Send in the Idiots (2006)

By the time he reached kindergarten age, Kamran Nazeer hadn't ever spoken. When he was diagnosed with autism, his parents sent him to a new school in which small classes entirely made up of autistic students received specialized care and tutelage from skilled teachers. Years later, Nazeer (the penname of Emran Mian) is a British civil servant with a law degree and a philosophy doctorate. Intrigued by the relationships of his early years (in which it was assumed that relationships were too ambitious a goal for autistic children) and perturbed by his inability to remember details about his pre-linguistic life, Nazeer set out in search of his former classmates. Many declined to be a part of his project, and Nazeer was denied contact with others by understandably protective family members. There is certainly sufficient room in a project like this for exploitation, for turning human beings into emblems of their diagnosis. To Nazeer's immense credit, the book is uncomfortable with this urge, and hyper-aware of its own limits:

Several of the people whom I contacted for this book didn't want to be in it. Often, it was their parents who turned me down. Many autistic adults still live with their parents; they don't want to move out, or their parents are reluctant to let them try living on their own or else did let them try and it failed. In one case, an older brother denied me access. Another woman explained to me that she didn't think that participating in this book would, for her, be a positive experience. She tried not to think about being autistic very often. All I got from one of my former classmates was a crackly phone call made, I think, from a booth; I think that he was trying to give me an address, but he spoke very slowly, and I confused him by interrupting and asking for a number where I could call him back, and then there were beeps, he got cut off, and I never heard from him again. I'm afraid that, beyond this book, there may be a hinterland of autistic experience, remote and underformed. (142-3)

In fact, the self-consciousness of Send in the Idiots is its greatest strength. The best chapter is the fifth, in which (after meeting with four of his classmates and their families in the previous sections) Nazeer gets in touch with his former teachers, and describes the excruciating double-think involved in their conversations: are they still diagnosing him? (yes - they declare that he is no longer autistic), can they tell how nervous he is?, are they using that nervousness to manipulate him? The question of Nazeer's own autism lurks behind every stage of the process: how does it affect his writing, his interviews, his ability to form more than just authorial relationships with his subjects and their families?

The fifth is also the chapter in which we get the most contextual information about autism itself, including fascinating connections with the folk traditions of "feral children" (abandoned in the wild by bewildered parents) and "changelings," as well as fairly scathing accounts of both conventional parent-blaming and doom-declaring medical attitudes and the uncomfortable idealizations of anti-psychiatry (whose assertion that autism is a manifestation of genius is a variety of erasure in and of itself). It's unfortunate that this context comes only in the last chapter, because those of us who know little about autism (the book is pitched at a general audience) will be desperate for a more rigorous definition of it throughout the rest of the book. Perplexing questions (which might be unanswerable but shouldn't be unapproachable) pop up throughout - Since autism manifests itself through so many different symptoms, what unifies the autistic community under a single diagnosis? How long have we had an awareness of autism as separate from other disorders and diseases? Is it possible to be "cured" of autism, or to control the symptoms? Since the spectre of "getting better" looms darkly over virtually every chapter (and particularly the one about a classmate who committed suicide), this last question takes on particular urgency.

Instead we are plunged straight into the lives of Nazeer's classmates, and this lack of an initial guiding framework is only one of the many editorial errors that characterize the book. There is a good deal of needless repetition, and even more oddly, strange elisions (in which paragraphs refer back to events we haven't heard about). Typos and grammatical errors run rampant (including one in the book's last paragraph, which should have been scrutinized particularly carefully because of its place of importance). And then, of course, there is the problem of the title, which is never contextualized in a way that really reclaims the word "Idiots" from its pejorative connotations. I squirmed every time the titular phrase reappeared in the book.

An interesting project on an intriguing topic; I would like to read an even more rigorously self-conscious account of Nazeer's experiences.

Send in the Idiots (2006)
Kamran Nazeer

They just walked through my door - honest! September acquisitions, Part the Third

Part the third of my new resolution to keep track of all things literary that make their way into my personal library!
In which the Mooch avalanche roars unabated,
and I make the very grave error of entering a bookstore.

Mooch Acquisitions:
  • Donald Duk by Frank Chin
    • I am not entirely sure where I heard about this book, or what created such a mammoth desire in me to own it, but it looks potentially delightful. From the description on the back, it seems to have much in common with the acclaimed by others but not entirely loved by me American Born Chinese. The unfortunately named Donald Duk, a twelve-year-old San Franciscan, comes to terms with his resentment of his Chinese family and heritage through dream conversations with an imaginary mentor, Fred Astaire.
  • Crusader's Cross by James Lee Burke
    • The first of the Dave Robicheaux mystery series, set in the Louisiana Bayou. As you might remember, I became fascinated with James Lee Burke after reading a series of interviews relating to the influence of Hurricane Katrina on his latest book.
  • Jazz by Toni Morrison
    • I have read Beloved, the first in a trilogy of novels in which Morrison is said to evoke the structure of Dante's Divine Comedy, and I own Paradise (which, as you might gather, is the third). Now, at long last (I have been putting off Paradise for several years - take that statement as you will), I have the Purgatorio section: Jazz.
  • Tamora Pierce's First Test
    • I LOVED Pierce's Alanna series when I was in middle school. I mean, I loved it with a passion for a fictional world that I fear I lost in the cynicism of my high school and adult selves. I wanted to BE Alanna, the woman knight. My fondest dream was that someone would make a movie of the series, and cast me as the heroine. Now I am afraid to return to it in case my cynical self is disappointed with it. Pierce has written prolifically beyond Alanna's "Song of the Lioness" series, while staying in the same fictional world. So perhaps I will try out less emotional frought reading territory by exploring some of her other characters. This is the first in her Protector of the Small series.
  • If You Lived Here, I'd Know Your Name by Heather Lende
    • An account of life in small-town Alaska by a Morning Edition contributor, I can chalk this one up to the zeal for quirky non-fiction that was born of my early love for Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals.
  • The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett
    • Although I didn't enjoy Pratchett's first Discworld novel (The Color of Magic) as much as I had hoped, I have been anticipating the arrival of this, the second in the series, with an unsettling degree of excitement. Everything about this series, it would seem, has become associated for me with an impossible ideal of fun and relaxation in reading. So I might not be able to keep from skipping it in front of some of the more serious reads in my TBR queue.
  • Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden
    • Advertised as a reinvention of the "Great War epic," which, given my current, intensive relationship with the Iliad, intrigues me immensely. At its heart this novel is apparently about the relationship between an Oji-Cree medicine woman from Ontario and her only surviving relative, who has just come back from a scarring time in the European trenches.
  • Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin
    • I already own a much later volume from Maupin's "Tales of the City" cycle, but have been (I'm sure you understand) reluctant to start it before reading the earlier books. Why did I buy a book from the end of the series, you ask? Well, I think my book buying compulsion has become painfully obvious to readers of my blog in recent weeks. I have a particular interest in Maupin's work, because, like me, he had formative experiences living in DC and North Carolina, and went to UNC. Unlike me, however, he was mentored by Jesse Helms, although this mentorship did not continue into Maupin's time in gay rights activism. I can't say I really envy him the Helmsish aspect of his biography.
  • All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot
    • Although the Herriot-inspired words "It's the sheep! They won't stop wommiting!" have been bandied about in my family since time immemorial, I have never read anything from this series or seen any part of the famous television adaptation about the adventures of a British veterinarian. And now I hang my head in shame. For some odd reason, my library includes All Things Wise and Wonderful, but not this, the first omnibus of three in the series. Apparently "wacky out-of-order series acquisition" is the theme of today's post.
  • The World since 1945: A Concise History by Keith Robbins
    • I am determined to beef up my contemporary history chops, since this is in fact the period of theatre I study. And those crazy playwrights just insist on reflecting on current events, curse 'em!
  • Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
    • A hardcover Everyman's Library edition of a novel I did not enjoy to replace the wee battered paperback version I read in college. Does that make any sense as an acquisition? I can only explain it with the feeling that it is SO classic that perhaps some day I will come to see its genius. Ah, the snobbery of the literary canon at work!
  • A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong
    • I find the Canongate Myths series, of which this is the first volume, to be a witty, ambitious idea, although I didn't particularly enjoy the first installment that I read (Margaret Atwood's Penelopiad). I have been lurking about, waiting for a cheap copy of Armstrong's introduction (which was apparently the largest simultaneous publication in history, appearing in 33 countries on a single day) to show up, and here at last I found one.
  • Ascending Peculiarity: Edward Gorey on Edward Gorey edited by Karen Wilkin
    • Recommended by J.; I do love Gorey!
  • The Little Disturbances of Man by Grace Paley
    • I have never read any of Paley's work, and this is one of those sad cases where the news of her recent death (in August) brought this oversight imperatively to my attention.
  • A Brief History of the Smile by Angus Trumble
    • A whimsical purchase, but I can rarely resist these strange specialist histories. And, as you can see, I have quite the weakness for books that describe themselves as "short," "concise," or "brief" histories.
  • Stigma by Erving Goffman
    • I need to read this for work, and it is always recalled from me when I get it from the library. So how could I NOT buy a copy (albeit a very marked up one) for $1.50??
  • The Unmasking of Drama: Contested Representation in Shakespeare's Tragedies by Jonathan Baldo
    • Another research related purchase.
  • The Columbia History of the Twentieth Century ed. by Richard W. Bulliet
    • Not as delightfully concise as I apparently like my history, but still a seductively useful looking tome.

Abandon the Old in Tokyo (1970)

This is a different world from the one I have been used to seeing in manga. In this, the second volume in Drawn and Quarterly's collection of Yoshihiro Tatsumi's work, someone vomits in virtually every story. Sometime it is pregnancy, sometime drunkenness, sometimes self-disgust, sometimes fear, but this is a world of retching and churning.

Tatsumi himself was the first to declare the difference between his fictional-realist world and the performance of dignity that often takes precedence in Japan's self-conception through manga. In 1957 he coined a new term to set his work and other alternative comics traditions in Japan in opposition to manga: gekiga. These were comics for adults, distributed differently (through lending libraries) than manga, dealing with uncomfortable subjects - brutal sexuality and violent alienation.

Indeed this is a world permeated by sexual anxiety, and unmediated by dream or fantasy. It is a world in which secrets are stripped bare: in one story a window washer witnesses his daughter's affair with her boss through a newly clean window and reacts (naturally!) by ripping her clothes off when she comes home and shoving her into a shower to be scrubbed down. In another, a comics artist can only find inspiration from the bawdy graffiti scrawled in a public bathroom (whose design - a flowing canal over which the user squats - seems more metaphorically direct about the scatological quality of artistic creation than the toilets we are accustomed to would be), and is caught sketching there by a total stranger. These are lives of tangled claustrophobia, filled to painfulness with other people and yet utterly lonely. The only people who ever reach out to the isolated everymen who fill Tatsumi's pages turn out to be whores.

As you can probably tell from these brief descriptions, there is often something contrived about the plots of these stories, which make up for their obviousness in abundant unpleasantness. The great strain seems to be in creating these harsh plot-lines, in violating the taboo, rather than in making the violation intricate. Drawn and Quarterly has laid out a project that involves publishing, each year, a collection of comics from one year of Tatsumi's career. The first was The Pushman and Other Stories (1969, publ. in English by D&Q in 2005), and this book represents 1970. I hold out hope for future years, for a boldness already present, matched with an intricacy sadly missed.

Abandon the Old in Tokyo (1970)
Yoshihiro Tatsumi
trans. from the Japanese by Yuji Oniki (2006)

Sing, Blog Muse, of the exhaustion of Sycorax Pine...

Sunk in preparations for tomorrow's class on a unconscionably huge chunk of the Iliad. It seems like every Monday through Thursday this semester is going to be dominated by course preparation from 8 a.m. to 10 or 11 p.m. I haven't had a moment to read for pleasure or watch even a snippet of a film. ARGH!

Luckily the Iliad just gets better and better the more time I spend with it and the understandably massive amount of literary analysis it has attracted over the thousands of years people have been reading it. Tomorrow we will probably spend not a little time discussing Helen and how sympathetically she is portrayed by comparison to the later tradition of her character. She does have a bit of a self-esteem problem for the most beautiful woman in all of history, which manifests in a tendency to refer to herself as a slut. Of course, that may just be a pity-inducing mode of flirtation. Most interesting, perhaps, is the utter disgust she shows for Paris (perhaps an echo of her own self-disgust). It remains unclear where her personal choice lies in the back story of the Trojan War. We'll see what the class thinks.


So. The start of the school year and my return to teaching, in combination with all kinds of other work-finding and dissertation-finishing pressures, has produced an insane work schedule for me of late. The result: a sad longing for my salad days of constant blogging. Blogstalgia.

However, at the end of the day, with undone work glaring malevolently at me from every corner, the idea of writing a long, thoughtful review has proved to be a fantasy, and increasingly an additional source of stress. It is time, I think, for a new "I have a full-time job now" approach. I am afraid that the era of the winding and detailed post may have to give way for a time to shorter reviews and updates. But what I would like to do is this: make blogging as close to a daily habit as I can muster, while removing the pressure to provide as complete an analysis (ha!) as I would normally want to give of a film, book or play (there are so many things I am seeing and reading, and I just don't remember - or even like - them as well when I don't blog about them). So if my posts are somewhat shorter in the next few months, my apologies. Think of them as fragments of what I would like to say, if I only had time to do it.

But who knows - I have often sat down to write a quick sketch of a post, only to find myself in the midst of a meandering diatribe or tempting alleyway of a side argument. I can't say I will be immune to the temptations of longwindedness in the months to come.

They just walked through my door - honest! September acquisitions, Part the Second

You may recall that I have a new resolution this month to record all my book acquisitions (à la Nick Hornby's method in The Polysyllabic Spree), in an attempt to shed some light on what I bring into the house vs. what I actually read. My list so far went something like this:

  1. An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears (Gift)
  2. A Concise Companion to Shakespeare on Screen ed. by Diana E. Henderson (Gift)
  3. Ryder by Djuna Barnes (Gift)
  4. Blood Knot and Other Plays by Athol Fugard (Purchase)
  5. The End of Acting: A Radical View by Richard Hornby (Purchase)
Well, now, in Part Two of "They Just Walked in My Door - Honest!" I give you the beginnings of the BookMooch bonanza which marked my return home after a summer away. (I couldn't send off books to fellow moochers while I was in LA, which meant that I also couldn't receive them.)

Mooch Acquisitions:
  • Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women by Susan Faludi
    When I was in seventh grade, my friend D (who is now a very accomplished playwright) read this, and I have had a strange mimetic yen for it ever since. The blurbs declare that it is "the right book at exactly the right time" (Elaine Showalter), that "Now the '90s can begin" (Barbara Ehrenreich) and that it is a "clarion call for the '90s" (Eleanor Smeal). The questions are whether it is still as compelling more than a decade and a half later, and whether we are now in an even darker place as a nation.

  • The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
    This, surprisingly enough, is on my list of 1001 Books I Must Read Before I Die. It is a Hercule Poirot mystery; it has been some years since I have read an Agatha Christie novel, but I do believe that everything I once read by her did feature her fastidious Belgian sleuth. This edition is lovely, with a soothing, pensive blue cover and a list of every novel in the Poirot series on the back. According the the blurbs on the back, this was the most controversial of Christie's mysteries.

  • From Doon with Death by Ruth Rendell
    Unlike Christie, Ruth Rendell is an author I have never read, in any of her noms de plume. This, I have been told, is the first in her acclaimed Inspector Wexford series. It is so delightfully slim that I almost can't bear to put it down again without reading it.

  • A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters
    I seem to be on quite a mystery-mooching spree, don't I? The odd thing about this is that I mooched books from all different genres at approximately the same time. The only thing I can conclude from this is that mystery readers are prompter to the post office than readers of other genres. This is "The First Chronicle of Brother Cadfael," a twelfth-century Welsh monk who goes about solving crime. I once read broadly in this series, but since then we must have given away our copy of the first book, so I have been frustrated in my attempts to return to it. Now, at long last, we are reunited. The cover of this edition is absurdly cheesy: it looks like an extra from a particularly low-budget production of Camelot has suffered an abrupt and unexpected death by arrow.

  • Echo House by Ward Just
    My first experience reading Ward Just, with The Weather in Berlin, was a grim and tedious affair, but I am giving it another shot with this novel about a political dynasty in my home town of Washington, DC.

  • The End of the Alphabet by CS Richardson (from the delightful Lotus Reads)
    I had the tremendous good fortune to win Lotus Reads' drawing for this almost irresistible small hardback about Ambrose Zephyr, who is told by his doctor that he has 0nly a month left in his life, and embarks on a final adventure with his wife Zipper. I can't wait to hop into it - Thanks, Lotus!

I have had to give up on tracking the books that I get from the library; they form such a raging paper avalanche that I have despaired of ever accounting for them all.

Scheherazade (2004)

The graphic novel is clearly a genre that I love, and I often wish that I read most by female comics authors. This past year I discovered both Alison Bechdel and Lynda Barry, to my very great pleasure. This explains my impulse to pick up Scheherazade: Comics about Love, Treachery, Mothers, and Monsters, a "women's anthology" of comics fragments and vignettes edited by Megan Kelso, on a speed-browse through the library stacks.

Sadly, reading it has left me with very little to say about it, which is the most faintly damning comment I can make on a book. The strongest piece is the first, Andrice Arp's "The Fisherman and the Genie," which riffs directly on 1001 Nights and the Scheherazade theme by playing with modes of presenting stories within stories within the comics format (how do you lay this out on the page?). In moments of stress, Arp's characters often make reference to other, thematically related stories and then proclaim (to my delight) "This is no time for stories!"

Many of the other pieces are too straightforward to do justice to the innovation of their subject matter (which, the claim implicitly goes, is too often ignored by male writers and artists). Others are so fragmentary as to baffle my attempts to discern their sequential qualities, make meaning, or comprehend the nature of their devices. Too often I felt that I had gotten too little of a story (the peril of anthologies) without feeling a desire to seek out more (which is, in fact, at least part of their purpose).

Scheherazade: Comics about Love, Treachery, Mothers, and Monsters
ed. Megan Kelso

First day of teaching tomorrow

Wish me luck! Soon, soon, my attention will be more blog-oriented, I hope.

They just walked through my door - honest! September acquisitions, Part the First

I was in Providence visiting with wonderful friends and readers-of-Sycorax-Pine (hi, guys! It was great to see you!) over the weekend, and somehow I came back with 50% more luggage than I took there. Actually, I know how it happened: I bought some books and (even more delightful) I was given some books. So, in the interest of my new spirit of bookish disclosure, I give you "They just walked through my door - honest! September acquisitions, Part the first":

  • Gifts
    • An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears (from J. and R.) - I read and enjoyed The Dream of Scipio a few years ago (although my attempt to loan it to a friend was not, I think, ultimately viewed as an act of friendship, on account of its slow plot progression), so I am looking forward to what is apparently an Oxonian mystery set in the Restoration.
    • A Concise Companion to Shakespeare on Screen ed. by Diana E. Henderson (from C.) - This sounds like a rollicking good read, as far as my academic reading goes, with articles entitled "Getting Back to Shakespeare: Whose Film is it Anyway?" and "Hamlet among the Pixelvisionaries."
    • Ryder by Djuna Barnes (from C.) - a genre-ambiguous, possibly autobiographical book which the jacket describes as
      One of modern literatures first and best denunciations of patriarchal repression , Ryder employs an exuberant prose by which narrator Julie Ryder derides her hated father, polygamous Wendell Ryder. Barnes satirizes masculinity and domesticity by way of parable, poem and play, and a prose style that echoes Chaucer, Shakespeare, the Bible, and Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy.*

  • Purchases (They were having a 50% off sale in the Drama section of a bookstore we visited. Could I really resist?)
    • Blood Knot and Other Plays by Athol Fugard - After I bought this, I had the most unsettling feeling that I already owned it. But it isn't in LibraryThing, so I think I must just have gazed at it longingly in bookstores for so many years that I developed the same feeling of familiarity with its cover that I have with my own books.
    • The End of Acting: A Radical View by Richard Hornby - I can now return the library copy that has languished long on my shelves. This is a source of some rejoicing, since I have now reached the official limit to the number of books I can have out of the library at any one time (I think it is somewhere between 125 and 200). But I still want more. MORE!

* While I read the dust jacket of the Barnes book aloud to my friends, I suddenly exclaimed "Isn't Anatomy of Melancholy by Richard, not Robert, Burton?" "No, no" said my friends, "RICHARD Burton was married to Elizabeth Taylor." "Not THAT Richard Burton," I replied, "The Richard Burton who translated 1001 Nights and the Kama Sutra." Well, it emerges that I was quite wrong, of course. Robert Burton did write Anatomy of Melancholy in the Renaissance, and Richard Burton (not THAT Richard Burton) also translated 1001 Nights and the Kama Sutra ... about two hundred years later. Ah, my impeccable sense of history....

August Goals - A Clear-Eyed Assessment

Finished books are in CAPS, links are to my reviews.

  • ARCS from various sources
  • Book Groups
  • Challenges
    • Down Under
      • Gilgamesh by Joan London [I'm halfway through this, and have been for weeks. Sigh. It is good! Don't blame the book!]
      • Voss by Patrick White
      • The Cardboard Crown by Martin Boyd
    • NYT Notable Books
    • Non-Fiction Five
      • 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 [My tracking system seems has sputtered a bit here, but I seem to have read more like 2. Boo to that.]
  • Preparations for teaching
    • The Iliad by Homer [I am more than halfway through this.]
    • as much of James Joyce's Ulysses as I can manage
  • Other
    • Tales from Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin [I have also been halfway done with this lovely book for a long, long time.]
    • Runaway by Alice Munro
    • The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster
  • 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]

So this was the month of half-projects, mostly because in the last two weeks of August my work schedule became quite frantic. A summary:

6 books finished, 3 books half-finished (not counting the approximately 2 plays)
All these books were by new-to-me authors! How extraordinary.
1 work of non-fiction
1 collection of short fiction

September Reading Goals

This is going to be a very, very hard month (or few months) at work, so I am going to be a bit broader in my goals than I have been in the past, with a full expectation that I will fall short. It is, as always, all about the striving:

  • 8 plays (52 Plays/52 Weeks project)
  • The Iliad (for work)
  • Challenges - there will be some overlap here, I hope
    • 2 books from the NYT Notable Challenge
    • 2 Australian books (Year of Down Under Challenge)
    • 2 award winners (Book Awards Challenge)
    • 2 books by unread authors (Unread Authors Challenge)
  • Reading Groups
    • The Woman Who Waited by Makine (Slaves of Golconda)
    • G. by Berger (Booker Prize)
    • We by Zamyatin (Books in Translation)
    • The Echo Maker by Powers (Pulitzer)
  • Empire Rising by Sam Barone (ARC)
  • 4 Graphic Novels (since I have returned to my huge pile from the library)
  • To finish from August
    • Gilgamesh by Joan London
    • Tales from Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
Anything else I manage to read this month will just be gravy. It will be a miracle if I finish a fraction of these.

There is one more resolution I would like to take up this month, inspired by Nick Hornby's Polysyllabic Spree. I am going to attempt to start keeping track of the books I bring into my home (through gifts, buying, mooching, or my reckless, unbridled library usage), as well as those I actually read.