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Fall Reading Challenge


Thanks to the wonderful Prof. Rebecca Hill, I’m taking part in a reading challenge for academics this fall. Teaching a heavy load, it’s all too easy to set both writing and reading aside during the semester. Having a “writing” or “reading” day isn’t realistic for me – it’s more like an hour here or there. I don’t know how we’ll I’ll do with this list, but filling it out was a lot of fun.

I’m starting with the American Quarterly issue and Kafka. I’m teaching the Metamorphosis for the first time in my composition class, and looking forward to rereading that one. Over the summer I tried to write a little about each book I finished and I’ll try to do the same here and on goodreads, for stuff reading for the challenge and other stuff also. 

You can see more about the challenge and other people’s lists on Rebecca’s blog.  




Professors’ Fall Semester Reading Challenge 2014 – checklist version
Challenge Categories
Author,  Title,  pp. #
Date read
Points
  any book for teaching/research 200 pp.
Swapped for J. Baldwin, The Last Interview.
J. Baldwin Devil Finds Work

J. Baldwin No Name in the Street 

Oct.

achieved 35 points

 15

10

10

book written by a friend, colleague or acquaintance
Chris Schmidt, The Next in Line, 71 page (poetry)

Also Anya Ulrich, Lena Finkel 

Oct.

Oct.
achieved 20 pts.

10

10

 book by a former  student or former teacher
Nikhil Pal Singh, Black is a Country, 304 pages
10
 Entire academic journal including reviews
American Quarterly, vo. 60, no. 2
Oct.
achvd 10
10
 Book reviewed in the journal above
Ruthie Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California, 388 pages.
15
 book about a country or region that isn’t part of research or current teaching
Alice Kaplan, The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach, 336 pages
15
academic book you always meant to read or never finished
Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, 616 pages
15
 Novel nominated for a National Book Award, 2014 (long list, Sept, finalists in October)
TBA when list comes out
20
Book on current events written by a journalist
The Battle for Justice in Palestine, by Ali Abunimah, 224 pages.
 Finished 12/31
 20
20
Pulitzer Prize winner before 1970 (any category)
Willa Cather, One of Ours, 206 pages
25
Book with “house,” “apartment” or “room” in the title.
Arnold Weinstein, A Scream Goes through the house: 395 pages.
20
3 books on same topic in different disciplines below:
35
 History
Stephanie Gilmore (ed) Feminist Coalitions: Historical Perspectives on Second-Wave Feminism in the US, 320 pages.
Literary Criticism
Lisa Hogeland, Feminism and Its Fictions: The Consciousness-Raising Novel and the Women’s Liberation Movement, 224 pages.
Ethnography
Rachel Blau Du Plessis and Ann Snitow, eds. The Feminist Memoir Project, 495 pages.
EXTRA CREDIT – Double up in any category above
10
Rules:
The academic books must be at least 175 pages long
Novels must be at least 200 pages long
Any book on the list, except where specified by category, can be a novel
Books can only count for one category, but you can switch them from one category to the other before you’re done if you like.
Only one book can be a re-read
Audiobooks are fine as long as it is unabridged and the print edition is at least 200 pages long.
Books must be started no earlier than midnight Sept.2 and finished no later than Dec. 31, midnight.

From the Inside Out

Imagine this scene: a woman in her thirties is standing in her apartment with her boyfriend of four years. She’s leaning against the wall and turns toward the mirror and says, apropos of nothing, “I wish I could just be just one notch more beautiful.”

Here are some things this scene is not. It is not the start of an argument between this woman and her boyfriend.  It is not a calculated moment of self-deprecation designed to make a flawless heroine more “relatable.” It is not a part of a film “about” body image. It is not part of a film that will impart any lessons about lovable imperfections or self-acceptence.

Here is one thing the scene is: it is a moment in a film that creates and explores one woman’s subjectivity. After she expresses this wish, she thinks aloud about something no character from a “body image” movie ever thinks or talks about: the actual experience of living in the in-between space where most women live, of feeling attractive some of the time, and thinking about it sometimes, in the course of a day when you’re also trying to think about other things. . It’s like I’m always on the border, she says. Like I have to make my case to every new person.

The scene is from Miranda July’s second movie, The Future, which came out last yearAnd despite everything you might think about July, here are some things the film is not: it is not quirky, twee, ironic, or whatever they’re calling it.  July’s dancer character Sophie is no one’s manic pixie and she’s no one’s dream girl.  But neither is the film a “response to” or “deconstruction” of manic pixies.  (Although this also a very worthy project!) Nor it is a “response” to irony or an embrace of neo-sincerity or what have you. As Andrew O’Hehir points out in an interview with her,  she’s the rare indie auteur who doesn’t seem to be responding to other films or to some theme or some aesthetic.  She’s not “responding” to anything except the experience of being alive.

July wrote what is possibly my favorite short story, “Roy Spivey.” The narrator of that story has an encounter with a famous person on a plane.  They build a connection but he explains that they won’t be able to talk when they get off.  They come up with a code: he will say “Do you work here” and she will say, “no.” But when the time comes a flight attendant interrupts. I work here, she says. I will help you. Then she rolls her eyes at the famous man, as if she was commiserating with him about people like her.  This is the kind of imperceptible but all-important shift short story writers often try and fail to describe: the little shifts in our alliances, the circles we draw of who is inside and who is outside.

I heard “Roy Spivey” read at a benefit for 826. I was there with someone I was interested in, and it wasn’t really going anywhere, and I’d done the lame “I have two tickets” thing.  Before it started I went on about how it was my favorite story, and how it perfectly described the experience I’d recently had during a brief encounter with a famous person. Maggie Gyllenhaal introduced the story and said it was something we didn’t hear enough of, that it was about a woman’s body from the inside out, not about how it looked but how it felt to be in it. That was the first time I realized exactly what July was doing in her stories and in her movies, and why the twee thing she gets tagged with is so wrong.  Like Mary Gaitskill, July is the opposite of an ironist. She’s making a movie about artistic types in their thirties and the apartment looks like something out of Portlandia but she never makes fun of them for being what they are. If you think about it, that satirical impulse – making fun of hipsters, academics, what have you – is just another way of asserting, despite all evidence to the contrary, that their (ok, our) lives and fears are fundamentally different from anyone else’s.

As in Gaitskill, there’s some very interesting, very un-twee sex in “The Future.” I imagine that a lot of people probably looked at it and said, that came from nowhere or, why would she do that.  You can look at it and say, she’s anxious in her relationship, or afraid of commitment, or afraid of growing older, or you can look and say she’s narcissistic or masochistic or what have you. All of these things make sense, or none of them do. In a commentary to Three Women, Robert Altman talks about how strange it is when actors say, oh, my character does this because so and so. But people, unlike scripted characters, don’t know why we do what we do. We don’t act, he said, we behave. To the extent that July’s character has a “motivation,” it’s a kind of poetic one. She and her boyfriend make the decision to “open themselves up” to new experiences and for Sophie that means that the boundaries between inside and outside start to dissolve. Women who “act out” sexually in movies or television are usually shown as lightweight and stupid or as vicious man-eaters or beautiful fuckups. With Sophie it’s any or all of the reasons anyone might, or at least have the impulse to – and that’s a different kind of psychological motivation to explore, that what ifs – restlessness, curiosity, transgression for the sake of transgression, not in the sense of shocking anyone but in the way that Brenda explained it on Six Feet Under: that your cross a line, and then you realize the lines are all in your head. (Brenda was one of the best-written female characters on TV, although they sadly pushed her a little too much towards the fuckup category and saddled her with shade-by-numbers Freudian motivations. Her parents were shrinks! And swingers!)

After we heard that story at that benefit, the guy I was with said, “yeah, it was ok, not really my thing.” I remember feeling that thing I identify with being a kid, when you’re all enthusiastic about something and try to explain it someone and they try to humor you but you can tell what they mean is, yeah, whatever, kid. It’s why it’s sometimes better to go on a date to a movie you only like so much, or not to try to teach your favorite texts. It was why I was glad to watch The Future at home with my baby sleeping on my lap. He slept through the whole thing, and so I had the rare treat of watching the whole thing without interruptions. At certain points I found myself thinking that that guy from the benefit or this person or that would hate it, and all their reasons, and just where it would lose them. But the film is all about indeterminacy and perspective. Unlike the ironists, July never distances herself from what she’s doing. She risks being seen as pretentious. And you can choose to see it that way. Or you can let the boundaries dissolve, and think, maybe this has something to do with me, just a little bit.


10 Plus Great, Interesting, or Favorite Movies Directed by Women

Inspired by this amazingly comprehensive website and this interesting thread at Shakesville, I’ve been mulling over some of my favorite movies directed by women. After Nora Ephron’s death, a lot of people were quoting her list of things she wouldn’t miss which included “panels on women in film,” and it’s easy to see how such discussions (and perhaps lists like this one) can be wearying. But it is interesting to think about the way that, despite all the auteur theory and fan-crushing on the next hot indie whatever, most people don’t really internalize the sense of a film as having a voice or something that could be filtered through gender along with so many other factors. So we don’t really think of the missing stories that an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry gives us they way we would if 90% of novels and memoirs were by men. And we don’t really think of movies directed by women as a “canon” the way people think about classics of women’s literature. This may well be for the best, given how the canon construction, even in its alternative modes, tends towards a reification that prevents people from forming their own individualized, subjective, complex relationships to texts. And god knows The Hurt Locker is like the Maggie Thatcher of films, existing to keep feminists honest. No, women don’t have to make films about women, but they should probably come close to passing the Bechtel test. Yes, it was well done. But Thatcher was also a good politician. And the fact that it wasn’t some kind of fire-breathing wignuttery made it all the more insidious as pro-war propaganda. Oh, and she’s got one coming out this year about killing Bin Laden. So yeah. Read more

What He Said, or, No Need to Write Another Hipster-Bashing Post, like, Ever

“This little band of bohemians, as grimly single-minded as any evangelical sect, illustrate, by the very ferocity with which they disavow American attitudes, one of the most American of attributes, the inability to believe that time is real. . . Society, it would seem, is a flimsy structure, beneath contempt, designed by and for all the other people, and experience is nothing more than sensation – so many sensations, added up like arithmetic, give one the rich, full life.”  James Baldwin, “A Question of Identity,” from Notes of a Native Son, 1955 

Dance, Little Monkey

So, there was a little kerfuffle recently about David Simon saying that it’s silly that people spend so much time and effort doing episode-by-episode analyses of shows that are meant to have long arcs. Actually and not surprisingly, he was saying something much more important and interesting, about what happens when you actually try to say something through a cultural medium. Anytime someone talks about political art, there’s lots of hand-wringing about how it can’t be “preachy” or “simplistic” or a “pamphlet” and it has to do more than “preach to the choir.” Well, here’s someone who made a brilliant and genuinely radical piece of art that, even if it got less viewers than Jersey Shore or what have you, became a force in at least a segment of mainstream culture, and among a lot of media/cultural type people who we might think have some sway over how we talk about things. But as Simon notes, what becomes of that? You get a sports reporter asking a fanboy question of a certain fan who happens to be the most powerful person on the planet:

And yes, I understand that the reason for that interview – the precondition under which Obama participated, no doubt – was that it was a discussion of sports.  So, okay, no one needs to bring up a TV drama with the President of the United States for any sensible reason.  And yet at the end, Simmons chose to invoke The Wire.

If he were a hectoring asshole, an argumentative scold, a fucking killjoy, he might realize that he has The Man right there, and that he is at the end of the day acting as, well, a journalist.  So if anything is to be said about that show, well, here is a rare chance to break some ground.  He might swallow hard, seize the moment and say something along the lines of, “Mr. President.  I know you’ve said you’re a fan of The Wire.  Well, one of that show’s basic critiques is that the drug war is amoral.   More Americans are now in prison than ever before, and the percentage of violent offenders in prison is lower than ever.  We are now the jailingest society in the world, incarcerating more of each other than even totalitarian states.  How can we go on supporting this?”

Balls out like that.  Truth to power,  brah.  Get some.

Instead, to use a sportswriting cliché, Simmons choked, throwing up an ugly brick at the buzzer: “Who’s the best character in The Wire?”

So, yeah, the depressing news is that you can make a radical and brilliant work of art that gets some play, and make it entertaining  enough that it’s not dismissed as yet another dreary liberal preachy thing, and people get so entertained they say, hey, chill out, it’s just entertainment. Yeah, you were a reporter, but that just makes your entertainment nice and real. Neat little trick, that:  

Arguments about the taste of the bread or the look of the circuses go on forever, because, hey, Omar is cool and Bunk is funny as hell and isn’t it great when Clay Davis says the word shit.   Yes, it is nice to know that people were entertained.  It’s not that anyone begrudges an audience its pleasure; we wrote the cool stuff and the funny stuff and we enjoyed it, too.   But four years after The Wire is off the air, are we wrong for admitting aloud to other hopes and purposes for the finished work?

Probably some of my non-English major friends would say, well, yeah, that’s the way things go, and that’s why serious people should stick to serious straightforward journalism and activism. But it’s not like earnest journalism doesn’t just as often cause people to say, oh yes, and turn the page – they may not be entertained the way they were with The Wire, but it is similarly pleasure and not a spur to action that motivates them. Right now I’m sitting here typing this with my gorgeous almost-three month old on my lap, and listing to NPR, to reviews of books I won’t have time to read and outrages I won’t effectively combat (though I might toss off a rant about how NPR gets them wrong.)  And there is a reason “art” – however you look at it – creates the sense it might “break through” where the earnest and straightforward fails. Mike Daisey may have given creative non-fiction a bad name, but there’s a reason so many people were drawn to his piece. And obviously there’s lots of reasons why David Simon started writing books and making TV instead of being a full-time daily reporter.

I’d be curious how many cops or politicians watched The Wire, and whether it impacted their thinking. Closer to home, it made me think about my own profession, teaching somewhat differently. I’d like to think that if nothing else, it’s some kind of counter-programming to the relentlessly pro-lock ’em up drumbeat of just about every other cop or lawyer show on TV. It’s not impossible to imagine it spurring some people into action, and having a kind of cumulative effect with other forces pushing towards a more open debate and change. 

On the other hand, I read somewhere recently that The Good Wife had been called “the new Wire.” Here’s a show basically about a bunch of rich lawyers and their rich lawyer problems of every once in a while having guilt about letting people off, because on lawyer shows it’s defense attorneys who are supposed to feel bad about themselves, never the prosecutors. It’s enough to make one imagine Simon pulling a full-on McLuhan. In any case, the man knows a thing or two about pushing a form, and it’s a treat to see blog writing that pushes outside the normal point and click.

Small Moments in Gendered Parenting Advice

It’s the little things: from a list of “unnatural” barriers to healthy sleeping patterns, from Marc Weissbluth, MD:

– Mothers have to work outside the house, miss playing with their baby, and keep their baby up too late at night.
– Fathers or mothers have a long commute and return home from work late, want to play with their baby, and keep their baby up too late at night.
I’m sure it’s very reassuring to all working fathers out there that they can’t actually miss their babies like moms do, they just want to play with them, and that this can’t just happen after a regular day at the office, or even a twelve hour day, but only if the have a long commute. I guess if Betty hadn’t bought that damn house in Ossining, and lived in that swank Megan-pad with the kids, he would have been the perfect father!

Not-That-Much-Shorter Jonathan Franzen

No major American novelist has led a more privileged life than Wharton did.” Exhibit A: she had a secretary type her shit! Silly girl? Doesn’t she know that’s what wives are for? Unless you’re Kerouac and write shit that types itself! And not only that, Wharton was a rich white lady who shared the prejudices of rich white ladies of her time! Unlike every other writer in the American canon who are all perfectly non-racist, non-snobby humanitarians, and migrant workers to boot! But wait, perhaps we could consider that a ladynovelist born in 1862 might have faced some kind of struggle? What could that possibly be? Something that rhymes with -ism and starts with s? No, silly, it’s that she was uggo! But she was an uggo and made a bad marriage – which has never happened to a beautiful woman, ever! Marilyn Monroe and Betty Draper married their perfect men and lived happily ever after: true fact! And then she had a passionate affair in her forties, but eww, gross. But sadly, unlike migrant workers, who of course dominate the American canon, so much do Americans “sympathize” with them, no one likes or sympathizes with uggos! Uggo ladies, that is. I mean, duh. Uggo for a male novelist just lends poignancy to the novelist/protagonist’s desire for young and non-uggo ladies, who are of course metaphors for life, death, and being seventeen. Nevertheless, definitelynotalady novelist Jonathan Franzen has taken the time to write a few pages about her best novels, and decided that she overcame being a stuck up uggo richlady by writing well about some beautiful but damned ladies. Which was a great way of getting narrative revenge on the beauties! I guess uggo men write so they can fuck beautiful women, and uggo women so they can stick it to them more metaphorically.

Yes, I’m a month or so late on this and many others did a good job of taking him down. (This is probably the best.) Since I became a mom, not only do I fail to sleep when my baby sleeps, or leave the dishes until whenever, I can’t give up my habit of trying to read every New Yorker straight through and in order, no matter how much farther I fall behind. Some ladynovelist probably has something interesting to say about what this says about my clinging to an illusion of control over my life, and my refusal to avoid reading things that will annoy me, but she’s probably the kind of ladynovelist whose books are on Oprah, and so it probably wouldn’t be interesting to the Great American Novelists who write about much more Universal Themes like suburban adultery.


Mad Madness: Predictions Editions

Lots of predictions! But first a rant and a prediction that’s really a wish:

I’ve written before about the show’s treatment of Carla and show runner Matt Weiner’s “that’s the way it was” defense of the lack of black folks on the show. He’s said something similar a couple of place leading up to the new season. I agree that there’s something powerful in letting your heros be on the wrong side of history, showing how racism and indifference to Civil Rights pervaded the culture, not just some easy villains. But this must be cold comfort for black actresses and actors when so many “prestige” projects are “period.” I remember reading something back when Shakespeare in Love was up against Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture saying, isn’t it interesting that we find these settings so “profound,” the ones where blacks don’t exist, so excluding them is just historical accuracy? (Obviously there were blacks in WWII, but not in the same units with whites, so you get a totally white film if I’m remembering correctly.) But given the parameters, just because a culture marginalizes someone doesn’t mean you have to. Weiner doesn’t want to let us off the hook by creating a parallel sixties where African-Americans are welcomed into advertising. Fine. But since when is the show actually about advertising? Isn’t it really supposed to be about outsiders? A number of people have pointed out that the very first episode begins with a conversation between Don and a black waiter, with Don asking if he would ever change his brand of cigarettes. Shilling stuff is who Don is; being on the other end of the sell is who the rest of us are, especially outsiders. It’s a promise that the treatment of race on the show has yet to fulfill. So my prediction that’s actually a wish would be for a full episode that’s all about what happens to Carla after Betty fires her. We could see her own family, and how they react. Perhaps she has a teenage son or daughter who has been politicized. We could see Carla look for a new job, interact with her family, friends and neighbors, and catch sideways glimpses, Mad Men style, of what she’s actually thought about the Drapers all these years, perhaps revealing a secret of theirs along the way that we’re left to figure out.
And bring back Paul and Sheila while you’re at it.
Onto the predictions:
– At the start of the new season, Don is still married to Megan, but things are already bad. Fixing his Clio was all well and good, but once things go bad such shoring up starts to look desperate. We seem first flirting with a new (blond, now that the wife is brunette) mistresses or love interest; that he’s still married is a reveal the way his marriage was in the first episode.
– Betty will play a very minor role throughout the season. At some point she tries to make a play to get back into Don’s good graces and bed: his marriage makes him more attractive to her, along of course with the trials of being Mrs. Henry Francis. Talk about being on the wrong side of history: the guy’s a Rockefeller Republican.
– At the same time we’ll get to see more of Sally. How wonderful an actress has Kiernan Shipka turned out to be? We’ll mostly see her with Don and Megan. She’ll start to turn on Megan, but we’ll also continue to see just how profoundly she hates Betty.
– An obvious one, but nonetheless: Roger threatens to expose that he’s the father of Joan’s baby (already born as the season begins), but then kicks it. (If this weren’t already an obvious prediction, given the end of his story arc, after Mrs. Blankenship died in episode 9 last season, Roger said he didn’t want to die in the office.) Expect some awkward toasts and references to Sterling’s Gold and the very welcome return of Mona and Margaret.
– Shortly thereafter, doctor rapist kicks it in Vietnam, but through some stupid drunken accident rather than in combat. Joan is quietly and discretely relieved, and with good reason: being a single mom is better for Joan’s work life than being a married mom would have been.
– Peggy continues to kill it for the ungrateful boys of SCDP, and necessity forces them to let her go beyond panty hose into some of the big stuff they reach for to replace Lucky Strikes: booze, cars, maybe even an airline. But her job keeps causing problems with her an Abe. This is more of a dilemma for her now than before, as Vietnam and Joyce have likely furthered her politicization, but it’s still no choice: she’ll choose the job.
– Burt Cooper comes back, with or without his testicles.

What Happens to Academics on Leave

You have a dream that you meet a friend and he’s headed for a conference with important people having important discussions and you say you’re not going but you will wander through the book fair, and then you are doing just that, and the book fair is infinite and gleaming like the Dubai airport in your recurring dream, but before you look at a single book you run into another friend, who tells you she’s just been talking to a certain important author who, unlike other authors you’ve written about, plays a definite role in your unconscious. She tells you that this author has had good things to say about a book about him that you’re supposed to be reviewing. (This part is true – you’re supposed to be reviewing this book, and you partly want to make this deadline and partly want to take some symbolic stand by not working on your leave and/or by being to enraptured with your baby to be able to.) But the part about him liking it rings false for all the obvious reasons. You ask your friend how it was she was talking to this certain important author, and she says, well, we were eating scrambled eggs. Of course they were. Then you hear some whimpering and it takes you a few minutes to realize it’s not coming from the book fair but from your actual baby in his crib at the foot of his bed, yanking you back into the world Inception-style. You go to get a glass of water and are momentarily thankful that the world does not miss you.

What I’ve Been Up To

I have no name:
I am but two days old.”
What shall I call thee?
“I happy am,
Joy is my name.”
Sweet joy befall thee!


Pretty joy!
Sweet joy but two days old,
Sweet joy I call thee:
Thou dost smile,
I sing the while,
Sweet joy befall thee!
– William Blake, “Infant Joy”

Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies-“God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
Kurt Vonnegut