfolding the possibility of a conventional image - the door, for instance, that is found only in the search for the key which makes it inaccessible. The loss that only becomes coherent, or present, when examined.

Most odd is the final stanza, which abandons the nursery rhyme scheme for a parallel between words that, though visually similar, would have to contort themselves even to be called a near rhyme:
bewildered and alone

as the knight, kidnapped and released
to a dim world, who said
And I awoke and found me here
on the cold hill side.
Why break with the convention represented by the rhyme scheme at the moment of direct quotation from Keats?


I didn't expected to be as utterly enthralled by Sonya's People Reading project as I am. She goes around San Francisco, photographing and interviewing people she finds reading about why they chose that particular book, what they normally read, and what they themselves would write, given the chance. There is something so monumentally fascinating (the monumentality of the quotidian) about reading as a public act to me, perhaps because I am that person who reads during meals, reads while walking along the street (podcasts have now made my life significantly safer, I have to say), and expects D to give me constant updates on any thing he is reading WHILE he is reading. I also enjoy how forthcoming people are with a total stranger, and how revealing our relationship to the written word can be about our identities.

Sonya's even more fascinating current project, Dogeared, is a trip around America by Greyhound bus, asking people about their books. A recent post describes how she was asked to leave Temple Square in Salt Lake City after she asked (she is always superhumanly polite) readers there to talk about the Book of Mormon. Some things just don't make any sense (sigh).

Check her work out.


So, D and I are tag-teaming Deathly Hallows (since he has to work all day, he gets dibs when he is home, but I keep thinking up chores and minor errands around the house to send him on, and snatch our one copy up as soon as he is out of the room), and making our way through the second disc of The Shield's Season Two (still a bit lackluster by comparison to the first season). Harry Potter came between me and the start of The Bone People, I am sad to say, but I am persevering (at a fevered pace, no less) with David Copperfield, largely through a strategy of reading one chapter of Dickens after every chapter I read of Rowling. I may, even, I blush to confess, have referred to David Copperfield as "the Harry Potter of his day" in conversation with D, who would probably have given me a skeptical look if he had been able to tear his eyes away from Deathly Hallows.

The Unread Authors Challenge! [Scroll down for the most recent participants]

Here I go, joining the fray of Book Challengedom by, at long last, starting my own challenge: the Unread Authors Challenge.

The premise is this: almost all of us have authors who we have long meant to read, but somehow never gotten around to (you can see a long list of mine at the bottom right of the blog). Perhaps you have always been intrigued but intimidated by their work. Perhaps "required reading" and your favorite authors have taken up most of your time. Perhaps they have been sitting on your shelves for years, continually trumped by new fascinations. Well, now is their time.

Here are the rules of the Challenge, which will run from September to February (six months total):

1) In this time, read six books by authors you have never read before. If you would like to read more in this time frame, go for it!

2) You are welcome to approach the Challenge in any of several different ways. You can choose one or two (or 3-5) unread authors and read several of their works, or you can choose six neglected (by you) writers and read a book apiece by them. Authors of fiction, non-fiction, genre fiction, graphic novels/comics, drama, and poetry are all welcome inclusions, although the individual works you choose should be book length. I will leave the definition of "book length" to your discretion, but in my mind a full length play or epic poem would certainly count, as would collections of shorter works.

3) Anytime before the start of the Challenge (September 1, 2007), write a blog entry that links back to this post and lists the authors and works you have chosen. You should feel free to change this list as you go along, or list "alternates," as I have below.

4) Then leave a note in the "Comments" section of this post, letting me know that you have joined and linking back to the blog entry that discusses your list. [If you link back to the specific post rather than to your main blog address, it will make it easier for your fellow participants to find your list.]
I will then make a master list of participants and links; I hope that we will have a fair amount of cross-fertilization as people remember authors they have neglected (until now!). That is, if others are as intrigued by this challenge idea as I am.

Also, if you think that a challenge blog (along the lines of the New York Times Notable Books Blog) would be helpful, let me know in the comments section. I worry that we may not have enough overlap to make it worthwhile, but am willing to be swayed by popular opinion!

Here are my initial thoughts on my own list:
  • Laurence Sterne - Tristram Shandy
  • Friedrich Durrenmatt - The Physicians and The Visit
  • Orhan Pamuk - My Name is Red
  • Richard Powers - The Gold Bug Variations
  • China Mieville - Perdido Street Station
  • Doris Lessing - The Golden Notebook
And a few alternates or "extra credit" options:
  • John Fowles - The Magus
  • Joyce Carol Oates - Bellefleur
  • Stendhal - The Red and the Black
  • Diana Wynne Jones - A Sudden, Wild Magic
  • Iris Murdoch - The Black Prince
  • Edward P. Jones - All Aunt Hagar's Children
  • Nadine Gordimer - Burger's Children
  • Tim Winton - Cloudstreet or Dirt Music
  • Peter Carey - Oscar and Lucinda or True History of the Kelly Gang
I tried to represent a variety of genres, genders, time periods, languages and nationalities (although it must be said that non-fiction is very poorly represented by my list...). A list that is diverse in any one of these categories is not a requirement of the challenge, but it is something interesting to think about while trying to push the boundaries of what you normally read.

[A quick postscript:

Our Unread Authors Challenge may be the perfect companion piece to a challenge that Joy is hosting, starting in October. It is called the 2nds Challenge and it gives you an opportunity to explore some of your favorite new authors in greater depth.]

Challenge Participants (click on the links to see their lists):

  1. Patti/ccdpiper at Patti's Book Blog (list forthcoming)
  2. Laura at Musings
  3. Wendy at caribousmom
  4. Sarah at Loose Baggy Monster
  5. Kimmie at Kimmie's Krap
  6. Michele at Michele's This and That
  7. Jenclair at A Garden Carried in the Pocket
  8. Debi at nothing of importance
  9. Bybee at Naked without Books
  10. 3M at 3M@3AM
  11. Framed at Framed and Booked
  12. Dewey at the hidden side of a leaf
  13. Becky at Becky's Book Reviews (list newly posted)
  14. Gracie at AKAGracie
  15. Chelle at Tempting Persephone
  16. Mo at Inside Mo's Mind
  17. Pamela at Paige's Book Blog
  18. Ex Libris at Ex Libris
  19. Kristen at The Critical Lass
  20. Elaine at Random Jottings of a Book and Opera Lover (list forthcoming)
  21. Eva at A Striped Armchair
  22. Literary Feline at Musings of a Bookish Kitty (list newly posted)
  23. Poodlerat at But what these unobservant birds
  24. C.R. the Book-ninja at The Book-ninja
  25. Melody at Melody's Reading Corner
  26. Alice at Hello, My Name is Alice
  27. Ana (Virgulina) at Cozy World (list newly posted)
  28. Amanda at A Patchwork of Books
  29. Callista at S.M.S. Book Reviews
  30. Susan at Bloggin' 'Bout Books
  31. Puss Reboots at Puss Reboots
  32. AndBrooke at Aunt Book
  33. JanieJane at So Many Book Reviews
  34. Krin at Enough to Read
  35. PA at Cenoura do Lado (list newly posted)
  36. SuzieQoregon at Blogging My Books
  37. Nyssaneala atBook Haven
  38. Vickie at Vixen's Daily Reads
  39. Stephani at Herding Cats
  40. Jen79 at Jen's Page
  41. Dark Orpheus at Orpheus Sings the Guitar Electric
  42. Somer at SomeReads
  43. Fantasma at Estralas ao Vento
  44. Veronica at Toddled Dredge
  45. Fátima at O Segredo dos Livros
  46. alisonwonderland at So Many Books, So Little Time
  47. caracois at Desabafos e outros coisas
  48. Jen at The Movieholic, Bibliophile, and Music Junkie
  49. Booklogged at A Reader's Journal
[Addendum: The Unread Authors Blog is now the command center for this challenge. For more information, go here.]

There are some great lists here, so check them out!

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Carson McCullers's The Heart is a a Lonely Hunter, written (astonishingly) when she was only twenty-three, has one of the most gripping openings I have read this year:

In the town were two mutes, and they were always together.
Although my rather old Bantam edition of the novel, which can't conceive that a novel by a woman wouldn't principally be about women, claims in dreamy language that this is "a searching and sensitive novel of innocence lost" in which "the heroine is the strange young girl, Mick Kelly," it in fact centers on one of the two men from the opening sentence, the elusively silent John Singer. Singer is profoundly in love (although with an arguable lack of eroticism) with his obese and mentally unstable friend (the other "mute" from the opening sentence) Spiros Antanopoulos, with whom he shares every aspect of his life. When Antanopoulos's behavior becomes increasingly erratic and aggressive, a relative decides (without consulting Singer) to send him away to a residential facility, and his friend is forced to reassess his living situation.

From this point forward the book falls into its true structural conceit, following Singer as he moves to a rented room in the house of the financially strained Kelly, but more frequently concentrating on the lives of four people who come to idolize the deaf man: Mick, the tomboyish middle daughter of the Kelly clan, who is convinced that only Singer, who has never heard music, can understand the transcendent effect that Mozart has on her; Jake Blount, a tormented and idiosyncratic socialist whose desire to enlighten the town's mill workers blends into his alcoholism and creeping delusions; Biff Brannon, the owner of the New York Cafe, the social center of this small Southern town, whose mournful reaction to his wife's sudden death (he dabs her perfume on his head every day) mingles with an increasing sense of discomfort with a thwarted maternal - not paternal - instinct, an unseemly fascination with children; and Dr. Copeland, the town's black doctor, a committed Marxist, isolated and continually thwarted in his desire to inspire a radical change in racial relations through his family and patients. Every week these characters flock to Singer's room, eager for a listener, fascinated by their friend, but fascinated in a manner that uses Singer's silence to obliterate any trace of humanity that would interfere with his status as a symbol in their lives.

When Singer walks the streets, people follow him, building up a mythology around his silence which he finds utterly baffling. Everyone who sees him seems to believe he shares their life experience, and understands it as no one else does. His incredible loneliness amidst all this attention, and his ultimate choices, are such a striking, if complex, indictment of this sort of behavior that I am surprised to find that the novel has evoked criticism for stereotyping the deaf. His is, it seems to me, the most interesting, because the least understood, character. McCullers deflates the mystique of deafness, of silence, while maintaining Singer's dignity, complexity and free will. He is no more a symbol than he is a savior or a stereotype; he is simply a man whose capacity for understanding and love seems vast and is sorely tested.

Even more problematic and complex for the modern reader (as for the readers of the 1940 first edition) is the novel's treatment of race. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is shot through with the language of racism, making it difficult to read at times, and some of the rhetoric about race is troubling. The most disturbing moments, however, originate in the attitudes of imperfectly educated characters. While McCullers's white characters call the aging black radical "uncle," "boy," "Reverend," or (by his first name) "Benedict," her narrator never addresses him except as "Dr. Copeland." His navigation of the complexities of grass-roots political change is nuanced and dispiriting. How, he has to ask himself in one scene, does one judge an essay contest for black students to lay out aspirations for their race in which most of the entries announce with rage their intention never to be servants, but the only truly coherent essay declares:
I want to be like Moses, who led the children of Israel from the land of the oppressors [...] All colored people will organize and there will be a revolution, and at the close colored people will take up all the territory east of the Mississippi and south of the Potomac. I shall set up a mighty country under the control of the Organization of Colored Leaders and Scholars. No white person will be allowed a passport - and if they get into the country they will have no legal rights.

I hate the whole white race and will work always so that the colored race can achieve revenge for all their sufferings. that is my ambition. (155-156)

At the awards ceremony, Dr. Copeland gives a long speech about Karl Marx (which, uncoincidentally, is the name of one of Copeland's sons, who chooses to go by "Buddy") before giving the award to the author of this essay. "Do you wish me to read the essay I have written?" asks the young writer, who had tried to castrate himself after his eleven year old sister was raped by her middle-aged white employer. Dr. Copeland politely demures.

This is the kind of rich characterization McCullers lavishes on her characters, who suffer more eloquently than any others I have encountered recently, but there is an uncomfortable sneering at the majority (in this case, the other, incoherent essay writers) by her characters and the novel itself, here and elsewhere. And what are we to make of moments like this, when Copeland tries to inculcate his political beliefs in his children:
"They would sit close together and look at their mother. They would talk and talk, but none of them wanted to understand. The feeling that would come on him was a black, terrible, Negro feeling" (70).

In the end, the cynical complexity of the novel and the vividness of its sympathy with all its characters were so great that I decided that although McCullers's expression was uncomfortable ("dated," would be another way of talking about texts like this), her writing was, in fact, boldly progressive and strikingly modern. This is particularly true in her treatment of sexuality (which causes the characters no end of self-conscious confusion) and the contemporary political specters of fascism and Marxism (Mick, the inveterate racial bumbler, is always offending her Jewish neighbor, on whom she has a fumbling crush, by jokingly "Heil Hitlering" him, and then is baffled by his excruciated glare).

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, with its gothic ensemble yoked to environment and history, reminds me of a less lyrical, but also less opaque, Winesburg, Ohio. It is tremendously easy to become immersed in this novel of infinite detail and flowering cynicism, just as it is very easy to become confused and offended by its politics (in my case, more by its less examined assumptions than by its explicit rhetoric). This offense, at least for me, was surprisingly constructive after its first wave, forcing me to examine, without idealism, the depressing difficulty of the energetic characters, desperate to find an outlet for their activist minds in a sluggish, resistant world.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940)
Carson McCullers

  • You can find The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter at Amazon or at most other bookstores and libraries.
  • Wikipedia features interesting articles on both the novel itself and its author
  • Dan Schneider raises a number of intriguing points in this review for Monsters and Critics (which, be forewarned, deals with the plot of the novel in great detail, including the end), and takes issue with the designation of McCullers's writing as "gothic".

Apropos of Unread Authors

French professor of literature and psychoanalyst Louis Bayard has written a book about how we discuss books that we haven't necessarily, um, read. Or read in their entirety.

You can read the Adrien Tahourdin's review for the Times Literary Supplement here. And here is a wee taste of what the review has in store for you, which also makes reference to the sort of oppressive book guilt that the Unread Authors Challenge is meant to overthrow:

He does not address the fact that most of us have our blind spots where particular authors are concerned, and that many of us do feel oppressed by the thought of the books we haven’t quite got round to reading, or wish that we had read years ago and know we now never will. Bayard is not interested in this; instead, he divides the works he mentions into four categories: “LI” indicates “livres inconnus” (books he is unfamiliar with); “LP” “livres parcourus” (books glanced at); “LE” “livres dont j’ai entendu parler” (books he has heard discussed) and “LO” “les livres que j’ai oubliés” (books he has read but forgotten).

In other news...

And now, for our quasi-daily "In other news..." update:

I fell exhaustedly asleep after finishing The Heart is a Lonely Hunter at 2 a.m. this morning, so I haven't had a chance to begin my next book yet. It is Keri Hulme's The Bone People, which is not only my Book Awards Challenge choice for the month, but was also the July selection for the Book Awards Book Group on Yahoo (sorry, guys- I am a little late getting to this one). Meanwhile I am about sixty pages in to Black Swan Green, which is the first New York Times Notable Book Challenge work I have read in several months (sigh).

Yesterday I watched Crimen Ferpecto, about a department store salesman who somehow ends up with both a stalker and the corpse of his enemy, and the accomplishment filled me with a sense of Netflix virtue that was completely at odds with the rant I posted yesterday about the company. Meanwhile, Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped has been skulking suspiciously about my home in its little red envelope since last week, but I am dreading what the jacket description calls its "deceptively successful minimalist approach" so much that I keep putting it off. What does that even mean? That the minimalist approach at first seems to be successful, and then reveals itself as a total failure towards the end of the film?

Last but not least, I need to plug this project - Eco-Libris - which allows you to plant trees to off-set those used to produce the books you own, although my recommendation is tinged with skepticism (totally unrelated to anything this company has done) that this may just be a method for alleviating (from afar) the ubiquitous liberal guilt about rampant consumerism and resource consumption. Also, my innocence died a little when it was revealed that many of the plant-a-tree, off-set-your-carbon-footprint programs were largely ineffective or even harmful to the environment. The issue vis-a-vis carbon off-setting (rather than paper usage) is ably summarized at Ecotravel's "Why plant a tree?" page, and they ultimately come to the conclusion that many environmental groups have become more sophisticated and effective in executing these sorts of projects. But a lot of my skepticism (as well as the attendant feeling that at least some action is better than nothing) is well expressed in this paragraph from their page:

While some environmental organisations argue against the whole idea of carbon offsetting, suggesting that it is little more than “tokenism” and discourages people from dealing with the real problem, tree planting can be a positive start to addressing the carbon issue for ourselves. If nothing else, it shows a willingness to do something – and few gardens, however small, fail to benefit from a tree or two.
So, final analysis: Eco-Libris seems to provide an emphasis on transparency and an eye for detail which seeks to maximize the environmental and social effectiveness of their project. They encourage you not only to off-set the paper usage that goes into your library, but also to lobby publishers to engage in more environmentally sound printing practices. I appreciate their assertion that change can begin on the small-scale, and be affordable, even for those of us subsisting on meager graduate student stipends, or those of us under intense economic and social pressure to engage in slash-and-burn agricultural practices on our land.

We cannot let these small efforts appease our drive to change (allowing them to disintegrate into "tokenism"), but neither can we allow skepticism to paralyze us.

Don't be evil, Netflix! Or annoying, in this case.

Back in the early days of Netflix, just after people began to believe that it wasn't some creepy mail-order, book-of-the-monthish semi-scam for draining your bank account, I remember feeling an odd counter-culture exhileration every time I recommended it to people. Blockbuster had driven indie video store after indie video store out of business, and now Netflix was sticking it to them with a remarkably well planned model for using old technology (the mail) and new (the internet) to get DVDs to customers all over the country. I remember telling friends and family members how amazing Netflix would be for art house movies, which would now be available to small and rural communities who would never have access to them in the theatres or in the meager selection at their local Blockbuster (oh the number of Blockbusters I have visited that don't have anything but wide releases, and nothing older than five years ago).

And then, at some point, Netflix went over to the dark side. Perhaps they were always there. But my innocent idealism died a little as light was shed on the company's corporate practices. First, there were the law suits that revealed a systematic practice of "throttling," which involves giving the customers who return movies most quickly (resulting in the least profit for Netflix) slightly inferior service to lower-volume users (the obsessive returners, like me, would often encounter overnight delays before their movies were sent out, or would receive movies out of order).

Then, as part of the legal settlement for a case about throttling and false advertising, Netflix granted its users a month of a higher plan (more DVDs at any one time) at no additional cost, but it was revealed that after that month had expired, they intended to keep users at the higher plan while charging them full price, rather than returning them automatically to their normal service. So, essentially, they were using the façade of contrition as a marketing device to make more money off of their confused customers.

It was hard not to give up on them then. Or when the abysmal level of customer service (which for a time would only allow you to consult a very limited set of FAQs rather than pose a personalized question -- I guess they didn't relish getting thousands of "So, the more movies I return in a month, the more enthusiastically I make use of your service, the crappier you treat me?" type questions) was brought to the forefront as the company's CEO couldn't find Netflix's customer service number on the website when asked on "60 Minutes."

Just a couple of days ago, Netflix attempted to stem the loss of customers to Blockbuster (sigh), which allows you to return their mail-service DVDs to stores and get new movies immediately, by lowering a few of their plans by $1. Well, that might be great for new customers, but, from my point of view, $1 a month is less important than a history of treating your loyal customers (and Netflix has some VERY loyal customers) with respect.

This rant was sparked by an excellent post on the ArtsJournal's About Last Night blog, in which CAAF very astutely suggests that if Netflix really wants to win this battle against Blockbuster, they would operate on the same hours that the post office does. It has long been a thorn in my side (ok, so that is the kind of sheltered life I am leading) that Netflix warehouses don't operate on weekends, for (I can only assume) cost-saving purposes. But, I ask you, Netflix, wouldn't giving your customers as many movies as they couldn't possibly get their grubby little hands on in the 3-at-a-time (or 4, or 2...) program be less expensive than losing disgruntled people to Blockbuster in droves?

Netflix, you have an opportunity to provide a very good service to a lot of people, and in this case I think my idealism (you can provide a diverse and rich array of cultural experiences to people all over the country for a very affordable price!) is not incommensurate with good business. Happy customers will provide market dominance. To beat Blockbuster, prove that you have a different corporate ethos.

Sleepless Nights

Elizabeth Hardwick is the possessor of an amazing life: founder of the New York Review of Books, married to Robert Lowell, critic, novelist, essayist. Sleepless Nights, an odd hybrid of genres and ontological stances, may be her account of that life.

Or perhaps not - she did say, as Geoffrey O'Brien recounts in his introduction to the NYRB edition, that "A good deal of the book is, as they say, made up." This "as they say" is a bit of brilliance; it plays off the convention that memoirs are as much exercises in the weaving of fictions as novels are devices for sublimating personal demons, but it also asserts Hardwick's nearly infinite capacity to inhabit two stances at once. There is the fictional character Elizabeth, the protagonist of Sleepless Nights, and the outsider observing her fraught fictionality. Creating a protagonist who is both you and not-you is innovative, but it also reveals the anxiety of fiction writing, which demands a complex dance of revealing and concealing from the author.

In these identity games, Sleepless Nights reminds me of Martin Crimp's play Attempts on her Life, in which various efforts at the creation of a central character (via the lenses of screenwriting, celebrity, journalism, autobiography, archeology, fiction, and performance) reveal their inner violence as well as the multiplicity of identity. Attempts on her Life, famously, can mean either efforts at the ineffable holistic understanding of identity, or murderous attempts to eradicate it. But Hardwick's novel/memoir/genre-cracking performance also reminded me strongly of Adrienne Kennedy's work, perhaps because of the strong presence of New York as an environmental character, and perhaps because Kennedy chooses both writing and the stage as a means of negotiating the relationship between art and personal trauma, fiction and biography.

It seems strange to me that Sleepless Nights should fall into dialogue (in my mind) primarily with dramatic texts when, for all its generic experiments, it is fairly clearly prose. It is a novel of fragments, in which the events of Elizabeth's life are recounted as through the diffusing impulse of memory, an impulse which seems centrifugal, but in fact connects disparate elements as no linear narrative could do. Time never presents a problem for memory: associations skip freely over the years on thematic or imagistic lines, outlining a character, a relationship or a place without any reference to temporal development, to the arcs or lines of a well-made play or a realist novel.

Oddly, the novel begins with an assertion of time, the time of writing, before establishing memory's power to transform the order of history: "It is June," goes the first line, "This is what I have decided to do with my life just now. I will do this work of transformed and even distorted memory and lead this life, the one I am leading today." Living and writing cannot be separated. Both are actions that irrevocably transform everything that came before, as well as everything that comes after.

In one very famous section, Billie Holiday's bold and shattered life kisses up against Elizabeth's, and yet these encounters are no more or less formative than the quasi-marital relationship she develops with her gay roommate in roughly (always roughly!) the same period. Elizabeth lives life as an experiment in hybridity; a relationship cannot simply be friendship, but must partake in complexities of eros and convention that confuse the received wisdom on sexuality.

Some of the novels fragments are set out in letters, some as reflections on character (it is primarily a work about character, rather than about plot), some as responses to epigrammatic interjections from other famous writers. In fact, Sleepless Nights is considerably more aphoristic than it is novelistic, as you can probably tell from this unusually abstract review. Any attempt to summarize the plot of Sleepless Nights seems to me to be a flirtation with madness (Susan Sontag spoke beautifully to the subtlety of its shifts when she called it "a novel of mental weather"), but there are passages from every part of the short work which make this a thrilling read.

Hardwick on travel:

I took a journey, and of course, immediately everything was new. When you travel, your first discovery is that you do not exist. (5)

Travel as self-annihilation, as an exercise in proportion. How very different from the common assumption of tourism, that travel means having the world conform to your comfort, your wishes. Touristic travel is a way to bring back the whole world in convenient, manageable, diminished photographs. To reassert the reality of your quotidian life.

Speaking of photographs:
Photographs of marriage. records of blood, decisions, sacraments observed. In my apartment, around us, in the old fading red-pine chest, in the mahogany desk, in the Swedish desk too, in the fumed oak blanket chest, in manila envelopes marked "trip to Europe" are my own photographs, three hundred or more, that bear witness to form; pictures in the drawer, in the old box, photographs that make one his own ancestor. Of others I have cared about, cared for years - not a trace, not a fingerprint. As it should be. Those who leave nothing behind cannot be missed for long. (60)

And, perhaps my favorite, Hardwick on possessions, family, and sharing:
Of course these things are not mine. I think they are usually spoken of as ours, that tea bag of a word which steeps in the conditional. (6)
Here we are back to social hybridity, the double-stance of the "usually spoken of," cousin of "as you say" - myself/not-myself.

This is a fairly extraordinary document of a life and a character. Sleepless Nights feels as if someone had written the most vivid and witty of diaries for several decades, then ripped out all the pages and tossed them into the air. The reader wanders into this experiment in Dada with Hardwick, picking up a moment here, an encounter there, trying to make meaning out of seemingly random conjunctions. And how, after all, does one make meaning out of a life?

Sleepless Nights (1979)
Elizabeth Hardwick

  • You can find Sleepless Nights (New York Review Books Classics) at Amazon, or most other booksellers and libraries.
  • I read and reviewed this book as part of the Slaves of Golconda reading group project. After July 31st, a copy of this review will be posted at their website, where you will also be able to find other bloggers' responses to the book.


As you can see, I am experimenting with Blogger's new poll function. The current poll (which you can find to the right of the blog) asks those of you who are participating in the Unread Authors Challenge whether you would like to have a group blog devoted to the challenge.

For those of you who are wondering what a group blog is in this context, I will explain: it is a blog in which all the (willing) participants have permission to post their reviews for the challenge, their lists, updates on their progress, questions for other members, recommendations, etc. You don't necessarily have to create any new content to post to a group blog; many members just post copies of or links to the reviews they have written for their regular blog or book journal. The New York Times Notable Books Challenge blog is a representative (and quite active) example of this sort of project.

The PROS for our challenge (as I see it):

  • a one-stop location for viewing the lists and reviews of other participants
  • (a corollary to the above) the opportunity to be reminded of authors you haven't read... because you have forgotten they exist. Or never knew in the first place.
  • a haven to seek encouragement when the challenge gets tough or to share enthusiasm when it is exhilarating.

  • I tend to think that group blogs work best when the challenge is limited to a subset of available literature (a single genre, for instance, or an awards list, or a language/geographical region). This means that there is more overlap in what participants are reading, and the reviews provide an impetus for a detailed discussion.*
  • Blog weariness

So go vote in the poll, and if there is widespread support, I will set a blog up. Feel free to leave comments if the preordained "answers" from the poll don't suffice to express the fervor or nuance of your opinion.

*For instance, I have set myself a personal challenge to dedicate each calendar year to a different nation, region, or language's literature (reading at least a book a month within this theme). This year, the country is Australia, and I am having a great time. In 2008, I would like to make this a public challenge, and this seems to me to be an ideal situation for a group blog -- the members could then recommend authors and books to one another as they read, and discuss some of the regional classics that many people are reading. If you would be interested in participating in this challenge, keep your eye out for my next poll in September, which will ask potential participants to vote on which of a few possible nations and regions will be 2008's theme.

Happy Belated Birthday, wee blog!

In a rare moment of reflection, I discovered that "Sycorax Pine" is more than a year old (the blog, that is. I am considerably older.). In fact, she (can't blogs have a gender, too?) is 14 months old as of yesterday. Happy, um, fourteenth monthday (with a remainder of 24 hours), blog!

To celebrate, I give you a quiz that will tell you what LOLCat you are.

Here's hoping that next May I am a little more aware of the second anniversary....

Eh Joe

I had to copy something I wrote for an academic discussion I am having in a reading group devoted to film and theatre (because I always wished that I had gotten around to blogging about "Eh Joe"):

One aspect of cinematic grammar that I have always envied as a theatrical practitioner is access to shifts between close-ups, middle distance shots, and landscapes/panoramas/long distance views. A few years ago I saw a very interesting negotiation of the boundaries between film, television and theatre in Atom Egoyan's production of "Eh Joe," which Beckett wrote for the small screen. Egoyan balanced Michael Gambon's silent, live, embodied, theatrical performance of the only visible character with a (also live) projected close up of the protagonist's face on a scrim that lay between us (the audience) and Gambon. What struck me most forcibly was the incredible seduction of the close-up - even when I self-consciously tried to focus on Gambon-the-whole-man, unmediated-by-the-camera (which I had some strange impulse to consider a more "authentic" performance), I found my eyes irresistibly drawn back to the cinematic close-up. Finally I became convinced that Gambon was, in effect, giving two simultaneous performances: with his body he gave a theatrical, gestural performance appropriate to the scale of a midsize theatre, while with his face he gave a subdued, while infinitely nuanced, cinematic performance of micro-expression.


The theme of this collection of linkiness? Research that I wish I was doing, in place of what I actually do:

  • Did you know that there are lexicography conferences? What do they do there, you ask? Well, among other things, they participate in word-making workshops, according to the wonderful blogger behind Dictionary Evangelist. My favorite of the neologisms described here is "Googlegänger" - 'the other person who shows up in Google search results when people search for you."
  • How does a chimpanzee's laughter differ from our own? Why does a stroke victim give a lopsided smile when asked to laugh on command, but laughs with both sides of the face when told a joke? Discover Magazine tries to get at the roots of laughter in this article. Would that I were doing this sort of research: "A number of tickle-related studies have convincingly shown that tickling exploits the sensorimotor system’s awareness of the difference between self and other: If the system orders your hand to move toward your belly, it doesn’t register surprise when the nerve endings there report being stroked. But if the touch is being generated by another sensorimotor system, the belly stroking will come as a surprise."
  • Check out the Open Library demo for an ebook that overcomes one of my major objections to the medium - the loading lag between pages - while managing to look really sumptuously tactile. It is a thing of beauty.

In other news, I am still hard at work at The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, which is very easy to immerse myself in (phenomenal characterization!), but nonetheless somewhat slow going. I couldn't help but start Black Swan Green somehow, and it is also very gripping (I am glad to get back to my NYT Notable Books list). David Copperfield has, sadly, fallen by the wayside this weekend, and I begin to fear that I won't finish it this month (NOOOO!!!).

Yesterday D and I went bowling with the people he works with, and I discovered that I am a bowling wimp. I acquired just about every minor bowling injury it is possible for the game to inflict on a person, from broken nails to bruised fingers and sore arms, and managed to drop the ball at least once on my back swing. Ah yes, public humiliation.

Today we plan to do a bit of furniture shopping (exciting stuff, given the ... spartan nature of our apartment furnishings), and perhaps finish of the first disc of the second season of "The Shield." So far it doesn't seem to be quite as vitally brutal and well-characterized as the first season - which we watched last summer and loved - but I will give it time to improve.


Authorial performances

Andrew O'Hagan, author of Be Near Me, asks himself which other artistic act writing most resembles:

Writing a novel is an act of self-annihilation as much as self-discovery. You can kill whole appetites and flood whole depths while plumbing them, but if you are serious about it you also get to put something into the world that wasn't quite there before. I've been asked which of the other arts novel-writing is most like, and I have come to believe it is acting. Of course, in terms of pattern it can be like music, in terms of structure it can be like painting, but the job to me is most like acting. You give life to these characters and you inhabit them at some cost to yourself, while also realising yourself in the process.

[Thanks to Maud Newton for drawing my attention to this delightful piece of theatricalism from The Guardian.]

Oh, the long, loooong basketball off-season

The period from April to October is a bleak one for college basketball fans, and I need a fix of Tar Heel glory at just about this point in the long annual slog to the beginning of the next season. So (thanks to starks23 at YouTube and Sportz Assassin at Fanhouse) I give you a compilation of clips from Michael Jordan's first game ever at UNC. Oh, the infinitesimal tininess of the uniforms! Oh, the lean boyishness of number 23!

Now, bear in mind what an honor and a risk it was for Dean Smith to start Jordan in his first game as a freshman (Smith was notoriously reluctant to start even his most talented freshman), and take a gander at the boldness of his play. We not only see his first rebound, but also his first assist, his first shot (a miss, but a brave one) and his first basket, all in fairly quick succession.

The year is 1981, and by the end of the season, this team would be national champions. There is some thrilling play in these clips, not only from "Mike Jordan," as he is called by the announcers, but also from Sam Perkins and James Worthy.

~ ~ ~

I spent another day at the UCLA library today, having found that there is a much more convenient bus from D's apartment than the one that stops a mile's walk away. Genius! I wiled away the day with Derek Walcott (in his printed form, sadly, not in the flesh), moseying through Ti-Jean and his Brothers and taking breaks with David Copperfield and Carson McCullers's The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. The day also began with great news: I am getting an ARC of Ana Castillo's The Guardian through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program. I was quite despondent not to have received a book in the first round of the program, but persistence paid and I got one in the second round. No news yet when the third round will start, but I can't wait to get my hands on The Guardian. The blurb describes it temptingly: "Eking out a living as a teacher’s aide in a small New Mexican border town, Tía Regina is also raising her teenage nephew, Gabo, a hardworking boy who has entered the country illegally and aspires to the priesthood. When Gabo’s father, Rafa, disappears while crossing over from Mexico, Regina fears the worst."

Now, I must return to watching John Ford's The Searchers, since my Netflix have been sorely neglected this week. I will indulge in some Monument Valley muddy morality while dining on an heirloom tomato and avocados. Bliss.

Things are just walking in my door of their own accord

Despite the fact that I am at D's apartment rather than my own, books just keeping leaping out of postal carrier's bags and into my hands. How odd! How I am going to transport them back to the east coast at the end of the summer (especially given the fact that I arrived in Los Angeles with two suitcases filled with library books and paperbacks - for work! - a month ago), remains something of a mystery. Does anyone know if there is a patron saint or god of bibliophilia (or biblioholism) in any religion? Because I need someone to appeal to for miracles now and then.

What has arrived in the last week? Well, let's see - I was alarmed by McSweeney's brush with financial peril, and (as a matter of civic duty, you understand) marched over to their online sale and made a couple of minor purchases: a ten-issue pack of The Believer (a magazine I had never read before, but always been intrigued by) for $19, and a copy of Noisy Outlaws, Blobs, and Some Other Things That Aren't as Scary, Maybe, Depending on How You Feel About Lost Lands, Stray Cellphones, Creatures from the Sky, Parents Who Disappear in Peru, a Man Named Lars Farf, and One Other Story We Couldn't Quite Finish, So Maybe You Could Help Us Out, which includes stories by Nick Hornby, James Kochalka, Neil Gaiman, Jeanne DuPrau, Jonathan Safran Foer, and a dustjacket that is an unfinished story by Lemony Snicket. You scribble an ending on it, fold it into an envelope along the convenient dotted lines, and mail it off to be judged by some nebulous entity. I will have to add NOBaSOTTAaSMDoHYFALLSCCftSPWDiPaMNLF&OOSWCQFSMYCHUO (as it is known, for short) to my August reading list. Meanwhile, if I enjoy my ten issue intro to The Believer, perhaps I will subscribe next year.

A couple of days later, my anxiously awaited copy of The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook (origin of the delicious red velvet cake recipe) finally arrived, and D and I immediately plunged into an argument about the ridiculousness of using white vinegar to make (eastern) North Carolina style barbecue (see also pig-pickin'). Really. It was the worst argument we have had since disagreeing about the definition of the "procedural" genre. Anyway, let's just say I am unwholesomely excited at all the new ways the Lee Bros. offer to incorporate buttermilk and lard into my weekly diet.

I have recently become anxious (since the 2007 is now more than halfway over) about the limited amount of time I have left to read books for my "Year of Down Under" Challenge (not to mention the NYT Notable Books Challenge!), so I ordered a copy of Patrick White's Voss, the book which is most often cited as THE classic Australian novel. It arrived yesterday, and will also go on my August "to read" list.

Yesterday. The same day on which, in other news, I finished the latest in my Year of Down Under Challenge (YODUC?), the very unpleasant Alice Springs by Nikki Gemmell. A review to come soon, I hope. I have been working pretty hard on the dissertation lately, and cooking up a storm, and D and I did see the latest Harry Potter movie (meh), so I am vigorously adding to the backlog of unwritten posts while simultaneously using up all the energy I could use to write about things by actually doing them! Boo to me!

Pair-bonding and matrilateral cross-cousin marriage

I suspect, given my plans to see the new Harry Potter movie this afternoon and to make another attempt at the sublime via baking a red velvet cake, I won't have time to get out a review today. Which is too bad, really, because the list of needful posts is stretching around the block at this point. Last night, for instance, I finished the stunning Tehanu, which Ursula K. Le Guin believed at the time would be the last of the books in her Earthsea cycle, and which is my favorite yet. I am going to be hard pressed to keep the next book, Tales from Earthsea, on the shelf and out of my hands until August, when it will make an appearance among my reading goals. We also finished the final (sniff!) episode of Slings and Arrows last night, and, although this third and last season of the show was my least favorite, I think the writers and cast did an unusually good job with the tricksy task of making an end of a serial form.

The night before I finished (after a solid year of reading it) the amusing but somewhat repetitive pop-anthropology tome Watching the English. So I thought, in lieu of a review (I feel like I should have done something worthier of Gilbert and Sullivan with that rhyme), I would leave you with Kate Fox's account of her introduction to the rituals of marriage, from Watching the English. Now, a bit of context: Fox is the daughter of a renowned anthropologist, so she came by her analytical nature early and honestly. Also, those of you who know me personally know that I am absolutely fascinated by and fundamentally cynical about weddings and the institution of marriage (in other words, I cry regularly at weddings and would travel any distance at all to attend a friend's, but have a steadfast political opposition to having one of my own*), so this tale all but leaped off the page at me:

And even if nobody makes a drunken exhibition of themselves, and nobody is offended by the seating plan or the transportation arrangements or the best man's speech, someone is bound to do or say something that will cause embarassment. At the first English wedding I ever attended, I was that someone, although I was only about five years old. My parents had decided that my sisters and I should have some understanding of the important rite of passage we were about to witness. My father told us all about pair-bonding, described the wedding customs and practices of different cultures, and explained the intricacies of matrilateral cross-cousin marriage. My mother took it upon herself to explain the 'facts of life' - sex, where babies come from and so on. My sisters, aged about three and four, were perhaps a little too young to take much interest in this, but I was riveted. At the church the next day, I found the ceremony equally fascinating, and during a moment's silent pause (possibly after 'speak now, or forever hold your peace'), I turned to my mother and asked, in a loud, piercing whisper, 'Is he going to put the seed in now?'

I was not taken to any weddings for quite a few years after that, which seems a bit unfair, as I had clearly grasped the essential points, and only go the chronological order of things slightly mixed up. (373)

* In related news, this snarky article about the New Victorian phenomenon, as the author calls it, tries to get at the question of why my generation seems to feel so much more pressure to conform to traditional family structures so much earlier in life than our parents did. Why do some of my quite iconoclastic friends, for instance, feel a desire to have a highly conventional wedding? Why do those who want to defy convention face such extreme opposition from their families and friends, even when their parents had untraditional weddings and/or marriages? Why do so many people (including some new acquaintances and total strangers) feel they have to right to tell me that I am going to "have to get married one of these days," with an expression of great anxiety on their face, or even (sigh) to advise me about my ever-decreasing fertility (!!!) ? Ok, rant over. For now.

Is Britain suffering from an artistic shift to the right?

Terry Eagleton thinks so.

But it seems to me that there is a peril in looking holistically at historical leftists (by which I mean choosing the most radical points in their careers as representative), and comparing that to this particular moment in contemporary artists' careers (when, as he points out, many of them have succumbed in middle or age to a dilution of their former radicalism), particularly when this moment is so defined by fear and terrorism.

The point that he is making is about established, mainstream individual artists (along the lines of a Morris or a Shaw in other time periods). But of course in every age a lot of innovation and dissent will occur at the fringes of the artistic community, among the unsung and avant garde. Furthermore, it seems to me that there is a strong vein of protest in British theatre right now (although it is perhaps less polemic than the radicalism Eagleton is looking for, as the dialogic nature of the form allows), but it is being produced not by individuals but by collectives. Think, for instance, of the work done in the Tribunal theatre project at the Tricycle, which takes documentary evidence about current events (my favorite was about British residents being held in violation of habeas corpus at Guantanamo) and reworks it for the stage.

The Triumph of Love (52 Plays/52 Weeks)

To gain your heart I did everything I could to abuse those who stood in my way. You were the sole object of my machinations.
-Phocion, The Triumph of Love

In the gardens of a country estate, the rich youth Phocion and his servant Hermidas plot their way to ingratiating themselves with the rigidly reclusive owners of the house, the strict philosopher Hermocrate, his frigid and syntactically ornate sister Léontine, and their dim but noble ward Agis. There are, it emerges, secrets on both sides of this exchange. Agis's father, the late king, developed a mad passion for his sister-in-law, kidnapped her, and died, imprisoned by his enraged brother, who took over the kingship himself. In other words, the ethics of Agis's uncle's possession of the throne are complex. Agis was smuggled away after his mother's death (the plot of the play would have been vastly improved by making his mother the king's kidnapped sister-in-law, but alas, the incest route was the road less taken here), and Hermocrate is plotting an uprising against the current possessor of Agis's throne, his cousin Léonide, daughter of the wife-deprived usurper.

Phocion is desperate to join their household, after encountering Agis on a walk through the surrounding property and falling madly in love. Is this an unusually explicit (if not, strictly speaking, unusual) 18th century tale of homoeroticism? Only a little bit. Phocion, it turns out (of course), is Léonide in disguise, and she must go to great lengths to convince Agis that he is in love with her. First, she must reveal herself as a liar when it comes to her gender, and then she must overcome his learned repulsion for women (Agis was brought up by Hermocrate to believe that women would only divert him from his all-important political purpose), and finally she must uncover to him the nature of her political position, and convince him that she is not his most hated enemy.

She does this, of course, through a series of complicated amorous deceptions, convincing every member of the household that s/he is madly in love with them and cannot be turned away. The Triumph of Love is, it turns out, a tiny farce, not nearly as complex as what Marivaux does elsewhere with the genre (not to mention Shakespeare - but is that comparison really fair to any playwright?). It shows neither the verbal wit (although perhaps the French original is most linguistically clever) Marivaux is famous for, nor the superhuman complexity of the plots wrought by his colleagues across the channel during this period. It does, however, carry the odd distinction of being the only one of Marivaux's plays to have been turned into an English language film, starring (!?!?) Mira Sorvino, Ben Kingsley, and Fiona Shaw. Maybe I should watch a "staged" (i.e. filmed) version before I render my final judgement. You can read Roger Ebert's review of the film, as well as Mick LaSalle's less glowing evaluation (a hint: he titles his review "Triumph doesn't").

The Triumph of Love (1732)
Marivaux (Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux)
trans. James Magruder (1994)


[Anything one could possibly say about this movie would be a spoiler, so be forewarned. However, as usual I suspect that the enjoyment of the movie has other aesthetic benefits than surprise. But it is hard to say how valuable my innocence about the plot was, looking back on the experience. Is this not the most equivocating spoiler warning ever seen?]

Cyber-Freudianism: The Final Frontier. A group of psychotherapists are participating in a mammoth corporate research study into dream-intervention. A powerful device, known as the DC Mini, allows the therapist to insert themselves into patients' dreams, for first-hand observation or even, potentially, interference. Now, as someone interested in artistic representations of psychotherapy, I have to say this a brilliant premise. There are so many places to go with this, not least into the power it gives the therapist to trade the patient's verbal deceptions for their subconscious symbolic transformations. But one of the least interesting routes to take is the one chosen: the action film about ontological breakdown. Now, I love ontological breakdown dramas (in which different levels of reality, like dream and waking, or theatre plot and audience reality, or fiction and readerly reality, blend into one another), but is it possible that in the years since postmodern fiction began to burst forth with self-reference (or since Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, or even since Calderon's Life is a Dream in the Spanish Golden Age) this device has been played out a bit, and that it is in need of a spot of regeneration?

I think it is possible. The opening of the film (our insight into a detective's therapy with Paprika, the sprightly alter ego of psychotherapist Dr. Chiba) is quite brilliantly disconcerting, and this delightfully uncertain, surreal tone is maintained for about a third of the movie. But soon the film starts bewildering without complicating, collapsing layers of reality without adding meaning or possibility. Much of the film's appeal comes from its bright, crazed aesthetic, a joyous zest for Freudian symbolism that yields crowded frames of surrealist excess (or perhaps they look back further to Hieronymus Bosch [look right for part of his "Garden of Earthly Delights," courtesy of Wikipedia]). But then the film reduces itself with the great peril of Freudian cinema (though not necessarily, I hasten to add, of Freud's own process): analysis that simplifies. The potent (and latent) presence of Oedipus and the sphinx as a metaphor for the narrative is ultimately brought out of subtext and spoiled through explication. Great sexual battles are writ large, ultimately playing out in the context of the Godzilla vs. Mothra genre (this is not nearly so charming as it seems in description).

All in all, an interesting film, and one that has garnered a great deal of praise from American critics, but ultimately an unsuccessful one.

Paprika (2006, Japan)
dir. Satoshi Kon

[In other news, I finished Sleepless Nights last night, and the final chapter was less spectacular than those that preceded it. I also watched (and wept voluminously over) United 93, but fell asleep before the midnight Harry Potter showing that I had promised to attend with my friend. Alas! Still at work on Watching the English (going on 14 months now), and I admit that I was sucked into starting the fourth book in Ursula K. le Guin's Earthsea cycle, Tehanu, against all my virtuous intentions to read book group and challenge books first. Ah, well. Now that I am done with Sleepless Nights, I will return to The Heart is a Lonely Hunter as my next book group read.]

Ize in ur Aprile, Maken Melodye with ur Foules

D has recently developed an inexplicable but really quite charming fascination with the phenomenon known as LOLCats, in which animals (often cats) are photographed in the midst of cute and/or bizarre behavior and then their thoughts are provided in oddly ungrammatical captions. Most famous among these internet oddities are a cat deeply satisfied by his possession of a "cheezeburger" and a walrus in continual search for his beloved but wandering bucket. I blame the Carolina basketball board for ensnaring D in this sticky web of endless cute wit.

But then I made the delightful discovery that Chaucer (for whom, in all his humorous complexity, I have long harbored a mild literary crush - although I am unsettled by the possibility that he was a rapist) has a blog, and that on that blog he admits that he too is quite obsessed with the LOLcat phenomenon. So fascinated, in fact, that he rushed to make LOLPilgrims, which are a marvelous satire on both the conventions of LOL and the intricacies of Canterbury Tales criticism. Take a look; the Middle English is a mite difficult at first, but it is definitely worth it. I swear that I am one step away from buying one of old Geoff's tee-shirts - perhaps the one that threatens "Don't make me unlock my word-hoard on you!"

In other news, D and I are watching a borrowed copy of the third season of "Slings and Arrows," the Canadian series about the people who run a (fictional) embattled theatre company. My parents got us and several of our friends completely addicted to this theatricalist dramedy, and the third season is proving to be every bit as brilliant as the previous two. In the first season, the Artistic Director of the New Burbage Festival unexpectedly dies, leaving his theatre company in the thrall of financial peril and artistic mediocrity. The board of directors takes a risks and invites the late AD's estranged protege to take over the company, despite the fact that he left the Festival years earlier amidst a massive nervous breakdown, which took hold of him while he was onstage, playing Hamlet. Is he still quite mad? Well, it's possible: he regularly sees the nagging ghost of his late mentor. Each season takes as its subject a single, central production that the company is mounting (Hamlet in the first season, Macbeth in the second - both, pointedly, ghost plays - and, in the third, King Lear), and in each season the characters' non-theatrical problems thematically echo the chosen play's. I highly recommend it to all of you - you can get it on Amazon (Slings & Arrows - Season 3) or Netflix (although Netflix bought too few copies, and is being a bit withholding as a result).

I am (I swear) about to sit down and watch the acclaimed but undoubtedly harrowing United 93 - I will let you know how it goes. I am almost done with Sleepless Nights, which continues to be dreamily excellent, but haven't really gotten any further with Watching the English or David Copperfield. I also need to attend to my 52 Plays/52 Weeks Project - I have been halfway through a Marivaux play for a couple of weeks now, and its plot is so intricate I may just have to start again at the beginning.

Hemingway's six-toed cats

Apparently there has been quite a furor over whether Hemingway's former home in Florida should be allowed to keep the clan of cats (50+) descended from the author's original six-toed feline companion, Snowball, without a special "animal exhibit" licence. This Guardian article explains it in more detail.

In other news, I am in the midst of the short but remarkably dense (in amount of poetic power per page, not mental acuity) Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick, for the Slaves of Golconda (I swear I will actually get around to reviewing this one, unlike Lady Susan! That is why I am giving myself a huge head-start before the deadline.). I am also reading the lengthy but immensely entertaining - if somewhat unsettling in its ability to predict and stereotype human behavior - Watching the English, an anthropological approach to the oddities of English social interactions. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter has had to go on hold after a stunning first chapter until I am done with Sleepless Nights.

Filmwise, D and I just saw the immensely (off-puttingly) odd and diffuse Paprika this weekend, and I must get around to reviewing it one of these days, along with a few other films that have been stacking up. I am in the middle of High Society, which is proving quite grim by comparison to The Philadelphia Story, its original. It does, however, have the distinction (once I finish it, that is) of being the first movie I will have watched in purely digital form (via Netflix's "Watch Now" service). The Burmese Harp and (I brace myself) United 93 both sit in their little red envelopes on top of the TV, telling me they must be attended to.

And then, of course, there is work....

Oh, and I almost forgot! D and I threw a wee dinner party (on our Ikea folding bamboo chairs - instruments of torture disguised as patio furniture, and being used as dining room accoutrements) last night, and it was pride-inducingly tasty! I made my a dish which has recently entered my repertoire (we call it Carol's Summer Soup, after the family friend who gave it to us - it is a cold, gazpachoesque tomato soup with avocado, shrimp, cilantro, cucumber and jalapeno), an old favorite (goat cheese lasagne), and a venture into completely new territory (red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting). The latter was my first attempt at making an entire cake (frosting included) from scratch, and it was fantastically time consuming and fantastically delicious. The recipe came from a cookbook which is winging its way from Amazon to me as we speak - the Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, winner of this year James Beard award for best cookbook. I can't wait (and how often do I feel this kind of enthusiasm for cooking, really?) to try something else from it.