The Irresistible Lotus and the Complaints Choir

I headed off to the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in Washington with my family last weekend, amidst my usual flurried cacophony of activity: nonstop Olympics-watching, course prep for next semester and worrying about being behind in my course prep for next semester, practicing driving in preparation for acquiring my license. You might very well wonder how I got to a doctorate-getting age without ever earning the legal right to drive. The answer is a potent combination of circumstances: living in cities that are very pedestrian friendly, having very kindly friends who are willing to help on the relatively infrequent occasions when I need a ride, and the keen awareness of the fragility of my own mortality that hits me like an anvil whenever I get behind the wheel of a car.

Luckily I am beginning to get over that.

At any rate, I practice-drove out to Kenilworth with my parents and our friends - my first visit, and a stunner.

The lotuses were out, and according to our friend, just ever so slightly past their peak.

This meant that there was a marvelous array of buds, full blooms, explosively full blooms, and "shower heads" on stalks.

The blooms were endlessly fascinating, each its own unique intricate sculpture.

You could understand how easy it would be to fall into artistic absorption with them, O'Keefe-like.

The gardens were also filled with different varieties of birds and butterflies (slightly more difficult to photograph, and thus not in evidence here): herons, ducks, geese. A few monarchs were even making their gleaming way through.

In fact, they are apparently having quite the problem with a non-migratory and highly aggressive flock of geese that has taken up residence here and are driving everything else off. The solution? An NGO is oiling their eggs, so they never hatch. Who would have thunk it?

If you are in the DC area, take a gander at the gardens: they are in an unexpected neighborhood for tourists and even residents, but as a result they rate high on the "haven" meter. Also, like so many of the best things in Washington, they are part of the National Park Service and free to enter.


Additional links and tidbits? Mais oui!

  • Harold Meyerson has an interesting opinion piece in today's Washington Post about the Olympics. In it, he makes a number of the same observations about the opening ceremonies that I did in my last post, but is rather more alarmed and skeptical about their implications:
    If ever there was a display of affable collectivism, it was filmmaker Zhang Yimou's opening ceremonies, which in their reduction of humans to a mass precision abstraction seemed to derive in equal measure from Busby Berkeley and Leni Riefenstahl.
  • In the LA Times, about a month ago (I am still working through the back list of interesting tidbits I have noted during the busyness of the summer), Charles McNulty talks about the perils of critical deadlines, and the impulsive writing they can produce:
    Harder for a critic to cope with are the failures of language that are an inevitable byproduct of rapid-fire daily journalism. In a morning skirmish with adjectives, as my review of "Curtains" at the Ahmanson Theatre was already past deadline, I concluded by saying that for all its faults, the musical has a delirious showbiz quality that's "irresistible." That final word, blurbed as it inevitably was in newspaper ads, overstated my feelings. What I meant to say was "hard to resist" -- and the distinction, hairsplitting though it may sound, was a source of purgatorial torment to me.
  • In the Times of London, Neil Fischer recounts his experience with the phenomenon of the "complaints choir":
    In Finland, where the movement began, valituskuoro, or chorus of complaints, was what angry schoolteachers called recalcitrant pupils, until Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen and his wife Tellervo decided to take the expression at literal value. In the UK, they naturally drifted to Birmingham first (“the city with most complaints about the people themselves”, Kochta-Kalleinen says). It got its first complaints choir in 2005, at around the same time as Helsinki and St Petersburg. The simple formula - meet, moan, set it to (mostly original) music - proved wildly popular and easily exportable. There are now complaints choirs from Jerusalem to Buenos Aires, Budapest to Toronto. Some take requests from their local communities for complaints; others simply draw on their own miseries.

Olympics, corpse flowers, and musical bilingualism

I come out of the depths of blog absence to tell you this: I love the Olympics. I am that person who watches the entire opening ceremonies and weeps voluminously when tiny or embattled countries parade with their one or two athletes. This year's games made me really nervous for the same reasons that were worrying everyone: the poor environmental conditions, Chinese policy on Tibet and Sudan, the revoking of visas for athletes who spoke out against Chinese policy, the government's insistence that hotels allow them to spy on foreign guests, etc.

All this remains troubling (very troubling), but otherwise the Olympics seems to be unfolding as it should: a means of connecting athletes and viewers across national boundaries, of expanding our normal way of thinking about patriotism and national identity so that they incorporate concepts of internationalism, cooperation, and mutual enjoyment. How many other circumstances of mutual positive emotion come close to the international idealism of the opening ceremonies? Our moments of mass theatricality, of cultural spectacle, are usually limited to the peripheries of conflict (political or warlike) and are tinged with its violence and nastiness. The Games provide an opportunity for us to bask in the purely positive emotions of world community.

The opening ceremonies were an unprecedentedly classy self-representation on a grand scale by the host nation. 2008 people doing absolutely simultaneous Tai Chi motions in perfect circles unguided by any markings on the floor of the "Bird's Nest" stadium - they formed the shapes with absolute precision based only on a knowledge of where they should be located in comparison to their neighbors. Traditional drummers playing instruments with an ancient history whose motions also triggered the most modern of lighting effects. The whole spectacle spoke internally to a subtle array of Chinese values (a strong strain of Confucianism was undoubtedly much more layered in its symbolism than the English-language commentators had the time to convey) but also externally (to non-Chinese viewers) to the core concepts of Chinese self conception: We are the nation, it seemed to say, who invented paper, printing, and fireworks, but we will marry this history to the most cutting edge of spectacular technologies. And, even more crucially: as a nation our greatest resource is our people, and as a people we do unity really, really well. This obsessive emphasis on precision unity was the foundation of all the most spectacular effects of the opening ceremonies, but it also yielded most of the controversies that surrounded the games, controversies born out of a zeal for universal agreement.

Ah, but what stories have emerged in the first couple of days. There is the 33 year old gymnast who may give Germany a medal in the vault; she has been competing in the Olympics for as many years as most of her competitors have been alive. The American flag-bearer who was one of the Lost Boys of the Sudan and only became an American citizen a year ago. Talk about an amazing display of national self-conception: we said to the world, "We are a country in which a new citizen, seeking out refuge from persecution, is as much an American as someone whose family has been here for hundreds of years." Would that it were more extensively true. Also from the opening ceremonies: the little boy who survived the Szechuan earthquake and returned to the wreckage to rescue his classmates (because, he said, it was his responsibility as one of the designated class leaders). He led the Chinese delegation in the opening games, walking confidently beside basketball superstar Yao Ming (who seemed considerably more ill at ease than his tiny companion) as millions watched. Or from just last night: an American triumph over a (mildly) trash-talking French team in the 100m relay that went against all probability. It produced not just Michael Phelps's second gold of the games but also made the delightful Cullen Jones (whose joy in teaching won the support of everyone in my house) the second African-American to win gold in an Olympic swimming event. The relay (the link above is to the video) was by far the most exciting race of the Olympics so far: the world record was so resolutely shattered that even teams who didn't medal managed to beat it.

Well, I could go on and on. But instead, some links that have been sitting on the back burner for far too long. I need to get them off my chest so that I can (in good conscience) go back to checking all my favorite blogs, and summarizing their glories in a new list of links:

  • All those engaged in acquiring a master's or doctorate will appreciate this Onion article that my friend JG sent me: "Heroic Computer Dies to Save World from Master's Thesis." It may, however, be funniest when your thesis or dissertation is finally turned in and safe from the "heroics" of your computer.
  • A giant corpse flower bloomed at the Botanical Gardens in Berkeley in July! If the words "giant corpse flower" are not enough to pique your interest, consider this: the name of this specific giant corpse flower is "Odoardo." For pictures intriguingly labeled "Odoardo's decaying body" and for other information, see the University of California website.
  • A bilingual revival of "West Side Story" is set to open on Broadway this winter, under the direction of Arthur Laurents, who seems to feel that his original book for the musical had undergone a taming transformation in its various stagings and filmings over the years.
  • The World Archeological Congress urged its members in July to refuse any requests by the military for guidance on how to avoid bombing priceless historical sites in Iran. I am confused about my own opinion on the ethics of this: is a stance of non-collaboration with war efforts that will inevitably cause tremendous cultural and human damage worth the cost of greater harm to unique archaeological sites? The WAC seems to think that any advice from them wouldn't be heeded, so perhaps it is a moot point.
More soon, I hope! (If I can tear myself away from the Olympics coverage.)

Another Review (!!), this time of "Translucent Tree"

 Stop me if you've heard this one, but I seem to recall that judging a book by its cover is generally frowned upon. Or perhaps that was a metaphor for some wider sphere of human behavior. At any rate, I have to tell you that I have sinned against the commandment that forbids cover-judging: the new Vertical edition of Translucent Tree, by Japanese novelist Nobuko Takagi (whose work is translated for the first time into English here) has a truly stunning cover design. A fanned spray of pine needles graces the golden front cover, the word "Translucent" lurking quietly next to it. The transparent (and thus, of necessity, translucent) dust jacket layers a pine cone on top of this fan, and echoes the "Transparent" with a word on the other side of this botanical embrace: "{TREE}". It is lovely, I judged it, and I bumped this up the queue of my LibraryThing Early Reviewer books. I blush to admit it.

Not as much as I blush to contemplate this: I encouraged my octogenarian grandmother (a great appreciater of any well-designed thing) to read the book, on the basis of the cover alone. I did this despite the fact that every book I have ever loaned to my grandmother without reading it first has proved to be among the most luridly erotic books in my library. Now, my grandmother is no prude. But still, I can imagine she would have been somewhat surprised (though probably her reaction would have stopped well short of alarm) at the anatomical explicitness of the love scenes in Translucent Tree, a novel in which love is fixedly, defensively, obsessively defined by the two protagonists in the most bluntly sexual of terms, as if physicality alone could keep the real world at bay.

Chigiri first met filmmaker Go decades ago when he assisted in the making of a documentary about her father, one of a dying generation of great swordsmiths in Japan. She was just a teenager, lurking at the edges of the filming. On an impulse, the middle-aged Go returns to their town years later and seeks out the elderly swordsmith, who now suffers from the bewilderment of Alzheimer's, and Chigiri, now divorced with a daughter of her own. They are confused by the desire that strikes them both (a coup de foudre, as the French would say), so they begin to refer and joke about it in the least vulnerable terms possible: Go offers the impoverished Chigiri money on a kindly whim, and when she asks him why, he bluntly admits that he wants her. He says it in such a way, however, that rather than emphasizing the tenderness of the impulse, he equates it to the purchase of her body. Alright, she says boldly, I will sell myself to you. He wants to backtrack to a more literary route for their romance, but it is too late: they have committed themselves to the narrative of prostitution and it is only through economies of sex and cash that they can express their love.

This is a bold narrative strategy, and it provides a suitable degree of torment to consume the characters throughout the novella. As you can probably imagine, it is a jarring and not entirely satisfying novel to read. There is a minimalism here that I associate (in my very limited experience with the translated literature of this nation) with a certain school of Japanese literature, and when it is combined with the straightforward physicality of the love scenes, the result can be somewhat alienating. This might be an effect of the translation process, or it might be an intentional device of the author's. Indeed, this is a novel that refuses us any of the conventions of romantic fiction: the lovers are middle-aged and riddled with physical flaws, they are adulterers with little time to spend with one another and no prospect of "ending up together," they place their interactions intentionally in the most self-consciously debased of terms and create transcendence out of this debasement, and we see their physical and mental disintegration vividly over the course of the 188 pages of the novel. So yes, perhaps Nobuko Takagi is intentionally cultivating an alienating and alienated style.

An interesting novel, if not an enjoyable one. Quietly unconventional, while avoiding flamboyant innovation.

A Review (!) of "The Reluctant Fundamentalist"

It has been a while since I have posted a straight-up review, hasn't it? Well, here you have it!

The protagonist of Mohsin Hamid's Booker-nominated novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist approaches a foreign stranger on the streets of Lahore and declares himself "a lover of America." "I noticed you were looking for something; more than looking, in fact you seemed to be on a mission, and since I am both a native of this city and a speaker of your language, I thought I might offer you my services" (1).

Over an uncomfortable meal, this "lover of America" unfolds his amorous tale: his absorption in the romance of American college life; his obsessive friendship with a Princeton classmate who (like the nation which she stands in for erotically in the mind of Hamid's hero Changez) is creatively brilliant, thoughtlessly privileged, and terminally nostalgic in the most painfully literal of ways; his fundamentalist devotion and radical disillusionment with the religion of capitalism in his first job with an elite corporate risk appraisal firm.

Changez actually strives both to attract and repel his audience. He is travelling internationally for business on September 11, 2001, and he recounts his reaction to this assault on his national beloved with an unusual level of starkness:

I stared as one - and then the other - of the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center collapsed. And then I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased.

Your disgust is evident; indeed, your large hand has, perhaps without your noticing, clenched into a fist. But please believe me when I tell you that I am no sociopath; I am not indifferent to the suffering of others. [...]

But at that moment, my thoughts were not with the victims of the attack - death on television moves me most when it is fictitious and happens to characters with whom I have built up relationships over multiple episodes - no, I was caught up in the symbolism of it all, the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees. (72-3)
I read this passage and felt the very surge of anger the narrator observes in his interlocutor, but this is knee jerk anger, unconcerned with Hamid's interest in how symbolism works up and is worked by individuals. In fact, I was reluctant to quote this section, which seeks to enrage with its forthrightness, when so few of my readers would have the context of the previous 71 pages of sympathetic, studious, enamored politeness (boardering frequently on an excruciatingly comprehensible but hardly justified self-loathing) of Changez's first years in the States to mitigate the impact.

The novel is told by Changez in an unusual mix of first and second persons, and the relationship this establishes between the protagonist and his unknown, unspeaking new American acquaintance is both the great strength and great weakness of the novel. Second person narrative is a notoriously difficult tool to wield: here it results in a lot of "You look [insert emotional response here]. You must be thinking [insert stereotypical and stereotyping American attitude here]" moments in Changez's conversation. Each time one of these arrises the narrative jars with gimmicky resonance.

On the other hand, the mystery of this encounter drives the short book forward with increasing urgency: How random is their meeting in Lahore? Who is the American, and what is he doing there? Is his perpetual distrust of Changez and the other Pakistanis they encounter merely the jumpiness of a stranger in a strange land? Is it prejudice? Or does he have good cause to think that people mean him harm? Is Changez's account of his reactions even to be trusted, or does it (and perhaps even Hamid's novel?) rely too strongly on broadly stereotyped American behaviors? We are encouraged by the conventions of the novel to sympathize with Changez (the narrator) while also being implicitly identified with his unpleasant, frightened, and voiceless audience. This speaks volumes about the unusual relationship with readers that Hamid is setting up here. Will the effect of this device differ if the reader is not (like the "tourist" Changez directs his tale to in Lahore, and like me) American? The ambiguities of this relationship add a great deal of complexity to what can sometimes seem a too-straightforward novel that retreads ground covered abundantly by the American and international media. To uphold these complexities, I wished for an even more ambiguous ending than the rather striking one Hamid gives.

If any of you have read the novel, I would love to hear what you think about this relationship between Changez and his American interlocutor, what this does to the way we feel about ourselves as readers, or how effective the ending of the novel was in the spoiler-welcoming comments.

The SECOND Unread Authors Challenge

Behold! The Second Unread Authors Challenge is upon us!

Last year I ran this challenge from September to February, and the premise was 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.

The rules:

  1. The challenge will run from August 1, 2008 to January 31, 2009. You may join at any time before or during those six months.
  2. During those six months, read at least SIX books by an author whose work you have never read before.
  3. You may choose six different "unread" authors to introduce yourself to, or you may choose just one or two and explore their work in greater depth.
  4. Authors may be drawn from any genre of literature. The only requirement is that they be authors whose work you substantially regret not having read yet.
  5. Your choices may overlap with other challenges you have underway.
To join the challenge or to get ideas from the posts of last year's participants, go to the Challenge Blog. You will find instructions on how to join in the post at the top of the blog.

Last year I failed spectacularly in my goals (amidst, in my own defense, the madness the surrounded the completion of my dissertation), so I will address my list this year with new found zeal. Many parts of my lists will remain the same from last year, although I was spurred on (during at after the period of the challenge) to read a number of authors from my list.

I list six authors on the primary list below with (in parentheses) ideas about which book I might start with). After that I have listed a number of "extra credit" or alternate authors/works.
  • Laurence Sterne (Tristram Shandy)
  • Friedrich Durrenmatt (The Physicians or The Visit)
  • Orhan Pamuk (My Name is Red)
  • Richard Powers (The Gold Bug Variations)
  • China Mieville (Perdido Street Station)
  • Doris Lessing (The Golden Notebook)
Alternates/Extra Credit:
  • John Fowles (The Magus)
  • Joyce Carol Oates (Bellefleur)
  • Stendhal (The Red and the Black)
  • Iris Murdoch (The Black Prince)
  • Nadine Gordimer (Burger's Children)
  • Tim Winton (Cloudstreet or Dirt Music)
  • Peter Carey (Oscar and Lucinda or True History of the Kelly Gang)
  • Marilynne Robinson (Gilead)
  • Caryl Phillips (Crossing the River)
  • J.M. Coetzee (Disgrace)

The Pie of Dorian Gray, and other tidbits

Last week I made a pie. My first ever pie. Not one to be lured in by a classic recipe, I decided instead that my first attempt should be with a Meyer Lemon Shaker Pie. It sounded so delicious! And I had these lemons from the farmer's market that D instantly identified as Meyer lemons.

It was a beautiful pie. What can I say: this was an ideal pie for television. It was perfectly flaky-golden-crusty, with terribly authentic-looking crimps along the edges and holes cut in the top. There was just one problem: it was inedible. I don't want to blame this wholly on D's lemon-identification abilities, but those suckers were not Meyer lemons. Of course, D would probably blame the eye-crossing bitterness of the pie filling on the fact that I left the peel on the lemons. Look: the recipe didn't say to peel the damn things, and it is part and parcel of my manically literary way of relating to the world that I am an exact, some might say obsessive-compulsive, follower of recipes. (D, by contrast, went into the kitchen last night and made a delicious pesto and an odd but highly intriguing spiced, mashed yam dish without ever making reference to anything but his own whims.)

To his credit, however, D did perform (I choose my verb carefully here) the supreme act of love when I gave him the first slice of the photogenic, but deeply bitter pie. [It seems appropriate, since I am now in LA after several weeks' stay in London, that the food I make should feature Hollywood surfaces that skillfully conceal acerbic, neurotic inner lives. That's right, my pie had an inner life. It was my first EVER pie, alright?] He admired its appearance thoroughly, then gamely took the first bite. "Mmm...," he said, miraculously avoiding pulling a face of horror, "Tasty. The, um, crust is particularly good."

I took my first bite. "It is AWFUL!!" I yelled, at the top of my lungs. "No, no!" he replied, "Just a bit sour, that's all."

And then, when it became clear that we weren't going to be able to eat a second bite of the Pie of Dorian Gray, he (recipe-liberated as I have told you he is) tried to make sorbet out of the innards. And it was still awful. "That pie," I told D, "has broken my heart. Not the heart that loves you, but a separate 'pie' heart. It is like when I was little, and I convinced my parents that I had a separate 'dessert stomach' that explained how I could be too full to finish my dinner but still have plenty of room for dessert. My pie heart is broken. I may never love again."

So the next night, I just sat in front of the TV, despondent, and ate my empty, beautiful pie crust.

And that, my friends, is an allegory for life in Los Angeles.

~ ~ ~ ~

Other tidbits, many of which have been on my "To Blog" list for some time:

I am newly in love with the Apartment Therapy blog and its culinary sibling The Kitchn. While I was in London, The Kitchn introduced me to a delightful concept of the Iron Chef Party, in which guests are invited to participate in a cooking smackdown, eithers as chefs or judges. I love Iron Chef in both its Japanese and American incarnations, so I am saddened to think of how unlikely it is that I will be able to host such a party in the foreseeable future.

~ ~ ~ ~

Speaking of the foreseeable future, D brought this story to my attention with a level of enthusiasm that made me nervous that perhaps splinter-nationhood loomed in our future together: the lone inhabitant of a small Shetland island has declared independence from the UK. He calls his domain Forvik, and there is some good news for all the truly idealistic libertarians out there: he is opening his country's doors to new Forvikians!

"I also invite anyone from any country in the world, who supports these aims, namely to become free of liars, thieves and tyrants in government, to become a citizen of Forvik," he added.

~ ~ ~ ~

There is much more to be said, but that's all I have time for right now, I am sorry to say. I have to return to the Peach Caramel Pie I have in the oven. Hope springs eternal in the human pie-heart.

Book Awards Reading Challenge... the Second!

The time has come for another Book Awards Reading Challenge! And, lucky for me, I failed so spectacularly at completing the first one that my list of possibilities is extremely easy to formulate this time: my list for the second challenge will largely consist of the unread books from the first challenge, with a few key additions. What a delightful challenge, and what a joy to get a second chance at completing it!

You can read about the challenge in greater detail (and sign up for it) at the challenge's blog, but the basic rules (as laid out on the blog) are these:

  1. Read 10 award winners from August 1, 2008 through June 1, 2009.

  2. You must have at least FIVE different awards in your ten titles.

  3. Overlaps with other challenges are permitted.

  4. You don't have to post your choices right away, and your list can change at any time.

  5. 'Award winners' is loosely defined; make the challenge fit your needs, keeping in mind Rule #2.

And here is the "list of possibilities" from which I will draw my ten titles:
  • Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (NBCC Award, Pulitzer Prize)
  • Small Island by Andrea Levy (Commonwealth Writer's Prize, Costa/Whitbread, Orange Prize)
  • Hyperion by Dan Simmons (Hugo Award)
  • Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler (Nebula Award)
  • Neuromancer by William Gibson (Hugo Award, Nebula Award)
  • The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize)
  • Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey (Booker Prize, Miles Franklin Literary Award)
  • Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee (Booker Prize)
  • Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (Giller Prize)
  • March by Geraldine Brooks (Pulitzer Prize)
  • The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields (The Governor General's Prize, Pulitzer Prize)
  • The Gathering by Anne Enright (Booker Prize)
  • The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (Alex Award)
  • The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney (Costa/Whitbread)
  • The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin (Edgar Award)
  • The Underpainter by Jane Urquhart (The Governor General's Prize)
  • My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk (IMPAC Dublin)
  • Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson (IMPAC Dublin, Independent Foreign Fiction Prize)
  • Saturday by Ian McEwan (James Tait Black Memorial Prize)
  • Looking for Alaska by John Green (Printz Award)
Such is my need to work through my ginormous TBR pile that I made it a criteria of inclusion on this list that I must actually OWN a copy of the book. And still I needed to weed the list pretty heavily to get it down to 20 possibilities.

For those of you who love a good challenge, keep an eye out for my second "Unread Authors" challenge, which will run from August to January, and which I will be announcing (officially) soon!

The Things to be Learned at Mark Twain's Hearth

Apologies for my long absence: I have been out of the country, with extremely shaky internet access and a distinct lack of free time. But more on that soon: first, a long promised tale.

Virtually my first action as a doctor was to undertake a visit to the home of Mark Twain (who clearly could rock the academic attire with the best of us) an easy drive from my university home of the past six years, but one (since I am not a driver) that I have never made. So, naturally, after a perfect party thrown by my delightful friends and family, after robing and hooding and receiving my diploma, after almost everyone had gone home and D had headed off to Philadelphia on a 24 hour work trip, where else would my parents and I go but the very eccentric home of Samuel Clemens, whom my father happens to resemble to an uncanny degree.

In fact, I was disappointed when only a couple of our fellow visitors remarked on the likeness. It must be admitted that the resemblance was strongest when my father was in his twenties and had not yet grown a goatee. This choice of facial hair and a reluctance to don white linen suits as Clemens self-consciously did in his later years means that although Père Sycorax at college age almost exactly resembled the photo to the right, he currently looks only distantly like the older Twain shown above.

At any rate, off we went to the home of my father's doppelganger, which, it turns out, is a very interesting house indeed. When he bought the house, Clemens was not yet a successful writer, having sold just a few pieces. He bought and built it with his wife's money (she had a considerably more genteel upbringing than her husband), which unfortunately ran out just as the house was constructed but before it was decorated. When they finally scrounged up enough money for the decoration, their dreams were glamorous but their budget was still small. As a result, the social rooms of the house are models of trompe l'oeil tricksiness, with (for instance) elaborately painted enamel covering all the surfaces of the entrance hall, which then appeared to be absolutely awash in expensive mother-of-pearl inlay. A sign of how struck Clemens was by the luxuries of his new home: The bed in the master bedroom is made up backwards, with the pillows at the foot. Apparently Clemens was insistant that, having paid so much money to secure a beautiful bed, he wasn't going to be cheated out of the sight of its best feature, the headboard.

Other tidbits to be learned at the Mark Twain house:

  • A man of exuberant glibness, his truest truism (or at least my favorite) may be: "An uneasy conscience is a hair in the mouth." How visceral...
  • Clemens loved Hartford for the sobriety of its citizens and its extensive green spaces, and he reportedly considered it one of the most beautiful places in America. This may come as something of a shock to those who know the modern Hartford.
  • Clemens was never quite comfortable in the strict, formal world of society in which his genteel wife and he moved. At dinner parties, his children would play a "game" that involved hiding behind a screen in the room that adjoined the dining room, and signaling to their mother when they saw "papa" committing a faux pas (monopolizing one guest's conversation, for instance, while ignoring another). His wife would then say, "My dear, did you happen to see the card I left out for you?" and Clemens would know that he had wandered into dangerous social territory.
  • You can see in the photo above that the house is possessed of an abundance of intriguing balconies on the attic floor. This floor, apart from the butler's room, was entirely taken up by Twain's study, which, with its desk, billiard table, and perpetual haze of cigar smoke, was deemed so offensively masculine by Mrs. Clemens that she would never allow women or children onto the third floor. Twain was so social in the house that he despaired of getting any work done, and he eventually instructed the butler to tell all visitors that the master of the house had stepped out. As soon as Mrs. C. caught wind of this, she paid her husband a little visit: did he realize, she asked, that he was actually lying to guests in his home, and that if these lies became known, no one would ever trust them again? He was perturbed, and soon gave his butler new instructions: if the guest was someone Clemens didn't care to talk to, the butler should tell him or her that the author had "Just stepped out" as before. As he was carrying this message back to the guest, Clemens would step right out onto one of these many balconies with his cigar, and wait there until the guest left. What a truth-teller!
  • The Clemenses left the house after many happy years there in a morass of financial difficulty that made it an impossible burden to maintain. They toured Europe (Twain, like Dickens, was a famous performer of his own work) in increasing financial comfort. Many years later, their eldest daughter Suzy decided to return to Hartford to visit with friends and family, and she stayed in the house. While she was there, she contracted spinal meningitis and died. The Clemenses were an extremely close family, and they were undone by this news. When they did return permanently to America, they never felt they could live in the house without Suzy. Twain entered a serious depression. Eight years later Mrs. Clemens died, and Twain and his daughter Clara (the only member of his family to survive him) cared for his epileptic daughter Jean until her death five years after that. The post-Hartford years were hard ones for the Clemens family.
  • I will leave you on a jollier note, however, with this picture of Twain's favorite room of the house (and mine), the library. Twain was (as you might imagine) a voracious bibliophile, although I can't agree with every aspect of his taste. He famously despised Jane Austen, saying, "Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone." (Does anyone else find it delightful that amidst this flamboyant, overinvested act of criticism, Twain admits that he has nonetheless read P&P multiple times?) On the lefthand side of the picture above, you can see the glass of a small greenhouse that forms the end of the library. This room was the space in which the Clemens family spent most of their time together, reading or, when the children were small, pretending that the trees and plants in the greenhouse were a jungle, and that "papa" and the butler were ferocious beasts for them to hunt and ride. Oh for a library/jungle of my very own!

A postscript: In the aftermath of my delightful visit to the Mark Twain House, I was alarmed to see this article about the dire financial straits that historic houses in America (including Twain's and Edith Wharton's) find themselves in. If you get a chance to stop in and support these landmarks and museums, grab it!

Doctor Sycorax, I presume

Let's see, what have I gotten up to since last we spoke? Oh yes ... I became a doctor.

Not, admittedly, the useful sort of doctor who can prescribe medicines, take out your diseased appendix, or moderate your neuroses (although I feel I have from time to time performed that last cure for some of my students). I can't give you any advice about strange rashes that might recently have broken out all over your arms, but if you are being kept awake in the middle of the night with questions about the status of national theatre movements in the twentieth century, then by god I would be willing to point you in the right direction.

Yes, that is me in the center of the above photo, making my speedy way through a congratulatory line of professors from my department mere moments after receiving the diploma from the Dean of the Graduate School (the man in red in the bottom left). And, yes indeed, I am wearing a ceremonial velvet tam o'shanter, and, frankly, I think I am rockin' it. Not to mention the doctoral hood, which D insists I must wear as a hood over my head, in a manner which makes me look like something straight out of Tolkien (Sycorax the Cerulean?).

The highlight of the ceremonies? Well, perhaps it was a moment during the Graduate School's convocation when the chosen speaker, an expert on China, was reflecting on how little he knew about the country or its language when he first came to graduate school. At a certain point, he adopted a more somber tone to speak about his beloved mentors, who, he said, had themselves been graduate students in Beijing at the time of Pearl Harbor. With the outbreak of war, they were rounded up as enemy aliens and confined to internment camps. No sooner had the words "internment camps" left his lips, then my parents' cell phone went off. Embarassing? Excruciatingly. All the more so because my parents' ringtone is the sound of an exuberantly clucking chicken.

For a moment I wondered, in the recesses of semi-conscious thought, why I had never noticed that there was a flock of chickens in the courtyard of the Hall of Graduate Studies. Then, in horror, I turned around to see my father (who never carries the cell phone, and thus doesn't have that instinctive urge to turn it off at the start of solemn events), perplexedly patting his pockets to determine the location of the offending poultry commotion.

Or perhaps the highlight was the fact that I received my doctorate in tandem with a Beatle:

Sir Paul (or should I now call him Dr. Sir Paul?) was receiving an honorary doctorate in Music, and was subjected to an endless stream of terrible wordplay based on the Beatles canon.

Or, for that matter, perhaps it was the sight of the Forestry graduates, whose commencement headgear instantly made them my favorite of the professional schools:

Well, there are more tales to be told of post-commencement activities, including a visit to Mark Twain's house, but they will have to wait for another time. Meanwhile, I will savor the exhilarating joys of trying to figure out how to spend the gift-cards to bookstores that I received as graduation gifts. Mmm... new books.

Delighted Listiness

You know how I love a good list - of books and of films, in particular. Seeing a "best of" list makes my hands just itch to take up a highlighter and mark off the ones I have already read/seen, and to formulate grotesquely idealistic plans for devouring the remaining works.

Thus the implicit challenge in the titles of the books 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die and 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die was the red flag before the bull of my list addiction from the moment the tomes were published. I have been pursuing the completion of both lists for years now, and have made some significant progress, especially in the films list, which I have been conquering in roughly chronological order (I have been stalled out since in the mid-50s, I am sad to say, since the great dissertation crunch of early spring.).

This obsession was lent a new fervor when, a couple of weeks ago, I encountered a site that contains a downloadable spreadsheet of the "1001 Books" list. I had a spreadsheet before, I admit geekily, but nothing like this. This sucker allows you to mark off the books you have read, and tallies them up for you automatically. You then enter your age, and it tells you - based on your gender, and with an actuary's grim sense of prophecy - how many books you need to read a year in order to complete the list before you drop dead.

I need to read 16 a year.

"That's not so bad!" my mother assured me.

"It's more than one a month!" I mewled in panic. "And some of these books are, like, $%#*ing Finnegan's Wake!"

So my zeal for the list has been revived. I added a slew of the twentieth century books to my BookMooch wishlist, and took stock of the immense pile of "1001 Books" I already own. I began to consider (savoring the experience like a gourmand lingers over a scoop of foie gras) what the most evenhanded method of attack would be. I recalled Mee's new challenge, which asks participants to tackle the list in sub-lists of ten, choosing one from every group of ten in a grouping of 100 books from the list. But I couldn't confine myself to any group of 100. Sigh.

So here is my new approach (we will see how long it sticks):

  1. Divide the list of 1001 into groups of 20, chronologically.
  2. Choose one book to read from each group of 20.
  3. Starting with the earliest group of 20, progress through my chosen works. When I reach and complete the most recent group, return to step 2.
Here is how the beginning of my new list looks:
  • Don Quixote - already halfway completed. Of course, that means I still have about 400 pages left to wrassle with.
  • Tristram Shandy
  • The Mysteries of Udolpho
  • Ivanhoe
  • The Charterhouse of Parma
  • Walden
  • Our Mutual Friend
  • Far from the Madding Crowd
  • King Solomon's Mines
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
  • Lord Jim
  • The Jungle
  • Ethan Frome
  • The Age of Innocence
  • The Professor's House
  • Swann's Way
  • The Sound and the Fury
  • The Glass Key
  • Tender is the Night
  • Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
  • Embers
  • Cry, the Beloved Country
  • The Memoirs of Hadrian
  • Watt
  • A World of Love
Summer, with all its travel, might prove to be a tricksy time to start this sort of a project, since lugging around tomes the size of Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy can be a bit of an unwieldy prospect. We will see how it goes, and whether I manage to keep up a pace of about a book and a half a month.

On the theme of women's achievements (and alienated computers)

I have been blog-absent for several weeks, to my very great regret. What have I been up to in this period of dead air?

Well, first the absence-motivating event: my computer lost the ability to recognize its own power cord. After the academic year I've had, I frankly sympathized with its general alienation from even the idea of energy. But this alienation left me sadly computerless and internet-isolated for a couple of weeks, as I sent it away to be repaired. The latter end of this period coincided rather disastrously with the densest grading time of the semester, so by the time my computer was returned I had a couple of piles of assignments waiting to be analyzed and processed. Still, if the eMidlife iCrisis of my wee laptop had occurred just a couple of months earlier, during the Final Dissertation Push, the psychic consequences would have been infinitely more dire. So I feel strangely grateful that the old thing held itself together for long enough to see me through my own crisis time.

In the meantime, I attended my tenth high school reunion. I went to what might best be described in hyphen-saturated terms as an achievement-obsessed, all-girls, mildly-religious school, a school which is rumored to have been the primary source of research material for Queen Bees and Wannabees, the book that inspired the film Mean Girls. For most of the past ten years, amidst my college and grad school friends' tales of high school experiences defined by isolation and bullying, I had managed to construct quite a rosy mental picture of my own time in high school, one in which the term "academic rigor" made frequent appearances, the concept of "cliques" appeared not at all, and I fondly recalled the fact that I used to wear one of my several capes (I was a theater person, which naturally yields the corollary that I was, in a broader sense, a drama person) to school regularly without encountering any trace of public mockery or bullying. Would that I were so unselfconscious now.

It was only recently, while talking to a student who had attended our brother school (by which I mean the boys' school that was associated with our girls' school), that someone expressed skepticism about this rosy picture. His impression of my high school, which his sister was currently attending, had considerably more in common with Mean Girls than my nostalgic construct. Suddenly I remembered all sorts of things that might have been better repressed: the fights we had our senior year, for instance, about whether our "senior theme" should be "the military," a proposal which seemed to be largely motivated by a desire to parade about in fatigues hazing underclassmen. After that came the memory of having to repeatedly protest the addition of what Stephen Colbert might now call "On Notice" and "Dead to Me" boards in the senior lounge, on which members of our class could post the names of underclassmen who offended them, so that they could be shunned by the rest of the seniors. Or the recollection that we were so out-of-control tense about college admissions that we were actually forbidden to speak about where we had been accepted while on school property. Of course, boasting finds a way: as admissions letters trickled in, girls soon began driving their cars up the school drive with prominent college stickers affixed to their windshields and bumpers.

So I approached my reunion with some trepidation. What did I find when I got there? That there were myriad friends I had fallen out of touch with whom I was desperately happy to see. That I hadn't felt bullied in high school because I didn't have the slightest desire to be friends with the "mean girls." (And that these girls still didn't have even the inkling of a desire to engage in conversation with me.) That we were all fairly dispirited by the falling college admission achievements of more recent classes, but that this was because it seemed to us to represent a shift away from the academic rigor we all remembered (that part of my nostalgic construct, at least, was proved right), and a failure to recruit and retain the excellent teachers we had loved. That when a group of former high school acquaintances get together in their late twenties, the ring fingers of left hands attract an unseemly amount of attention. That, despite this attention, the "boys" at our brother school's tenth reunion seemed much more interested in showing off wives/girlfriends/fiancées, while we (by contrast) were busy flaunting our advanced degrees. That we are a highly, HIGHLY educated group of women. About half of my class showed up to the reunion, and I only met one person who was not in the process of (or had recently obtained) a degree higher than a bachelor's. She, to our very great admiration, was working on an organic teaching farm, and planning to start her own agricultural venture. And that, as my delightful friend E commented while we tallied up all the MBAs and MAs and PhDs and JDs in progress, "counts. I mean, really, doesn't it? She has a FARM!!"

In the aftermath of the reunion, D. joined me on the east coast, where he will stay with me (hurrah!) until shortly after my graduation in a week and a half. At the moment, I am with him in Philadelphia, where he has been called up to do some film work. I haven't set foot in this city for at least ten years, and luckily our hotel is smack in the middle of the historic district, so the last couple of days have mostly consisted of wandering desultorily around beautiful gardens and antique houses filled (bizarrely) with people dressed in Revolutionary garb who insist on calling me "Madam" and telling me tidbits from the biography of Betsy Ross. I hadn't quite realized (see how much I have learned from the anachronistic strangers!) that, when the maker of our first flag apprenticed as an upholsterer, it was not at all a common trade for women, since it involved quite a lot of very heavy labor. What's more, Ross owned and operated her own shop through several marriages, which was (according to my temporally dislocated new friend) virtually unheard of in New England at the time.

There's certainly more to be said, although I can't quite put my finger on what it is at the moment, but I have the vague feeling that this is rambling on a bit long for a single post (look how much bloggery I have stored up in my absence from you!). Other stories will have to wait for another time...

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

The Sunday

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).


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

The Sunday

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!

To find out more about the Sunday Salon, or to join, click here.

* 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