A maxim for academics. And to think, I was only fifteen when I first found this an appealing insight.
A maxim for academics. And to think, I was only fifteen when I first found this an appealing insight.
Hallo, Sunday Saloners!
The return to blogging went on apace this week, with a reflection on what the most interesting collective noun would be for a collection of links (I am taking suggestions, but my favorite so far is "an enthusiasm of links") and a Thanksgiving exploration of hunger.
We had the autumn's first real Nova Scotian fog here this week. The football field that my departmental offices look out on was suddenly shrouded in pea soup, lending it an isolated, gothic air. I am newly struck with awe that that a football field can even adopt a gothic aesthetic. My students, in response to my excitement about this weather development: "What fog? This is nothing for Halifax." Apparently it will be foggy for something like 165 days of each year here. All I can say is: bring it on. I can't get enough.
So I give you a picture or three from late spring (which is known as "fog season" in the Nova Scotian shipping community, I gather) of what my new homeland looks like in the fog. This weather fulfills my longing to live every day of my life with the feeling that I am a character in an atmospheric novel. My new life-novel appears to be something between a Sir Walter Scott caper and a noir.
Today will largely be spent in my sunny (for now) home library, attempting to scale Mt. Grademore (45 papers that need to be returned by the last day of class on Tuesday - I am praying that this batch doesn't contain a dozen that begin with variations on the phrase "Shakespeare wrote many great poems in his day."). If I get bogged down or maddened I may attempt to leaven the experience with a fluffy romance novel or some episodes of "In Treatment"(which becomes ever grimmer as the first season progresses and is thus the perfect pairing with a fluffy romance novel).
Speaking of downy literature, what have I been reading and watching this week? Well amidst these end-of-semester stresses, a strange pattern has emerged: everything I read or watch is either a sombre reflection on the horrors of war (Pat Barker's really excellent novel Regeneration and the Canadian film Passchendaele (2008) (Blu-Ray) [Blu-ray] - both about WWI - or the highly intriguing Waltz With Bashir, an animated documentary about the first war between Israel and Lebanon) or an utterly distracting romance novel.
Today, uncharacteristically, I think I will focus on the romance. This week I read several novels that, while doing their intended work of engaging my attention, also contained a number of romance conventions/pitfalls I find intensely irritating.
For instance: the heroine who is supposedly functioning a higher level of intelligence and competence than the men around her (including the hero), but is, as the plot unfolds, so profoundly naive that it takes her ages to catch up to plot events that we and the hero figured out instantly. Or, for that matter, everyone's pet peeve of heroine who pretend to be dumber than she is to deflect the attention of the men around her from her real activities, but rarely ends up emerging from her bimbo masquerade.
And what about subduer plots: plots in which love makes a woman (or a man, for that matter) realize that it is a time to put an end to his/her previous swashbuckling ways, or in which heroes think that they have to protect previously strong women from their own wayward independence, usually by locking them up in a frilly room in some remote country estate. Can't love be about mutual swashbuckling? Can't we all just swashbuckle together? Hmmm?
Let us say no more about those dismal books. But, of course, this got me thinking about where my tastes (both aesthetic and ideological) run in romance novels, and why my favorite authors are, in fact, my favorites. For the record, I now - after the diligent research effort of reading dozens of romance novels in the last few months after touching nary a one for most of my preceding life - can say a few things with some certainty about the romance genre and me.
First, it is impressive how many successful historical romance authors have Ivy League degrees and/or doctorates in Literature. I am beginning to consider romance-writing as a serious sideline to my academic life. I don't anticipate it will be easy. My mother long ago professed that she was going to become a romance writer, so that she would have an excuse to visit romantic spots all around the world and write novels "on location." This is a truly excellent piece of maternal wisdom, although, being a cynical teenager at the time, I did caution her that this might be a somewhat idealized view of what the romance writer's life was actually like.
(My mother's best ever piece of maternal wisdom: "Whenever you feel unnerved by a new situation or place, just pretend that you are a heroine in a novel." As you can see, I have taken this one to heart. I recently tried to communicate it to my maternal grandmother in a situation of some stress, thinking that she would appreciate its transformative possibilities. After all, she was the woman who used to take me to ornate British country houses when I was a small child and, at the top of the grand staircases, say to me "Let's pretend we are eighteenth century women with skirts so wide we have to turn sideways to go through doors" before sweeping majestically down the stairs. To my surprise, she replied to our heroine-in-a-novel strategy with a resounding "Why on EARTH would I find that comforting?". Don't be surprised if this whole intergenerational saga makes its way into my first romance novel.)
Secondly, I have now clearly identified my two favorite authors, both relatively new on the scene with only a handful of books between them. First, Meredith Duran. Duran's novels often have intensely silly plots (one of my favorites involves an argument over forged Egyptologist antiquities that brings an aristocratic cad/collector in contact with a prim archaeologist before quickly fading in narrative importance), but she shows more attention to the literariness of language than almost any other author I know whose novels feature rippling ab muscles and ripped bodices on the cover, and a fair number whose novels don't. She brings a freshness to all the most conventional aspects of the romance genre (particularly those of character and language), and so each of her novels is dramatically different and highly thoughtful, despite any absurdities of plot.
Her linguistic inventiveness is especially evident (impressively) in the love scenes, which have long been the site of the romance genre's greatest absurdities of cliché. If you are squeamish about reading about more amorous plot lines, you may want to stop now - I have attempted to deal delicately with the topic, but on the map of this blog post here (undeniably) be dragons.
Take the, ahem, climactic love scene from Bound by Your Touch, the novel with the Egyptological MacGuffin. (I do have a complaint about Duran's titles, which all combine an inane sameness that reflects nothing about the actual novel- Bound by Your Touch, Written on your Skin, The Duke of Shadows - with a surreal likeness to the titles of Jeanette Winterson books.) The anthropologist heroine is a woman of prim logical control (classic romance trope) who seduces the hero into dealing reasonably with his emotional life even as she herself is seduced along an opposite vector. Thus, their love scene looks something like this (edited for [cough] family viewing):
She articulated to herself, in a coherent grammar of nouns and verbs, what he was doing. [...] Still she could not comprehend it. [...] He gave her the view deliberately. He wanted her to look. That realization re-embodied her. Back in her flesh, her awareness ran south like a broken yolk [....]Or some time later:
Even the floor that dug into her shoulder blades seemed welcome to her, a hard, pleasurable contrast to her laxity, to the melting in her limbs; it mistranslated in her mind as yet another dimension of his touch.In historical romances, a lot of mental energy is devoted to the question of virginity's loss, and the newness of physical sensation for the heroine (and even, sometimes, the hero). If I were to make an academic study of the historical romance, it is with this convention (the idea of this moment as a foundational trauma or near-mystical sensory epiphany) that I would start. Duran thinks carefully, as always, about how to defamiliarize this event for her audience, and she does it in a way that clearly characterizes her cerebral heroine, who keeps interrupting the love scenes to analyze them:
[she was] abruptly conscious of spaces within her that had not been accessible to her awareness before. Some word, he whispered then - she could not make sense of it - but she nodded, and this was all he required.For Lydia, Duran's heroine, sex is a variety of intellectual inquiry, an exploration of unknown territories. It is an expansion of awareness. But at the same time, this intellectual awareness is the opposite of the sensory overload of physical contact, which should (but often fails to) take her out of her mind and into her body. Thus even as she is engaged in expanding her intellectual awareness, she loses her control over language, and cannot make sense of his words.
To tell the truth, Duran's ideas are sometimes so complex that they are a bit befuddling or muddily expressed - I find myself pausing (for good or ill) to say "Wait, what did she just say?" - but I will take her complexity anyday over the dull normalcy of "the expected." Genre writing (as Jane Austen or a fellow named Will Shakespeare could probably have been the first to tell you) is always a careful tightrope walk between fulfilling your reader's or spectator's expectations and defying them. We KNOW how a romance novel will end, and this is a great part of its satisfaction. But in Duran's novels, she manages to present these old patterns in new and intellectually interesting ways (as with her questioning of the conflict between thinking and feeling in Bound by your Touch), because she has a keen awareness of how romance works ideologically. That is, she understands that genre fiction is about big ideas and important ones, even as it goes about addressing them in a pulpy way.
For me, reading a romance novel is like watching those wonderful sci-fi flicks from the 50s that are all metaphorical expressions of Cold War anxieties about America's places in an apocalyptic world (think The Incredible Shrinking Man or Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Even when I am appalled by the form or politics of them, I find the ideas under the surface to be fascinating, complex cultural expressions. Even better, as with Meredith Duran's books, when I feel confident that the makers are just as fascinated as I am by these ideas and in love with the possibilities of the genre. Duran writes self-aware romance of the best type. So far there have been three: The Duke of Shadows (an Anglo-Indian epic in which the hero feels loyalties to both cultures and thus belongs in neither), Bound by your Touch, and Written on Your Skin (my least favorite, but still well worth a read, about a hero and heroine who are both rebellious control freaks and battle for dominance as they become ensnared in a long bout of espionage together).
Righto. My second new favorite genre author is Sherry Thomas, who is as skillful with establishing tense, fervent romantic plots as Duran is with complex language. My affection for Thomas's novels is tied up with a matter of my personal taste in romance narratives: I have discovered that most of my favorite romances seem to be about couples who are in neither the first flush of youth or of their acquaintance, couples who either grow to love and admire each other slowly over time or who, despite early infatuation, have a major falling out that leaves serious scars to be overcome.
For one thing, these plots avoid one of my least favorite romance plot abominations: a rakish hero who, upon first laying eyes on our heroine, is obsessively captivated into slavish fidelity by her, and proves unable to be in the same room with her without pouncing on her and uttering the words "You had better leave now. If you don't, I can't guarantee I will be able to control myself." ("Oh, poppycock," my inner feminist mutters both skeptically and punningly, "Take responsibility for your own bodily actions, you childish lout. Her beauty doesn't deprive you of moral choice.")
Perhaps it is just the result of having been in a decade-long relationship that has developed and changed substantially since we met as teenagers (or when I, at least, was a teenager), but I find more romance in the realities of love's accretion and maturation than in the coup de foudre of love at first sight. And there is more narrative tension in overcoming the real impediments of living together (as two different personalities, neither perfect) and resolving your turbulent history than there could ever be in author's tortured attempts to keep lust-smitten rakes away from flattered but sheltered teenaged maidens.
Duran's Duke of Shadows is a gripping example of this sub-genre, in which the smitten hero and heroine are separated by the events of history, and she is unable to recover from the traumas that she endured during the war, the fact that she had to endure them alone, and the realization that her beloved moved on with his life while she suffered. When they encounter each other again, they are both adults leading successful lives but carrying emotional scars.
And Sherry Thomas has carved out a highly satisfying niche in the sub-genre. In Private Arrangements, the hero and heroine meet and are smitten as teenagers, but Gigi (the stronger personality of the two) is so impatient to possess Camden (who is still honorably entangled with another girl he has known since childhood) that she perpetrates a rather significant deception to manipulate him into marrying her. You see, she is in a difficult situation: she is a woman of action, determined to define her own fate, in a world in which honor deprives people (especially women) of the power to make decisions purely on inclination. Camden, of course, finds out about the betrayal, and they have the kind of falling out that can wound a relationship irreparably. They spend the next decade on separate continents, behaving impeccably about one another in public, but never speaking or meeting. It is only when she petitions for divorce that they have to come to terms with the primally scarring events of their marriage.
Thomas's Not Quite a Husband is another Anglo-Indian tale of trauma, set amidst bloody imperial conflicts. Romance novels have a fascination (for obvious reasons) with the far-flung corners of the Empire, but I am always wary of these settings, which are often uncomfortably Orientalist and unthoughtful about the social power of their colonialist heroes and their portrayals of colonial subjects. But Not Quite a Husband left me absolutely shattered in a way that romance novels almost never do. It again concerns a coldly cerebral heroine (do you sense a pattern here in my academically-slanted taste in heroines?), a doctor this time, and her brilliant mathematician/playwright/Renaissance man of a beloved, who is quite a few years younger than she is (hurrah for this!) and has adored her since childhood.
This time he is the one who commits the originary betrayal, and her error (like Camden's in Private Arrangements) is that she doesn't confront him with her knowledge of it honestly. So betrayed is she that she closes herself off from him emotionally and physically, while he flounders about in romantic bewilderment until she finally demands an annulment. At the beginning of the novel, he seeks his ex-wife out at her post in India after several years of separation, in order to deliver an urgent message from her estranged family. As they travel back towards England, they are caught up in a rebellion (did you know that the history of colonialism in Southeast Asia can be told largely as an attempt to throw English lovers together and then tear them apart?) and forced to piece together their shattered past.
Thomas's novels are best when she keeps her focus on the intense, tormented details of her protagonists' realistically scarred relationships. The conflicts she writes (down to the dialogue of the fights themselves) are utterly convincing as traumas, and even as we see how the hero and heroine should be together, we wonder quite serious if they ever could resolve these old and terrifying issues of trust and betrayal and truth and fidelity. But too often Thomas throws in a subplot which is not quite as convincing or fleshed out as the main narrative - although it always has the potential to be. This makes me wonder whether it is difficult for the romance genre to sustain multiple plot-lines in a satisfying way - do we have trouble pouring our sympathies (and empathy) into more than one couple at a time, or do multiple plots, unless very deftly handled, underscore the formulaic sameness of the way we talk about falling in love?
Well, as usual I find myself rambling on at Dostoevskian lengths, so I will pause here for today and return to Mt. Grademore. But I will put these questions to you, fellow Sunday Saloners: are you readers of romance? What constitutes a really strong love story for you? Do you have recommendations for me of authors whose work shows Duran's inventiveness with language or Thomas's fervent realism of plot?
(This is Hungry, a wee friend my mother and I picked up in a Haligonian art gallery. Hungry is so famished that she eats her own progeny. Yes, the fact that my mother and I purchased her together and argued over who should keep her is the stuff of Freudian analysis for years to come, but we love her, and she seems to be our foodie family's totem creature. My father and D, it has to be said, seem somewhat baffled by our delight in her, but they tolerate our enthusiasm. Even when we brought out Hungry just after buying her and sat her next to us at one of Halifax's fancier restaurants, where this picture was taken. The restaurant's staff earned my eternal loyalty by taking it all in stride.)
Yesterday was my first ever Thanksgiving away from my family and out of my country, and I have to say it was a bit grim. I found myself homesick for the only time since I arrived in lovely Halifax, Nova Scotia, despite the city's best efforts to comfort me with the season's first stunningly romantic fog.
Worst of all, I spent the day ravenously hungry, regardless of what I ate. It struck me suddenly that all the things we normally eat on Thanksgiving (turkey, gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie) are dishes I only have on Thanksgiving. The idea of waiting another twelve months till I could taste them again was somehow profoundly demoralizing, even as I tried to talk myself into situating this hardship on "grand scale of suffering," in which it occupies a portion of the spectrum that bears the label "fairly weeny types of pain." For me, Thanksgiving is an inextricable combination of the people we always are with (who come to about 22 in number nowadays) and the foods we always eat. Both are sublime, and the total experience is irreplaceably comforting.
With a return to blogging comes a return to blog-reading, and of late I have been catching up not just on litblogs (delightful!), but also on some favorite food blogs, like The Kitchn. So today I want to share some of the recipes I have found in these meanderings, recipes which I fully intend to try out at soon as my flurry of December traveling settles down a bit:
- Sweet Potato Tart Tatin - Just look at the picture of this gorgeous dessert. D loves sweet potatoes with a fervor that only matches his disdain for, um, savory potatoes, so this might be one to try out while I visit him in California next week.
- The cheese in this Farmer's Mac and Cheese is a combination of garlicky, creamy Boursin; parmesan; and Swiss cheese. The recipe also includes cauliflower (intriguing), mustard, paprika, and whatever herbs you happen to have around the house. My parents make a sublime Mac and Cheese that they throw all their leftover bits and pieces of stinky cheese into (including goat cheese), as well as little tidbits of merguez or chorizo or whatever interesting sausage-like thing is hanging about. I have been dying to try out their recipe (which, as you can tell, is rather more inspired than recipe-following), but I will also have to experiment with this one as an alternative.
- The bloggers at The Kitchn (whom I trust implicitly after they introduced me to the wonders that are Chocolate Beer Cupcakes with Salted Caramel Frosting) swear by this Gourmet magazine recipe for a somewhat savoury Lemon Olive Cake. Again, the pictures have seduced me. And I haven't done any baking in my new house. Maybe at the start of the new year....
- Creamed onions were never a Thanksgiving tradition at my house - our sides are more along the lines of Brussels Sprouts cooked in Venison Fat - but this recipe for Gratineed Mustard Creamed Onions has me intrigued, I have to admit.
- Chez Panisse is a restaurant I will always associate with visits to my paternal grandmother in Berkeley. Even when I was a quite tiny child my parents would take me along and allow me to try whatever extraordinary thing was on offer. I have never attempted to make meatballs myself, but this Chez Panisse recipe for Pork Meatballs with Lemon and Thyme may be where I have to start.
- I enjoy a good alternative pumpkin recipe in the fall, so I might have to try out this Chocolate Pumpkin Cake with Cinnamon Ganache. To tell you the truth, I am particularly interested by the cinnamon ganache....
- As part of my continuing Canadianization, I have promised D that I will try making something called Nanaimo Bars, a Canuck confection that I have never heard of before this week. It seems to be a combination of a British style chocolate flapjack, a pudding layer, and a hard chocolate layer. Hmmm....
But in the meantime, I give you a couple of things I am thankful for, in the absence of a giant turkey and stuffing dinner with beloved friends: foods that are available to me in Halifax.
What should the collective noun be for a bevy, a flock, a fleet of links? This is a great question for the ages. I will have to ponder it. Suggestions welcome. Is there already a collective noun in use? (Or rather, is there already a sufficiently delightful collective noun in use?)
At any rate, I have a chatter of linkage to share with you today:
A blog that never fails to delight: Geoffrey Chaucer hath a blog, in which the poet of the Canterbury Tales broods on current and medieval cultural events, like the Twilight phenomenon and the Seth Rogan bromance outbreak:
Ich did reede of the book, the which is yclept, The Bromance of the Rose. It ys writen by Judd Da Poitou, and featureth a Dreamer (Seth Rojean) that enterteth the fayre garden of the lord of pleasure. Yn this garden, the Dreamer looketh depe ynto the fountain of Narcissus, and in yts cristal watirs he seeth a fayre and delicaat Rose. The Rose ys also a woman bycause this ys an allegorie and allegories are lyk that. He falleth in love. So the Dreamer loveth the Rose, but a numbir of evil allegorical figures appeare to nip the relaciounship in the bud. Daungier, Ful Schedule, Incompatible Musique Tastes, Office Gossip, and Uninformed Gender-Based Assumpciouns al rear their allegoricallye ugly heades. The Rose rejecteth the Dreamer and thus he ys in the dogge-house (yt is an allegorie so he actuallie ys in ther wyth the dogg).An earlier post occurs after the throne is usurped by Henry Bolingbroke, who stages a hostile takeover that makes television into a state apparatus, and uses a website entitled "Television without Mercy" to proclaim the new world order:
GOSSIP GIRL: Spotted: at the Tower of London ys Gossip Girl herself, who hath been ycaught by the diligence of Henry Bolingbroke. She ys taken to Tyburn and hanged. Ye who heare the recap of thys episode, think on what a thyng it is to be a gossip and a teller of tales. Beholdeth the rewardes of telling the pryvytees of othirs upon a blogge! Be ware, lest in yower owene blogges ye bicom jangleres and telleres of tales! Thinketh on yt and in yower myndes rekeneth how deedes haue their endes. Thus endeth the episode.
SO YE THINKE YE KAN DAUNCEN?: Thys episode openeth wyth all of the contestants in front of special guest judge Henry Bolingbroke. Oon by oon, he asketh each if he or she kan daunce. Yf he or she kan nat, ther ys a hanging. Ye who heare the recap of thys epsiode, think on whether ye kan dauncen, and what ye wolde saye yn front of nat only an earthli judge, but eek the high Judge himself upon hys throne at the final daunce. KAN YE DAUNCE? KAN YE? ANSWIR WEL OR THOU SHALT DAUNCE IN FLAYMES. Thus endeth the episode.
It is all brilliant, really. And of course there is merchandise. I am very strongly considering buying a "Whan Adam delf and Eve span, who had to publish two books to get tenure?" tee-shirt.
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Postmodern piano! The new and delightfully named "fluid piano"
allows players to alter the tuning of notes either before or during a performance. Instead of a pianist having a fixed sound, 88 notes from 88 keys, Smith's piano has sliders allowing them access to the different scales that you get in, for example, Indian and Iranian music. For good measure, Smith has included a horizontal harp.I am not a musician, by any means (when I was in high school, I tried the cello, but the sounds I made were more closely related to those that emerge from a veterinary hospital for farm animals than from a concert hall), but I have always wondered about how the relative stability of technology (instruments) and language (musical notation) over centuries has affected western music. So I await the fluid piano experiments with interest.
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It had been some time since I had last read Go Fug Yourself, and when I finally did return to it, it was calamitous: I had pulled a muscle in my back at the gym and every time I guffawed, I followed it with a wail of pain. Particularly delightful and thus pain-inducing was this series of posts on the subject of the wee Twilight heartthrobs and their struggles with desire and hygiene.
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An out of print Edward Gorey book? And could it be more delightfully named: The Recently Deflowered Girl: The Right Thing to Say on Every Dubious Occasion ?
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There is something of a scuffle afoot in Paris surrounding where Albert Camus's remains should rest. The oddity of this story is only enhanced by the fact that it added a new word to my vocabulary: Panthéonization.
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P.S. I did get the "Whan Adam delf and Eve span" t-shirt. But I also couldn't resist one that threatened others in an Anglo-Saxon idiom: "Don't make me unlock my word-hoard on you." Ah well....
It has been, to my great regret, over a year since I last Sunday Salon-ed. I fell away from blogging for a time (although not from reading, thank goodness), but now that I have taken up a new job, a new home, and a new country, I am plunging back in.
In the last immensely stressful year and a half, there have been some major changes to my reading habits. I teach English literature and drama, so a fair amount of my reading time has always been devoted to work reading, as well as pleasure reading of canonical works. In the last year, when my workload (reading and grading) was so much heavier than it had ever been before, I suddenly wanted my reading to be much, much lighter. To cure stress insomnia I began watching soporifically formulaic television, and to distract myself during my waking hours I craved literature that did something a little different. I wanted books to take a hold of me from the first page and refuse to release me from their (sometimes trashy) grip until the very last page. And sometimes not even then. The result, ironically, was many an insomniac night of fevered reading.
Thus, this was the year I rediscovered both young adult literature (which had never really been off my reading radar) and the romance (which really had been). I became addicted to the Twilight series and then spent several months ranting about its politics to anyone who would listen, and a number who wished they hadn't. I watched a couple of episodes of True Blood on an airplane and promptly read the entire Sookie Stackhouse series in a matter of two weeks. I came to love a good series (or even a bad one) because it would immerse me in a fantasy world for a longer period of time. I have always been a sucker for dramas of character, which is why I am also addicted to television dramas and nineteenth century serial novels. Towards the end of the summer, my partner and I devoured HBO's The Wire in about a month of constant watching. (The only time we slowed down was during the season about the school system. I told D that I couldn't watch episodes of that season in the evening because teacher's nightmares would keep me awake for hours.) By the end, our whole way of speaking had changed to resemble the characters', and we found every discussion returning to the moral questions raised by the show. I love a good series.
At any rate, my reading this week certainly reflects these trends. My new house has room to fulfill a long held wish of mine: I now I have a "library," a room utterly dedicated to books and reading. Luxury. This isn't to say that the other rooms are bookless. In fact, I can't think of a single room in the house that lacks a bookshelf (maybe the laundry room - I'll have to correct that), but the library still feels decadently exciting. I spent the afternoon there today, reading, blogging, and gazing out the window at the desultory autumnal activity on my green street.
So, what have I been reading this week?
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Last weekend I was at a conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico (a delightful change of pace from my beloved but distinctly cool Halifax, Nova Scotia). On the flight there, I read Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games, which had been gazing at me insistently from my shelf for some time. The Hunger Games begins as a hybrid of several well-worn premises: in a dystopian future, people live in carefully fenced-in, intensely state-controlled colonies (The Giver, City of Ember) trying to eke out a living as unobtrusively as possible. Once a year, a lottery (Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery") is held to choose participants in the annual "Hunger Games," in which teenagers - one male and one female from each colony - are forced to slaughter each other in an elaborate and extended gladiatorial contest. This is the Capital's way of ritually reasserting its hegemonic power over the bodies and minds of the colonists (oh, you know, a combination of the legend of the Minotaur and Lord of the Flies).
There are one or two kinks in the writing here - few enough that I suspect it is a problem of editing rather than of Collins's prose style, especially since she puts a great deal of thought into how to construct this narrative and these characters in a way that seems fresh as well as mythic. Her main innovation is to conceive of the Hunger Games as reality television, a sinister colonial tool that hypnotically captures the attention of the entire empire even as it oppresses them by stealing the lives and free will of their youth. Every time our heroine makes a move, no matter how vicious or tender, in the Hunger Games, she considers how it will look to the viewers. PR is a matter of life and death.
This sort of self-consciousness is delightfully postmodern, and just my cup of tea. But I also enjoyed how Collins goes out of her way in the opening moments of the book to make us slightly uncomfortable with our heroine and the harshness her life of poverty has instilled in her: a few pages in we already know that she tried to drown her sister's beloved cat when it was just a kitten. After a few more pages we learn that a wild cat (a cougar? I can't quite remember.) took to following her around as she hunted, perhaps sensing a kindred spirit. She likes the animal, but it scares away the game, so she kills it. This is a throwaway moment - done in a single sentence, never to appear again - but it is canny and complex characterization, and it paves the way for what is to come.
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On the way home from my conference, I started in on another long-anticipated YA novel: Kristen Cashore's Fire. My friend RP, a brilliant middle and high school librarian, recommended Cashore's first novel, Graceling, to me, and it turned out to be one of my favorite books of last year. Certainly it was the one book I gave and recommended to the most friends. It is the rare perfect fusion of YA and romance that not only has interesting politics (which many books in both genres do) but actually admirable ones. If I had a daughter, I would be eager for her to read Graceling, both for its feminism and for the complexity of the moral issues it represents.
Cashore's first novel was about a Graceling, a woman who is gifted with a supernatural ability (a grace) that makes her a social outcast and a tremendous tool for her morally shady monarch (Political delight #1: monarchy is not uncomplicatedly romantic in this novel. In other words, people aren't in positions of power because they are genetically superior and noble of body and mind.). Her gift is for killing, and there is no one in the world better at it. But does this gift deprive her of power, or suffuse her with it?
Fire is a "companion novel" to Graceling, set in a neighboring world, with an almost utterly different set of characters. This was a bit of a disappointment to me, since I was terribly attached to the first book's characters, and longing for news of them. (This reminds me of the time, when I was a child, that my mother happened upon me shortly after I finished Lloyd Alexander's "Black Cauldron" series, and I was weeping hysterically. What was the matter?, she asked, concerned for the sanity of her only child. I think I love the hero of this series, I gulped out, and now it is over and I will never see him again! She must have found this to be the most delightful parenting dilemma she ever encountered with me.)
At any rate, the opening of Fire was so lyrically beautiful that I soon forgot (faithlessly) my longing for the friends of Graceling. An example of this lyricism: in the prologue to the book, a strangely precocious baby takes to making up nonsense verses and singing them to his adoring father:
"Birdies love treetops to whirl themselves through, for inside of their heads they are birds," the boy sang absentmindedly, patting his hand on his father's arm. Then, a minute later: "Father?"
"You love the things that I love you to do, for inside of your head are my words."
Larch was utterly happy. He couldn't remember why his wife's death had saddened him so. He saw now that it was better this way, he and the boy alone in the world. (3)These lines have the babbling rhythm of nursery rhymes, but like nursery rhymes, unknotting their sense reveals a sinister, vital irony.
Fire, the heroine of her eponymous novel, is not as sympathetic a heroine as Katsa from Graceling. This is because, well, Katsa was the strongest person in her world, and (although I am hardly a woman warrior myself) my heartiest sympathies in novels are always reserved for that kind of character, the kick-ass kind. Fire is a similarly isolated heroine, however. In this novel, Fire's gift is her beauty: she is a "monster" - something perilously, magnetically other - and this otherness exudes from her like pheromones, driving everyone around her mad with lust, jealousy, and rage.
The impediment to romance for Fire is her beauty, which is alien to her. Fire rarely looks in the mirror, for when she does, even she is seduced by her beauty, nauseatingly so. No Narcissus, she. She doesn't feel like her appearance represents her real self, her inner life, which is pockmarked by pain, fear, and sadness. Can this real self ever be truly loved by someone who is attracted - dazzled, really - by her monstrously lovely surface? This is not an unprecedented turn - clever romance novelists have been playing with the problematics of beauty for some time, but Cashore does it well. From time to time, missing the characters of Graceling, I thought, "Well, this is good, but it isn't nearly as good as the first novel." But, as I wrote to RP, no sooner had I thought this, then the book would wreak its revenge by punching me in the emotional gut. And at the end, I was left thinking "I am not sure there is much that could make me love Cashore's books more."
I finished two books this week that weren't such successes. The first was Meredith Ann Pierce's The Darkangel, which I first picked up for reasons that reveal me to be as narcissistic as Cashore's Fire is not. You see, my real name (outside of the blog world) is Ariel, and since my own name has an abundance of literary origins, I have an abiding fascinating with reading about characters who share the name. How could I resist, then, a book with the tag line "Can Aeriel save the Vampyre's soul?"? ("I think we know she can," I thought, upon reading the dustjacket. It is this sort of conversation with myself that runs on throughout the reading of novels about Ariels. I find it endlessly amusing. Revealing, right? Did I mention that I'm an only child?) Sadly, since Pierce's book is a minor classic of YA, it never really caught fire for me, and it ended up taking me months to finish. There was something cold and sterile about the literary style, which is oddly formal in the same way Ursula K. Le Guin's can be, but without the intellectual complexity or mythic grandeur than made Earthsea's formal coldness read like Tolkien or Anglo-Saxon epic to me. And the mythology of the series (filled with portmanteau characters like the equustel - a star horse) seemed strained to me, like someone had created a computer program that would splice Latin words together, and built a story around its printouts. There was much to admire about the prose and characterization, but the total effect was too wooden to be enjoyable for me. Alas.
A Touch of Dead. Charlaine Harris's characters are a bit drug-like, as is the Alan Ball series (True Blood) based on the Sookie Stackhouse novels. True Blood has serious ups and downs of quality - episodes towards the beginning and middle of each season are sometimes sublimely well done, but the season always ends with a flurry of ill-conceived over-the-topness. Harris's novels are just about always over-the-top. But the characters - no, let's be honest, mostly Eric the Viking Vampire (who is the heart of True Blood's sublimeness as well) - just won't let you go, curse them. So on and on I go, devouring these rather appalling novels. (By the by, I try to be general here to avoid becoming a spoilery spoiler. But just in case I fail, the more spoiler-squeamish among you might want to skip the next paragraph.)
This year, Harris has kindly (and profitably) released a collection of short stories to tide us over between longer novels and seasons of True Blood. But sadly these are very slight stories, in which we barely glimpse the characters and issues that are so integral to the novels' appeal. Oddly, some of these stories do make sense of minor plot points which were utterly baffling in the novels, like when exactly Sookie's vampire cousin became a part of the story, or how a whole family of fairies becomes entwined with Sookie's life. In the novels, these characters just appear, with the assumption that we are all already acquainted with the events of stories published in relatively obscure volumes. I kept flipping back to the "Books by Charlaine Harris" list at the front of the novels, thinking I had missed a book. This raises a key question: Why is it that in each novel in the series, loyal readers have to slog through rehashing of central plot points ("And then I saw my ex-boyfriend, Vampire Bill. Bill and I had a history, with a capital H. You see..."), but no one ever bothers to fill us in on the obscure but important events of these short stories?? Grrr.
The TV show and the novels are best when they attempt to fuse the world of vampires with the gothic realism of southern culture. Better NOT to go over the top with a huge cast of characters doing the supernatural cancan and wreaking havoc all over Bon Temps, guys. Keep it simple, and explore how these normal people's lives are affected by the supernatural in real and detailed ways. This is the delight of the Hoyt plot line in True Blood and of the Eric-amnesia strand of the novels.
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And what read I now? Well, I am 75 pages in to J. Maarten Troost's uncomfortably titled The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific, which is often very funny but is distressing me in an English teachery way with its grammar. (I realize, even as I say this, that this post is probably hubristically filled with grammatical errors.) And I am deeply ensnared in Mary Jo Putney's romance, Silk and Shadows, a novel whose silliness is well summarized by the beginning of its book jacket blurb: "He called himself Peregrine, and like the falcon he was wild and free." Perhaps more on them next week.
What next? Well, I need to finish Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy, which I am supposed to tandem-blog with a friend. (I was supposed to do this over the summer, I should say. Oh dear.) And then I think I will embark on The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party.
Until next week!
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One minor but (I think) exciting change that I just made to my blog layout, thanks to new possibilities offered by LibraryThing: the widget to the right that lists my recent reading now includes my ratings for the books, so you can instantly see which ones I liked best and least. Pretty cool, I think.
If you are interested in participating in the Sunday Salon, go here to learn more about it.
...or "Why I have been blog-absent so long, Part the Second"
So, you may have heard that the United States, and most of the rest of the world, is experiencing something of an economic downturn of late. There have been a few news stories about it. You may not know, however, that academia, as an industry, has been hit hard. It doesn't compete for grimness to the auto industry, but it is pretty dire.
This is a particularly grim turn because academia has always been an almost delusional job choice for anyone seeking to secure a future income or, you know, pay this month's rent. For many years it has been understood that if you get a job that is a good fit, you take it, regardless of where it might take you in the world. Scholars who have geographic restrictions (or other sorts of limiting standards) on where they will work, often for excellent reasons like a partner's career, children's needs, elderly relatives, etc., are most often the people who end up leaving academia for another career.
For years you have heard people say that if they had known what the prospects were for employment, they never would have applied to graduate school. Graduate programs churn out candidates yearly at a rate that is exponentially greater than the number of jobs those same schools have been been able to provide for these candidates. Salaries for the few jobs that exist are minute compared to the amount of educational debt graduates have amassed getting them. There is a steady shift away from tenure-track jobs (that is, jobs that offer you the opportunity to achieve job security after 6-8 years of unimaginably frantic activity) to "casualized labor" (part-time and visiting jobs, with no guarantee that your contract will be renewed after 1-3 years). And graduate programs have ever less scholarship and fellowship money to ease their students through the 5-10 years it takes to acquire a Ph.D.
In part because of this, conferences and other academic get-togethers have had an increasingly feral atmosphere about them, as everyone struggles to acquire the few jobs and opportunities for professional accomplishment that are available. Tenured faculty are vocally worried about what will become of their students, and express their concern both for an industry that is adapting poorly to new economic realities and for the young scholars to whom they are emotionally attached. They advise their graduate charges to take as long as possible finishing their dissertation, because (in funded programs) the $20,000 a year and benefits you get for teaching as a graduate student is better than the unemployment waiting for you as a doctor.
Young scholars put off having children indefinitely because they don't want it to interfere with the completion of the dissertation, the job search, or the tenure track. In the sciences, I have heard that it is impossible to get a post-doc (a stage between graduate school and professorial employment that is essential in many fields) if you are visibly pregnant. No one wants to hire someone who will immediately go on maternity leave. In my own (humanities) field, I recently heard of a major program which rescinded a graduate student's funding when she became pregnant, and then made the department too hostile an environment for her to stay in school.
And let's be clear: no one (except me and other doe-like 21-year-old graduate school applicants who imagined the academic life was about the love of learning and intellectual exchange) ever thought that the academic life was anything but solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. But now that the public schools (always at war with their state legislatures over funding) are in mortal peril of financial collapse, the private schools have seen their endowments halved, and hiring freezes and salary cuts are the norm, all the flaws of the profession have been intensified.
I have been on the job market the last two years, in English Literature and Drama, and it was both brutal and strangely buoying. After all, when you go on job visits, everyone is unprecedentedly enthusiastic about your work, work which has otherwise been done in increasingly wacky solitude. And going through the questionings of the job interview process helped clarify my ideas immensely, facilitating a much faster completion of my dissertation than would otherwise have been possible.
But the vast majority of it (like the audition process for a performer) was about managing rejection. After all, a single job advertisement, even in a highly specialized field, will receive between 150 and 750 applications, and there are a million different reasons you could be weeded out at any step of the process, ranging from "I work on a subject that arouses a particular irritation in a member of the search committee because of a childhood trauma" or "Someone in the department is engaged in a longstanding intellectual war with my feudal overlord, er, academic advisor" to "The committee doesn't think I'd actually take the job, and they don't want to waste their time on me just to be rejected at the last moment."
In fact, in my second year on the job market (after coming in second place for a bevy of jobs I had become emotionally attached to), I became convinced that my situation was no different from that of a woman on the marriage mart in a 19th century novel. I began to use phrases like "old maid" while I did economic analyses of how being "stale" affected my desirability on the market. I conceived of my academic mentor (a great adviser who invests a lot of his sense of self in seeing his students well employed and intellectually productive in the field - he has a perfect placement record so far) as a sort of Mr. (or, worse, Mrs.) Bennet, overwhelmed with an overabundance of daughters, and desperate about how he would finally get me (the eldest) safely married off before I ruined his statistics and cast the others into doubt.
My parents and non-academic friends laughed. My friends from graduate school sighed. I began to feel like my novel's ending was going to be less Jane Austen and more Edith Wharton.
And then, late in the season: a miracle job, in Canada, exactly in my field, with a very reasonable teaching load and a very reputable salary and benefits package. Praise the job market gods.
I hadn't heard from this school in a long time, which is why I thought I hadn't gotten the job. It had been a particularly nasty winter, and in fact every job visit I went on last year was disrupted by a blizzard. My flights kept getting canceled because of snow, which meant that I had to call the department chairs and have them rearrange and greatly accelerate the pace of my visits around my new, later arrival time. For this job visit to Nova Scotia, my early morning flight out of La Guardia was canceled amidst the snow, so I was put on another flight out of JFK late that night. I made my way across town to the other airport by bus, and then settled in for the long day's wait, a little uncomfortable with the fact that I had gotten very little sleep the night before, and would have little opportunity for more between arriving at the hotel in Halifax, NS and the start of interview activities the next day. As I pondered this, I looked up at the airport televisions. They showed an airplane sinking into the Hudson. This was the very day that "Sully" Sullenberger and Jeffrey Skiles so deftly avoided disaster after their flight from La Guardia was disturbed by bird hits. But all any of us could see on the muted television screens was that a plane had gone down in New York, none too far from where we were about to get on our own flights.
At any rate, I made my exhausted way through the job visit, and enjoyed everyone I met and what little I saw of the school and the city. Everyone kept telling me that this was the coldest day they could ever remember. It felt cold, but not brutally so. Perhaps I was expecting even more extreme cold from Canada. I came home, sent off a thank you note, went about another job visit, waited for the replies. And didn't hear anything for a long time. The other job regretfully took another candidate, although they very kindly assured me that they had also wanted to hire me and were sure I had a great career ahead of me. (See how easy it is to map the emotional experience of the academic job search onto every single breakup or romantic humiliation you have ever had?) And then I began to accustom myself to the idea of being on the job market a third year in a row. D tried to convince me to come to LA, where we could live off his income while I wrote and published and reapplied for jobs. He proposed that this was a win-win situation: either I got a job, or we got to be together, geographically, after 7 years of career-imposed long distance. But I knew that if I wasn't actively working as a teacher, at a university, then that would be the end of my academic career.
I got the job offer when I was on the train, heading for JFK again, ready to get on a plane to LA to visit Dan and strategize the next year. My department, which everyone, despite my skepticism, had always believed was prestigious enough to guarantee me a job, had ten or twelve people on the market last year. Really brilliant people. Among all of us, we received three tenure-track job offers. The previous year, a single candidate from my department had received three similar job offers, by herself.
I prepared myself for emigration. It was one of the major ironies of last year that, after years of listening to partisan assertions from those who share my politics that they would move to Canada if a Republican was (re)elected, no sooner had I helped to elect Obama, then I moved to Canada. This irony was brought home to me with special force when I recalled that I had come home from my job visit to Nova Scotia and immediately attended the Inaugural Concert with my mother. (I had to work in Connecticut on the day of the actual Inauguration, alas.)
At any rate, D and I whisked ourselves off for a long road trip to my new home at the start of the summer. I have many a picture I would like to upload to show you how stunningly well suited my new home is to a girl who has always lived in a mental world that most closely resembles a gothic novel, but the new Blogger interface is rebuffing my attempts to post pictures. Does anyone have any advice to impart about this?
We wove our way along the Atlantic coast of New England, pausing to visit with our friends in Providence and attend my best friend's med school graduation in Boston. Who would have guessed when we met in 5th grade that two decades later we would both be doctors? This fills me with a strange satisfaction.
In Maine we stopped to purchase exquisitely cheap outdoorsy gear, which would serve us well in the densely misty Maritime summer. We ate "Moose Droppings" (malted milk balls) and Fresh Blueberry ice cream in Bar Harbor, but were too chicken to try the signature flavor, Lobster. We did, however, eat lobster in virtually every other form it can be found in Maine and Atlantic Canada. In the visitor centre in Acadia National Park, we ran into people we had known since our college days at UNC, people who had moved to Connecticut at exactly the same time that I did. Small world.
It got smaller. Our first stop across the border was in St. Andrews by the Sea, New Brunswick, a Loyalist bastion turned seaside resort that now has the odd feel of a ghost town, although at least one of its resorts is still functioning. We were surprised to find that the War of 1812 still felt very current there - a fair number of (ancient) cannon are pointed at their southern neighbors even now, just in case the rebellious states get any aggressive ideas. While we visited the historic Blockhouse, where troops stood sentry in times of war, I noticed a docent emerging from a car that sported a bumper sticker from my new employer. I asked her about it, and it emerged that it was her fellow docent who attended my school. Further questioning on both sides revealed that he was getting his Honors degree in English literature, and that he was the head of the school's Drama Society. Less than 24 hours in one of the largest countries on earth and I meet the most relevant student at my new institution, which, I have to note, is in a totally different province.
We drove through the Fundy Coast of New Brunswick, site of some of the most extreme tides in the world, and then down through Nova Scotia to Halifax, my new home, an odd hipster fishing port. We loved the first house we looked at, and rented it immediately before heading north again to Prince Edward Island, land of Green Gables.
Emigrating was a long and slightly irritating process (despite the extreme helpfulness of officials on both sides of the border), one which I have the feeling I haven't fully completed yet. I only just filled out my national health paperwork a few weeks ago, after the fifth morning I woke up and heard about swine flu on the clock radio's news.
Suffice it to say I am loving everything about my new home - I hope to tell you more in a further post, but I will wind this one down, before it begins to assume Moby Dickish proportions.
Ah, it is so good to be back.
Oh... so many apologies for the unannounced 15 month absence. I am thoroughly, thoroughly, filled to the brim with shame. If it makes any difference, I will say this: they were the hardest 15 months of my life. That's right - harder than the previous 15 months, in which I finished a dissertation and received a doctorate. But I have been longing, of late, for a return to my blogging ways and friends... so here I am.
So, in brief, a summary of what has happened in the last year or so:
This went, well, badly.
And thus began a year of firsts for me: it was the first time I have ever been treated really shamefully by friends of mine, the first time in my adult life in which I felt so mistreated by a friend that I had to force a confrontation, and, ultimately, the first time I ever broke up with a friend and never wanted to lay eyes on him or her again. I take friendship extremely seriously, so this was rather a shock to my system. In fact, it has taken me about five months to write this post, because it is so difficult to express how shattered this conflict made me feel, and I have only now (more than a year later) come to terms with the fact that "friends" could behave this way.
Then, with the aid of my supportive (and incensed - my mother had witnessed some of the roommates' egregious behavior in person) parents, I went about getting a new place.
And that's when I learned what a friend really is. A friend is someone who come and picks you up when you call in tears, saying "I can't bear to be in this house with these people one more minute," takes you back to his house, and gives you a hammer and an old piece of lumber to pull nails out of, cathartically, for the rest of the afternoon. A friend is someone who comes in from out of town to help you move all of your furniture and thousands of books twice in a single month. A friend is someone who is incredibly stressed out and yet drops everything to talk to you when you are upset. But most importantly, a friend is someone who knows that you are acting in good faith with them, someone who knows that even when you act badly it isn't out of a lack of good will or caring, but just out of misunderstanding. And, praise Philotes, I have an abundance of these sorts of friends. I can only hope I prove as good a friend to them when they need me. Life's too short to have bad faith friends.
It takes me an average of an hour to grade a single paper (sometimes - especially if the student is a clear and skillful writer - I can get this down to about 45 minutes, but more frequently it is about 75 minutes). I tallied it up a couple of weeks ago, and I found that by the time the semester is over I will have graded 460 essays this academic year. In other words, if I devoted every single waking moment to grading, it would still take me an entire month to complete the amount of grading I accomplished this year. And that doesn't even begin to address the exam prep and grading, the reading and lesson-plan preparing, the meeting with students, etc.
There were a lot of pedagogical challenges (teaching courses I hadn't taught before, addressing student questions and attitudes I hadn't encountered before) and there wasn't a lot of sleep. There wasn't at all a lot of sleep. Or eating. At one point my friend Ch. came to visit and, seeing a moutain of recycling waiting in the front hallway (I had been too exhausted to take it to the curb the week before), exclaimed "Oh my god! You've been to the grocery store!!" in unconcealed joy. It's true, I didn't go once to the grocery store in my first three or four months in this apartment. There simply wasn't time. I woke up at 5 or 6 a.m., started working, went to the office, taught, came home, got back to grading, and worked straight through till midnight. When I couldn't work any more, I fell asleep watching bad tv on Hulu. Because I had terrible anxious insomnia all year, and the only cure was mind-numbingly formulaic television. Praise the media gods for Hulu. I miss it now that (spoiler alert) I am an emigrée.
And did I mention that, in the midst of all this, I acquired both a car and a driver's license for the first time? I never got a license at what might be thought of as the proper age, so when my second job required me to commute, I had to spend almost the entirety of the salary from that job acquiring the means of getting there. And that (given the sleek efficiency of Connecticut's DMV bureacracy) was a nightmare in its own right. They sent me away so many times without even allowing me to schedule or attempt my driver's test (which I finally passed on the first try - phew), that I began to fear I would become known as "that woman who shows up at the DMV every few weeks and cries."
In fact, when they turned me away from my driver's test because I was registered in MD (where I bought the car, and thus where it had to be temporarily registered) but insured in DC (where my family lives), it got a little misty in the DMV as I pondered how on earth I was going to get to work for the four weeks until the next appointment I had been able to make for the test. I had already begged rides for several weeks while wading through other DMV-related complications, and I felt that I had come to the end of the favors I had to call in. I got into line next to a fully bewimpled Catholic sister and thought, "I mustn't cry, I MUSTN'T cry. It might upset the nun."
No, this will be the year in which three things happened:
- I helped elect Barack Obama.
- I helped (with my extensive and superstitiously rigorous fan voodoo) the North Carolina Tar Heels win a National Championship. THis voodoo included, but was not limited to,talking my students' ears off about the progress of the basketball season (even on one occasion, reciting a lengthy portion of Charles Kuralt's famous bicentennial speech in Chapel Hill - in which he asked, "What is it that binds us to this place as to no other? It is not the well or the bell or the stone walls. Or the crisp October nights or the memory of dogwoods blooming. [...] No, our love for this place is based on the fact that it is, as it was meant to be, the University of the people" - and then wiping irrepressible tears from my eyes.) My students endured all this, in part because I gave them a paper extension in honor of the Championship victory. I did demand that they refer to it as "the Tar Heels are National Champions Memorial Paper Extension," however.
- I got a job. A bona fide, 100% tenure track job. In Nova Scotia.