Musings on Reality TV: Look what you have wrought, Writers' Strike!

The fallout from the writers' strike is finally hitting my household hard: in the absence of original dramatic programming on our TiVo, we are turning increasingly to reality shows of all stripes. And my GOD are they fascinating.

"The Hills" currently has us in its well-manicured clutches, and it has yielded some truly philosophical conversations, especially in the wake of the New Yorker article on the show's strange phenomenon. The program follows a small group of Orange County women (constantly jostling for dominance in their friends' loyalties) as they attempt to start their careers in fashion and similarly well-groomed careers. The two main characters (the show is so obviously staged, and shot with the glossy polish of a film, that it is possible to think of them as purely fictional constructions in discussing the show), Lauren and Heidi, have been warring for the better part of a season, reportedly (this is the first season I have watched) because Heidi and her gleefully villainous boyfriend spread a rumor about the existence of a sex tape starring Lauren. Thus I found myself in my living room one evening last week, listening to my roommate A and friend J have this conversation:

A: Who do you think is justified in the fight between Lauren and Heidi?
J: I don't think justice can take root in this soil.
We went on to watch "Dancing with the Stars" a show which has not only captivated my attention beyond what I would have thought possible (I mean, they have a sub-competition for dancing children! Who could resist?), but also reminded me of how much I used to love Christi Yamaguchi. I think she may have been the last figure skater about whom I felt an affection unfettered by irritation with how ... cute the sport could be. This may just have been because I was young enough at the time to feel idealism untouched by teenaged surliness.

My memory of dramas of the "triple axel" Albertville Olympics proved to be highly selective, however: I edited Tonya Harding completely out of the proceedings, perhaps because of her later unsavory behavior (she and Midori Ito were battling to become the first woman to land a triple axel in Olympic competition, if I now understand the situation correctly), and only vaguely remembered the Ito-Yamaguchi rivalry. In other words, I had forgotten Ito's name completely (unfairly, since she was an extraordinary competitor) even mixed up her nationality, substituting our current global superpower rivalry (I remembered her being Chinese) for the industrial rivalry of the 80s and 90s (she is in fact Japanese).

Long story short: I still adore Kristi, and she is phenomenal in "Dancing with the Stars."

Our friend J, however, couldn't disguise his contempt for our new reality TV fascination, our ballroom beloved. He did, however, say some words that brought delight to my soul:
Someday, you know, you will being seeing Tyler Hansbrough on "Dancing with the Stars.
Being a Dookie (our longtime nemeses in college basketball), J snorted with derision at the idea of our team's MVP gallumphing gracelessly around the dance floor. So of course I was quick to shoot back a response about Tyler's perfectionism and work ethic: if he decided to become a ballroom dancer, you can be sure that he wouldn't be satisfied until he was the best damn ballroom dancer in the competition, foxtrotting his enormous form oh so delicately to and fro.

Sadly for those who love ballroom dancing, but happily for those who love Carolina basketball, it looks like Tyler will be staying in college for another year. I can't tell you how this information lowered my stress level.

In other news, my computer is having a bit of a social crisis: it refuses to acknowledge its good friend the power cable (or its other longtime buddy, the alternate/backup power cable) a good 50% of the time. So it looks like I will be sending it in for repairs this week. Luckily for me I have the best roommates ever, and they have offered the loan of their computers, but I may still find myself a bit more blog-absent as the week unfolds. I will try to sneak in entries wherever I can.

OK: Off to grade papers.

Sunday Salon: Week Five

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This was the last week of classes, so all that remains of my teaching load for the semester are some massive piles of grading and the preparation of an exam that I hope will be easy for those who came to class and did the reading, and will unmask (!) those who did not. For the most part, my students did a great job keeping up with the heavy reading load (if their participation is a good indicator, which for the more confident of them perhaps it is not), so there shouldn't be any instances of red-ink carnage in grading these suckers.

My reading load has been picking up steadily this week as I finally began to relax into my post-dissertation, (almost) post-teaching, (mostly) post-job market persona. I finished Agent Zigzag (an impossibly dashing nonfiction account of a double cross agent who volunteered to spy for both the Germans and the British in WWII) yesterday in a mad sprint of reading after it was recalled by the library. My reviewing is still about a month behind, however - hopefully I can remedy that in the near future (perhaps even today?).

In my reading pile for today:

  • Finish the first volume (1950-1952) of The Complete Peanuts. You may have noticed that I have been reading this for several consecutive Sunday Salons. Now I am finally within ten pages of the end, so there is no excuse not to finish it off today. In fact, I am no longer reading the strips themselves, but am deep into the very interesting back matter, which includes an interview in which Schulz admits that he doesn't care, on an artistic or professional level, for Garry Trudeau, and an essay by David Michaelis, more recently the author of Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography. As Michaelis observes,
[The strips] explained America the way Huckleberry Finn does: Americans believe in friendship, in community, in fairness, but in the end, we are dominated by our apartness, our individual isolation. (292)
  • Continuing on through the list of "things that have been on this TBR pile, half-completed, for far too long," I hope to finish, at long last, George Ryga's drama of exploitation and violation, The Ecstasy of Rita Joe. It is the brutality of the subject matter that has stymied me between acts for several weeks, but this increasingly feels like a rather feeble excuse for not finishing one of the most acclaimed and assigned plays from the Canadian dramatic canon.
  • I am still reading a bit of Gabrielle Calvocoressi's thought-provoking, vintaged collection of poems, The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart, every day. Yesterday's reading, from the first half of her long poem "Circus Fire, 1944," contained this stunning passage from a section titled "A Word from the Fat Lady":
When folks scream or clutch their hair

and poke at us and glare and speak
of how we slithered up from Hell,

it is themselves they see:
the preacher with the farmer's girls

(his bulging eyes, their chicken legs)
or the mother lurching towards the sink,

a baby quivering in her gnarled
hands. Horror is the company

you keep when shades are drawn.
Evil does not reside in cages. (34)
Calvocoressi continues to play with point of view in describing historical events that hover anxiously between the public (left to us in fragments through newspaper accounts and archival interviews) and the intimate (passed down through half-remembered storytellings), piecing together the last departure of a famous aviatrix or a hideously deadly fairground fire from the triangulated tales of very different observers.

As in "The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart," the long poem from the collection that I described a couple of weeks ago in Sunday Salon, you can see Calvocoressi using the extended poetic format to weave complex fabrics of imagery: the chicken legs and bulging eyes of the preacher with the farmer's girls not only underline the grotesquerie of this mundane (and increasingly disturbing) grouping, but also tie them back to an earlier section in which a "geek" describes his work biting the heads off chickens ("Women swoon but stay / until the bleedings done, / pocket feathers: souvenirs" [32]) and forward to later descriptions of the tortured bodies melting together in the flames. This is an infernal poem: a short epic descent into the underworld, in which the underworld and the mundane world melt into each other in the intensity of the heat. "Evil does not reside in cages."

Today I would like to finish "Circus Fire, 1944," which extends across 23 parts.

  • I have just started Dreaming in Cuban, Christina Garcia's novel of revolutionary Cuba, which I want to have finished in time to post about it with the Slaves of Golconda at the end of the month. I have only read about five pages so far, but already it is not what I expected: more searing, more dreamlike.
  • I would like to make some serious progress on Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk, which you may remember has also made several appearances on my Sunday Salon "to do" lists. Sigh. Progress will be made! The book itself is skeptical about the nature of progress. It is a novel about vividly unhappy women who feel unexpectedly smothered by their suburban lives. One has just described seeing each of her family members off to work or school as "a feeling of rapid ascent, as though the members of her household were sandbags she was heaving one by one out of the basket of a hot-air balloon" (43).
  • Last week I noted that I had to return Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to the library half-read when it was recalled from me. In a library miracle, I recalled it right back (which usually means that the other reader has a shortened time of several weeks before having to return the book) and it made its boomerang way back to me two days after I returned it. Now I feel it is my biblio-civic duty to finish it and return it as quickly as possible for any other readers who may want it.
  • If, amidst all these mighty plans, I can slip in a couple of chapters of Don Quixote, with which I am about 3/4 of the way done, that would be, well, a source of great surprise and pride.
What's up next, after this whopping pile? Probably Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy (so long half-finished that I may have to just start at the beginning again), the collected plays of Howard Brenton, and my first Octavia Butler novel, Parable of the Talents.

Happy reading, all!



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Sunday Salon: Week Four

Two great accomplishments this week: I learned that my dissertation had been accepted (and, by extension, that I will be graduating in about a month, fulfilling a lifelong dream of getting "Doctor" attached to the front of my name while acquiring absolutely no medical skills or knowledge) and I finished Joyce's Ulysses. It is really neck and neck as to which felt like the more epic feat.

So today, unlike the past few Sunday Salons, I will not be whinging about how much Ulysses reading I have on my plate. I will, however, be whinging about how much paper grading I have to do. (A lot.)

If I get some time amidst paper commenting, I hope to read a bit of Arlington Park, Rachel Cusk's (thus far beautifully written) tale of terribly unhappy mothers wending their way through suburban London lives. Perhaps I will also dip into the first volume of the Complete Peanuts. I have been reading about 25 pages a day all week, which seemed for a time to be the magic number which allowed me to perceive the wit in Schulz's strips rather than finding them cloying. About three quarters of the way through the volume, however, I am finding it decreasingly wry and increasingly cute, which is unsettling. For those of you who are regular readers of this complete compilation: does the quirkily (almost darkly) philosophical strain of the early strips return? Soon? Am I just experiencing Peanuts fatigue?

This week I had been reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, but in the aftermath of the Pulitzer win it was recalled by the library (alas), and now I must wait at least a couple of weeks before I can pick up the trail of the story again. Boo. Bright side: I can return with renewed vigor to my other reading projects, like Arlington Park, Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy (which I began almost a year ago, I think), and Dreaming in Cuban.

Happy reading, everyone!

Hurrah! (and Phew!)

I just learned last night that my dissertation was unanimously approved by my department, and that I will indeed be graduating in May! I went to pick up my readers' reports and found that (on a grading scale that ranged from Fair to Distinguished) I received one grade of "Very Good" and two of "Distinguished." Now I feel the MOST profound relief (almost edging into glee, really).

Hurrah!

Trombonophobia and Theatrical Utopias

The UK (and I don't think they are alone) is suffering from a hypergendered system of music education:

Although the authorities have concentrated on tackling sexist attitudes in sport, the study shows that stereotypes are just as prevalent in music classes, with the "smaller, higher-pitched instruments" and singing lessons being overwhelmingly favoured by girls, while boys, although reluctant to learn any instrument, tend towards electric guitars, drum kits and music technology classes.

Some 90% of harpists are girls, as are 89% of children playing the flute. In contrast, 81% of guitarists are boys and 75% of drummers. The smallest gender differences are in African drums (an increasingly popular option), cornet, French horn, saxophone and tenor horn.

While girls have become slightly more adventurous in their choices in the past decade, boys are as conservative as ever.

OK, personal admission time: when I was wee, I dreamed of playing the tuba. I mean, I thought the tuba was the most miraculous invention ever to grace the earth. My parents took a quite tiny me to an event I can now barely remember (perhaps overcome by the quasi-religious ecstasy of the experience?) called "A Tuba Christmas." In the aftermath of this epiphanic encounter, I wanted more than anything to play this elephantine monster of an instrument. But then one night, after some talk of sending me to music lessons, I had a dream that I was chased around a band room by a maniacal trombonist. I awoke in terror and steadfastly refused to attend even a single music class.

And that, my friends, is why I have not even the tiniest shred of musical ability today. I did take up the cello* for a brief, excruciating time in high school. The sounds I made... (sigh) ... could best be described by likening them to the moans of a tone-deaf cow simultaneously in the grips of a searing digestive disorder and a broken heart. But my lifelong distrust of trombone players has scuppered my dreams of jolly tubaing.

Nonetheless, I am sad to see that students' choice of instruments is so clearly gendered because I am hardly the only one of my female friends to lean towards the portlier, less prim instruments. I have two female friends I can think of off the top of my head who play the bass (an instrument particularly cited in the coverage of this study as suffering from a lack of female attention). But I don't, I'm afraid, know many male flautists. And that, I think, is the rub.

~~~~

Did Leonardo da Vinci illustrate this chess manual?

~~~~

Kansas City is apparently experiencing something of a theatrical Golden Age, with Equity theatres and small indy spaces springing up (and staying open) all over the place. As this article points out, in a single eight-hour period this week, audiences have a choice of 12 different shows in the town. Most interesting is the article's impulse to trace this boom back to its regional or historical sources:
Asked to explain the growth, Byrd said in some ways Kansas City theater people still embodied a version of frontier optimism that has been part of this town since the 19th century.

“Self-producing is easier in Kansas City than in the larger markets,” she said. “It’s more of a can-do spirit.”

This gets at an interesting point: self-production as the key to a nation in which cultural riches are dispersed evenly across the whole community (rather than just in rich urban centers). Surely this is where governmental organizations like the NEA could be most helpful: providing advice and support (often financial) to foster cultural communities in medium-sized towns across the nation. Most urgently needed (if my experience with the arts in a college town was any guide to go by) are spaces for artists: studios, exhibition spaces, salons where writers can meet/give readings/have workshops, tiny black-box theatres. These don't need to be large and they don't need to be glitzy. They just have to be made available to the town and engage with it on a level that will allow the creation of a community of artists (through classes, support groups, workshops, affordably rentable gallery or performance spaces) as well as a supportive audience culture. Is this too utopian? Probably. But it is the sort of opportunity that universities and colleges offer their students all over the nation. The Kansas City boom is largely the result of a small group of committed professors and the artists they drew to the region (this gives me hope, as an educator, that I might actually accomplish something lasting someday):
“If you build a community of artists and they choose to live here and work here, it spawns community interest … and that community builds on itself and gets bigger and bigger,” Carrothers said of McIlrath’s vision. “I think you’re finally starting to see that.”
Can America emulate some of the success that Britain has had with its regional arts endeavors? We shall see.

~~



* As you can tell, my taste still ran to the beefier instruments, which I somehow thought were unloved and in need of championing.

Sunday Salon: Week Three

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9 a.m.

Last week I became so caught up in my preparations to teach Ulysses that (alas!) I never got a chance to write the second, promised Sunday Salon post of the day. I suspect the same problem might rear its exhausted head later today, since this is my last day of prep for Joyce's novel. Soon the semester will be over, and I will (I hope) return triumphantly to unfettered pleasure reading on Sundays.

Meanwhile, a quick update on the week:

~~~~

I caught up a bit with my groaningly full Tivo, watching both Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander(not my favorite Bergman so far, but really terrifying and delightful in, among other things, its Shakespearean use of ghosts*) and Hal Ashby's cult classic Harold and Maude (the most frolickingly upbeat film about death I know**). I also finally got around to posting a review of The Lambs of London, which I read a full month ago. Next up for review, two quite opposite reading experiences: The Translator, Daoud Hari's account of his time guiding journalists through the perilous situation in Darfur, and The Light Fantastic, my second experience with Terry Pratchett's Discworld.

~~~~

I am continuing to read the first volume of The Complete Peanuts, which contains at least one wryly philosophical or historically prescient shock per week of strips, like the day in May of 1951 when Charlie Brown rushes to the more literate Patty to get her advice on a letter he has received. She tells him with perplexity that it is just an advertisement. "*Whew* What a relief ..." he says, with an enormous grin, "I thought I had been drafted." I have just gotten to the point (about nine months into the show's life, appropriately) when a baby appears who will later become of central importance to the strip: Schroeder. Of course, first he will have to grow up to the age of the other characters, while they remain eternally young, in defiance of all temporal laws.

~~~~

Although it has been a long, long time since I have actually finished a book (I blame Ulysses and its monstrous and engrossing vastness), and my "Currently Reading" list is reaching impossible lengths (see sidebar), I have also recently picked up a copy of Gabrielle Calvocoressi's brilliantly titled The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart in honor of National Poetry Month. The title poem is a ten-part reflection on the famous aviatrix, on the desire to disappear and the incomprehensibility of absence, and on the need for figures on which to screen the dramas of psychological projection. Ten witnesses, of sorts, describe their last encounters with Earheart (the ground control officer, a bystander from the crowd that saw her off at the field, a miner whose daughter is obsessed with the possibility for escape, her husband). At first what is so striking about these memories is their imprecision, the inability to hold on to iconic moments in the hubbub of real living. "I was distracted / by a bird, which was no more / than shoal-dust kicked up by wind," says the bystander, "I missed her waving good-bye, / saw only her back, her body / bowing to enter the thing" (4). This imprecision has its echo in the final, wrenching testimony from Earhart's husband, who also catches a Magritte glimpse of Amelia from behind:

The last time I saw Amelia Earhart
she was three steps ahead of me,

crossing to the other side
of the street. I almost died trying
to reach her, called her name over

the traffic and when she turned back
it was a young man, startled
by my grasping hand, saying sorry

but I was mistaken. (14-15) ***

Calvocoressi has a real genius for revealing the way loss echoes through the simplest, most direct (even sometimes reportorial) of language. Earhart's stepson testifies that
Even at home or on the street

you would look away and she
would be gone, walking between
cars or just standing there not

answering as you said her name
or touched the arm of her coat.
She was already gone. I knew

because there was no difference
between the sky swallowing her
and living in her house. (7)
And in the next section a housewife argues that "It's easy to lose someone," telling of her shock at turning to find her son has run off into the street in a mere moment of inattention from her. This is how figures disappear, in the slight forgetfulness of the quotidian, the traffic of a street-crossing, individuals disappearing into the crowd, until everyone begins to look like the one you love, because you didn't pay quite enough attention (how could you?) to freeze them in their individuality before the inevitable loss.

[You can hear Calvocoressi read at the Fishouse.]

~~~~

In a grim turn of events for my pocketbook, I discovered Amazon's Bargain Books section yesterday. How could I have avoided this Siren song for all these years? I can only attribute it to a subconscious self-defense mechanism. At any rate, these books are now speeding their way towards my library:
  • Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 Tony Judt
  • Sacred Games Vikram Chandra
  • One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding Rebecca Mead
  • Consequences Penelope Lively
  • The Janissary Tree Jason Goodwin
  • James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon Julie Phillips
  • The Hungry Tide Amitov Ghosh
  • The Brooklyn Follies Paul Auster
  • The Tenderness of Wolves Stef Penney
Does anyone have any urgent recommendations of which of these should make their way to the top of Mt. TBR?

~~~~

So, the order of the day is Ulysses-reading. Wish me luck. I will try to break up the tsunami of modernist prose innovation with short interjections from Peanuts, To Hate Like This is To Be Happy Forever (a book about the North Carolina-Duke basketball rivalry that I am finding it very difficult to finish now that Carolina has exited the season so ignominiously), and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (which I have only just started). Happy reading to you all!




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* I was particularly impressed by the scene in Fanny and Alexander in which the young Alexander, staying at the house of a family friend, gets lost in the middle of the night after going in search of a chamber pot, and wanders through room after room filled with grotesque and unnerving puppets. The scene ends with a sort of a restaging (with a puppet-God) of the phenomenal mad scene from Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly, in which the heroine is convinced that a god is about to reveal itself to her through the tattered, peeling walls of an empty room, but what emerges is in fact (or rather, in mind, for we don't see it) a horrific vision of a violating spider-god. It shows how much I love Bergman that a film with such a phenomenal scene can still be "not my favorite Bergman film so far."

** Hear that, Ingmar Bergman? Your films about death are just not very jolly by comparison. Although, to be honest, the 8 or 10 films I have seen by Bergman haven't really been that death-obsessed (with the notable exceptions of The Seventh Seal and The Silence). They are more compulsively focused on the nature of human connection, and are fairly rarely utterly hopeless on the subject.

*** Notice the complex way in which this innovates the mythic archetype of Orpheus and Eurydice: a husband pursues his wife even unto/into death, but in this poem, it is the pursued who turns and thus reasserts the finality of death. This makes me wonder: is the point of the Orpheus myth that the real problem is not that he turned back in distrust to make sure Eurydice was still there as he rescued her from death, but rather his original turning back, his desire to rescue her in the first place - the urge in grief to turn back to what is of necessity forever lost?

15) "The Lambs of London" by Peter Ackroyd

My grandparents started taking me to see Shakespeare on stage when I was 6. It was a production of "Much Ado About Nothing" in the Regent's Park outdoor theatre in London, and the play was not lacking in some dark subject matter from a six-year-old's point of view. Fittingly I remember only two things about it (the light and the dark): that Beatrice came speeding onstage on a bicycle at the play's beginning (it had an Edwardian setting), and the long torchlight procession to Hero's "tomb" midway through the play. Pretty good recall for a wee tot, eh? It obviously made a big impression. Two years later, they took me to a production of "Comedy of Errors" and I was so enthralled I demanded to see it a second time. I remember it more vividly than almost any other play I have ever seen.

In the years that followed, my grandmother was firm in her insistence that I would get a great deal more out of the plays if I read them first, or (barring that) read the account of the plot in the edition of "Lambs' Tales" that always graced their shelves. "Tales from Shakespeare" was a summary of Shakespeare's stories written for children by Charles and Mary Lamb at the start of the 19th century. Apparently they divided their efforts along the lines of genre, Charles devoting himself to the tragedies, Mary to the comedies. Now that I have read Peter Ackroyd's fictionalized account of the siblings' private lives, I have to wonder whether the idea was that the turbid family dramas of the tragedies would be too much for Mary's strained psyche. But this surely underestimates the incredible violence that underlies the wit of plays like "The Winter's Tale" and "Measure for Measure." Not to mention the fact that Mary was apparently responsible (oddly) for covering "Romeo and Juliet."

Ackroyd's novel (which - hurrah! - is on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list) takes as its subject the Lamb siblings' relationship with William Ireland, a bookseller's son who comes forward with a series of astonishing unknown manuscripts of Shakespeare's. Ireland has ambitions to become a writer and scholar like Charles, who is himself wallowing in disappointment that his intellectual pursuits have failed to lift him out of the drudgery of a clerk's life. Mary, constantly under the eye of a highly critical mother and preferring the company of her increasingly senile father, allows herself to be drawn into the romance of Ireland's cult of the Bard. She is desperately frustrated by the lack of an outlet for her keen mental abilities and emotional energies. These situations come to a boil remarkably quickly, finally burbling over in a shocking moment of violence.

Let's say no more about that: Thar Be Spoilers. The book itself felt surprisingly slight, like it needed several more strands of plot or characterization to form a tapestry large enough to be a novel. The strands there were, without others to act as counterpoints, seemed conventional and unsurprising: the unfulfilled 19th century woman, the intellectually smothered clerk, the manuscript mystery. The loveliest and most interesting moments, I thought, dealt all too briefly with Mary and Charles's serenely nonsensical father. Their mother treats his utterances as almost oracular commentaries on whatever situation is in front of them. Mary, by contrast, enjoys a facet of his conversation that might later be characterized as Dada; talking to her father, she says at one point, is like having a conversation with language itself, in its purest form.

A quick and enjoyable read, but not as convention-shaking as I had hoped it would be.

The Lambs of London(2004)
Peter Ackroyd
March 12, 2008
***

Bathroom Guerrillas, Body image, and Kniticons

An admission: I watch just about any reality show that Bravo throws my way. Did I just fall several notches in your esteem? I can't help it! I yam what I yam. In fact, the only one of their shows I have found myself unable to watch is "The Real Housewives of New York City," and that was because the women on it (in contrast to the real housewives of Orange County, whom we were sort of encouraged to mock and affectionately deride for their misguided affectations) seem so incredibly vicious and self-satisfied.

But I have most recently been watching (*blush*) "Step it up and Dance," a contest in which dancers are asked (a la "Project Runway") to compete in high pressure challenges of precision, creativity, and style. In the last episode, a black dancer (trained intensively in ballet) expressed what she called "not even a hate-love, just a hate" relationship to her curvy figure, and in particular her chest, which was apparently consistently deemed too full for ballet. Sure enough, when judging time came round, the observers critiqued her for the way she used her shoulders to distract attention from her bust, which had a rather self-effacing effect. Flaunt your curves, they exhorted her (as she wept).

This was deeply saddening to me, since I have long admired dance as both an art form and a means of therapy or exercise, but have also felt leery about sending my (as-of-yet-totally-hypothetical) children into a pastime that wreaks havoc with body image.

I had, coincidentally, just read this article in The Guardian about the lack of non-white dancers in most British companies, and I found it deeply, deeply shocking:

Dancer and choreographer Cassa Pancho, whose father was Trinidadian and mother English, started Ballet Black, her company for black and Asian ballet dancers, six years ago in an attempt to redress the balance. She says that black ballerinas find it difficult to rise to the top, partly because of misconceptions about their body shape.

"Ten or 15 years ago you'd hear that black women didn't have the physique for ballet," she says. "You'd hear 'they have big bums and flat feet'. I've spoken to some who were told to go and get their feet broken and reset for pointe work as it was felt they were too flat."
Sigh.

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A retired couple (formerly a postal clerk and a librarian) have decided to donate their painstakingly amassed collection of modern art (they must have been brilliantly canny with their salaries) in "mini-collections" of 50 works apiece to 50 museums in 50 states.

~~~~

Transformers knit too! There is really nothing I can add to the brilliance of Amanda of The Blog Jar on this subject.

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Art students stage an unauthorized show in MoMA's exceptionally clean bathrooms.

Sunday Salon: Week Two

The Sunday Salon.com

9 a.m.

This week has not been as readerly as I anticipated. I had thought I would have all the time in the world to read after I submitted my dissertation a few weeks ago, but it turns out that teaching prep and long-neglected housework can expand to fill any amount of time you allot them.

I did, however, pick up a copy of the first volume (1950-1952) of Charles Schulz's Complete Peanuts from the library this week, and found it so effortlessly thoughtful and wry that I immediately rushed out and ordered a copy of my own. In the very first strip, a little boy sees our hero approaching, baldly, and remarks to his wee friend with period quaintness: "Well! Here comes Ol' Charlie Brown! Good Ol' Charlie Brown .... Yes, Sir! Good Ol' Charlie Brown." He trails off as the smiling form recedes, and a furrow of discontent appears over his eyes: "How I hate him!"

This reversal really sets the tone for everything I have read so far; none of the cloying, eventless sentiment that we might associate with Peanuts in its later reign over the canon of classic comic strips. My comics-wise friend J had recommended this to me long ago, but I was a doubter. Well, now Complete Peanuts is to me what my Battlestar Galactica recommendation was to him: an endorsement that looked absurd on paper, and ended up being totally converting.

So, my goals for today: There is a lot of Ulysses yet to prepare for tomorrow's class, so that will undoubtedly loom large on my reading horizon (as if a tome like Ulysses could do anything but loom!). I would like (time permitting) to make a habit of reading a play and a graphic novel on each of these Sundays. This week: the first volume of Mark Oakley's Thieves and Kings, which has been recalled by the library, and George Ryga's The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, the depressing subject matter of which has doomed it to lurk on my "Currently Reading" list for far too long. I would also like to make a little progress in To Hate Like This is To Be Happy Forever (an account of the Duke-Carolina basketball rivalry), to soothe my fevered brain after last night's incredibly depressing Final Four game (I don't want to talk about it. Let's never speak of this tournament again).

On a practical note: last week my updates to my original post never - alas! - showed up in either my feed or Sunday Salon's. So this week I am going to post a series (possibly a series of two, but no matter) of separately published updates, and see whether that is the only solution to the problem. Does anyone have any alternate strategies to offer by way of advice?

The Final Four

I am despondent. Let's never speak of this game again.

I, unlike nature, do not abhor a vacuum

What have I been up to this week? Well, I bought a vacuum - a vacuum that has both the Inteli-clean system (little lights that tell you how dirty your carpet is) and surprisingly stringent standards of cleanliness. The first day I had it, I became entranced by how dirty our apartment was; I swear to you that this vacuum cleaner was as engrossing as a video game. I was also, somehow, desperate to impress this Victorian schoolmarm of a household appliance - to convince it that I was willing to put in the many hours of elbow grease it demanded to upgrade me from the filthy wasteland of a red light to the civilized dustlessness of a green light. And when I realized the level of satisfaction, self-affirmation, and indeed entertainment I was gleaning from housework, I felt terribly, terribly old.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, was my week. The long, boring slog through the basketballess limbo between the Elite Eight and the Final Four. (Go Heels!)

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Ever since reading Manjula Padmanabhan's wonderful play Harvest, about a dystopian near future in which citizens of developing countries are paid by aging first-world moneybags to keep their organs and body parts in good condition for future "harvesting" and transplant, I have wondered why there wasn't more science fiction in the theatre. Now Andrew Haydon, blogging at the Guardian, asks the same question.

There is plenty of science in the theatre; plays like Copenhagen and Arcadia are productively obsessed with finding ways to get theatrical forms (like blocking, plot structure, games with theatrical time and space, etc.) to echo scientific content (chaos theory, entropy, the Uncertainty Principle). So why aren't there more utopias, dystopias, alternate histories, artificial intelligences, etc. in contemporary plays? Is it a prudish fear of being invaded by the pop forms of cinema, TV, and mass market fiction? That fear is surely absurd, as the eagerness of mainstream publishers to pick up works that "transcend genre" attests. Or is it rather a limitation of resources, the difficulty of constructing a world of futuristic effects in the limited spaces and financially strapped budgets of most theatres? This is a pressure that film and literature don't have to worry about, but that sci-fi TV often shows the burden of in cheesy parades of low-budget special effects. But, no - there is nothing that the theatre cannot represent, given a sufficiently loose relationship to realism, and realism is in fact one of the most expensive addictions of the theatre, much less financially viable than the fantastical.

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The first excavation at Stonehenge since 1964 is about to start. Sounds like a setting ripe for a Dan Brown/Elizabeth Peters hybrid thriller-mystery.

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Shakespeare's 444th birthday's a-comin' (on April 23, or thereabouts - we aren't actually that sure of Willy the Shake's exactly birthday, but we are sure that he died on that date many years later), and theatre groups around the world will celebrate by performing his plays simultaneously.

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In the continuing saga of operatic oddities, a conductor for the Pittsburgh Opera had to sing the male lead in Aida after the tenor lost his voice as a result of illness. Even odder: the conductor/understudy never left the orchestra pit, "dubbing" (in a sense) the singing while the tenor continuing to act the part.

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A little more than a year ago, UNC endured a tragic loss when our mascot, Jason Ray, was struck by a car as he walked by the side of the road in New Jersey, where he had accompanied the team on their trip to the Sweet Sixteen. The tributes to Ray by the other teams in the tournament games that followed (cheerleaders wore mourning bands, fellow mascots wrote messages to Jason on their costumes) made me feel hopeful that sports was a connective, fraternal pastime rather than a sublimation of our divisive, violent, warlike social instincts. I felt this way again when the teams of the ACC came together to support the Wake Forest community after the death of Skip Prosser, their basketball coach, and the Carolina community after the murder of student body president Eve Carson (both in the last year).

I have been watching the lead-up material to the Final Four in the background of my chores all day, and CBS just aired a long piece on Jason Ray, his decision to become an organ donor, and the people who now live every day with a part of Jason inside of them. I bawled uncontrollably throughout the entire piece.

I can't find a copy of the segment I saw, so here is another, older piece about Jason and those he donated his organs to (a text version of the story, which goes into more detail about a reunion Jason's parents held with some of the organ recipients, can be found here):


The inescapable network of mutuality

Today was the fortieth anniversary of the day on which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, and the memorial events sparked a desire in me to reread his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." I first encountered the letter in eighth grade, a year which was devoted to African and African-American studies in my middle school, and I remembered being profoundly moved - thinking that its indictment of moderate passivity was one of the most persuasive pieces of rhetoric (although I might not have expressed it in those primly academic terms at age twelve) that I had ever read.

It still is a profoundly moving piece, a piece that recalibrated my moral compass. Where are the Kings of our era? Where are the leaders capable of speaking directly, persuasively, intelligently, and imperatively about injustice in such a way that faith and morality become a means to unify rather than divide, to fight for freedom rather than institutionalize discrimination? Why aren't I someone like that? Are you? Could we be? Can I be the sort of teacher who inspires the profound respect and active defense of human dignity?

Writing to his fellow clergymen, who had publicly rebuked Dr. King for, among other things, being impatient for change, intervening from the outside in Alabaman events, and the lawbreaking at the core of his civil disobedience strategies, he addresses each of these points with an urgent but nuanced moral argument, but first he argues to the second point:

I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
-Dr. King, "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"
In this case, Dr. King is speaking largely within national bounds, of the sort of mutual identity we should have with our fellow citizens that was so badly forgotten after the crisis of Katrina. But implicit in this inescapable network of mutuality that binds us together is a fundamental human commonality, the ties of empathy with those we don't know that is so easily elided in the hurlyburly of everyday life. Why am I so obsessed with my own piddling problems when injustice is no less rampant in today's world than in the world of forty years ago? I am not sure how to answer these questions, but greater consciousness of them is surely the necessary first step.

Although until today I hadn't returned to the "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" for many years, there is one passage that has often been at the forefront of my mind, particularly during discussions in which people told me that this was "not the right time" for the Democratic Party to work for gay rights or immigrant rights:
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."
-Dr. King
Filled with the delight of this prose, I rushed out to order a copy of Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, the first volume of Taylor Branch's much acclaimed history of the civil rights era. I was brought up short, however, when I tried to find a reputable collection of King's writings, speeches, and sermons that is still in print. Does any one know why this (surely a rather necessary volume, not to mention a potentially quite profitable one from the publisher's point of view) is so hard to find?

Ok, now a few more notes on various subjects.

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Philip Hensher, writing in Prospect Magazine, suggests that the current popularity of "state of the nation" novels among British writers has its roots in their lack of a national epic. But is this true? The definition of a "national epic" keeps shifting: is it a long work that defines how a nation conceives of itself or an account of origins? If the latter, how many nations or cultures (besides Rome) can really claim to have one? And wouldn't most attempts at this sort of national epic play a dangerous game with the boundaries of propaganda (as The Aeneid does)? The first option seems more plausible as a definition, since it accounts for works like Don Quixote and the epics of Homer that aren't explicitly accounts of national origins. So does Britain have a national epic in this first sense? Sadly, the marvelous Faerie Queene is hardly central to any widespread conception of what it means to be English (although it conceives of itself in those terms). Could one argue for The Canterbury Tales or Shakespeare's plays as a collected work as a national epic? What would America's national epic be? I would love to hear opinions.

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This has been all over the litblog world: is a difference in literary taste, no matter how extreme, a viable reason to ditch a relationship? Can reading habits kill love? Not in my experience. The only literary difference that I could conceive of as a deal-breaker is one that revealed a fundamental difference of politics or morality (and it would have to be a fairly insurmountable difference - like adoring Ann Coulter as a civic visionary and master prose stylist). D doesn't have the daily habit of reading that I do, so I sometimes cajole him into a date that just involves us reading together. The problem is this: once he starts a book, he is incapable of concentrating on anything else until he is finished it. I, by contrast, am so filled with delight at the avidity of his reading that I continually interrupt to ask about what he is reading, attempt to engage him in conversations about it, and generally demand attention. Ah well.

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In a truly bizarre bureaucratic turn of events, the Arts Council of the UK is now demanding that arts organizations report the sexuality of their board members when applying for state funding. The intention, warped though it may be, may very well have been to foster greater inclusivity or diversity, but effect is one of unadulterated claustrophobia under the governmental gaze. Can you imagine the kind of work environment that would be created if your colleagues began speculating about or demanding to know your sexual orientation to report it to the government? Why, Arts Council, why???

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The shortlist for the Impac Dublin Prize has been released, and I have eagerly added the books to my BookMooch list:
  1. The Speed of Light by Javier Cercas (Spain)
  2. The Sweet and Simple King by Yasmine Gooneratne (Sri Lanka)
  3. De Niro's Game by Rawi Hage (Lebanon)
  4. Dreams of Speaking by Gail Jones (Australia)
  5. Let it Be Morning by Sayed Kashua (Israel)
  6. The Attack by Yasmina Khadra (Algeria)
  7. The Woman who Waited by Andrei Makine (Russia)
  8. Winterwood by Patrick McCabe (Ireland)
I particularly love this prize for the number of totally new titles it presented me with.

Described as the largest literary award in the world both for its size (100,000 euros) and its scope (it is open to books published or translated into English in the year before the longlist is put together), the Impac also has a delightful longlisting process that involves polling a huge list of international libraries.

14) "Weight" by Jeanette Winterson

British publisher Canongate's "The Myths" is one of the most ambitious and intriguing publication projects of recent years, the sort of undertaking that I wish were more characteristic of the mainstream publishers which have such tremendous connective resources at their disposal. Canongate recruits major authors to write reflections on and retellings of major world myths (so far Ali Smith, Margaret Atwood, Karen Armstrong, Philip Pullman, and Jeanette Winterson have graced the list), and then lead a consortium of 24 publishing houses in releasing the individual "myths" simultaneously worldwide.

The first two works I have read from "The Myths" series - Margaret Atwood's Penelopiad and now Jeanette Winterson's Weight - have made intriguing choices that reveal them as representative members of the arc of the authors' whole body of work. Atwood's novella turns a critical gaze on the misogynistic injustices of Telemachus and Odysseus in Homer's work (where indeed the hostile suspicions the two men hold about Penelope's fidelity are excruciating to witness) and gives a crucial choric voice to the maids they so brutally murder at the epic's end, filled with a gendered viciousness disturbingly out of proportion to the crime committed by the girls. Sadly, for all these interesting moves, I found it to be surprisingly straightforward in its "revisions" of the myth, and not nearly as intricately written as the best of Atwood's novels.

"Weight" also seems a bit like Winterson Lite (I am going to suffer in the Underworld for that pun someday). She weaves some wonderfully surprising strands into the fabric of her tale of burdened Atlas and the repellently phallus-obsessed Hercules (who, you may remember, agrees to take on the weight of the world for Atlas - doomed to hold up the universe for all eternity - while he fetches some golden apples, only to trick poor old Atlas into taking up the world again when he returns with the fruit). Winterson's characteristic self-reflexive move (drawing attention to the ambiguities of her persona as an author) makes an appearance:

There are two facts that all children need to disprove sooner or later; mother and father. If you go one believing the fiction of your own parents, it is difficult to construct a narrative of your own.

In a way I was lucky. I could not allow my parents to be the facts of my life. Their version of the story was one I could read but not write. I had to tell the story again.*

I am not a Freudian. I don't believe I can mind the strata of the past and drill out the fault lines. There has been too much weathering; ice ages, glacial erosion, meteor impact, plant life, dinosaurs.

The strata of sedimentary rock are like the pages of a book, each with a record of contemporary life written on it. Unfortunately the record is far from complete. (139-140)
The traumatizing story of Laika, the first animal sent out into space (and not, crucially, brought home), also makes a strange and not wholly well-integrated appearance in the novel. I couldn't help but recall My Life as a Dog, where a Swedish film where the resonance of Laika's tale with the personal experience of isolation is set up so much less cheesily.

Altogether, the different strands don't seem to make the final step to being a coherent or at least finished whole. I don't mean this so much in the sense of narrative incompleteness, because ambiguity and instability are clearly two of Winterson's favorite strategies, but rather (as in the case of The Penelopiad) that this novella always feels like a side-project, written in the margins of the "real books" the authors have underway. They are a bit drafty (in at least two senses of the word), the sentences letting in little gusts of readerly doubt through every slight awkwardness.

Nonetheless, Jeanette Winterson's fragmentary, aphoristic style seems better suited to the project of the mythological novella, being nearer to poetry than the novel. Still in both cases I wish a ruthless editorial hand had questioned the small infelicities of style and the large jarrings of narrative obviousness. There is no reason, in the hands of these skilled and authority-questioning authors, why archetype should settle into stereotype, even for a moment.

Weight (2005)
Jeanette Winterson
March 4, 2008 (Yikes, I have fallen really behind in my reviewing.)
***1/2


* Winterson's upbringing by her fundamentalist adoptive parents (who were not what you might call comfortable with the emerging knowledge that she was a lesbian, or for that matter a voracious reader of non-Biblical literature) is the subject of her utterly fascinating novel/memoir hybrid, Oranges are not the Only Fruit. I highly recommend it.